Monday, September 7, 2009

You Think You're Not Doing PR?...Think Again!

For those of you who believe you're not doing public relations...for those who think you HIRE people to do public relations, here's a story for you:

A few weeks ago, in a neighborhood close to Denver that will remain nameless, I had two not-so-great experiences in a period of only five minutes that helped me form a powerfully negative opinion about that neighborhood at the speed of light. As I was walking down the sidewalk past some business buildings, two women headed toward me, chatting with each other. They did not do anything to give me space to walk by; they simply took up the entire breadth of the sidewalk, forcing me to step down into the access road to the parking lot. Pretty rude, I thought--I had to look both ways to make sure no cars were coming before I stepped down--but then I let the matter drop.

Just a few minutes later, though, I was leaving a branch of the Wells Fargo Bank, I saw a father with two children coming up behind me to leave as well. I held the door; the two kids walked through, no big deal, and then so did the father, not touching the door to take responsibility for it, not thanking me, not even LOOKING at me, as he came through, slowly ushering his kids along.

If it had been just one bad incident, those would have been some rude people. But then another one happened shortly thereafter, and my opinion of the neighborhood just plummeted. I guess these are the kinds of people who live here, I thought. And I've shared that story with other friends, ensuring they have some negative association with that neighborhood now, as well.

Your actions have an impact on those around you and on the opinions they form; you represent where you are and what you do. In this simple way, there is no such thing as a PR practitioner; whenever you interact with leave an impression. You are always doing public relations.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fascination with the Abomination Makes for Despicable Advertising

Yesterday, someone I follow on Twitter issued a tweet to this video. WARNING: it is graphic, disturbing and gruesome.

The point of the video is to show what horrible things can result when you let yourself get distracted by your mobile phone when you're driving. This is something I also feel strongly about: if someone is calling when I'm driving, I'll most likely let the call go to voice mail or, if it's a call I have to respond to, I may answer, but only to explain that I'm driving and will call back when I arrive at my destination.

Yet, I despise advertising that resorts to terrifying people. This will happen to you unless....etc. I don't believe graphic depictions of teenage-girls getting mutilated in a car accident is the right way to warn people away from using their cell phones while driving. If this tactic works, and I don't know that it does, it ends up leaving me feeling depressed and no longer giving a crap about cell phones at all.

In some ways, it's a lot like advertisers who develop such incredibly creative and appealing ads for television that viewers forget to associate a particular brand with the ad simply because there is such strong entertainment value in the images.

The two are a lot alike. Except that ads that rely on scare tactics are cheap and indulge in our base fascination with violence.

Monday, July 27, 2009

PR People Should Walk a Mile in Reporters' Shoes

A lot of PR people come from journalism and for good reason. They have prior experience going through the hassle of developing and delivering stories on deadline, even when people don't call back or seem unwilling to talk to you. Consequently, once they enter the PR world, they're more likely to be helpful to journalists calling for information. They've been there before.

PR pros who have never walked a mile in those scuffed, well-worn shoes--and I'm guessing many haven't--should try some freelance writing to see what it's like. I recently wrote an article that meant calling several utilities to schedule interviews with their Smart Grid experts. Some PR people were incredibly receptive and helpful; others were cool and detached like concierges checking me into a hotel, and I had no confidence they would put me in touch with the people I needed to speak with. Many of these--my absolute favorites!--simply said, with a false cheerful lilt in their voice that they'd call back once they made contact with their experts. And then they never did.

I sometimes fail to understand what leads some people into the PR profession. The role of PR is to help people and establish effective professional relationships. If you aren't willing to help a reporter out, why are you there? Try writing an article with an editor breathing down your neck to ensure you deliver your copy on deadline. It's a great way to improve your media relations skills.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tweeting For Your Nonprofit (Part II)

Below are additional tips and suggestions for improving your nonprofit’s exposure by using Twitter. These follow a post generated on Sunday, June 7.

4. Follow Your Impact on Twitter By Monitoring Retweets

How are your followers responding to your tweets? Are they retweeting your messages to disseminate them to an even wider audience? Occasionally, click your profile name on the menu that appears on the right side of the screen to find out how many tweets sent by other tweeple reference your profile name. Many could include retweets of former postings you generated. Continue building this loyalty among followers so they become great mouthpieces for your organization and its cause.

