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Brand's Best Friends: Critics, Contrarians, Competitors & Communities

At least three times in my career I've been asked why I read Alex Jones' Infowars every single day. The criticism has gone something like this:
  • "That guy is crazy!"
  • "There is nothing there worth reading." 
  • "Don't you know they hate the government, and you are a government employee?"
These objections really mean:
  • "I am genuinely surprised that a government communicator would take an anti-government website seriously."
  • "What am I missing? Maybe I'm not as smart as I thought and I should be reading that site."
  • "You work for the government, and yet you read a site that is anti-government. Where is your loyalty?"
A previous post covered the importance of studying a wide range of popular opinion. The more extreme the extremes of those opinions, the better. Understanding what people are really thinking, particularly people you virulently disagree with, makes you a more objective person. It also helps you to more accurately gauge where buying behavior is headed next.
If you want to distinguish between "good" critics and "bad" ones, I would suggest only one filter: Take hatred out of the conversation. People who are full of hate are unable to articulate a point of view objectively, and instead will distort the truth only to serve their own psychological need to inflict pain.
In my own career and in my personal life, I've found it necessary on every occasion to read what opposing voices have to say. This is true as a government communicator, as a patriot who is also a pro-Israel activist, as a feminist, and even as a brand consultant. Early on, I argued that we should incorporate the views of other companies into our own best practice literature, and was roundly shouted down: We must only promote ourselves.
To that I responded, is going to rise and sell almost anything, because they let other vendors in on their site.
When the government was hit with reports of a particular scandal, the name of which I'm not going to share, all the news was available very early on in a publicly available bulletin board. I used to read that bulletin board every day, collect the information and share it internally - begging the powers that be to respond. 
"Don't even go there."
It is ironic to me that we routinely promote the importance of negative feedback, and then ask people to pass a political correctness litmus test before we pay any attention to them.
In fact, it's just the opposite: The more you try to orient yourself to people who have already "drunk the Kool-Aid," so to speak, the more guaranteed you are that your brand will be speaking only to itself, and will fail to gain any appreciation by its audience.
Remember that show, "Keeping Up With The Kardashians?" I loved that show from Day One, and in policy-wonk DC they laughed me out of town for saying it.
Look who is making billions now.
Not wanting to hear from your opponents is a primitive survival mechanism. But it doesn't do much for you in the world of PR.
If you really want people to listen to your point of view, you must engage the very critics, contrarians, competitors and communities of interest you fear.
Photo of 1943 Kool-Aid advertisement by clotho98 via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

When Predictive Brand Analysis Supersedes "Big Data"

