Category Archives: leadership

Four Cheers for Reporters!

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The author (in white vest) being interviewed (by Kyle Jordan, professional journalist, with cameraman Stephen LeFranc) during the Deepwater Horizon spill, June 2010. Pensacola, FL.

If you read this blog, you know I’m a PR guy. And today, I am working with a new client. I’ll be providing a spokesperson media training session to three of the firm’s partners next week. I love doing media training for my clients. It’s a lovely marriage of my theatre background and my PR career. In a way, it’s analogous to directing a performance. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but there are similarities. More importantly, this process helps my clients become more effective spokespeople who understand how to help the reporters get what they need, which tends to result in better coverage for my clients and better stories for the journalists. Win-Win.

Anyway, part of the preparation process involves asking the trainees a few questions before the training day in order to gauge their experience, attitude and opinions about reporters. Armed with this knowledge, I am able to make better use of everyone’s time and customize the session to the needs of the individuals I’m training.

One of the questions is:

“What opinions do you have of journalists?”

As I was reviewing this client’s responses today, I asked myself, “How would I answer that?”

It’s quite simple and can be summed up in four points.

  1. I have genuinely liked more than 90 percent of the journalists I’ve worked with in the past 15+ years. They’re kind, curious, polite (but firm), hard-working and professional individuals. As for the other 10 percent: I’ll tell you about them over a beer sometime. They are the exception, not the rule.
  2. As a spokesperson and a PR representative, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to end an interview prematurely because of a combative, rude or unprofessional journalist (and I’ve done hundreds of interviews, with reporters from at least a dozen countries around the world).
  3. These journalists have my respect because they’re doing an incredibly demanding job, most of them for very little pay, under the kind of nonnegotiable daily deadlines that would make most of us cringe.
  4. Most reporters have a largely thankless job. But they do it anyway because they believe in telling the story.

In that spirit, I’d like to tip my hat to all the journalists out there who are bravely facing the world with their inquisitive minds, their sharp pencils and their steno pads. I’ve enjoyed working with you (well, 90 percent of you) over the years. And I thank you sincerely for the job that you do. You’re great!

Hats off to reporters! Won’t you please join me? Thank a journalist today!

The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. You can follow him on twitter: @bsibley

Jargon – Symptoms and Home Treatment

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On a conference call last week with a potential client, I was again confronted with a disease that plagues businesspeople: Excessive Use of Industry Jargon. This is a serious disease that often goes unreported. It’s time to bring it out into the open and talk about it.

Because the majority of my professional experience has been spent practicing PR and marketing communications, I’ve seen many cases of this condition. But today what I wanted to address are some of the possible reasons why it continues to plague businesspeople. It’s an insidious condition that infects people without regard to age, gender, level of education, race, color, or creed. You may even carry this disease yourself without realizing it. That’s OK, the diagnosis and cures are both simple and can be done in the privacy of your own home. But first:

Who is prone: this disease is borne out of either insecurity, or a kind of boastful pride (the same kind that infects schoolyard bullies and information hoarders). The afflicted believe that if they hold esoteric knowledge and don’t share it, then they are members of an elite club. They have heard (but misinterpreted) the phrase “knowledge is power,” and misunderstood it to mean that “knowledge is power … when that knowledge is not shared with others.” If that were true, then teachers would be unquestioningly the most powerful people in the world, and none of you would have learned anything in school.

Jargon and buzzwords are words and phrases that appear within organizations and industries and are used to describe products, services and unique characteristics of that group. The key thing to remember is that they are a form of shorthand, and do not instantly make sense to people outside the group. Everyone is guilty of this. It may be the most prevalent disease in business. For example,

  • Journalists talk about “ledes” instead of introductory sentences
  • Hotel people talk about “rack rates” instead of standard prices 
  • Ad sales people talk about “avails” instead of available space
  • Graphic designers talk about “mock-ups” instead of prototype designs
  • Marketing people talk about “The Creative” instead of the art concept

  • Biologists talk about “macro-invertebrates” instead of insects 
  • Corporate trainers talk about “staff augmentation” instead of … well, I still have no idea what this means in plain language

You get the point. Your industry has its own terms just like these. 

