Government Communications in the Magic City: Interview with Nannette Rodriguez

‘There is always breaking news on Friday after 3 o clock”’ said Nanette Rodriguez, half jokingly, half serious, during a Friday interview at her office in the City of Miami Beach where she has been leading communication efforts for almost two decades. As the now Director of Communications prepped for a day of possible issues ahead, she chatted enthusiastically with me, a Miami Beach resident, about the lessons she had learned to ensure the city can communicate effectively and its citizens and its employees, while earning the city several recognitions along the way: in 2011 the Miami Beach Twitter account was named by Code for America as one of the top three city accounts to follow just behind New York 311 and Minneapolis Snow Emergency. The City of Miami Beach products include MB magazine, MBTV (including online channel), and use of existing platforms with their YouTube channel, Flickr and Facebook page.

The passion of this native Floridian for her job is contagious as well as her interest for learning the latest trends in social media and ways to communicate.
Note: Interview has been edited for space.

How did you started in communications?
Let me go back in my childhood: when I was very young I used to write stories, and illustrate books. I was also very in tune with the news, current events and my favorite show was 60 Minutes. Here I was this child in second, third grade, watching 60 Minutes and writing fictitious stories and illustrating. I’ve always had a knack for the written word… Historically in our family, my father, my grandmother, my great grandfather, they were all photographers… All of those interests kind of intertwined in my interests, so when I went to college I first studied Art… I was an Art and Business major.

So you thought about that early on, to make money from your art? 
(Laughs) Early on I thought ‘you have to make money on what you like.’ I did go into Communications and graduated from the University of Miami and did a degree of Communications and Marketing. From there, while I was still in school, I was working for a cable company, working for the family business in the photos industry, then finally got a job on TV. I worked on WPBT, public television, for 10 years and got to get my hand on many different very creative jobs, did advertising campaigns, we did publicity with other media, doing national campaigns across the country on new programs, also working with the local news at the station… (That experience) actually became the perfect fit when I was asked to work in the city of Miami Beach.

So you’ve been with the City for about 20 years?
It will be 20 years in November.

What was your plan or vision then and how has it changed throughout the years?
Miami Beach was in the Madonna phase of Miami Beach, I guess you can say. The international film stars were here, Bird Cage had just premiered, it was the post Miami Vice (era), star studded, the clubs were coming of age, it was that type of Miami Beach. Government wise things were changing, things were moving forward… In my career in communications we started with the type writer (laughs)… Actually when I came to the city of Miami Beach I was used to using higher level tools (in my previous job)… When I got here we got a computer, but we did not have email! I was used to having email prior to that, I was like ‘oh my gosh, we are going back to the dark ages, but its ok, I’ve been there’ (laughs)… One of the first initiatives that I brought to the city was develop a website. Of course that took a couple of years in the coming, there were not a lot of people that actually knew how to develop websites at the time.
(…) We were actually one of the first few government stations that were doing original programming… We were also the first station to go live on the web via live web streaming. We were also the first station to do close captioning and do close captioning in Spanish.

Miami Beach has been a pioneer in many of these things. The city has also won awards such as the Savvy awards. Are there any other examples of awards the city has won?
As far of communications, there is a slew of awards that we have been awarded or recognized as top 10 of something: awards for our Florida Government Communicators Association, 3CMA which is the City-County Communications and Marketing Association awards, our magazine is finalist for an award again this year, some of our videos have won awards, we actually have submitted this year for the Emmys… It’s not just about the awards, it’s great to be recognized… If we are communicating the message effectively, if we have people talking about the result of that message… that to me is more of a result than someone giving you a gold star here, your trophy. No, I want to see results of our effort. To me, that is the award.

