Showing posts from June, 2013

Invested In The Mistake

"Horrible Biscuit Disaster" via Flickr
Many have tried to teach me cooking over the years and many have failed.

It's not their fault; they give me good recipes. Which I then, being creative, fail to follow.

There have been times when I did try, really. Went online and printed actual what-to-dos. Ingredients. Measurements. Baking times.

But even then, I mess things up.

Like reasoning: You can substitute white sugar for brown sugar, right? Because "it's all sugar" so "they're both the same."

Or thinking: "I should be able to broil these muffins, right?" Because the igniter in the oven was broken, but the broiler worked, and I really, really wanted a batch.

But the biggest mistake I make with cooking is never admitting to failure.

Some people can salvage dry turkey, like my aunt. It is amazing how she revives a nearly-dead bird.

I cannot do what my aunt does. But neither can I just say so.

And so with the charred muffins, there I am, adding icing…

Your Brand Is No Good If It's Rotten Inside

Photo by Tishamp via Flickr
Awhile back we were looking at real estate. At one place they had a batch of chocolate chip cookies on the counter.

Those cookies smelled so good. Steam rose out of them. They were warm to the touch. I took three.
The place was not otherwise appealing to me. It had narrow spindly stairs, it was too far from mass transit, and the area was sterile.
Staging the entry got me in the door. But the nuts and bolts were all wrong.
Often we visit Florida. I love the Sunshine State. But once there, some troubling observations.
--The lady working in the hotel gift shop can't recommend an activity because "I can't afford anything around here." 
--The guy scrubbing the stairwell on his hands and knees with a brush.
--The rich hotel guest berating the desk clerk. The clerk apologizes profusely. Then curses the guest when she walks away.
--The man in the touristy place who can't wait to be served till we take a photo. Who says to me, impatiently, "My mone…

We Need An Enemy

Photo source:

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was a Hasid, a mystic, who sought in the forest holiness.

His thinking could be considered existential psychology. He knew that humans are prone to despair. He offered   pragmatic self-help techniques like meditation, music, and direct personal dialogue with G-d.
Along the way Breslov left a body of insightful writings about human nature. 
He taught: Man (humanity) is perpetually at war. If not with an external enemy, then on the inside, with himself or herself.
Think about what this means, really.
We not only ARE at war against something all the time.
Rather, we NEED to have an enemy.
In politics it's well-known that the quickest way to galvanize people is to invent a crisis.
But the need is really deeper than that.
If you want to win a PR war, sell a product or change a culture (all of this is marketing) you have to understand the fighting nature of a person. Of the group. 
We are always and forever at war. We want to vanquish the en…

5 PR Lessons Inspired By War

"Game of Thrones" image via ShmoesKnow; Seasons 1-3 available at
We do not often talk about it this way, but PR is actually (postmodern) warfare. Here are some concepts to keep in mind:

1. The "spoils of war" are primarily credibility and only secondarily whatever tactical objective you seek. Always focus on gaining and keeping credibility. 
2. Offense wins, defense loses, unless the defense is extremely sympathetic. Normally people identify with the winner. Attacking the defense is a show of weakness and should be avoided.
3. In a confrontation, accommodation is defeat. Physical and symbolic shows of strength are critical. 
4. Honor beats treachery, but skilled treachery frequently displays itself as honor. Be ready with documentation.
5. When you're dead, lie down and take the hit. Then take ownership of defeat by embracing and then coopting the other side. 
In the end, in PR, what matters is always control of the message. You must own your own story, gua…

On The Verge of A Major Breakthrough (New Slideshare Presentation - June 23, 2013)

Just posted this new presentation at SlideShare, but the gist of it is this. A lot of us are stovepiped right now in functions that seem disparate: knowledge management, employee engagement, internal social networking, organizational development, human capital, knowledge management, project management, communication and branding.  In the very near future, sometime between 1-3 years, I foresee that all of these disciplines will converge into one overarching function -- something like "enabling employees to drive maximum value for the organization, while enriching their knowledge and social networks, with minimum hassle." (We need a shorter title.) We will need to put them together in order to adapt to an extremely rapidly-changing marketplace where the brand is the organizing principle for a very fluid group of people, geographically distributed yet tightly knit. We will see that the neglected discipline of internal communication becomes the linchpin for all of these functions, n…