It is important to note that there are times when use of jargon is totally appropriate. Feel free to use it at meetings of other employees in your group who know these phrases and their meanings. But don’t use it in public. Don’t use it on a sales call. You might think it makes you sound like an expert, but it really just confuses your audience.

The Symptoms: self-detection is difficult. But you may have noticed these signs in others… Use of buzzwords, industry terms and three-letter acronyms (“TLA’s”). Audience members seem confused, isolated and distant. Quizzical looks from others following your talk.

Home Treatment: first, learn to think like a teacher. Observe your audience. Look for nonverbal cues – a furrowed brow, a confused expression, total silence on the other end of the phone – because your audience may not be confident enough to ask for clarification of your buzzwords and jargon. Ask simple questions like, “do you understand what I mean when I said ‘Price Point’?” And then of course you need to define the term and confirm understanding. (by the way, “price point” is just a lengthy way to say “price” …)

With effective home treatment, the prognosis is good. Anyone can learn to use clear, plain language to get their point across. If you manage to correct this condition, others will find you more personable, more effective and more likable.

And who doesn’t want that?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

9 Ways a Theatre Degree Trumps a Business Degree

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Some of you may know this about me, some may not. Despite having spent the last 15 years as a PR & communications professional, my college degree is in theatre. I have never in my life taken a marketing class, or a journalism class, or a business class. Yet, by most measures, I’m enjoying a successful career in business.  “So what?” you ask… read on.

I was having a conversation with my friend Sara this week. She’s an actress. Like most actresses, she also has a Day Job that she works to pay the bills between acting jobs. This is the reality for most working actors in LA, New York and the other major centers of the entertainment industry. She was pointing out to me that she viewed her theatre background as a weakness in her Day Job career field, and that it was holding her back. She asked for my advice.

My advice? There IS no weakness in having a theatre background. There is only strength. Here are just a few skills that a theatre degree gave me that have served me enormously well in business:

  1. You have advanced critical thinking and problem solving skills: taking a script and translating it into a finished production is a colossal exercise in critical thinking. You have to make tremendous inferences and intellectual leaps, and you have to have a keen eye for subtle clues. (believe it or not, this is a skill that very few people have as finely honed as the theatre people I know. That’s why I listed it #1).
  2. You’re calm in a crisis: You’ve been on stage when somebody dropped a line and you had to improvise to keep the show moving with a smile on your face, in front of everyone. Your mic died in the middle of a big solo musical number. You just sang louder and didn’t skip a beat.
  3. You understand deadlines and respect them: Opening Night is non-negotiable. Enough said.
  4. You have an eye on audience perception: You know what will sell tickets and what will not. This is a very transferrable skill, and lots of theatre people underestimate this, because they think of theatre as an ART, and not as a BUSINESS. I frequently say (even to MBA-types) that theatre was absolutely the best business education I could have gotten. While the business majors were buried in their books and discussing theory, we were actually SELLING a PRODUCT to the PUBLIC. Most business majors can get through undergrad (and some MBA programs, even) without ever selling anything. Theater departments are frequently the only academic departments on campus who actually sell anything to the public. Interesting, isn’t it?
  5. You’re courageous: If you can sing “Oklahoma!” in front of 1,200 people, you can do anything.
  6. You’re resourceful: You’ve probably produced “The Fantasticks” in a small town on a $900 budget. You know how to get a lot of value from minimal resources.
  7. You’re a team player: You know that there are truly no small roles, only small actors. The show would fail without everyone giving their best, and even a brilliant performance by a star can be undermined by a poor supporting cast. We work together in theatre and (mostly) leave our egos at the stage door. We truly collaborate.
  8. You’re versatile: You can probably sing, act, dance. But you can also run a sewing machine. And a table saw. And you’ve probably rewired a lighting fixture. You’ve done a sound check. You’re good with a paintbrush. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty for the benefit of the show. In short, you know how to acquire new skills quickly.
  9. You’re flexible: you’ve worked with some directors who inspired you. Others left you flat, but you did the work anyway. Same goes with your fellow actors, designers and stagehands… some were amazing and supportive, others were horrible and demoralizing to work with (we won’t name names). You have worked with them all. And learned a little something from every one of them.

