Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Optics, Propaganda and the Presidency

Recently I went into Bob's Discount Furniture, a store I've seen around the neighborhood for awhile.

Surprisingly - given the fact that "Discount" is part of the name - Bob's has extremely nice furniture.

But the most noticeable thing about Bob's is that someone named Bob is everywhere. Literally.

The store has life-size Bob dolls sitting on top of furniture displays.

In a truck.

The Bob avatar is on the furniture descriptions.

There is also a special dining room area with free food and a Bob statue.

There is a community bulletin board named for Bob. Also Bob-themed accessories for the furniture.

You can even hear Bob's voice when you call for store hours - no matter which store you call.

And yes, the salespeople all seem to have been trained in the distinct Bob way of handling customers. Starting with the minute you appear at the door.

After a couple of exposures to the Bob experience, never having heard of the brand before, I would probably consider Bob if he ran for public office.

Which brings us to the question of propaganda in political campaigns. Ultimately, does it work?

To an extent of course, the answer is yes. Without discussing either side I have seen a range of commercials lately and a few truly hit the mark. (Others offend.)

There is also social media propaganda in which inflammatory headlines are circulated in Facebook, Twitter and the like.

There are email forwards, usually of videos: "Must see!"

Of course there are bumper stickers.

But if you ask me the most effective propaganda of all occurs where the media overtly or covertly support a political candidate.

Rightly or not, people tend to believe what they see in the news - even if it is opinion. They select news channels based on personal beliefs, values, social circles.

So when the media discusses the "optics" of politicizing this or that issue (Hurricane Sandy for example) they sound smart and careful. Whatever they say after that, about whichever candidate, you believe.

If they don't cover a story, well then it must not matter.

Morally one wonders whether we should let elections feature the same kind of branding techniques as Bob's.

But in practice, given the influence if a range if actors, I am not too sure how much it matters.


All opinions my own. Not a political endorsement or non-endorsement. Photos by me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Deer In The Headlights" Is Not A Media Strategy

Whether you regularly deal with the media or not, if you are anywhere near the professional communications field, at some point you will get a call from a reporter.

How are you planning to handle that?

Screenshot source here

Here's a quick graphic (download the slide here) offering some very basic steps you can take to be ready for that call. See explanatory notes below.

Step by step:

1. Coordinate response: Reporters are always, always in a crazy rush. However, the information you provide is forever, so you cannot provide a rushed response. Your official organizational representative, whether that's a PR firm, your own internal press relations folks, or whoever - should be the lead and you work across stovepipes to get them the information they need to provide the reporter.

2. Package information: People assume that reporters somehow "should" know what is available. They don't. In fact, reporters are immersed in a sea of information. It is almost overwhelming for them to sort out what matters and what doesn't. Moreover they are often looking for information that is not readily apparent. What they need is to have primary data packaged for them so that they can use it in a story. Optimally this data will already be out in the public sphere. Ideally you will give them links to official, releasable photos, fact sheets, reports, and video footage, in that order. Then, if they want to do a followup, they will be better situated to ask for what is lacking. 

3. Document response: Reporters prefer talking on the phone to corresponding by email, for obvious reasons. Email is very static and dead, and it doesn't give them an opportunity to ask an expert directly about whatever areas are of most interest - about gaps in the available information - about the angle of the story that is of primary interest to them. At the same time, a telephone conversation is liable to be misinterpreted and you may be misquoted. As a protective measure for yourself, and as a reference point in case there is any confusion or inaccuracy later on, write down what you said in the conversation, and email it from your work account to your work account to keep it secure. If the reporter tapes the conversation, tape it yourself as well - don't rely on the reporter to give you a copy.

4. Always on the record: You know this already, but it can be difficult to remember in the moment when you are engaged back and forth with the reporter on some issue. The reporter may bait you to say something and it's not clear whether it's for the story or not for the story, whether you're on the record or off. In your head you should be thinking, "I am always on the record here." That way, you will be less likely to say or release something you shouldn't.

5. Simple and visual: It's not enough to package information for reporters, although that's good. Everything you convey to them - whether verbally or in writing - should be conveyed in simple, visual terms. This means that they should be able to picture in their minds the words you are saying. If you are making a complicated point comparing this versus that, or describing an official position on a matter, this is all the more important. Imagine that you are stranded on the side of a highway, have one phone call, and the person you've reached is not a native English speaker. Simple, clear, visual and to the point.

A Possible Brand Strategy Behind Trader Joe's Ripping Paper Bags

Screen shot via

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So I must be insane for going to Trader Joe's, bagging my items in a single brown paper bag, and being surprised when the bag immediately rips and everything falls out of it.

No I am not buying the reusable bags because I end up leaving them at home. And I need them for trash.

Over time I have learned how to double bag at Trader Joe's. It's an art form you need to know because the store folks will automatically single-bag and stuff tons of items in each one. Causing the break.

The way you double-bag is to open up a single bag, put a closed bag inside, and THEN open the second bag up carefully. Voila - double bag. 

But even that doesn't hold about a third of the time.

I've decided that I really like Trader Joe's as my go-to store and the ripping paper bags don't daunt me. In fact I think they are part of the brand strategy. Here's why:

Trader Joe's is about delivering great food, at a reasonable price, in a manner that does not harm the planet. 

This is my interpretation of their brand promise, based on the way they describe the products they sell - e.g. "tasty," "no GMO" and price them. 

So when those paper bags - bags labeled with the words "reusable and recyclable" start ripping, what it says to me is:

Trader Joe's cares about the planet more than money. 

Meaning, even though it's more convenient to use plastic, the company is committed to something higher than just making a buck.

So when I participate in the world of Trader Joe's by using a recyclable but ripping plastic bag, I am inconveniencing myself for the sake of a higher value. 