Predictive brand analysis is a method of pre-inventing future products and services and/or of assessing the future profitability of existing ones. It relies on three things:
  • Continuous absorption by a dedicated person or small team of "objective culture," in the form of social media, news, television, film, magazines, books, music, fashion, food, art, and other forms of popular culture with an emphasis on material that is "viral" or very popular.
  • Nonjudgmental, intentional comparison of many sources of data that represent different views, normally views that are wildly opposing.
  • The formation of brand-based views about the direction in which popular culture is headed, based on the application of durable principles to one's observations.
I developed this form of analysis; its primary usefulness is to discover undervalued or unknown properties and capitalize on them before others do. A couple of notes:
  • It is related to, but different from, qualitative market research because it relies specifically on the framework and discipline of branding in forming conclusions.
  • It is different from, but can be complementary to, the use of "big data" because it relies on subjective personal opinion for the formation of conclusions. However, large-scale quantitative information helps by providing context, and also by balancing itself out - e.g. as one large survey says a single thing, another survey may mirror it or say the opposite, and it is left to the researcher to understand how and why this has happened.
As an example of how this methodology works, here are 10 predictions for the next couple of years, and their rationale. Absent some extraordinary interruption in the current social climate, you don't need a supercomputer to know that these things are going to happen.
  1. Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. From a branding perspective, a personal brand or archetype is at work: Women are voting not for her in particular but for "a woman who has been through hell with a cheating husband in order to rise to the top of a sexist political system, who has the credentials to lead, who looks like a leader, and who will take care of us." 
  2. Job search and recruitment will be done nearly exclusively through a Tinder-type mobile app that draws its data via integration with LinkedIn. From a branding point of view, it's about the idea of "instant gratification for intimate and basic personal needs." Tinder disrupted romance by providing a partner with a swipe; it was only a matter of time before the same principle was applied to job search, which is about economic survival. (Look up Switch; thanks to Joanna Seich for telling me that this actually exists.) LinkedIn is a key factor for a couple of reasons. First, people choose brands based on familiarity and ubiquity - for professional networking, LinkedIn is akin to Facebook. It is where you build a professional identity. Second, people choose brands based on identity - and while they may not know what "Switch" is, they do know and trust LinkedIn to allow them to build a personal brand.
  3. Virtual doctor's visits using a Skype-like interface, chat and remote assessment devices will replace most office visits. This is because from a branding point of view, the entire interaction with a doctor puts the patient in a position of powerlessness. It's not who we want to be, and furthermore it's not convenient. Even if the computer is somewhat impersonal, it allows us to take control of our own health.
  4. Islamic culture will go mainstream, not only through religion but also in fashion, tourism, and an approach to business that is dramatically different from the Western model. From a branding point of view, Western culture is very "overdone" while Islam is frequently demonized in popular culture. As a response, trendsetters gravitate to it - their job is to disrupt social taboos - leading others to explore this culture which is seen as very mysterious, and even forbidden. There is the additional allure that Western culture is demonized in academic circles as colonialist, and an according desire to understand and recover the valuable artifacts of Islam that have been culturally marginalized or left by the wayside. An example of this fascination is the television show "Tyrant" on FX.
  5. India will become the new Hollywood. From a branding point of view, the unknown is an object of fascination provided it becomes an "ingredient" of mainstream culture. Popular stars like Mindy Kaling, whose parents are from India, and comedians Aziz Ansari and Russell Peters, are serving as a kind of "gateway," helping others to understand their cultures of origin and in the process demonstrating its appeal. (A similar dynamic is happening with Hasidic Jewish culture, but the trend is still in relative infancy.) Additionally, "Bollywood" is increasing in its sophistication and reach and increasingly demonstrates crossover Hollywood appeal. 
  6. African-American women will ascend the professional ranks as never before and their influence will be felt in the form of an astonishing diversity of literature, movies and television shows, music, fashion, religious leadership, business leadership and more. From a branding point of view, this has to do with having an African-American President and First Lady; sheer focus and determination (a recent study found that African-American women are far more ambitious than Caucasian women); the tendency to pay attention to omnipresent voices across multiple lines of business that carry a clear message (e.g. Oprah Winfrey); and a growing vocal opposition to the tendency of "White" culture to appropriate their cultural symbols (e.g. Azealia Banks, Chloe Valdary; the controversy over Rachel Dolezal).
  7. "Whiteness" will become a new subject for minority studies. This is a corollary to #4-#6 and is amplified by two brand trends, both of which fall into the category of "cult branding," - e.g. very strong ties among a small group of fiercely dedicated people. These include, loosely, people who are politically opposed to the President and who take race into account as part of that opposition. Related, there is an antifeminist movement that relies for its identity on the preservation of "white maleness." Finally, as brands tend to arise in opposition to the conventional thinking of the time, the predominance of leftist progressivism in the academy will likely be countervailed by those who seek to focus on whiteness as a numeric and qualitative cultural minority and isolate it for academic study.
  8. Life will take on a more and more modular and portable feel as homes and cars shrink in size and as shared ownership becomes the norm for personal possessions. This is reflective of the branding principle that value is found in leveraging the economic realities on the ground and turning them into a positive identity value. As permanent job opportunities shrink and it becomes more and more necessary to adopt a mobile lifestyle, a need to develop an affirmative sense of self will arise around financial issues that are impossible to escape.
  9. Increasingly, government, educational, business, and religious institutions will partner to remain relevant and preserve the social infrastructure through promoting volunteering, self-training, community gardening, and other sustenance activities. The operative brand principle here is similar to the above, except the underlying reality is social rather than economic: American society is more and more rejecting of formal institutions and centralized bureaucracies in favor of flexible, dynamic, small-scale and nimble grassroots partnerships that empower the individual.
  10. There will be a seismic shift toward prevention rather than reaction as a model for all sectors of society, from crime to healthcare to jobs and intimate relationships. Thought analysis will be used to determine aptitude and compatibility, and even to provide counseling and treatment before any negative social activity occurs. The brand principle here is social-attitudinal, as the dominance of Generation Y, or millennials, has placed a premium on teamwork over and above individual achievement: Any disruption of the social fabric is viewed as a moral crime. We can already see a power struggle developing between Generation Y and Generation X, as the latter (to oversimplify it) places far more emphasis on the individual "hero" as they protect their family against a mostly hostile world (e.g. "The Walking Dead"). It is unclear how the influence of Generation Z (those born after 2000) will play out, as they appear to have in their minds a model of social operation that transcends both the individual and the social in favor of the technological as a means of preserving a positive and prosperous order for humankind.
All of this analysis is drawn from reading social trends on a personal basis. It doesn't constitute an explicit or implicit endorsement. It isn't meant to be judgmental, and I hope that it doesn't offend.
It's mainly shared to demonstrate two things:
  • Brand thinking is critical not only to marketing but to business and society more generally.
  • Opinion-based predictions are helpful not only in their own right, but also because of the constructive nature of the debate that will inevitably ensure.
Although a machine can do a lot of things, it cannot yet replace human discussion, debate and ultimately collective insight. The principles of branding, well-applied, can help us get there.
Photo by Keri Logan via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.


