Friday, September 28

Organizing Business: The MarComm Office And Beyond

Put Process Before Position
When you work with startups that aspire to be corporations, you would be surprised how often it happens. One of the executives starts developing an organizational chart. The first thing they do is develop silos — disconnected departments that report to managers who report to the head.

If you mention how startups need to be more fluid (and all companies for that matter), they rebuff the notion by harkening back to the days when they worked at some company where they made up titles like guru and ninja. "Like that?"

Expect them to smile as they assign absurdity to the redefined suggestion. No, not like that.

Put processes before positions. I learned this at 16. 

It applies to every department, but communication tends to be among the most confused. It's the reason so many companies report that their communication feels disconnected within the organization. The reason is that they fill positions without much thought for the process.

Many organizational charts end up with: marketing manager, designers, copywriters, public relations manager, public relations specialists, social media manager, social media specialists, web developers, web designers, programmers, app specialists, internal communication manager, international communicator, trade show specialists, and so on and so forth.

Given that this is just the communication department, there isn't any surprise many startups run out of money. They staff positions. Even if they don't, they eventually will because once an organizational chart is established, they will continually hire based on reactionary needs — we need more of this or that, as if people are produce and never mind that one of those team members doesn't do enough.

My first job was working at Wendy's. And while some people might take exception to idea that communication departments can be likened to quick service, they knew what they were doing. I've applied to it many permanent teams and ad hoc teams all my life. It's not the position, but the process.

How Wendy's organizes your lunch. The variables don't matter. 

In a perfect world, Wendy's will staff one person on the register, one person on drinks, one person to make sandwiches, one person on order assembly. They duplicate this for the front and back (drive-thru). In the middle, serving both sections, one person staffs the grill (they are designed to have two grills if they are extremely busy) and one person staffs the fries. There are also support people, at least one in the back room and management in a pinch.

Marketing In The RoundThat might sound like a lot of people and it is a lot of people. But these are not hard positions. There is a fluidity to the operation based on what needs to be done. The person on the register can also manage drinks and order assembly. The grill person can manage fries or even sandwich making in a pinch.

In some cases and depending on the skills sets of the team available, every process can be covered by one or two people. There were some days that I worked every back register team position, along with fries, and assisted grill. It wasn't easy (or what corporate would have wanted), but I managed. Unexpected slams happen. It's also why I became a crew manager before moving onto a different job.

I'm not suggesting that one person do it all in a communication department, although some companies require it. But what I am suggesting is that you establish and prioritize the processes you need and cross train anybody who doesn't have the necessary skill sets much like Geoff Livingston and Gini Dietrich came close to suggesting in their book Marketing In The Round.

If the future of business is integrated, then companies need fluidity.

This isn't a 1950s economy. We don't need 1950s organizational charts. We need fluidity.

Writers need to learn multiple writing styles to communicate across different mediums, including some programming language skills. Designers ought to be comfortable with some programming language skills. Everybody needs to be presentable and professional, both online and off. And depending on the reason for contact, public relations can be adjusted up the scale.

Sure, there are some specialties that are always worthwhile (like database management), but that is the point. If you can prioritize which specialists you really need around the processes you expect to utilize the most, then the positions and job descriptions will make more sense. And everybody will know more about what is supposed to be done, even when someone calls in sick.

It's not limited to communication either. Many marketing professionals I've worked with are also exceptional product developers and are especially adept at designing user interfaces on paper if not in code. Some of them become good at these skill sets because of their interaction with customers online or during marketing research sessions. Some of them are also good with sales teams. Others have intuitive ideas about operations, budget priorities, media buys, etc.

It really just depends. And that is the point. How do you create an organizational chart based on positions when you don't understand the processes or the people who might fill the jobs? Even if you could, you might never maximize your proficiencies or replace people when they move on.

Or, like many companies, you may jeopardize the morale of the entire organization by trimming the fat you allowed to come on in the first place just because somebody needed a specific title and nobody else bothered to learn their job. Isn't that why companies can sometimes lay off hundreds? I think we might be smarter or more sensible by now. Think about processes first and then fill your organizational chart and outsource when you really do need a specialty.

Wednesday, September 26

Writing Tip: John Irving Starts At The End

While teaching editing and proofreading at UNLV, one of my students asked for tips on inspiration. Since inspiring yourself was fresh in my mind, I started with that (even though there are plenty more).

Most of those tips are more creative than strategic. However, there are some strategic elements to writing that anyone can apply. One of them is simple enough. It's something copywriters learn (often indirectly), but the technique is also employed by others — including John Irving, author of the World According To Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany (among others).

Author John Irving starts at the end. How about you?

Irving never writes a novel or a screenplay without knowing the ending first. He doesn't only need to know what happens at the end. He has to know the exact sentences themselves. He needs to know the atmosphere and tone. He considers all of it an "end note" to whatever he works on and toward.

The reason he does it is most stories have already happened before they can be told. It's often the conclusion that helps writers determine whether or not the story is worth telling. If you are late for a meeting, for example, you might tell why you are late if the cause was traffic, road construction, an accident, or some other event worth telling. You might not tell the story if the ending is unwritten — your struggle to always be on time, absentmindedness, or the inability to allot enough time.

You can take this step a bit further. Knowing the end is also what drives the inspiration. If you know the ending is exhilarating or interesting or educational, deciding how to begin tends to be more engaging for you as well as any future readers. There is an excitement.

Applying the end to advertising, journalism, and public relations.

Advertising. For advertising copywriters and marketers, the end can be determined in something as simple as a tagline (not the call to action, which is something else). The more timeliness the tagline — Just Do It, Drivers Wanted, We Try Harder, A Diamond Is Forever, and Got Milk? all establish the end of a story.

