Thursday, August 30, 2012

Higgs Boson Revisted

Last week, I posted a blog, called “Higgs Boson: A Failure to Communicate,” in which I quoted

Yale University materials scientist and “science evangelist” Ainissa Ramirez, who called the discovery of the Higgs boson “the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st Century” and added, “The rest of society is trying to figure out why this is a big whoop.”

Ramirez and I both felt that public relations could have enabled CERN to promote better understanding of the Higgs and what it means. I had no idea how controversial that position would be. You can read all the comments here. I appreciate the fact that my readers took the time to share their observations with me, even providing links to useful resources for lay people like myself.

Fizisist, for example, wrote that he “certainly appreciates your point: we as scientists can do better. However, your characterization of our attempt to reach out to the public is significantly lacking in the facts. Truth is, we already did that years ago.” He backed up that assertion with a number of interesting links, including The Hunt for Higgs and The Higgs Boson Explained.

Another reader, JeffK, added these two videos on the Higgs: part 1 and part 2.

These are interesting and helpful links, but the fact remains that really smart people continue to plead their ignorance when it comes to the Higgs.

Robert Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of The Evolution of God, a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, wrote an article last month on “What This Higgs Boson Thing Really Means”. His answer? “I personally continue to have no idea what the Higgs boson is.”

In truth, science and technology can be made comprehensible to the average adult. Indeed, they must be. After all, a primary driver of the future economy and job creation in the 21st century will be innovation, largely as a result of advances in science and engineering. While only 4% of the nation’s work force is composed of scientists and engineers, this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96%, according to Physics Today.

One commenter wrote: “I don't think a PR firm can do the job of good science teachers.”

I couldn’t agree more. Those of us in PR know our limitations. We also know how much we can contribute to society. We cannot substitute for teachers, but we can generate excitement, understanding and respect for the discoveries (and the people who drive them) that will shape our nation’s future.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

New Words in the Dictionary

Merriam Webster Editor at Large Peter Sokolowski recently released a list of new words that are being added to the 2012 update of Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary … and it’s a revealing snapshot of a changing culture.

To quote Neatorama: “These new additions are sure to vex the older generation, vindicate students involved in English class arguments, and turn future Scrabble games into a total mess.”

Here’s a random sampling of these new words:
• aha moment

• bucket list

• cloud computing

• earworm

• f-bomb

• game changer

• mash-up

• sexting

• systemic risk

• underwater

How many do you know? [Scroll down for the definitions.]

• aha moment: A moment of sudden inspiration, insight, recognition or understanding

• bucket list: A list of things that one wants to do before dying

• cloud computing: Storing regularly used computer data on servers that can be accessed via the Internet

• earworm: A song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind

• f-bomb: A euphemism for having used the “f-word”

• game changer: A new element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way

• mash-up: Something created by combining elements from two or more sources

• sexting: Sending sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone

• systemic risk: The risk that the failure of one financial institution could cause other interconnected institutions to fail…and thus harm the economy as a whole

• underwater: A mortgage loan for which more is owed than the property securing the loan is worth

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

HIGGS BOSON: A Failure to Communicate

Illustration by Moonrunner Design Ltd., NationalGeographic

Scientists may be ecstatic about the Higgs Boson particle, which has been described as “the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st Century.  Period.”  But how many average people actually have a clue what it is?

I was interested to read an op-ed in Forbes ( by Ainissa Ramirez, a Yale University materials scientist and “science evangelist.” 

She says that the discovery of Higgs Boson is a “up there with Copernicus.  If we did not find the Higgs Boson, everything that we understood about how the universe works would have been wrong.”  Meanwhile, “the rest of society is trying to figure out why this is a big whoop.”

Ramirez thinks “the nerds got it wrong by not inviting everyone to the party. The biggest discovery of the 21st century may actually widen the gap between scientists and the general public.”

I found one outstanding explanation of Higgs Boson in The Daily Beast (  It was written by Daniel Stone, who is not a physicist (he’s Newsweek’s White House correspondent), although he is clearly a smart guy who’s familiar with complex issues, as he also covers national energy and environmental policy.

Stone describes the Higgs Boson thusly:   “Imagine a set of Legos.  As any 8-year-old knows, with Legos you can build anything:  a castle, a race car — hell, even an aircraft carrier. But until now, Legos are the smallest building blocks we’ve ever known about.  What if we could get even smaller? What if we could deconstruct a Lego block into more fundamental parts: the plastic, the adhesives, the coloring agent.  That coloring dye, in essence, is the Higgs Boson, something we’ve never seen before in a raw state. Except in this case, it would help explain some fundamental qualities about the universe, such as how it formed, why everything in it has the shape it does, and how much about our universe we still don’t know.”

Higgs Boson was discovered at the Geneva-based CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) laboratory, whose mission is to further human understanding of what makes the universe work, where it came from and where it’s going.  What could or should they have done differently? 