That may explain why I keep going back to the experience of the ripping bag, when there are other ways to transport the purchases.

Don't know if that's their plan, but on a certain level it works for me.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bring It

I work in government and it's the stereotype about us that people want to get paid, but don't want to do their job. That's not true.

More often than not people are pretty passionate about doing their job and doing it well. Because when they perform they get recognition, and recognition enhances their self-esteem. So there's a natural motivation to succeed.

When people don't try, whether in government or anywhere, there's always a reason. 

* They're in survival mode. They lack options. They'd rather be at home taking care of their kids, their elderly parents, their own ailing health. Or it's the wrong kind of job for their talents.

* Trying is not worth it. They get in trouble every time they color outside the line. Or they produce, but don't get promoted. Or they experience personal, unfair treatment, whether it's discrimination, bullying, marginalization, and so on.

All of the above can be dealt with. Not easily, but in a fairly straightforward fashion because the logic makes sense.

There is one kind of problem very hard to eradicate: the double-bind. That is, sometimes people are caught between trying and not trying because the cultures they're a part of send mixed messages.

Culture is a series of intersecting circles - family, education, workplace, friends. Anytime you find yourself in a peer group.

Many potentially high achievers seem to stop themselves in their own tracks. They block their own promotions! Because they're part of a culture that tells them "don't bother." For example:

* Their work friends hold them back. People spend a lot of time at work. Sometimes peers hold an otherwise productive person back. They want to try, but they withdraw and act sarcastic or less motivated in fear of losing the friendships. You see the conflict often when people get promoted, leaving their friends behind.

* Upbringing has left them confused. You see this a lot with Generation Y. They've been rewarded for following the rules, any rules, instead of getting the job done. Then they get to work and bosses want them to go a level beyond, not just do what they're told. Plain hard work and memorizing doesn't get the gold star anymore, and it's frustrating.

* They've internalized sexism, racism, and so on.  This one is very subtle, starts young, and gets reinforced in adulthood. For minorities, women, and other groups that face discrimination, it sometimes seems impossible to win. For when you fail, you hate yourself because you don't measure up. When you succeed, you hate yourself because who do you think you are? Either way you're wrong.

But the reasons don't really matter. Only in the Army should you follow blindly - and even in the Army I've read about the desire for recruits to take on a more empowered role. Certainly in the knowledge workplace you better think on your own.

In other words, you've got to bring it.

The workplace is unforgiving. So is the relationship market. People who don't care, who don't try, who are self-hating don't add value. 

When I have a choice about who to work with, I only have one criteria: that the person wants to help solve the problem and then they do it. If someone is hungry, and they're unblocked, that person is a valuable member of my team.

Lately I've been trying to write some fiction when I have time. Do you know what? I can't write it. Because I'm just not willing to go out there and do what it takes; I'm blocked. It's painful to admit, but it's better to be honest than to walk around fooling yourself.

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, has a great formula for deciding what companies should be doing to make money, and you can apply it to any aspect of your life. It can help you learn how to bring it, even when you've failed in the past.

Find yourself in this intersecting series of circles:

1) What are you passionate about?

2) What can you do better than anybody else?

3) What will the market pay you for?

When you think about yourself from this outside perspective it's so helpful. You get out of all the internal deliberation and see yourself as an outsider does. Aligned with the world, you are automatically positioned for success. 

Imagine if, for the rest of your life, you didn't have to take a single word of advice. It is possible. Just consider this: If you care about it - if you're good at it - and if other people value it - you have a good chance at succeeding. Now you just have to let yourself succeed. 

Can you get out of your own way and go for it?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Your Job: Make It Easy To Say "Yes" (3 Ways To Do It)

Over the weekend I was working at Panera. In between observing the usual scenery - weekend workaholics like me, fighting couples, families planning their bar mitzvahs, weekend custody visits, elderly people grabbing a sandwich - a lightning bolt struck me:

Winning people over doesn't have to be hard.

Or, put another way, 

Make it easy to say "yes."

How I got from the usual scenery to this insight was pretty simple: It came from a sandwich.

The elderly couple sitting next to me had identical sandwiches on the table - either tuna or chicken salad. Each had a small bag of chips. And they were chirping happily as they ate, leaning over the table, discussing this thing and that. 

I got the impression that they barely even noticed what they were eating. Even though those sandwiches and chips probably cost about $15 with beverage.

In my mind I had the following thought - "those sandwiches probably cost Panera about $3 to make, if that." Imagine the profit margin on bulk tuna, mayo, potato chips and a couple slices of bread.

Did that couple care whether they overpaid for their sandwiches? NO!

Did they want Panera to innovate the sandwiches every time they ordered? NO! In fact the opposite is true - people want their favorite dishes, at their favorite restaurants, made EXACTLY the same way every time.

So Panera, like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, Coca-Cola and other big brands, have made it easy for the customer to readily buy a hugely marked-up item - by giving them the same thing, the same way, every time.

Consistency is one tactic. It works when you're a customer-facing brand; it works when you're an employee on the job. Your boss does not want different things from you every day - rather that you perform at a consistently high level, in the style to which they are accustomed from you, over time.

Another way to make it easy to say yes: Relieve immediate pain. Very literally - if you have a headache you will buy any kind of pain reliever out there that will make it go away. Even if a little packet of ibuprofen costs you 50 cents. Even if you have to buy a whole bottle for $6.50. You do not care - the pain has to go away.

Pain relief comes in many forms. At work, for example, we often hear stories about people who want to introduce change but find themselves stymied. The problem is that they are offering change at a time when nothing seems wrong! Why do I want to interrupt my life and make it harder for no clear benefit. The key with introducing change is to wait until that moment when things are difficult precisely because the old system is unworkable. At that point, change feels good - and you have made it easy to say yes.

