I Wish You’d Been There

April 22, 2014

I really wish you had been with me in the mayor’s office.

I was in Darrington, Washington, the small logging town hit hard by the March 22 mudslide that destroyed much of the nearby community of Oso. The slide buried about a mile of the highway connecting many of the 450 families in Darrington with their jobs, their grocery shopping and even the shipments to and from their lumber mill.

Though I wasn’t there on vacation, I did enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

On disaster assignment for the American Red Cross, I went to city hall with our district operations manager to talk about our work in the community. When we entered his office, the mayor rose from his desk stacked high with papers and gave us a hearty handshake. He wore a ball cap and flannel shirt – just what a Midwesterner like me would expect to find in a lumber town quietly tucked away high in the Northern Cascades. A faint smile on his unshaven face, however, failed to mask the strain of his mayoral duties.

“Initially we had concerns about giving up space,” he said, referring to the many outside groups that came wanting to help. That’s a typical response from those living in rugged, close-knit and self-reliant communities. “The Red Cross is neutral and I appreciate that,” he said. “Your work here has been stellar.”

While pleased to receive the compliment, I pushed to uncover unmet needs where we could help. “What advice would you give to us at the Red Cross?” I asked. (Here’s where I especially wish you’d been with me.) Without hesitation, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Keep taking good care of my people.”
Read the rest of this entry »

10 Tips for Winning at Office Politics

January 14, 2014

If you hope to succeed as a professional communicator, you must spend up to half your time engaged in office politics.

California State University, Northridge - http://blogs.csun.edu/faculty-development/naturally-biased-brains-building-inclusion-in-the-workplace/

I didn’t say it was your fault.
I said I was blaming you. *

I recently gave that advice to a starry-eyed idealist new to her job. That was not what she wanted to hear, though. As a young professional, she dreamed of rising above the political fray and focusing on pure communications. (Oh, what they don’t teach you in school!)

Success in communications requires that you be a savvy politician. Politics, by my definition, is amoral. In other words, it’s neither good nor bad. Politics is how things get done. When you engage in workplace politics, you can either build or you can destroy. Your choice.

Here are several ways I attempt to use office politics to help me succeed as a marketing communications professional:

  1. Create necessary alliances. Business thrives on partnerships and collaboration. I always want to work on important projects that are much bigger than I can accomplish on my own. Success requires that we align our resources and work together to create the synergy to get the job done.
  2. Think win-win. If one of us loses, we all lose. I look for ways to help others succeed, though I’m not shy about establishing boundaries and defining what a win looks like on my side of the equation.
  3. Focus on projects worth doing. I’m only human and can never accomplish everything. Therefore, I must prioritize my work. Negotiating during the prioritization process is very important. Call it politics, if you like, but I try to build a consensus among my co-workers and especially my boss regarding what projects are most important. Read the rest of this entry »

My PowerPoint New Year’s Resolutions

January 1, 2014

In reviewing the past year, I realize I’ve frittered away too much time looking at boring, useless PowerPoint presentations. I’ll never get those hours back.

Fewer PowerPoints would make this a better world.

A presenter and an audience should have real, authentic conversations. Such conversations almost never involve a PowerPoint presentation.

PowerPoint presentations might be helpful when someone is sharing graphs, pictures or other visual content. Too often, though, PowerPoint slides are overcrowded with text that stifle communications, especially when the presenter reads aloud—word-for-word—the endless prose projected onto the screen.

I believe fewer PowerPoints would make this world a better place in which to live, to learn and to work. Do you agree?

Towards that end, I hereby resolve that during the coming New Year I will become a better communicator by minimizing or even eliminating the boring PowerPoints that threaten to clutter my life. Are you with me? Will you join me in this important revolution? Here’s what I commit to do.

When I’m presenting, I resolve to:

  1. Use PowerPoint only when it is the best option for communicating. Contrary to popular opinion, not every workshop or training session requires a PowerPoint. When I’m in front of an audience, I’d much rather talk with people rather than at them. I want to create an atmosphere where we have an authentic conversation. Yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a real conversation that included a PowerPoint presentation.
  2. Never create a PowerPoint using bullet points. Okay, there’s a slight chance I’ll break this resolution if I’m trying to explain a hierarchy of ideas. Wouldn’t it be better, though, to create a separate slide for each bullet point? That would make things cleaner and would also keep the slides moving faster.
  3. Never use complete sentences on a PowerPoint slide. If the audience needs the exact wording of something for future reference, I can provide that in a handout. Otherwise, a couple of keywords or images on the screen will be enough to focus our attention and prompt me to say—in my own words—whatever idea I’m trying convey. Read the rest of this entry »

Help Stamp Out Photo Clichés!

June 18, 2013

Photo clichés. You know you’re looking at one if you see a picture you’ve never seen before, yet somehow you feel like you’ve already seen it a thousand times.

Shooting a cliché requires little creativity. All you have to do is copy something you saw someone else do.

