From 8 to 81

The changes in technology over the lifespan of one man are incredible. What will happen in the next 80 years?

Yesterday we celebrated my son’s 8th birthday and my dad’s 81st.  That it also was Thanksgiving Day was appropriate, since we’re so thankful for both! Jack and dad represent the opposite ends of the spectrum in many ways, one growing up in the middle of the last century, the other a product of the 2000’s. 

Jack
Jack

The way Jack learns and plays and sees the world is vastly different than my dad, who grew up in the Netherlands during the Great Depression and WWII.  Jack got a Nintendo DS Lite for his birthday and travelled more than 250 miles to visit relatives in Wisconsin. My dad’s birthday gifts were quite simple, I”m sure, and I am guessing he never traveled a hundred miles from his home until he joined the army after the war in the late ’40s.  Jack’s a bright kid who will likely finish college 15 years from now, while my dad basically finished elementary school.

It’s hard to imagine what challenges Jack will need to overcome in his lifetime, or how well prepared he will be for those tests. My dad, meanwhile, made it through a depression where his dad put food on the table that he grew himself or earned by making wooden shoes. Yes, really.  He made it through a great war that literally rolled over his family’s farm — the Germans chopped down their young orchard to camouflage the guns trying to hold back allied advances.  He and his brothers and sister sold the farm and everything on it to fund their ocean voyage to Canada.  He became a carpenter by learning the craft on his own, often through trial and error.

What will Jack do with his life? With the best education and technology, with a “recession” that hasn’t really made him feel hungry or deprived in any way.  With no great conflict rolling over his dad’s backyard. With the ability to connect to people and cultures across the world from a laptop on the dining room table. With the ability to have a dialog that creates understanding and maybe even prevent wars like the one my dad saw as an adolescent from ground zero.

Dad and Frances
Dad and Frances

Last year my dad remarried. My mom passed away five years ago and, after receiving a heart valve transplant and a new lease on life, my dad was looking for someone to share his life with.  So was Frances.  In years past, they never would have connected, since he lives in Ontario, Canada, and she was living in Washington State. Techonology didn’t leave my dad behind because he learned to use it. Despite limited keyboard skills, he was able to communicate via social media with a woman a couple thousand miles away and, eventually, meet and get married.

So, my dad didn’t entirely miss out on the wonders of the connected age.  Today, he and Frances can check up on their children and grandchildren hundreds of miles away. What will Jack be able to do when he is 81? What kind of technology will exist to allow him to be connected and engaged in the lives of others?

Do what you love

Do what you love, and be true to who you are. And other stuff about PR.

Last night I spoke to a class of marketing seniors at Davenport University, some of whom are considering a career in Public Relations.  I shared some advice as they start their careers (below), and I shared some of my experiences over the past 20+ years, including decisions I made that led me to a career in PR.  Because, frankly, when I was their age I didn’t even know what PR was.

I decided to study journalism at a community college near my hometown after high school because my top university choice didn’t accept my application on the first try. Thanks Queen’s.  I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life anyway, and my mom had MS and was confined to a wheelchair, and I didn’t want to leave my dad with the sole responsibility of her care.  So, instead of going to my second or third choice universities, both of which had accepted me, I went to Loyalist College which, like other community colleges in Canada, was very focused on providing career training.  The only program that sounded appealing to me was Print Journalism, which prepared students for a career as a two-way (editorial and photography) community journalist.

I loved it. I liked telling stories through words and pictures. I loved the art and science behind good page design. I loved working in the dark room and at the big Olivetti typewriter — the kind you needed muscular fingers and a lot of enthusiasm to manipulate well.  I loved being a reporter for the school paper and for my internships but, upon graduation, I did not immediately go to work. My girlfriend decided to go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I followed.

She and I didn’t last. But I did meet the beautiful girl who would become my wife and I did obtain my B.A. in English.  And I did get a job as a reporter several months after I graduated. The Grand Rapids Business Journal wasn’t a big publication, but that probably was a good thing for me.  I got to cover stories and conduct interviews I never would have been assigned had I worked at a larger publication.  The pay wasn’t good, but I really liked what I was doing.

As newlyweds sometimes do, we had a child, and “I really liked what I was doing” no longer was enough. When the PR sirens came singing, I boldly took the plunge. Even though I hadn’t studied PR (few had, at that point), I knew it involved writing and that it still was part of the reporting process.  Journalists called it “selling out” and, well, that’s how I felt about it too.  But there were bills to pay.