A third way to make it easy - simply being there physically. Ubiquity. This is a well-known principle in branding. Starbucks is everywhere - there are Google map mashups that will help you find the nearest one - and if it's more than 3 blocks away some people start to panic. The reason we panic is that Starbucks has become a part of the physical landscape. I can tell you that often I don't even like how the coffee tastes anymore. But the fact that Starbucks is there, means I trust them, and I will go in there. They've made it easy to say yes.

It's a similar dynamic at work. There's all this hullaballoo about virtual work, telework, remote work, et cetera. But the reason people are a little uncomfortable with it at the senior level is - when you're teleworking, they can't see you. When an executive wants something done, it's urgent. They need to be able to reach around the corner, literally, and pull in the people who will (see above), solve the current point of pain. The advantage goes to those individuals who are physically there, who make themselves present, as much as their leadership wants them to be.

So, to summarize, here are three ways to make it easy for a potential customer to buy from you, and/or to keep an existing customer loyal:

1. Be consistent.
2. Relieve immediate pain.
3. Be physically present.

Good luck!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Let's Talk About Those Eyebrows and 12 Other Notes from Last Night's Debate

Eyebrows are a very important but often overlooked part of any communication strategy. I was raised on eyebrows as I have a cosmetologist in the family. "Honey, those eyebrows are out of control!" was a common refrain. 

Watching the debate last night brought eyebrows into sharp focus for me. From a communication standpoint, both candidates have issues around them:

  • President Obama's eyebrows meet his eyes, though they do not cover them. This is not in and of itself remarkable, except that it sharpens the edge when he speaks fighting words. The eyebrow-eye combination is in stark contrast to the President's trademark wide smile, which he seems to be able to produce on demand. The communication impact is that he seems able to project any emotion desired without necessarily feeling it. 
  • Governor Romney's eyebrows cover his eyes to the point where they seem to peer out at you from underneath. It makes him seem like he is hiding something. The effect is further amplified by his trademark closed-mouthed half-smile and turned head, which he employs when listening to an opponent speak. The communication impact is that you never know exactly what the Governor is thinking, but you do get the sense that he's not telling you. 
Here is a list of other things I noticed last night. By the way I did think the President won:
  1. The debate was boring. Governor Romney was determined not to attack. The President seemed determined to attack, but didn't get a response or the Governor said he was lying and then stopped. Attacks make debates interesting. I turned it off after an hour.
  2. Governor Romney agreed with the President a lot. When you're a challenger brand this is not a way to convince people to switch to buying your product.
  3. Governor Romney kept bringing it to his safe place - the economy. He did fine there - he could talk about tires in China and all that - but when he talked foreign policy he did not seem comfortable ("we have allies all over the world...42 cities and France?"). As Jack Welch once said, if you can't be #1 or #2, you can't compete. 
  4. In contrast, the President seemed comfortable on foreign policy - saying "so you just want to do the same things we did, but say it louder" or some such. He was visibly uncomfortable on the economy. See above on Jack Welch. 
  5. On Israel, the President scored points when he mentioned visiting Yad Vashem in Israel and taking a concrete action in response to his visit as a candidate - implementing the Iron Dome. Governor Romney scored points when he mentioned the President not visiting Israel during what he called the "apology tour." In the end they both used similar words "we've got Israel's back" so ultimately it was a draw.
  6. Both of them kept referring to "workers" rather than the "workforce." We live in a knowledge economy, not a manufacturing economy - we're a "workforce" - and I kept waiting for the story on that.
  7. I wondered whether it was wise for Governor Romney to say that the teachers' union would have to get in line behind the parents and the kids. It wasn't what he said, but how he said it...there is a certain awkwardness there where the President is a very smooth talker. This after Big Bird during the other debate gave him a bit of a mean appearance. 
  8. It seemed like each was taking the opportunity to mention "women" as many times as they could. Didn't seem authentic on either side. 
  9. The President used the word "we" referring to his administration, but Governor Romney used the word "I." The word "we" is associated with teamwork and strength. 
  10. The number 5 was repeated several times in answers. My daughter remarked that she liked how Governor Romney segmented his answers that way. (The Governor also mentioned a 7 point plan for dealing with Iran.) It seemed like the President was copying the Governor on that. 
  11. Specifics are important. The President scored a point when he said to the Governor that "We've visited your website many times" and still could not find the specifics the Governor was referring to.
  12. On CNN Governor Romney's flag lapel pin was visible, but the President's was obscured by the icon on the lower right. Not a true representation of what they were wearing, but it was there nonetheless.
*Note: As always, this is a communication commentary, not a political one, not an endorsement or non-endorsement of either candidate. All opinions are my own. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

5 Internal Communication Activities Your Boss Will Support

Ragan Communications reports that "Employee Engagement Is (A) Top Challenge For 2013": Executives don't agree with communicators that it's a top priority ("engagement didn't even make the list.")
In any large, complex organization, internal communication must normally go through many bureaucratic hoops to be approved. Also, operational matters frequently crowd out what seem like "mushy" matters to executives.
If you are eager to promote internal communication, but are finding it a daunting hassle, here are 5 tactics that I've used across three government agencies. They may be helpful to you:

1. Daily News Clips: Circulate to managers; include blog, twitter and Facebook mentions; make available to all by posting on the Intranet. The more information available to employees, provided by you, the better.

2. Repurpose External Interviews: If a senior leader gave an interview to the media, share it with employees or do a weekly roundup. External media tend to force leaders to answer more critical and objective questions because they are answering to the public.

3. Simplify Existing Language for Factsheets: These are always needed and if you use existing language, not objectionable. Take a policy guidebook and turn it into a one-pager with graph, chart, or FAQ. Do not change the language; only bullet it, shorten it, and generally make it more accessible.

4. Provide a "News You Can Use" Weekly Email: This gives executives an opportunity to share important information, and employees want to hear directly from executives. Most of the email should be substantive but some of it should provide strategic context around news and updates.