5. Drive Followers to Your Web Site (and Measure the Impact)

Thanks to, Twitter users can convert long URL addresses into short pithy links to web sites, which can be embedded in tweets. Indeed, an excellent way to ensure a loyal audience of Twitter followers is to serve as a reliable information resource. Sending Tiny URL links to other web pages and documents is a good way to do that. If you monitor the traffic your web site receives (and if you don't, you should), you can measure the impact of tweets on your followers by tweeting links to your web site (perhaps to new videos, pages or project success stories recently posted) and then determining whether your web traffic has increased. It's not an exact science, but if you notice a significant uptick in your web site visitors shortly after you've posted a tweet with a web site link, you'll have a good guess why people came by).

6. Tweet Often

As Woody Allen said, fifty percent of success is just showing up. Or was it sixty, or seventy or eighty percent? I forget, but the point remains. Tweeting often convinces your followers and the Twitterverse that you're in it for the long haul, that you didn't just set up an account to see what it is like. One tweet I received the other day linked to an article claiming that more than 80 percent of Twitter profiles have fewer than 10 followers. Individuals just passing through don't interest other tweeple and so, to ensure you are not one of those, tweet loud and tweet often. You'll generate respect and engagement (though it may take time) and, in the end, you'll have discovered a great tool that is already having a huge impact in online communications and allows you to spread the word about your great cause and mission!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tweeting For Your Nonprofit (Part I)

I wish Twitter had been around back in the days when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka and the communications director of a non-profit humanitarian organization, American Near East Refugee Aid. Twitter can help communications professionals connect with new supporters, donors and other stakeholders, and develop exposure for the needs facing underserved populations around the world. For those professionals currently tasked with fundraising and generating visibility for your mission or who want to incorporate the use of Twitter into your marketing strategy, here are a few tips and suggestions.

1. Find mutually passionate individuals utilizing Twitter and hashtags

If your organization uses Twitter, one way to reach potential supporters is to find them with hashtags. Tweets are often followed by a number sign and word (e.g. #gaza). These "hashtags" offer a system for filing tweets by subject. At, enter a keyword that is critical to your mission in the box at the top of the screen. Other individuals who have tweeted about this subject with the hashtag will appear in a list that scrolls down the screen. (ANERA, the organization I worked for, provides aid to economically and socially challenged individuals in the Middle East, hence my above example of the Gaza hashtag). Checking out the profiles of those tweeting about subjects related to your mission may encourage you to follow those matching your target audiences. In turn, the connection you establish may encourage them to follow you, as well, creating the basis for a relationship.

2. Find Reporters Who Tweet

Keep a sharp eye out for articles that appear in traditional media related to your mission and/or cause. More and more reporters are using Twitter, and it would be worthwhile, when you find articles highlighting your area of concern, to research the reporter online and determine whether they have Twitter profiles. Following reporters positions you to serve as a resource (and a potential interview source) as they develop more editorial related to the subject. Establishing a Twitter connection also provides access to the reporter's followers, another channel for identifying stakeholders. Scrolling through these followers can help you find other individuals your organization may want to know about, as many of them likely are interested in the same topic as you (i.e. the type of editorial generated by the reporter).

3. Follow Other Fundraising/Charitable Organizations

Are organizations utilizing Twitter to generate coverage for a capital fundraising campaign? Are they tweeting statistics to highlight the plight of underserved populations around the world and to encourage donations? Social media has been, is, and maybe always will be a work-in-progress and in flux. Following other organizations to find out how they are maximizing the value of their presence on Twitter can provide you with ideas or examples for how to successfully execute a communications strategy. One internationally-oriented organization that has a great presence (and a lot of followers!) on Twitter is @charitywater. Another good one is @theonecampaign.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Peace Corps Assignment in Sri Lanka (Part I)

(In light of Sri Lanka's high profile these past few weeks, and the end of the 26-year-old war between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tigers, I submit this multi-part entry on my assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 1998).

When the Peace Corps pulled its volunteers out of Sri Lanka in 1998, I didn't want to go. That year marked the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence from England and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an organized group of militants who'd fought for a Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the country since 1983, had broadened its operations beyond the capital of Colombo to other parts of the country. The Tigers had long been known for their public relations and fundraising successes and 1998, an important symbolic year, provided the chance to grab national and international headlines once again.