These are the top reasons I’ve found my theatre degree to be a great background for a business career. What are yours?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

11 People to Unfollow on Twitter today

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Let the record show that I am about to write a Listicle*. The internet is rife with articles on “Who to Follow on Twitter” but I’ve seen scant evidence regarding the contrarian view. Since I generally prefer the contrarian view, I offer the following.

I did this exercise recently, and was sharing my process with Brendan Lewis, who shares in my love of all things snarky, especially when it involves Social Media. He encouraged me to write it up. So you can thank him if it seems helpful. (Note: If it’s not helpful, please direct all complaints to: Goldman Sachs, 200 West Street, New York City.)

Specifically, who should you unfollow? Unfollow these people, and enjoy a Twitter feed with substantially less narcissism, solipsism and self-promotion. Read on:

  1. Unfollow anyone who claims “guru” status of anything. Do I need to explain why? Same goes for “raconteur” and “diva” and some others. If you have to SAY that you’re a guru, odds are you are not. These words are pretentious when self-applied.
  2. Unfollow anyone who lists “running” in their profile. While I generally have nothing against athletes, people who call themselves “runners” bug the crap out of me. There are people who go for a run. There are people who run marathons. But people who identify as “Runners” tend to be self-important types who never played team sports or don’t realize that you CAN play team sports after high school. Crossfitters and triathletes, this means you, too.
  3. Unfollow anyone who unironically retweets Gary Vaynerchuk, Peter Shankman, or Brian Solis. If you MUST follow these guys yourself, do so only for comic value, because these guys actually believe that they are God’s Gift. In reality they exist largely in a feedback loop of their own creation. Same goes for Michael Brito, Jeremiah Owyang, David Armano, and Chris Pirillo.
  4. Unfollow people who use the phrase “content marketing” in their profile or in their tweets. They heard this buzzword recently and decided to catch the wave. This wave will have crested and crashed in six to 12 months. Something else will take its place. Simply “marketing” is OK.
  5. Unfollow anyone who is a self-proclaimed “thought leader” immediately. (For more information, see #1 above). As Bob Dylan said — at least apocryphally —  “Don’t follow leaders.”
  6. Unfollow most PR people. They’re easy to find: their agency name usually appears in their twitter profile (firm names like Edelman, Waggener Edstrom [a.k.a “WaggEd”], Shandwick, Burson, etc.) Most of these folks don’t do anything on twitter but parrot their clients’ messages anyway, and talk about their regimen for training for the upcoming Metro Half-Marathon and Wine Festival (see #2 above).
  7. Unfollow anyone who says on their twitter profile that they’re “gluten free,” or “paleo,” or ”vegan” … these folks are compelled to share their quotidian food choices globally. You don’t need to know, really. It isn’t that interesting.
  8. Unfollow anyone who uses more than two hashtags in their twitter profile. #youre #doing #it #wrong #jackwagon #stop #trying #to #draw #attention #to #yourself
  9. Unfollow anyone who lists their Myers-Briggs personality type in their profile. I can only assume that this is a carryover from online dating sites. What gives? If you’re an INFJ, shouldn’t you be reading a book with your cat anyway instead of managing your Twitter account? Get off the internet! It belongs to us ESTPs anyway!
  10. Unfollow people who claim to have written “bestselling books” that you have never heard of. Authors who have actually written bestselling books generally don’t need to claim authorship of same on their twitter profiles. Having written a book that’s #46 in Amazon’s category Business> Business & Investing> Management & Leadership> Management> Marketing> Digital & Interactive Marketing> Social Media> Does not qualify as a bestseller. For a list of Bestselling authors, see Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Times. J.K. Rowling is a bestselling author. So is John Grisham. So are Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. Unfollow authors who aren’t in that category.
  11. Unfollow any remaining mommy bloggers. That thing was so 2008.

