Monday, October 31, 2011

When bad feedback is actually good

It is common when you analyze coverage of a brand to look for “tone” – as in “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.”


Most people think automatically that “positive” = “good.”


But that is not always the case.


Sometimes bad coverage or bad feedback can actually be outstanding for the brand. Examples:


1.    Audience branding: Very generally, for teenagers the fact that their parents hate a brand, pretty much automatically means they are going to be interested in it and possibly will like it very much. This was the entire premise of the movie Footloose. Today, think Goth – nose piercings, black lipstick & nail polish, ripped clothing, etc. Or the pants-falling-off look. Tattoos, skinny jeans, texting.


2.    Product branding: Uggs boots are deliberately ugly yet extremely popular among people who pride themselves on their looks. Silly Bandz are self-consciously silly. Crocs are atrocious-looking. A Big Mac or a Whopper draws the ire of health-conscious consumers and their advocates but is a delight to those who like to thumb their nose at these “minders.”


3.    Personal branding: A recent article in Harvard Business Review talked about how fear-inducing get more respect than nice and fair ones. Though drill sergeant types can go too far and be frighteningly abusive, often people tend to respect the same people in authority whose authority they complain about. The whole fun of “The Apprentice” is that moment when Trump points his finger at someone and says, “You’re fired!”


4.    Experience branding: The rude bouncer at the popular nightclub is a Hollywood staple – think “Night at the Roxbury.” Or remember Seinfeld, where the “Soup Nazi” kicked people out of the eatery arbitrarily? Or on “Sex and the City,” where Carrie & company waited with bated breath to get into that exclusive new restaurant where it was impossible to get a table? The more exclusive and exclusionary the destination, and sometimes the longer you wait for service, the higher the perceived value of the experience.


5.    Technology branding: There are people for whom the joy of the brand is its puzzling difficulty. Think Android vs. iPhone or Ubuntu vs. Mac and even Windows. Like trying to solve the Rubik’s cube, sometimes the fun is in the impossibility.


Often valuable brands are polarizing. This is easy to see in the political world, where some candidates who could never get elected because they inspire so much passion on both sides can actually sell a lot of books, get on TV, etc.


When it comes to cars the same is true. The haters of “gas-guzzling SUVs” are countered by the lovers of muscle who simultaneously belittle “those wimpy Prius owners.”


When it comes to branding, once basic functionality is achieved, all bets are off and the emotional and sometimes irrational take over. The fact that someone is paying enough attention to hate a brand is far more profitable than someone not caring at all. Because for a brand, no attention = no sales and therefore, death.


Of course, times when bad feedback is exactly what it sounds like – bad – and should be taken seriously. The point is to use discretion and evaluate where it’s coming from, why it’s being said, what the context is, and what the underlying psychological meaning might be.


Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy your life.

My dad didn't like going to rallies. Having escaped one attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, his worst nightmare was a repeat attempt, and he was not going to provoke trouble with photos of the family demonstrating - no matter how legally and peacefully.

As far as communication style went - quiet, quiet, quiet.

I am half-Satmar (an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect), though not raised in Williamsburg, and one of our basic tenets was that "other people can make noise, but not us." Especially not women (see forthcoming memoir by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox). We learned to keep our mouths shut and not step outside and not go public with any sort of comment or criticism. The attitude was and is, "We take care of our own; if you don't like it, leave."

That solution was pretty well determined from the start. Like other people my childhood was a confusing hybrid of ultra-Orthodoxy, modern Orthodoxy, and plain old pop culture American teen-dom. So I didn't leave, but I left Orthodoxy.

In response they call people like me "off the derech," meaning that I have lost my way. But the funny thing is, I only found my way when I left. And started to think for myself. To occupy my own life.

Communication has been core to my journey. The ability to talk freely, to share ideas, to debate and discuss and arrive at a place more reasoned than where you started - is part of the beauty of life. To live in a system where your thoughts are predetermined by others is to suffer from a crime against your very humanity.

The concept of free choice, or free will, is a value basic to Judaism. If we have no choice (and by extension no information with which to make a good choice) then what do our choices mean? Yet strangely it is a norm for the religious to try to force others to be just like them.

Traditionally Torah and science - faith and the world - have gone hand-in-hand. Yet over the past few decades there has been a trend toward extremism among the religious, fewer and fewer people can squeeze under the limbo bar of observance. Which is why the vast majority of Jews, both in Israel (73%) and the U.S. (90%), are not considered "Orthodox" or observant. And even within Orthodoxy, there are enough people who don't believe anymore ("heretics") that rabbinic leadership is taking time out to alternately pity and condemn them.

If the vast majority of people in any social system can't engage with or benefit from the system, if they don't understand it and don't believe in it, then there is something wrong with the system and not the people. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing even showed, in his book "Knots," that sick social systems produce sick people.

The Orthodox author of "The Impostors Among Us" - which rather unsympathetically chronicles the secret unbelievers who pass as Orthodox - writes of the "dark descent" of  nonbelievers who still act like they're religious. Of course this is interpreted as a consequence of the personal failings of the individual: a combination of "emotional issues," "the Internet," and not wanting to disrupt a convenient and stable life. It couldn't possibly be about the unbelievable stringency of the life; its inscrutability to even the most dedicated want-to-believer; and the witnessing of immoral acts, sometimes committed in the name of religion (!). Like slamming young boys' heads around in the name of teaching obedience.

A lot of Jewish people find solace in Buddhism, though statistics on this vary. I like the Dalai Lama's books. But in the end they're not a substitute for an ongoing conversation about the existence of God and what is wanted of us as human beings (see "Letters to a Buddhist Jew" and insightful review).

I've never heard the term "Occupy Judaism" used but I don't mind being the one to invent it: We all have the right to explore our own religion, or lack of it. (Check out father-son movie "The Way" with Martin Sheen & Emilio Estevez.) The Huffington Post recently ran a great article called "It's the Spirituality, Stupid!" chronicling the disconnect people feel between church and spirituality and the attempt to bring back that inner spark.

Fortunately there is a growing recognition in the observant Jewish community of the damage that extremism has done and the parallel need to re-occupy our faith - to take it back from the extremists. I like the outreach efforts of and their funky videos. There are important social messages in the music of The Groggers (feminism), Da Scribe (unity), Matisyahu (spirituality is universal), and the Maccabeats (in this Matisyahu song, nonviolence but generally you can be Orthodox and part of the larger community too).

It's been my personal experience that people are people, for better or for worse. My upbringing left me with a deep-rooted sense that religion is important. That we have no right to walk away, but rather have to engage in an ongoing, inner and outer dialogue about what we think is right. It is a critical part of that journey to occupy your own life - to occupy your own faith. This is a beautiful gift that God has given me, and I value it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Elephant In The Room: What To Do

There is a certain expression that comes across a person's face when
they get a question leading to an elephant in the room. A certain body
language. A tone of voice.

If you watch closely, that expression and the follow-on reaction looks
and sounds roughly like this:

1. The body freezes, particularly shoulders and head.

2. The eyeballs dart sideways or down.

3. There is a pause as the person being questioned buys time to decide
how to answer and to settle themselves down to look comfortable again.