As an English language instructor working with the majority Sinhalese in Kandy, I felt reasonably safe. The city had not been targeted in the past nor had the central, western and southern parts of the country, which usually were left in peace. Naturally, these were the areas where Peace Corps stationed its volunteers.

Then came February 1998. By February, I'd been in-country nine months, spoke the Sinhalese language well enough and could travel with relative ease. I was also due for a vacation. Most of the other volunteers were in distant parts of the country, so I couldn't effectively make plans with them (for lack of access to phones), and, anyway, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my time or where I wanted to go; consequently I made no effort to reach out, not even to my friend Kevin in Beliatta, to find out if anyone wanted to travel.

I ended up, unsurprisingly, in Unawatuna, a sadly unheralded beach resort of great splendor in southern Sri Lanka, not far from Galle, where I intended to do little more than read, eat, swim, wander the beach and practice my Sinhalese with the waiters for several days. Despite my rare visits here, the wait staff knew me. Any foreigner who can speak the local language is not easily forgotten. It was on my second or third morning in Unawatuna when I was sitting on the patio of the Happy Banana Restaurant and Hotel, near the Indian Ocean. A hazy heat dulled my senses--though I'd just woken up, I still felt groggy--and, gazing out at the waves, flickering fairies of bouncing sunlight seared my brain, urging me to turn away. I was slow with my eggs and coffee; my mind was a million miles away and when the waiter came by with a plate of sliced bananas, I had to ask him to repeat what he'd just said.

He said it again and this time when I asked him to repeat himself, it wasn't because I hadn't heard his words but because I wasn't sure I'd understood them correctly. With infinite patience, the waiter explained yet again that a suicide bomber had driven a truckload of explosives into the Dalada Maligawa, the world-famous Buddhist temple, in the heart of Kandy, less than two miles from my home. Nearly 20 people had been killed. I had visited the temple recently; the truck had exploded in an place I'd been less than two weeks before.

My first reaction, right there, should have been to call the Peace Corps office in Colombo, tell them I was not in Kandy and that I was all right. But a fairly emotional 25-year-old doesn't always think practically. In a somewhat confused state, I instead left Unawatuna for Galle and caught a bus back to Kandy. I had no real plan or any idea what I was doing or why I was going back. It truly was a rather stupid thing to do. Throughout the journey, I tried feeling out the locals around me--how many of them had heard the news? Did they seem quieter than usual? Did they seem shocked? It was hard to tell; the Sinhalese tend to be a stoical people by nature, and it wasn't until hours later, after I'd switched buses in Colombo and we arrived at the first sentry post on the way into the hill country that I had my first inclination that the impact of the bombing was already rippling through the country.

Sentry points are a daily reality in a war-torn nation such as Sri Lanka; I'd learned to take them in stride. In fact, my experiences only left me only with a sense of entitlement. As a foreigner who could speak Sinhalese, I was obviously not to be toyed with. The guards who had no problems jostling around the locals and irreverently probing through their belongings, treated me like royalty, offering me drinks of water, patting me good-naturedly on the back, and acting as though my comfort was a top priority for them. Well...not today, however. On the afternoon that the Kandy bomb exploded, the sentries who stopped our bus in the foothills of the hill country showed no trace of the good humor I'd become used to. They grabbed and rifled through my bag in the same perfunctory manner which with they investigated everyone else's baggage, made no effort at eye contact and showed no trace of a smile.

I made it through the checkpoint, as did everyone else. But as everyone boarded again and the bus churned up endless switchbacks into the deep green jungle, higher into the hill country and got closer to Kandy, I began to doubt, for the first time, the wisdom of my return. I had an indescribable sense of silence, of absence, of being among people whose lives were no longer there in the bus with me, or among conversation, or social interaction, or of looking through the windows or at the lone foreigner on the bus. Eyes were cast every which way; really, it made no difference. But the one consistency, I thought, was in my ability to sense deep, violent thinking on the part of my bus companions. It was obvious they knew what had happened; if they'd been simply shocked before the sentry point, the visible anger of the guards had, it seemed, given these Sinhalese citizens the permission they needed to tap into their own well of bitterness and fury at the Tamils who had attacked the most precious cultural relic in the country. It was one thing to attack banks and hotels in the capital, symbols of economic wealth, as the Tigers were wont to do. It was another thing to attack the soul of the Sinhalese identity.

