Monthly Archives: May 2012

Take Me Back, Please, To My Future

My whole life I wondered at what age it happened – that phenomenon where once cool, hip adults turned into old fuddy-duddies longing for the way things used to be. I know now that 40 is the magic number because I noticed it happening to me a few years ago when I hit that mile marker.

It began subtly. At first, I just found myself completely annoyed with the morning radio shows. The conversations seemed trite, stuff like, “Is it cheating if you are with someone and flirt with someone else in a bar?” Hadn’t we all rehashed this a million times already? I’d switch to NPR just hear something new. Then, on the way home from work, the music seemed too jarring for my tired brain. I’d switch again to NPR for soothing voices reporting the news for the day or the softly inquisitive Terry Gross and her Fresh Air. So, I had become that adult that listens to talk radio instead of music. I also became the adult with a low tolerance for loud music. There are stores in the mall that I stopped going into because the music is too loud. I can hear the dudch, dudch, dudch, coming from the storefront’s faux windows, and I pass by quickly because I can’t take it. I am so out of touch I can’t even tell you the store’s name. I am annoyed when restaurants play music too loud. And I have no desire to see a live band play, unless maybe it’s a small outdoor venue and the audience will be the sort of people who sit in their ticketed seats quietly and listen.

These are the little things that have changed without me really noticing. Then, more recently, I noticed that I started getting really pissed about the way they were bagging my groceries at the checkout. I suddenly cared very much about this and would actually get angry watching them throw my food willy nilly into the bag. Don’t they know that you’ve got to make a square bottom? Square off the bag with aluminum foil, cereal and a box of crackers. Fill in the middle with heavy, but small jars and cans, and then fill in the nooks with fruit and paper goods. Balance the heavy with the light. Put soft stuff on top. Why is that hard? I need my bags to sit squarely on the floor of my hatchback and they won’t do that if you throw yogurts and apples on the bottom. Plus, you’re stabbing my tomatoes with sharp edges. This was the kind of thing that could ruin my good mood. This was clearly an old person’s kind of peeve.

The area in my life where this change is most alarming and depressing to me is in my career. I find myself longing for the 90’s and early 00’s, which of course were just last week in my mind. It was a much simpler time back then in public relations. The media were well defined and still held all the cards. Corporate America was very credible, and being an expert actually meant something. Now, everyone is an expert and instead of reaching out one-to-many, we talk one-on-one or many-to-many. I really wonder whether anyone is saying anything worthwhile and whether they’re even reaching the right people with their worthless message. Loud and frequent doesn’t make it important. The game is so different and I find myself hating it. I long for the days when email made things easier but not less formal. I have lost my compass and my footing in this new paradigm, and I actually find myself wondering whether I can do it anymore. I feel old and set in my ways because I don’t just dislike the new tools and our new way of ugh – engaging – with them, I find myself confused by them, not smart enough for any of it to feel natural to me. That makes me frustrated, just like my dad would get, white-lipped and yelling at me as he watched over my shoulder while I set up his AOL account so many years ago. It got to the point where he and I couldn’t even be in the same room together with a computer. That anger and frustration was there because he was a smart man (a Harvard grad!) who suddenly didn’t understand a business tool. I get it. I am there now. I had been shrugging all these feelings off as something else other than my age. I was blaming the complexity of technology and my scattered motherhood brain, but that wasn’t it.

One day recently at the gym it hit me. First, you have to know that me and the gym go way back. In my twenties, I was a gym fanatic. I worked out six or seven days a week. One hour of cardio, two to three hours lifting weights, two body parts per day. I was a certified aerobics instructor, a weight trainer, and had a subscription to Muscle and Fitness, which I read monthly, cover to cover. I was completely at home in the gym. Marriage, child bearing, then child rearing, reoriented my interests away from the gym and twenty years later here I am, 30 pounds heavier, and a novice in a place where I was once an expert. Do you see a trend?

I was having a free training session, and this trainer, who is about 28 years old, was working me through a series of circuits doing things I had never done before. No cable curls. No lat rows. No Smith Machine or dead lifts. I don’t know the names of anything I did. Twenty years ago, you picked two body parts and did about three sets of four exercises for each part, with a few minutes rest in between to get a drink of water and chit-chat with friends, then go back to your set. This new workout was a full body circuit of yoga moves, cardio and weights all rolled into one. There was no rest. All body parts. New ideas. New tools. It was the damned Hoot Suite of workouts and I didn’t like it one bit.

Yet another familiar beloved thing was stolen from me and replaced with the strange and new. There I was, down on the floor planking with a skateboard thing beneath my feet so I could roll my knees up to my chest and back to strengthen my core, when I realized, I am not bugged because the world around me is changing. I am bugged because I don’t want things to change. And there’s how you arrive at the 40-something fuddy duddy.    