4. There is a comment about how the questioner is "blunt" (or perhaps
a laugh, as if to say, "very good," or the opposite, anger at their

5. There is an answer that is either honest (usually coupled with a
laugh and/or compliment at the acuity of the question) or evasive
(usually coupled with "I need to find out more information," or "That
is not my department," or you get a vague answer, or part of an
answer), or misleading, or a lie.

If you are a communicator it is your job to get to the truth. Usually
when there is little information available, or you have to piece
together bits of information from here and there. A critical part of
gathering that information is asking questions, and not in a slavishly
flattering way but in a way that gets you to an answer.

Inevitably questions lead to elephants. So you have to know what to
do. How to recognize them, how to handle them, and most importantly
that you have choices.

Typically communicators have the following kinds of reactions to the
elephant, once they discover it:

1. Glee - as in "gotcha," a combination of relief at having gotten
somewhere; satisfaction that they were asking the right questions;
knowing that they are now equipped to move forward with a
communication plan.

2. Dread - as in "oh s**t, now what do I do?" because the elephant is
difficult to deal with.

3. Denial - as in "I don't see any elephants," because they want to
CYA and not have trouble in their lives.

None of these emotions are productive. In fact they get in the way.

The first one is egotistical - "You see I'm so great!" - and it
distracts you from your focus, which should be on serving the

The second and third go hand in hand - they bias you toward not seeing
the truth. If you don't see the truth you can't communicate, because
people can smell a lie and will immediately disregard what you are

So let's say you've discovered an elephant and conquered your
emotions. What next?

The important thing to do is to recognize that you have choices.
Essentially they boil down to:

1. Ignore the elephant - if the timing is bad, if there is a lack of
support for moving forward to confront it, if it wouldn't serve the

2. Discuss the elephant directly with the customer and explore options
for responding to it.

3. Discuss the elephant, but not with the customer, and decide to work
around it.

Every person and every organization has elephants, because life is
messy. Sorry, that's just how it is.

Without elephants, you wouldn't need communicators.

The important thing for professionals, as we confront these
situations, is not to be surprised by elephants but rather to look at
them as part of the natural habitat. And then to calmly work to
address them - or not.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why most internal communication is irrelevant

In the hierarchy of corporate talking, internal communication has about the same ring as a colonoscopy.

And it’s pretty similar too. Both are invasive, designed to uncover deadly cancerous growths that can lead to the organism’s (the organization’s) death.

Also, in both cases, knowing that you have a disease can help you get better. But it is also painful to admit you may be sick. And if you do have cancer, the horrible reality is that it may be too late to save your life.

Of course the deepest fear an executive has, in terms of “talking to the people,” is that they’ll learn of things “better left unsaid.” Things that then have to get dealt with, and once we start airing the problems who knows where that will lead.

Usually the attempt to avoid talking about real things involves sharing fluff. Why don’t we change that by changing the name of the field. How about organizational development? Because that gets us closer to what we are really trying to do.

Here is a story to illustrate my point. Let’s call it an anti-case study.

Way back when, in a certain organization, I was one of the people responsible for internal communication. It was my job to manage the employee news magazine. Our team did a lot of work to make it more appealing. One of those things was to make an electronic version of the print edition.

At the time I was infatuated with all things Amazon. As a brand, the revolutionary-ness of it had great appeal to me: They offer things from other vendors! They allow all kinds of ratings of the products! How do they make a dime?

Already in a previous job I had gotten in trouble for using the Amazon paradigm in the thought leadership publication I invented for them. Because I insisted on quoting other consultancies. There were those who thought that doing so would make us lose business. I stubbornly insisted that, just like Amazon, it would show that we were more secure. It was a controversial point of view and not everyone would have it.

In this job I could see that the newsletter would really do nothing online unless it had a value-add. Because people liked the glossy print edition. They could carry it around on travel, show their families what they did, etc. I made sure to blow the pictures up, way up because people really like to see themselves and their colleagues at work. And graphics grab your attention and make you read.

So what did we need with online? During the day people were working and didn’t have time to read this kind of off-hours stuff. So, working with the technical team, I figured out a way to make the online version feature an Amazon-style rating system. It was brilliant, I thought. It would be so engaging for people to rate the articles and so informative for us, to know what content was most valued by the users

My boss was horrified. Ab-so-lute-ly horrified. If she could have strung me up on a pole she would have.

Her worry was, basically, that we would p*** people off. And then we’d be shut down. Because the mission of our group was to “make people feel good” as well as to “provide useful information.”

By looking at the employee magazine as an “internal communications tool,” the rating system was a hard sell, because the word “communications” implies something glossy and appealing. Yet at the same time, the word "internal" implies something messy, complicated, not glossy. Like an internal medical exam.

However, if internal comm. were reframed as “organizational development” (which it really is, or ought to be) then a rating system for articles would make much more sense. Because then it’s about using communication to bring the organization together. Part of working together is airing, and then resolving, conflict productively.

If something we are saying just isn’t appealing to the workforce; if our style of doing business is unproductive; if there are problems lurking beneath the surface that get hidden when executives walk by; we need to know. Otherwise what’s the point of sending out all the happy missives?

Anyone can send an email describing the employee benefits package – that passes for “communication” too.

If we want to see internal communication grow and prosper the way it should as a profession, then perhaps we should give it a better name. Something more in tune with what it’s trying to achieve. To me, the field of OD is more appropriate for sponsoring an evolving conversation – one based on honesty, transparency, mutuality, and trust.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nobody wants to know

Remember the good old days when it was a parents’ job to keep their emotions to themselves?

Today things have supposedly changed - it’s all about “being real.” But even with all of that, being too honest can puncture a kids’ sense of security and stability.

Though we may seem taller and grayer, adults are basically kids inside. And when we are confronted with the vulnerability of someone we count on to be stable, it scares us and we don’t want to know. Remember that episode, on “Sex and the City,” when Carrie’s beloved mentor at Vogue confronted her with his penchant for cross-dressing?

I was thinking about this while reading an online discussion about one vs. multiple identities: Is it our choice to be different people on different social networks? Or would we prefer to be known as an integrated, multifaceted person by all the people we deal with?

In the discussion it was fairly clear, as I also heard in a real-life forum, that most people want to preserve their distinct identities. They want to be one person at work, another with the family, maybe a third with the college buddies, etc. There are boundaries.

The sociologist who kicked off the discussion with her blog argued that we are always multiple selves and that drawing clear lines between one and the other is healthy.

But I was not so sure. While it is true that we play different roles in different settings, it is also true that living too “divided” a life can lead to not only role conflict but psychological distress.

Indeed, social media has made the “problem” of multiple selves more immediate. Rather than talking in a distinct way to different audiences, frequently we tend to record our utterances electronically as we “perform” in different settings.

So an executive writes a formal email, and then turns around and sends a casual Facebook message or a Tweet. All of this is fine until the outside world is confronted by very disparate communications coming from the same person. It becomes easy, then, to judge them; to conclude that they are a hypocrite.

Thus the Mark Zuckerberg credo that we are always, only, one person.

On the surface, in a social media world, it may seem like our audiences want us to tear down those walls. But in reality, I think, they really don’t want to see all that much. Maybe once in a while, a glimpse. Maybe they want the essential values, the basic voice, to be consistent. But after that, I think, too much information all at once is disconcerting, upsetting, annoying, and even boring – TMI.