5. Rally Around Giving Activities:  Campaigns that occur regularly, like the CFC (Combined Federal Campaign) in government, are an opportunity for people to let loose a bit for a good cause. Chili cook-offs, book sales, potluck lunches, and similar activities are good for the spirit, the soul and the community.

Argo: A Quick Review

1. It's mostly an intense thought piece with a lot of thinking, drama, meta-messaging, subtext, some insider jokes etc. Clearly in the Ben Affleck genre.

2. If you prefer action films don't bother.

3. It is more of a meditation on propaganda and narrative, fatherhood, character and friendship than a topic film. Not a comprehensive treatment of history.

4. It is apolitical.

5. It feels very "real" in terms of telling a historical truth. You walk away having learned about Washington.

Marketing Ice Cream To Women: 5 Observations

1. It is an emotional purchase - guilt, depression, self-soothing. Guilty so an impulse buy.

2. Environment of consumption - social if virtuous (frozen yogurt), isolated if not (e.g. hiding in the car eating a sundae).

3. Toppings are an important part of the experience. It feels like reward and is similar to wanting icing and sprinkles on cake, etc. Or even salad toppings.

4. Small but heaping portions are preferred to big tubs, which are associated with being fat.

5. There is actually a preference to pay more not less as a sign that you're getting "premium" (calories for the money).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ad People - You Will Laugh: "A Few Good Creative Men"

Hat tip: Jeff Brand Strategy and Identity Design

Election 2012: Commitment-Phobia

I'm a big fan of that show "The Millionaire Matchmaker" which used to run on Bravo. 

If you haven't seen it, every week Patty the Jewish matchmaker helped a socially challenged millionaire find "true love." 

The show was alternately agonizing and hilarious as we watched people who seemed functional in their professional life (mostly) let down their guard and reveal their personal variety of crazy. 

The natural conclusion from watching that show - it's amazing that two people can ever be together. And when a few couples really hit it off, that rare magic lit up the room.

I relate to Patty because I am Jewish, also raised in New Jersey, and my aunt is a part-time matchmaker for Orthodox Jewish people. My aunt thinks pretty much the same way as Patty.

In fact I think you can say that branding and matchmaking have a lot in common because what else are you doing but packaging a person so that another person will find them appealing? With the caveat that what's inside the package has to be real - otherwise the marriage won't last.

Most of the time when people approached Patty, there were three reasons they could not commit:

  • "Too crazy" - needed serious therapy.
  • The reality of commitment didn't work for them.
  • They weren't willing to settle. 
It's that last part that brings to mind Election 2012. I get the feeling that the marriage prospects here, on both sides - the electorate and the candidates - are not great. For all of the above reasons:
  • Serious therapy: Both political parties give the impression of being too extreme in terms of their influence on the candidates. My impression is that this has led a lot of people to declare themselves "Independent" or "Undecided" where normally they would clearly be on one side or the other. Frequently I find myself shaking my head at the things being said on both sides. Not necessarily by the candidates, but from a communication standpoint the supporter and the candidate are the same.
  • Commitment issues: I have a lot of demands in my life and I'm just a regular person. So I can understand if the candidates feel more pressure than a normal person can bear. But I can't ever remember an election where both of them seem weary during the campaign season. Is it me, or does it almost seem like neither of them want to be there, fighting this fight? The contrast between the candidates and their supporters points this up in a most striking way. You can love or hate Stephanie Cutter, but when she gets on camera defending the President, you can feel her energy and commitment and zeal. Same with Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan (the Republican communication types are not memorable enough for me to do a parallel comparison.) The energy should be with the candidates, and it doesn't feel there.
  • Don't Want To Settle: Do you remember that '80s show "Family Ties" with Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton? How much he loved President Reagan? That's the kind of emotion people should be feeling for the candidates, but don't seem to. I can't tell you beans about President Reagan's policies, but I think rah-rah-rah at the mention of the name. Same with Hillary Clinton - I just want to do the happy dance at the thought of her ever running for President. Neither of these candidates generates a happy dance. Just that feeling of being tired - and like you're getting old - and like sometimes happens with single people, they choose the best one out there rather than be alone. (In this case, we have to choose.)
I guess at the end of the day, the bottom line is that you have to care. I feel like the candidates and the public do - but the difficulties are very great, and it's almost like we're in panic mode that we can't handle it. So we're getting numb. 

Everybody knows that the country has some serious challenges on its plate - to put it mildly. I don't think anybody feels like either candidate or either party has a monopoly on the answers. Or possibly, frighteningly, any real answers at all. 

This is not to say there are no ideas. The problem is that the public has to buy candidates' ideas in a set - not a la carte. And that ideology does not allow for the individualization that is mainstream America - the hyper-customized approach we need. Again, remember that we are people who can order fifteen thousand kinds of coffee with cream at Starbucks; we don't like a one-size-fits-all political approach. 

Furthermore, all of us are smart. We understand that ideas wrapped up in ideologies that become platforms and slogans are not a substitute for solutions. And during this frantic political season, what seems lacking most of all are people capable of being married. 

What I mean by this: Neither the candidates nor the public seem excited about the commitment this election represents. We're not going to get instant gratification either way; it's not going to be fun; and everybody is going to lose something based on the ideology and constituents each side represents.

May G-d grant us wisdom here...courage and the ability to see past old-fashioned thinking. So we can take care of each other, the most important priority of all.