It isn't often that this happens, but sometimes I do have the debate with other people as to what constitutes "professional" behavior or "professional" outfits or a "professional, high-quality communication product."
On its face, the debate may appear to center on substance. That is, the content of a particular document, photograph or video.
But in my view, it's really about the foundational assumption that "professional" must be the same thing as "formal."
That may have been true in 1970, or even 1980, or possibly 1990 and if we're stretching it maybe 2000.
It is not true today.
It is most emphatically not true today.
Regardless of political ideology, there is no doubt that U.S. President Barack Obama has demonstrated he is a master of professional communication.
It is not the traditionally Presidential poses that define him.
Not this.
It's not the serious meetings with former Presidents and heads of state. Frankly the President often looks uncomfortable in those, a bit ill at ease.
No. It is the moments where the President is with the people. Just one of us.
It is the moments where he feels our pain. Where he sings to us of grief, and redemption.

No matter where you are or with whom you speak, no matter what the context, you would do well to take a lesson from President Obama.
He truly understands how to connect - not as the embodiment of an abstract idea, but as a human being. As a person. 
If the metric is success at conveying a message convincingly, then the President's got game.
It's the most professional method of contemporary communication that I can imagine.
Photo credits: All photos via White House. Main photo here. Photo of President Obama with arms folded here. Photo of President Obama with President George Bush here. Photo of the President watching a movie here. Photo of the President with gymnast McKayla Maroney here. Photo of the President walking up to a private home here. Disclaimer: All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. 

What Is The Connection Between Branding, Your Website and Customer Growth?

Update July 9, 2014 - Grace wants me to make it clear that lets you put your logo into your invoices. I told her that I don't endorse anyone. And they aren't paying me to write this post. However at this point, I now know who they are! 

To be fair to Grace, because she has been so persistent, I did do a brief Google Search on "Lifehacker" and "Freshbooks," because Lifehacker is what I read when I want to know how to do something. That also is not an endorsement, just a fact. As it turns out, Adam Dachis recommended back in 2011, and underneath the article somebody commented that Freshbooks is good if you want to "save logos, templates and client info." Back in 2009, Sarah Rae Trover, writing at Lifehacker as well, actually did recommend Freshbooks

The issue with Freshbooks, from my point of view, is that they charge money. Back in 2013, Mashable had an article with dozens of free tools (I don't know if they are still free.)

I don't do all that much freelancing, so perhaps I'm not Grace's audience. I do work with freelancers, and frankly we don't care what the invoices look like. 

Anyway, I think I've exhausted my intro to this piece by now. You can still read the Q&A below. If you are a freelancer, good luck and G-d-speed! Do you hate administrivia as much as I do????



The other day I got a nice email from Grace at FreshBooks asking me to answer some branding questions. (Good marketing tactic, by the way - it got them a mention!*)

Here's the question:

Share your thoughts on the importance of a brand's appearance when building a customer base: 

  • How does the look and feel of a site impact a potential customer's purchase? 
  • Do the tone and voice of your blog match the product/service? 
  • Is the customer experience polished and professional from start to finish?
Step one - get clear on the four distinct concepts involved.
  • Brand appearance vs. website aesthetics: In this context, "brand" and "website aesthetics" are used relatively synonymously. Technically though, most people would think of the former as the logo, and the latter as a design scheme that can change regardless of what one does with the brand's name and associated visual symbol.
  • Website experience vs. customer acquisition: This is the difference between someone liking your website and someone making the leap to actually buying something from you. In this post we will talk a little bit about the significance between these two things.
Step two - a general sketch of my personal opinion:
  • The #1 consideration for an online consumer is whether the merchant is safe to buy from. In the past the top spot might have gone to the cheapest merchant or the merchant offering the most features. Today, in light of how busy people are and how prevalent cybercrime is, I'd argue that trustworthiness is key. (Aesthetics, in my view, matter very little when it comes to making a purchase.)
  • From the perspective of trustworthiness, the website needs to establish that a caring, helpful merchant is behind the virtual wall. Consistency of voice and quality of experience contribute to a positive impression on that front. Those two things are also fundamental to the brand.
  • Branding helps to drive the customer to the website in the first place. This includes every activity associated with the business, not just the marketing activities. If you do it, it's part of who you are - and thus a part of your brand.  
Thanks for the opportunity to answer these questions. If you're reading this, feel free to send me some more. I'll do my best to answer them, if they seem relevant and if I have time.