Perhaps the issue has to do not with how you portray yourself but with how you think of yourself internally. The more integrated you are – the more you have embraced the various aspects of your identity – the more comfortable you are exercising control over your “portrayal” based on the unique situations you find yourself in.

The way I see it, every actor plays different roles during their careers. Life in social media times is no different. It’s OK to personalize your behavior depending on the forum. You wouldn’t wear flip-flops to a formal dinner, and you wouldn’t wear a suit to McDonald’s. But wherever you go, if you’re out in public, just remember there’s always someone to take a photo for Facebook.

Branding is not a moral enterprise

It's been in the gossip magazines that Kim Kardashian went to Saudi Arabia with her mom to - well, basically to make money by making burqas look pretty.

You may not care about Kim's personal or professional life but as an avid viewer of the reality show and a reader of gossip magazines, I just have to know. Plus it seems possible that Kim is headed for a nightmare divorce, possibly to be filmed as the sequel to the fairytale wedding.

In any case I noted the photos of Kim in the burka alongside the photos of Kim on the camel in the pink tunic.

It was a sharp contrast to the New York Times article a couple of weeks ago about domestic workers' abuse at the hands of their Saudi Arabian employers. One photo I can't get out of my head (in the print edition) shows an X-ray of a woman with nails driven into her skull.

Please know that I am not picking on Saudi Arabia here. Close your eyes and put your finger on a map. You will find that every nation commits human rights abuses and every nation also tries to portray itself as a great place to visit and invest in.

Marketers sometimes seem to feel guilty about plying so many unnecessary goods to unwitting buyers. Probably rightly so. Yesterday I was talking to someone who said she "just had" to have the Chase Sapphire card. I said, "What's so special about the card?" She said, "I don't know. It's just..." and I said "The blue?" She grinned a naughty grin, as if to say, "Well there really is no reason I like the Sapphire card more than any other - it's just stylish."

I remember hearing a speaker from Landor talk about developing the Sapphire card, and the blue, for the branding. It is a gorgeous card. I can see it. (Sorry, I can't find a link online to the case study.)

Is Sapphire the best value? Who knows and for my friend, who really cares? But for the marketer, sometimes we think about this stuff and care. And then we do pro bono work or talk about the importance of transparency.

So what I want to point out today is that branding is not a moral enterprise. And that you shouldn't confuse truth in advertising with morality.

Unlike socialism, capitalism is an amoral system. It's not about doing good. It's about making money.

Paradoxically however, socialists ultimately wind up abusing human rights in the name of "caretaking" dictators like Hugo Chavez. Whereas capitalism produces morality through a free-market system where vicious competition forces sellers to prove themselves to buyers. Often through transparency - by telling the truth about what they sell and how products are made.

Branding is the attempt to create an image of superior value. It stands or falls on how closely that image can stand up to inspection.

The motives of brand sellers are not moral, but financial.

But in the end this can produce more human rights than any socialist exhortation.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Government Should Focus More on Content Sharing & Less on Social Media

Today I attended a GovDelivery conference on public outreach using social media tools (and of course its platform).*


The conference featured a talk by Adam Conner of Facebook. He advised that content is king. Context is right there beside it – you can’t just post stuff without explaining. And in response to a request for professional usernames as versus having to always post as yourself, a firm "No." Basically the idea was that Facebook stands for something – we’re not gonna change just cause you, in government, want to have a professional versus a personal identity. Which Mark Zuckerberg considers hypocritical. (Uneasiness in the room.)


David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, spoke on a panel and suggested that national government might be “vestigial” since the public can largely handle things on their own.


(Good Lord, I thought, he’s just proclaimed himself an anarchist. One more word on that and I think he might have gotten tossed by one of the military folks.)


The audience offered questions. How do you push the message out? Wording I dislike but I know what was meant. How do you ameliorate the effects of users who take over the site and won’t let you communicate?


There weren’t easy answers. These were social media questions and it was a vendor conference. To them the stuff they think is “so 2008,” is still very problematic for government today.


At one point it was suggested that government tries to control the message – and therefore has trouble with social media and transparency - because releasing it means giving away power. While of course CYA is an inevitable part of human and organizational nature, I thought that was too simplistic an explanation, for five reasons:


1. Like all large organizations, government is high-context, with an intricate web of meaning that is often only decipherable to people who work there. Pure data doesn’t tell the story – it needs to be explained.


2. Government operates in a mistrustful environment where one of the most fun games people play is “gotcha.” So simply letting go and not trying to control the message plays into the fear – not totally unfounded – that data will be distorted to tell a negative story when it is actually neutral.


3. Government employees are normally extraordinarily concerned with providing factual information to the public. When they release information they do so with tremendous care that it is not misinterpreted. Social media requires an immediacy that is the total opposite that government employees put into their communications, which are after all permanent and public record.


4. The code of ethics and professionalism governing employee behavior is not fully in sync with the contemporary social media environment, which I think leaves government employees confused. Example: Recently a Google employee’s anti-Google+ rant was inadvertently released to the public and Google just shrugged its shoulders. Which led people like me to like and trust Google even more. In the government, that employee would likely have been reprimanded for just the opposite - undermining public trust by directly attacking the operations of the organization.


Another example on #4: the use of one’s organization in social media posts. While the government discourages this because they think people will take it to imply endorsement by the agency, in a social media world to avoid saying where you work is to risk being seen as an “astroturfer” secretly placing government PR on a site. Similarly, recently on GovLoop a Gen Y employee was advised to be careful what he blogged for fear that his supervisor would sideline or reprimand him. Culturally, we aren’t there yet in terms of having a comfort zone with full transparency either on an agency or personal level.


5. Government people tend to worry that maybe we'll be tossed out the window by the public as easy scapegoats (look at how we're targeted now as "lazy bureaucrats.") Occupy Wall Street/the Tea Party bring this fear to the forefront, leading to concerns about social media fueling our own demise. However, if you look at things objectively, it's an unnecessary and exaggerated fear caused by our own inability to adapt. 

The reality is, precisely because our technology has far outpaced our ability to adapt culturally, we need smart and confident government leaders who can guide the transition effectively. Meaning people who can encourage productive discussions that can result in better citizen service. Even sometimes to take the hit when the feedback is bad. This is a completely different model of public affairs because it is driven NOT by what we decide the message is, but by what the public wants to learn more about.


What I wanted to say, but didn’t have the opportunity to, is that content sharing may be a good way for agencies to get out of the “push the message” vs. “be the victim of trolls” conundrum.


If agencies were to focus on producing fantastic content – meaning easy-to-understand, timely and relevant – on an easily navigable website, then made it easy for people to share it, I think we would be most of the way there. Whether people subscribe to updates or find the site organically or through paid search, what you want to do is give them good information that they can chew over, share, and discuss with others later on. Which is what they do anyway, except maybe not from our websites because they think our content is propagandistic or confusing.


In the world of marketing the most important thing you can do is get people talking about your product. In a participatory democracy it is exactly the same. You want to get people talking about your agency, what it’s doing, how it makes a difference in their lives, how they can help. Over the long term, you build a trusting relationship that promotes compliance with the law and productive social behaviors. And make it possible for people to point problems out way before they blow up into huge disasters. All of which is good for citizen morale, community engagement, public health, safety and security.