Note: As always, all opinions are my own.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Presidential Debate as Word Warfare: 5 Observations

Here's my take on the October 16 debate. What did you notice?
  1. "Fight! Fight!" It looked like someone had coached the President to be more aggressive. This combined with the unfortunate physical setup - both the President and Governor Romney were free to roam onstage - led to a very close confrontation with hands upraised, aimed at one another. It did not seem personal to me, more like posturing, but the tension was too close. I noted that the President defused it by turning away. Either way, it seemed a bit out of control and I wondered what was happening. My sense was that Governor Romney felt besieged and cornered, and that he had to set the record straight; while the President felt pressured to show strength and appear forceful. It diminished both of them. I would not have lowered the candidates to the level of physically being so close to one another. Advice: Stand back. 
  2. Matching Pink Dresses: Did anyone else notice that the First Lady and Ann Romney both had a variation of the same dress? I felt like I was going to see this in Us Magazine over the weekend in the "Who Wore It Better?" section. The symbology was: Who's the better wife? Who's the more feminine? Who was going to rush the stage first after the debate. I also wondered whether someone had stolen notes from someone's fashion consultant. Advice: Dress uniquely but conservatively.
  3. "That's Offensive." When Governor Romney questioned the Administration on Libya, the President led with attacking the attacker. As CNN reported, the President used the same words when responding to accusations of leaking national security secrets. I also recalled (although I can't find the link on this) that Attorney General Holder used the same language while being questioned during his testimony about Operation Fast & Furious (acknowledged at the very least misguided; at worst a scandal). It brings to my mind in the movies when the cheating spouse, accused of cheating, says, "How dare you say that?" e.g., "That's offensive." The fact that I had this reaction tells me that responding to an accusation by saying "That's Offensive" is not the best communication tactic. Advice: Don't respond to an accusation by accusing the accuser. Say something positive instead about the good you have accomplished.
  4. Moderator as Participant: When Governor Romney accused the President of waiting two weeks to call the Benghazi incident a terror attack, the moderator corrected him. In fact he had referred to "acts of terror" in remarks the day after at the Rose Garden ("No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.") This morning in Starbucks I overheard someone interpret this as Crowley jumping in to defend the President. Crowley herself, in a live interview on CNN after the debate, said the President had turned to her as if to ask her to correct the record. So she did, briefly, and then acknowledged Governor Romney's point, which was that there was indeed a two-week transition from an emphasis on the YouTube video to a full embrace (so to speak) of the terror narrative. This points up the issue of nuance. Did Crowley jump in because it was awkward, or because she is a reporter and technically Romney's words were incorrect? Did her interruption change the conclusion of the audience (either way) by making it seem the moderator was on the President's side? Advice: If someone misstates a fact about you, direct your objection to the moderator rather than to the audience in a manner that suggests you are concerned about accuracy.
  5. Numbers vs. Ideas: Governor Romney is clearly more comfortable in numbers territory. He used a lot of them, rapidly, fluidly. He was comfortable talking about functional benefits of electing him, like jobs and lower taxes. He was less comfortable articulating his ideas. Not because he lacked them - for example he talked about the two-parent family and work/life balance - but I think because the conservative Republican agenda is not viewed as mainstream. So he had to portray his idea platform in terms of economic benefit - e.g. that two-parent families end up costing society less. Versus the President was clearly less comfortable with numbers - using descriptive words like "sketchy" versus comparing and contrasting actual figures - but far more comfortable with ideas. Again, I think this is because most Americans agree with the broad concepts of equality, diversity, and helping the less fortunate as he outlines them. At the end of the day, in branding, emotional benefit tends to win out, but only if the functional benefit is credible; I'm not sure the President has that advantage. Advice: Stay with your strength but be able to frame your weakness at some level; don't focus only on a functional or emotional benefit. 
Disclaimer: This is solely a communication commentary, not a political endorsement or non-endorsement; all opinions my own.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

5 Ways To Approach A Senior Executive

In response to my previous post on not wasting executives' time, somebody asked me how to approach one with a new idea. Here are a few tips.
1. Men - be assertive. Women - be aggressive. Executives don't realize how scary they are. Ask for their time. They won't kill you. I separate this by gender because women, especially older women, tend to be more insecure and indirect than men about promoting themselves. Women will work quietly in the background and hope someone discovers them. They won't. Watch the Katy Perry music video, "Part of Me." Be a Marine!!!!
2. Be positive. Executives hate negative. Remember they are surrounded by negative, they get criticism all the time, they are afraid themselves. Whatever it is, it's a good thing. (I could not use Sharepoint until I changed "workflow" to "playflow" in my mind. Words make a huge difference.)
3. Words before paper. Executives need to see your face, and hear your words, before they see a document. You can spend three years writing a dissertation on the paperless office only to find that some other shmoozer passed you by, got their ear, and got the credit. 
4. Research Your Target. Within appropriate limits, learn about the executive you are trying to reach. At a glance I can usually get the Myers-Briggs and partly the astrology. Learn about their cultural background, history, previous places worked, hobbies, etc. This is basic marketing. It is all about them, you have to speak their language not your own. For example I had another boss who loved dogs. I hate dogs. You know what? For many years I loved dogs. (I guess now she may learn that I hate dogs.)
5. Find Out Who Has The Keys. Are you reaching the right person? You don't have to knock down the executive's front door. Do they have a peer who is more accessible, who cares about what you care about? Are you able to get an appointment with the executive - are you on good terms with the people who work with and for them? You have to approach the executive as part of a network, not as an individual on their own.
Last piece of advice but probably the most important - some executives do not wish to be approached directly. Find out if that is the case and NEVER violate their space. Or you may find yourself in the headlights of that icy glare. Yes, it happens. No it is not fun.

How I Wound Up Buying $50 Worth Of Protein Bars From An Unknown Vendor: Lessons For Marketers

You reach people not with one tactic but by mastering many and partnering or at least getting close to companies that can help you reach your target.