During the first few hours of the trip, most people on the bus had sat quietly, unmoving, dwelling more than expressing. But I began to notice some odd twitches now, especially among the men, as though an emotional foundation for action was being laid. I didn't know what this meant. I didn't know if or how the Sinhalese had yet responded to the strike against the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. But it did seem as though I were entering a place where the breaking of a single, psychical string could potentially unleash some really dreadful events.

(Part II to come soon.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

4.4 million People Were Hired in January

Notwithstanding the Dow Jones nosedive today, the last few months have offered indications that the stock market is showing something slightly better than a flat line. The cover of this week's New Yorker even takes a somewhat Lord of the Rings-ish approach to offering glimpses of hope for future days. (Anyone who has seen that visual of a construction worker perched atop the steel-beam frame of a skyscraper and gazing thoughtfully at a fluttering butterfly nearby may recall Gandalf's visitation by an innocent-seeming moth as he's stranded at the top of Saruman's tower with nary a friend in sight.)

But unless you've been asleep for the past two years, you'll assumedly know by now that there is no one indicator of the health of the economy and while the Dow Jones may be up nearly 2,000 points since scraping rock bottom back in early March, several other "cheerful" reminders that we are no longer out of Mirkwood wax profusely. Today's disappointing retail sales report from April (indirect author of the Dow Jones plummet), escalating housing foreclosures and last week's Department of Labor report limning the more than 500,000 lost jobs in April alone vouch for our continued descent into an economic Dante's Inferno.

That's why I really appreciated a rich-media presentation by Forbes Magazine from several months ago called "How to Find a Job". It's been sitting in my e-mail inbox for some time (sent to me by I can't even remember who) but highlighting this very distinct fact: "4.4 million people were hired in January." That's according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wow. I mean, wow. Who'd've thunk it? Of course the report explains that this statistic is like the equivalent of a lone, uplifting jester prancing around a broader, gloomier and more harrowing Shakespearean tragedy of statistics riveting audiences with endless numbers of lost jobs and an increasing percentage of unemployment, leading to more competition, naturally, for every available position.

But the article does so to make a point, which is that finding a job these days requires a few key elements: 1) stop sending out massive amounts of resumes; 2) be creative; 3) network like crazy. I will not go so far as to call the 4.4 million statistic "green shoots"; aside from its trite, overused and frankly, dumb, phrasing, green shoots will not get at the heart of what unemployed folk such as myself must recognize in the coming months and, okay, I'll say it, possibly years.

In a BusinessWeek article from last week, "Jobs: What a Rebound Will Look Like", Moira Herbst suggests that temp hiring will lead the way. It makes sense. Coincidentally, a friend in New York who'd lost her job in early March just began a temp-to-hire position yesterday. That could be what the new job market will look like in the near-term future: a slow ride back up. The economy has been burned, like, really badly these past couple years and investments will crawl back only slowly. And yet, there were those 4.4 million jobs back in January, according to Forbes.

Everyone has a theory on how the employment market will shape up in the near-term. Why blog about it? Why add one more voice? Forbes and BusinessWeek are about as reputable as you can get. What I especially like about the Forbes article is its emphasis on doing more than what job seekers typically do, which is sending out resumes and which, thanks to a glowing economy over the past 20 years, has been usually sufficient to win the prize. Well, I'll tell you, this country is down on its luck right now, and if job-seekers have to step outside the box a little, stand a little taller, think a little more creatively and entrepreneurially to get back in the game, then so be it. I'd hate to think America is an outdated old spinster on its way out to pasture, and if it takes a little more octane and some extraordinary motivation on the part of employment seekers to snag one of those 4.4 million jobs then so be it. We've been lazy for far too long.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Going Green in Denver is a Dirty Business

Last weekend, I volunteered at the Green Festival in Denver, co-hosted by Green America and Global Exchange. My assignment was to oversee a recycling, composting and trash station on the trade show floor. Throughout my four-hour shift, exhibitors and attendees stopped by. In many cases, they knew where to put their waste. Other times, I had to help out. Most of the discarded products--plates, napkins and food waste--went right into the compost bin. What surprised some people was that the utensils went there, too; the food vendors were using products made of corn. Occasionally, when I was engaged in routing one person's waste to the correct bin, I didn't have time to get to someone else who ended up dropping such items in the trash bin. In those cases, my hands encased in latex gloves, I went foraging through the trash to dig it out. Not fun, but after a while, it became second nature to rummage through all the discarded items.