What is some advice you can share in terms of what governments may be doing wrong or share simple practices they can start doing?
I would not say they are doing it wrong. First of all they need to start using (social media); you need to be where the conversation is… How I explain it to many other government agencies is to remember the town square back in the 1700s when our pioneers would try to get information from town to town about American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, whatever important documentation needed to go out there. There was somebody on a horse that would ride from town to town and post something in the town square. Now everybody has a town square because everyone, well not everybody, but most people have a Facebook page. And your Facebook page has posts, it’s your bulletin board, it’s also your bulleting board where you can talk to other people and post on theirs but everybody sees it.
(…) Older generations, yeah, they still tune in to the 6 o’clock news because they know at 6 o clock they are going to receive that information. But even the older generation is now on social media. We see our demographics that are following us on social media. We had My Space before had Facebook, that’s how long we’ve been on social media (laughs)… Of course the followers on there were very young. But when we went to Facebook and more people were clinging on to that, our demographics pretty much evened out.
Anybody on social media will tell you the older generation is the largest growing group on social media and that that is a reason why any government agency needs to be on there. It’s not a thing for the young anymore, its cross generational, and cross cultural as well because you can speak in many different languages on social media. We’ll put Spanish messages up as well and electronic news list serve which we have been doing since 1999 doing e-blasts and emails… I want to know what the next means of communicating is because we need to be there.

How does that translate to internal communications? Is there a similar approach to that?
On internal we do a lot of email plus internally we have our quarterly publication which actually we tried to do away with because we had our intranet, an internal website. Like we do with our community, we did an internal survey and it showed that the majority of our employees are not at a desk or an office. We have public works employees that are out on the street, we have parks and recreation employees that are out in our parks, we have firemen and firewomen and police officers that are all out on the streets. The majority of our work force, I would say only about 300, are on an office out of close to over 2500 employees. Although some of them were getting the printed version, we did away with it. (We thought) ‘now we have an internal website, we don’t need to print this anymore.’ Oh my goodness, everybody was like ‘what do you mean?’ We don’t have access to a computer and we love to see the pictures!
We had to totally reevaluate how we were doing things. Again, you can’t just depend on one type of communication because people not just receive but comprehend information in different ways.

I wanted to ask you about the branding of the city. It seems it has a pretty clear use and approach. Was it difficult to shape that branding?
Boy that was fun! We did that about 12, 13 years ago. After 99, we did the general obligation bond and with that bond we were going to be doing a lot of infrastructure work in our neighborhoods and public facilities. Between our Planning department and our City Manager’s office they thought ‘while we are doing that, maybe we should come up with a way finding, a signage branding for the city.’
(…) As part of that way finding signage identity, came our identity Miami Beach, the Beach being the book bold, the more emphasis on it and not separated, together, but the emphasis is on the Beach, not in Miami, because if you see them separate you may think ‘oh its Miami,’ ‘oh it’s the beach. ’ No, we are Miami BEACH. And on the celebration of our Art Deco and our MiMo (art style), the firm (we hired) came with a whole graphic identity package for the city.

Being a native Floridian, what do you think is the biggest misconception of the city?
We are not your typical beach city, although that’s the first thing a lot of people think of: South Beach, the nightclubs, the nightlife. But we are more than that…We are really a trendsetting community not just in the tourism industry and what you see in entertainment but in technology. A lot of the things that we do in our city as far as infrastructure, policing, fire; people from other communities, actually cities from around the world, come and visit us to see how we are starting to do things. It’s not just that glitz and glam that you see that everybody thinks of us as Miami Beach.

For professionals in communications, what do you think they should learn more about to further their careers?
Keep yourself relevant, don’t become a dinosaur. Communications is a constant learning profession, as many professions are. You always have to be on top of what the latest is and know it, learn it, become it, be in the know… If you don’t keep yourself relevant you are going to keep as old as a transistor radio.

Or a typewriter.
Or a typewriter (laughs).

Follow the City of Miami Beach on Twitter @MiamiBeachNews

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

She Likes Long Text Messages Because She Appreciates a Complete Thought: Interview with Alex Wall

The title of this blog captures the beginning of the career of Alex Wall in digital marketing. The Lead Marketing Strategist at Roar Media (and Muay Thai fighter) started delving into this field while in college at University of Central Florida using a variation of the text above (read on to learn more). In her career, she has continued searching for the latest trends and applying new approaches, including tactics learned from science.

During a recent presentation during Social Media Day Miami on ‘Social Neuromarketing,’ Alex used images, quotes and stats to tell the story of what social media does to our brains and how can marketers and content developers use it to their advantage. In our interview we talked about applying science to advertising, how Internet has been her tool to learn and connect, and her love for ads. She wants people to love ads too as a “meaningful experience or exchange, not a corporate apparatus.”