Paranoia, Self Destroyer

People are scared that they can't speak freely anymore. Or as freely, which is just as bad but more subtle.
I have actually had people tell me on the phone, "I can't say what I am thinking out loud," i.e. because "they" are listening and you work for government. (I always say, "they know me already," i.e. that I am a free thinker, yes, but not a subversive.)
Colleagues have said, "Don't tell anyone, but my family likes Sarah Palin." (I like Sarah Palin and admire public servants from every side of the spectrum. One of my best friends is a super-liberal-progressive Democrat. And if you are curious, I am a libertarian.)
In discussions, there comments where people take the time to say," Don't accuse me of being unpatriotic." (I always apologize if I gave that impression.)
Of course they are scared.
Remember that remark about the "vast right-wing conspiracy?" (There are always remarks about conspiracies.)
There are dail…

Change Happens When? 10 Conditions

It is tempting to fall into that thought trap that says, "making change happen is difficult if not impossible."
This is not true at all. Change is possible, it can happen. It is only a question of knowing how.
Speaking as someone who tries to learn from success and failure (which stinks and is embarrassing by the way), some thoughts:
1. Approach as a friend not a challenger or G-d forbid a foe. Mentally this must be true and not an act.
2. Focus on severe pain points (and have a very clear vision of what no-pain looks and feels like). Severe pain is a process that hurts like a toothache, that is dreaded, that people truly suffer through.
3. Make the change yourself first. No preaching, no flashy launches, no cheesy or cutesy announcements. Just do it, seriously.
4. Situate yourself within a community of sympathetic people. They may or may not work with you but they should similarly appreciate the issues.
5. Help the people on the fence, whom you want to recruit. Usually they get th…

The end of corruption is followership

I have told this story often.
When I was little we used to drive these long distance trips to see the family.
My dad did the drive all alone. Me and my sister in the backseat. Mom in front on the passenger side.
Sometimes when it was 2 or 3 a.m. I would wake up. I could see my dad's reflection in the windshield mirror. A few times I saw him nodding off.
And I would go, "Wake up, Daddy! Wake up!"
"Oh," he would startle awake and open his eyes. And pretend he had never been sleeping.
Followers must hold leaders to account. More than that we set the agenda. Often we think that the opposite is true, that we are helpless victims of whoever is in charge.
But the reality is quite different.
There was a woman protesting in Brazil. The policeman stood in front of her and sprayed her entire face with pepper spray. I saw the picture on CNN.
The "standing man" protest in Turkey was similarly televised.
In Israel the wife of a cult leader protested the treatment of infants …

Transparency & Secrecy Can Coexist

King Solomon said, "to everything there is a season" -- an appropriate place and time.
There are times when secrecy, aka privacy is good. During those times, transparency is not.
People need privacy -- solitude. To walk among the trees. To work out their feelings and thoughts.
Couples need privacy.
Families need privacy.
Religious communities need privacy.
Organizations need privacy.
Politicians need privacy.
There is no exception to this rule.
Privacy is not inherently suspicious. But it has become so. It is bad manners for example to refuse to be in a photo.
I was watching a crime show on TV. They were questioning a wide range of possible suspects. 
The policeman said, "Where were you on the night of the crime?" 
The suspect responded, "I was driving around in my car."
"And then what?" asked the policeman.
"I went to the diner," said the suspect.
"Do you have a receipt?"
"No!" and the suspect slammed his hand down on the table. L…

Communication: velvet glove or iron fist?

When it comes to judging someone's credibility I look for direct statements.
It is X it is not Y and here's the reason.
Often as we rise to positions of power our language becomes more indirect.
You can't say this - you shouldn't word it so - the press or our partners will take it the wrong way.
My mother used to say, I can stand anything but a liar and I can tell you this is true.
As soon as she hears those lying words her nostrils flare with rage. They do.
You may think you are being tactful but the impression is sometimes the opposite.
Say what you mean and mean what you say, and for goodness sake please keep it simple.

New Slide Presentation: What It Means To "Think Brand First"

Personal Social Media Activities & The Federal Employee - 10 Practical Considerations*

Photo by Brian Talbot via Flickr
What are federal employees allowed to do in a non-official capacity when using social media?
Over the years I've had the opportunity to read, write, talk and listen to a lot of experts and I still don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution. However, these are the general principles I follow.

Please note - it's not only about the letter of the law but the spirit -- and often it involves a judgment call. When I am not sure, I ask questions. 
All that said, here is some personal, informal advice. On the profile and in the blog, as warranted, note: "all opinions my own." That said, be real, be yourself, but avoid seeming too edgy or extreme.  You are allowed to be a human being. Human beings have lives, have experiences, move through the world, and experience things. We have opinions and we disagree. You do not have to be afraid to be human and also be online. You just have to be mindful of what you are doing, and who is watching…

Preserving Your Personal Brand When The Organization Is In Crisis

Screenshot via
The other day I was in the elevator with a couple and their teenage son. We all got out on the first floor.

