Thursday, August 18

Working With A Living Language

Working with a living language is both a blessing and a curse. It gives writers like me the opportunity to invent new definitions for clarity, but it can also cause headaches when other writers use the weight of words to mask their intent.

For example, when I was still evolving my company from the freelance writer I was into the corporation it is today, most Internet search engines narrowly categorized writers into very specific disciplines. You were either a copywriter (meaning advertising) or a freelance writer (meaning journalist), a technical writer or a business writer, a direct response writer or a script writer, or ... blah, blah, blah.

Since I didn't want to limit our capabilities to any of these categories, I was one of the first, if not the first, to lobby for a new term: writing services. It made sense, because our company works within all the other sub-categories. Today, most Internet search engines include a 'writing services' category. It works well for our company and the few others like us because the definition better clarifies what we offer. It's not the only example I could cite, but I like to think that it's a good one.

Then, of course, there are shifts in our language that I do not appreciate because the goal is not to add clarity but rather to mask a meaning. One of my least favorite in Nevada (and I hope it dies a horrible death) is the concept of 'government revenue.' There is no such thing. Governments do not have revenues, they have budgets that are created by taking a percentage of other people's revenue. Yours and mine, to be precise.

Sure, you can find it in some dictionaries. Revenue: the income of a government from all sources appropriated for the payment of public expenses. No problem ... until you abuse the usage. It's easy to do. Ask the handful of government officials who began pushing a perceived need to 'increase government revenue' in Nevada a few years ago. That sounds almost admirable until you appreciate they wanted to 'increase taxes.' (As footnote, they were never going to appropriate money for the payment of public expenses. Rather, they appropriated money in order to create additional public expenses.)

Personally, I've always subscribed to an underutilized code of ethics in communication developed by the International Association of Business Communicators. While there are several points worth considering at IABC Code of Ethics, the one that best fits this post is: engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding.

The real buzz term in this case is 'mutual understanding.' Communication should be designed to clarify rather than confuse your audience. It's a concept that many people forget, including those people who call you on the telephone and claim it's a courtesy call. Baloney. It's a direct marketing call, pure and simple.

Oh well. The most we can hope for is that the definitions with merits outweigh the abuses at the end of the day. And today, there was one that came out of a new survey by Zogby International for the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The definition of old, it seems, is changing again.

Based on a pool of 1,000 people by telephone about what they considered to be "old," a third of the participants claimed
that 71 to 80 is considered old. Younger survey participants, those under 30, considered 61 to 70 to be over the hill. Among the respondents 65 or older, nearly 60 percent said that 71 to 90 was considered old. And even younger people, those between 18 and 24, have adjusted their idea of old. A majority--59 percent--refer to "old" as someone over 60.

Zogby International claims this shows that since the population is aging, the idea that old begins at 30 as it did in the 1960s is long gone. (Given that I'm over 30, er barely if you allow me a little fudged indulgence, I'd like to think that this new definition of old is a merit.) Grin. More to the point though, as people live longer and there are an increased number of people working or donating time to their community later in life, the definition and the attitudes about the definition will change.

And that is the best thing about working with a living language. You have to stay up to date with the language and, with luck, use it responsibly so that you create more mutual understandings than maximum confusions.

Monday, August 8

Operating In Educational Boxes

When I was in seventh grade, I stumbled onto something. I discovered that I love to read. It was an accident, like many discoveries in life, but nonetheless, it was one of the longest lasting and most impactful lessons I ever learned. I’ll never forget the circumstances either.

I remember spending a significant amount of time in the library looking for a book because my reading teacher, Richard Pyle, told everyone in the class that they could pick any book they wanted. Any book at all. Then, he asked us to read the book while we were in class and write a book report. I was a bright kid (or so I thought at the time) and set out to find the book that meant the most to me -- the one with the fewest pages so I could complete the task at hand, earn my A, and twiddle my thumbs or draw pictures on my notepad for the rest of the semester.

There was another reason I wanted a short book. I was afraid. In third grade, my grandmother held me back because she noticed that I seemed to be falling behind on my reading skills. In order to correct the problem, she pulled me from the Milwaukee public school system and enrolled me in a Catholic school, Holy Redeemer. It seems she decided that a stricter school would be better for me.

Their solution was simple and it seemed to work. Talkative children, which is how the public school system labeled me on early report cards, were always seated in the front of the class at Holy Redeemer. A firm hand can change even the most undisciplined children, which I might have been, considering I drew pictures in my spelling book while attending public school. Within the span of a single year, my reading improved and they discovered I had a natural aptitude for math.

