Legislature Considers Options on Short-Term Rentals

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By Vice President Lindsay Toghill

There are many challenges for state government as new technologies become incorporated into everyday life. Last session, the Massachusetts Legislature came to an agreement on regulation of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft after ongoing concerns about public safety.  This session, the issue of Short Term Rentals (STR) like Airbnb has become a significant priority for the Legislature as it considers lost lodging revenue and public health and safety.

The discussion has been complicated by competing interests and proposals. Governor Charlie Baker made it very clear that he is interested in addressing the issue this session by including regulation and taxation in both his Fiscal Year 2018 and 2019 budget proposals. While these inclusions do not have the force of a stand-alone bill, his interest has not gone unnoticed in the Legislature.

The House of Representatives passed a bill in late March that took an expansive view on regulation and taxation of this new industry. The bill creates a tiered taxation structure based upon the number of days and type of lodging offered, as well as requirements for a state registry and enhanced public health and safety measures. It also allows expanded municipal oversight and regulation, as well as enhanced insurance requirements for each rental unit.

The just-released Senate response contains many earlier themes with a significant focus on the potential revenue possible if STR units were taxed in the same manner and rates as conventional hotels. This bill, redrafted by the Senate Ways and Means committee looks at the benefit of expanding taxation on STR transactions as well as various online resellers such as Hotels.com and the conventional realtor industry.  By offering a very lean bill, the Senate allows for expansion of online technology in the tourism industry, while most notably allowing municipalities to regulate short-term rentals according to the specific needs and interests of their community. This bill was considered by the full Senate on Wednesday, April 4th.

It is expected that the two bills will be considered and combined into a final version by a legislative Conference Committee before the de-facto end of the legislative session on July 31. With much at stake in this new industry and in our communities, this issue will likely set the tone for future disruptive technologies in Massachusetts.

Facebook’s Data Breach Raises Concerns in the Digital Media World

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

Last year Facebook measured 240 million monthly active users in the US, each of whom provided the tech giant with a trove personal information scattered through cookies, tracking pixels, status updates, GPS check-ins,  and other widely employed data-harvesting methods. Of that 240 million, few probably stopped to think about where their data was being was being stored, who had access to it, and how it might be used. Now, that lack of transparency is causing major headaches at Facebook HQ.

Facebook was recently confronted with allegations that social media monitoring firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of 50 million of its users. Cambridge Analytica then used the data on behalf of the Trump campaign to create targeted political ads and media campaigns in the 2016 presidential election. Users, largely unaware that this data was being collected, let alone utilized, now contend their privacy was violated.

Facebook responded to the reports and denied a data breach, saying it gave permission to Aleksandr Kogan, a professor at the University of Cambridge, to gain information from users who took his personality test via an app: “thisisyourdigitallife.” Though Kogan was allowed to access the information, sharing it with Cambridge Analytica for commercial purposes crossed a line.

This latest scandal has sparked discussion over whether targeted political ads with a skeptical relationship with the truth have reached the point of interference with the principles of democracy. When Internet users see ads on social media, the ads are unique to their browsing history and tailored to their likes, dislikes, and a myriad of other data points collected by Facebook. The ad content is strategically positioned to persuade users, sometimes including biased political sentiments and misinformation that represents a user or group of users’ world view rather than objective fact. In this way Cambridge Analytica was able to influence users’ voting attitudes with personal data they had acquired.

The news of this data breach has reached lawmakers on a state and federal level. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy recently said her office will conduct an investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Last week, top Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee–Senators John Thune (R-SD), Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Jerry Moran (R-KS)–stated  Mark Zuckerberg needed to testify. Additionally, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner (D-VA),  tried to reinforce their Honest Ads Act legislation, which aims to hold tech companies to the same political ad transparency standards as radio, TV and print outlets.

The investigations, hearings, and legislation that come out of this data breach must be watched closely. Much of the internet is still seen as a digital ‘Wild West’ with few regulations and a lot of digital marketing is still largely misunderstood. As people begin to take a closer look at what goes on behind the newsfeed, the next couple of weeks will be pivotal for determining the future of social media and digital marketing as a whole.

