Monday, October 31, 2011

Game 6: Dare to Dream

It was the greatest baseball game I have ever seen, and one of the most inspiring experiences I have ever had. I am referring to Game 6 of the World Series on October 27, when the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers 10-9.

What made this game so memorable? Further, why is it even worth a blog that is traditionally focused on communications?

Here’s why. This was a role-model game because of what it communicated: the importance of never giving up — and no matter how down and out you may be …and no matter how often — you can overcome a deficit if you have the will and the drive to win. Others have commented about this event: The team refused to die! It was surreal! The multiple comebacks were beyond belief!

What inspired me so? Here is the backdrop leading up to the now famous Game 6. The Cardinals were 10.5 games behind the wild card leader, Atlanta, with slightly over a month to go in the season. For those not familiar with baseball, that is huge. The Cardinals went on an amazing winning streak and then conquered both the Phillies, possibly the best team in baseball, and the Milwaukee Brewers in successive championship series after losing the first game of each. As Game 6 approached in the best of 7 classic, Texas had won three games and the Cardinals two.

Texas could have wrapped it up in Game 6. And Texas was within one strike of winning the series in two successive innings where, with two outs, if the batter had swung and struck out, the game would have ended and Texas would have been the new champions. This is the first time in World Series history that such had happened twice. But the Cardinals came through in each of those situations, producing tying or winning runs. FIVE times Texas jumped ahead of the Cardinals and FIVE times the Cardinals came from behind to tie or leap ahead. The last was a home run which broke the dam and led to the victory! The next day the Cardinals went on to take Game 7!

Was the five-time comeback a record? Who knows? But it was one of the best examples of what must be done to win when the tide has turned against you. It is hard to imagine the energy and belief in self that had to be mustered to sustain the drive that made the St. Louis Cardinals World Champions in 2011. This is a game that should be replayed in every class that is taught on the art of winning.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Obama's Gibbs on Social Media

“It’s all about the individual!” noted Robert Gibbs, former press secretary to President Obama. He was addressing the value of social media at the Council of PR Firm’s Critical Issues Forum held today in New York City.

“You need to give the time, energy and resources that are required to move the social media dial forward,” but establishing relationships with each individual is worth every inch of it. Gibbs was one of the leaders of the famous social media campaign that helped build the Obama groundswell in the 2008 presidential campaign.

“To establish these relationships requires lots of individual attention. But we need a community of people to say good things about us, and that must be cultivated gradually. That is the only way to get people to feel invested.

“At the same time there is a major advantage for us as well as the voters. It allows both to get information before others have it. We get keyed in on concerns that come out through the conversation,” Gibbs pointed out.

He cited critical rules in social media engagement: be transparent, offer something unique in the conversation, listen carefully and react to what you hear. Gibbs said that Obama will have a bigger staff on social media in the upcoming campaign than he had in the White House.

“Social media enables us to get people to tell us their stories, and if they permit, we can use those stories as validators of larger themes we need to get across, “he advised. “In fact, 2012 will be known as the Twitter election!”

Gibbs concluded that while it used to be that social media was an after-thought after all other techniques were taken care of, today it is the first structure the campaign sets up. Starting at the grassroots level is critical.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

The “Occupy Wall Street” Communications Gap

One of the principles of good communications is — communicate. Be strategic and be clear. Right now, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which is spreading throughout the U.S. and the world, has something to say to business and government, however mushy its goals and confusing its messages. Business and government, however, are not communicating back.

The question is why? Further, if they did respond, what should they say or do?

People only protest when they are frustrated and the normal processes are not working. Perhaps there is no response because the message is not clear. But one point the protesters have made clear is that they are “the other 99%,” separated from the moneyed 1%. Whether you agree with it or not, the message stresses extreme income inequality in a challenging economy with a 9.1 % unemployment rate. Further, those listening should have seen enough surveys of the public that show substantial agreement with what they believe the goals of the OWS movement to be. A survey mentioned in Saturday’s New York Times article, “Occupy-apalooza Strikes a Chord,” revealed that 54% of Americans polled approve protesting against policies that favor the rich, the government’s bank bailout and the influence of money in our political system; 68% felt the rich should pay more in taxes; and 79% felt the gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. is too large. These findings are substantiated by other research.

Perhaps there has been virtually no response because business feels the constituency participating is too small, and therefore not worth paying attention to. Also, many in leadership financial firms have derided the participants as a bunch of hippies, college kids and ragged individuals who have nothing better to do with their time. And they might further diminish the worth of this group because of those joining the protests who are unaware of the economic mission and simply see it as a cool thing to do…a 21st century version of Woodstock at Zuccotti Park.