In terms describing what you do, how would you describe your roles?

I am a full stack digital marketer so I manage the digital department at an integrated PR marketing communications agency. More or less if it happens on the internet is something that I have some purview over. I cut my teeth on the bread and butter of SEO (search engine optimization), social media, web design, and copyrighting… I build out from there with a really heavy emphasis on persuasion marketing using psychology to increase conversion and analytics using math. I think I take a pretty scientific approach to it.

What is your background? Do you have a background in all those fields or is it a passion of yours?

It’s kind of funny. I don’t really have a background in marketing prior to actually doing it… My degrees are in English Literature and Philosophy. I was not ever really in Business or Marketing or Advertising, but I started building websites when I was 11 or 12 years old. My first website, I think I was 11, was a Pokémon website. I had some friends on the Internet who also loved Pokémon. The weakness of the gateway system at that time was that in order to be able to play against somebody, you had to be standing right next to them. I was like ‘that’s garbage because I don’t have a lot of friends in my immediate periphery because I am a weird little kid, but I have lots of friends that I can stand on the internet’ because I think I was like one of the first kids on my block to have computer.’ So I built websites where I could host my Pokémon data and then run simulation Pokémon matches against other nerdy children out there. I started coding when I was about 11.

How did you learn?

I just looked it up. There were a bunch of tutorials on the Internet and I just looked it up…There was no WordPress; I just coded in just straight HTML, XHTML because that was the thing back then and I was into that. I had fun with it. I played around a lot. Then I moved on to college and studied the Humanities and I studied classics and I studied communication. I was a debater. I was also a speaker… and I did copywriting to make extra money.

Then one day I was fucking around on the Internet on Facebook, which was a relatively new thing back then. It was before it was opened up to everybody and it was just for college students. So I was messing around on it and this was back when you could make Like pages, just like anything, like the cool side of the pillow…you could make these Like pages so I made one. Just being a condescending English major, I should have made some trademarking around it because you now can Google it to this day and find it everywhere, I wrote ‘I like long text messages because I appreciate a complete thought.’ I just thought that was hysterical and I liked it, 13 of my friends liked it and that was cool and I walked away from it. You know I won’t do like a slow build up here but within 3 or 4 months that page had 1.6 million people following it.

(…) This was the precursor to Facebook pages as something that was done for businesses or brands or locations.. So I had all these people following me and advertisers started reaching out to me… offering to post links to their online t-shirt shops… The ecommerce sites that were sarcastic in nature, these smart ass t-shirts shops… would say ‘we’ll give you X dollars to order, we’ll give you 15% commission and kick back.’ So I basically started doing affiliated marketing through that Facebook page, just goofing off and I ended up making a substantial amount of money figuring out affiliate marketing and running that page.

Is that page still available today?

No, I actually got out at a good time because Facebook completely changed the way they do their pages now. You are no longer able to create a page that represents an idea or sentence…That taught me something important abut social media and about Internet marketing and making money on the web which is don’t build your house on someone else’s land… If you build your model around someone else’s platform like Facebook and they change their platform and they disrupt your model, you’re screwed. Sorry.

That’s why email has always been such a dominant format cause you always own our email list. If people subscribe to your stuff or whatever, you always have your email list…. It was an accidental breakneck speed education I would say.

 Is your specialization neuromarketing?

I am a specialist in it but I am not practicing specialist. I sort of moved on to broader topics and here’s why: there is not that many people in Florida talking about neuromarketing. I think that a lot of people in marketing come from two angles: they come from a communication and a journalist angle, or they come at it from a sales angle, and neither of those is sufficient to really grapple with the complex problems that neuromarketing tries to solve.

(…) I’ve spent a few years as part of a passion project really getting into neuromarketing and learning as much about it as I could. I even consulted with a neuroscientist in California. But there is really nobody else talking about it.

