Note to Students: Companies Can Have Ideologies as Well as Cultures

One of our graduate students and I have been busily researching corporate social responsibility (CSR) and related topics in preparation for a presentation we’re going to give at the ABC meeting in Dublin. Our reading has confirmed something that is becoming increasingly obvious: When companies become social actors and put their clout behind various social stands, their ideological dimension grows. This is a trend our students need to be aware of as they learn how to scope out the organizational contexts of their communications.

This past week, it was big news that Google fired an employee whose “anti-diversity manifesto” went public. Among the various conclusions one could draw from this news, one is that it is sometimes–maybe often?–unsafe for an employee to voice an opinion that departs from the social values of his/her company. For one thing, the opinion can go public, which can then embroil the company in a PR firestorm. But even becoming known as someone who isn’t pulling in the same direction as the company’s leadership can put one at risk professionally.

Millennials are particularly likely to support certain social causes and agitate for their employers to do likewise. According to a Deloitte study, 70% say that a company’s commitment to CSR “would influence their decision to work there,” and another study found that 73% “believe that businesses should not only take a stand about important issues, but also influence others to get involved in those issues.” They join a growing body of “social intrapreneurs,” who work for social change within and through their organizations. There’s a lot to be said in favor of social intrapreneurship–but expecting every company to welcome such values and behavior would be naive, and dangerous.

As Philip Kotler and Christian Sarkar point out, any given company’s involvement in social issues can fall anywhere on a continuum from regressive to progressive. Companies who participate in CSR are not the only social actors; many companies push back against various dimensions of CSR and promote more conservative, traditional business values. It’s imperative for a young employee, or job applicant, to be sensitive to a company’s social politics and realistic about how to communicate in that workplace. The engineer who was fired from Google accused the company of being an “ideological echo chamber.” One could argue that, to some extent, many companies can now be described this way.

We’ll be inviting those who attend our presentation to share their ideas for how to incorporate this topic into their classes. If you have some thoughts, please share them.

A New Year and a New Start

January is usually a time for resolutions, and it’s already February—but really, a good idea, the inspiration to do something different or better, or the opportunity to take a new path can happen any time of the year.

For my part, I try to do something new or different at least once a semester in one of my classes. I know…I know…. Our classes are full and overloaded, and we seem to continually add to our curriculum without ever taking anything out. Who has the time to do something new with so much already to be done?

But our students know when our material isn’t fresh or when we are not at our most energetic. If you are looking for an opportunity to recharge and refresh, why not consider the following?

Join the Association for Business Communication

Have your students participate in the annual writing contest. Read the newsletter. Join a committee. So many opportunities….

Attend an Association for Business Communication regional conference or international conference

Network, learn what your colleagues are doing in their classes, present your latest project, or just socialize with like-minded researchers and professionals. Did I mention that the annual conference in October is in Dublin? (That’s Ireland, not Ohio.)

Try a new teaching tool, such as Socrative

It’s an interactive app that lets students and you immediately assess student understanding in class. Plus, your students can use their phones or computers for purposes actually related to your course.

Introduce a new game

Are you teaching teamwork, conflict resolution, or negotiation? Try “Divide the Loot.” Students are given a set of conditions and then must work in teams to divide a pot of money equitably. Or try “Hanabi,” a card game where team members have to collaborate to create a winning fireworks display. Or try “You’ve Been Sentenced,” a board game that can help students understand parts of speech and sentence structure.

Find a real client

There’s nothing like a real client to get students interested and invested in a writing assignment. Many companies, both nonprofit and for profit, will welcome students’ research about a communication issue in their workplace.

This is a short list. Of course, trying all of these ideas at once might be overwhelming, but if you are looking for something new, why not try one or two?

If you have ideas to share, please do. We would be excited to hear what you are doing in your classes to keep your material fresh, current, and engaging.

Protecting Yourself and Your Students from Copyright Infringement

I recently attended a seminar led by Mark Konecny, Scholarly Communications Strategist with the University of Cincinnati Libraries. His topic: How instructors and students can avoid copyright infringement and the hassles and cost that come with it.

The first important thing I learned: It is very easy now for companies to find anyone who is using their material (ads, data, words, tables, photos, videos) without their permission. The reason is that numerous web crawlers are available whose sole purpose is to trawl the web for images and other material that is being illegally used. Mark told of a bar in Machu Picchu that had had a picture of Mickey Mouse on its wall for decades. Recently, though, the bar owner was approached by a copyright attorney, ordered to take down the image, and slapped with a steep fine. If you are using others’ media without their permission, they will find you and take you down!

The next important thing I learned: Material that is being borrowed for education purposes and is “inward facing”—that is, not pointed out toward the public—requires much less permission-seeking that material that is “outward facing.”

