Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year's resolution #2: staying out of the prediction game

Here are the only two safe predictions I will make for 2011: I will get out of bed (eventually). And I will inevitably eat some food.

That's as far as I go.

One thing I learned a long time ago is to stay out of the public prediction business. But that hasn't stopped everybody and their dog from posting and tweeting every crazy thing that they think is going to happen the following year.

The prediction business is a dangerous place to be.

The world ganged up on Arianna Huffington when she launched her HuffingtonPost blog in May 2005 and guess who had the last laugh? $60 million a year in revenue and still going.

Nine years ago, Chicago Sun-Times Carpenters-loving advertising columnist Lewis Lazare told me Blender magazine wouldn't last six months. I made a bet with him: if the magazine folded in less than six months, he could bury us in his column. But if it didn't, he had to write that company chairman Felix Dennis was a genius. Blender went on to win all kinds of awards and ran successfully until it folded in March 2009. Don't think we didn't call him out on it constantly.

It's a basic lesson learned back in Little League, when the snotty kid on the rival playoff team would tell you how his team was going to "slaughter you" and "beat you up," only to end up dropping an easy fly during the game and getting whipped in the process.

You've really got to be super thick-skinned to predict whether something will succeed or fail, yet there was no shortage of vocal bettors when The Daily Beast and Newsweek announced their merger several weeks ago. Nobody seems to be afraid to get egg on their faces.

I'm sure the predictions gimmick may scratch out some web traffic traction in late December, but probably not as much as the ever-perennial slide shows and rankings. But when every person with a heartbeat is posting predictions, not only is it one big blur, but every one of those people is sticking their neck out on the line. They want to look like... grrr, quick shoot the word before it gets out... a guru!

Of course, many predictions are about as startling as what a boardwalk fortune teller will reveal to you. Here are a few actual ones posted on the web from last year...

  • "A new player will emerge to challenge Facebook supremacy."
  • "Public relations professionals will have a larger role in social media!"
  • "Creativity will count."
Of course, nobody ever goes back and checks on the results of all these predictions. At least in the stock market, it's easy to track whether you've gone up or down, but how do you measure on whether "creativity counted" in 2010? Do you even want to try?

Fortunately, for those keeping score, you can check back on all the 2011 prognosticators on this handy Wikispaces compilation of predictions with their links, courtesy of Peter Himler.

Instead of joining the crowd mentality in spitballing the future, public relations and communications pros would better serve everybody if they provided practical advice based on their own experiences in dealing with the media, social media developments and obstacles, and educating our colleagues on being better at what they do.

Anybody can make a prediction. Very, very few people can get it right.

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