When the end of the story is strong, the rest of it will fall readily into place: It gives weight to Nike showing us extraordinary athletics applied to ordinary people. It gives meaning to the right Volkswagen being found by the owner/driver. It shows what Avis needs to do in order to overcome not being the biggest. So on and so forth.

As for the campaigns you don't remember, many of them have weak taglines or none at all. The campaign probably doesn't have any resonance to tie its individual pieces together. Maybe the story becomes so overinflated with creative that it's difficult to remember the point of the piece.

Journalism. New stories aren't much different. The end frequently gives away where the writer's head was at while they were writing the piece (even if they didn't know it themselves). It's always in the last few paragraphs where they button up their stories, conveying their own bias toward atmosphere, tone and foreshadow.

Sure, they might not always know the ending as verbatim as Irving might, but the ending almost always shapes the story: who they interview, how facts are prioritized. It's how they decide what story slant to tell, with the only difference being how heavily they allude to the end. And if they are any good, they are willing to change that end if their research, sources, and compilation of facts don't bear it out.

Public Relations. When you look at news releases, you'll likely find that the best of them have some semblance of an end while the worst of them (and most of them) do not. Or more specifically, the best of them sound like news stories. The worst of them do not (and many sound like weak marketing).

Part of the problem is how it is taught. So much emphasis is place on the first graph in the inverted pyramid that many press releases become vanilla. The same can be said about pitches. The best of them lead with two thoughts — the tease and the end — telling journalists exactly why they might care. The worst pitches are facts, without even a hint at why it was written beyond some client telling them to burp something out. It's not all the practitioner's fault. Many businesses don't have an end in mind.

How the end means more than how you get there.

It doesn't matter who you talk too. Listen for the end. Great leaders, great communicators, great speakers, and great writers alway know the end before they begin. It's the end that resonates.

I was in a business meeting the other day and I left feeling uninspired. It didn't take long to figure out why. The executive who called the meeting didn't have an end. He talked about problems, organizational charts, and push back from investors. But he didn't have an end. There was no win.

If he did have an end, it was grounded in uncertainty. It reminded me of a job applicant I met a few months ago when I was helping another client screen for talent. All he talked about was how much he hated his job and could not wait to leave. His story had an end, but not for the company he wanted to move to — unless that end was simply going to mirror the one he told.

Contrast this with anyone successful and you might notice they always have an end. It might be conveyed in a vision. While that vision might be subject to change from time to time, you can still wrap your head around. It's the end that inspires people to listen just as it inspires what someone might write.

Monday, September 24

Thinking Different: New Ideas For Solar

Sometimes watching the various communication gaffes and tit-for-tat soundbite stalking during campaign season is almost unnerving. It makes for a case study example of all the most basic public relations rules (e.g., there is no such thing as private communication) and sometimes entertainment, but it really doesn't move much forward. It's an exercise in attempting to drive up negatives. That's about it.

But what the nation really needs are solutions, and I don't mean some of the solutions that are typically presented as contrasts during the political season. I mean the kind of solutions that don't subscribe to red-blue ideas. Here's one example of what we ought to be hearing from a presidential candidate.

How to make alternative energy work without the nonsense. 

There have been many schemes cooked up around solar energy. The worst of them, probably, was Solyndra. It received at least $70 million from a Department of Energy loan guarantee without much of a business model, proving why government is best left out of corporate investments based on preferred policy and not profitability. Government could have created the market instead of the company.

What might have worked is a government program that gave distressed homeowners (and then later expanded to other homeowners) guaranteed loans to have solar panels installed on their homes. They could make the purchases from any U.S. owned and operated solar panel company, creating jobs fueled not by government directly but by consumer choices in the new market.

The loans would be paid back, plus a modest interest rate, from any excess energy sold back to power companies (not the already distressed homeowners). The immediate benefit for the homeowner would be a reduced power bill, thereby either increasing their disposable income or stretching any benefits from local, state and federal programs. The immediate benefit for the power company is that it can sell any excess back on the open market. And then it gets better.

Once the solar panels are paid off, the distressed homeowner could collect excess income from the power the solar panels generate. If they are on a federal program, half of the energy sold could be deducted from what they normally receive in government aid (giving them a modest boost and freeing up government program money) and move them closer to independence, not further away from it.

It would also reduce the environmental impact of solar farm schemes that aim to turn large parcels of land into solar wastelands (and displacing whatever ecosystem that exists there). Instead, it moves solar panels where they belong — on real estate already wasted (e.g., roofs). At the same time, the guaranteed increase in demand would eventually lead to cheaper solar panels, opening the market to people who can purchase them outright without having to wait 25-35 years to see a return on investment or seek government assistance.

This kind of program wouldn't necessarily work everywhere, but it would in Nevada and many other states with a similar climate. It would have been especially worthwhile to Nevada because the state doesn't currently export any significant energy (fossil or otherwise). Indirectly, however, it would benefit every state because this idea would lead to energy independence and possibly rein in volatile energy prices.

Diatribe is dangerous because it depresses new ideas. 

What does this have to do with communication? Everything. As long as people are polarized between moving toward alternative energy (without a clear understanding of it or its economics) and tapping traditional energy solutions, everybody is too busy trying to sell their plan without looking for new ideas. How can they? They are too busy selling whatever is on the table.

While I am certain that my little idea isn't perfect and would probably need some fine tuning (thousands of pages if it is a government job), it's an illustration of what might be possible if people invested their time in solutions rather than whose idea and ideology it might be or what they can get out it.

Instead of politics, it produces a win for every stakeholder, while stimulating the economy, protecting the environment, and nurturing energy independence. It helps people in need, opens a new market, lifts the economy, and brings in private enterprise (without looking like a payoff to past campaign donors). It is absolutely ridiculous these things need to be at odds. At least, I think so. What do you think?