Here's a quick case study illustrating how I wound up buying $50 worth of protein bars I had never heard of before (Green's+) from a vendor I'd never used before (

  • Step 1: Word of Mouth/Lifestyle: Couple of years ago, friend and I have lifestyle conversation and discover we basically think the same: libertarian, socially progressive, prefer healing foods and natural supplements. I recommend Puritan's Pride; she tells me about I don't do anything. The fact that a trusted friend who shares my values recommended this online vendor made me willing to buy there at some point in the future. 
  • Step 2: Impulse Buying/Timing/Appeal: This weekend I go out as usual and wind up at Trader Joe's in midday. They have everything tasty, ready-made, relatively natural. I'm hungry as I try not to eat in the morning. By the time I hit the checkout I am ravenous. There they sit: Green's whole food Protein Bars, $2.49 each, in a basket. I take one and tell her to charge me for it. They're good. I take 8. The fact that Trader Joe's had Green's+, and positioned them in an appealing way (a basket) at the right time (end of the buying process) made me buy them. 
  • Be The Default/Offer Value/Customer Service: I bring a Green's Protein Bar to work with me along with some ready-cut vegetables from Trader Joe's. I've discovered that given a choice, I'll choose the junk food at work; but if I pack healthier food in advance and it's sitting at my desk, I'm too lazy and cheap to buy the junk. The protein bar is so good I think that I want to buy a bunch online and try to get them cheaper. I visit which is my default, and find the bars are not all that cheap. I don't give up. The fact that is my trusted online vendor means that I head there first for everything. This is because of their outstanding customer service and the fact that I know I can compare multiple offers on one site. 
  • Be The Default/Search Engine Optimization/Offer Value: I head over to because that's where I search for everything and search for the protein bars. There it is, Not especially expensive or cheap, but cheaper than and I've heard of it. The fact that had been sitting in my mind for years, and was still there when I looked for it, made it look reliable. And the fact that it was near the top of the search results made it look credible. The price motivated me too.  
  • Coupon Codes and Freebies: At I find the bars, and there is free shipping over $40, plus a big discount for first-time buyers, and there is a coupon code online. Plus they have trial sizes and freebies so I feel like I'm getting a lot of stuff for not that much. I imagine myself healthier and feel like a virtuous shopper. They seem to have good vitamins, but I don't buy - Puritan's Pride has a better deal on that (last time I bought 2 and got 3 free). People like to feel like they're getting a bargain. If you add something on top of the bargain to sweeten the deal you've created a happy customer. 

The way I got here shows how marketers ought to reach the customer by thinking in a holistic, integrated way. People get from want to need to purchase on a complicated path. It involves not just one product or vendor but a family of trusted brands.

As in my experience, you don't have to actively partner with a complementary company to make this work - but imagine if you did!

Procter & Gamble is known for studying consumers in their natural habitats. But you have to go a step beyond and live their lives, if you really want to reach them.

The #1 rule of thumb in marketing: Always think from the customer's point of view, not yours.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Russell Peters Is So Damn Funny

Found this standup comedian on Netflix, Russell Peters.

His entire act basically consists of making fun of different nationalities as he compares and contrasts them.

Peters' parents are from India - he was raised in Canada.

He goes through the audience, picking out and interacting with other Indians, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, Jewish people, the Irish, on and on.

What I love about his show is the comedian's uncanny ability to capture an accent, an entire way of thinking, all the the most trivial things in their sheer political incorrectness.

What's even better is how the audiences are able to laugh at themselves, each other - all the things that in real life one cannot say and that tear people apart in the name of "don't disrespect me."

Comedy is like art in that only the truth works and I trust it for that reason. It is a difficult skill to master because it is so easy to let bias and self-consciousness and ego get in the way.

If you have a chance check out the show. It is intelligent comedy for a global era.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Get Real

I watched the Biden-Ryan debate like everybody else, with intense interest in the election. But there was one part I noticed almost more than any other: the exchange about abortion.

There sat two men, each potentially the leader of the free world, neither of them with a uterus. And it was their job to explain why they were or weren't in favor of females having control over their own bodies, their own pregnancies, the course of their entire lives with respect to becoming mothers.

Mothers are the ones, overwhelmingly, who tend to the crying and wipe the spit and change diapers. Not men.

Afterwards my daughters asked me if I was "pro-choice or pro-life" and I replied angrily, "What a false choice - there is no difference between the two."

Because a mother knows that there are only difficult choices, and that birthing a child who is almost sure to know deprivation and abuse lifelong is not mercy.

Among the majority of technology producers who are male, Steve Jobs was rare in that he understood the human factor: People are the ones who buy, upgrade, recommend. Others are more fascinated with IpV6 or whatever. Who cares, until it's real?

Not that it's bad if a $400 Dyson can pick up ten pounds of animal hair from a shaggy carpet. But maybe a $59 Dirt Devil will do for most uses.

Like Mr. Miyagi said in The Karate Kid, "Focus, Daniel-San. Wipe on, wipe off."

Most people only use a microscopic amount of the technology in Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook. They don't need it. They don't care.

I set up a training class for Google Docs the other day. Somebody said, "It's great technology. But if the link doesn't work when I click on it, then I'm done."

Sharepoint users say to me, "I don't want to learn Google Docs. I just learned this." Meaning how to open a document, make changes, and then close.

We overthink and overestimate what people want in product features. A car does not have to feature ten different kinds of apps in the dashboard, just one: A map that gets me there.

I don't need an orange juice loaded with fifteen kinds of vitamins. Just fresh would be great.

And when I buy shoes I don't care if they have spring-loaded insoles. I just don't want my feet to hurt at the end of the day, or for the sole to wear ragged in two months.

And I would love it if doctors treated the whole person rather than attack the isolated symptom as if it were a cell sitting at the bottom of a microscope. A theory, a case, a specimen.

When you're selling things to people - or services or ideas - get real. How will they use it? Can the average person understand and will it make their life better?