*No endorsement expressed or implied. All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

$250 An Hour? For What? Who Knows?

Some communication tasks are highly valuable. For those you really need to pay what they're worth. 
Take branding for example. Many people pass themselves off as brand strategists, brand gurus, brand visionaries, brand designers, brand ideationists, brand creatives, brand disruptors, brand innovators, and on and on. 
Most of them are not good at what they do. Because although they understand the techniques of branding, they don't really care about you or the success of your business. To them it's just a project, you're just a number and they will die-stamp your little logo with the same methodology they apply to every other project.
If you look really closely, you will often find that they apply the same look and feel and approach to many different projects, regardless of the type of company it is and regardless of the unique challenges faced by the client in their own little world.
So when you find a brand person that really gets it, that takes the time to listen and to learn and who genuinely offers you an insight that can change your business for the better, the significantly better, you would be wise to pay them whatever they ask. Especially if you get along with them, if you can finish each other's sentences without pausing.
The financial rationale is that your future rewards will inevitably exponentially exceed the amount you invest in any level of consultation.
Same goes for a designer. You can go onto any online marketplace and find someone to do a logo cheaply. But there are a few, very few people out there who innately and intuitively understand design and who can apply rational thinking and highly evolved technical skill to deploy same. 
When you find that person, pay them whatever they ask and never let them go.
Wash, rinse and repeat for a good writer who can understand and capture your voice and deploy it across many media.
But there are lots of other things you really don't need to pay a ton of money for. Generally they tend to be services provided by those who make a living from poor organizational dynamics. These merchants benefit from making people feel better, while offering little more than garden-variety common sense, dressed in expensive, custom-tailored designer fabric. 
How to know when to pay? Briefly, the provider:
  • Has specialized skill that is difficult to duplicate.
  • Is experienced.
  • Charges a markup over industry average, but not an exorbitant one.
  • Demonstrates that they care about your success and the success of the business.
  • Has significant skill at bringing otherwise uncooperative parties together.
How to know when to avoid? The provider:
  • Mystifies their methodology, e.g. claiming it is incredibly unique and therefore impossible to explain well.
  • Lacks references who can be independently verified.
  • Applies a similar solution regardless of the client's unique situation.
  • Doesn't seem to listen and/or to be excited at your unique problem.
  • Reassures you that no matter what you need, they can handle it, even if they can't demonstrate that they have sufficient knowledge, skills or experience to do so.
Lots of times, organizational dynamics push us into making unwise financial decisions, and that's an inevitable part of professional life no matter what you do to mitigate the risk.
One tactic that can help reduce your exposure is to turn to a trusted third party or parties - people who have no skin in the game but who do actually care about you, your organization and its success, and who are qualified to opine.
Talk to them about what your situation is, and ask them for sincere, objective advice.
What to do with the money you've saved? 
That's a decision worth savoring.
Photo by roternagellack via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

How To Restore Public Trust In Government - Without Paying A Single Cent

More than 3 out of 4 Americans don't trust the federal government. 

In 2014, only 24% of Americans said they trusted the government to do what's right "always or most of the time."
Sixty years ago, in 1964, that figure was more than 50 percentage points higher - 77%. (Source: Pew Research Center, 2014)

Government leaders know that communication is a vital government function.

Recognizing this, nearly 20 years ago, in 1996, U.S. Vice President Al Gore formed the Federal Communicators Network.
"The Vice President's vision was to reach federal workers with important reinvention messages, promote a climate in which reinvention can flourish, and create a grass-roots demand to break down agency barriers to reinvention." (Source: National Partnership for Reinventing Government archive via University of North Texas Libraries and the Government Printing Office.)

Unfortunately, however, the Vice President's vision was not realized.