Image provided by Chesnot / Getty Images

CEO Thomas P. O’Neill III on Gun Control

 

Since Sandy Hook, classroom doors are always supposed to be locked in my school. Since Sandy Hook, students are not supposed to let visitors into the school in case of hidden threats. I was 13 then; I’m 18 now. This was my childhood. But did it have to be? #GunControlNow

9:18 PM – 15 Feb 2018

There were heartbreaking messages from inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, on Valentine’s Day of all days. The tweet above isn’t one of them. It’s from a Boston area high school student lucky enough to have never experienced the need to hide in a closet or under a desk, or to text her friends and family her good byes.

During my school years in the ’50s and early ’60s we practiced drills. Tensions from the Cold War spurred the federal government to launch a nationwide campaign to inform the citizenry of the dangers of nuclear war. Schoolchildren across the United States were taught to “duck and cover” by a cartoon animal named Bert the Turtle who was very alert and hid in his shell as firecrackers exploded above him. To be honest, we became numb to the training. The threat was real, but amorphous, beyond our control. So we ducked, we covered, we paid attention to where the familiar yellow and black Fallout Shelter signs were. The nuclear threat was real, thankfully the missiles never came.
The threat that today’s schoolchildren prepare for is real, and they know it. I can’t imagine what goes through kids’ minds as they train to use desks as bunkers, to hold text books in front of their faces, to stay silent while armed killers roam their familiar hallways.Younger students are told lies so that the reality of the training isn’t so scary. They’re given imaginary explanations for the exercises, so they don’t get scared. I wonder if the student tweeting above was aware at 13 of the stakes of this training-life or death. And I wonder what she thinks at 18, cellphone in hand, the world’s news at her fingertips, the videos from inside Stoneman Douglas live on her Twitter feed.

The threat in the ’50s was from beyond our borders. The geopolitics that followed World War II seemed intractable and beyond our reach. The threat today is from within. We’re training American school kids to protect themselves from their peers. This is the school experience of an entire generation of Americans.

Instead of a national campaign against this threat, too many in Congress have done what we’re training our kids to do – hide under their desks and stay silent. Too many put the demands of the NRA before the safety of our children.

What the federal government has been unable to do, some states are doing. Massachusetts banned assault weapons nearly two decades ago. Following the Las Vegas shooting, the Commonwealth banned bump-stocks. It’s simply common sense. Last week, Massachusetts joined the states of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut as part of a multi-state effort to share information and reduce gun violence. This takes strong leadership. The Massachusetts Legislature, under the indefatigable efforts of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, has boldly moved to strengthen the Commonwealth’s gun laws. In addition, Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey give thoughtful and consistent leadership on the national stage. Still, as important as these efforts are, they cannot be substitutes for a comprehensive federal effort.


In his inaugural address John F. Kennedy spoke of a generation then coming to power that was “disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” This generation of students has been raised and disciplined amidst the bitter reality of mass shootings and government’s inaction in response. This generation of students is coming of age and registering to vote. They are accessing the power of assembly and will hold the March for Our Lives on March 24 in Washington, D.C., with sister marches in Boston, New York and dozens of other cities. These students know the answer to the question that began this letter, “Did it have to be?” To paraphrase President Kennedy, let’s do everything in our power to support them to “go forth to lead the land we love.” Godspeed.
Sincerely,
Tom

What is a Bot? An Inside Look Behind Their Twitter Takeover

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By: Account Coordinator Brook O’Meara-Sayen 

Since the 2016 presidential election, a news cycle barely goes by without at least a cursory mention of ‘bots.’ As Robert Mueller’s Special Council investigation continues to move  forward, it has become increasingly apparent that Russian state agents utilized ‘bots’ to successfully sow dissent during our this past election. These bots are Twitter Bots, Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered Twitter accounts impersonating humans.

Twitter now estimates more than 50,000 such bots crafted in Russia were utilized by the shadowy Internet Research Agency to sow discord in our electoral process. They worked, in large part, because real Twitter users often could not discern these accounts had no human at the keyboard. Orchestrated use of bots led to online ‘movements’ and promoted divisive hashtags.