It wasn't always easy to figure out where discarded items belonged, though. Our volunteer leader, for example, said one particular kind of fork belonged in the trash. He snapped one in front of me, pointed out how the easy break revealed it as cheap plastic, and then threw it away. And yet, about a half hour later, he returned with a sheepish expression. He'd checked the box the forks had come in and admitted he'd made a mistake, that in fact, those forks could be composted too.

There is a lot involved in learning how to go green and, in some cases, it is a dirty job. Many items were recycled: Tetra Pak juice containers, e-waste such as batteries, and bottle caps. Aveda has a bottle-cap recycling program. After a few hours, someone came over with a giant, empty, plastic meal container. It had obviously come from outside the festival because it looked different from anything I'd seen that day. Sure enough, it had to go into the trash. After all the hours I'd spent routing different products to the recycling and composting bins, that plastic container seemed like the ugliest thing I had seen all day.

One of the most fascinating parts of the day, and which I suppose is the element of going green that people know (or care to know) the least about was when I emptied the bin bags, tied them and brought them through a side door of the well-adorned trade show floor. (The festival was in the Denver convention center). In a low-lit loading dock out back, other members of the green team were emptying waste content from the bin bags onto long, flat tables and sorting through it. The festival had partnerships with different recycling and composting vendors, and sorting through the waste materials was essential to making sure everything ended up going to the right place (in most cases, not to the local landfill). While I was on the trade floor, several people actually asked me who our partners were. I was wearing a staff t-shirt and the assumption they'd made was that I wasn't just the guy standing at the bin station but that I also knew a lot more about the business relationships in place. I wished I could have been more helpful.

Another fascinating part of the green festival was the number of devout and appreciative expressions I received, ones you would expect would be reserved for the likes of heads of state and rock stars. That greatly surprised me. I supposed I might be perceived as the grubby guy sorting through the trash, but this event had drawn loyal and very committed advocates of sustainable living. In hindsight, I suppose, the volunteers monitoring the stations were perceived as nothing less than front-line warriors of the green movement.

By the end of my shift, I had unloaded five composting bags and only one trash bag from the bins while my station partner, who was overseeing the recycling bin, had unloaded three bags. As Thomas Friedman and Auden Schendler have pointed out, the sustainability movement isn't an ethereal, magical party. It's a dirty job. Being on the front line is quite an experience.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Renewable Energy: Not Just for our Wise Elders

Last night, I attended the May meeting of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden. The topic was "Climate Change and the Role of Concentrating Solar Power" and the speaker was Chuck Kutscher, principal engineer and manager of the Thermal Systems Group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and past chair of the American Solar Energy Society.

Dr. Kutscher spoke about solar energy technologies that can help us achieve sufficient base load generation for the nation's electricity needs while cutting our carbon emissions essentially to nil. His focus last night was concentrating solar power.

What struck me most about the meeting, however, was the average age of the attendee. I would say close to 100 people came to the presentation but no more than five or six were under 40. There is an incredible amount of data, statistics and insights available regarding the current course of global warming and climate change. Dr. Kutscher alluded several times to the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But successfully overcoming the challenges facing our planet will require a long-term effort and the generation of Americans that is only now entering the workforce will need to know as much as possible as soon as possible. So where were they last night?

Both Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat and Crowded, and Auden Schendler in Getting Green Done address in no uncertain terms the variety of "feel-good" initiatiaves we have chosen to pursue as a society, while patting ourselves on the backs for doing it. Every magazine in the world, it seems, has a green issue out filled with tips and suggestions for how we can all make a personal difference in saving the planet. What bullshit! Friedman and Schendler suggest. And they are right. I wonder, though, if this low-hanging and ultimately unproductive fruit is what most of our younger professionals are drawn to.

It's no secret that engineers and technical specialists have been in short supply in this country for a long time. The work they do is decidedly unsexy, the value of entering these fields has not been sufficiently marketed, and younger generations have been increasingly drawn to other fields. Nevertheless, it is the technical professionals who will ultimately make the greatest contributions toward ending our reliance on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.

