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5 PR Lessons From The Unfolding Crisis In Ukraine

Photo by T-Oh! & Matt via Flickr

Freely I admit to being the average ignoramus about most everything, which is very helpful when applying a PR lens to situations because I am not swayed by "insider's knowledge" or even subject matter expertise.

Based on 15 minutes of watching what's going on through the CNN lens this morning, a few thoughts:

1. Don't get pushed into a crisis communication plan. What we look like, on TV, is reactive and freaked out -- like we're "winging it." We should have a PR plan thought through on this, or at least basic principles of engagement. If not, we should back away for a little bit until we can at least seem like we know what we're doing. Clearly Putin has thought this all the way through and he loves making President Obama look weaker than him (perhaps a few psychotherapy sessions could help Putin work through this anxiety.)

2. If someone punches you in the nose, punch them right back. We're talking about symbolic actions now. Talk on the television, talk from Russia about recalling the U.S. ambassador specifically. President Obama says "the international community" isn't going to put up with this. This sounds weak. Why do we have to hide behind this vague group? On TV, the boxer says: "I will crush him, he'll regret the day he was born." 

3. Show some swagger. When President Obama walked up to the lectern, his walk was laid-back, and then he spoke in very calm and measured tones, reading off of a piece of paper, as though he were lecturing the class on the procedure for reporting plagiarism and how intolerable it was. I did not discern any emotion. Even if he didn't feel it, the nation "gets" in a sort of a vague way that Russia is trying to make us look weak. The President could respond in an extremely strong way, without buying into the "macho" paradigm. He could simply say, "we don't flatten defenseless people, sorry -- and that's why we have so many people trying to get into our country every day." A little attitude. We don't always have to be so nice. Putin is not nice. Like the guy said on Game of Thrones, "trying to be the most popular guy on the block is a great way to end up dead."

4. Say as much as you can about why the issue matters. Obviously the President has had tons of briefings by tons of experts who said, this is a very big deal, and we have lots of interests over there, so please be very very careful to say this, but not that and not the other thing. The result is that the public has very little clue as to what is going on or why we should care, and on top of that we are worried about Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq. We're spread out in costly ways militarily, we are economically challenged at home, and now we should start worrying about Ukraine? Why? Normally most of us would ignore it, except it's on CNN. So deal with it for us, tell us what the strategic interests are and what we plan to do about them, and let us go about our lives. Saying "just don't do it" (e.g. hello Mr. Putin, please just don't invade) is not communication that influences.

5. People go by simple visuals, not complicated words. They were talking on CNN about whether Putin had declared "war" or not and the expert said "well it may not meet the technical definition of war but it is a sovereign nation taking military action against another sovereign nation." It's like, huh? It's a war! There are tanks! There are helicopters! There is Putin on TV! It's a war! Don't parse nonsense distinctions, talk clear and direct and straight.

* Disclaimer: I am writing this blog post in my personal capacity as a private citizen, although I do work for the government, and all opinions are my own.

Which is Better -- Great Leadership or Great Management?

Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Neither. What you need is a brand. 

But since most people don't think of branding as a business tool, here is the logic in traditional business terms.

The positives:

--With great leadership, the energy around the vision gets people excited. They want to follow the light. The leader is the light. You may not know exactly what things will look like once the vision is realized, but you want to be on the plane that takes you to that faraway place.

--With great management, the natural need of an employee for stability, predictability, order and fairness is supported. You wake up in the morning and you pretty much can plan your day. That's a nice feeling.

The negatives:

--Leaders tend to put their vision ahead of the people who work for them. This is the natural way of a leader. They are cognitively focused on the end state, not on what they think of as "handholding." This can be brutally painful for staff who want very much to be "managed in" to the vision.

--Managers tend to be unimaginative and uncaring about moving the needle. This is also natural. The job of a manager is to keep the trains running on time, not to build a new form of transportation. If the workplace is dominated by managers, employees lack inspiration.

The ideal state of course is one in which leaders and managers not only work together, but have a kind of mind meld about what kind of work they are doing and how it should be done. There is a clear distinction between the role of each, an appreciation for each, and an integration in the daily work flow that makes sense to employees.