O’Neill Now is starting a new series on bots on our blog, discussing how and why they can be used, but first we need to understand what a bot is.

At the core, Twitter bots are an extremely simple concept. A bot is a piece of code or a computer program that controls a Twitter account and posts without human supervision. They can be used for a myriad of things, such as auto-creating Venn Diagrams, or sorting the pixels of images to create art. Most of the time Twitter bots are completely harmless and were created to serve a specific function. These accounts are easily identifiable and many even acknowledge their lack of a soul in the bio. They are, in essence, tools with a public facing function–and Twitter gives them the platform they require to serve the people who need their service.

As AI has risen to prominence, it was only a matter of time before someone married the two concepts, either for a legitimate goal–like automating customer service complaints–or an illegitimate one–like, say, promoting a negative hashtag about a competitor. The marriage of AI and Twitter Bots resulted in a child called SocialBots.

SocialBots bots are supposed to act like humans, posting at random times, “sleeping,” talking about mundane behaviors, etc. A SocialBot might even have a database of “human things” which will allow it to tweet about how annoying it is to do laundry, even though it’s just a few lines of code. But their ability to masquerade as a human and influence public sentiment is what makes them controversial.

So, why can a bot move public sentiment on a topic when a real person can’t? A bot can be copied again and again without limits. Together these bots can tweet the same news story and hashtag simultaneously. They can trick a target audience into believing these tweets are 50,000 people and not 50,000 lines of code.

This adds a layer of uncertainty to the social media giant: is that trending topic trending because people care about it, or does one guy with an army of bots care about it? Does my favorite politician/actor/writer/entrepreneur really have that many followers or are half of them bots created to boost their numbers?

In later installments we’ll discuss how to spot a bot, how to make one, and specific instances when bots made a difference online.

Update on the Massachusetts Cannabis Regulatory Scene

 

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By Vice President Christopher Niles

After a week of debate and compromise, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) is poised to vote to adopt final regulations this week that will govern the recreational cannabis market in the Commonwealth. While the CCC approved parameters for a robust industry, they did vote to delay controversial provisions included by the CCC in earlier versions of the regulations that would have allowed delivery services and “social consumption” businesses that would also sell cannabis (e.g. cafes, movie theatres and yoga studios). As part of the compromise CCC committed to revisiting these issues in October and to provide those licenses to populations disproportionately impacted by the “war on drugs.”

Access to the substantial capital needed to operate a cannabis business and the ability to complete many financial transactions remain a significant problem. The rescission of the Cole memorandum that provided some safe harbor for state initiatives by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, coupled by comments by US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, have limited the ability of cannabis businesses to bank and in some cases complete debit card transactions. The banking pinch is concerning enough that CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman recently floated the idea of a state supported bank for cannabis businesses. While likely not an immediate option for consideration, it speaks to the limitations that these companies will have to work around in the near term.

More on the recent CCC actions can be found here.

The CCC has navigated a complex set of issues and the licensing process appears on track to meet the July 1stdeadline, establishing a competitive market that some estimates believe to reach $1 billion by 2020. However, significant operational challenges remain for businesses to be up and running by July 1st, and the potential conversion of the 22 existing medical marijuana dispensaries to also offer recreational sales on July 1st will put a strain on supply. To that end, the CCC mandated that medical cannabis dispensaries must retain 30% of their supply for medical patients.

With clear guidelines from the CCC nearly in place, attention will begin to shift to the local level as businesses work to locate in municipalities across the Commonwealth, moratoriums, zoning and host community agreements will have to be addressed and overcome as the cannabis industry attempts to integrate into our social and economic landscape.

O’Neill and Associates has successfully assisted cannabis businesses since the medical cannabis law was approved by voters. For more on our capabilities or questions around this issue please contact us.

Three questions with John Cahill, Vice Chairman, Federal Relations

webres_120403_oneill_johncahill-0108In the State of the Union, President Trump called for “at least 1.5 trillion in investment.” Is there a path forward for his plan?