The hullaballoo over social media is really overblown. It’s happening anyway and there’s not a thing we can do about it. Without a single action on the government’s part it will proceed, change form, and evolve into mechanisms we can’t even imagine today.


The constant issue for us has always been the content. How can we balance the public’s right and need to know, with the dangers of fraudulent and malicious misinterpretation of the data? How can we build mechanisms that ensure leaders can develop the trusting relationships they need to navigate complex and sensitive waters, while also maintaining sufficient transparency that the public has input into the laws, regulations and policies that affect their lives?


On the one hand you have those who would like to live-tweet every serious meeting. On the other hand are those who hope the whole “social media thing” will just “blow over.”


Somewhere in the middle is sanity.


Will we still be “so 2008” in 2012? Only time will tell. In any case, I appreciated the opportunity to attend the conference and hope this brief-out is useful to others in the government community.




*Disclaimer:  GovDelivery provides services to many government agencies including my own. GovDelivery owns GovLoop, one of the sites where my personal blogs go. This post is offered as an evaluative brief-out to other interested government employees. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency. 

10 Things Patti Stanger Might Advise The Candidates About Last Night's Republican Debate

Patti is the host of The Millionaire Matchmaker on Bravo. I love her show.

Here's what she might be saying this morning:

1. "Macho? In a political debate? Really?"

2. "Keep your hands to yourself." (Wait, that's my kindergarten teacher.)

3. "TMI. Keep it short and sweet."

4. "You've got to let the other person talk."

5. "Be open to other people. Got to tear down that wall."

6. "Religion can be a dealbreaker. You've got to be ready to handle that question."

7. "Remember Staci, the wacky actress/coach/model/divorcee who kept resisting my bad advice? Wacky is bad."

8. "Likable beats smart every time."

9. "Just because someone knows how to make a million dollars, doesn't mean they know how to treat another person. That's how I stay in business."

10. "I have a 99% success rate, so take my advice."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

13 Mistakes Not To Make With Your Digital Communication Strategy

And you thought I was so busy writing biography that I had forgotten communication. Prompted by a discussion posted on GovLoop. If you know all this already, skip it.


1 - Planning too far out

These days things change quickly. Most of the emphasis should be on the initial launch and the longer-term aspects should be left vague to adapt to circumstances.

2 - Ignoring the culture

You can have the best plan in the world but if the employees can't carry it out or aren't going to get onboard then it's a waste of time.

3 - Failing to appoint a project manager

The project manager is the one who bothers people to make sure the work gets done. Without this person plans fall apart.


1 - Taking for granted the level of literacy among the planners

In the government many people are firewalled from social media, there is little training available, and its use is discouraged. However the audience we are reaching is hyper-sophisticated. So when you're planning a digital stratgy you have to find a way to bridge that gap, either by training the decision-makers or getting them to delegate decision-making to more knowledgeable people.

2 - Over-focusing on the tools and under-focusing on communication principles

Some people get so caught up in the technical tools (especially if they're using them for the first time) that they forget basic rules of communication. Communicate first, technical tools second. Even if you use only one (let's say a blog or Twitter), but you use it well, it's better than using a dozen badly.

3 - Using words like "pushing the message out"

If I ever have to hear the words "pushing the message out" one more time I am going to throw up. You don't give birth to a message. You start a conversation. If you're doing a good job the comments will do the work for you.

4 - Related: Doing the equivalent of cutting and pasting a press release into a blog post

In social media we don't "write content," we talk like normal people to other normal people.

5 - Failing to take advantage of RSS feeds & sharing

Nobody has enough time/people to write tons of content and "push it out." However there are hundreds of thousands of people interested in what your agency is doing. If you write good content and make it available via a ShareThis type capability they will automatically send it to their contacts and friends. RSS is important here because if you show people how to get your content easily and automatically through a reader (such as Google Reader) it's really simple for them to see all your headlines, click on what they want, and send it forward. People actually love to do this.

6 - Overfocusing on words, underfocusing on pictures and video

People love video! People love pics! People don't read. 

7 - Encouraging social media use among communicators but nobody else

This is really silly. You have all these people working for you - make it OK to share content. The Coast Guard does a good job of this and their social media policy encourages it.

8 - Measuring the wrong things

There is too much emphasis on quantitative metrics and not enough on qualitative. You have to read the comments in the context of discussion boards, twitter conversations, etc. Get the flow. This requires balancing the presentation of fact with the drawing of conclusions. It's OK to editorialize when you're assessing the impact of a digital strategy.

9 - Executing on bad ideas

If a strategy is going to fail, it will fail worse on digital because it's there forever and you can't just change things in a couple months when you get your act together. It's OK to pull the plug at the last minute.

10 - Last but not least, copying print to digital as if you could transfer it

A print ad is a print ad. A widget is a widget. An app is an app. A tweet is a tweet. All of these are totally different. You have to adapt the strategy to each unique environment. The only thing that has to stay consistent is the brand - how you apply the organization's image should be the same across all environments. (E.g. if you're a youngish cheeky innovative brand your communications should have that look and feel everywhere.)

You’re Not The Only One (Personal Reflection)

One time we visited my ultra-Orthodox aunt and uncle in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Somewhere among identical-looking townhomes.


Inside, their home had been redone. Gray granite kitchen countertops, stainless fridge, everything. It wasn’t a huge place so when we got the “grand tour” there were only a few rooms to see.


At a certain point, gingerly, we walked up the staircase, my dad and mom and sister and I. It wasn’t even much of a staircase, more like a couple of stairs. Anyway, we got to the top and saw bedrooms.


Almost simultaneously, the four of us sort of jumped back, if you can say that people “jump back” on stairs. It seemed a little bit much. A little intrusive.


“Well, very nice,” my mom started to say, and then started to turn around slowly. We really didn’t need to see EVERYTHING.


“No, no, I want you to see something,” my uncle said. “Take a look.”


Inside the master bedroom, was a wooden – well it was a square. A contraption of some kind. My uncle fumbled with the lock, and there it was:


A television set.


“Nu?” he said. “Well?”


I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that these super-religious people were actually hiding a TV set. After all, weren’t they…well, super-religious?


Plus the TV wasn’t all that fancy. Consider that I was the spawn of a techno-freak. If it involved computers, electronics, or any sort of gadget, my dad made sure to get his hands on it. He was the first to get a Mac computer, we had multiple Macs in fact, and our house was loaded with TVs. All of them had cable, including the gigantic floor TV in the living room. Many a rainy school day off found my sister and I glued to “Donahue” (me) and “The Price is Right” (her) along with our huge bowls of macaroni & cheese.


But then I realized it. When you’re starving, everything looks like food. And my uncle had been forced to sign a “contract” that said he wouldn’t have a TV. He wasn’t going to be forced into anything.


My father smiled at my uncle. Now he had a partner in crime. If we had escaped a Brooklyn fate, we’d been left feeling like the black sheep of the family for doing so. Now my uncle was validating him. None of us could live under the iron fist of the spiritual enforcers.


My uncle had a mischievous look to him, with his bright red hair and flashing eyes. He was a complete troublemaker. He couldn’t care less. He had flouted the rules and he was joyful!