I became fascinated by it and the reason that I originally became fascinated by it is because I thought it was bullshit. I was part right, because what people say about neuromarketing and what people think about neuro-marketing is mostly bullshit. Someone posted a video a few days ago about subliminal marketing and how advertisers found the ways to hide the word ‘sex’ in Coke cans and that make Coke cans sell more. No, it doesn’t! Nobody thinks that. They experimented with shit like that in the 1960s and 1970s… Unless you are selling condoms there is no business advantage in trying to show dirty stuff in your ads, so when I see stuff like subliminal messaging, trying to get you to buy stuff by showing stuff about sex, that’s garbage, that’s total pseudoscience and that’s garbage.

There are principles though that we learn from the study of neuromarketing. Neuromarketing really is not a practice, the practice is in learning from neuroscience and occasionally being able to conduct real tests, which are very costly… Some of the principles that I went over in my talk like contrasts, things like narrative instead of statistics, pain marketing, fear marketing, show people what their life is like without your product and then show them what is like with your product. I guarantee you, if somebody is not doing that and starts doing that, the sales are going to double. The sales are going to double and if they are not, call me Sally.

 It is interesting and it seems like a topic that should be addressed more. People want to know what the foundation for all of this is. They want science to be behind this. They want the evidence.

John Wanamaker said once ‘half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half.’ I only think that neuromarketing combined with analytics seeks to answers that question…With either one, with good data analysis or with neuromarketing I think you can figure out where you are wasting money because with neuromarketing you learn which messages are more effective before you send them out, whereas data, metrics, analytics… can help you understand on where you are making and losing money once your campaign is live. And that’s helpful with an ongoing digital campaign, with something you can start and stop and turn on and edit. But if you are doing a study because you are going to spend 30 million dollars to run a Super Bowl commercial or whatever it is, you kind of want that information up front. You can’t turn it on and adjust it on the fly. You need to film that shit way, way in advance. It’s those types of campaigns that benefit the most from neuromarketing tests…Pretty much everything else you just learn from what is already being learned.

From your particular experience, what do you see to be the trends to look out in the future?

I’ll tell you: chat app marketing, for messaging apps. You are going to see brands trying to get on WhatsApp, on Kik and other one to one messaging apps.

(…) Video has been blowing up year over year, its still headed in that direction. The best investment a small business owner can make right now or somebody who wants to be a digital marketing consultant or start an ecommerce or retail business, the best investment they can make right now is invest on a nice camera. Because visual content is the future for the Internet, absolutely.

How do you see yourself in the future? Are there are aspects of marketing that interest you more?

What I like to do is being involved at developing new types of ads, new types of marketing messages, new ways to communicate with people… When you go and you spend money to place ads on the Internet, that is where the money of digital advertising in. It’s not in SEO or organic social media management. It’s in content and good content and it’s in paid media. That’s where 95% of the money is. If anybody else tells you differently they are either lucky or lying.

I love marketing, I love digital marketing, I love the Internet, I’ve always have. I have a very philosophical take on the Internet and the opportunities it presents and part of it is sentimental… (Growing up) kids would come up and say, ‘can Alex come out and play’ and I would go tell my mom ‘can you say that I can’t go out and play’, ‘can you say that I am grounded so I can’t go out’? I did not have the spine to say ‘no fuck off.’ I do now.

I wanted to be liked but I also did not wanted to hang out with them. I wanted to do my own stuff. The Internet to me gave me a lot of opportunities to get in touch and to learn stuff. Almost everything that I’ve learned about marketing, media and social and everything, I learned online, I learned by doing. I’ve taken online classes, I’ve gone to seminars, I’ve gone to conferences, done a couple of workshops. But mostly I just read, and tried and failed and tried again, failed and read and that’s just it. That’s it. And I failed Algebra 2 twice in middle school and high school so if I can do it, absolutely anybody can do it.

I think I am just so stubborn that I won’t stop doing something until I get my way.

Follow Alex Wall on Twitter @AlexlWall

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

‘There are no social media experts’: Interview with Knight Innovator Alex de Carvalho

When I met Alex de Carvalho for an interview, he looked tired but also glowing. He was still beaming from organizing and hosting Social Media Day South Florida, an event he created which gathered over 400 enthusiasts and speakers to share best practices and new ideas. The Brazilian/Finnish entrepeneur, speaker and blogger creates spaces for people to connect: he founded the Social Media Club South FloridaBar­CampIgnite, and he is also a founding member of Refresh Miami.