Younger professionals who choose to pursue only feel-good efforts won't save the planet. This generation must begin working NOW to develop the technical talent and familiarity with renewable technologies needed to make a real difference, no matter how unsexy it seems.

And yet...there were virtually none of these people at Dr. Kutscher's presentation last night...and that frightens me almost as much as the stark realities of climate change and global warming.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Perspective in Tragedy: Honoring Binghamton and the Rest of Us

This morning the U.S. Department of Labor released its March (un)employment report and, as expected, the numbers were pretty rough, spiking the nation's unemployment rate to 8.5 percent. One amusing aspect of the DOL language--only a dry, bureaucratic government report could pull this one off--was how it described the unemployed as "job losers" (paragraph 4). Even I had to smile. Yes, I am a job loser.

My home page on Internet Explorer is iGoogle, and I subscribe to several news feeds--from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and the Denver Post--so that, whenever I access the Internet, the latest, greatest and most troublesome flotsam and jetsam from the planet at large are summarized in tweet-sized headlines before my very eyes. As expected, the unemployment figures loomed large in virtually every feed window as I initiated the day's perpetually cheerful and long job search.

That is, until Binghamton.

Fourteen people were shot and killed at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, NY earlier today (as of this writing, the shooter is "possibly" included in those statistics, according to the New York Times) with several others injured, some critically. To the extreme credit of the media, the unemployment figures were suddenly given second billing.

I received my undergraduate degree from Binghamton University in 1994 and, as I read through coverage of today's tragedy, several phrases--Broome County, Johnson City--brought me stirringly back to the early '90s when that was a familiar and an incredibly happy landscape in my life. Coincidentally, I also got a message today, before the shooting occurred, from a Binghamton friend whom I recently reconnected with on Facebook.

Of course, I didn't spend my entire college career there. During my freshman and sophomore years, I studied English at Virginia Tech where Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 students and teachers (and injured more than 20 others) before killing himself back in the spring of 2007. I studied under some of the same professors as Cho, some of whom were quoted in the national media after the massacre, including Edward Falco, an early mentor.

Fast forward to my years with the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka where our group of volunteers was evacuated early from two years of service because the nation's civil war was getting increasingly violent. A suicide bomber detonated himself, killing 17 other people less than two miles from my home in the city of Kandy. The city almost rioted and, over the course of the following weeks, my walk to work as a teacher meant navigating through groups of gun-toting and very dour-looking soldiers who'd been mobilized to either keep watch over suspicious Tamil homes and businesses, or to protect those Tamils from being attacked by furious Sinhalese mobs.

But because the Peace Corps is so concerned about the volunteers' safety, they took us out of Sri Lanka early and I found myself instead working for the organization in a much safer place--the World Trade Center in New York City. No, I wasn't there during 9/11, I had by that unforgettable date moved on to another office job two blocks from the White House.

I hope Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper doesn't read this blog post. He may ask me, rather politely of course, to please leave his city.

How does one make sense of the proximity to so much violence? Is this blog post solipsistic and self-indulgent? Yes, probably. I mean, what about the Sri Lankans themselves who have been suffering from the civil war since 1983? What about Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps for half a century? A friend of mine from Binghamton is Serbian and his country wasn't exactly having an easy time of it when we were hanging out together in the early 1990s. Most importantly, what about those who are no longer with us simply because of today's tragedy in Binghamton or any of the other events mentioned above?

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who's been amusedly hard on President Obama of late, pointed out in a recent New York Times editorial that, for the poor, today's economic downturn literally is an event that could precipitate a struggle between life and death. He's correct and, in one sense, I would argue this represents perhaps the worst tragedy of all since such a perpetually marginalized group will not even enjoy the benefit of a national media spotlight during their final downfall. What did T. S. Eliot say in The Hollow Men?: "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. "

One of my most powerful memories from Sri Lanka was in the final days of training, just before the 16 of us were to be sworn in as volunteers. A group of Buddhist monks, bald, scary-looking and swaddled in saffron robes, was called upon to deliver a blessing upon this scraggly, smelly group of Americans. As they sat regally in cushioned chairs behind the only table in the room (we, of course, were uncomfortably crouching and complaining about it on the floor), the monks quietly unspooled a ball of thread and asked each of us to press our fingers to a small piece of it. The unspooled thread started with one monk, passed among the volunteers, and ended with another monk at the far end of the table. Throughout the blessing--a chant in Pali, the ancient language of Buddha--it was hard not to feel connected with virtually every being and force in the world. I think that was their intention. Through it all, I kept my eyes closed.