Friday, September 21

Imagining Futures: Social Media For Groceries

Every weekend, my wife sets time aside to fill our grocery list. We used to go together, but our schedules have made this almost impossible and our new shopping system a little less spontaneous.

I cook four nights a week. She cooks three. So my list is written up nice and tight, while she still likes to search for coupons and buy a few spontaneous treats or plan a meal depending on what she sees.

Mostly, she alternates between two stores, Albertsons and Smith's. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, sometimes depending on sales and the day of the week. Price, quality, produce diversity, butcher diversity, and name brands in stock all make a difference on who wins for the week.

Recently, I've noticed another factor that might contribute to how we shop. Both stores are starting to promote apps to make things easier. It's sounds great, but let's be honest. Despite being electronic coupon books, the current apps don't really do enough.

Grocers have to stop thinking mobile and start thinking physical. Specifically, apps cannot be modeled after what exists. They have to be modeled to promote customer objectives. I know it will likely make shelf renters cringe over the loss of impulse buying, but groceries are prime social business candidates.

Many grocery stores are going mobile, but not nearly enough. 

For starters, both of them want you to enroll and provide your email address. You know why. Customers come last. These apps aren't about you. They are about the store and adding you to an email list. Good grief. Isn't it sufficient that I wanted to shop at the store enough to download an app? Never mind. Let's move on...

Abertsons. The app is unattractive and not very intuitive from the start, but that's not the trouble. Other than e-coupons and a store locator, there isn't anything surprising or inspired. Let's point out one flaw.

For example, one of the marketing points is to make your shopping list using the app, but that lacks a tangible physical connection. Since it isn't tapped into the store inventory, you can add items you will never find in the store. It doesn't sync your list against its own e-coupons. And it doesn't organize the list by store layout (or even department), which means a lot of wasted time.

So other than advertising and maybe six e-coupons, why do I need this app? The first generation app is mostly useless, but at least I could try a few things before signing up for an account and spam.

Smith's. It's a better looking app that not only works for Smith's, but all Kroger grocery store brands too. Good enough, but then what? The weekly ads and e-coupons are nice enough, but each one wants you to sign in to add them to the shopping list.

So I did. It's much more intrusive than Albertsons, but I played along and added my Shopper Rewards number. My registration failed, it said, because my number is already in use. Right. By me.

I skipped that step and then had to confirm my email. Do they know how frustrating it is to leave an app to do that? I went to my desktop to save a step only to find that the confirmation hadn't even arrived. I double checked it and resent it from the app. Nothing (not even in my spam folder).

There is nothing like technology to remind you how fragile brands can be. That's as far as I got.

How to reinvent a grocery store app that works for the customer. 

First things first. Scrap the accounts on the front end. You can entice me later with things that make sense — special account-only offers and recipes that I don't have at home — but let people shop in the meantime.

The first thing people want and need is a store locator, which both apps are already equipped with (so that's easy). But after the store is located, the app ought to adjust to a physical layout of the store.

Then, when I start to add items to my list, the app ought to check approximate store inventory, apply any e-discounts and coupons, and arrange the list using a geographical layout of the store. That way you are sure that all your dairy items are picked up in the dairy section.

The app ought to allow for branded and non-branded items. Consumers have different tolerances for different items. Sometimes not having Comet in stock can be a deal breaker. Sometimes it just matters what napkins are on sale. Flexibility is the key and helpfulness raises the bar — e.g., maybe you can segment and merge lists based on regular purchases like milk, eggs, and bread to help people skip retyping everything. All this would not only make sense, but also merge the high tech and high touch.

Want to go a step further? Some grocery stores allow orders and pick- ups anyway. So it only makes sense to have the 'option' to send the list in advance of a shopping trip (along with any special butcher cuts and deli meats). The customer can choose whether they want to do more shopping in the store (while only their special items like meat and deli are prepped) or have everything bagged (assuming you are specific) in advance for a nominal fee of $5.

If $5 sounds too light, you have to think long term. As long as it's done right, people will have a hard time giving back the hour or two they saved. If you want to go a step further, add $20 for delivery.

All of it delivers on the brand promise that both groceries are missing right now. Grocery apps are great but they need to marry the in-store and out-of-store experience. At the same time, it would win over customer loyalty and reduce wait times because the app might already have your debit card info for the express self-checkout or (perhaps) already be factored in by the assembly team before hand.

Wednesday, September 19

Interesting Opinions: Wi-Fi Is Not Enough?

When I read the article with Glenn Lurie, an AT&T executive who sees every new consumer device before they are released, I was surprised. Although it is not his call alone, he has taken the position that Wi-Fi is not enough.

"We try to look for all the opportunities in the world to get the OEMs to understand that they shouldn’t be building two devices," he said in the All Things D interview. "They should be building one device with Wi-Fi and 4G. It’s more efficient for them than having two [product] lines."

He believes it is a simple matter of education. Consumers must learn that they need always-on connectivity, he said. Naturally, eliminating Wi-Fi only would serve AT&T too. More connections means more subscribers and more subscribers means a better revenue model if they choose AT&T.

I appreciate his candor, but the comments immediately following the story tell another story. Even with the best of intentions, Lurie is out of touch with the customer. People see subscriptions as traps.

Understanding the consumer mindset and product usage. 

It really isn't that hard to understand. People opt for Wi-Fi only iPads and tablets so they don't have to pay for another cellular subscription. Many of them believe the phone subscription is enough.

From the consumer perspective, it makes sense. It even has an historic context. The number one reason that newspaper and magazine subscriptions dwindled is because people are genuinely tired of subscriptions that eventually begin to feel like utilities — fees you have to pay for the basic services.

Among monthly fees, publications are frequently the first to go. Especially if your income is unstable (tip workers, etc.), elective subscriptions go twice as fast. So you have to pick and choose from a long list of fundamental and elective expenses.