Regardless of the reasons, business and government are making a mistake not responding, just because of the growing size of the group and the media attention they are getting. In the same way that people were individually affected by the military draft during the Vietnam War protests, today’s taxpayers have been individually affected by the bank bailouts and the mortgage crisis. The Vietnam War protests grew exponentially, bringing significant social changes and, if nothing else, ended the draft and brought down a president. The current protests will pick up speed the longer there is no response.

While a handful of business leaders have come out in support of the OWS group, such as the CEOs of GE, Citibank, PIMCO, Wells Fargo, Starbucks and others, that is less important than their willingness to engage and discuss.

A blog written by E.D. Kain on the Forbes website stresses that “Corporate America has done a lousy job” marketing and explaining “the benefits of a market economy.” Business leaders, in particular, he says, need to engage “honestly…and sincerely,” addressing the protesters’ frustrations on points of genuine concern. That’s half the battle.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Broadcasters’ Speech

Should one expect flawless spoken English on America’s national broadcasting networks? Does that mean no accents, no minor speech disorders, proper pronunciation and so on?

The answer is No! Last Sunday, I was watching the weekly CBS show, “Sunday Morning” – a magazine program that includes features and monologues. Two of the reporters had lisps. Whereas years ago that would have been perceived as an intolerable imperfection, today it is seen as a reflection of an inclusive society. It is a society where people with a variety of backgrounds and speaking styles help us understand the real world. That doesn’t mean that today’s reporters shouldn’t do their best to speak well.

Significantly, Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters, both pillars of the U.S. television news industry, swallow their Ls. They are certainly role models and have become superstars – and  are more representative of their audiences. Today’s broadcasts feature people of diverse backgrounds, cultures and styles.

We need to celebrate that!

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Brand Durability Challenged

It's dependable.  You like it.  It's you. It looks good!  And it works!  What is it?   It's a brand.  Like Ford or Mott's or Coca-Cola or Apple or any other brand that has been around for many years.  You feel a connection with and loyalty to it.

Nevertheless, as styles and standards change, new products enter the market that challenge the modernity of the pillar brand, and the consumer thinks, ”Maybe I ought to try that.”  When that happens, should the brand with stature update itself to better compete, or trust that consumers will stand by their previous commitment?  In fact, change may threaten a longstanding customer relationship.

 Recently, The New York Times addressed this topic via the latest craze in frozen yogurt retail stores:  self-service, tart-tasting products and more flavors … all served up in pristine white environments accented by bright colors.  These chain stores are proliferating under such names as Red Mango, Swizzles, Pinkberry, etc.  In contrast, the newspaper cites the experience of the Bigg Chill, a traditional, 21-year-old frozen yogurt store that has few of the "with it" attributes of leading-edge yogurt shops.  No cool interior — in fact, somewhat old-fashioned.  No tart tastes or self-service.  And no chain store strategy.  Yet, surprisingly, customers stand in line every night to buy the coveted product.  

Nevertheless, the owners considered altering  their product line and remodeling the store, but decided against it.   They decided they had a great thing going and were reluctant to dramatically change the brand.  They would add some flavors, including a tart one, and otherwise stay put.  The long lines continue -- and the Bigg Chill may be beating out their new competitors, based on a slight brand refresh.

So what conclusions do we draw from this?

  • Don't take brand heritage for granted.  Authenticity can trump flash.  Credibility, quality and consistency continue to be valued by customers, particularly during tough economic times.
  • Look before you leap.  Coca-Cola tried a total brand update with New Coke and fell on its face.  The brand value of the older product superseded everything else.   GE changed its tagline (from “we bring good things to life” to “imagination at work”), but kept its classic — some might even say “old-fashioned” — logo.  As much as consumers are attracted to the new and exciting and may sample them for a while, they often return to and stick with the product that offers them reliability, comfort and a heritage of satisfaction. 
  • Remain open to new opportunities.  Be on the lookout, via competitors and general research, for new thinking that may influence or enhance a longstanding favored brand.  A refresh can stimulate business.  Figure out which brand elements consumers are attracted to and keep them.  Since consumers generally gravitate to where value is the greatest, be cognizant of the underlying attributes that will enhance value.  In other words, don't throw the baby out with the bath water!

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Challenging Censorship

September 24th through October 1st was “Banned Books Week,” an annual event during which hundreds of libraries and bookstores in the U.S. draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of banned and challenged books. (A challenge is not about a member of the public or a group of people expressing their dislike of a book; rather, it’s an attempt to have certain books removed from a library or school curriculum, to “protect” others, usually children, from certain ideas and information. A ban is when an organization – e.g., a library – chooses to officially identify a book as one that is harmful to read, and it is removed – or banned.)

