Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Resolution for 2015: Value People, Not Personal Brands

Do you look as good in real life as you do in your LinkedIn profile photo?

Odds are, if you’re like me, you probably don’t.

It’s because we’re all concerned about personal branding, right?

This concept has grown in importance in recent years and reached a crescendo for me recently when I read, “How to Promote Yourself Without Looking Like a Jerk.” It’s a good article, too, filled with useful advice (SPOILER ALERT: “It’s essential to express humility”).

I was disconcerted, however, when I realized this wasn't posted on Buzzfeed; instead, it was an article in the Harvard Business Review.

There are now so many rules and demonstrated best practices that “personal branding” is taught in our classrooms, and not just for the benefit of business students. Even Kevin Hart recently schooled Sony in the concept.

But isn’t there a point when there are so many rules that they become at odds with the authenticity that’s needed to truly create a personal brand and achieve some form of influence?

In a favorite scene from the 1999 cult classic “Office Space,” a waitress and her manager at a restaurant called Chotchkie’s discuss why she is required to wear a minimum of 15 novelty buttons on her suspenders to express herself and show “flair.”


Is social media influence the 2015 version of Chotchkie’s flair, where knowledge workers and professionals are being judged and measured by Klout scores and proprietary algorithms?

I know… we should all be concerned about personal branding. It can be a necessary job skill and communications tool. I blog, I post here on LinkedIn and often on Twitter, I flat-out enjoy Instagram, I flirt with Google+. As a PR rep for a large company, I see many others doing the same.

But I also see professional journalists and writers and PR experts under greater and greater pressure to create personal brands and measurable influence.

I wonder, is all this personal branding headed for a jump the shark moment? Some monumental, irrevocable privacy hack that will make everything that comes after it seem silly?

In an age where everyone in the pack is trying to demonstrate flair, where is leadership? Perhaps it's found among those who truly inform, advocate, educate, entertain, build, repair, create, comfort or invent. And perhaps even David Ogilvy was wrong when he said if you can't be brilliant, you should at least be memorable.

I think the whole concept of personal branding has been overblown, and that the fewer personal branding rules there are, the better.

As a resolution for 2015, let me suggest a model from someone who recently spoke to the Verizon social media team.

Justin Foster, branding strategist and author of “Oatmeal v Bacon,” pointed to three universal truths that are now amplified by social media. He expressed them in the negative (one rule was, “don’t be stupid”), but I like the positive corollaries better:

  1. Be interesting.
  2. Be kind.
  3. Be smart.

If we're all trying to focus on any of these three things, I don’t think anyone would ever have to worry about their personal brands.

Oh, and one other rule… be sure to have a talented colleague like Theo Carracino snap your LinkedIn profile photo surreptitiously, and from a distance.

After all, I don’t think my smile would be authentic if I was posing.



Monday, December 22, 2014

Valuing Everything Bright and Hopeful

I can’t stop reading the news lately. All the senseless deaths, all the bitter words, all the threats.

I find myself obsessed, and mesmerized, by black-and-white words on electronic screens and in newsprint.

Is the world really spiraling out of control?

Earlier this morning, I was looking through recent photos on my cell phone, intending to post something on Twitter (despite everything, you have to keep up appearances, right?) when I noticed all the bright colors surrounding me.

I felt as if I had been suddenly snapped out of hypnosis.

Even in the photos I took at work — an interconnected hive of office space neighboring a vast tract of New Jersey swampland — I saw signs of hope.

There’s a Christmas tree with dozens of donated toys. There are otherwise bland cubicles strung with holiday lights. There’s the stuffed lion wearing a Penn State sweater I bought for our Secret Santa swap, and the miniature gold Notre Dame helmet I received in return.

As I continued to flip through the photos, I was astounded by all the beauty.

There are the smiling faces at the dinner with colleagues from work, and photos of festive Morristown Green outside… the first gathering of friends from my daughter’s barn… the warm hospitality of our end-of-year IABC-NJ board meeting… houses decorated with lights… gift-wrapped packages… photos of family members coming home… my wife with her arm around our daughter, wearing a red dress, before they left yesterday on their annual outing to see “The Nutcracker.”

I value all the people who shine so brightly, and I am grateful for all the colors that surround me. They fill me with hope and inspiration and light, even in the world’s darkest hours.



Monday, December 8, 2014

How Long Until the Elmos Show Up at Ground Zero?


I visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time yesterday morning.

Not long after the terrorist attacks, I saw a chilling bird's eye view of the site through a gaping hole in the side of Verizon's building at 140 West St., which had been damaged by the collapse of Building 7.

Some force kept me from visiting the memorial sooner, but the recent openings of the museum and One World Trade Center all but shamed me into standing at the foot of the void.

I can prove I was there too. While I was at looking at the names inscribed in bronze around the perimeters of the two memorial pools, I found myself inadvertently in the background of more than a dozen people taking smiling selfies.

Of course, much has already been written and discussed about this phenomenon. But to see it in person was a bit like peeking again through that gash in the side of the building in 2001.

These weren't "I was here" poses. These were people extending expensive cell phones high in the air on selfie sticks and playfully mugging for the camera. Lovers were hugging each other with big smiles on their faces. A group of young women wearing fake tiaras were capping the previous night's birthday celebration with a group portrait. All that seemed missing was someone posing with Elmo or one of the other costumed characters who roam Times Square.

It's not that I'm against selfies. I take more than my share. There are countless photos posted on the @Sept11Memorial Twitter account that strike a respectful and balanced tone.