Using Others’ Material in Inward-Facing Educational Media

The Educational Fair Use Guidelines (first created in 1976) and the T.E.A.C.H. Act (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002) spell out the circumstances in which material borrowed for the classroom—whether face-to-face or virtual–can be used without permission. When considering copyright infringement cases related to teaching, judges will consider these four factors:

  • The purpose and character of your use. If the material is being used within/for the classroom, you should cite the origin of the material to avoid plagiarism, though that won’t be a sufficient safeguard against being charged for copyright infringement. To be safe on those grounds, you need to be able to demonstrate that you are making educational use of the material by integrating it into your teaching lesson, which is viewed as “transforming” the work from a piece of property into a means of teaching. (So, for example, you could include a clip from a movie or an ad in your bcomm class if you analyze it, draw a lesson from it, make a point with it, or otherwise incorporate it into a course topic or assignment.)
  • The nature of the copyrighted work. The key factors here are whether the work is factual or artistic/creative/fictional and whether it has been published or not. Factual works have looser restrictions because their contents are considered beneficial to the public. Published works also have looser restrictions than unpublished work because the author of unpublished work needs greater protection from theft of the material. But you should not be casual about using any copyrighted work.
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion taken. There are no hard and fast rules here, but the general idea is that you’re better off copying less than more. For example, you might include a few pages or visuals from a publication but not a whole chapter. That said, if you post a pdf of an article or chapter on your school’s course management system (e.g., Blackboard) and your school’s library has already paid for your access to this material, you should be on fairly safe ground. Certainly you will also be on safe ground if you include links to whole books in your library’s e-brary. On the other hand, if you print out hard copies for your students and charge them for the copying cost, that would probably be too commercial for a judge’s taste.
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market. In no way should your use of others’ material rob them of the just rewards for their work. Do not share with students any material that they would otherwise need to pay for. If you want to show a movie or part of a movie in your class, for example, it’s best to buy the DVD yourself and show it. Next best is inserting a link to the clip in your course assignment or PowerPoint slide. Not as good is streaming the movie, and not good is downloading the movie for free and showing this copy to your class. Same for music. As The T.E.A.C.H. Act says, all copies used must be lawfully made copies. And those copies need to have a specific, short life.

These same guidelines apply to your students if they are incorporating others’ material into their assignments and sharing them with others in the class. If, on the other hand, their work will be made public in any way, in the form of posters, videos, websites, brochures, or other outward-facing media, the guidelines get much more strict.

Using Others’ Material in Outward-Facing Media

When access to other’s materials is not limited to those being used in a course, the borrowing game becomes much more dangerous. Here, one must rigorously honor copyright notices and request permission to use any borrowed material that is not considered to be in the public domain.

For example, if you or your students use Google Images to find the perfect image for a presentation, poster, brochure, or website, you must go to the source of the image and try to get permission. The rights holder will probably specify the way he/she wants the source to be credited.

Same with graphs from eMarketer, blog posts from Forbes, copyrighted music, and other material you might want to use in an educational but outward-facing way.

Sometimes these sources will say no; sometimes they will say yes; sometimes they will say yes but with restrictions and/or payment.

Finding Permission-Free Photos, Videos, and Other Materials

Some publishers of media that you may want to use will allow you to use it with minimal or no permission.

Some examples:

  • YouTube says that you can put “the occasional YouTube video in your blog to comment on it or show your readers a video that you like, even if you have general-purpose ads somewhere on your blog.” (If you’re creating a YouTube video that uses copyrighted material, though, you must get the owner’s permission to avoid the risk of getting a take-down notice.) To find music that it’s ok to use without permission in your video, read about the YouTube Audio Library.

 

  • Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that, in their words, gives “everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. The combination of our tools and our users is . . . a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law.” Content creators on Wikipedia, Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, and other platforms are given the option of licensing works with CC licenses, and many other creators simply go to CC and upload work that they are fine with sharing. The creators select what kind of licensing they want to have govern the re-use of the work and, as long the re-user meets the terms of the license for the photo or he/she wants to use, the re-use is fair. Some copyright holders, like Shutterstock, will charge you a (usually small) fee to download/use an image; others will allow free use, even commercial use, if the sources is attributed, while others forbid commercial use; and others will say “free for commercial use; no attribution required.”

 

  • Unsplash offers a wide range of photos that are “licensed under Creative Commons Zero which means you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer.” (Thanks to Heather Smith for telling me about this resource.)

 

  • Morguefile is “a community-based free photo site, and all photos found in the Morguefile archive are free for you to download and re-use in your work, be it commercial or not.” (Thanks again, Heather.)

 

  • Pixabay offers images and videos that have been “released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.” (Yet again, thank you, Heather.)