For most people, mandatories include: electric, gas, water, municipal services, mortgage payments, car leases or payments, car insurance, telecommunications, mobile telecommunications, cable or satellite, and taxes. Now add health insurance (especially with new government requirements) and life insurance. Immediately following those payments are the electives, ranging from gamer accounts and clubs to gym memberships and lawn care. All of them cause a dwindling supply of disposable income.

Where do iPads and tablets fit? For many but not all consumers, it's closer to the bottom because those who opt for Wi-Fi only are satisfied with using their smart phones when they are on the go and Wi-Fi only when they have access at home, work, the hotel, and a growing number of other venues (both public and private hot spots). In fact, given how many places are adding Wi-Fi and AT&T's support of such hot spots to cut down on system overload, it seems more likely Wi-Fi is preferred (doubly so because some functions require Wi-Fi access to work). All things considered, why pay more?

Obviously, some people do have a need. The split between the products is generally 60 percent Wi-Fi only and 40 percent 4G. The slight advantage Wi-Fi has is a lower model price and no subscription fee after you purchase the product. But there is even more to the story.

AT&T and other providers have contributed to Wi-Fi only sales with usage throttling, data usage caps, service issues, roaming charges, high overage changes, etc. Maybe it's not the consumer who needs to be educated. AT&T could learn something about consumers and make 4G more tempting.

Making a better future to marry Wi-Fi and 4G. 

I'm not one of the many people who equate AT&T with the evil empire. I genuinely prefer them as my phone provider, think they have better customer service, and they recently did us right by offering advice on how to handle our phone service (for three phones) while traveling in a foreign country.

So how do carriers sell always-on connectivity? For starters, they could break away from device subscription models and replace them with account subscriptions instead. If you already have an iPhone, your iPad subscription is, gasp, inclusive because you're less likely to use both at the same time.

Or, they could implement lifetime plans built into the product price much like they did for Amazon Kindle (with a better fallback for usage overages). Or, they could give people the option of buying 4G-ready devices without a subscription, allowing them to add it (or drop it) at their leisure.

Of course, they could improve their system so it isn't affected by high-usage customers (thereby killing the throttle concept). And, if they are among those who want to regulate Internet traffic and bandwidths, they could give it up and stay focused on their core service to provide a better experience.

Simply put, it's not education that consumers need. They need an incentive, especially those who get along fine without 4G connectivity, using their iPad mostly around their already Wi-Fi friendly home.

Remember. AT&T is pushing "Think Possible." And right now, people think Wi-Fi everywhere, which is a better fit with Steve Jobs's old vision to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind. Something like that makes subscriptions optional.

Monday, September 17

Making Social Physical: Social Media In Restaurants

Every time I read a story that pits high touch against high tech, digital against physical, or the Internet against brick and mortar, it annoys me. These articles are worthless. The advice is nonsense. The agenda is forcing small business owners to pick one thing or the other because the future is coexistence.

I was reminded of this recently when a mutual group member (David Lopez) of mine posted an article about Mobile Point-of-Sale (POS) technology in restaurants. This article doesn't pit high tech and high touch against each other. It marries it. And this technology is only the tip of the iceberg.

The customer perspective of handheld devices.

When I was traveling in Vancouver a few weeks ago, two restaurants had already adopted mobile point-of-sale handheld devices. Specifically, the server asked us if we needed anything else and we said no, so she pulled out a handheld device. Right there, she swiped the card, allowed me to review the charge, and we were done. The handheld even listed tip options, automatic tip percentages (5-20 percent) or hard dollar amount.

Contrast this to the traditional method practiced by most restaurants. You finish your meal and the server eventually brings out the check. Most people let it sit there awhile, finishing up any remaining edibles and conversations. Eventually you slip in a charge card and it sits around until the server has time. They pick it up, take it back to the register, and then bring it back to you to sign (and calculate the tip in your head).

The traditional method means something as a simple as paying a bill can take five to 20 minutes or more. The tech-savvy solution clocks in around two minutes. The customer wins because several points of contact become one point of contact (and you can leave when you want) and the restaurant wins because everyone who has spent time in restaurant knows that table turns impacts the bottom line.

The only semi-odd thing about it, from my perspective, was having the server stand by while writing the tip. I generally tip 20 percent anyway (a old good habit from my days as a reviewer), but it felt awkward. But I imagine this feeling would pass pretty quick if it was considered a norm.

POS technology is only the beginning: iPad menus rock.

One of the restaurants that adopted POS technology went one step further. At LIFT, the menus are iPads (and better than their website). It is the most amazing experience. The menu is divided into sections — appetizers, lunch, dinner, dessert, wines, etc. You pick a section, scan the list, and then pull up a picture and description of the dish you are interested in before placing your order.

I can't remember the last time comparing and picking a dish was so easy. There were no guesses or surprises. It also helped establish one of the best first pre-meal impressions of a restaurant ever.

The iPad menus really made my creative wheels spin too. There are so many remarkable things a restaurant can do with social technology and take it to the next step. What if customers...

• could tap their smart phones to the menu and receive the menu app?
• could tap their smart phones and subscribe to a content rich blog attached to it?
• could tap their smart phones to enter a contest to win a free lunch?
• could order their meals or request specific seats before they arrived?
• could receive a survey the next day instead of trying to do it at the table?
• were invited to an upcoming special event or special menu sampling?

After just completing a two-year social media contract with a restaurant in Las Vegas, I can attest to the fact that although social media can deliver a return on investment (30-80 check-ins a month, noting that only about 10 percent of all people actually check-in), traditional social media models don't go far enough for restaurants. The primary reason is that they are too focused on impressions and captures (local searches, of all things) and not focused enough on the customers at the table.

Specifically, most restaurants are so comfortable with the old media model — impressions in magazines, phone books, etc. — they have been conditioned to think that applying old media rules to new media is all that can be done. Sure, some of them receive a lift if they implement a social media program, but the real magic of a successful restaurant in the future will not be social media as another marketing silo.