Simple - not abstract - utility. Feeling free. Or a little less miserable. That is what most people want.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What Makes a Debate Performance Work?

When it comes to communication, real-world examples are better than any textbook because you can see what works - and what doesn't - in action. Plus you can predict outcomes for the future. 

Here's a quick slide that uses a brand analysis framework to think about last night's debate. (It's online here.)  Feel free to re-use it, with attribution.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

In Marketing, Trivia Is Not Trivial

Woody Allen does not consider movies his finest accomplishment. He speaks far more lovingly about being in a jazz band and enjoying sports. Early in his career he was a standup comedian and is a published author too.

Still, most people know him as the old guy who married his adoptive stepdaughter. A few, a dedicated few, lionize his films.

People like trivia. A colleague once told me about a well-respected, high achieving woman she knew. The colleague didn't know much about her career. But she remembered the flower in her lapel. The one she wore every day.

I like to go to the movies. But I don't just notice the main event - the show. I notice things like how much the candy costs, how clean the restrooms are. The stand-up movie posters in front of the doors.

Once I had a boss the memory of whom is fairly dim. But what sticks in my mind are all the minutes and hours she kept me waiting. She'd call me in ostensibly for a staff meeting, line me up in a chair seated next to my colleague, and type away, make phone calls, etc. I remember the view through her window.

I don't remember high school graduation. I do remember the dress.

I remember once a nice house we saw with a stone roof, and that day someone threw a rock through a plate glass window of a Jewish store and we didn't move there.

We remember small things, because the big things are too much to capture.
That is why car ads should be shot from inside the car looking out (VW, Subaru), or even hanging out of the car (Kia Soul) not outside looking in. You want the target to see themselves, personally, inside the vehicle. Inhabiting it.

When you sell things to people, especially major things - car, house, etc. - you have to think small. As in from the perspective of what a single, simple mind can handle. You put freshly baked chocolate chip cookies at the entrance to rhe Open House.

The same holds true in elections. People vote for who they like - who they'd want a framed picture of themselves with - not for a theory or plan.

Trivia is the essence of marketing and life - a very big deal.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

5 Ways Executives Think & How To Communicate Accordingly

1. Don't Waste Their Time

Executives try to cram a "success" activity into most every minute. Whatever activities they do are somehow related to upward mobility. Versus most people don't really think about managing their time, except that they're too busy. Which is why executives get very irritated when they feel that you are wasting their time. Therefore, use their time sparingly and give them the summary first.

2. Be Prepared

Executives can always answer that question. They seem to be able to tackle any question no matter how far it is from their top of mind. Versus most people tend to be a little vague. Have a project dashboard online that you regularly update; attach key documents (like Sharepoint). Be ready to answer seemingly random and detailed questions, often with a time lag.

3. Align With Their Priorities

Executives trade in multiple interconnected forms of capital: power, influence, status, connectivity, celebrity, intellectual, information, gossip, and of course money. To navigate this maze they develop minds like chess players. Their calculus is sophisticated they depend on trusted people to understand their priorities and get them accomplished. Understand your place in the ecosystem by respecting the priorities of your executive. Either get on board and get it done, or get out.

4. Hold Yourself Accountable

Every day executives are on the hot seat for about a million different reasons. They hold themselves accountable, they are held accountable, and so they will hold you accountable. When an executive gives you responsibility, guess what? You've just adopted a starving pet. Feed it, nurture it, and grow it until it's self-sustaining and you can focus on something else.

5. Stay In Their Moment

Executives are very focused people. It's important to align with their thinking in the moment and not distract them. When they determine it's appropriate to discuss weekend or holiday plans, for example, do that. When interested in developments on a particular issue, stay with that. And so on. If you want to introduce a topic not on their mind or on their plate, determine the channel they use for "new issues" and bring it up that way. In general, stay attuned to them and follow their lead.

Communication, Reputation, and Business Results (Simple Graphic)

Monday, October 8, 2012

10 Critical Lessons From: "Corporate Branding & Corporate Brand Performance"

"Corporate Branding and Corporate Brand Performance" (2001, Fiona Harris and Leslie de Chernatony) is a little difficult to wade through but it offers a few really good nuggets for students of brand.

The most important thing to learn from the article is that brand is not a thing-in-itself but rather an intangible that yields measurable results.

1. Brands start with 
  • Purpose (vision)
  • Principle (values)
2. Purpose and principle lead to positioning - "what the brand is, who it is for and what it offers." 

3. The brand has two layers:
  • Base layer is functionality - the "what." 
  • Secondary layer is personality - the "how."

4. Personality yields relationship - internally between employees and externally with customers. It is critical that the business model incorporate specifications around what types of relationships are wanted.

5. Relationships are formalized in presentation, meaning the structured ways in which the organization interacts with the public. These can be divided into two kinds of categories:

  • Advertising
  • Customer interaction with employees

6. Presentation yields image, or the symbolic meaning of the brand. This is temporary and fluctuates over time.

7. Reputation is the more lasting form of image. It's the aggregate of:
  • A single brand's image over time
  • A range of stakeholder views about the brand
  • (One would assume - DB) multiple brand images over time
8. A positive reputation yields improved business results.