Posted here is a photo I took yesterday morning of Michael S. Baksh's name. On Sept. 11, 2001, my wife was teaching where his children went to school. He died on his first day at work as an insurance executive at Marsh & McLennan.

I have to believe that people, in their hearts, know that some things are still sacred. If you believe that too, please take a moment today to say a prayer for Michael Baksh and his family.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Teach Your Readers: A Review of "Wild Tales"

Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll LifeWild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life by Graham Nash
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, my life certainly hasn't been as interesting as Mr. Nash's... and I bet yours hasn't been either -- especially if, like the poor wretches he writes about in his home town ("Cold Rain"), you go to work every day, pay your taxes and don't do drugs.

In the incestuous other-world of classic rock, you can hate guns but then tell loving stories about your best friend shooting people. You can live on mini-compounds of homes on dozens of acres of land, and be a voice for conservation. You and your mates can ravage your voices and squander a good bit of career productivity on drugs and possessions (with women seemingly placed in that category until you reach middle age), and yet profess that music is always first and foremost. But then you can also helicopter in to benefit concerts and raise money for good causes too -- so what do I know?

I read this book because I enjoyed the early CSNY ("Our House" was a staple on my high school's jukebox for years after the song came out), and Graham Nash's public persona seems refreshingly likeable. And, very likely, he's a great guy in real life. Here, though... well, I wanted to give this book only 2 stars. I found it more preachy than descriptive or insightful, and it made me feel... well, small.

However, I listened to the audio version, which is read by the author, and every once in a while Graham Nash breaks into song. So I gave it an extra star.

View all my reviews


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"What Matters Most": A Lesson From Steve Jobs in 1993

I save everything. In the dark days before Evernote existed, when my media relations career was very young, I used to save physical clips of newspaper articles that intrigued me.

Most were snarky quotes. For example, from a Wall Street Journal article in December 1991, just after President (H.W.) Bush fired his chief of staff, John Sununu, I clipped a cruel joke White House staffers used to describe how unpopular he had become:

Q: If you had John Sununu, Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi in a room... and a gun with two bullets, what would you do?
 
A: Shoot Sununu twice.

I kept these clips in a file folder tabbed “Unusual.” I came across that folder earlier today while cleaning my office. My department is soon moving to a new location on the Verizon campus – and yes, one with a new “open office” layout.

That’s where I saw the “hedcut” portrait of Steve Jobs in a Page 1 story from the May 25, 1993, edition of the Journal.

It was an ugly story. It detailed his struggles – eight years removed from his first stint at Apple -- as the 38-year-old head of a computer company, Next Inc. By May 1993, Next had stopped manufacturing computers to concentrate on developing software, the company’s president and CFO had quit, and a consortium of other computer makers had just formed a software alliance that excluded Next.

The story was a litany of Next’s failures. One of the subheads proclaimed, “Flawed Vision.” It was, for all intents and purposes, the Journal's corporate obituary of one Steven P. Jobs.
What floored me – and why I saved the article – were the final sentences of the long story:

Yet Mr. Jobs talks of NextStep as “the operating system of the 90s,” partly because “everyone wants an alternative to Microsoft.” And he continues to contend that [Bill] Gates can’t match his own record of innovation.
 
“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful…that’s what matters to me.”

Everything… everything… Jobs had tried at Next had turned out wrong. It was the worst case scenario. Yet, in summation of it all, he comes up with this wonderful quote that succinctly describes who his competition is, what his strengths are and what his purpose is.

And he continued to believe in this purpose, despite all odds, because it’s a higher purpose:

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful…that’s what matters to me.”

That’s the true epitaph of Steven P. Jobs. How perfect, and how refreshing and unusual it is to read again in 2014.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Fun With Google

Here's a Google-generated photo essay of my trip yesterday morning into New York. Loving the camera on my new Droid Turbo.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Just Another Arbitrary Book Review

The PostmortalThe Postmortal by Drew Magary
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is imaginative and thought-provoking. Sometimes I got the feeling that the author was just winging it - but I consider that evidence of natural talent. The plot did veer off in odd directions toward the end... and some scenes make "The Grapes of Wrath" seem like a musical comedy... but I like that fact that I couldn't anticipate where this was headed. I should probably give this 4 stars instead of 3, but the author is a notorious hater of my alma mater (in fact, that's why I chose to read this book), so I'm going to be a bit arbitrary about this. Just like the way SEC officials are in calling offensive pass interference.

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Aria for a Lost Weekend: How Not to Spend Time Alone

This weekend, I was home alone in New Jersey for the first time in 20 years.

I’ve been away on business without my wife and children, but this weekend was the first time they’ve all been away on their own without me.

I mentioned this to a co-worker the other day. When she relayed our conversation to her husband and I relayed it to my wife, the reaction of both spouses was precisely the same: “How does that fact even come up in normal conversation?”

Pretty funny, and a fair question too... I had been thinking out loud about what to do on Saturday. “I mean,” I said to my co-worker, struggling to think of something besides drinking beer and watching college football, “I’ve never been to an opera before.”

What a random thing to say; I can’t fathom why it came to mind. So I took it as a sign: I was destined to spend this anomaly in my space-time continuum at the opera.

Online I learned that Bizet’s “Carmen” was playing at The Metropolitan Opera, less than 15 miles away. Until that moment, all I knew about “Carmen” was what I had learned by watching Katarina Witt skate at the 1988 Olympics – and what I had learned back then had nothing to do with the opera.

What can I say? I’m just your average José – which is a reference I can make after reading about “Carmen” on Wikipedia. I also found a YouTube clip of Elina Garanca singing “Habanera” and thought, “Maybe this satisfies destiny, and I should stay home.”
                                                                                    
No, I decided, I needed to buy a ticket to experience this first-hand. At a recent technology exhibit, I had taken a virtual-reality ride in virtual IndyCar in the Verizon employee cafeteria. It was fun, but made me regret never having driven a real racecar.