Examples of photo clichés include:

  • Your bare feet at the end of a lounge chair pointed towards a sunny beach. I’ll forgive this cliché if the feet have a nice pedicure and they’re connected to great looking legs.
  • Food or drinks you’re about to consume in a restaurant. Haven’t we all done this?

    Is a selfie still a cliche if the reflection is a rain-spotted windshield instead of a bathroom mirror?

    Is a selfie still a cliché if the reflection is on a rain-spotted windshield instead of a bathroom mirror?

  • Selfies taken in a bathroom mirror. I guess taking your own picture is better than having a portrait photographer follow you into the bathroom to capture that tender “duck face” moment.
  • Snow accumulations on your back deck or front porch. Okay, I myself posted such pictures on Facebook and Instagram just four months ago, so I’m not claiming to be sinless.
  • Bridal parties outdoors jumping into the air. Knees are usually bent showing their extra loft in that brief, defiant push against gravity. (My daughter proofreads my blog posts and she reminded me how much she likes that photo in her wedding album.)
  • Donor check presentations. These are always published for donor recognition and seldom for reader interest. The good news is that nonprofit newsletters are becoming obsolete so we won’t see these clichés nearly as often.

So what’s the solution? How can we shoot more creatively and avoid taking boring, cliché pictures? Here are a few suggestions for us amateur photographers who want to be more interesting: Read the rest of this entry »

Three Things I Learned from Teaching Marketing

May 14, 2013

For several years I taught marketing at a nearby Jesuit university.

Though I’d previously earned my master’s degree in marketing, I discovered that I learned marketing best as I interacted with my brilliant and curious students.

Here are the three most important things I learned (and hopefully taught) about marketing:

1. Good questions trump great answers.

At the beginning of the semester I told my students, “I hope you do not leave my class knowing lots of answers. I want you to leave asking the right questions.”

Good questions to ask when creating a marketing plan are:

  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • How are our products differentiated?
  • What is the right balance between product benefits, the pricing structure, the distribution and accessibility of what we’re selling and our promotional efforts?
  • How can we best promote our product? Who are we talking with? What do we want to say to them? What are the best media to connect with them?

Those questions will always be relevant. The answers, though, will vary in each situation.

2. Academic theory is worthless unless converted into action.

What is the value of the learning if we cannot do something with what we’ve learned?

We began each 16-week semester focusing on marketing principles and theory. As the course progressed, we began to apply theory to real-life situations.

We got our hands dirty. We learned that planning is always a messy process. Working together in teams, the students often complained about the process. (Welcome to the real world!) Fifty percent of their final grade rested upon developing an actual marketing plan for a local nonprofit organization.

They were pushed beyond the sanitized confines of a university classroom because I wanted them to experience things that would remain etched in their memories for years to come.

3. Strategy should always precede tactics.

Though action is important, we must think before we do. Being busy must never be confused with being strategic.

Before jumping into the what and the how, we should always ask why?

In the marketing arena, it’s always tempting to jump in and begin creating brochures, writing news releases or designing ads. That’s all busy work unless those tactics can be tied to a bigger strategy.


So, there you have it! Those are the three most important lessons I learned while teaching marketing. For extra credit, though, let me throw out a fourth:

You will never do marketing as you’ve been taught to do it.

As we got deeper into our discussions of marketing theory, I would pause and say, “I’ve never actually done marketing the way I’m teaching you to do it.”

Students often looked confused. They felt betrayed to have an instructor who did not practice what he preached. That cognitive dissonance provided a valuable teaching opportunity.

The reality of marketing education is this:  Academy theory can serve as our guiding star.

We should always strive to reach the ideal. In the real world, though, we never encounter ideal circumstances. Yet we must carry in our minds the compelling picture of how marketing should be done. With that vision, we will be better marketing practitioners.


Three Premises for Effective Social Engagement

May 7, 2013

Within the American Red Cross, we prefer to use the term “social engagement” rather than “social media.” The word media focuses on tools and technology. Engagement, on the other hand, defines the desired outcome of interacting with our community through the use of social networks.

Last week I spoke at a statewide conference attended by public information officers (PIOs) from various government agencies. There I outlined the following three premises for effective social engagement:

Premise #1. Social engagement requires human interaction between two or more people.

Too often, corporations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations speak in an authoritative, inanimate voice. Interacting with them on various social networks feels like you’re dealing with a robot, not a real person.

Granted, the name or face of the person speaking from within the organization is seldom identified. Yet the corporate entity should at least act and sound as if it is a real person.

The more human an organization becomes, the more likely people will engage with it.

Premise #2. If you’re not having conversations, you’re not using social media right.

Some organizations push information outward, mistakenly believing that one-way communication is sufficient to connect with people.

The best organizational communicators are good conversationalists. They listen. They join existing conversations. They offer additional information and, when needed, correct misinformation. They welcome comments and thrive on the ensuing interactions.

I am most impressed with organizations that engage me in conversations where I feel as if I’m talking over a cup of coffee with a friend.