In 2013, only 50.3% of the federal workforce was satisfied with the communication they receive from their leaders (Partnership for Public Service analysis). They don't feel like they get enough information about:
  • Goals and priorities
  • News about the agency generally
  • Information about what's happening outside their immediate sphere of work
See this table from the PPS showing the decline in employee satisfaction with leadership communication over just the past few years.
For good employee communication to happen, says the PPS, it has to be a priority; it has to take place through a number of channels simultaneously; it has to be open and honest; and employee suggestions have to be taken into account.
The private sector is better than the government at this, says the PPS.
And not knowing what's going on obviously leaves people frustrated and unable to contribute fully to the mission.
It goes without saying, but is worth saying anyway, that
There is a statistically significant correlation between effective workplace communication and employee job satisfaction, but communicating effectively and motivating employees is a challenge for many leaders. (Deloitte Consulting LLP, “Silencing the static: Engaging employees in an unsettled environment,” July 2014, via Partnership for Public Service

In an environment where internal transparency is scarce, effective external communication is more than challenging. It's impossible.

One might argue that we shouldn't rely on federal communicators: "Let the data speak for itself."
But that approach isn't working either. In 2015, 10 out of 12 (83.3%) federal agencies most frequently receiving FOIA requests failed to provide adequate access to government information. Again, it's not because federal employees are incompetent. Rather, according to the Center for Effective Government, the function is insufficiently funded, staffed, planned for and automated. 

Poor communication and perceived corruption go hand-in-hand.

In 2014, the United States ranked #17 out of 100 on the perceived corruption index published by Transparency International. A score of 0 means "highly corrupt," vs. 100 means "very clean." According to TI:
A poor score is likely a sign of widespread bribery, lack of punishment for corruption and public institutions that don’t respond to citizens’ needs.

There is hope in the form of improved compliance with the Plain Language Act of 2010.

Earlier this year, the Center for Plain Language released its report card of federal agencies' compliance with the law requiring them to speak in language that most people can understand.

On the whole, agencies have gotten better: 86% are in compliance with the law's requirements - up from only 54% just one year ago.

Improved readability not a small feat for agencies to have achieved. In an interview with Federal News Radio, government communications veteran and plain language volunteer Annetta Cheek said:

“The result looks easy, but getting there is not so easy. Writing bureaucratically is much easier.”

As someone who has worked in the federal government for more than a decade, I have observed firsthand the tendency to lean on bureaucratic writing as way out of dealing with uncomfortable, confusing, complex, and sensitive topic matter.
And have seen how the resulting confusion on the part of the public leads to the automatic assumption that the government must be doing something wrong; must be hiding the truth, because "they can't just come out and say what's going on."
It's also obvious to anyone who reads social media that a lack of ready access to information creates fertile soil for conspiracy theorists.

We can fix this problem by giving federal employees - not just communicators but all employees - significantly more information. 

Federal employees are trustworthy, and they are trusted by the public.
According to The Pew Research Center, 62% of the public have a "favorable" view of federal employees, even as their trust in the government as a whole has plummeted. 
I have also observed in my personal life that people frequently tell me positive stories about their one-on-one interactions with feds.

To improve trust in government, and to improve workplace productivity, agencies should arm employees with information and encourage them to communicate freely - anything that is not confidential.

Social media is effective as a communication tool precisely because of the power of uncensored word-of-mouth. Even when the news is bad, people trust the messenger who gives it to them straight.

Who better to share information through regular media and social media than the federal employee who is deeply familiar with their own workplace environment? 

Fears that employees cannot be trusted with meaningful information are unfounded. Study after study shows that federal employees are extraordinarily dedicated, regardless of the trying circumstances.
As the Office of Personnel Management noted with regard to the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which included 392,752 employees from 82 agencies:
The vast majority of Federal employees believe their work is important, put in extra effort to get their jobs done and actively look for ways to do their jobs better. Seventy percent of respondents said that their work gives them a feeling of personal accomplishment.
Indeed, The Washington Post ran a story last December about Department of Homeland Security employees who said they'd stay on the job even if they had to work without a paycheck.

The government invests no special effort to turn ordinary federal employees into brand ambassadors. And they don't have to.

The integrity of individual federal employees already acts as a kind of "reputation insurance" for the apparatus of government as a whole.
The only thing that needs to happen is removal of artificial barriers to communication with the public.

The path to increased return on investment for civil service salaries is clear and straightforward:

1. Boost communication with individual federal employees.

2. Encourage individual federal employees to communicate with the public about what they know, as long as it's not confidential.

3. Watch the workplace satisfaction of feds increase.

4. See their productivity increase accordingly.

5. Notice significantly improved public perceptions of the federal government as a whole.

Photo of report card by by amboo who?. Photo of man by Rob. Photo of pit by Washington State Department of Transportation. All photos via Flickr Creative Commons. Trust in government graphic via Pew Research Center. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

Radical Humanism: Where's The ROI?

