July 30, 2010

The Cause Gets Heated

Interview 2 Comments

Melissa Jun Rowley is a writer and cause activist living in Los Angeles. She writes for Mashable and WhatGives!?, a blog from Cause Media Group, which focuses on cause marketing for brands and celebrities. But this girl is no goody-goody two shoes. We sat down and interviewed her today about the irreverent approach she takes to social media.

Melissa Jun Rowley: For a long time my beat was entertainment because I was an entertainment journalist for CNN. I got a little jaded by the TMZ-aspect of entertainment journalism and some of the bullshit that people in Hollywood have to deal with on a regular basis. But there’s also really great things about Hollywood – people come to this city completely in pursuit of their dreams, so there’s something really magical about that, too.

I took a little leave of absence for a while, I went up to San Francisco, where I’d lived eight years prior, and I got really immersed in social action. There’s a really tight-knit social enterprise community up there that focuses on non-profits and for-profits that are doing good. There are a lot of companies that are evolving into triple bottom-line companies, that are focused not only on their financial bottom line, but also focused on being socially responsible. It’s people, planet, profit – those are the three bottom lines.

When I got back to Hollywood to take a job with E!, and then that didn’t work out, I started to merge entertainment and social action together. Right around that time I met Chris Noble, who’s the president of Cause Media Group, and he asked me to start blogging for WhatGives!? and from there the intersection of celebrities, brands and non-profits has become my beat.

Sex and the 405: There’s a lot of discussion in social media about how much of yourself you should be – there’s the school of people that believe that when you use social media you should focus on your topic and not deviate. Darren Rowse, Pro-Blogger, talks about about how if you have different subjects you should have different blogs, different Twitter accounts for your blogs because you want to be consistent and not alienate your audience. But you’re of the school of “let them see your human” and this is something something more like what Marsha Collier espouses – be personable, be reachable, be a human being. You’ve met a little friction because you are young, you are single, and you talk a little bit about some of the things you do and overhear, which is very L.A. So on social media, you’re not just talking about doing good for the planet and society, you’re also talking about dating and how this guy or that guy is a douchebag.

MJR: I’ve run into some people expressing that it’s not the best idea for me to tweet certain romantic or sexy thoughts and occurrences. I don’t kiss and tell – I’m not that forthright, but being a single woman in a big city, meeting people in the entertainment industry, the tech industry, I like sharing that because not all of my followers follow me because of the social action I do. I get the most tweets when I say, “I’ve got a red carpet tonight, hot pink stilettos or thigh-high red boots?” If I can get responses out of that and then tweet about the latest non-profit I’m covering, then I think they’re more inclined to pay attention.

SAT405: Because you’re not just broadcasting, you’re engaging the audience. And they don’t have to know about the industry to opine on what you should wear or do.

MJR: I don’t think people should constantly be marketed to. When I see people just marketing to me on social media, I unfollow them. I understand what they’re doing, marketing is important, but the reason why social media has been successful for certain people and certain brands is because they’ve learned how to humanize it. I don’t want to use the streams just for my work – there are other parts of myself I want to share. If people can get something from that, learn something from anything I have to offer, be it causes, relationships, love, self-evolution, then that’s a contribution, too.

SAT405: Human beings have a hard time as brands because we’re not two-dimensional. To be human is a great risk, because you expose yourself to human error, but that human aspect can make people feel a lot closer to you and this is what engagement hinges on, that perception of closeness.

MJR: I don’t want to always be distributing content about what people should do, donate to this, support this, run this marathon, raise this money. I want to get people involved, but I don’t want to be preachy. I try to tweet something every day about a cause that I am covering, but you need variety to keep things interesting and keep people involved.

SAT405: What inspired you to get involved with causes in the first place?

MJR: The first non-profit I was involved with is called Life Rolls On, founded by Jesse Billauer. I connected with them through a women’s network I had joined while I was working at CNN because I needed to do something to contribute to society other than just talk about movie premieres. I love artists, I love creators, I love to hear about the creative process and being a writer and producer myself, it’s inspiring to be around that kind of energy – so I am not criticizing the entertainment industry, that’s why I’m here. But I was in a place where I needed to do something more than my job.

So I connected with Life Rolls On. Jesse Billauer was one of the top 100 surfers in the world when he was 17, then he had a surfing accident that rendered him quadriplegic. It cost so much money that his family started holding private benefits to keep him healthy. One day he and his brother decided to think bigger than just the family and they founded the Life Rolls On Foundation, to do spine research, and also to help people that may feel blocked, like there are too many obstacles as a result of an accident to continue pursuing their dreams. Jesse is a motivational speaker, he speaks at different companies and at schools to inspire people to keep pursuing their dreams, no matter what obstacles they run into.

He still surfs, he has specially made surfboards for it! They have an event called They Will Surf Again, to get everyone in the community with spinal injuries, recovered and not, in the water on surfboards. It’s not just about raising money for research and building awareness, but it’s about life going on. Let’s keep on living. Seeing that made me more motivated to keep doing what I am doing.

SAT405: How have you pursued your dream?

MJR: The economy went to hell and I started to lose a lot of freelance work. CNN, Associated Press, E! – they were all on hiring freezes and I was losing money. At that time I connected with CauseCast and I was their first writer. While I was in San Francisco, I’d write remotely for them. Because of my connections, I was still getting invited to red carpet events and it so happened a lot of these had causes attached, they were benefits. So I thought to start covering them for CauseCast. Having a celebrity attached doesn’t hurt.

So I started running around with my Flip cam. It wasn’t glamorous. It was all by the seat of my pants. I would find out about, grab the Flip cam and go. I’d be interviewing people on the grass, in the woods, and then I came back to Los Angeles, and was with E! for a bit before the show was canceled and I got laid off. Then I met all these tech nerds.

SAT405: I love that you look at me when you say that.

MJR: We met on Twitter the way everyone should meet. The tech connection helped, there are a lot of start-ups that have some social good attached.

SAT405: You are a nerd now, too, you have a webshow now, Good and Ready.

MJR: Good and Ready focuses on the intersection of celebrities, brands and causes. We’ve done two episodes – we’ve been doing it every month. It’s hard because I have twelve other jobs. We’re looking for a sponsor. Right now we’re focused on getting the production value higher. Eventually we want to sell it to Oprah or to Bravo and be the kind of production where we can travel the world and build wells in Africa with Matt Damon – that kind of hands-on work and coverage.

I try to leverage the celebrity connection and red carpet access as much as possible because that brings eyeballs. If that’s what I have to do, if I have to tweet about my outfit to get people to start engaging, then I am going to do it.

SAT405: Hollywood is your Trojan horse for causes.

MJR: I want to bring more attention to what Hollywood does for non-profits. The one issue with benefits where celebrities come out to support is that because there is so much eye-candy and public figures, the cause gets lost. I want the show to show what they’re doing, not so much their projects, but the social good they’re doing. They do a lot. They get a lot of flack, but they do a lot.


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