Here was the dilemma I faced: The available last-minute tickets were either reasonably priced in the last rows, or ridiculously overpriced in the front.

I know men who would buy a front-row seat without thinking. They’re the kind of guys who have already driven a racecar. I admire them. Other men would buy a ticket in the back, settling for a tinier version of Elina Garanca rather than splurging at the expense of their family. I’m that guy, I conceded, after an inner monologue worthy of Hamlet.

I was about to buy a single back-row ticket, when I received a text message from my wife. The message was ordinary, and I replied that I missed her.

This virtual conversation gave me pause. Wasn’t there another option?

Yes. I purchased two good-but-not-extravagant “Carmen” tickets instead… for a future performance when my wife would be home.

I grabbed a beer and went to the living room to watch the Notre Dame game with one thought in mind:

Aren’t the best experiences only worth it, and only real, when someone you love is beside you?



Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Baseball on the Small Stage: For Love of the Game

I edited a version of my post about baseball two days ago, and The Good Man Project reposted it here.


Sorry, Derek.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Let's Honor Derek Jeter by Not Deifying Him

There was no one but a German shepherd in the dugout of the best baseball game I saw this summer.

All nine of the team’s players – dressed in full uniforms with Seadogs blazoned across their chests – were out on the field, and the dog belonged to the second baseman.

Their pitcher was tired. He had just walked the leadoff batter – and a player came charging out of the Sharks’ dugout to serve as third-base coach with a runner on first.

The pitcher turned to the shortstop, said something vaguely obscene, and all the infielders trotted to the mound and conferred for a few seconds. When they dispersed, the shortstop was the pitcher and pitcher was the shortstop. One of two black-suited umpires said, “Play ball,” in a disarmingly young voice, and on the first pitch the batter launched a pop foul that landed at my feet.

I picked up the scuffed ball. “Hey, a little help here!” the catcher called out from the other side of the chain-link backstop. So I threw the ball back onto the field.

Baseballs, after all, cost $14.99 each at Dick’s Sporting Goods – and the players here pay all the equipment costs. They aren’t millionaires, and the only people watching them besides me were a few family members and girlfriends. This was, after all, just a bar league game in Chatham, a few weeks after the Cape Cod Baseball League had ended play.

I had seen the ballpark’s shining lights in the distance on an ordinary Thursday night and had wandered over to watch 20 grown men dress up and play nine innings… just for the love of the game.

As this year’s MLB playoffs begin without Derek Jeter, I’m conflicted – perhaps as conflicted as the former Yankee shortstop himself – by his deification.

I’m a lifelong Yankee fan, and I’ve admired his play and demeanor for years. I don’t pretend to know Derek Jeter, the man. But I can promise you this: he is not, as seemingly every sports reporter or announcer has claimed, “larger than life.”

Life and baseball are larger than Derek Jeter.

If we really want to honor his legacy, maybe we can all try this week to give someone else just a little help here.


Friday, September 26, 2014

A Taste for Something Different

“Variety is the spice of life,” was the advice I often received, non-ironically, from my grade school teachers at St. James in Totowa, New Jersey.

I’m thinking of these Franciscan nuns, all dressed alike, on the eve of my birthday tonight.

I confess I must have let them all down because I have worked at the same company, been married to the same woman and lived in the same house for more than two decades.

But still, I am thankful for it all. Just two weeks ago, for instance, I was walking hand-in-hand with my wife down a dark, silent road under the breath-taking light of thousands of stars.

We were on Cape Cod, a long way from the virtually-starless light-polluted skies of suburban New Jersey. I was excitedly pointing out constellations, and I was so animated that my wife was laughing at me.

The Cape has become a favorite haunt of ours. And why? Because I seemingly have no taste buds.

One day, many years ago, I was standing in line waiting for soup at the Aramark cafeteria in the Verizon building. It was New England Clam Chowder Day, always my favorite.

“You’re not going to actually eat that crap?” boomed a Boston-accent from behind me. It was Peter Thonis – the same boss I had for a dozen years.

“What?” I said. “I like this!”

That’s not clam chowder,” he hissed.

A few days later, I challenged him to tell where to get real clam chowder. So he turned over a scrap of paper on his desk and drew a map of Cape Cod. He embellished it with various points of interest, and my wife and I decided to take our two daughters to the Cape that summer using Peter’s rough drawing as a treasure map.

The Cape turned out to be a magical place where natural laws ceased to exist. Our first day there we were traveling due north on Route 28 South, and we stopped for lunch at a dive called Moby Dick’s.

I ordered the soup. “Ha, they serve it in a cardboard container here too!” I said to my daughter Maddy, who looked at me, as she so often does, with confusion.

But when I took my first spoonful, I got a look on my face that concerned Maddy even more.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” she tugged at my sleeve. I think she thought I was about to cry.

I smiled and shook my head.

“Maddy,” I said, “THIS is clam chowder.”

Sometimes, even a simple life can be full of wonder.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Real Life: More Poignant Than Salinger

In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital AgeIn Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age by Nev Schulman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


“Life is that happens when you’re busy not looking down at your smartphone.” That’s a quote @NevSchulman comes very close to using in channeling John Lennon in “In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age.” And – despite the fact that I work for Verizon and have both respect and wonder for the power of mobile technology – I believe this comes very close to the core of many of today’s relationship problems.

So I was fascinated with the first half of this new book and the profound insights the author gained from his “Catfish” documentary and MTV show.