I was relabeled from undisciplined to misunderstood. However, one fact remained. I had some ground to make up; and for some time, I classified myself as a slow reader. Later, in fifth grade, another discovery was made. It seems that Holy Redeemer solved my talking ‘problem,’ but they never saw the real problem. I needed glasses. In fact, it was one of the reasons I talked in class. I lost interest in the lessons because I could not see the chalkboard from the back row (my last name, at the time, started with an 'R' and seating in the public school system was alphabetical order).

By the time I was in seventh grade, it made sense that I wanted to take the easy way out. I chose a novella with a science fiction twist; something about a future where people could replace any organ they wanted in a vain attempt to defeat the natural aging process. While the story is interesting, it never had a lasting impact on me.

I finished my hundred-some pages and book report in two weeks, a record pace, faster than anyone else in the class. As the only one to have completed the assignment, Mr. Pyle freely admitted that I had earned not only an A, but the highest grade in my class to date. I thought I had it made for the rest of the semester, but Mr. Pyle was not content to let me sit in his class and twiddle my thumbs. He told me that he knew I was trying to take the easy way out and that he hoped I would accept his challenge to keep the highest score in the class by taking on a second assignment.

He handed me a copy of Dune by Frank Herbert, a huge book in comparison to my first choice. I accepted the challenge and it became one of my favorite books because it was so easy for me to read. For those who do not know the story, a short summary might be that it was about a fatherless boy in a new and foreign land who possessed hidden talents that were waiting to be unlocked.

I won't go into the details, but I related to the story. Given this small section of history, it is also no surprise that I related to a reader's editorial that was published in the Review-Journal last Sunday. It was written by the teacher whose frustration with with our area's failing school system seems to have manifested itself into the notion that not all schoolchildren have the same potential. While she certainly raised some valid points in her piece, I can only hope some aspects of the article never solidify into a popular movement to shuffle underperforming students into trade schools like they do in Europe.

Please don't misunderstand me. I appreciate the plight of teachers in southern Nevada more than most; I am friends with several who are working in other trades after being disenfranchised by the school district. However, I am also hoping that the teachers who are still working here, despite their less than perfect working conditions, do not lose sight of the fact that when people ask the wrong questions they tend to find excuses instead of answers.

Contrary to this teacher's editorial, all children DO have an equal potential to excel and the burden, however unpleasant, undercompensated, or unappreciated, is probably a teacher's most important job. Otherwise, someone who might later become a professional writer and communication strategist might be mislabeled and ushered off to trade school not because they lacked motivation or intelligence, but because they needed glasses. Thank goodness for those few teachers like Mr. Pyle who took the time to call one child's bluff and help them realize a lifelong love for reading, which later became writing.

So what am I reading today? While I certainly read entertaining works that range from Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and The Hiding Place by Corrie Tenboom, I also read more significant works. Recently, I finished 1776 by esteemed historian David McCullough, which I originally picked up because of my interest in history and politics. And while a few of my friends have found it a curious choice, I recently started reading In Search of Schodinger's Cat by John Gribbin.

If you don't know, Gribbin's book is about quantum physics. Believe it or not, quantum physics is a subject that applies to communication and education as much as it applies to science and mechanics. In fact, what I've already learned from this book (and I probably already knew it) is that throughout history, people tend to invent theories, opinions, and ideas and then attempt to operate in boxes shaped by those theories, opinions, and ideas. Then, once they are safely (or unsafely) wrapped up in their boxes, they stop making progress until, finally, and hopefully not too late, someone comes along and disproves all those old theories, opinions, and ideas. And that, the ability to break out of the educational box, not trade schools, is what is needed most here in southern Nevada.

Thursday, July 28

Keeping Communication In Check

I recenty read a story written by Amy Crane that reminded me most Americans don't realize that their right to privacy does not extend into the workplace.

In fact, she pointed out that according to the 2005 Electronic Monitoring and Surveillance Survey, conducted by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, monitoring employees electronically is a growing part of the way American companies do business. The institute's survey, released in May 2005, noted that 76 percent of employers monitor workers' Web connections, while 50 percent store and monitor employees' computer files.

That's not all. Many companies go beyond keyboard keystroke monitoring, reviewing and storing employee e-mails and instant messages, monitoring time spent on the phone (or taping conversations). Video surveillance, drug testing,
and satellite technology that monitors use of company cars, cell phones and pagers are all becoming part of the mix.

While the invasion continues to move into other areas, company computer use is still the primary concern. According to the survey, 26 percent of employers have fired workers for workplace offenses related to the Internet and 25 percent of employers have fired employees for misuse of e-mail. While many employers monitor employees' Web surfing, a slightly smaller number - 65 percent of those surveyed - actually use software to block workers' access to inappropriate Web sites.