I stood there awkwardly and watched. On the one hand my dad was back-slapping my uncle for the hidden TV. On the other, he made us girls wear our “Brooklyn skirts” so we could cross the bridge from New Jersey to this area without him being embarrassed.


I could not imagine that anybody else bore witness to these kinds of asinine dealings like I did, growing up. That they had to make sense of them.


Then a few months ago on Facebook I found a friend. She had the same maiden name as me, with a small variant. I said, “Hmm.” Because on the Holocaust registry her variant is the same as my dad’s family.


Long story short, she married a distant cousin. Also from Brooklyn.


Guess where they met? In a bar, on the outskirts of upstate New York. Somewhere in the Catskill Mountains, near where my mom was born and raised, and to where my dad had once fled the suffocating lifestyle demands of his post-Holocaust family.


I talked to my friend/cousin-in-law briefly on the phone. Same kind of history, same stories, though I walked away from it while she stayed “within the fold” of a certain kind of Hasidism.


Suddenly it became clear to me that there actually are other people who saw just exactly what I saw. Whose feet walked away. But whose hearts never left at all.


Online I found the acronym – yahooey, we merit an acronym! “OTD.” As in “Off the Derech,” meaning, “The ones who have left.” Well at least we have a name. That’s something.


Going online I found a bunch of blogs written by “OTDers.” There was one that broke my heart; it’s called “Abandoning Eden,” about a woman whose parents tried to force her to stay Orthodox until she eventually broke free. Ironically enough, she became a sociologist too, just like me. Even though her mom persisted in calling her a “social worker” because many Orthodox people have no concept of what a sociologist is, but for women being a “social worker” is something they can relate to.


Other blogs are hysterically funny. One in particular, “Frum Satire,” is so disrespectful but so perfect that you can’t help but crack up. My G-d, these are my peeps, right here, all dispersed throughout the country not even knowing who we are.


I don’t know why it should have surprised me that I found all this. History usually repeats itself and cultures are called cultures for a reason: They consist of different people repeating the same behaviors with each other over and over again, in any given place and time.


But anyway, it was gratifying. And I have laughed so much these past few days, it’s been great.


No major advice or lessons here, nothing really new. Just the reflection that life’s a little less lonely and scary when you recognize that you’re not the only one who goes through things. And if you can learn to laugh about it every now and then, well then so much the better.


If you’re reading this on GovLoop or GovInTheLab and you’re working for the government, the application is obvious. It might seem like we are going through difficult times now, and we are. But if it helps, know that there are a lot of other people going through similar challenges, and that one way or another things will eventually shake out the way they are supposed to.


Like the Christians aptly say, “Let go and let G-d.” Or if you're a Buddhist, karma, or whatever. "Every little thing's gonna be all right."


Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hey Thermador: Are You Really "Lighting a Fire Under the Status Quo"?

The New York Times, Sunday, October 16, 2011. Section 1, page 25, full page ad for Thermador ovens:

"Lighting a Fire Under The Status Quo."

Ad copy:

"With up to $5,747 in savings don't just transform your kitchen. Transform how you cook during our one-two-free sales event."

Really? Really? 

Who wrote this line? 

With people rioting in the streets they're talking about changing the world by buying an oven?

Last night on "Saturday Night Live" they ran a skit making fun of the programming on the Lifetime Channel.

The skit was a mock game show. The prize for winning the game show?

"You've won a Volvo filled with groceries!"

There was a time in modern American history when women revolutionized their worlds by buying appliances. Because it really was a huge deal to go from doing all the housework by hand to having a machine help.

But now is totally not that time.

When we used to visit my mother's parents in upstate New York we used to sit at the dining room table cracking sunflower seeds. The little black shells littered the table. And on Shabbos (Sabbath) we would argue and debate over everything.

Basically my father would get into it with everyone, talking his fancy talk.

And my grandmother would say, 

"A-lex! Come on! That is just a bunch of bulls***t!"

I have to laugh when I think about those crazy family scenes. My dad the salesman. My grandparents the straight shooters. Everything about their cultures was a total clash.

When I was growing up my mother always said, 

"Look at me! Look in my eyes. Are you lying to me? Because the one thing I can't stand is a liar."

I look around today and I see my friends getting more socially active. Me too. We are getting fed up with all the lies, the misleading statements, the fancy dances around whatever the honest truth is.

Maybe in the past we were happy to sublimate our activism by buying things. After all we couldn't challenge things much at work - you're there to contribute, not to be a rabble rouser. And we couldn't challenge things when it came to religion - we were "just girls." And with the kids and their education, well, you're not the education expert, are you? And on and on and on. 

Life is just too busy to be a social activist most of the time.

But something very fundamental is changing. We are waking up from our prolonged slumber. We are sitting in the backseat of the car and see that our parents may be seeming to drive, but are actually driving the car toward a cliff. Too close to the edge.

I don't blame Thermador for trying to get people excited about its ovens. I just think they're wasting their money on that full-page ad in the Times.

The people hiding in their plush creative war rooms on Madison Avenue are out of touch with what's happening in real life. Whether those protests in Zuccotti Park are organic or engineered or a little bit of both it doesn't matter. Whether the Tea Party is similar to them is irrelevant. The fact is that these street actions are like sparks, and the discontent they are touching on is an uncontrollable fire. 

Although most people aren't looking for trouble, they also can't hide behind ultra-expensive ovens anymore when they're faced with the real issues affecting our lives.

If you want to know what moves people, get out on the street or sit at the Shabbos table shucking sunflower seeds. 

Even if you want to sell people on a fantasy, you learn a lot more about how to reach them by being real.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

You look great!


Every other Passover we used to drive eleven hours from New Jersey to Toronto to visit my grandparents.

My dad, an ordained rabbi, was a closet trucker and he absolutely loved the road. There he would be, at three a.m., heading into the truck stop to get a huge piping hot coffee. 

"Do you want to go in?" he would say to me. 

Despite the time, I was up like it was daytime. It was exciting driving around all night. And I would chirp, "Sure!" and follow him in.

One time we stopped at a gas station called Hess, if you remember them from way back when. Amidst all the chatchkes (trinkets) there was one beautiful thing that caught my dad's eye. The famous Hess truck. This one actually had lights running all along the sides.

My dad fell completely in love. "Here," he said. "I want you to have it."

"Are you sure?" I said. "This looks expensive."

"I'm sure," he said. "It's yours."

I didn't like trucks at all. But I loved my dad, who he really was. Not who he pretended to be on the outside, the polished image he tried to portray. Just him - the closet trucker. And to this day, when I think about the things I love about my dad, I remember that Hess truck and how he gave it to me with a glimmer in his eye. 

Fast forward a few hours to the moment we walked into his parents' house. My Zayde (grandfather), quiet and dignified, would nod hello. He had this sparkle to his eyes. May he rest in peace - I really miss him.

My Bubbie (grandmother), may she also rest in peace, was tormented in Auschwitz and could never recover afterward. She would come to the door and she would look at me, but sort of hollowly. Her head shook all the time. It was frightening. 

And then she would say something to us in the vein of, "You look..." and then describe our physical appearance.

We were not allowed to talk about what happened to Bubbie in Auschwitz. But we were allowed to talk about how people looked - seemingly a safe topic of discussion. 