What I came to discover, however, was that PR was indeed an honorable, respectable profession that includes a responsibility to the public good. PR certainly has some image problems of its own, brought on by some practioners within its own ranks. It’s one of the reasons I am such a big fan of PRSA — the Public Relations Society of America.  The PRSA educates on best practices and advocates for ethical behaviors and awards Accreditation in Public Relations to its top practitioners.   What I learned about being a PR practitioner came from working with excellent professionals at Amway and through PRSA involvement. Next week when the West Michigan PRSA chapter board meets I assume my new role as 2010 President. I also served as WMPRSA President back in 2003.

My advice to the students? First of all, I told them if they weren’t passionate about PR, they shouldn’t do it.  Lack of passion is a dead-end street in the PR profession. Besides, who wants to do a job for the rest of their lives that they are not passionate about? I want to love what I do, and do what I love.

Next, I told them to write. Write for paying clients. Write for non-paying clients. Write for fictional clients. But if you’re not writing in this profession, you won’t get far.  The PR professional won’t ever reach campaign planning status if they cannot write persuasively.

And I told them to be true. I told them that Honest, Open, Transparent communications are critical to the reputation of a firm. Dishonesty is eventually discovered and reputation is destroyed.  Avoiding the tough conversations about your business destroys trust. Selectively sharing only the facts that you believe place you in the best light is an invitation for your critics to share the facts you’re avoiding. Outing yourself on difficult information is always better than being outed by someone else.

To the students at Davenport, and at Calvin, and Grand Valley State University and Loyalist College and Queen’s University, at Harvard College and Grand Rapids Community College — do what you love, and be true.

GEQEZNANXN9P

aimWest, young man

aimWest ConFab was chocolaty social media goodness through and through.

Yesterday was the 1st Annual aimWest Social Media ConFab, featuring keynote Laura Fitton, aka @Pistachio in Twitter, who co-authored Twitter for Dummies. Like many, Laura thought Twitter was kind of dumb when it first came out.  I know I also blogged about it a few years ago, questioning its value. Laura gave it a chance (as did I, eventually) and immediately saw her leads increase.

There’s a great Grand Rapids Press story about the conference today, and #aimWest was a top-1o trending topic yesterday as conference attendees twitted their thumbs away. Congratulations to aimWest for pulling together such a great event!

I was a panelist for a morning session on social media boosting productivity and collaboration in the workplace.  With me on the panel were Melissa Chiaramonti of Meijer (@mgenta on twitter) and Harrison Withers of Media 1. 

I talked a little about my experience within Amway and use of sharepoint sites and the like.  For teams, sharepoints and wikis can be great, but it requires full participation in order to be truly successful.  Key voices missing from the conversation might result in a flawed collaboration.  My “Beatles Social Media” example was that, if that four-person team had made collaborative decisions via social media, the outcomes resulting from dialog that only involved George and Ringo probably wouldn’t have made the band the success it became.  John and Paul’s inputs were necessary for the true success they eventually achieved, not to mention the voices of others such as their manager and their producer.

My main point, I think, was that organizations need to get intentional about their use of social media internally, just as many already are for external audiences. Within the company, people already are using social media tools but there’s little measurement occurring to determine if it’s effective — largely because most companies don’t even know it’s happening to the extent that it is.  Rather than having social media “just happen,” I think an organization will reap more benefits by planning and supporting the social media tools internally.

Melissa and Harrison — both of whom are true experts on this topic — really brought great ideas of what to do and how to do it to the audience.  While they were talking, I was scanning the #aimWest tweets on my laptop. It was almost like I could see thought bubbles rising above the heads of people in the audience, and it led to some of the questions we addressed as a panel.

I went to the social media “slam” session after that, where attendees shared experiences and questions “open mic” style. I’d been to a Social Media Slam conducted in a similar way this summer, which led to a YouTube video about my experience at Amway and how my 80-year-old dad met his wife online.  This one was much bigger and people did their little talks from where they sat, which gave it a different feel, in my opinion.

There was a great panel on Power Networking, but most of that session really focused on Facebook, since one of the panelists was Tom Chisholm, a Director at Facebook. The most excitement was generated over the question from the audience about when Facebook would add a “dislike” feature to go along with its “like” button. Tom started to say the “hide” feature was sort of the same thing, which aroused a Joe Wilson-like response from the audience (thanks @Maniactive).

Late in the afternoon, I was very proud of the great presentation by Cindy Droog of Amway, who was part of the panel discussing social media measurement.  She did a great job and received a lot of twitter love from the live tweeters. 

Between the Wednesday evening Tweet Up and the all-Thursday conference and the necessary follow up on emails and tweets today, the ConFab really chewed a big hole into this week. BUT, that hole was filled with gooey, chocolaty social media goodness, and area companies that didn’t send their PR/Social Media/Marketing staff to participate and learn really missed out!