The American Library Association (ALA), which tracks challenges to books in schools and libraries, reported nearly 350 challenges in 2010 … and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Seventy to eighty percent of challenged and banned books are never reported, according to the ALA. More than 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982.

Neatorama has published a list of 12 books that have been banned by certain groups in the U.S. They’re pretty astonishing. While I deplore ALL books being banned, in my opinion, the following seven are among the most shocking books to have been banned:

1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:  A dystopian novel about a future in which people ban and burn books.

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: Banned for the use of the "n" word, despite the fact that Mark Twain used that incendiary word precisely to illustrate how bad it is.

3. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Despite her experiences (and her ultimate fate), the remarkable teenage author still believes in “the basic goodness of mankind.” Banned by the Alabama State Textbook Committee in 1983 for being “a real downer.”

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. One of the best books I ever read -- this book was banned because of its use of the “n” word and for “promoting white supremacy.”

5. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. Described as one of “the most banned books of the past decade,” the Harry Potter series was probably the one book series that got kids reading again.

6. Sleeping Beauty. This fairy tale was banned from some libraries “for promoting witchcraft and magic.”

7. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Banned for “vulgar language.”

I say, “Read a banned book and celebrate one of our most important freedoms: the right to read.”


Launched in 1982, in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, “Banned Books Week” is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Library Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, National Association of College Stores, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English and PEN American Center.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

The Many Subtle Forms of Communication

When we think of communications, what generally comes to mind is the printed or spoken word.  Although there is no doubt that visuals and vibes communicate a wealth of information, I’m not sure that people are always fully aware of just how important they are. 

I am.  I’m acutely aware that everything we see communicates an image or feeling to us, whether through paintings, signage, logos, cartoons, stylized print, architecture, the way a room is decorated, the way people look and act and so on.  I have always been fascinated by the judgments people make about others based on appearances:  the way they are dressed, their physique, the way they carry themselves, the expression on their face, the quality of their voice.   Sometimes all of these things are more important than what they say.  And final conclusions may be drawn about them without those individuals saying anything at all.  

I recall in the book and current hit movie, "Moneyball," that when Billy Beane was trying to get the biggest bang for the buck in player salaries, following the Oakland A's massive budget cut, he discovered that scouts were often choosing players based on how good looking they were - rather than on base percentage (how frequently the player gets on base), or performance. 

The vibes communicated by a person’s sense of confidence or charisma also can speak louder than words.  I once was in a presentation in which one of our star players, usually one of the most competent and charismatic guys you could ever meet, was disappointingly quiet — quiet enough that his point of view was not apparent.  Others dominated the discussion.  A week later, in a conversation with the prospect, the potential client told me that the business was ours if “that rather quiet guy” could, in fact, manage the business.

So what lessons can be drawn from this?  There is a cornucopia of communications subsets that influence people’s decisions, and it is not only content, logic or the most obvious visuals.  It is a holistic game we are playing.  Thus, when you are putting the “script” together, you need to think broadly and consider every element in the environment, including the unspoken messages.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Remarkable Legacy

Of all the tributes to Steve Jobs that I’ve seen and read recently, this may be the best:  it’s Steve Jobs’s commencement address to the 2005 graduates of Stanford University.  I urge you to watch it.  It’s a moving and inspiring take on success and failure, life and death and how important it is to follow your heart.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Are We Living Up to "The Pledge?"

I’ve been contemplating what the Pledge of Allegiance really means and whether the values it communicates are really being upheld in these days of our “stalemate government” in Washington. One columnist I read touched on it in a couple of sentences, which made me think about it more broadly.

First, what does the Pledge say? I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The Pledge is recited by our elected officials with hand on heart in multiple ceremonies during their terms.

So what does it mean? The Pledge speaks to nationalism. It speaks to loyalty, a commitment to freedom, fairness and justice under our legal system. But it also addresses the “oneness” of our nation, our unity -- implying that we are together, that we are indivisible. It points out that there is a higher power.

Certainly I do not question the sincerity of our elected officials and their commitment to our form of government or our democratic society. Sometimes I just think they forget about the “oneness” part, that we must be indivisible. I’m not talking about physical separation, as in the Civil War. No, not at all. But I am talking about realistic compromise, the modus operandi that has carried this country forward, which is necessary to enable us to be indivisible. Today, those we elected to represent us are communicating division, contrary to what they have pledged. And this is division on a major scale. You know the examples: the debt ceiling debate, the job plan, food safety regulations, etc. Little can get done. Further, since our Pledge is imbued with nationalism, are our representatives acting in the national interest?

In a recent conversation I had with Evan Bayh, the former senator from Indiana who resigned because of the divisiveness, he told me he is pessimistic: he doesn’t see things changing for the next five or six years.

I urge those we sent to Washington to lift their sights and support what is so fundamental to our nation’s success.

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