To this day, it seems to me, one of the most acceptable social rituals out there - since you can't safely discuss a host of sensitive topics most of the time - is to talk about how you look. How other people look. How they, and you, might look better. If you're a female you will likely talk about that more than men. When nobody else is around, you'll spend time reflecting on that with yourself - evaluating, assessing, criticizing.

I am not sure why we do this, considering the harm that such an external focus causes. Aside from leading people to marry for all the wrong reasons ("Kim's Fairytale Wedding,") run up huge credit card debt, buy houses they can't afford, choose careers they don't want, etc., it literally causes them to obsess about their looks all the time - to the exclusion of living a normal life.

And wouldn't you know it - in today's big feminist age, the vast majority of people with eating disorders are female. It is believed that about 8 million Americans have an eating disorder, 95% of them between 12 and 25 years old, and the ratio of female to male victims is 7:1. Fully 50% of girls aged 11-13 think they're overweight, and 80% of 13-year-olds have tried to diet. There is a significant link between disordered eating and anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

Given that eating disorders primarily affect young girls', one wonders at the possible connection with childhood sexual abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in retrospective studies, it was found that 25% of women and 16.6% of men were abused by the time they turned 18. Most victims do not tell what happened when it's happening, either. According to studies published in 2000 and 2007, 73% of child victims don't talk for "at least a year" and 45% don't tell "for at least 5 years."

Mary Ann Cohen, CSW, the Director of the New York Center for Eating Disorders, says that 40-60% of her patients - female and male - were sexually abused.

What if we decided that, given all this information, focusing on your looks is an impolite topic of conversation? Recognized that so much of a focus on the outside, to the exclusion of what is on the inside, is a form of inflicting lasting and dangerous psychic damage?

What if we stopped weighing ourselves, counting every calorie, measuring every bite? What if we stopped cutting up our bodies to try and stay sixteen forever?

What if we went back to the way we were when we were kids? When our parents held our hands, one on the right and one on the left, and swung us back and forth as we said "Whee?"

If we could operate all the time with that sense of unconditional love, love that has nothing whatsoever to do with looks, imagine how much happier we would be with ourselves and with the world. What better decisions we would make. How much smoother our world would function. How we could truly make the most of the time and the relationships that we have.

What's the most polite way to greet people? 

I am not sure, but maybe it should be something like "How are you?" 

Instead of automatically saying, "You look great."


Image source here

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Personal Branding 3.0: Be Yourself

I have been thinking long and hard about a comment I got from a friend on my tweets.

"Who are you?" was the gist of it. "You don't talk like that in real life."

Defensively I tried to explain that people read my blog and tweets because of the useful information they get from it. Not to hear my self-indulgent ranting and raving. 

Plus it's a personal branding thing, I said. I'm trying to shape an image, I said. As a brand expert.

"Why?" was the reply. "You're not a brand consultant. Nobody is going to call you to pay you a million dollars to be one."

No, no, no, I protested. You are killing my dreams.

But I couldn't ignore the message.

"Get it? Just be who you are. Nobody cares."

In the beginning I just used it to dump my blogs on Facebook. Posterous does it automatically. 

My friends, who know me from way back when, were talking to each other like real people. But I wasn't comfortable chatting online like I do in real life. So I never connected with them. Except when I wrote a blog that was more contemplative. And I would read comments like, "Finally a blog I understand."

Why couldn't I just be myself? What was the big blockage?

I think like a lot of people I couldn't really talk about the things that mattered to me. So the fact that you could write about professional-related matters was a good outlet for my writing bug. And the belief that it would advance my career was a bonus.

Let me say that I do think blogging can serve a purpose when it comes to promoting your professional brand. If you want to establish yourself as an expert in a certain area, it is almost required that you do so.

At the same time, that expertise is rapidly becoming a commodity. As was also pointed out to me, how many "Top 10" lists can you write that are really novel? It's sort of superficial and annoying.

Which leaves us with the question. If you are blogging and tweeting (etc.), and you want your blog to promote your personal brand, how can you do so in a way that will set you apart from other people in the same field?

Maybe we can think of it this way:

* Personal Branding 1.0 was to blog your life.

* Personal Branding 2.0 was to blog your profession.

* Personal Branding 3.0 is to blog your passion.

Please do not misinterpret this: It's not about oversharing or taking away your right to privacy.

Rather, in today's world, to be an effective personal brand - meaning to be viewed as trustworthy, competent, relevant and unique - you have to blog about things that really matter to you. You have to be real. If your profession is something you are passionate about, it will by default get woven into your brand.

Like I am very interested in culture, because I am somewhat alienated from the religious Jewish community that I was raised in. So I became a sociologist. Which translates to understanding group behavior. Which is also consumer behavior. Which led me to the field of trend research and then branding.

There are many examples of people who do Personal Branding 3.0 effectively. Each has their own spin.

* Penelope Trunk provides career advice.

Shmarya Rosenberg takes on corruption in the Jewish community.

* Mike Vanderboegh is a citizen activist focusing on gun rights and corruption.

* The Bloggess ("Jenny"?) is a feminist mommy.

You may look at these blogs and think the writers are crazy. Or so real they're awesome and worthy of copycatting. But whatever you think, when you read the blogs I think you start to see the difference between writing that has the ring of authenticity, and writing that sounds self-promotional.

Do you remember "Archie Bunker"? When he used to rant about stuff that to him was "crapola"?

The feedback that I got cautioned me against putting stuff out there that seemed like a pile of pretentious crapola. I found a lot of meaning in that comment and am getting back to what matters to me. I have the sense that it will be a good thing. Blog about what I care about and stop looking for affirmation or recognition.

Looking ahead a few years, as more social-media-savvy people get into senior leadership roles, and they routinely Google their prospective hires before bringing them onboard, the blogs of those recruits will be examined too. And people will likely be filtered out NOT based on their technical skills. No - companies will be looking for recruits whose personality matches up with the corporate culture. 

(This is already being done today, to an extent, and it often screws people up, especially students, because they don't know what they're doing or how social media activity affects their brand - and they wind up establishing an image online that's viewed as unprofessional.)

In that sense, when you blog as yourself, about things that matter to you, you will probably find that it benefits your career by shuttling you toward organizations that are a good fit for your unique personality and aspirations.

In the beginning there was the paper resume. Then it became the LinkedIn profile. It is trending toward the infographic-style one-pager plus the sum total of your social media activity. 

If you want to brand yourself effectively for the job market of the future, it might be worthwhile to actually blog, tweet, etc. as yourself rather than the person you are trying to be. Doesn't mean you have to open up your private Facebook account to the world (although you should know that it is probably findable); does mean that people will judge you based on whether you're a likable, credible, interesting person who is relevant to the goals they are trying to achieve.

Thanks to the friend who gave me a little nudge in the right direction. I hope this advice is useful to you too.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Social movements are like family fights

Watching Occupy Wall Street prompts reflection and discussion:

1. What are the protestors actually protesting? ("Not sure." "Unemployment." "The rich.")

2. Are they right? ("Not sure." "Disrespectful." "Just like Woodstock.")

3. Is anybody beefing up their numbers to score political or marketing points? ("Definitely.")

Reflecting on this movement - what it is, what it means to the people who have joined it - suddenly I remembered something that happened when I was a kid.

We had moved to an area way too religious for my mom and me to bear. It was stifling.

Tensions bubbled up.