Forever the optimist, I see some good in the aging. I appreciate what I know more. I may not see all the Oscar-nominated movies in the year they came out, or be able to tick of the top five Idol or DWTS finalists, but I know the headlines for the day, I am an informed consumer, and I understand a little bit about what I need for retirement. Things I used to take for granted now seem like small wins to me like when I remember whether this is the week I need to change my contact lenses or whether I turned off the gas grill after dinner. Plus, I have found delight in the little things – like how life changing and wonderful the right sized garbage can can be, or the thrill of a parking spot near the entrance to Costco.

Best of all is, though I may no longer be hip, I no longer care that I am not. I have other fish to fry as they say. Now, please excuse me while I go learn this @#$%^& Hoot Suite thingy so I can still do my job. Sigh.

What Howard Stern Can Teach Us About Corporate Communications

Howard Stern will be back in the lime light soon as a judge on America’s Got Talent. It’s an interesting if not risky move for NBC, since this audience either isn’t familiar with him because they are too young or they just plain aren’t his target demographic (18-34 year-old men I am guessing).When I think of America’s Got Talent viewers, I think of tweens and teens and their parents. So, it will be interesting to see whether he can evolve to attract this new audience or whether his audience will evolve to like the show or perhaps some third scenario where both happen. You remember Howard Stern, right? He’s the man who invented shock jock. In fact, when I think of what makes good content in the social sphere, I think of Howard Stern. Howard was the real before reality was main stream. Setting aside his pornographic, sexist and/or colorful content, Howard is a true pioneer of what we now all call engagement, and he has a lot to teach us about what makes compelling content.

It was at lunch today with colleagues when I brought this up and the fact that he serves as a bit of an inspiration to me as I write my blog. When I got home I flipped through his autobiographical “Private Parts” which he published in 1993 and I have to say, he really was way ahead of his time. Here are some lessons we can all apply today from Howard from 20 years ago. Enjoy!

  1. If you put on a good show, people are going to listen. Content quality over quantity, right? He was frustrated with management’s demand that he make special appearances at lame events all over town, where people didn’t even know him. He was right. Don’t waste your time posting useless info all over every channel. Be great in the one place where your audience is listening to you.
  2. Give the crazies their chance. Leather Weatherlady was a crazy fan who was always taunting Howard. He finally gave in and let her do what she wanted. Guess what happened? She backed off. When naysayers and irrational commenters try to heckle your blog, let them. All they want is to be heard. What they say will reflect worse on them than on you. Let them. You’ll be respected for giving them the air and taking it on the chin.
  3. Make sure everyone who works with you is simpatico. Howard learned this value when he hired Robin, who “got” him, played off him and helped propel him forward. Hire for culture. Get the people with the same set of values working with you and teach the skill set. You can’t teach culture.
  4. When you get that big chance, go all the way. When Howard came to DC for the first time, he decided he wasn’t going to hold back. He knew this was his ticket to NYC and he was going to go big or go home. When you have a big chance, go for it. Go where no one has gone yet. People will follow.
  5. Don’t let management hold you back. Howard really never listened to his managers. he instead tried to help them understand where he was going. And he pushed them, little by little. Educate the C-suite about your strategy. Take baby steps. Push a little bit each day. You’ll get there.
  6. Don’t follow a boring format. One of Howard’s early program directors wanted him to do certain things each day, but he knew he couldn’t be spontaneous and relevant if he was on a schedule. You don’t have to do the same thing the same way every time. Shake it up periodically. It’s more important you are relevant and spontaneous. Just leave everyone a crumb trail so they can follow you.
  7. Just because the research says so, doesn’t mean it’s always true. The station told Howard the research said people didn’t want the disk jockey to take calls between songs. But in reality, the respondents didn’t know what kind of calls Howard was going to take, so how could they judge? Research is helpful, but know its limits.
  8. When your competition is listening to you, even when you do mundane things, don’t let management stop you. One morning, Howard got hungry and decided to eat breakfast on the air for 18 minutes. His boss was livid. She yelled at him that the program director from another station called and told on him. She told him he couldn’t eat breakfast on the air. Howard said, yes, but a competing station’s program director tuned in to me eating breakfast for 18 minutes. Their ratings tripled soon after and his boss got a promotion. Win-win all around. If your competition is listening and following you, don’t change a thing.
  9. Always be yourself. This of course is one of Howard’s best lessons. He never let the management or networks change him. He was always true to himself. I think that’s a big part of why he has such a loyal following. He wouldn’t change for money or fame and in the end, he got them both anyway. Have the courage to be yourself, even if it means walking away from the job.
  10. You can make mistakes and still be a rock star. No one has made more mistakes than Howard Stern. His blunders are legendary and horrific. The plane crash. The miscarriage. The list goes on. Some people never forgave him. But, many did. Why? It gets back to being real, being consistent and being honest. If nothing else, you could count on Howard to always be completely honest. People love that. They crave it. And they will follow him forever for it.