 

The Bottom Line

With copyright-infringement crawlers now searching the web for infringements, you and your students must take the ownership of materials seriously. Universities are required by law to post copyright guidelines, like these from my school. If there is any chance that your intended use of the material may incur a take-down notice (and possibly a heavy fine), consult with knowledgeable personnel at your school. (See Paula’s post “Classroom Resources: Copyright Law” for additional online guides.)

An Assignment Idea: Advising the Safe Use of–or Forbidding–Ear Buds

ipod-dark-photo-files-9-1242761I’ve been struck this fall, more than ever, by how pervasive ear buds are on campus and how oblivious many students are when wearing them. I’ve seen students step out into oncoming emergency vehicles, fail to see cars that are turning into them, and otherwise jeopardize themselves and others because of their inability to hear (and, sometimes, see—since, often, they’re looking at their phones as well).

I figure we can turn this situation into a teaching moment! Here are a couple of ideas for assignments built around the issue.

  • Have students, perhaps in groups, research the dangers of earbuds (and ear buds + cell phones) to find compelling data they could use in a safety message to students at their school. Then have them write that message. Have them discuss and choose whom the message should come from: head of safety and security, president of the student body, head of student affairs, the university president? The challenge of this assignment is that your students are probably not inclined to read or heed a message like this themselves. But that’s the beauty of it, too: They’re in a perfect position to figure out what it would take to overcome their readers’ likely objections. Tell them that when they’ve found data/arguments that would persuade them to change their own behavior, they’re onto something.
  • I found, with a little bit of Internet searching, that some workplaces forbid the use of earbuds on the job. Have your students, perhaps in groups, research this issue to find out why. Then create, or have them create, a scenario in which, playing some role in the company, they need to write the employees to state and defend the company’s ear-bud policy.

Either of these assignments will involve conducting research, evaluating evidence, persuading a reluctant audience, and writing clear guidelines. You can have great discussions around all these facets of the task. Let’s hope it also results in safer behavior on the part of our students! (How cool would it be to send the message to the director of campus safety and figure out a way to have it actually sent out? It could happen!)

If you’ve got an idea for a good informative or persuasive message assignment to use this fall, please share it!

A BComm Consciousness-Raising Activity

I received an email message yesterday that I forwarded to a new graduate teaching assistant as a good message to discuss with her students as they begin their Writing for Business course. What makes it especially promising discussion material, I think, is that the message is neither good nor bad, or it’s both, or, depending on the reader, it could be one or the other. So it provides a wide open space for students to weigh in with their judgments and the reasons behind them.

The message was a no-reply message from Jack@anyandalltextbooks.com (a fictitious version of the real name), and its subject line was “Can I swing by Wednesday, Professor?” The first words of the message were the line “I’ll be on campus!,” centered and in big, bold, italic letters.

Then came the following:

Hi Professor,
My name is Jack and I’m part of a start-up whose entire purpose is to help students afford to get a college education. You probably recognize me, as I work with many faculty at the University of Cincinnati who have that as a priority. I’m a local!

I DO work with textbooks, but this is totally different from the other book buyers you’ve had drop by your office. I have a huge database that allows me to buy books from as far back as the 1950’s. Faculty members appreciate that I can help them de-clutter their offices while putting textbooks back in the hands of students that could use them.

Types of books I can send to a student:
–  Old editions
–  New editions
–  Instructor (and annotated) copies

Let me know if you’d like to see if you have any books a student could use! I’ll be on campus this Wednesday.

Feel free to respond or even call/text if you would like me to come by quickly. My cell number is 555-523-5523 [not the real number].

Kind regards,
Jack

I know some faculty choose to hang on to all of their books and never sell—if that’s you, I’m so sorry for reaching out! I’m just trying as hard as I can to help students. Click the Unsubscribe button below and I’ll make sure I don’t email you again.

Below that were a large graphic I couldn’t interpret (something like a pink lopsided donut), Jack’s (still with no last name given) address, and an unsubscribe link.

Here are just a few of the many questions you could ask about this message:

–What do you think of the writer’s using just his first name? What might be good about it? What might be bad?

–What do you think about the inclusion of the tagline at the top and the graphic at the bottom? Does this enhance or detract from the message’s persuasive appeal?

–What kind of persona/ethos is the writer trying to project here? Is it effective, in your view?

–What kind of relationship is he trying to establish with the reader? Does he succeed? Is it appropriate?

–What features of this message might tempt a professor to sell his/her textbooks to this person? What might lead a professor to reject the request in the message?

–If you were revising the message, what parts would you leave the same? What parts would you revise and why?

This activity can help sensitize students to the importance of adapting to the audience, creating an effective ethos, and building credibility. If used during the persuasive-message unit of the course, it can help students think about what makes appeals persuasive. But however you use it, it will get students analyzing, thinking, and using their judgment, and realizing that they need well-thought-out reasons for the decisions they’ll make as communicators. Helping them create this habit of mind is probably the most valuable legacy we can leave them with.