Today's sad events in Binghamton are a powerful reminder. Of what, I won't say, since all it will do is come across like a bad cliche. But it's there anyway. Times are tough right now for millions of people not only in this country but around this world. The economic crisis. The war that is close to ending in Sri Lanka but at the expense of immense human rights abuses. There still is no peace in the Middle East.

I know I am an incredibly lucky man, no matter what my current situation. And in any case, whatever ends up happening, I doubt I'll ever let go of that long piece of thread.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Selling Fear: How to Frighten Americans and Make Money

I'm feeling good.

At the Tattered Cover Bookstore the other day, a certain book title grabbed my attention: The Great Depression Ahead: How to Prosper in the Crash Following the Greatest Boom in History by Harry Dent. Searching for similarly inspiring titles later on, I found these lovely little nuggets: Game Over: How You Can Prosper in a Shattered Economy by Stephen Leeb and The Wall Street Journal Guide to the End of Wall Street as We Know It: What You Need to Know about the Greatest Financial Crisis of our Time--and How to Survive It by Dave Kansas.

Reading the book jacket of The Great Depression Ahead, Mr. Dent predicts apocalypse (well, maybe I'm being slightly hyperbolic). However, IF you buy his book, he says, he will provide helpful advice for how you and your family can thrive in the midst of troubled times. And then yesterday, after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner put forth a plan to purchase toxic assets from banks that set the markets soaring, this is what Mr. Leeb, above-mentioned author and President at Leeb Capital Management, had to say on "The plan is a rehash of what we've seen before and it still doesn't resolve the issue of how to value the bad assets."

He does have have a point about valuing assets; it still is one of the unresolved challenges facing a government that wants to flush out the banks, recapitalize them and restore faith in the markets. I wonder, though, whether Mr. Leeb might also be concerned that if Americans start showing such optimism and confidence as they did yesterday, his book sales may go the way of the Dow Jones last October. Was yesterday an opportunity for him to renew the call for fear and uncertainty?

Fear is a ball bouncing around the wreckage that is our economy today and it took Larry Summers on March 13 to say enough is enough. "It is this transition from an excess of greed to an excess of fear that President Roosevelt had in mind when he famously observed that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself," he was quoted as saying.

Americans have always looked for an easy way to earn easy money or assets: first, the VC crowd was sure it was doing right when it overcapitalized the dot-coms a decade ago. Whoops. Next came the subprime gurus who offered to give...I mean sell you a house without your actually having to pay for it. What we're seeing now is the emergence of fearmongers to tap into people's emotions and there is no emotion like fear to drive people to action.

Insightful salesmen recognize that...and they will take advantage of it. Don't let the books scare you; let's face it, if Warren Buffet can't get through these tough times without taking a hit then neither will you or I, no matter what anyone tells you. And great salesmen can, as the saying goes, sell dirt to a farmer, so it's worth being careful when people get up on their boxes and start telling us the end is nigh. But I actually think, in one way, that this phenomenon of promoting fear for profit is a good sign: it shows that, however much we as American are changing as a result of this crisis, in some ways we are still the same.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sustaining your reputation on Twitter

At a breakfast meeting of PR and marketing communications professionals in Broomfield, CO yesterday, five of us discussed how a social media tool such as Twitter can be used to reach customers and convince them to make purchases.

That question, by itself, has a simple answer: it can't. However, utilizing Twitter as one tool of a broader marketing mix of tactics can help position your product or service for greater exposure among audiences that otherwise might not know what you offer--and you get that at no cost. Assumedly, your tweets have been customized to reach the right tweeple (I loved writing that!) and include links to a web site or blog with more information about that product/service.

In one sense, Twitter is just another channel to deliver a message to a targeted audience. But in another sense, being on Twitter has a perceived value (real or not) that helps sustain the communicator's reputation and potentially the product or service. Sustain a reputation? Don't you mean enhance it?