According to Ramirez, CERN should have hired a PR firm to develop a website for the general public on the Higgs Boson … or hired a TV personality to be a spokesperson … or produced educational videogames where the player makes his or her own Higgs Boson.  Maybe we in the public relations industry should have been proposing those ideas to CERN.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Grammar Grows Up

When I was a kid, English teachers had two Golden Rules that we were not permitted to violate:  

1.  Never end a sentence with a preposition. 
2.  And never split an infinitive. 

We received a reprieve most of the time in colloquial English, but never in written English. 

Now, a recent op-ed in the UK-based Telegraph ( says that splitting infinitives is not just forgivable;  it is, in fact, “a sacred duty.”  Especially when not splitting the infinitive clouds the meaning of your communications.

Look, for instance, at the verb “double.”  Author Tom Chivers writes:  “If the quantity you are measuring more than doubles, where do you put your infinitive? … ‘We expect it more than to double’ or ‘We expect it to double more than’? The first is weird; the second is even weirder.”

“It’s even worse,” Chivers says, “when your desperate efforts to maintain a pure and unsullied infinitive lead you to twist your sentence” until its meaning becomes murky.  He cites an example ( from linguist Robert Lawrence Trask:   “She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.”   If you move “gradually,” where do you put it? 

“She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.”  This sounds like the decision was gradual.

“She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually”  sounds like the collecting of bears was gradual.

“She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected” and “She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected” are both just plain awkward.

I agree with Tom Chivers:  “The only unambiguous and natural place for the adverb is in [the middle of] the infinitive.”

To speak clearly:  clarity always trumps a pompous regard for niceties of grammar.  After all, how can you possibly improve on the mission of the Starship Enterprise:  “to boldly go”?

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

#500: Taking Stock

The deadlines come fast. The ideas often do not hit until the last minute. And putting together an attention-grabbing headline and the right graphic can be challenging. But you only do it 500 times if you consider it interesting and fun! And today -- according to my count -- is Blog #500.

I started posting “My Three Cents,” a communications-focused blog, once a week on January 9, 2006 (, and then moved to twice weekly once the blog started appearing on Bulldog Reporter, BusinessWeek's platform and

As soon as I realized that #500 was at hand, it made me take stock. Why do I like this? What are the benefits? Here are some answers:

• The search for ideas makes me think more deeply and precisely than I used to, about news developments and my perspectives on a variety of topics. I love the intellectual stimulation.

• The array of possible topics is like taking one of everything from a tasty topical buffet -- I get to publish my opinion on subjects that used to slip in and out of my brain pretty rapidly.

• I can hone my writing skills (especially gratifying to someone who's not a "natural writer").

• Reporters from other media quote “My Three Cents” and seek my opinion in interviews. This has surprised me.

• "PR Blogger of the Year" Awards (I’ve won four) bring recognition to Makovsky + Company. My favorite? From Chief Executive Magazine: "Top 10 CEO Bloggers" [ in the U.S].

• Blogging connects you with other bloggers and, as with traditional media, exponentially increases reach.

• The blog drives traffic to the Makovsky website.

• It enhances thought leadership (not just mine, but the firm’s).

• It attracts business.

• Understanding of and hands-on experience with social media enables us to better define the benefits of social media to our clients.

Thanks for your readership and to those who write comments. Great hearing from you!

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Monday, August 13, 2012

The Place of Shareholder Value

It’s an old story, but nearly every public company’s key goal is “maximizing shareholder value,” or MSV. To most senior managers, it essentially means that they are effectively running the business, producing momentum in sales and profits and attracting Wall Street investment. The net result? The stock price is going up and the shareholders are getting the value they hoped for.

But focusing entirely on MSV brings its own baggage. It encourages quarterly guidance. It forces short-term thinking, encouraging decisions that benefit quarterly numbers but may not pay off in the long term. It stimulates management to use financial engineering, such as off balance sheet financing or layering earnings through acquisitions and other games. Also, even if the company is doing well, MSV could be negatively affected by industry or economic trends.

Therefore, I have always felt that the best companies focus on the total picture: products, people, customer service, integrity, etc. Then, most of the other issues, MSV included, take care of themselves. Certainly Apple and Google fall into the “big picture” category.

The topic was once again addressed in the column, “Down with Shareholder Value,” by Joe Nocera in The New York Times on Friday, where he quoted professors from Cornell, Harvard and the University of Toronto, plus the CEO of Starbucks and another executive as having taken the position that companies need to have a greater purpose than merely raising the stock price.

According to Nocera, Harvard Business School professor Jay Lorsch and Justin Fox (editorial director at the HBR Group) make a couple of key points about overdoing the focus on MSV in their article “What Good Are Shareholders?”

1. If management sees itself only as “agents” representing shareholders (the “principals”) — and dedicated mainly to keeping management in line — then executives are less likely to recognize the importance of their role as stewards of an organization with lasting value. Companies that have lasted and grown have been led by committed executives, “and not just because they are incented by their pay packages to maximize the share price.”