Restaurants that look at technology as an extension of their physical location rather than a means to attract people to a physical location will be the ones with the best bottom line. And those that do it in the United States now (while the recession still makes people think twice about eating out) will be light years ahead of their competitors in the future. This post only scratches the surface.

By the way, I would like to add something about LIFT, given they helped inspire the story. Hands down it was the best meal, best service, and best experience of every restaurant we visited while in Vancouver. And as someone who once wrote dining reviews of some of the finest establishments in Las Vegas, I would have given them five stars, perfection. And yes, the harbor view helped too.

Friday, September 14

Managing Change: Public Relations Can Be Proactive

By most accounts, the biggest hurdle in the Chicago teachers' strike has been performance evaluations. It's not new. Los Angeles and Boston recently adopted performance evaluations too, some of them signing on with reservations. They are afraid the evaluation process will be unjustly used to let teachers go.

The good news is that the Chicago strike may be nearing an end. Among the concessions: Evaluations of tenured teachers during the first year could not result in dismissal and later evaluations could be appealed. There are some new benefits added in an effort for both sides to make concessions.

The question that always looms is how long will these concessions remain viable? There is, after all, a big difference between negotiation and compromise. The first involves two groups working together toward a solution. The second involves two groups offering concessions, which sometimes looks like a solution but often breaks down because it isn't a solution. It just moves things forward.

Where public relations professionals can affect positive change. 

Strikes are often publicity generators for hardened deal makers. But if public relations professionals were allowed to interject on the more strategic aspects of a crisis, something else might happen.

If we adopt and expand the definition of public relations beyond communication as it had been in prior definitions (and assume practitioners embrace it) rather than confine it, public relations may have prevented the Chicago strike because it could have helped mitigate an evaluation process designed by teachers and the administration as opposed to just the administration well before it made it into a contract negotiation.

They had the time. Falling test scores is hardly new. It has been noted for a long time. But the debate about it usually becomes heated during contract negotiations and elections. That's when most evaluations are made on an "accept it/reject it" basis. The fact that it becomes a sticking point so late in the game undermines the intent of the evaluations in the first place.

In theory, evaluations usually have several functions. They can help evaluate student knowledge. They can show teachers where to improve or what works. They can provide benchmarks to map trajectories.  So on and so forth.

Most of that is tactical so it needs to be pulled back a bit. The real issue here is that students are not prepared to advance because they lack fundamentals but they somehow are advanced anyway. And perhaps more importantly, some of them do not develop the critical love for education that they need (the one area where charter and private schools seem to excel more than any other factor, it seems to me).

Everybody ought to be asking the same question. How do we instill a love for education and help children succeed? Ideas from all quarters ought to be proposed, worked out, and tested by a mutually agreed upon evaluation system (phased in as suggested before) before it becomes the law of the land.

This requires open communication, which is a potential function of public relations. Why do the teachers think students are failing and is this belief valid? Why do the parents think their children are failing and is this valid? Why do the administrators think education is failing and is this valid?

This would have been a better approach by the administration. Preventative public relations.

Another lesson for public relations in negotiation. 

Although the Chicago teachers' union seems to have found some language that makes these evaluations more tolerable, there is a better lesson for public relations practitioners. Every "accept it/reject it" demand can be better met with a counter solution.

A counter solution is any measurable program that offers a better outcome than the proposal. Had the Chicago teachers' union (or teachers on their own) proposed a potentially better or provably better evaluation system, then the media would have been less likely to zero in on performance, salaries, etc. as a contrast to the evaluations proposed by the administration.

Instead, the media would have likely compared the two evaluation systems. And teachers, like I believe most do in their hearts, would have looked like they were interested in the students more than what they get. That is what teaching is all about it, isn't it? In fact, it's why I lend some of my time as an instructor.

For the public relations practitioner, the point is pretty simple. Always consider that you may not have to make a choice based on a "black/white" scenario laid out in front of you. You can set the communication and solution parameters by being proactive in planning or be better prepared to change the conversation for the benefit of equally important publics.

Wednesday, September 12

Dueling Crisis: The Chicago Teachers' Strike

At first glance, most people would size up a teachers' strike as a crisis communication problem for city government. Not this time around. The decision to strike in Chicago created a quadruple crisis — for government, unions, teachers, and parents. Everybody is going to lose this time, especially the only people who are not part of the clash: the students.

The assessment of a quadruple crisis on the quick. 

Government. It's not exclusive to Chicago, and exists in many major cities. After years of giving into collective bargaining concessions (some smart and some not so smart), government has run out of fiscal room to continually reward lackluster results and downward trajectories. There is no money in the coffers for salary concessions. There is increasing pressure to save failing education systems.

In an effort to meet somewhere in the middle, Chicago seemed willing to approve a generous salary increase, but wanted to end undergraduate teacher tenure and add evaluation methods that would usher in a new era of educational accountability. You can see where they often place the blame — teachers (and sometimes unions).

Unions. The unions have done a tremendous job building an infrastructure to elect politicians who rubber stamp concessions and force out those who will not. The amount of money used for lobbying and political campaigning is mind boggling but not surprising.

Unions make their money based on how much money their members, voluntary or mandatory, contribute. They also need to win every year in order to justify their existence. So, it is in their best interest to protect teachers with more years in the system (tenure), protect the employment of every teacher (regardless of results), and always seek out more money, which in turn generates more cash for lobbying, political campaigns, and their payroll. You can see where they often place the blame — government.

Teachers. While each city is different, Chicago teachers have done better than most. The average salary is around $71,000 per year in a city where most household incomes is around $46,000 per year. But despite this salary discrepancy, it is no picnic to teach in a city with severe economic problems and a higher than normal percentage of at-risk children who attend school every day just to get a meal.