Currently, Alex is the Knight Foundation Innovator in Residence at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. In this position, he works with students and faculty to develop innovation programs and use digital technology to address real world issues. He has also hosted events such as the Media Party and the Scripps international Innovator’s Cup.

Previously, he launched various Internet startups in U.S. and Europe, he was a strategy consultant, and an instructor at the University of Miami’s School of Communications. He also co-authored “Securing the Clicks: Network Security in the Age of Social Media.

He is friendly and willing to help (agreeing to this interview showcases it). I was curious about his motivations to start community building, his current projects as Knight Innovator and why he thinks social media experts do not exist. What follows is our conversation, edited for content and space.

It seems the common element for all of these things you do is networking: get people from different locations and bring them together. Is that your purpose?

Yes, you could say that. I started blogging about 12 years ago. I was living in Paris and by blogging I met these incredible people, these other bloggers who became friends and I started to go to their events. They had meet ups… I started going to Internet conferences, I met a lot of startup companies and I fell in love with this whole new way of meeting people which was actually by blogging. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, it was just by blogging and figuring out, ‘oh there is an event, let me meet these new people who are bloggers.’

What were the topics that you were blogging about?

I had two blogs: I had my own personal blog which I still have which was more about my thoughts on tech. I do not blog so often anymore but I used to blog a couple of times a week. Then I also had another blog, which was the “Year of Brazil in France.” Every year, France honors a different country and that year (2005) they were honoring Brazil… I am Brazilian, I was like ‘wow, I should blog about what is going on!’ There were a bunch of events, singers, artists and because I was blogging about it, my blog became more popular than the official site. The reason is that the official site was just listing all of the events. If you are French, you did not know what was good or not. So I was blogging about the good events that I had gone to and that I took photos of, or the ones that I would recommend. That’s why my blog had more traffic than the official site for the year in Brazil in France; that also meant that the bloggers in Paris got to know me as the Brazilian blogger. They loved it and … I met a lot of people and made many friends in that French blog and startup community.

When I came to Miami I had already lived here previously for 10 years… Meeting people in Miami was very different than the way you meet people than in Paris and London. In Paris and London you have dinner parties, you have many more conversations. Here, when you go out at night, the music is so loud you can’t speak to anyone. When you go out in South Beach, it’s all about the car you drive, whether you have a Rolex, spending 25 dollars for a drink, and then you can’t even speak to anyone because its so loud! It’s very difficult. So coming here I wanted to meet people in a more cultural way, in a more intellectual way, around topics of shared interest, which is why I cofounded RefreshMiami. I did that for 4 years and then I created Social Media Club South Florida and I started creating these events: BarCamp, Ignite, and Social Media Day. These were ways of bringing people together in a new, relevant, high value way where you can actually speak to intelligent people and where the music was not loud so people could understand what you were up to.

Why the interest in technology? Did you grow up interested in that?

I went to Business school and then I did an MBA to work in marketing but I always felt that there is something wrong with marketing. For example, there is product manager at Crest and there is product manager at Colgate. Crest and Colgate are basically equivalent products. There is no difference, and yet these two product managers are fighting for market share, and their entire bonus and salary depends on ‘how can I get more market share than my competitor?’ So how do they do it? They do it through marketing messages, they do it by spending money, photoshopping stuff, doing press releases. It all seems like a lie, and it all seem very futile. Why would I go to school to an MBA and work for Colgate or Crest? Why should I sell this suntan lotion and not that one? It all seems to me very pointless. There had to be a better way. That better way is social media.

After my MBA I was a management consultant doing business strategy and then I created a startup in 1999 about email marketing. I started creating permission-based marketing where people opted-in to get your messages because they were interested in what you were selling. I learned about social media where you are blogging about your interest; if I like this coffee then I am going to write something about the coffee because I like that coffee. If you follow my blog you’ll say ‘he is Brazilian, he likes coffee, let me try it out.’ It seems like much more authentic way for a brand to connect with people than some kind of a photoshopped thing with a Colombian coffee producer with a donkey that does not exist…

That’s s why I fell in love with social media. It’s a more authentic way to talk to people.

Companies still do it, they push the message.