Social Media for Internal Collaboration

This Thursday is aimWest’s first annual Social Media ConFab at the JW Marriott, at which I will be a panel moderator.  According to my source, the numbers of attendees were still creeping up this week (she’s still hoping for 300) and yesterday’s GR Press story might help reach that goal!

The panel I’m moderating is about how social media is helping (or can help) internal collaboration within companies and organizations. The panelists will be Melissa Chiaramonti of Meijer and Harrison Withers of Media 1.  Most often in the past I’ve spoken on web reputation, with social media being an important aspect that companies and organizations need to monitor and manage.  Too many people don’t actively monitor what people are saying about their companies and brands online and, as a result, suffer reputational damage that could have been neutralized earlier just by becoming part of the conversation.

I am less of an “expert” on social media as a collaboration tool.  Or am I?  I used and participated in sharepoint sites while at Amway, which is the first thing that came to my mind on this topic.  Thinking more broadly, with Independent Business Owners (IBOs) an extended part of Amway’s “internal” communications, I blogged for five or six years in ways to educate and seek the support and engagement of that key audience.  I created content for the Web, including leading the “Interns Expose Amway” project that got our younger staff involved.  Even the way we obtained approvals for communications was a form of social media.  I was even part of the first (and probably last) virtual meeting held by Amway employees in Second Life.

I spent some time the past few days researching the topic of “internal collaboration” and, amazingly, I didn’t find a lot that really excited me.

To me, the biggest barrier to the success of social media as an internal collaborative tool for a working team is the weakest link.  The one who just doesn’t get how to use social media tools or the one who needs to see the actual facial expression accompanying the real-time feedback they get from a peer. 

I’m not one that would like to see an end to meetings because I do think they can contribute to quick collaboration and ensure the entire group is clear on direction or certain agreements.  But these days, with far-flung teams, business travel and so many other meetings competing for everyone’s time, the use of social media can keep collaborative conversations alive that might have been stymied otherwise.  And, after awhile,  you get to know others’ writing styles and understand their tone of voice and those “facial expressions” aren’t even necessary anymore.

Share stories, earn support

People share their personal stories and become respected and supported. Those who just sell meet resistance.

Like many others, I’m a social being. I like people and I like their stories. For instance, last week I sat down with a 99-year-old gentleman for a story I wrote for Grand Rapids Magazine.  If I had just been doing my job, the interview could have lasted a couple hours at most. Instead, I spent four hours with Bill wandering through the past century from his perspective. He told me about growing up in southeastern Ohio, about launching a career in the middle of the Great Depression (of great interest to me, given that I’m starting a business in the middle of a great recession), about achieving business success by dealing with basic human nature.

You’ll have to read the magazine to get Bill’s story, although I have to say that I could have shared so much more than what space allowed.  Perhaps, after the story is published, I will share more about Bill.  By the way, Bill also had a program he was promoting, something he hopes others support.  But it’s an outgrowth of who he is. Sharing 99 years’ worth of experience earns you the right to share a position.

Social media allows people to share their stories — bit by bit or in larger chunks, depending on the person and their ability — or desire — to share.  By its very nature, social media allows ideas to spread from person-to-person and, in many cases, from one to many, which is why everyone with something to sell is looking to tap into social media. It’s also why social media is so important to public relations — it has so much potential to get your message out to your key audience. 

What often bothers me, however, are the blatant attempts to force a sales message into a conversation where it does not naturally belong.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  The conversation is about XYZ, and suddenly Joe Shmoe who you barely know is trying to sell you something totally unrelated.

Nothing wrong with Joe trying to sell his stuff, by the way.  He just needs to do it in conversations geared to that or start his own conversation and invite others to find out more.  It would also help if Joe earned the right to pitch his wares by first being an active and engaged member of a community.  When Joe is a respected member of that community, he might be surprised when others ask him what it is he has to sell.  Because they like and respect him, they want to support him. He was inviting without having to overtly and frequently state his invitation.

I am a consumer and have invited people who have excellent products to sell me into my home to show me. Typically it’s someone I already know and respect. I want to support them!  But I really don’t like it when someone I don’t know as well sticks his foot in the door and then attempts to shoulder his way through when I’ve clearly stated that I’m not interested. In some cases, I could be interested in what they have to sell, but they have to give me a little time to get to know them.

So, to those who are applying shoulder pressure through people’s social media experiences, please stop!  It wrecks the experience for everyone and it’s just not that effective.  Start with being social and friendly and inviting. Then you sill earn the right to eventually show me what you got to sell!