While not all teachers on are board with the union or the strike, those that are want to preserve job security, earn salary increases (because they have hit their caps), and avoid accountability for student performance. The latter isn't because of what most people think. By the time many meet new students, these students are already broken or behind. Most of them place the blame somewhere else — parents.

Parents. Other than teachers, there isn't a more diverse group in the mix. Most parents want their children to receive a better education than they received, but they see that school systems across the country are failing to engage students and instill a love for learning that is necessary for success — even  if their children are better suited to enter the trades (which I'll address another time).

Sure, there are a few who are dismissive, either believing that a failing education system cannot help their children at the onset, devaluing it because of their own occupations, or treating the system like free day care. But I don't think this describes most parents. More likely is that many parents are already stretched too thin to invest an hour on homework every night or, in some cases, they themselves don't understand the material their children bring home. And then there are those who struggle with everyday discipline, let alone education. As the most fractured group, they place blame wherever it is ideologically convenient for them — mostly government, somewhat teachers, occasionally unions.

There are no 'group' heroes in this mix. 

The educational system that was created in most struggling cities is broken because it was designed with the best intent until the best intent was sidelined for winning on issues (some fair and some not so fair). So as groups, there are no heroes because each of them contributed to the mess that exists today.

If you are looking for heroes, you can only look for individuals. Somewhere in the mix, there are politicians who are willing to do whatever it takes to build an educated work force. There are teachers who work longer unpaid hours, doing everything possible to fix the problems they inherited. And there are parents who even though they feel helpless, still instill the importance of education in their children.

But as groups, you will mostly find governments giving into union pressures and political clout with parents too readily taken in by campaign material. At the same time, union wins convinced enough teachers to go along for the ride (or be silenced out of fear). It wasn't always this way, but it is today.

The reality of teacher evaluations, overall. 

While the one takeaway today fits better into education than public relations (which I will be covering as a living case study), there is only one solution that fairly addresses the principal cause of the strike. Despite best intentions, I cannot see how a teacher evaluation system can be implemented across the board on an already broken system despite my own belief that every school system needs one.

So maybe it's time for the good people of Chicago to have a reality check — a hard and fast K-12 evaluation system on teachers, especially one that relies on test scores, isn't fair for one simple reason. But rather than focus in on the problem, I'd rather offer up the solution that addresses it.

Evaluation standards would have to be imposed in phases, starting with K-3. Then, whatever evaluation is put in place would follow the kids into future grades, middle school, and high school. Any other method causes problems because too many children have been passed up with a deficient education.

Ergo, it's not fair to expect a 10th grade teacher to produce 11th grade students when they are given an abundance of 10th grade students with a 6th grade education (or less). However, if the evaluation system was phased in, then there would be no excuses. A 10th grade teacher with 10th grade-ready students will be able to prepare them for 11th grade or even further.

Teachers in the lowest grades would be the first to be held accountable for the class but not every student. Students who are deficient can receive special help or be held back. The point here is simple enough. Fourth grade teachers would not inherit students who are not ready.

The pressure to perform would also be mostly erased, being more likely to look for students who are struggling as opposed to teachers who are struggling. However, school officials could take a closer look at any teacher whose entire class slips. Make sense? You can hold teachers accountable based on class performance, but not necessarily every individual student.

I have more insights on the teacher evaluation topic and some education pitfalls, but I'm looking at a public relations topic for Friday. You see, it seems to me that Chicago is mistaking politics and propaganda for public relations. But on the contrary, public relations is rarely so divisive.

Monday, September 10

Making It Personal: From Education To Marketing

While most people see the 1960s as the "Golden Age of Advertising," its birth can be traced bak to the 1950s. Along with the booming post-war prosperity and adoption of television as a means of mass communication, it was the ideal time for agencies to capture the imagination of a semi-captive audience. 

Some people find the old commercials produced from the 1950s through the 1970s a bit campy with relatively poor production techniques. But if you take a closer look, you'll understand why people responded to the messages — those commercials connected to their era on a personal and sometimes intimate level. 

Unless it's being used as a 1980s and 1990s broadcast channel (when advertising sought to out clever itself instead of appealing to anyone), social media (and social business to some degree) makes the same promise. It provides people the opportunity to get to know the people behind the company, the musicians behind a band, the authors behind the books, so on and so forth. Making it personal works. 

Where advertising and education meet is a matter of perspective. 

While that might seem an odd way to start a post touching on education, some might propose the two are related more than most people think. When it comes to delivering an effective, memorable message that sticks, there really isn't much difference. Personal perspective can solidify and shape how we view history or even current events much more effectively than statistics and bullet points. Stories work. 

One groundbreaking independent documentary series, POV (Point of View) on PBS, has been doing exactly that for almost 25 years. As it aimed to widen the nation's discussion of the most important social issues of the day, it has become its own historic archive of personal perspective by putting a human face on current affairs and now history. Here are a few examples. 

I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful by Jonathan Demme conducts character analyses of fearless matriarch Carolyn Parker, who struggled to rebuild her house in New Orleans after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Depending on the class, POV suggests watching film clips and then organizing the information into essays (with outside sources too, I imagine) that can be applied to civics, geography, social studies, and history. 

The City Dark by Ian Cheney studies the nesting process of the endangered loggerhead turtle species. The video illustrates how artificial lighting along beaches disorients turtle hatchlings and hinders their ability to reach the ocean successfully. The film provides cross-over content for biology, environmental studies, geography, and current events. 

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday follows civil rights veteran and barber James Armstrong and where the movement fits within the context of U.S. history. Integrated into a lesson plan, it provides a perspective for civics, social studies, world history, and current events. 

There are other films too. And while teachers must always be mindful to provide contrasting viewpoints or lead students toward appreciating the "why" behind the "what happened," all of them make for memorable communication, reinforced by a personal connection between the subject and viewer. 