The collaborative narrative woven by Nev Schulman and Angela Wesselman rivals anything I’ve read about the fictional Glass family. I wonder, are the stories of today’s online relationships this generation’s version of J.D. Salinger?

The book's second half devolves into relationship and life advice, primarily for younger unmarrieds – all good stuff, but not as compelling to me as the poignant catfishing stories.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 8, 2014

An Abject Apology to Stephen King

A Facebook post by James Patterson has just put more fear in my heart than any of the last three books I’ve read by Stephen King.

Mr. Patterson, whose books have sold more than 300 million copies, posted a snippet of a favorable review from an average reader. He wrote, “You might not know that I read the reviews you post about my books… Sometimes I’m tickled pink by the nice things people write about them.”

I am the very definition of an Average Reader, and lately I have been disappointed by one of my favorite authors, Stephen King, whose books have sold more than 350 million copies.

I’ve expressed this by recently posting three-star Goodreads reviews of three of Mr. King’s books. (All are the audible.com versions… I love listening to audio books during my commute.)

I’m frightened that should Mr. King stumble upon these reviews, he would think himself entirely justified to drive up to my house, ring my bell and kick me in the shins when I answer the front door.

To spare you a visit to Goodreads – where you can read the full reviews here – the following is a summary of my trilogy of disappointment:
  1. Doctor Sleep – I enjoyed the book, but it was just too damn long. The audible.com version was divided into 3 chunks of 7 hours. I had gotten through about half the first part, then accidentally picked up the story halfway through the second part – and I was able to follow the story just fine. “You know,” I said to my wife, “Maybe… just maybe… Stephen King needs an editor.”
  2. Mr. Mercedes - This was another entertaining read, but it lacked any extra touches that might suggest it was written by Mr. King. I kept checking to see if I hadn’t inadvertently been listening to a story by Dean Koontz. Who, by the way, has sold more than 450 million books.
  3. Everything’s Eventual – To cut Mr. King some slack, I then listened to an anthology of older stories. Same result. The rub? Several stories seemed to go on and on without ending. You’d think the plot had run its course, but no. My oh-so-clever Goodreads analysis played this out by extending the review for another whole page to illustrate the point about how annoying it can be when things just… won’t… end.
If I’m really so clever, however, I should write a better story myself. But I know that unlike Messrs. Patterson, King and Koontz, I’ll never be able to touch more than billion souls.

I’ve sold zero books in my lifetime. On my very best day as a writer, I haven’t influenced as many lives as Mr. King has when he composes a grocery list.

Besides…

Halloa, Watson! What’s that? Is that someone ringing my front door bell??




Wednesday, September 3, 2014

An Ode to Joy Rides (Reflections on the Night Before School Starts When Your Kids Are Grown)

Today, viewing all my friends’ Facebook photos of cute children dressed for the first day of school, I’m reminded that I’ve already taken my last joy ride.

A “joy ride” is a father-daughter outing on the last night before school starts. I invented it and, over the years, I dare say I perfected it.

Take, for example, this photo of the empty gazebo at Cooper’s Pond in Bergenfield, NJ.

Less than 20 years ago, on this same night in that same gazebo, you’d have seen a somewhat chubby dad dancing with abandon with a laughing little girl wearing her 101 Dalmatian onesie pajamas.

That would have been the first of my eldest daughter’s many joy rides.

Joy rides grew to become legendary — even epic — ending at dawn last year in a hot air balloon over central New Jersey before my youngest daughter returned to college.

I can’t tell you the details of all that happened in between — in part because Joy Ride, like Fight Club, involved a sacred trust summed up by three little words that will forever bind me to my daughters: “Don’t Tell Mom.”

I will admit, without pride, that there was some underage driving involved. Also a memorable road trip with both daughters to Philadelphia. In later years, I recall the fleeting image of a man in dreadlocks with a parrot on his shoulder in Newark. But really, it’s best for all of us if I don’t elaborate because then I’d have to explain why my younger daughter once lovingly turned to me and said, “You’re despicable!”

On Joy Ride night, we ritualistically abandoned the laws of man. We mocked the concepts of getting a sensible night’s sleep or of minding our diets. And we sure as hell had fun because, in the immortal words of Aunt Joann (who somehow, without her knowledge, wound up as our muse), “The world is our oyster.”

Tonight, just a few minutes ago, I received a message from my daughter — the little girl in the gazebo. She sent a photo of something fun she was doing on her last night of vacation before starting work.

Her caption was simple: “Joy Ride 2.0.”

As for myself, far away from both daughters, I don’t know what I might do tonight. There’s only one thing I know for sure:

I won’t be getting a good night’s sleep.



Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why I Hate Yelp and Love My Wife

(With apologies to James Thurber -- and his short story, "What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?)


I was sitting with my iPad on the couch this morning, staring at the screen, when Nancy walked by.

"It looks like the elks are going to pay for the maps!" she said cheerfully.

It did not surprise me that they were. Living with Nancy, it would not surprise me if the elks not only paid for the maps, but also bought drinks for the caribou. No doubt hilarity would ensue.

Life with Nancy is always brillig; she can outgrade a mome rath on any wabe in the world. Only Lewis Carroll would understand my wife completely. I try hard enough.

I tried Googling this phrase and found myself at the Colorado Parks & Wildlife site. I could have continued, as I often do on lazy Saturdays, wandering the Internet. But I had no interest in obtaining a license to hunt elk.

So I simply asked Nancy to explain further -- and discovered the prosaic truth that she was referring to elks with a capital E and certain maps of interest to our local Historic Preservation Commission.