Not really. Nowadays, everyone is on Twitter, Facebook and/or LinkedIn (MySpace is definitely yesterday's papers) and we feel compelled to participate in the social media conversation. It's an unspoken contract and what's more important is that a growing number of our customers expect communicators, in particular, to participate even if they don't know why.

So when it comes to measuring the impact of tweeting about your product or service, the question is one about quality more than quantity. It's not what you gain by doing it. It's about what you stand to lose--being perceived as out of touch, uninformed, not up-to-date--if you're NOT tweeting. And if you're out of touch, what does that say about your product or service? (As an aside, evaluating the success of your marketing tactics is always important and Aaron Uhrmacher has a helpful blog post called How to Measure Social Media ROI for Business.)

Twitter has brought us all back in time to high school where you absolutely must be fashionable. I suppose I'm willing to go along with it, just as long as they don't bring back big hair and mullets.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Getting Started - Week Two of the Job Search

Beginning a job search is a challenge any time. In late 2007, when people were scratching their heads and wondering how the subprime mortgage collapse might impact the broader economy, I was looking for work in Denver. Now, only a year and a half later, after Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Fannie Mae, GM and Chrysler, we KNOW the impact. And I'm now at it again. A couple thoughts follow from my short time as a jobless Denverite:

1. Don't panic! Thanks to Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for this nifty bit of wisdom. We're in the middle of a recession and lots of people are losing their jobs. This week's cover story in the Economist is The Jobs Crisis. While some of us may have helpful support mechanisms (e.g. savings, family support or lotto winnings), which makes this advice easier to pursue, panicking won't move you to your next job or the next phase of your life. If you don't know what resources you have at your disposal, a skills audit or reassessment may be helpful. It also may be time to discover your inner entrepreneur. Remember that this isn't happening to you. This is happening to the country and the globe.

2. Prepare. Where to start? Somewhere. Polish your resume. Scan the job boards. Read some career advice articles or, if you're in Denver (or even if you're not), listen to Andrew Hudson on Channel 4's "Beat the Recession" webcast. Better yet, take a few days off to give yourself the mental and emotional space you need to absorb what just happened. Just over a week after the dust settled from my job loss, I went to see the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Denver. Seeing Darth Vader wave improbably to everyone (he should have worn a green suit) was just what I needed! Focusing yourself also can keep you from your thoughts spinning in a million different unhealthy directions.

3. Prepare to be distracted. There may be more involved in the job search than you realize, but that's not a bad thing. It's also an opportunity to learn new skills. Yesterday morning, I had a couple items on my bulleted list of job-search activities that included a quick scan of the Career Experts Q&A page on PRSA's web site. It turns out I found two great articles on developing a professional portfolio with insights that went well beyond what I'd ever completed in the past in developing one. My bulleted list went out the window and I spent the next 3.5 hours integrating material from my last job into my portfolio and thinking seriously about how I could effectively present it to potential employers in the future. Getting sidetracked isn't always a bad thing.

4. Take Baby Steps. I sent out two resumes last week. Only two. Not a whole lot. But I also did some great networking, learned about a number of professional resources and an upcoming job fair. It could be that I still haven't been out of the labor market long enough to understand the desperation of other job seekers I hear about who are sending out tons of resumes. I concede that point, and my day may come. But my current philosophy is to generate a few small victories by finding and applying for job postings that look exciting (consider looking around the country to broaden your opportunities). First of all, take time to understand who you are and what you offer--then take action.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Considering the freelance option in today's down economy

The New York Times has been covering the movement of newly unemployed professionals to freelancing at "In Hard Times, Freelancers Turn to the Web" and "Weary of Looking for Work, Some Create Their Own". Becoming a successful entrepreneur typically takes discipline, persistence, self-motivation, a positive spirit and sufficient skills to develop and implement a solid business plan. But of course it can be done. I wonder if the lack of sufficient employment opportunities these days will urge professionals with time on their hands to discover their inner entrepreneur. PRSA's ComPRehension blog had a recent post along similar lines. Definitely a sign of the times.

Starting from Scratch

A scratch presumes an itch. And right now I'm itching to take the next step in my public relations career following a corporate restructuring that is about to leave me unemployed. First, let me say I am grateful for all I have learned and accomplished over the past year or more. Secondly, it is daunting to begin blogging without having done so before, which leaves one uncertain about one's own voice..."Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience..."