We hope your term is off to a great start!

Empathy Training: It’s Not Just for Millennials

Happy summer, everyone! We hope you’re relaxing, recharging, and collecting cool ideas for teaching bcomm in the fall.

An article just “came across my desk” (in an email from the Association for Talent Development) that I thought was relevant to us. I wrote earlier
about the fact that Millennials, because of the era in which they grew up, have difficulty putting themselves in other people’s shoes, especially people who are not like them.

Looks like they’re not the only ones who could use some empathy training. As the article points out, upper-level managers can also become more effective if they pause to think about things from their employees’ perspectives.

As we know, understanding others and meeting them where they are is a key–if not the key–to effective business communication. So helping our students be more empathetic is not just a way to make them more considerate and ethical (though it is that); it’s a critical part of their development as successful communicators. Exposing them to different kinds of audiences, encouraging their imagination of others’ circumstances, even having them role play–anything we can do to help them stretch their ability to empathize is all to the good.

While we’re speaking of execs . . . , check out this list of what they’re reading these days, according to McKinsey & Company. What’s striking to me is that most of these highly successful businesspeople aren’t just focused on business books. They’re reading history, fiction, biography, and other material that broadens their knowledge and helps them understand others better.

Let’s encourage our students to do likewise!

 

Can Your Students Interpret Numbers?

A popular saying in business is that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” While more businesses these days are relying on intuition and core values as well, it’s true that businesses have to have reliable numbers to be able to stay in business.

This makes it a good idea to give our students at least one assignment in which they need to present and interpret numerical data. I’ve been surprise lately, though, by how poorly my business writing students do this. Perhaps I’m getting a bit of a false read because most of the students in our Writing for Business classes are marketing, IT, and management majors (the students in the more numbers-based majors aren’t required to take this course). If my sample is skewed, I hope you’ll still find the following tips useful.

But first, here’s the situation that prompted me to write this post. The class had been assigned a report-writing task that involved interpreting data from a customer-satisfaction survey for a health clinic. One of the questions on the survey asked the respondents to rate the accuracy the bills they received from the billing office. The answers are shown in this graph:

UN 11.6 billing graph

To my consternation, all but about three of the students interpreted these results as positive! They looked at the columns, saw that the biggest ones were to the left, and thus deduced that the results were pretty good. So we had a discussion about context. Sixty people said their bills were never right? And another 140 said almost never? And another 319 said sometimes? I asked the class how many times they’d need to get an erroneous bill before seriously considering changing healthcare providers. Or how many phone calls to the billing office were probably being generated by this problem. Then they began to get it.

I see what happened as part of a larger issue: Our students are hesitant to think. They’re terrified of making mistakes, and they don’t realize that, to do well on their jobs, they have to problem solve, use their judgment, and put their ideas out there. This is especially the case when they’re asked to interpret information.

For the benefit of future classes, I drew up this list of tips for interpreting and commenting on numbers:

  • Consider the context. Findings that are positive in some situations could be alarmingly bad in others. Figure out what the numbers mean in terms of the problem you’re investigating.
  • Calculate percentages. Often it’s easier for readers to wrap their minds around percentages rather than raw numbers. So, instead of saying “245 strongly agreed” (out of 400), say “61.2% (245) strongly agreed.” (Formula: Divide the number of responses by the total number of participants.)
  • Combine categories of responses when that will be helpful. For example, if you’ve asked respondents to choose an answer on a five-point scale, with the two positive answers at one end of the scale and the negative ones at the other end, it may be more helpful to compare the total number of positive responses to the total number of negative ones than to call attention to just the most positive and most negative answers.
  • Use “majority” correctly. It means “more than half.” It doesn’t mean “those who chose the most popular response” (unless those who voted for the most popular response account for more than half of the respondents). Better yet, try to use more specific wording, such as “just over half” or “the large majority.”
  • Use “average” accurately. “Average” means the median response. (Formula: Add all the responses or ratings and then divide them by the total number.) You cannot say “the average response was ‘sometimes'” when what you really mean is that it was the most common response (the mode).
  • Use the word “most” with care. “Most” doesn’t really have a uniform meaning, but it needs to refer to quite a high percentage of the responses. You would not be justified in saying that “most” respondents chose an answer if only 61% of the respondents chose it. If 85% or more chose it, your use of this word would probably be acceptable.

I realize that this isn’t a very ambitious list. But I hope its overall effect will be to make my students more thoughtful and accurate when reporting numerical data, and I hope it will be of some use to your students as well. If you have tips to add to this list, or have a different way altogether of helping students interpret numbers, please share them.