9. It is critical that the organization's brand builders are aligned with operational staff.

10. At the end of the day, business results are significantly affected by reputation, which are in turn affected by brand, which are in turn driven by corporate culture. Therefore the importance of this factor should not be underestimated.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

On The Benefits Of Eternal Cluelessness

Episode One
When my older daughter was born, everything was fine in the hospital. The nurses handled mostly everything. They knew what to do.
Back at home, for me, it was like "The Hunger Games" without a bow and arrow.
Some of it was obvious - food and fresh air and sleep.
But most of it was very much not. 
Tick, tock. Eight o' clock at night. We put a pretty onesie on her and lay her in her crib.
There she was.
There we were.
It was time to sleep. 
We just watched her. 
Until suddenly she started crying. Do we let her cry?
I voted yes along with Dr. Spock. My husband voted no, citing meaningless cruelty.
Then she resolved everything by throwing up her dinner.
Monday he went back to work. I called him bright and early.
"What do I do now?" I said.
"What do you mean, what do you do?"
"What am I supposed to do with her? I don't know what to do." I looked out the window, blinking, confused.
"Take her to the park, I don't know."
"Oh," I said. Couldn't I have thought of that?
"Just establish a routine. It'll be fine." 
I hung up the phone and considered. We had a huge, $300 Perego stroller. I put her in it. She squirmed and cried. 
I lifted her out and put her in a knapsack, the Snugli. She calmed down. 
I didn't take it off for six years, until my older one started preschool.
"Everybody" said to put them in the stroller; that I was crazy; that I was going to hurt my back. But eventually I figured out that I had to learn what they needed for myself. As long as they wanted the Snugli, they got it.
I dumped the Perego and got a cheap umbrella stroller for $19.99, packing it mostly with groceries and library books.

Episode Two
This one takes place a few years ago, as the older one was coursing through high school.
More studious than I ever was, I found her sitting up in the kitchen at 10:30 at night studying a Hebrew PowerPoint full of what looked like gobbledygook.
"What is this?" I asked her.
"It's from the substitute teacher," she said. "We're being graded on it."
When I went to yeshiva, I also got out at 5:30 p.m. But the teachers were Jewish wives and mothers teaching us to become the same. My kid was in some kind of decathlon.
I tried to dismiss it as just a crazy incident. School is full of them, right?
Another day she comes home, another problem. "The history teacher is teaching us from one textbook, but the test questions are coming from somewhere else."
Again, looking back at my high school, we studied history too, but my life was not about memorizing test books and test banks. It was about subjectivity, and the red pen. No the teacher wasn't always right. But most of the time, you learned.
Meanwhile my younger daughter had a lot of questions in Talmud class. And the rabbi, a very learned and beloved rabbi, put her off all the time. We used to joke that we would get him some flipcards. Then, instead of saying "not now," he could could just lift up the one that suited his particular choice of phrase.
You hate to be the problem parent, but finally I called. 
Three times. 
I felt clueless, because I wasn't there, and times had changed, and maybe I just didn't understand the educational process. 
Until that one response, dismissive, cold: "We have many students here, and most of them do just fine. I need to know the specific data points that support your complaints."
Data points?
It was right then and there that I knew: This was not the right school for them. 
And we began the long, slow, agonizing process of breaking away from the mold we had been raised in for decades, the mold our parents expected us to stay in, the mold we were told was the right one. And put them in a private secular school which honors their faith, nurtures their hearts, and respects their diversity as individuals.
We couldn't admit we were clueless about the right school for them. Because we were so sure that there was only one right path and we had to learn to conform to it. 
But when we decided to follow the logic of ignorance - that we don't necessarily know what's right, and so we need to be open to learning - a different universe opened up for our children, and for us. 
When our older daughter graduated high school, it was awesome - a model U.N. where the nations actually got along (well, mostly). I looked at the young people, so obviously relaxed and happy, and I could not stop crying for the time we wasted worrying about breaking with the past. 

Episode Three
Throughout my career in government communication, the #1 thing executives tell me is that people want "just the facts, Ma'am." The standard narrative goes that people are "drowning in information" and "just need to know where to find things." That our job is to give them that information and walk away.
That's all true - but only partly.
It's partly true because the government normally does a very poor job of organizing information, particularly information that "outsiders" need. Keep in mind that "outsiders" can be defined as employees - anyone who lacks the many years of experience, and/or the professional network, that can tell them "where the bodies are buried." 
"Insiders," in contrast, know how to find obscure information.
Compounding the problem is the fact that, unless you are a subject matter expert in just about everything, you will eternally be clueless about the technical issues surrounding the particular mission of your particular agency. There is no human way that communicators can be "in" on every conversation, schooled on every subject, up-to-date on every single pertinent article and research and report. 
So it will happen that you find yourself immersed in situations where the technical ebb and flow is going on. And you are surrounded by people who are in effect speaking a foreign language. And you get the sense that there is an over-emphasis on all the technical detail. 
It is almost like listening to your father and mother go back and forth about the minutiae of homework and finances and family, and there is a conversation happening at that level, but a meta-conversation maybe is happening too. And you find that because you are almost blind and deaf to the substantive conversation, your eyes and ears become more attuned to the meta-conversation.
At that level you say to yourself, in all your cluelessness, "Is the communication optimal here? Or is something else happening, something to block it?" And maybe you can't literally "prove" anything is awry, but you can sense it in the air.
Which leads to the conclusion that I have come to about organizational communication - in government or elsewhere. And that is that the #1 thing people want is meaning. They want to belong to a mission that counts. They want their work to make a difference, to be worthwhile. 
Yes, they need the facts sufficient to do their jobs.
Yes, they need to know where to find things.
Yes, they need to know they're getting paid.
But what people are starving for, what they don't get often enough, is meaning - feeling - passion. Communication that comes from the heart. That includes them in the professional family, in the network, in the community, in the team. 
How do you learn the most important things in life? It's not from cold, distant, glossy brochures. It's not from a book. It's not from a teacher. 
Learning happens when you are in the situation. And you are thinking critically, and attuned to your own emotions.
You can't learn unless you first accept that you are clueless. It's an embarrassing feeling not to know. It makes you feel vulnerable, and weak.
But there is no other way to live, to learn, and to grow except to accept that cluelessness, and if you can even to embrace it.
So listen to what your not-knowing is telling you. In the end you find out a lot. Strangely, even, that you're stronger when you admit your own ignorance, and weaker when you pretend to know it all.