The framework of an infrastructure plan was shared in the media a few weeks ago and the reaction to it was quite reserved on both sides of the aisle. Historically, infrastructure is one area that gets bipartisan support, but that will prove difficult in the current political environment. The framework would leverage $200 billion in direct federal dollars over 10 years with the remainder of the $1 trillion plus investment coming from states, municipalities, and the private sector. In practical terms, most Congressional authorizations don’t extend 10 years. Furthermore, most cities and states don’t have these extra dollars available. Mayors and Governors would have to raise tolls or other fees to find the revenue. Rural states with smaller populations and fewer users of highways or transit systems would be disproportionally affected. The formula doesn’t really make sense in its current form – what governor is going to raise fees in order to get a smaller share of federal infrastructure dollars? We will be monitoring the Committees and Subcommittees as they work to craft actual legislation. With 2018 being an election year and so much partisanship around federal spending already, it’s difficult to see a comprehensive infrastructure package moving forward.

We are quickly approaching the next deadline to fund the government. Will we have another shutdown?

The upcoming deadline to reach a new deal to keep the government open is February 8. There is increasing talk of another stopgap measure that would fund the government for another 30 days – and the possibility that this one-month-at-a-time plan may be what the Republicans continue to do going forward. There’s discord over this within the Republican majority, however. Freedom Caucus members want more on the table to strengthen budget caps and restrict immigration. Another shutdown is possible, but it’s more likely that we will see a short term deal instead. Another factor is the impact of tax reform on the debt ceiling. The revenue shortfall will likely require action to raise the debt ceiling in addition to finding agreement on a Continuing Resolution.

There’s talk of the House of Representatives possibly restoring the practice of earmarks. What’s happening here?

Recently there’s been a flurry of comments and activity on whether it’s time to bring back earmarks or Member-directed spending. The House eliminated earmarks in 2011 following several instances of excesses and political pressure to reduce federal spending. Some believe that the elimination of earmarks contributed greatly to partisan divide as Members were no longer compelled to make deals with one another in order to secure funding for projects in their districts. It’s too soon to tell what will happen, but we expect that the possible return of earmarks will get serious consideration before the November elections. Even so, the outcome is uncertain.

February is National Heart Health Month: Medical Device Company Abiomed is Recovering Hearts and Saving Lives

Abiomed LogoFebruary is National Heart Health Month and Massachusetts-based Abiomed is transforming the lives of tens of thousands of patients in the U.S. and around the world with its breakthrough technology: the world’s smallest heart pump, called the Impella.

Smaller than the width of a pencil, the Impella can be inserted through the leg and assists the pumping function of the heart during cardiac procedures so that it can rest and recover. Abiomed is the only company with FDA approval for heart recovery – helping some patients heal their hearts and avoid the need for a transplant.

Abiomed is also one of the fastest growing medical device companies in the world and is proud to call Massachusetts home. Last year, the company completed a major 120,000 square foot expansion of its global headquarters in Danvers, Massachusetts. The new space doubles the size of its global headquarters and provides additional research and manufacturing capabilities, as well as the new Heart Recovery Institute for clinical education. Abiomed is bringing physicians from around the world and U.S. to train in the new field of heart recovery.

Abiomed has supported more than 65,000 patients in the U.S. with the Impella® platform, which is FDA approved as safe and effective to treat patients in cardiogenic, right side heart failure, or during high-risk procedures.

Throughout the month, Abiomed will be hosting Heart Recovery Reunions across the U.S., which are events that bring together patients with the physicians, nurses, and hospital staff who treated them and contributed to their heart recovery.

Stay tuned later this month for more updates on Abiomed!

Facebook Unveils a New Era for the News Feed

We’ve already had a ‘snowmageddon’ this year, and a short-lived ‘government shutdownageddon’, but now–with Facebook’s proposed News Feed changes–get ready for the ‘Facebookageddon’.