Crescenzo says Creativity over Crap

Corporate Communications needs to change its name to Creative Communications, according to WMPRSA speaker Steve Crescenzo

I have to admit to a bit of a man crush developed over lunch today.  Our speaker at the monthly lunch meeting of the West Michigan chapter of Public Relations Society of America was Steve Crescenzo, a large, bald, hilarious consultant who shared brilliant insights into the state of corporate communications today. For starters, he thinks “corporate” should be yanked from the title and replaced with “creative.”

After he was done speaking, I professed publicly that he had earned a little piece of my heart.  Literally.  I had to close the meeting with some WMPRSA info and, in thanking him, I let it slip. I’m sure he hears it all the time.

First of all, Steve introduced his company to us — himself, his wife, his son and two cats.  His cats, he said, are his IT department.  Why not, he explained, they don’t come right when you call them, they’re moody, they’re self-absorbed, and they like to lick themselves.  There was more, I’m sure, but that was the gist of it.  Within the first minute of his presentation he had the attention of the University Club crowd.

His main message to corporate communicators, and employee communications specialists in particular, was to stop putting crap out there and expecting audiences to actually read it.  It takes a lot to cut through the clutter these days, and formulaic, cliched newsletters are not going to get readers’ attention. He sympathized, however, acknowledging that corporate cultures today call for review of communications pieces by committee, with CEOs, Legal, Finance, and numerous middle management layers all weighing in with opinions and edits.

When’s the last time a PR person went down to Finance and asked to take a crack at the books this month?  How about we write up the next set of vendor contracts?  And while we’re at it, we’ll whip together the 2010 Strategic Plan for the whole company.  Why should non-communications experts attempt to do the jobs of the true experts they’ve hired to do the job?  Partially, Crescenzo asserts, it’s because we let them.  No longer should it be referred to as “approvals'” he said. Rather, routing of communications should be viewed as “fact checking” where accuracy is ensured but the tone and style is determined by the comms experts.

Crescenzo talked about just how busy everyone is nowadays.  When it comes to the communications pieces coming at them, their order of prioritization is 1) what they’re personally passionate about, 2) what they absolutely need to know to do their job, 3) what is done so well that it pulls them in, and 4) all the other stuff being asked of corporate communicators.  You’re lucky if your intended audience has the time to reach #3, so if you’re communicating changes to the benefits policy or recognition of a long-term employee, it had better be pretty darned creative.

From headline to graphics to the lead paragraph, communicators need to push the boundaries of “how we’ve always done it” or “what legal will approve.”  (My heart was really warming up to Crescenzo at this point!)   And with Facebook and the New York Times online and so much rich content competing for attention, it’s still hard to get audiences to read your nicely presented, well-written copy.

That’s when Steve showed some creative ways corp comm’ers are reaching their audiences these days.  Rather than the “lady with a stethoscope” billboard ad approach used so frequently to promote healthcare services, he shared an online campaign for a hospital that utilizes a mix of blogs, podcasts and videos — with healthcare staff sharing their compelling stories in their own words in ways a single billboard or flyer never could. He showed just a video of a nurse sharing a story about her work in a neonatal intensive care unit that, frankly, very nearly brought tears to my eyes.

OK, as my wife and kids will tell you, I have been known to tear up at the movies. They won’t let me forget that one time watching Bridge to Terabithia or that final goodbye scene from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  Yes, that one is embarassing. The point is, a billboard will not get that kind of reaction. A video might. My wife works at the NICU at Spectrum’s DeVos Women and Children’s Hospital, so I know the commitment they demonstrate each and every day. That doesn’t translate well to copy or an image. Crescenzo said that social media is a powerful tool that corporate communicators need to use to allow people to share their own stories in compelling ways.

So, as I said earlier, Mr. Crescenzo was earning little pieces of my heart with each passing minute.  He spoke frankly.  He was super funny.  He showed great examples of good and bad communications.  And then he started talking about using Facebook as your employee communications site because IT will roll their collective set of eyes at you when you ask them for a highly interactive employee communications intranet site.  “It’ll take nine months and half a million dollars,” they’ll say (based on experience, that would be a conservative estimate for time and budget).  And then Crescenzo started talking about how easy it is to use Flip Cams, and how communicators need to carry them around at all times “just in case.” Now he had my undying affection.

So much of what he said is exactly what I’ve experienced and come to believe about communications over the years. I’m proud to say that at Amway we did fight the internal battles to trim down approval routes and we did use creative new approaches to better share our stories with various audiences. Not always successfully, but we won some of the fights. That’s how Opportunity Zone came into existence.  That’s why I traveled to Baltimore and Seattle this summer to conduct interviews of Amway Independent Business Owners with an easy-to-use Flip Cam (although I don’t think IT has yet launched the site where those videos were to be used). That’s also why today there are Facebook pages for various Amway brands, sharing video content and photos.