It's not all about productivity, employees who spend too much time online surfing, attending to personal business, or e-mailing friends. It's also about workers disclosing trade secrets or proprietary information over the Internet. And in some cases, employers have cause to worry.

When I recently conducted a blog workshop, I reminded a room full of communication managers that private conversations in the workplace with co-workers, vendors, or customers are a thing of the past. With the popularity of blogs, for example, anyone can be a journalist of sorts and share any experiences or comments with an audience as large as they're willing to capture.

I also added that it seems to me the real challenge is not really about employers and employees. It's about people. While some might scoff at the idea that they are being monitored at work, they feel perfectly justified in making private conversations public, recording personal chat logs and e-mails, positioning video monitors around and about their homes, and purchasing publications that reveal every dirty detail of someone's life if they happen to come into the public eye. In short, the enemy eroding our right to privacy is not a conspiracy constructed by faceless corporations and companies. On the contrary, companies are nothing more than a collection of people, which means the conspirators against privacy are us.

Good, bad, or indifferent, there are are simple solutions to avoiding serious problems. As an employee, be more sensitive to your company's privacy policies, avoid activities that violate them, and always be careful about with whom you share company information online and over the phone. For employers, even though the law does not require it, it's common sense to let employees know when, where, and how they might be monitored (about 80-89 percent of employers do). Otherwise, your company could inadvertently denigrate morale and trust in the workplace.

Of course, you don't have to have a company to be an employer. At home, you might consider extending the same courtesy to your babysitter, lawn care professional, and home improvement specialist. They're people too.

Thursday, July 14

Running For The Right Reasons

Somewhere in between fighting off a summer cold and keeping pace with our company's out-of-market growth, last week I took time out to have breakfast with longtime friend and legislative representative State Senator Bob Beers. I've known Bob for some time. He was the second candidate that now retired campaign guru Benay Stout recruited us to work with in 1998.

Since that first campaign, which resulted in Bob's election to the Nevada Legislature in 1999, I've played varying roles in every Beers race. The most notable, perhaps, was last year's run for the state senate against longtime incumbent Ray Rawson. Often working without a title, we used to joke that most volunteers considered me either the lead strategic director or resident patsy, which would depend largely on the outcome of the race. Beers won with a respectable 8-point margin, 56-44.

What struck me most about the senate race was that Bob Beers never planned to run. On the contrary, he was compelled to. Senate District 6 residents were disenfranchised with their representative after the unnecessary $833 million tax hike in 2003. Bob, who was serving an assemblyman for District 4 at the time, was one of the few legislative representatives willing to put his own political career on the line and be labeled an 'obstructionist' because he was willing to work tirelessly to dispel the popular doomsday message that Nevada was in trouble without the tax increase. Nowadays, most Nevadans know better. They only need to look at the size of the state surplus to summarize that those taxes were not so necessary after all.

Today is no different. Although openly admitting that they made a mistake and have placed too much tax burden on the backs of Nevada families, the popular position among many legislators is to allow government to grow at a rate two and one-half times faster than the state population. Maybe it's because I'm reading David McCullough's bestselling book "1776," but there seems to be a connection to our country's history and state's current events.

In 1776, Americans were considered to have the best quality of life in the world. They had nicer houses, more opportunities, and bigger fruit tree fields. The English parliament, somewhat disgruntled that their constituents might be able to attain a class reserved for noblemen and their associates, thought to levy tax after tax on the colonies to keep them in check. (Case in point: some members of parliament proposed repealing all those colonial fees and taxes because they knew they were unnecessary.) Some would argue that the same state of affairs exists in Nevada. Many people consider Nevadans to have nicer houses, more opportunities, and bigger fruit tree fields than the rest of the country. Thus, as citizens, the popular view among some in Carson City is that we should not complain so much about the ever-increasing taxes imposed on us.

Right. Most people don't mind taxes provided they are collected to improve our overall quality of life. However, there is a line between taxes levied to improve quality of life and taxes levied that impede your pursuit of it. In Nevada, it seems clear that we have crossed that line. The tax dollars that have been collected seem to have added few tangible benefits.

This is also what struck me upon receiving the pre-announcement head's up that Bob Beers would make a run for governor. He never planned to run. On the contrary, he is compelled to. He knows, as most Nevadans know, that the current direction of our state government needs adjustment before the damage of fiscal irresponsibility cannot be reversed. It's also for this reason that I'll play a role in his race.

Of all the candidates that have surfaced so far, Bob Beers is running for the right reasons. He is running because he wants to preserve a state government that is for the people as opposed to one that is for a few politically correct members of what sometimes appears to be a modern parliament.