Interestingly enough, POV has been developing a better connection between the films too. Its Community Engagement and Education Department partners with middle schools, high schools, colleges, and community organizations to provide more resources than the films themselves. 

Educators are invited to the join a growing community network where they can borrow more than 70 films for free download, along with 125 free standards-based lesson plans. There are also more than 217 streaming video clips and access to 130 film-based discussion guides for a variety of subject areas and grade levels.

"We have found that the personal storytelling in our films is a wonderful learning tool; it becomes a springboard for discussion that not only helps students understand the issues, but often helps them learn about themselves," said Eliza Licht, vice president, POV Community Engagement and Education. "The goal of our interactive education campaigns is to use film as a tool to support students in becoming thoughtfully engaged citizens." 

While the films sometimes don't necessarily provide a broad view of all subjects (because that's the point of perspective), all of them demonstrate how communication is most effective when someone can relate to the subject. For consideration, educators might want to visit the POV's Lesson Plan section.

How educational instruction can help professional communicators.

For marketers, advertisers and communication professionals, there might be something else to consider.  When was the last time your company produced anything that connected to the people you want to reach? Or perhaps, if you want to think about it another way, what was the real reason Blendtec became one of the most referenced YouTube success stories?

Some advertising students and professionals immediately think it's the gimmick that gave the series a lift.  Sure, that was part of it. But the foundation doesn't have as much to do with one well-thought out gimmick as everything else in the segments — the personality and empathy of the spokesperson and the viewer's connection to the products they decide to blend — have equal weight.

They make it personal, much in the same way it advertisers did several decades ago. And that's the point. You might ask how you can make your company's message just as personal too, but without the blender.

Friday, September 7

Inspiring Content: Inspire Yourself First

A few months ago, one of my students stopped me mid-sentence when I hit the fourth of five ways to find inspiration for writing. I didn't blame her. Any time a professor tells practicing and future public relations people to experience life, it sounds dangerously close to life coaching over professional instruction.

And yet, it's necessary to mention tips like that because most press releases are pretty boring. Sure, some pretend not to be boring. They force connections to current trends. They smack of snappy marketing copy. Or maybe they rely on exclusively on a big brand name. It doesn't matter.

They're still boring, especially those that were written for the sole purpose of trying to gin up some SEO keywords. It's enough to make you grateful that some folks give up and just send the facts.

You might know what I'm talking about — boilerplate releases that come with an unwritten note that reads "I couldn't find anything remotely interesting about this pitch and gave up. Maybe you'll have better luck. Here are the facts and a few bullet points." Not the best idea, but at least they are honest.

Quit Treating Your Audience Like Second-Class Chumps. 

I didn't really write that subhead. I paraphrased it from an article by Danny Brown. He was writing about how many bloggers start to phone in their posts when they're satisfied with some level of traffic.

For whatever reason, once they capture some kernel of attention, their posts become less thoughtful, their platforms feel dated, and all of their popup ads and ebooks begin to blend together into some thick and sticky formula with an aftertaste. You get the point. Whatever it might be, the lesson is still the same. Don't settle for allowing everything to become mundane. The people who read deserve better.

In looking back, about the only thing Brown didn't cover is where it all starts. It doesn't start with the post or platform or press release or client. It always starts and ends with the writer. Bored writers produce boring stories regardless of the medium. Their words scream "am I done yet?"

Boredom Starts With The Distraction Of Everything Else. 

As a writer, whether writing a blog post or press release, you ought to know the feeling by now. There might even be a little voice in the back of your head whispering "All I need is a lead or maybe a gun."

It's misery and you want out. The reason could be anything. Maybe you already wrote ten releases about the same subject and your eyes are tired. Or maybe you have a half a million other things to do, but the deadline or schedule dictates that the content comes first. Or maybe you just feel a little blue today and are having a hard time fining that elusive hook. Or maybe someone bruised your ego last time.

Whatever. Those are excuses, justifications designed to make you feel better about what you might eventually do to pass on your boredom to your readership or the media as if they deserve to be punished for your problem. The truth is as soon as you hit "schedule" or "post" or "send," you've compounded the original block. Too much boring communication is hard to overcome.

As Brown says in his story, doing the right thing doesn't always come easy. But there are solutions to help you avoid blocks or break out of the mundane and get back on the epic track. I'll save those for next week. But you already know the feeling associated with better content. It's when you look up from your keys and an hour has ticked off, but you could keep writing for another hour if you had the time.

Wednesday, September 5

Shopping Online: The Sales Tax Issue

As Pennsylvania becomes the newest state to require online retailers to collect a sales tax on residents, Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Revenue a.k.a. chief tax man Dan Meuser says it will level the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses. But will collecting a sales tax really level the playing field?

If brick-and-mortar businesses really believe that, then they have fallen behind further than I ever thought. According to eMarketer, more than 72.6 percent of Internet users bought online on 2011, representing 148 million people (ages 14 or more) who made at least one purchase. Thirty million more are expecting to join them by 2015.

There have been dozens of studies published about the motivation of online buyers. And almost none of them place avoiding sales tax at the top of the list. What are some of the reasons people shop online?

Ten reasons that people shop online instead of offline.

1. There are no store hours online so they can shop online any time.
2. They can comparison shop between stores and find better prices.
3. They are given discounts to shop online by brick-and-mortar stores.
4. They never have to worry about crowds or checkout lines.
5. They can find things easier instead of searching racks and shelves.
6. They don't have to associate with cranky salespeople or pitches.
7. They are never sent to another store because of out-of-stock items.
8. They don't have to spend money on gas, driving to different stores.
9. They can see what other people are saying about products and stores.
10. They can do it alone and from home, wearing whatever they want.