"Excuse me," she said, in accented English that wasn't like any accent I usually hear. "The conference room, where can I find it?" When she took out a pamphlet and pointed at it, it confirmed my thought - they were foreign tourists.

"I don't know," I said. "I'm sorry." Her husband and son looked at me and shrugged. Their expressions were blank, as if to say, "Whatever - we didn't expect any help from you."

Just at that moment I turned to her, without thinking. "Are you from another country, visiting this country?"

"Yes," she said. "We're from Italy."

And again, without thinking I said: "Well, welcome to the USA. I hope that you enjoy your trip."

Just at that moment, the three of them looked at me. They were startled. It was a nice kind …

Applying the "7 Truths" To Communicating Re: Sexual Harassment In The Military

The below was in response to a question posed to me on GovLoop, based on my blog "7 Truths Re: Communicating Controversy."
Before I say anything let me say that I am truly grateful to the military community for their service. I do not know what they go through. Their sacrifices, the sacrifices of their families. They see unimaginable horror. They give their lives and their limbs. I know that I am not them and am speaking from the outside.

The issue of sexual harassment of women, and men, in the military and in combat is one of the most difficult issues I can imagine communicating about because the very model of traditional militarism involves dominance as a model - physical, mental, etc.

Also, I think this issue could be extended to cover discrimination around gender more broadly, including gays and lesbians who serve.

All of that said - some thoughts. Again, as always all opinions my own and with the deepest respect.

#1 - "Stand Your Ground." Is there that 100% commitm…

Rhetoric Creates Reality and Other Laws of Communication That Government Ignores

As a general rule, government tends to make three key mistakes in the doing of communication:

When in doubt, say less - rooted in a vague, generalized fear of negative feedback that sends people into panic mode.Choose technical accuracy over simple plain English - rooted in a belief that "hard skills" (e.g. the technical expertise associated with the mission) are more valuable to the mission than "soft skills" like communication.Underestimating the audience - rooted in an overemphasis on the coordination that happens at the senior level and an underemphasis on communication that happens at the grassroots level, combined with a lack of clearly articulated goals and metrics.
The private sector, being primarily concerned with the earning of profit and not the balancing of multitudinous and contradictory stakeholder needs, has less trouble with this.

Brands know that trust is earned through talk, through simplicity, and through dialogue.

The government did get this right i…

Who government communicators compete with

We may not be private sector but we have plenty of competition.

--Those who want to do our jobs because communication is "not a real specialty" and "anyone can do it."

--Those who want to build an empire out of the communication function by spending as much as possible and in the flashiest way possible and of course with the most staff, under which system everything goes through them.

--Those who want to edit everything they see, just because they can, then have an agency and interagency cast of thousands review it, to "coordinate," and generally hem and haw and delay endlessly until nobody cares anymore

--Those who kill every creative idea as if by some reflex -- but make it sound like a reasonable and real excuse every time

-- Finally those who hold information that rightfully belongs to the public, as if it were their own personal treasure trove - and when you advocate to make that information easy to use and accessible, engaging and plain English (eg the l…

The 10 Stages Of Every PR Crisis & Some Thoughts On How To Handle Them

Looking broadly across the many crises that have unfolded over the years, they seem to all share roughly the same 10 stages in common. If I could make one overall point it is this:
"Pay now or pay later."

That is - right or wrong, if leadership takes responsibility early on, gets all the information out, and does something dramatic and real to fix it - people usually will prefer to keep the organization intact rather than make a major change.

1. Precipitating event 
Something happens. It can be one event, at one time or many events over a long period. It can be related events, or events that seem unrelated. Of course things happen all the time that are "not good," but not all of them rise to the level of a scandal or a crisis. A "not-good happening" becomes a "precipitating event" when the public defines it as a crisis. (The outrage happens in Stage 4, so crises are defined retroactively.)

2. Operational consequence 
The crisis has an impact on someon…

5 Observed Laws Of Pricing

1. Once a thing has been free you cannot charge for it without a significant brand or improvement (e.g. no-spy public wifi)
2. The more expensive a thing gets, the more expensive we expect it to get. Discounts are then counterproductive.
3. Brands and sales do not go together.
4. Charging for a thing makes it seem better. Often the less you charge, you find you cannot give it away.
5. The less you charge for a thing the more aggravated a customer gets over minor variations in price. So charge one price if possible (eg McDonald's coffee $1 for any size).