It is safe to say Facebook had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year in 2017. The company was compelled to testify before Congress about the impact of ads purchased by Russian troll groups intended to sow discord during the 2016 election. It also come under fire over the way they handle ‘fake news’ and what they do about ‘offensive content’. To combat these sticking points Facebook hired thousands of new moderators, and recently rolled out a new system to combat the spread of false news stories from fringe websites. Watching the drama unfold over the last 12 months, it became increasing clear to us that a sea change was in the making over at Facebook. It wasn’t just us: the warning signs were there, and a lot of marketers and paid social advertisers were preparing for the worst.

On January 11th the tides did indeed change at Facebook headquarters as the company unveiled a new era for News Feed. Citing a need to deliver content that “facilitates meaningful social interactions,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the platform would start scoring content from brands and publishers differently. Originally–as we explained in a previous post–Facebook ranked content based on metrics like clicks, comments, likes, shares, and relevance. While that original algorithm has certainly changed over the years–limiting things like text-heavy posts and images–the new update stands as a major step forward in the way they’ve been treating different kinds of content in the News Feed over the last couple of years.

The social media giant announced it will continue to move away from branded content while putting an ever-greater emphasis on posts from family, friends, and other ‘real people’ you’ve interacted with. Facebook hopes that bringing an end to the age of publisher content will offer a much needed boost to the social networking site, but is keenly aware of the damage it will do in the short term. In a statement released on the site, Zuckerberg admitted that he was aware of the negatives, saying “the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down,” but offering that he expects that time spent on Facebook will be more valuable as a result. Essentially, Facebook is continuing their pivot from quantity to quality, which means much of the content you currently see on your News Feed from outside sources—videos, promotions, and ‘engagement-bait’ posts from publishers—are about to be a much less integral part of your feed.

So what does this mean for businesses, brands, and marketers? Here’s a rundown of what those changes mean to content creators, and how to navigate this digital end times:

The first thing to keep in mind as a publisher or advertiser on Facebook is that no, your career is not over. Things are changing, but keep in mind that Facebook is still the one of the most powerful and influential digital marketing tools out there.

One of the main concerns about Facebook’s new changes is the way it will impact the organic reach of posts created by publishers. Organic reach is how many people naturally see your post in their news feed, and for digital content creators it’s somewhat of the holy grail of content. When someone sees a post organically there is no ‘sponsored’ disclaimer, and the post is integrated into a user’s timeline in the same way posts from friends are. The prospect of organic reach disappearing for published pages is certainly a concern, but if you’ve been in the Facebook marketing game for a while you know organic reach has been in decline for years, as this handy graph explains.

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Facebook acknowledged this specifically, saying in their announcement that “Pages may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease.” This isn’t what you want to hear if you’re a publisher, but have hope: not all is lost. Just because organic reach is about to hit all-time lows doesn’t mean you have to give up on Facebook, but you will have to pivot to advertising through the platform.

Boost Posts

One of the biggest recommendations we can offer going forward is the strategic use of the ‘Boost Post’ option. Since the Facebook changes aim to foster quality discussion between real people, engagement is key to a successful post. So, to utilize the post boosting you’ll first want to push out some content and monitor which pieces and formats of content audiences engage with best. Pick your most successful post—the one with the most amount of likes, comments, and shares—and put some money behind it. Facebook will then serve it to users, but because it already had some engagement Facebook will prioritize it because it’s proven to be quality content already.

Facebook Live

If you’ve been on Facebook in the past couple of years you know that video is everywhere. Facebook’s algorithm loves video because audiences respond better to video than any other content medium. Videos also keep users on the site longer because they stop scrolling to watch interesting content, and are more likely to click on related video content. We expect this to change in the new update. Video will still be there, but it won’t be the omnipresent force it has been for the last few years, meaning you can expect drops in views and engagement, even if you’re pushing out awesome videos. One area will probably still be a winner is Facebook Live. Facebook Live drives six times as much engagement as edited video, and users watch live videos three times longer than regular ones.  You can use this to your advantage by using Live for things you usually wouldn’t: live stream your podcast, major announcements, everyday office activities (behind-the scenes), answer questions, talk about breaking news, or anything else you feel could be interesting live. Again, boring content probably won’t drive engagement here, but it can be a great way to get some organic reach if you’ve got something good to say.