The following is a transcript of my talk, "Radical Humanism: Where's The ROI?" for #RebelJam15, organized by Rebels at Work and sponsored by Relevents. Video here. Slides here
Thank you so much. Good morning. It is such a pleasure to be here. I am thrilled to be able to talk about a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and has been for many years.
It's one that I believe stands at the intersection of brand, and management, and operations, which is I think the wave of the future really. To think about how all the different aspects of the workplace converge, and how the way we treat one another within the workplace affects the way our customers perceive us outside the workplace. And it directly affects the bottom line.
So this talk was initially titled "Radical Humanism: Where's the ROI?" And I took off the ROI part because I really feel like it's about more than money. But something to keep in mind is that doing well means doing good, but it also does have a return on investment that is actually quite palpable.
The key question, right? We all want to be good people; we all want to make things better. What can we actually do? What will we do?
And really it's very simple. At the core of the modern workplace is an assumption that money creates a power relationship wherein the supervisor, or the management team, controls the employee. It's that assumption that lies at the heart of the disconnected, disengaged, uninspiring, checked-out workplace that many of us experience every single day.
Work doesn't have to be like that. We can smash it. We can make it better. And we can make money at the same time. We will destroy all oppression, including oppression at work.
And then the question comes, right, why should we? Who cares? Why bother?
I was reading an interesting book by the editors at Life Magazine. And I found this quote, I thought it was actually funny, but it does capture the way a lot of people think, unfortunately. It's from a taxi driver. And they said, "What is the meaning of life?"
And he said, "We are here to die. We are here to just live and die. Nobody gives a damn. We're going to destroy ourselves and there's nothing we can do about it. Life is nothing."
No one should ever go through life feeling that way, but unfortunately too many people do.
Let's try it again.
I really like this quote from George Lucas, the producer and director most famous for "Star Wars." Where he said, "We share a collective spirit. It encompasses and it goes beyond our individual life forms."
Right? Sometimes we can feel that. There is something more. And whether you do or don't believe in G-d, there is a connection between people that is more than physical. It's metaphysical. And it's very real.
A couple of other nice quotes. That "our essence, really, is perfect love." And this is from someone who investigates near-death experiences. People come back and that is what they consistently say. They feel this kind of encompassing great love around them.
Another great quote is, "What gives life meaning is sharing." Right? It's very simple. It's not esoteric. It's not complicated.
Finally a bookeeper said, "We must be there for those in despair."
I was really amazed and touched at the depth of the comments that people had across the board, no matter who they were, no matter where they worked, and no matter what kind of work they did. If your work is meaningful, that is what life is really all about.
To love and to work.
To do work that has meaning to you.
You can't feel that meaning if someone has got their foot on your back.
OK, and so obviously some people don't believe, don't care, and say, "It's just a load of nonsense. I don't want to hear it."
But I think there are more people who do want to hear it.
And I looked for some evidence of this intuition that I had.
I found it no further than a movie theater. Went to "Mad Max: Fury Road." $346 million in box office as of May 15th. I'm sure the number is quite higher now. It's a powerhouse movie.
In the movie, one of the characters says, because she's been held captive and the women are held captive:
"We are not things. We are not things."
And I think that's a really good slogan for anybody in the modern workplace.
We are not interchangeable. We are unique, and we are all valuable. We should be valued and respected as such.
Here's a video by an artist named Helly Luv. It's called Revolution. And it's about fighting ISIS.
It's a very vivid and visual image of people who have had their lives destroyed by these, basically, invaders. Who have the courage to stand up to these murderous killers.
It's a very powerful video. It's had at least a million views thus far, and it's yet another example of the ordinary person doing extraordinary things.
Even though they may feel they don't have power, this artist did stand up and proclaim, we're not going to put up with ISIS and its murderous philosophy and its murderous activities.
Here's a great photo of Pope Francis, who, I just love him. He's the most inspiring figure to me. He's truly a man of the people, and he absolutely refused to be inside the "Popemobile," so to speak, I know he doesn't like that term, behind bulletproof glass.
When they asked him, "Aren't you afraid?" he said, "My life is in the hands of G-d. I'm really here for the people."
Three million people turned out for Mass on Copacabana Beach in Brazil. So it really shows the connection between him and humanity, and the connection between humanity and one another.
This is really what we strive for. This is what's in our hearts.
Another event, very briefly, the protest against the shooting of Freddie Gray. Police brutality in Baltimore is a well-acknowledged problem, and Black people, White people, Jewish people, people from all faiths gathered to say, it's enough.
It doesn't matter who's being targeted.
When someone is targeted, it's an offense against everyone.
Protests across the United States on that day.
So then arises the question of again, really Dannielle, what's new about this? People have protested since the beginning of time. Masses of people have turned out to see the Pope.
In Hebrew we would say, "What's the 'chidush?' What's the new idea here?"
But there is something new. I think that new thing is that more and more, people in authority are joining the rest of us, and they're sort of shedding that public/private distinction to embrace community.