Thursday, June 30

Recognizing Publicity Vs. PR


When I returned from Long Beach (where I was covering one of three industry roundtables responsible for guiding the development of the nation's next generation 911 system), I was greeted by two requests soliciting our services to assist with 'publicity' generation.

It seemed to me they really meant they needed public relations support or perhaps strategic communication planning. What's the difference? Everything. Sure, publicity works for some people and places of business, but it's not for everyone.

For our two prospective clients, I provided a textbook difference between publicity and public relations. For the purposes of this post, I thought it would be more fun to provide an example: Goldenpalace.com recently paid $529.99 on eBay for a ''Celebrity Jar'' that contains the air of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

The jar, in case you missed it, is an ordinary wide mouth, quart-sized mason jar that the seller brought to the premiere of Mr. & Mrs. Smith in Westwood, Calif. As megastars Pitt and Jolie strolled across the red carpet, the jar was opened to capture the air molecules expelled by the stars of the blockbuster movie. It was then sealed and placed in a safe deposit box.

The Celebrity Jar has been featured on several media outlets, including Access Hollywood, Star Magazine, E! Online, MSNBC, ESPN, and CBS. The extensive media coverage sparked the attention of GoldenPalace.com, the Internet casino that turned the world's biggest auction site into the world's most unlikely publicity vehicle.

''This is another perfect example of pop culture phenomenon,'' said GoldenPalace.com CEO Richard Rowe. ''There is literally nothing in this jar except air, and it has made headlines all over the country and even overseas. The sheer weirdness and absurdity of this item has made it a marketing success.''

In the last year or so, GoldenPalace.com has purchased several pop culture oddities, including the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich, Britney Spears' pregnancy test, Marilyn Monroe's personal address book, and Pope Benedict XVI's previously-owned VW Golf. All of the purchases have garnered extensive worldwide media attention.

Perfect. The odd ball purchases generate publicity while the quote from Rowe is an attempt to infuse some public relations. In other words, Rowe says we buy this stuff because we're interested in exposure and not simply because we're weird or easily duped.

Of course, that is not to say this would work for everyone. Imagine what might happen if your local utility made the same purchase on the same day you received your monthly statement. Right. Publicity works best for flamboyant products and personalities. For the rest of us, public relations remains the better bet unless you're willing to risk a wardrobe malfunction.

Thursday, June 23

Finding The Right Niche

For some time, I've educated several business owners in Las Vegas that narrowing their target audience can increase sales faster than targeting the general public. A few have scratch their heads, offering up that they felt they had a product or service for everybody and how difficult it is turn business away in a booming economy like Nevada. The reality: no one has a product or service that truly appeals to everyone. There are dominant brands, certainly, but relatively few monopolies.

A good example of success by narrowing a niche can easily be found in the food and beverage industry. Several companies discovered that marketing food and beverages specifically to women was lucrative, creating a market that grew at a compound annual rate of 80 percent between 2000 and 2004. According to The U.S. Market for Women's Food and Beverages, a new report from market research publisher Packaged Facts, this industry has grown to $4.6 billion.

Women's food was a nascent field in 2000, registering sales of $430 million. In this decade, the food and beverage industry realized that the nutritional needs of women demand special attention and despite some ill-fated, non-strategic, early efforts to market "women's" food, the category has since exploded. In fact, Packaged Facts forecasts that retail sales of women's foods and beverages will reach $58.7 billion by 2009.

The women's food and beverage industry ranges from many small companies to large international corporations, but for the most part, successful women's food and beverage companies are the mid-sized U.S. businesses. They've done incredibly well focusing on their target consumer and then distributing products through health food and natural foods stores. In time, this strategy could provide these companies an opportunity to develop new products or re-market existing products to the general public later (capitalizing on brand recognition established with women at speciality stores). In the interim, they are content with tremendous niche growth and, in some cases, a healthier profit margin.

If you would like to know more about this market, U.S. Market for Women's Food and Beverages has a comprehensive analysis of the U.S. retail marketplace for women's foods and beverages; demographic profiles based on Simmons data; and a thorough analysis of trends such as health concerns on women's purchasing habits. The report also describes the creative landscape, profiles key players, and reviews advertising and promotional efforts. The report can be purchased directly from Packaged Facts www.packagedfacts.com or MarketResearch.com.

If you would like to know more about narrowing your niche market, regardless of product or service, drop us an e-mail. We'll be happy to provide a few recommendations or suggestions to refine your marketing efforts. I'm sure I'll touch on this topic in the future too; for now and the next few weeks, however, I'm temporarily limiting new posts to Thursdays (last Sunday was Father's Day and I have business pending in Long Beach this Sunday) until my schedule opens up a bit more.
 

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