Groups

The new update is about fostering meaningful discussion between real users, and Facebook’s Groups boast a high engagement rate because the whole point of Groups is to get like-minded people talking to each other. If you’re already part of some groups you might notice you see more ‘group posts’ than you do posts from Pages you like, and the more comments and likes the post has, the higher it gets ranked. As engagement plummets on publisher pages it might be worth it to create a group for your company, product, or even just a community group for people interested in whatever subject your page is about. If you already have a robust page with regular interaction you’ll definitely want to consider this route—you can channel people from your page to your group, then use that group to post content similar to that of your page, but with a focus on fostering constructive discussions between real people. Once they start talking your engagement will rise and Facebook will begin to place your group posts organically into feeds.

Ads

Just because the News Feed is changing doesn’t mean the ads are. Facebook still has the most robust ad interface in the game, and properly created Facebook ads are still going to be incredibly efficient tools to get yourself or your brand out there. Ad prices are likely to rise with the new algorithm changes, which means it’s more important than ever to use best practices when creating ads. Use short, punchy copy and arresting, low-text graphics. Video ads are always great, but they need to be professionally made. However, even the most beautiful Facebook ad can underperform if it isn’t shown the right people. Audience segments and custom audience lists will become paramount to success. Increased ad prices mean it becomes imperative that you’re serving your content ONLY to segments that are interested in your product. You won’t be selling fidget spinners to nursing home residents, and you won’t get many middle schoolers to sign up for life insurance, so keep in mind exactly who your audience or customers are.

Instagram

Facebook owns Instagram, but they’re different platforms. Instagram has the potential to be a powerful marketing resource once you clear a few hurdles. First, you need really nice looking pictures—if you’re selling a product some iPhone pictures won’t cut it. Consider videos of the product being made, the product in action, and strategic partnerships with trending pages and Instagram thought leaders. The proper use of hashtags can also be a significant boon and can boost views and engagement—much more so than Facebook.

Final Thoughts

While this update certainly isn’t designed to help digital marketers or companies hoping to utilize the immensely powerful tech giant to sell products, the term “Facebookageddon” isn’t completely accurate. Yes, publishers will have to adjust, innovate, branch out to other platforms, and compensate for the loss of organic reach—but all is not lost. Do not abandon ship. Remember, Facebook is still by far the largest social networking site ever, and is still home to active discussion groups, two billion monthly active users, and an incredibly robust advertisement infrastructure. Tactics will have to change, but this is by no means the end of Pages, publisher content, or advertising on Facebook. Have questions? Reach out to us and we can help.

 

Welcome Spring 2018 Interns

This spring, we are proud to welcome eleven undergraduate students from Boston College, Boston University, Emmanuel College, Endicott College and Suffolk University. Throughout the semester, these students work closely with specially paired mentors in order to gain first-hand experience into the world of public relations, government relations and marketing. Our interns will become immersed in the public affairs world and will build lasting relationships that will help guide them as they embark on their careers.

Spring 2018 Interns

O’Neill and Associates sends our condolences to the family and friends of Carol Troxell, President of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace Merchants Association who passed away today.

O’Neill and Associates sends our condolences to the family and friends of Carol Troxell, President of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace Merchants Association who passed away today.  Carol was not only a client, but also a friend who worked tirelessly for the Faneuil Hall Marketplace merchants. Carol was instrumental in putting Faneuil Hall Marketplace on the map as a “must do/must see” holiday destination as she helped to conceive “Blink”, the show that featured the region’s largest Christmas Tree (always 85 feet or taller!) with a synchronized light and sound show that attracted thousands of visitors from near and far.

Carol always wanted to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate and she made a big impact through the nonprofit, Pitching in for Kids, that she founded with her business partner Sara Youngelson. Pitching in For Kids provides specifically earmarked grants designed to improve the lives of children across the New England region through sports-related fundraising events and programs.

Carol was committed to helping others in many ways, through her businesses, through her philanthropic work, and through her faith. She will be missed.

CT