Of course, you have to because there is still TV and magazines, so you still have to do traditional advertising. Now with social media, you should also be on Facebook and Twitter. You should be on Pinterest, you should be trying creative things.

Talking about social media and the people who do social media for these brands, they are so-called experts. What is your perception on this? Are there any social media experts?

No, I don’t believe there are any social media experts, especially because social media has only been around for 10-15 years. By social media I mean blogging and things like Facebook and Twitter and such. People would say ‘yeah social media existed through the bulletin boards, aol,’ ok, whatever, I am talking about modern social media. It’s too young. It’s not like accounting that has existed for hundreds of years and traditional marketing which has existed for 50, 60-70 years, where there is a body of knowledge.

In social media you don’t have that yet because it’s new and the platforms themselves are new. The platforms are changing all the time…There is no way to know everything about Facebook because Facebook even right now is testing something new in a market you are not in. They might roll it out into your market but all of a sudden you were an expert and now you are no longer because it’s new. There are too many platforms and you can’t know everything about all the platforms.

But also social media management requires a lot of skills… We are talking about doing computer based technical things to being in front of people and speaking at an event, to doing strategy, to managing graphic artists, to maybe even managing a development team, to creating an app. So look at all these different kinds of skills, it’s very hard for one person to have all those skills. So that is why I say there are no experts.

During Social Media Day there was a lot of discussion about doing effective social media strategies. The book you co-wrote Securing the Clicks was more about the security aspect that should be addressed. Do you think companies are forgetting that?

Yeah, I think so. I think companies are not paying attention to security and the security really should be looked at in very holistic fashion. All aspects of risks for business from computer based network security, to reputation risks, to intellectual capital to copyrights… Creating policies for companies is important so employees know what to do and what not to do on social media.

During Social Media you were with a Red Cross representative talking about a new project. What is the project that all about? Is there some gap in disaster relief and social media?

There is a gap of knowledge about what goes on in digital and social media about what goes on in a disaster. First responders do not have that knowledge. They have not ever needed to because they get calls from 911 and 311. They are prepared for disaster… but they are not prepared for the “explosion” of social media during and after disasters.

It’s interesting because digital humanitarians are there and they will always be there. If something happens in Nepal, they are going to help,;if something happens in Haiti… People from around the world crowdsource online, do mapping projects, NGO identifying, people finders, and so on. People find projects and different things they can do online to help first responders. But the first responders are not always aware of these things… They are not in social media and they do not know how to get their official messages out.

When there is a disaster there are a lot of rumors and photoshopped photos and things that are false, which go viral… The Red Cross has real information, like ‘here are where the shelters are,’ ‘there is flooding over there’ and those messages are not getting out because people online are still paying attention to celebrities like Justin Bieber… I think cities can do a lot to prepare digitally so that when there is a disaster the first responders are not wasting resources and are connecting better. I think there is still a lot to be done. This is what that research my research is about and the possibilities excite me.

In terms of professionals in communications who want to target their careers towards the future, what should be good to know?

I think social media is a good skill for any field, but especially communications and journalism students. The world has changed completely; the professors obviously have great skill and knowledge but these professors come from a more traditional form of journalism and PR… The world the student is graduating into is not the world the professor came from. It’s now a world of digital entrepeneurship and it’s a world of personal branding. I don’t like the phrase ‘personal branding’ but people understand what it means. It means to create a professional persona online where others are going to hire you based on the way you present yourself. I don’t think those skills are being taught in school. I don’t know that entrepeneurship is being taught to communication students.

I know that in journalism school you learn that you must take yourself out of the story and you learn to fair and balanced, to be neutral. It’s exactly the opposite of what works online. If you are a blogger, you are a part of the story. In fact, people follow you because of your story, because of your challenges, your dreams, what you are trying to do. People like it when they know that you are from the left or the right…Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but also other news personalities, we pretty much know where they are; meanwhile, the journalism students are taught you cannot put yourself in the story when you interview… Even BuzzFeed likes to hire people that already have a community: it’s not that you know about fashion, is that you built a community of ten thousand followers because of fashion…But are students being taught that too? Students have to figure it out for themselves.

To get in touch with Alex de Carvalho, contact him via Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin or Instagram.

Follow the author on Twitter @yadicarocaro