A problem arises when leaders and managers are not working in sync, or worse than that, when there are contradictory visions of leadership within which the leader and the manager must operate. This is where the brand becomes extremely important, and communications as a subset of that.

The function of the brand is to organize the workforce around a shared set of principles -- yes, vision, mission and core values -- and to serve as a kind of law enforcement mechanism when those principles are broken.

The organization that looks at branding in a superficial way, like colors and logos and flashy billboards, is missing the point -- and thankfully those days are pretty much over.

But we have still not arrived at a place where branding is "operationalized" the way management consultants would have it done. Ideally the brand is the law of the land - the secular religion of the workplace. Everybody knows what it is, everybody knows what it means, and it takes very little to explain it to a newcomer.

Brands thrive on logic, clarity and simplicity. Therefore, they cannot work well when the workplace is organized around stopgaps, turf battles, or warring personalities. 

Great leadership and great management are part and parcel of every brand. It is only the fool that focuses on technical prowess alone.

* All opinions my own.

Breaking The Coding Glass Ceiling

Computer programming is one of those skills we should all learn from birth. Photo by Graham via Flickr.

In the checkout line today, the cashier made a comment about how her job left her brain-dead.

I said, "In college I was a cashier too. I was so poor I ate Balducci's muffins for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

She said, "I'm an English major, so what can you expect, right?"

"Learn to code," I responded.

She said, "I minored in Japanese."

"Well then, your other choice is to join the CIA."

Personally I don't know how to code. I keep telling myself to learn, but unfortunately I'm too busy blogging.

Seriously, knowing how to code is critical to getting your foot in any door. You may never even use it. But lacking the literacy puts you at a major disadvantage.

For a lot of reasons women avoid learning code. It's the same as financial literacy. We have the vote, we have a checkbook, we have access to education, but it's almost like we shoot ourselves in the foot.

And then we see the price of groceries...or get hit with some other shock, and we wish we had taken the time to learn while we could.

So - learning to code does not make you "a guy." It does make you one very smart cookie.

If you're interested in learning more, these are some online and DC area resources that may be helpful.* 

Note: If anyone wants to sponsor a daytime event or meetup locally, or has expertise they're willing to share with someone in the process of learning, leave a comment. Some of the options available (meetups, free training requiring travel) aren't workable for moms who need to be with the family at night.

10 Ways To "Think LinkedIn" At Work

The first part of this post deals with the "why" of internal networking, as in why is it important. The second part goes to the "how." 

I. Why To Do It

A. To Do Your Job Better

You wouldn't know it to see me at work, but in truth I am a huge introvert. Mostly I live in my head thinking creative thoughts. The necessity of dealing with other people can actually be painful.

Which may be great for writing. But it's not great for working. Because -- particularly in the knowledge/slash collaboration enterprise -- your value comes not only from what you do, but how well you understand the actual needs of the team and contribute to those.

Notice that I said "actual" -- at work you have to listen with your "third ear" for what is really wanted and needed. For example: 
  • Customer service means identifying areas of frustration that the customer does not express.
  • Project management means getting organized but also knowing the team dynamics, sensing trouble spots and pulling out the right tool. 
  • Environmental awareness means that when you become aware of a job request, you mentally scan the rest of the organization to see if it is really a symptom of something else, someone else's workaround, or a legitimate job in and of itself. 
Think about how pet dogs protect their homes. They sense trouble early and respond vigorously, because they are one with their owners.

That's how you want to be at work. To get there you have to know what's going on, but you also have to know people. 

B. To Prepare For Your Next Job

Nowadays, no person stays in one job, one department, under one boss, for the rest of their lives. But it is possible to rotate jobs in the same organization, or to move up.

That is why it's important to lay the groundwork for future opportunities by making an effort to get out there and meet people who can mentor you, and from whom you can learn.

You can learn more about how you, your job, your department and office are perceived by others. You can learn about what the trends are in the organization, and in the community surrounding it. Some of this can come from your immediate circle, but work groups can fall into groupthink. 

It's good to get the kind of challenging thinking that comes from people at work who have a different agenda, and evaluate that against what you're hearing "at home."

You also want to talk to people who have been there a long time and who have so seen it all that they just say the truth without a filter.

The people you network with can also serve as a reference for you later on.