A typical Saturday: My mind sometimes works so fast that my body can't keep up with it.

Anyway, this evening, I wanted to go someplace different for dinner, so I suggested that we finally try Luigi's -- an iconic-looking small restaurant on a Ridgefield Park side street that we have driven past for years.

It was wonderful... in the sense that the food was terrific and the atmosphere was unique. For example, there was a large crucifix hanging in the dining room.

The waitress/bartender was friendly and charming, with a uniquely warm and melodic voice. The rest of clientele, gathered around the bar at the other side of the room, was engaged in a high-spirited, intelligent and witty conversation about first love, complete with obligatory references to "How I Met Your Mother."

I thought the place was so great -- and, truly, it was the best cheese tortellini I had ever eaten, and they had ice cold Peroni on tap, for God's sake -- that I immediately Googled it when we returned home.

Despite being a family-owned restaurant in business since 1948, Luigi's received mixed reviews.

I was, in fact, horrified by the litany of mean-spirited, semi-anonymous reviews -- not only for Luigi's but seemingly for all local restaurants. One woman, from stay-classy-Bergenfield, NJ, was upset that Luigi's didn't accept a "double take" coupon and yet managed to have dinner for three for $27.70. An unedited excerpt from her Yelp review speaks for itself:

"It was taking a little long for anyone to come take our order but then a lady shows up. Hispanic girl, fairly young, nice looking and somewhat friendly. She brings our drinks and takes our order. While putting our drinks on the table, She sort of bent down and I noticed that her blouse dipped down too low and she gave my husband a major peep show, LOL. It didn't even look like she had a bra from my angle. I pointed it out to my husband and we both laughed about the classiness of this chick. An anka tatoo front and center of her chest was visible and then no bra or so we thought."

Nancy, meanwhile, loved the waitress, and the experience, and the food. We had a great time tonight.

No, Luigi's is not Olive Garden.

And this is why I love Nancy.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Not That I Have Anything Against Cats...




Friday, August 1, 2014

Let Us Now Praise Harper Lee: A Review of "The Mockingbird Next Door"



My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper LeeAfter reading “The Mockingbird Next Door,” I admire Harper Lee even more -- and I didn’t think that was possible.

I can’t fathom why the celebrated author, now 88, says she never authorized the book. There’s too much detail here to disavow (the whole scene of watching “Capote” in her living room, for example). These details describe a smart, witty, engaging, opinionated and proudly unconventional woman who was born and raised at the right time, in the right place, and who had just the right artistic temperament, to produce what might be America’s greatest novel.

I love the Harper Lee portrayed in this book... the aging, lively and complex author who never wrote a second novel. And what difference does that make? If the Devil himself offered 10 million writers the chance to tell only one story of the caliber of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he’d be able to purchase 10 million souls in a heartbeat.

I feel, in fact, embarrassed that Lee had to put up with the rest of us clowns in this new millennium. I cringed reading Marja Mills' description of watching the 2004 Super Bowl with the Lee sisters. Were those really erectile dysfunction commercials? Did they really just see Janet Jackson’s breast? There are the many cups of coffee Mills shared with Lee at McDonald’s, watching her neatly fold and refold spent packets of Splenda... going to senior exercise classes in Monroeville... waiting with Lee for a table at Bonefish Grill while surrounded by oblivious business-suited young professionals on cell phones.

Why did we drag down such a transcendent talent in her later years by surrounding her with such petty ordinariness?

I also read with interest about how much time Lee anonymously spent in New York, taking public transit and rooting for the New York Mets. I think now of all the times I may have passed her on the streets or ignored her on the 7 train when I worked in New York in the early 2000s. With respect to E.B. White, this gift of privacy bestowed for many years on Harper Lee is exemplary of New York City's true magic.

My quibble with this respectfully written book is that the author injects too much of herself in the telling. For all the time Mills reminds us what great storytellers Lee and her sister Alice were, we don’t actually get to read all those stories.

Apparently, many stories were kept off the record on purpose -- and, to me, this lends credence to the belief that Lee cooperated with its publication.

No matter. When it comes to Harper Lee and in spite of how much I enjoyed this book, I’m OK with keeping her life surrounded in a little mystery. I think we all owe her at least that much.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Writing Lessons From Microsoft and Weird Al Yankovic

This week I have been humbled by Microsoft and Al Yankovic.
First came the “Hello There” memo that announced 12,500 layoffs amid a mountain of jargon.
Then came the parody video “Mission Statement” that seemed to reach into my computer to pull out whole phrases from my hard drive.
Rather than sue Weird Al for plagiarism, I think it’s time for me – and all corporate communicators – to respect the fact that we’re all just playing with loaded guns.
Real writing is dangerous. This hit home while reading Marja Mills’ new memoir "The Mockingbird Next Door":
  • The first few pages quote Harper Lee’s description of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1932. It’s been far-too-many years since I last read those lines – and they still gave me goosebumps.
  • I also remembered that my dad didn’t want me to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 8th Grade because, he thought, the book was “too dangerous” due to its depictions of racism and rape. I read the book in defiance, to prove to him I was a grownup.
As a dad myself, I sometimes recited poems to my little girls at bedtime. Their favorite was invariably the last poem ever written by Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee”:
  • “We want to hear the ‘I was a child' one!” they’d excitedly beg in 1994.
  • Da-ad, do you know how depressing that poem is?” they protest 20 years later.
Yet it’s still a favorite poem and vivid memory for them; me too.
Real words crafted by real writers have meaning and resonance for decades.
The written word is so powerful that even the disguised phrases we sometimes use to communicate layoffs or express business concepts have incalculable impact on real people.
Perhaps the blank pages of all writers – even corporate communicators -- should include a warning label like those required on cigarette packaging… or like the dangerously evocative label on Woody Guthrie’s old guitar.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why Do Journalists Chase Redheads?