I guess we talked about them. Or maybe we didn't. But we seemed to keep on going and going with nothing resolved.

Till one night, as Yom Kippur ended, the tension exploded.

My dad came home from synagogue.

He said to my mom, "Where's the wine?" For havdala. We were supposed to observe the Jewish ceremony.

In that moment my mom had had enough.

"You want the havdala wine?" my mother said to my dad. "THERE's the havdala wine."

And she, short and packed full of a rage she could not express in logic, she took an enormous bottle of Kedem grape juice (we called that "wine") and SLAMMED it onto the dining room table.

Which was covered in a sheet of glass.

Which shattered into a thousand pieces.

The four of us stood in front of the scene. Shocked. Quieted. And we moved away very soon after that.

The fight was quick and took only about 5 minutes. But it destroyed what was left of our little social order. And I will never forget the sound of that shattering glass. Because it signaled very clearly that the way things were, wasn't working. And that something had to change.

Social movements are really nothing more than family fights.

They result when the members of the family, who will under normal circumstances try to get along and not change a thing, find themselves unable to tolerate the status quo any longer.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, that day has come.

What the particulars of the anger are, probably do come down to sheer survival. To the sense that regular people can no longer find success in the system. And there are other things too. Probably, and I am not a scholar of this movement, the fact that regular people also don't understand the way the system works anymore in the first place.

When you think about it, what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are protesting, is the fact that they themselves are occupied by forces they no longer understand and agree to.

And that is why I think we are on the verge of very major and very meaningful social change. I hope that it brings us to a better place in the end.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck.

Monday, October 10, 2011

De-fanged by culture

Note: The following is a personal commentary on the sociology of family and political culture and does not reflect any political endorsement or lack thereof.

Last night in a particularly telling scene from the E! special, "Kim's Fairytale Wedding," (notice it wasn't called "Kim and Kris' Fairytale Wedding"), groom-to-be Kris Humphries clashes with overbearing monster-in-law Kris Jenner as they plan the wedding menu.

The dialogue, while I do not have a transcript, goes roughly like this:

Groom-to-be: "I'd like to help out with the menu."

Mother-in-law: "So Kris what do you want?"

Groom-to-be: "Well I was thinking burgers."

Mother-in-law: "You've GOT to be kidding...well, maybe Wolfgang can cook us up some sliders."

Over and over we see the same painful dynamic playing out until the tension finally explodes:

Kim: "This is MY dream wedding and I've been planning it since I was 10."

Kris: "And you could just slide any groom into it, couldn't you." (Door slams.)

Sometimes justified and sometimes cruelly, the women continuously run down groom Kris Humphries. They question his motives, exclude his parents, hand him his opinions, and generally do everything they can to turn him into a brainless Ken doll, smiling like a bobblehead as he accompanies Kim-the-Barbie before the cameras.

In short, they treat him like handlers to a politician.

A terrible headline appears in today's The New York Post: "Aimless Obama walks alone." I read the story, which expounds on the headline, in sadness.

I remember when I first tried to learn more about President Obama's views by reading The Audacity of Hope on vacation. I remember being struck by how smart a book it was. I'm a sociologist by training and a marketer by profession and I could see an incredibly savvy mind, in both fields, working there.

It struck me immediately what a great, great personal and professional brand was being launched through that book.

At the same time I found myself a little unnerved by the very same sophistication, especially about marketing politics. I wish I could find or recall the quote about how you sell things without being to overt about it. I read it and worried that a politician must be a little different than that. They must be smart but also resistant to being too smart for their own good. They must be purely issue-focused and absolutely overt about what they believe. Two examples:

* Michael Moore, the political activist and documentarian, was interviewed on C-Span's Book TV the other day. Moore is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of person. He is a champion of the middle class. He wears his politics on his sleeve. He talks common sense, and he is saying what he thinks, but he is not selling anything. I can't imagine anyone telling Michael Moore to order sliders from Wolfgang Puck.

* Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is also a champion of the middle class. Watch her talk for two seconds and you can see the same intelligent, highly informed, common-sense mind at work. LIke Michael Moore she is not marketing herself but rather is focused on an idea. When people take potshots at her, she ignores them (much like Hillary Clinton), and professionally walks away.

Political culture, like Kardashian culture, absorbs unique people with something to offer and then neuters them. What happened to these words from The Audacity of Hope?

"Whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose....What is needed is a broad majority who are re-engaged and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interest of others."

This is all stuff most people believe in. But unfortunately, an individual alone cannot surpass the workings of a dysfunctional culture, something President Obama himself anticipated:

"There are a lot of well-meaning people in both political parties. Unfortunately, the political culture tends to emphasize conflict, the media emphasizes conflict, and the structure of our campaigns rewards the negative....When you focus on solving problems instead of scoring political points, and emphasize common sense over ideology, you'd be surprised what can be accomplished. It also helps if you're willing to give other people credit - something politicians have a hard time doing sometimes."

What if we went back to the beginning and just dealt with each other as people, ordinary people, in a healing way? What if we forgave each other for being human and stopped trying to score points, letting the best ideas win the day? And worked together across the political spectrum to solve our problems together?

Maybe it is time to overcome our dysfunctional culture, and let people just be themselves instead of making them fit into some sort of brand. And let them contribute the way G-d intended them to.

If we decided to do that, it would be a great day, indeed.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The missing son

At the yeshiva I attended, girls learned Talmud by reading off a xeroxed page. 

Some people wouldn't think twice about that because they didn't like studying it in the first place. 

Me, I found the language a little difficult. But once I got to the gist of the issue, I enjoyed it quite a lot. It's very absorbing. What should we do? What is that based on? Where exactly did you get that source? You can't beat the ancient rabbis for their sharpness of mind. If you look at what they're saying objectively, it is fascinating to watch the reasoning unfold. Especially if you cross-reference the statements with other texts to better understand the context.

The only thing that bothered me was the xerox thing. Why couldn't I read from the text itself? Answer: the yeshiva was ultra-Orthodox and we weren't supposed to. The xerox was a workaround, or so I was told.

It bothered me. It did. What is the difference? Why do I have to be treated like a "second-class citizen?"

Because boys are commanded to learn, so they can teach the traditions. Women are not. 

I was not exposed to the lengthy debate over this as a kid. There was no "Rabbi Google" for me. Had there been I would have found discussions like this, which explain pretty well the concerns the Rabbis had about teaching women Torah in the first place, especially the Talmud. Concerns that the modern Orthodox community has addressed and largely overcome. 

No, I couldn't really ask about any bothersome question much. Because to ask more than once, after you'd been shushed, was disrespectful. Unless you were just too stupid to understand, in which case you could be forgiven.

As I get older I see more and more that my daughter was right about something she said a long time ago. I was being critical of religion. She responded, "Mom, the problem is not with religion itself. It's the people who mess things up."

Religion is the same as any large social institution. The people who dare to question are at risk of being silenced by those who hide behind the rules. Of course there are good religious people and they can tolerate lots of questions. But there are also fairly bad ones who try to shut you up to keep their power intact.

And yet - it's not only about a few bad apples who ruin the bunch. The problem is the very structure of large social institutions, their inherent resistance to change, that squelches good and important questions. In the movie "Contagion" we see the caricature of a blogger who purports to tell "the real truth" but who stirs up the suspicion and scorn of the government. (True, he was a scoundrel, but the suspicion has to do with the fact that he questions the official version of the facts.) 