The Issue Is Accountability, Not Privacy

One of my favorite movies was on the other day -- "Enemy of the State" with Will Smith. In the end of course Will Smith the individual wins out. He is better than the bureaucratic machine and its All-Seeing Eye.
We are in the midst of a national and international freakout over privacy. But we long ago accepted that privacy was dead. We signed that agreement when we signed up for Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and all those other sites that collect our information and keep it in some mysterious place we’ve never heard of.
If we were worried about our privacy it seems that ship has long ago sailed. Do we not have health records in the doctor’s office and/or hospital? Do our employers keep files on us? Our schools?
What about those apps where you “check in” no matter where you are, like Foursquare. (I assume I am the Queen of the McDonald’s drive-through right now since my addiction to the egg-white and and white cheddar sandwich, hold the turkey bacon please, now reigns supreme.)

7 Truths Re: Communicating Controversy

Image via Dr. Wayne Dyer
1. Stand your ground. "Own it." Be loud and proud - do not shy away from your identity, beliefs or ideas. Flaunt it. "Let your freak flag fly." Do not apologize. Celebrate instead. The fact is that you can be legitimate and unpopular at the same time. Oh well. People will respect you in the end.
2. Honor others' right to disagree - intensely. Oddly, people who represent extreme or controversial beliefs often try to squash disagreement in ways ranging from the subtle to the obvious. It's almost as if they think they can force their views into the mainstream by doing so. Remember, you are mainly talking to your detractors! And you can't force them to agree or trick them into doing so, either. Generally if you want to win people over to your side, it's important to show respect for them and to lay off the proselytizing and pressuring.
3. Explain yourself early. Frequently communicators of controversial subjects wait until people a…

Marketing, Lies & The Culture Of Personal Truth

Photo by Luke Roberts via Flickr
When I was eight and moved to Monsey, New York, I lived the lie that my family was ultra-Orthodox. But the other kids found out my mom wore pants and didn't cover her hair. And they made fun of me.

In sleep-away camp I lived the lie that I was as rich as the kids who paid o go there. But my mom was the camp nurse, my tuition was free, and my clothes gave away the secret. We weren't rich at all.
When I went to college I lived the lie that I at least kept the Sabbath. Then I spent a weekend at my friend Janima's house in Pennsylvania. Her dad drove us around town and it was fun. I returned to school on Sunday and when I spoke to my mother, she didn't like what she heard. I did not hear from her for awhile.
Lying to get by, to be accepted, to be loved. We suffer from the lies that were imposed on us. But we learn at the same time that masks are necessary.
In fact it is a social skill to lie. So why am I always amazed at how smoothly people do i…

Validating The Other Person - A Key Communication Skill

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bronco Suzuki via Flickr. It shows U.S. Army Sgt. Dustin Mace, left, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, playing pattycakes with a child in the Furat area of Baghdad, Iraq, May 8, 2007. 
My daughter was frustrated with me the other night.

Tired and impatient, I rushed her through the edits needed for her English essay. She stomped out of the room.
Five minutes later she was back.
"I want to read you a letter."
She then read me about a page and a half of notes. About how my impatience made her feel. (Essentially like being run over by a truck.)
If she had merely said those words to me and not taken the time to write them, I would likely have dismissed her feedback. Emotion meets emotion and the net effect is zero.
But when I saw the words themselves I realized that the effect of my impatience was imprinted on her brain.
When we take the time to validate people it does not mean we agree wit…

To Make The Organization Transparent To Itself

Image via free wallpapers

The ordinary person can't avoid germs. In just the same way the organization can't avoid potentially toxic environmental hazards.

This is because organizations are composed of people - plenty of psychological problems there. 
Those people interact in groups - which means power struggles and cultural conflict.
Groups are of many different kinds - some inherent to the organization and some not. For example there could be differences between one department and another. Between genders. Or both and many others.
Both individuals and groups compete for resources. So now we bolt on another layer of conflict, the economic struggle to survive.
And we still have not considered all the pressures from outside the organization. That is the many stakeholders who want to influence its direction.

If you stop to think about it...
Organizational health is achievable. It is.
But it has to be taken as seriously and as literally as the physical health of an individual.
In t…

Thoughts On The "Deviance" Of Employees Who Speak Up

Internally unfortunately caring and committed employees are often labeled as "rogue", in different words ("loose cannon," "troublemaker"). They get this label when they see and name the elephant in the room. Could be anything from a broken process to worse. They are not at all "outside" the team, they are "of" the team and the mission and they care that much that they put themselves at risk to speak.

This is not to say that there aren't actually troubled employees who act to destroy the organization - that is a completely different matter. Those employees must be separated from the group and held to account. (Leaders are responsible for seeing and acting.)

The point has been made that "rogue" can be used as a way of shifting blame even as blame is taken. It should be said that without a full and transparent investigation one does not know for sure, and using partial evidence (this person's words or that person's acc…