Because, in the spirit of Willie Sutton, that’s where the money is.

Visiting Bloomberg offices recently, I learned that “redheads” are what the journalists there call headlines superimposed with red bars on the company’s news terminals. Redheads are the digital version an AP ticker chiming 12 bells and typing out “Urgent!” in the newsrooms of the past.

Reading some stories recently, I also learned that the compensation of journalists there is based, in part, on measuring how many “market-moving” stories they produce.

In other words, the more Bloomberg journalists can show they directly influence stock markets, the bigger their annual bonuses.

So I asked a reporter about this. He had offered me a latte from the legendary 6th Floor snack bar, and we were sitting on a sunny balcony overlooking Manhattan’s upper East Side.

“Since when is it part of your job to move markets?” I asked, in the same provocative way he sometimes questions me.

He said what I thought he’d say, in the same predictable way I sometimes answer him:
  • Reporters, naturally, are paid to break news; this is just one way of measuring it.
  • There are many in-house checks and balances before editors push the button on a potentially market-moving headline.
  • The metric for moving markets isn’t really that much of factor in overall compensation.

(I didn't ask the followup: If it isn’t much of a factor, why use it... if there’s any hint of a conflict of interest ingrained in the measurement?)

My own line of thinking is different:
  • Does a breaking news story move a company’s stock price, or the price of its competitors or suppliers, 100% of the time? Of course not.
  • When you compensate journalists for moving the market, you shift the focus. You create a gray area where some reporter or headline writer may be incented just enough to sensationalize or stretch the truth.
  • And in that tiny shade of gray, maybe only in a momentary window, you (or traders acting on behalf of your retirement or college-fund investments) will make or lose money.

I have great respect for journalists, and I know first-hand that Bloomberg reporters and editors, in particular, have a passion for accuracy. But could it be that this pay practice subtly degrades a core journalistic value?

Redheads are an understandable obsession. Ask Charlie Brown… or Wolverine… or any reporter who produces a story that screams “Urgent!”

But let's not forget the bigger picture:

Redheads exist to move hearts and minds, not markets.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

There's Something About Mary

This headline isn’t unique. Neither is this photo collage of the shrines to Mary in my New Jersey neighborhood (see here). Neither am I.

The older I get, the more ordinary and common I feel.

Touring New Milford, NJ, this July 4 weekend, I saw more than a half dozen devotional shrines... an even greater number of small blue octagonal signs proclaiming that the homeowners are using an anti-theft alarm system… and a-still-even-greater number of American flags.

What do Mary statues, ADT signs and American flags have in common? I suppose they all promise to protect us in some way.

But still, I believe there is something different about the Marys of New Milford. And I think I’ve figured that out too.

For one thing, each one is an expression of faith in something greater than the world around us. For another thing, each one is flawed but unique.

In other words, each is extraordinary and uncommon.

These days, in my little corner of the world, I consider that a minor miracle.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pretending to Be Famous


Step and repeat.

That’s what you call the photos taken in front of promotional banners at charity and awards events.

It’s also where, tongue in cheek and smiling widely, I like to have my photo taken lately so that, like Zelig, I’ll chance to appear years from now in historical photos.

Welcome to life in 2014… when everyone aspires to fame and fortune, and all the children are above average.

The truth is, deep down, I think we all realize that pretending to be famous is so much easier than actually doing something that changes the world for the better.

But, deep down, we can’t help ourselves. It all has to do with aurochs and angels, and the secret of durable pigments.

No, my narcissism isn’t a matter life and death. It’s just kind of silly, and even self-deprecating…

A useless longing for immortality.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

“Ulysses" in the Age of Buzzfeed

Marilyn Monroe reading "Ulysses"
Did you know... you have an 8-second attention span?

That’s one second less than a goldfish’s.

Also, if I haven’t hooked you into reading this within the next 11 words, you’re outta here.

Those are essential web-writing tips from Andrea Smith, an award-winning digital communications consultant. She came all the way to Basking Ridge, NJ, to offer advice to Verizon's PR team. Other tips: use short sentences. And numbers. And bullets.

The advice was truly terrific for the type of writing I often do. But I enjoy writing other things, and the workshop happened to take place on the day after Bloomsday. I thought: What if I were James Joyce, trying to make a living in PR these days?

I could only imagine:


4 Homerically Interesting Observations About Dublin

I got lucky on a first date this past week. I’m not going to write about that here (I’ll save it for Snapchat or some other form of private communication). But it got me to thinking about ordinary life and romance in my home town.

So here’s a list of 4 things I’m sure all Dubliners can appreciate:

  1. No grey trousers. Ever. 
  2. There’s history on every corner! (Of course, all the tourists are just a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.) 
  3. Want to be taken seriously? Try shouting in the streets
  4. Local cats cry “Mrkrgnao!” when they are hungry. 
That’s just a taste, of course. Right now, I have to run. My girl just asked me would I yes to say yes, and my heart is going like mad. So, yes I said yes. I will. Yes.

----------------------

That’s it. Exactly 150 words! Flesch reading ease of 92!! Cats!!!

I suppose if you really want to learn more about Joyce's novel, you could start with the backstory behind Eve Arnold's click-bait photo I’ve attached to this post.

I tried reading “Ulysses” myself this past week, but gave up on it.

As I eloquently observed to my nephew Steven yesterday while loading a cargo van with things he had borrowed for college, “I thought ‘Ulysses’ was a pretentious pile of garbage.”