This is really Mark Zuckerberg's, to his credit, that Facebook sort of started this. And where it's going is something quite amazing.
Here's a picture of Tyra Banks, the famous supermodel. She posts a selfie and says, here I am. You know, look at me (without makeup).
Right after that she posts another photo of herself looking quite glamorous.
The message is, "I'm the same person whether I have the makeup or don't have the makeup. I'm myself and I love myself and I love you."
Because why would she share this with the rest of us if she didn't feel that kind of connection?
That's really what radical humanism is all about. It's feeling connected to every other person on the planet, no matter who they are, no matter what their station. We are all really one.
In turn we, the people, are placing a greater demand on those in authority. Whether it's our boss, whether it's the President, whether it's any leader. We want to see the real person behind the so-called "mask." The legendary historical masks are coming down.
And so this is a still from a great video that United States President Barack Obama shot for Buzzfeed. It was really to promote healthcare. But in the process, it was kind of like, what do famous people do that the rest of us do that we don't ordinarily show?
This is him with a selfie stick. It's a really funny video, Google it, and he just kind of comes out and says, I'm one of you.
In the process, he satisfies a demand that we haven't exactly articulated. But it's very fulfilling, and very funny.
Related is that in the past we might have said, certain topics are off-limits. We don't really want to hear about that. It's TMI, too much information.
But today we say, tell us. We want to know. We want to be there for you even if we don't even know you.
This is the video of Selena Gomez, "The Heart Wants What It Wants." She took something that could have been tabloid fodder, and she shared it with the world in the form of art, her heartbreak over Justin Bieber. It's actually a very touching video.
And we honor those who take the risk of being human. That's really the key. We don't shame them anymore, we don't say "stand aside"or "keep it to yourself."
We stand in awe of the courage it takes to do that.
And that's part of radical humanism. Is honoring those who take the risk.
This is Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn, and it's not a joke. It's something that we all sort of stand back and say, what did it take for him to do that?
In a sense, (it's) more important than anything the Kardashians have ever done, with a more lasting, positive impact.
We are feeling empowered now to really take to task those who claim to be good but aren't necessarily. This is the Hozier video, "Take Me To Church." Where he really calls into question notions of traditional gender identity, and sexuality, in a very matter-of-fact way.
He forces the question, "Who is good? Who is really good?"
Very powerful video.
We are drawn to those who tell us, "Look. It's not only about you and your Starbucks coffee. Your fancy lifestyle, your little bubble. Think about those who aren't as fortunate."
This goes way back, I'm an 80's kid, USA for Africa, a very beautiful song. "We Are The World."
I think what's different now is that everybody feels that they can do something.
More than that, feel that they must do something.
In the past one might have said, I need to be earning a living, I need to stay on the sidelines, I need to be sort of neutral, indifferent.
We can't afford that anymore.
The time has come for all of us to stand up and to be heard, in whatever way we can be heard. And we are taking up that challenge.
Here's another song, if you have a moment, that really captures the sentiment. It's called "What About Now?" By Daughtry. He shows ordinary people doing extraordinary things to tear down the walls.
We all do care, we all want to make a difference. We will make a difference whether it's at work or not at work.
This is Thorn, founded by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, getting together with dozens of high-tech companies to stop online child exploitation.
Look at the results: 1.2 million interceptions to date. 17,000 instances of someone going on to get further help.
These are lives that are saved, and saved every single day.
But most of us aren't globetrotting public figures. Most of us are just ordinary. Going to work. And I say we start at work.
This is a photo of someone at work. We held a farewell party for her. And spontaneously, everybody gathered around her and clapped. She just stood in the middle of this circle while we clapped for her.
It was a moment that I will never forget.
Very meaningful to watch, for all of us.
Google. #1 place to work in America, #3 most valuable brand in the world, $65.6 billion in brand value.
There is a return on investment for being, Jewish people call it being a "mensch." Being a decent human being.
And what makes the workplace great. Simple. You trust the people you work for, you have pride in what you do, and you enjoy the people you work with. (Source: Great Places To Work; see slideshow link at bottom for full citation and all references in this presentation.)
Notice how much it's really about people.
Another one, Starbucks. Brand #52 in the world, $10.5 billion worth, giving four years full tuition for its baristas. Unheard of. Hiring 10,000 disprivileged youth. And there's more on their website about the return on investment of that.
Again, I have to ask, what is the alternative?
These are famous photos by Jacob Riis, turn of the 20th century, photographing street children. Is this what we want?
Obviously not. We have to get in there and make it better.
Do we want this scenario? (scene of rioting)
Nuclear war, where it's game over.
"Wealth is a great thing to have, and it's a great thing to share." (This is a quote from billionaire business owner Harold Honickman.) And that's the truth.
Be human.
That's it.
Thank you very much.
Photo by Patrick Marione via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. No endorsement expressed or implied. Not sponsored by any organization. No compensation was provided for this speech or for this blog post, or for any communication related to this event.