I’m excited to take that experience, empowered with the affirmations of experts like Steve Crescenzo, and apply it to the communication needs of Luymes PR clients!  Who’s next!?

More on Trolls

A few nights ago, doing math homework with Jack the Second Grader inspired a post about telling stories using multiple devices, such as the facts themselves, testimonials, pictures, and more. And now, tonight, Jack brought home a book to read to me, “Nate the Great Saves the King of Sweden,” by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. I thought it very ironic that a central theme of this book involved the folklore of Nordic trolls, since last week I wrote about Internet Trolls.  

In the book, a boy named Nate helps solve a mystery for a classmate about a toy troll she lost while on vacation in Scandinavia.  In a special section at the end of the book, Sharmat does a good job elaborating on several topics that were part of the fun little story, including Sweden’s royalty,the countries that make up Scandinavia, what goes into a smorgasbord, and the folklore of Nordic trolls.

Close up of trolls
Close up of trolls

Here are some excellent “facts” about trolls that I learned today by helping Jack the Second Grader do his homework. According to the book, some trolls were big, others were smallish, but all were ugly. They have big noses, tough skin, large feet, and messy hair. They also have tails. They hear well, but their eyesight is limited.  Their sense of smell is keen.  

They have a habit of hanging out under bridges to pester those passing over, either demanding tolls or asking travelers to answer riddles.  Of course, this was documented well in the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale told to children for centuries. I had believed it was this habit of haranguing all who went over the bridge that eventually led to the internet term, but I guess that was only part of its origins.  The art of “trolling” when fishing also is being alluded to with the internet term. As in, trolling for suckers. 

A final fact about trolls is that, when exposed to light, they turn to stone or explode. Hmmm….  OK, that’s enough enlightenment from the pages of second-grade literature.

Name Collection Boxes

There are many different ways to tell your story … and you need to tell your story in many different ways.

Math hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. The expression and the teaching of it has, however, and I’ve often struggled with helping my kids when I first had to learn how the teacher was teaching it this year.  There were numerous “Chicago Math” years that were particularly troubling.  It seems, however, that our schools are returning to a more traditional style of teaching math.

Tonight I worked with my second grader, Jack, on “Name Collection Boxes.”  In a box, he had to express one number in 10 different ways.  For instance, for the number 10 he could write it out as “ten” and “diez” as well as show 10 hash marks.  Of course, 5 +5 and 20 – 10 were in the name collection box as well.  We talked about Roman Numerals and he learned that X means 10.

It made me think that for anything that is a “truth” there are a number of ways to express it.  When doing media relations for an organization that wants to get a story in the news, there are a number of ways to share that story to make it meaningful for different audiences.  “Diez,” for instance, will be more meaningful to a Spanish-speaking audience than “ten.” 

When filling your “Name Collection Box” in preparation to tell your story, you might include the set of facts pertinent to the story in bullet points.  You might include third-party testimonials from clients or customers.  You might include statistics, especially if they can be shown to be part of a larger trend occurring in the marketplace.  You might include personal stories that illustrate your story.  You probably want to think about visuals, including pictures, video, and charts.  These help make a TV or web story more interesting than plain text ever could.  Sometimes your “name collection box” could include a personal experience you could provide to a news reporter, allowing them to experience what you want them to report on.

In my past work, all of these story-telling devices came into play.  When we developed ThisBizNow.com to help tell the Quixtar business story, it definitely included the facts about the business but it also included third party testimonials, videos, logos, charts and much more. 

When we promoted the ARTISTRY beauty brand to editors in New York, we brought them to our manufacturing plant to see our skin care and cosmetic products being made.  We took them to our R&D labs to talk with scientists and get their questions answered.  We used our technology to show them their very own skin under high magnification (a scary thought!). They had the opportunity to make their very own shade of lipstick.  They were brought to our very own spa and given the full treatment with professional aestheticians. Oh, and to ensure these editors understood that ARTISTRY is a prestige brand, they flew here on a private jet and stayed overnight at the JW Marriott.  Yes, they also were provided the facts and figures and pictures and video to take back with them, but without the actual hands-on experience, the story wouldn’t be quite the same.  

To ensure you are reaching people as effectively as possible with YOUR story, are you using all the ways at your disposal to do so?  A news release is a start, but it is not THE way to tell your story.  It’s only the welcome mat to the complete “name collection box” that will tell your story to a broad audience in the most colorful, meaningful way.