So, find your inner Howard – all the good parts – and rock your platform.

   

You PR People Are Killing Me

Have you noticed how things keep dying lately? Media things, I mean. Like for example, the newspaper. It supposedly died back in 2007 or 2008, because of the Internet. (I however, and many people, continue to read the Wall Street Journal in its original paper form). This was quickly followed by the paperback book (or hard cover). Those apparently died in 2009 or 2010 after the Kindle/Nook products were invented and made the originals obsolete. For Christmas, by the way, I got a Kindle, and, the hard bound 900+ page-novel 1Q84 by my favorite author Murakami. There’s no pride in flipping 900 pages on a Kindle. I must hold the massive tome in my hands and have the satisfaction that comes when the weight of the right side slowly shifts each day to the left. Then I heard that Twitter killed the press release in 2011, though I still use them – press releases – with success. Just last week, I read a blog about an article that said the Internet died, so I am not sure how exactly you are reading and/or commenting on this. Tonight, was the last straw, as I read that the phone interview is now dead. Really? I believe The Fonz has just cleared the shark. We’re done here.

It’s so funny to me, the hoops you leap through in public relations to assure beyond any iota of doubt that what you do is indeed valuable, serious work. You’re like Matt Lauer with this endless campaign, more to yourselves than anyone else, to prove your worth, as trust me, no one is listening. It’s no wonder this campaign never ends. You are your own worst enemy.

First of all, stop it. Me thinks thou doth protesteth too much. You people, with these proclamations of media deaths, are part of the problem we have in PR with credibility. It’s easy to cast the blame. Is it the early adopter/innovator types who are quick to latch on to the new fads, eschewing the old for no good reason? Is it the newcomers to the profession, whether millennials or former journalists, who have no foundation for what we do, and believe foundation to be irrelevant? How about the agency employees, encircled in their own safe, pink bubble of PR, where all their coworkers do what they do and their bosses do what they do and where they sit around the board room talking about how the client just doesn’t understand it, and where a million hits on You Tube is touted as an extraordinarily successful campaign. Maybe they’re to blame. Because if you spend any time inside a non-PR business you will notice that PR is not exactly a foregone conclusion. In fact, many businesses view it as a pretty expensive accessory to other legitimate business functions with very few measurement standards and hardly any ties to business performance. They don’t care about the tool, the platform, the awards, the hits. They care about profits, customer loyalty and competitive edge. Some care about engagement, to use our latest Bingo buzzword, but only to the extent the engagement thing increases profits. In their world, you are only credible if you speak their language and what you offer has direct impact on their goals.

Please. Nothing has died. And certainly not the phone interview. We’re evolving. The addition of tools to the toolbox doesn’t render the old tools inconsequential. We’re still using the arrowheads and machetes of our early days because we need them and they have a place. When you claim a prominent business tool, that the non-PR world, which is most of the rest of the world, is still using with vigor, you are not only not believable, you seem silly. You are the reason we, as an industry, find ourselves in 2011 publically proclaiming our own confusion about what we do with a national call to rewrite the definition of PR, not because we think the world doesn’t know what we do, but horror of all horrors, because we’re suddenly realizing that the people in our same profession don’t know what we do.

Please. You’re like a wall of sand bags trying to hold bag the tsunami that is the rest of the world’s impression of PR and every time you claim some major mainstream tool is dead or passé, because you’ve decided to forsake it for the latest fad, your credibility takes another dip.

For the love of Pete, stop your declarations. And while you’re at it, get off Twitter for a few hours tomorrow and have a face-to-face conversation with someone about something meaningful. Or pick up a book. It’s a paper-like object with a hard cover. You open it with your hands and turn the pages with your fingers. Enjoy!

A New Consultant’s Confession

There’s a great new commercial out there for “all natural” cold cuts and hot dogs (yeah, don’t get me started there) where a husband asks his wife if he can quit his job to write a blog and without missing a beat she barks an emphatic no. I laughed when I first saw this, because I feel like that’s a little bit what I’ve done. I didn’t exactly quit my job to write this blog, but I did quit the rat race to go in to business for myself earlier this year, and I do now happen to have time, and therefore, desire and inspiration, to occasionally blog.