Premise #3. Success in social engagement requires the deliberate blending of personal and professional.

People like doing business with people they trust. Trust is built as we get to know each other as real humans. A formal, sanitized professional persona does little to connect or to engage us with others.

Professionally, I am known mostly as a marketing strategist and a communicator. That’s a narrow definition of who I am, though. On a personal level, I’d also like people to know that I’m a husband, father, friend, mentor, teacher, blogger, volunteer and community citizen. I’m much more effective professionally when people know something about me personally, something more than what’s printed on my business card.

In summary, I have some simple advice to anyone responsible for creating content on a corporate Facebook page, Twitter feed or other social platform.

Be real.

Be conversational.

Be personal.


When Does a Cliché Become a Cliché?

April 28, 2013

At the end of a long day filled with horrific TV news saturation, I tweeted,

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the phrase “our thoughts and our prayers.” When does it become a cliché?

“It doesn’t (become a cliché),” said the first person to respond. “Provided it’s said with sincerity, it’s the right thing to say.” Within minutes I received several similar replies. “Only when it is insincere,” said one. “When we stop feeling it,” said another.

For the record, I never questioned the sincerity of the public officials who expressed those sentiments. Public Information Officers are trained, after all, to offer statements, and I believed the array of spokespeople were truly sincere in what they said.

Yet, throughout the day, I heard the phrase “our thoughts and our prayers” so many times that it began to sound trite and canned. When the same words or phrases are repeated often enough, they sound like clichés, at least to me. Perhaps they were not clichés when they initially rolled from the mouths of various speakers, but they likely sounded that way when they hit the ears of the listeners.

A cliché sincerely expressed is still a cliché. For example, I’ve interviewed many job applicants who were sincere in the answers they gave. Their responses sounded trivial, though, because they used the exact same words to tell me the exact same things other candidates were saying. Sure, the interviewees were sincere, yet they failed to stand out because they relied too heavily upon worn clichés.

So when does a cliché become a cliché? Is the answer determined by the sincerity of the speaker? Or, could oft-repeated phrases automatically become clichés when the listener has heard them so many times they lose their original punch?

Canned phrases, sanitized talking points and clichés do not get the job done. Spokespeople need to find new ways to keep their messages fresh and relevant. They should speak from the heart and express sincerity in their own unique voice, avoiding the exact same phrases others rotely repeat.


Great Motives. Good Question. Wrong Context.

April 8, 2013

How can we use social media to raise money?

That question was presented last week at a breakfast meeting to some of the brightest social media enthusiasts I know. We divided into small groups and brainstormed ideas to support three startup nonprofit causes.

We knew little about the grassroots projects other than what we were told in the three-minute overviews presented by representatives from each cause.

I sat in my group struggling to engage. My mind was churning with unanswered questions screaming to be asked before we jumped into the weeds with such a tactical question.

As others in our group chatted, I began to question whether social media were even the right tools to achieve the desired results.

Here’s my underlying philosophy: Social media are tools that can be used to engage members of a community in conversations. From that simple philosophy flow questions such as:

  1. Who exactly is our community? Who do we want to talk with?
  2. What do we want to tell members of this community? Why? What do we want them to do with the information we share?
  3. What conversations are already going on? How can we best listen to what others are saying, and then join in?
  4. Within the existing conversations, what is not being said that we’d like to add. Should we initiate new conversations to get people talking?
  5. Are there other people we should invite into our community? If so, who are they? Why would they want to become part of our community, and what would they find relevant in our conversations?

Before using any tool, it’s important to ask, “Why?” Why are we doing this? What’s our purpose? What are we trying to accomplish? For example, if I were a carpenter, I’d like to know what I was building before I began to swing a hammer. Who knows, I might even realize that a hammer was not the right tool at that stage of the project.

My mantra is strategy before tactics. Let’s know why and who and what before we jump into how.


Sometimes I Publish What I Think. Sometimes I Think What I Do Not Publish.

April 6, 2013

Blog posts I could write, but probably would never publish.


The Impact We Have as Red Cross Communicators

October 4, 2012

Each year I challenge myself to write measurable goals for my work as a Red Cross communicator.

I like being held accountable to produce measurable results. Yet I struggle to build metrics that measure the things that really matter. Sometimes we default to measuring process rather than impact because process is often easier to quantify. Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

The success of the Red Cross depends upon effective communications. I am privileged be part of a national team of Red Cross communicators who believe that our work really matters. My colleagues and I believe that because of our work…

  1. More money is raised.
  2. More health and safety programs are sold.
  3. More blood is donated.
  4. More volunteers draw deep satisfaction from their engagement with the organization, and they are eager to recommend volunteering at the Red Cross to their friends.
  5. More partner organizations (both government and non-government) find value and synergy in their relationship with the Red Cross.
  6. Red Cross services are more available and readily accessible to those needing help.

Results can be measured in a variety of ways. I want my work as a communicator to make a measurable difference in the success of the organization. More importantly, I want to have a meaningful impact in the lives of the people we serve.



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