When Hiring Tech Doesn't Solve The Problem

I read with great interest this month's Fast Company cover story "Inside Obama's Stealth Startup," which is available free online in its entirety.
The article is about the new and promising U.S. Digital Service out of innovation hub 18F in Washington, DC. The President's idea is to hire private-sector, Silicon-Valley type tech talent into the government and then deploy it across agencies to solve urgent technology problems blocking excellent customer service.
Think of the disastrous rollout of and you get the idea immediately.
The President is on the right track with this one. This is not a political statement, but rather the result of having worked in government for upwards of a decade and watching stovepiped and overpriced individual tech departments at individual government agencies squander millions, probably billions of dollars while the rest of the organization sat by and helplessly watched.
Instead of leaving every agency to flail on its own, the government as a whole would do well to provide some form of centralized support for critical back-office functions. This is true for acquisitions, it is true for human resources, it is true for information technology and guess what? It's true for all manner of communication services as well.
We'd save money, for one thing. And we'd start to think from a much bigger-picture perspective than we have in the past. Moving us toward a state in which the federal government is viewed internally as it is externally: As a single, unified brand with specialized functions.
I have long believed that the government should be run like a lean, efficient business and have also long believed that we should function as one brand with a single brand strategy and architecture. But believe me when I tell you, I've been on the receiving end of fairly harsh criticism for just as long a time. Because consolidating functions means only one thing to those on the inside: a reduction in power. Fewer people to control, a reduced budget, and a much smaller span of control than they are used to.
The official objections sound something like this: "Our agency is too specialized to share services with others. You just don't understand how highly unique our subject matter is."
But the real sentiment, the one you hear behind closed doors, is more like the following: "Nobody's gonna tell me what to do with my money."
So President Obama is on the right track with hiring private sector, and incorporating that talent into the turgid bureaucracy that is Washington, D.C. In the end it will save a ton of money, reduce inefficiencies based in snarling power plays and impossible-to-arrive-at collaboration fantasies. 
He's right in the same way Vice President Al Gore was back in the '90s, when his "Reinventing Government" initiative birthed the Federal Communicators Network, now nearly 20 years old and still going strong.
But there's only one flaw in his thinking. It's a common one in today's society which is so technology-obsessed.
Technology alone is just a tool.
It is great to hire people with skills. But do you know what? I can reach into ten different agencies right now and pull out people with firecracker skills you wouldn't believe.
It's not about the tech. Not at all.
It is about hiring people who can lead, and then backing them up when they make tough decisions.
The U.S. Digital Service can potentially transform the entire way government does business. It can be the disruptive transformational tool that the President envisions.
But it won't do anything worth a damn unless the President insists on hiring leaders, and then putting them at the helm with lots of leeway. The distribution of talent should look something like this:
  • 20% Strategy (GS14 and above)
  • 20% Consulting (GS13-14)
  • 30% Tech (GS13-14)
  • 30% Writers (GS13-14)
You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out. It's as simple as knowing how organizations function, and dysfunction.
  1. Start with a decision to create this force for change.
  2. Back it with a charter that's a call to arms, for a better and more efficient way of doing government.
  3. Budget for it sufficiently - don't try to do this on the cheap.
  4. Institutionalize it across government and within agencies.
  5. Establish metrics for its success, and measure at regular intervals.
  6. Engage the public in providing regular feedback and a transparent view of what's going on.
  7. Brand it in a way that makes sense to the public.
  8. Establish customer service from the get-go.
  9. Collaborate with academia to draw in new talent, so that people work in government for a lifetime.
  10. And communicate openly and transparently how it's going - the progress toward real change.

We can make government lean, mean, and people-centric. It isn't an impossibility, not at all.
All it takes is a decision, and the determination on all our parts to back it up with action.
Photo by Karola Riegler via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.