C. To Build Your Personal Brand

Networking internally also enables you to identify your career strengths and weaknesses. For example, I've learned that I mostly add value as a big picture thinker with sharp insight and a near-total obsession with results.

The way I get to those results is not through special technical knowledge but by finding the people who can solve a problem and getting them into a room. Investing in their development not just using them.

I've learned that I have an unusual Myers-Briggs "P" and "J" combination in that I need to be constantly creative but also have an equally strong need to get stuff done. Nobody can start so many projects and bring them to closure at 100%, and with a staff one has to watch out for burning them out with this kind of tendency.

In general, you have to step back from yourself to understand your skills, but this is impossible to do all the time. The reflection you get back from others at work, if you really pay attention to it, tells you what you should be saying about yourself on your resume, because it's true.

II. How To Do It

There are lots of ways that anybody on the planet who wants to network, can network. I have seen people extremely early in their careers do this. A lot of it comes from confidence, but even if you don't have it naturally you can build up to it over time by acting first, then feeling confident later.

Here are 10 ways to meet folks and to encourage others to meet you:

1. Attend educational events at work - the "lunch 'n' learns"
2. Stay in touch with people you meet in training
3. Get to know your customers, when you work for them on a project
4. Offer to help someone else with a project
5. Join an existing organizational task force
6. Participate in a charitable drive or special heritage day event
7. Simply introduce yourself 
8. Reach out to someone with a good reputation for a certain skill, and ask for a meeting
9. Do an on-the-job training detail for part of the time 
10. Offer internal training on a subject you feel very comfortable with

Networking is what it's all about nowadays. You don't only have to do this on LinkedIn. The connections you need are very often right under your nose.

* All opinions my own.

First, Fire All The A*******s

Photo via Flickr by daveynin

Yes, really, let's just call them what they are, OK? 

Like skunks, you can spot them by their distinctive white stripe, combining:
  • Sociopathic lack of feeling for others but exaggerated feeling for oneself
  • Actual or convincing technical skills
  • Chameleon-like ability to blend in anywhere
  • Mastery of suckup-ness
  • Advanced sense of entitlement
These people pretend to be a huge advantage for the organization, but in fact they come at quite a cost, because people know they're "trouble" and avoid them like the plague, leading to:
  • Workarounds, meaning loss of time - it takes twice as long to get stuff done
  • Duplication of effort, meaning loss of money - because people stay away from this person, but they both need to do the same thing
  • Demoralization, meaning loss of staff either physically (they quit and take institutional knowledge with them) or emotionally (they check out and act like drones).
  • Chaotic, inefficient systems, meaning inefficiency on the ground. This is because the toxic team member is not only non-collaborative, but actually is willing to throw anybody under the bus in order to advance themselves. The result is a "Wild West" where it's "every man for himself" (or woman for herself) -- e.g. a tangled web of operational functions, branding decisions, IT architecture, on and on
  • Lack of strategic direction, meaning actual organizational failure to achieve its objectives. As a leader, the person serves only herself or himself, and so decisions are made based on personal criteria, not rational objective ones what would actually move everybody forward.
We were watching this scene on Game of Thrones last night. The head warrior is telling a follower how he got the seven clans in the army to get along, since A hates B, B hates C, C hates D, and everybody gangs up on E. 

"Unless we get south, we are gonna die, and everybody knows it." 

There's no time for playing games, no time for hating on each other and promoting ourselves.

Shortly thereafter, one of the guys trudging along fell down in the snow. He was very overweight, and his friends came back to help him.

Someone in the group, seeing the delays, says, "Leave him here. He's too fat. We can't afford this."

Immediately that person is told, "Now you're responsible for his welfare. If he doesn't make it, I promise, neither will you."

A successful organization cannot tolerate excessively self-interested sociopaths. It doesn't matter how smart they are, how much experience they have, or how well they seem to play with others. 

On the radio today, Ryan Seacrest was talking about this Swedish band, "NONONO," which has this really great song out, "Pumpin Blood." Seacrest explained the meaning of the name, according to the band: It's about rejecting everything negative in life. 

If we want our organizations pulsating with life, we have got to eliminate the human toxins who grind everyone else's energy into dust.

* All opinions my own.