Steven happens to be a linguistic prodigy. He will someday earn his doctorate from Michigan State in classical languages and someday publish a new translation of “The Odyssey” that will make Grene and Lattimore look like bumbling idiots.

“A pretentious pile of garbage?” Steven laughed… then delivered a pitch-perfect reply, as if a siren putting me back in my place:

“Well, Uncle Bob, I can see why you’d think that.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The First Rule of "Gotcha Journalism"

"Fight Club" fans already know the answer to this. The first rule of "gotcha journalism" is you do not talk about "gotcha journalism."

So when asked to speak at last week’s Bulldog Reporter webinar on the topic of how PR spokespeople can combat overly aggressive tactics, I punted and said, "It's just journalism."

Thinking back on years of interaction with journalists, I recall only a few legitimate fights and not too many sucker punches.

A little over a year ago, I took a call from a Guardian reporter I didn’t know. After he laid out his story premise and research, I thought, “I bet I know who’s going to win the Pulitzer Prize next year,” before connecting him with a colleague who declined comment on behalf of the company.

Surely, that wasn't "gotcha journalism." (It may have been something else, given what we soon publicly learned of Glenn Greenwald's source, but that's an even thornier issue.)

As a PR person, I may not like or expect a reporter’s question, but that doesn’t make the question unfair. Similarly, a reporter may not like my answer, but that doesn’t make the answer – even when I must decline comment -- any less valid.

This give-and-take between journalist and source is changing due to technology. PR can't reliably play the "let's-go-off-the-record" game because not everyone follows the same rules. The New York Times can't play the "you-have-150-words-to-respond-with-a-letter" game because it doesn't own the printing press anymore.

Today everyone – including PR people, brands, trolls, conspiracy theorists and even my mother – can be a publisher. That may level the field a bit for PR, but it also makes the role of the journalist even more critical.

It's getting harder and harder for readers or viewers to find authenticity online. With that in mind, here’s a suggested start at my New Rules of Media Relations:
  1. Show a little faith in people – including parents, teachers and, yes, even journalists – who try to help people find or discern the truth.
  2. Do not talk about this with journalists.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Graduation Day

My daughter's graduation yesterday was a suspicious occasion.

Yes, this was the malapropism dropped by one of the presenters at Montclair State University's commencement ceremony at the Izod Center. I spent the morning watching 4,382 students -- MSU's largest graduating class in its more than 100-year history -- get their degrees.


It was a terrific ceremony. Very well organized, with comfortable setting and great staging. Lots of happiness, enthusiasm and energy in the arena.


I turned to my wife and said, "Finally, we're at a graduation that matters!" She laughed, thinking back to all the other graduation ceremonies we've been at over the years where she muttered under her breath that "graduating from kindergarten..." or "graduating from 8th grade.." wasn't really that noteworthy.


Afterwards, we told our daughter, "Now you can go to beautician's school if you want to..." And she just laughed too... in appreciation. Beauty school had been something she floated as a desire after high school, but my wife and I had insisted she get a college degree first. Being a beautician is a fine job, but my daughter (who used to play "teacher" when she was a little girl) re-discovered her love for teaching while at MSU. Over the past few years, she not only earned her degree in family and child studies, she also earned a teaching certificate.


The commencement speaker, popular author James Patterson, donates scholarships to MSU every year, earmarked to train teachers. During his address, he noted that "teachers save lives" -- and my eyes welled with tears of pride.


My daughter liked Patteron's speech... and the fact that he often posts photos of his orange cat online.


The photo here of the MSU red hawk mascot entertaining the crowd before the ceremony landed on my own Instagram account. I also, as you can see, wore a penguin tie to this auspicious occasion. I had bought this many years ago at the now-defunct all-penguin-item store at the South Street Seaport. Who would have known then that I'd wear it to my daughter's college graduation?


As for the commencement speech, Patterson told many anecdotes... his theme was the power of storytelling... which, I've since found online, he's used on other occasions.


For example, there's this about Catholic guilt:

"This priest came in, and there was a mountain across the street from the school. And he was trying to impress on us how long eternity was. And he said if there was a little bird and once every 1,000 years it flew over to that mountain and carried as much as it could carry in its beak over to this side and put it in our parking lot . . . when he had transported the entire mountain over here, that would be only the beginning of an eternity in Hell."
I'll end here with this one, which impressed me as particularly good life advice:
"Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you're keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls...are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Civility in Corporate America

“You and the rest of your corporate greedy cronies are destroying the country,” the recent email to me began. “Does crawling into bed with a multitude of other corporate whores feel good?”
The sender felt compelled to use that “shock jock” intro in response to my company’s POV on regulatory proceedings at the FCC. I had respectfully provided background on the issue.
The truth is, my PR job does make me feel good… because, ultimately, my job is to help my company do the right thing.
The best PR is built on the best business practices. At a recent professional event, Bob DeFillippo, Prudential’s chief communications officer, commented on what he would have done differently during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to reduce the damage to BP’s reputation. He replied, “I would have capped the well faster.”
He also said, “I never had to compromise my integrity because of concerns over profit or to avoid admitting that we did something wrong.”
I can say the same about my own career. At my company, there’s an oft-cited one-page Credo that reminds us we only have work because our customers value our services. There’s also a more-detailed Code of Conduct that outlines policies to ensure integrity and respect in our workplace.
The result? I believe there’s more mutual respect, civility and decency evident in corporate America than in general society… or even in my church parking lot.
That’s not such a bad bed to crawl into after all.