Routinely, wherever you look, employees who question the status quo risk being tossed for their "disgruntled" attitude, for "stirring up trouble." As do social critics. As does anyone who dares to refuse to play along automatically. Despite living in a free country, the very fact of belonging to a group makes it difficult to challenge the way it functions.

At the Passover table we read from the prayerbook about the "Four Sons" (of course not the Four Daughters, who presumably are serving the food), each of whom absorbs the tradition in a different way and each of whom gets a specially tailored response. There is the Wise Son, the Wicked Son, the Simple Son, and the Son Who Does Not Know How to Ask. Three of the four are fine. The Wicked Son is bad because he rejects the tradition outright.

Looking at the prayerbook I wonder which of the Sons represents me. The answer is - none of them. There is a missing Son, the Son I was, the The Questioning Son (Daughter). But the Questioning Son is not in my prayerbook because questioning is "scoffing," and should only be addressed if there is a chance at winning the questioner over to tradition. Rabbi David Gottlieb exemplifies this approach:

"We are all confronted with people who scoff at the Torah. We often have to decide if and how to respond. The book of Proverbs teaches us that our primary responsibility is to improve the critic by our response."

Today on Yom Kippur I was somber. Of course I worried about G-d's judgment. But there was something else too. I realized that I am a questioner. That I will always be a questioner. That being this way puts me outside the community of faith I was raised in. That this makes me feel bad. But that I will never, ever give up my right to think, to wonder, to ask. And that even though there are those who understand that I mean well, there will also be those who say "Hakhei Es Shinav" and call me The Wicked Son.

I am not the Wicked Son. I am the Questioning Daughter. And I am not planning to leave the table anytime soon.

As Judgment Day closes and we clear the spiritual decks, I want to take a minute and thank all the people who have supported me in asking the tough questions. Good luck to all of you on your journeys, and may you accomplish great things this year.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Losing Our Religion: The Deeper Reason We Mourn Steve Jobs


(Note: This article first published as Losing Our Religion on Technorati.)

Last night I came home and heard the news. “Steve Jobs died.”


“What?” I stood right in front of the screen, the huge screen.


“He died.”


“Oh my G-d.”


We watched the coverage. Over and over they played the same thing, pronouncements of grief, a statement from the President, snippets from his speech about death and its meaning.


I stood there and I cried. I was embarrassed that I cried. I don’t even know Steve Jobs. Over an iPod? An iPad? A MacBook Air? I don’t cry that much in synagogue.


Our nation is in mourning over the passing of this man. Commentators like Meghan O'Rourke at The New Yorker offer a laundry list of reasons – he was an innovative genius who represents our own aspirations; he was an innovative genius who improved our lives; he was an innovative genius who was also one of us. Her view is psychoanalytic; our subconscious reaction is to grieve as though we'd suffered a personal amputation:


"Not every celebrity death elicits such an outcry: one wagers that it is only the death of those people in whom we see something of ourselves."


There is truth in that. We are deeply attached to what Steve Jobs represents and to the brand that he built. And it is part of our lives and something very real has been taken.


But that is not why we’re crying so hard.


We’re crying because we lost a spiritual figure. Because Steve Jobs invented not just a brand, but a religious sect, in the larger institution we could call Brand Religion.


We Americans are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. atheist, agnostic, Wiccan. Fighters for social justice – for the environment, against exploitation, even driven by vague drives to root out corruption and greed (“Occupy Wall Street.”)


Whatever we label ourselves – or maybe we prefer the term “No Labels” – we are a deeply spiritual nation even though others may see us as materialistic and shallow. But we haven’t found refuge in religion. Because religious leaders, like leaders in business government, education, healthcare and elsewhere, have abused our trust and our faith. Leaving us a bit rudderless.


So, without thinking, we have turned to brands as the national religion. Because they are unfettered by the limits of true religion. With a brand, you think for yourself, you invent yourself, and you create community around your unique personal preferences.


We are mourning Steve Jobs so painfully – we are crying before our TV screens – because so many of us joined the religious community he created in Apple. It was an outlet for our beliefs, crystallized in a name. And we are scared now that our place of worship is gone.


Mr. Jobs, wherever you are, I join a devastated nation in mourning your passing. But at the same time, I know that you are just a person, and that Apple is just a company. There is only one G-d and we must find our path to the Divine individually.


Maybe that was what you were saying all along.


Steve Jobs, RIP.


Photo credit: FreefotoUK

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

10 Trends In My Communication Life for FY11

For government professionals, the start of the fiscal year (October 1) signals the start of professional evaluation for the year that came before. As I wrote up my work for the year it seemed like it might be useful to categorize projects in terms of their significance, and then go up a level and analyze some trends they seemed to point to.


I am not sure that all of this represents trending - some of it is just my workstyle, is unique to my professional life, etc. - or whether it's about government communication or communication in general. Either way, in case it has broader applicability, here you go:


1.     Integrating communications solutions across the board: It’s been a year of getting a single message across using new media and traditional media, creative but consistent branding, and synthesized external and internal messaging.


2.     Partnering subject matter experts in the marketing strategy process: Through brainstorming sessions, helped operational offices spanning traveler processing and import inspection adapt marketing strategy to their unique situations. Provided guidance and technological solutions based on their expressed needs.


3.     Toward generalization and away from hyper-specialization: Contributed to a wide variety of projects using diverse skills rather than focusing very narrowly on a specific field of expertise. Emphasis on flexibility and willingness to jump in proactively as needed, rather than wait to be asked.


4.     Increasing the proportion of research, testing and metrics: Shifted away from emphasis on creativity, intuition, anecdotal evidence and personal opinion and towards an emphasis on best practices, benchmarking, and process.


5.     Focus on customized, rapid-response, modular tools: Communication needs this year cropped up quickly and required professional yet quickly customizable tools that can be emailed as PDFs or shared as presentations. Developed and continued to update various products, including factsheet and PowerPoint template, for this purpose.


6.     Enabling easier access to communication materials for internal customers: Programmed publication catalogue to enable field offices to easily access brochures and posters without submitting special request. Developing ad catalogue for similar purpose. Developed graphical representations of key communication messages to introduce new material to diverse audiences quickly.


7.     Technology-enhanced process reengineering: Programmed self-service site for responses to common questions and requests for guidance. This process also cut down on unnecessary calls to staff while enabling more meaningful questions. Used project-management best practices to break down complex processes and identify greater efficiencies.


8.     Engaging non-technologists with technology: Leveraged pain points in the organization to demonstrate how basic applications could increase work efficiency and communication effectiveness. Examples include mobile application development, collaborative file sharing, project tracking, specialized metrics searches, and internal discussion boards.


9.     Maximizing investment in knowledge already produced: Trained new employees in unfamiliar functions; built collaborative document repositories to make older documents easy to access; repackaged printed materials in abbreviated form for specialized audiences.


10.  Saving on training costs through interagency partnerships: Helped organize volunteers from the Federal Communicators Network, at times in partnership with the National Association for Government Communicators to hold three training events spanning social media, executive communication, and internal communication.


If you have any comments or questions, I’d appreciate them.