2. Shareholders aren’t suited to be corporate bosses, because they are too diffuse and too short-term-oriented and

Lorsch says that “he believes that the function of business in a society is not just a return to investors but to provide goods and services, provide employment, pay taxes, and so on.”

Many investors have been complaining for years about quarterly-driven short-term financial goals, an approach that can have a devastating effect on businesses’ long-term progress…all in the name of shareholder value. Many senior executives live in fear of not making their quarterly numbers.

As Nocera points out, the phrase, “maximizing shareholder value,” is deeply entrenched, and very, very compelling. No similar phrase reflects Lorsch’s point of view. Any ideas?

If we take what I call “The Total Approach,” will stock prices suffer? My bet is that management will begin to see the value of the company tied to annual performance, and the ceiling for stock prices will surely rise.

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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Victory for SEC's Revolving Door

For years it has been assumed that the shuttling of lawyers from the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) to private industry and back again has compromised SEC enforcement when a violation needs to be ruled upon.

Critics have always reigned supreme. The accusation is that the revolving door has resulted in leniency by the regulatory agency, as former SEC attorneys may exert a degree of influence over their erstwhile colleagues. Additionally, prosecutors contemplating a transition to a law firm may attempt to curry favor with a prospective employer.

These assumptions seem like common sense to any savvy business pro. But a new study shows that the long-held suspicion that there is hanky-panky in this revolving door game is just plain wrong.

According to the study, the revolving door has not resulted in enforcement leniency. Rather, as The New York Times has noted, as “financial markets and investment techniques have become more complicated, the SEC has tried to hire more specialists with work experience at Wall Street firms.”

What all of this suggests to me is that greater outcomes are achieved by people with well-rounded experience. Also, transparency, trust and integrity, values we hope to see championed among people in government and business, at least this time, were.

The new study (which can be found here) collected data on the career paths of 336 SEC lawyers and their involvement in 284 SEC enforcement actions from 1990 through 2007.

The study was authored by researchers at Emory University, Rutgers, the University of Washington and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Communications to Mull About

“Act in haste, repent at leisure.” It’s an old adage, but still as true as ever. Knee-jerk reactions to problematic situations are often regretted.

It takes discipline not to respond to an irritation immediately, but it is almost always better to give yourself some time. Think about possible responses overnight and address the situation the next day. That way you potentially remove the risk of offending someone because you have had time to consider all the options, and can carefully choose the best one. It sounds like common sense, but many don’t apply it.

While you might get away with knee-jerk reactions in your personal life and make amends with an apology and a box of chocolates, in the workplace it is not quite as easy. You may be tagged as impulsive, quick-tempered, or inconsiderate if it has happened on several occasions, despite earnest apologies. And that reputation spreads. Such people are not generally sought-after as leaders.

A lot of time the situations that inspire the wrong response, I find, are in the category of “small stuff.” Sometimes it’s an emotional reaction to something that you should not be emotional about. Or it’s simply important enough to warrant the luxury of time and careful thought.

When I was a teenager, I would confront problems — and even successes — more emotionally. My lows were lower and, perhaps, my highs were higher. And that caused a response that today, certainly professionally, would be very different.

I have found that it is not worth jumping off the deep end for something that, in the great scheme of things, may not be that important, and I may not recognize that on the spot. I don’t mean to imply that I sometimes might not get a bit crazy, but 95% of the time, I apply the “mull factor.” And that moves me back to center.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012


What is over-communicating? To me, it means repetition of the same message at least once, if not more. Is it necessary? In many circumstances in business and organizational life, it is — and occasionally also in one's personal life. Is over-communicating annoying for the listener? For those who heard correctly the first time, it usually is. So why do it?

Here's why. Just because you understand something doesn't necessarily mean everyone else does. So it may bear repeating if, after asking if everyone understood it, someone says “no.” Sometimes people are too shy to admit they don't understand, so repeating a message is the conservative thing to do. Further, I find that as important as I may think my message is, the minds of the so-called listeners may be wandering. Or the listener may be more focused on his or her retort than taking in what is being spoken.

Another possibility: the listener may have misheard the message. This is increasingly common as more and more people are “quasi-listening”: tinkering with their smart phones when they should have a laser-like focus on the speaker.

Early in my career, when I first got into management, someone told me to follow this rule: your top subordinate needs to be told a message only once. Your second most competent subordinate has to be told the same thing twice. Your least competent subordinate may need to hear the same message three or four times. I believe it is important for all managers to keep this easy rule of thumb in mind. It may not always be true, but it raises a consciousness that what we say is not necessarily heard. And if you need to have the task done right, there is no risk in over-communicating.

I'd advise you use other channels for critical communications, following oral delivery, to ensure the message is clearly received. Written memos. Email memos. PowerPoint. Texting. And the list goes on.

In summary, over-communicating in today's environment — with all the distractions afoot — may become the rule rather than the exception.

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