Thursday, May 8, 2014

Frosty, the Throwback


In my first job at pre-Verizon NYNEX, I was asked to take one for the team and dress up as Frosty the Snowman during family day in December 1985.

Yes, I enjoyed this... a group of laughing little kids followed me around all day. I came back the next year to do the same because everyone wanted to see Frosty again.

That's a Data General 6344 terminal in the photo. We sold these from NYNEX Business Information Systems Company (affectionately called BISC). We later purchased a chain of IBM computer retail stores to add to our own stores, called Datago, and I did the PR for this.

I used my employee discount to buy my first computer -- an Apple //c, complete with Appleworks -- at the Datago store in White Plains, NY. It was crazy expensive, considering my salary at the time and what electronics cost today, but it was also the beginning of a beautiful decades-long love affair. Don't even begin to ask my wife about my rapture at getting a ROM upgrade to purchase a 800K-capacity UniDisk.

With so many memories, my storage capacity needs have greatly expanded since then.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

3 Lessons Learned From Interns

It’s Intern Season in Corporate America, so it’s time to brush up on few lessons before they arrive:

1. It’s OK to Dress Up for Work.

The interns at Verizon are always impeccably dressed and they, incongruously, add an air of professionalism to our office. Without interns, the summer dress code here might best be described as “anarchy.”

Since I’m not a men's basketball coach or NFL pre-game analyst, it may not be necessary for me to wear a suit and tie to work every day. But the interns dress as if the workplace is somewhere important. They care enough to try to impress someone – and that's commendable.

2. I’m Fortunate to Work Here.

Not “lucky.” Not “undeserving.” But, yes, fortunate.

The interns here are very smart, well-educated, diverse (sometimes multilingual), highly competitive… and even they think they’re fortunate to be here. I don't encounter many interns who think they are entitled.

No matter. Time will teach interns that they’re not entitled to anything. Time also teaches every one of us never to take anything for granted.

3. Technology Kills.

Watching interns seamlessly integrate technology into their daily lives is a thing of beauty.

Does all this technology engender a lack of focus? Perhaps. Does all this access to data consumption and manipulation compensate for a lack of experience? Certainly not.

Still, fearlessness combined with expertise can be a powerful thing. Technology can spark creativity and passion, and narrow the experience gap.

So I love and respect technology too. I also keep in mind that interns are not like sheep who fill up the parking lot, add to the lunch line and mass-inhabit otherwise empty office space.

They’re more like next-generation wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Dad and Uncle Pat

At the memorial golf tournament for my wife Nancy’s brother today, the catering manager served mint juleps to Nancy and Joann — apropos of Kentucky Derby Day.

At dinner, I tried a sip of Nancy’s drink.

“It’s bourbon!” I exclaimed — although normally I have no discerning taste buds.

I knew there was bourbon in the drink because the taste reminded me so much of my Dad.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Career Advice From Friends: "Everything Communicates"

After offering my own PR career advice in anticipation of a recent IABC New Jersey event at Rutgers, I wanted to follow up with the advice given that night by two IABC friends.

Michelle Sangillo specializes in change management and employee engagement. She told students and those seeking a career change that she learned important lessons early in her career, when she was an administrative assistant. She began her talk by grabbing a stuffed elephant she had placed in the corner of the room. "You can't ever ignore the elephant in the corner," she said, noting that successful people are fearless and that she had trained to face down her own fear of public speaking.

  • Everything Communicates. "As a communications person, remember that you're being observed by everyone," she said, echoing the age-old PR advice: "Everything communicates!" (what you say or don't, how you treat colleagues, what you wear...). Yes, someone's always watching you.
  • Pay Attention to Details. This, more than anything else, convinced Michelle that she could advance her career. As an administrative assistant, she saw the carelessness of managers and thought, "Hey, I can do better than that," simply by focusing and by being thoughtful and competent. I related to this point. In my first job I wrote obituaries for a local newspaper, and it only takes one careless error in an obit to learn a lifelong lesson.
  • Don't Insult Yourself. "You have to have confidence in yourself for someone else to have confidence in you," Michelle said. She confidently left her admin job after 10 years because she knew she had been typecast. So she left, earned a master's degree, and pursued a career in a field she loved.

Joe Donner operates Thunder Consulting -- so named because Donner is the Germanic name for the god of thunder. He's had senior communications roles within large companies and advising large companies from the outside as the principal of his own agency.

  • Read More. Joe was an English major, and he's kept personal and professional journals throughout his life -- so already I admire him for that. My admiration grew as he stood in front of the room and said, "Read more. Learn as much as you can about everything you can." He added, "Learn about a diversity of things: Business, art, economics, engineering processes, current events... Join a professional organization, and share experiences with people from outside your company." This is a great reason to join an organization like IABC.
  • Prepare to Be Laid Off. "It can happen to anyone," Joe said. You can be great at your job, but if your job moves to Minnesota and you don't want to move your family, you may find yourself looking for work in New Jersey. You can't afford to have tunnel vision; you have to always prepare for other options.
  • Show Off a Little. Joe's first job was as a claims processor. One day he read an indecipherable memo from the company's CEO. "Whoever wrote this should be shot," Joe said -- with the person who wrote the memo, unbeknownst to him, standing right behind him. The memo-writer challenged, "Well, if you could do better..." So Joe edited the memo on the spot and handed it back. The author considered Joe's edits, shook his head and said, "Why are you processing claims? You should be working in corporate communications."

Ah... if only real life were like that all the time.

I’m going to take Joe’s advice and read Steve Martin’s memoir, “Born Standing Up.” I bet Steve never studied business in college, but I don't think his own career advice has ever been topped: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”