Sales tax doesn't even register. Other then discounts and clearance sales, the biggest incentive that online buyers look for is free shipping. Shipping is something people prefer to avoid. That's about it.

But in looking at the list, brick-and-mortar stores have much more work to do than worry about sales taxes. In order to compete with online retailers, they have to create experiences online transactions can't offer their customers as well as capitalize on the reasons people sometimes prefer to shop offline.

Ten reasons that people shop offline instead of online.

1. They enjoy store-hosted events and special appearances.
2. They are still wary about online privacy and security.
3. They want to try on clothes/shoes and match up outfits.*
4. They find it easier to take in the entire store at a glance.
5. They like to window shop and visit other stores in proximity.
6. They consider shopping a social experience and enjoy it.
7. They don't have to wait for the item to arrive by mail.
8. They like knowledgeable employees on hand to help.
9. They don't worry about being spammed after one purchase.
10. They enjoy making discoveries they would have missed online.

*This includes hearing a sound system or test driving a car, etc.

There are more, but most of it revolves around the experience. The question brick-and-mortar stores have to ask is whether or not they are giving shoppers a reason to come in the store. With the exception of best practice independents (e.g. Book People in Austin, Tattered Cover in Denver, Amoeba Records in Hollywood), most stores don't.

Some of them (especially bigger brands) effectively cannibalize their own in-store customers by trying to convert them to online shoppers by offering better follow-up deals than their customers could ever find in the store. In essence, the online component of transitioning brick-and-mortar stores is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, retailers ought to be working to erase the online/offline distinction.

The future of brick-and-mortar and online retailers. 

Although I often wonder how many times government can tax the same dollar (taxes are levied, frequently more than once, every time money moves from one place to another), requiring online retailers to pay online state sales tax has very little to do with fairness and everything to do with state tax revenue. They might as well stick to that statement because they aren't helping brick-and-mortar stores, most of which are trying to develop some semblance of an online presence or online storefront.

Right. The reality is that brick-and-mortar stores as we knew them are nearly obsolete as even independent sellers have to develop an online component where they can increase sales beyond walk-in traffic and/or stimulate walk-in traffic with special appearances or events. What many haven't done yet is map out the potential symbiotic relationship between high tech and high touch, but they will. Eventually, every store will be best described as brick-and-click and not one or the other.

The future of retail is one where you can use mobile apps or online sites for in-store assistance, with off-site solutions when you can't find the size or color or whatever you want on hand. It's one where if you purchase a book from the store, you might receive an email or posting any time that author makes a book tour visit. It's one where you can try something on in the store and save your sizes or preferences for updates, referrals, and future purchases (online and offline). It's one where search engines are somewhat circumvented because the store earns consumer trust and loyalty. And so on and so forth.

Monday, September 3

Dueling Studies: Labor Day Blues Or Silver Lining?

According to the New York-based Conference Board, consumer confidence fell to 60.6 in August, down from a revised 65.4 in July and the 66 level analysts were expecting. As published by USA Today, the index now stands at the lowest it has been since November 2011 at 55.2.

But according to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan, the final sentiment index climbed to 74.3, a three-month high, from 72.3 in July. As published by Bloomberg, this gauge averaged 89 in the five years leading up to the recession. (Bloomberg reported confidence was down a few days earlier.)

The causes are easier to understand. The economy is struggling under the weight of rising gas prices, economic uncertainty among business owners facing more regulatory burdens, and the high unemployment rate that remains above 8 percent (but is even higher when people who have stopped looking for a job are factored into the equation). There are other factors too.

Sentiment, on the other hand, is not only elusive but also relative to who you are, where you live, and what you read. We live in a world with too much information for its own good, and some of it is suspect.

How media selection can dictate consumer confidence and economic perception.

When you look at headlines from various news outlets, the message is as mixed as the reality. "Consumer sentiment is a bit brighter in August," reads one. "Consumer confidence takes unexpected fall," reads another. "U.S. consumer confidence rises but outlook still grim," claims one. "Consumer confidence crash stifles gains from housing report," states another.

None are wrong or right. The variations in reporting are dictated by which studies are reported, how they are reported, headline semantics, and in-story sources. It's kind of a mess.

But the point here is that dueling studies and sources, along with what people share across social networks, can skew how people see the world. People are more likely than ever to self-select the reality they want and then see all of the other media outlets as biased.

At the same time, the media have increased its own online analytics, carefully tracking what people are looking for and then delivering based on those results. If one story gets more attention than another, someone is sure to say "we need more like that." This isn't really new, but it does seemed pronounced.

How individuals can navigate the influx of communication overload.

Without a doubt, relying on affirmation media will bias an individual's perspective even if the media stories themselves are not intensionally biased. Instead, it's best to develop a slate of media outlets that challenge ideas as much as confirm them. Once you focus in on a story, check up on the sources.

When most people read news stories, there is an assumption that the newspaper has already vetted the source. This isn't always the case. So when it comes to business stories in particular, take a few minutes to look up the sources. Even if the journalist isn't biased, the sources within the story might be. If they are, you can weight their contributions accordingly.

Along with those sources, find a few more on your own as well as any your social connections might turn to from time to time (preferably with ideas that confirm and challenge your own). This composite of information can be augmented and adjusted based on your geographical location, industry, company, and individual anecdotal observations (adjusting for your own bias).

When it comes to the economy today, nobody really agrees. Most of it depends on what indicators people want to focus in on to prove their point. The real tells are a little bit different. Most people don't feel better off than they were four years ago, which is what continues to shake consumer confidence. Even those who might be better off on paper, feel pinched because the same money doesn't go as far.

At the same time, this doesn't necessarily mean that the news stories ought to influence individual and business decisions. Some companies do very well in a recession while other do not. Some local economies are recovering and some are not. In other words, while individuals and small business owners can think of the news as the canvas they paint their story on — the story is still their own.

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