I’ve got to tell you, my only regret is not doing this sooner. Besides having the time and energy for the creative outlet for a blog, I also happen to have the freedom and energy to go to a gym now, when I want to. I also have the freedom to choose my clients, how to do the work, when to do the work and where to do the work. I was actually coming home from the gym when I took a work-related call. I can almost see the nodding heads of my independently working colleagues who figured this all out before I did, and who have been enjoying this freedom for years. They all know what I am talking about: PJs until noon (or longer if it’s cold and rainy out). Laptop actually on your lap, while watching tv, sitting at the beach or waiting for your car to get fixed, and that amazing feeling of detachment from clients. Yes, it’s not just the physical liberation, it’s the mental liberation. I am not saying you don’t care. Of course you care. You are there for them – for anything they need, at any time. But you no longer bleed, sweat or cry for them the way you did when they were your employer. Yes, I cried. Stress is no longer an accessory I wear or a house guest I cater to. It’s gone.

The decision to leave a job is tough when you have somewhere to go. But to leave when I had no prospects for work, no savings, and a family of four to support (and a new used car, btw)? You’d have thought I was crazy. But, sometimes you jump out of a burning building to your certain death below because you just believe in every fiber that it will be better than your current situation. I never thought I’d go out on my own. I can’t believe it now, but I actually thought it would be more stressful. But I got to a point where that unknown out the window was better and more appealing to me than the shit storm I was experiencing where I was. So I leapt out and it’s been the best decision.

For example, today, I worked from 9 to 11:30, then went to the gym, then worked from 1:30 to 2:30, then walked to school to pick up my kid(!), then walked home, then worked from 3:00 to 4:30 and was out back chillin’ with my neighbors until dinner, which I made. Did I mention I love making dinner now that I have the time to actually make something, rather than merely prep something? Then, kids to bed, clean up, and a little more work in front of the tube from 8:00 to 9:00 pm. That’s a six hour day of real work, with no interruptions from Bob in accounting and no water cooler drama. Six productive hours, which is likely more than I used to get in an average 8-hour day, without any time in the car fighting traffic, except to go to the gym.

So, what’s your point, Sam? I could say my point is that life is short, take advantage of every opportunity, take risks, blah, blah, blah. But that’s not true to me. My point is life is long. Damn it’s so long. Why not change it up and take some risks because it’s long? What else are you going to do? I remember thinking, how long am I going to keep doing this? Is this it? I’ve got as much time left in my career as I have behind me, this can’t be what I do for another 20 to 25 years! I was going through the motions because I was afraid of what I didn’t know or what else was out there. And, I think I felt safe. I felt so safe, that I started to die of safe. I didn’t even feel that I was good at my job anymore and I knew I had to take action or else I was at risk of one day having a pretty boring storyline to tell my grandkids from the rocker.

I am glad I leapt. I don’t know how long this will last or whether I’ll ever have to – or want to- rejoin the race, but I don’t worry about it now. There’s plenty of time for that later.      

JC Pullease!

So, hopefully, you are starting to see that my thing is to poke fun at companies. I will also poke fun at government and nonprofits from time to time, so don’t worry. I just think that being smart, real and honest in business is not rocket science and yet every day hundreds of new failures in this attenpt emerge. Some, more subtle than others. Not this one.

Have you been keeping track of JC Penny? Yeah, they’re JCP now. Started this whole campaign right before Christmas with these horrible ads of people screaming. It took me a few times watching them with the sound down before I understood it, but they were apparently screaming because the stuff they just purchased was now on sale for less and they missed it. JCP said, never again. No more special sales, couponing, or “this-day-onlys.” From now on, JCP exclaimed, you’ll get the lowest price for everything, every day and that’s “fair and square,” their new tag line, which matches they’re uncreative, new square logo.

The incredibly disjointed and relentless campaign continued on TV, radio, and, I noticed, on Slacker Radio on my Blackberry. A whole series of ads from the screaming housewives, to Ellen Degeneres, to some kitchy, 1960’s seasons montage, to circus references and who knows what else, all in exclamation that they would no longer subject us all to the tortuous and disingenuous practice of the sale, coupon or special offer. Okay, good for them. Profits are down, future’s dim, seems like a great fresh way to reinvigorate interest, sales and trust in a new and improved brand. I applauded JCP. Good for you I thought – taking a risk to set yourselves a part from the pack. If only more companies would do this I thought. Only, JCP actually didn’t.

Their latest series of ads have revealed their true selves with their introduction to their special 1st and 3rd Fridays. They’re calling them, their “best price” Fridays. Where they bring in new stock and give old stock their “best price” to move them out. Um. Really? How is this different from a sale or a “this-day-only” that they promised they would never do again? You lied JCP. You didn’t really change or take a risk. You cleverly taunted us with a package of ideas that seemed really new for retail, and you literally screamed it at us on TV. But, we see now that you’re still like all the others.  You are still square, old JC Penny’s in your square, retail box of ideas. At least they got the new logo right.

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