Once you’ve unfollowed these people (if there’s anyone left in your feed), you’ll find that it probably contains interesting things about the world you live in or the industry in which you work. It might even contain things of real intellectual value. When you unclutter your feed from the narcissists and self-promoters, you can follow things of genuine interest. Isn’t that what a tool like Twitter should be used for anyway?

(Disclaimer/Warning: Following the advice in this post may negatively impact your Klout score. But if you’ve read this far, it’s a safe bet you don’t care.)

And now, gentle reader, I eagerly await your vitriol.

*Listicle, n. – a portmanteau of “List” and “article” … get it?

For our daughters and sons

Saturday December 15, 2012

Dear Mr. President,

As I write this, my daughter is asleep in the next room. She’s in the second grade. Tomorrow we’re going to a performance of The Nutcracker. She has a new dress, hat and shoes that her grandma bought just for this occasion. She sleeps tonight in safety and security, anticipating the joy and wonder that tomorrow will bring. And I know that tomorrow when I wake her up, she will never have looked more beautiful to me, never more precious. Her eyes will never be more blue, because of what happened.

My heart breaks for those parents in Connecticut who will not wake their daughters and sons this morning. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile them from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. I cannot imagine their horror, for it is, most truly, unspeakable.

Many people have said today that, “today we must grieve, and tomorrow or the next day we can talk about what happened, and why.” While I can understand — and even appreciate — the reasoning behind this sentiment, I cannot, and I will not, agree that we must wait to have a national discussion about the growing epidemic of gun violence in the United States. And I urge you and the members of Congress to do the same. Please do not wait to have this debate. And please, Mr. President: be strong. Something has got to change. What we saw today is not what James Madison intended when he wrote the Bill of Rights. It cannot be.

What we need now is to get real. We need to put aside the rhetoric of the past, and we must focus on a new future, one that represents the reality of today, and honors the memories of those sons and daughters who died needlessly. This is the greatest country the world has ever seen. And yet, for some reason I cannot comprehend, and I cannot explain to my daughter, we are killing each other at a rate much higher than every other developed country in the world. How can we be at once so great and so murderous? It does not have to be this way. How can we, as a free people, accept this much murder as the price of living in a free country? I’ve tried to understand it, but I cannot.

You and I have many things in common, and I’m sure we’d enjoy each other’s company. I’d very much like to share a drink with you someday. I’m sure we’d tell each other stories about the daughters we both have, who we’d do anything for. And I hope when that day comes, we can share that drink in a nation that has found a way, has seen the imperative, to prevent these mass killings from happening.

Our daughters and our sons deserve nothing less.

Respectfully,

Brian Sibley (Bellingham, Washington)

Of Vacuum Cleaners and Obsolescence

What follows is the text of a letter I just wrote to the Kirby Company. Kirby makes vacuum cleaners. Really, really good vacuum cleaners. The Kirby I inherited from my grandmother a decade ago cost her more than I paid for my first car. Yet, I may very well hand it down to my daughter, it’s so well made.

Whither product quality?

“To Whom It May Concern:

“I was discussing the relative decline of product quality today with a friend. The subject of Kirby came up, as an example of a company that puts a very strong focus on product quality. I just wanted to pass along a personal story.

“My grandmother died 13 years ago at the ripe age of 86. She lived a good life. In that long life of hers, she owned exactly 2 vacuum cleaners, both of them Kirbys. I inherited the second one, which she bought 3 years before her death. The first one she received as a gift in the late 1930s.

“So that first Kirby lasted 50+ years. Because of her second vacuum’s heirloom status, I expect that I won’t need to buy another vacuum again until at least 2035.

“Thanks for making a truly great product! I wish more companies were as committed to quality as Kirby is, almost 100 years after its founding.

Sincerely,
Brian”

Most of our home appliances and the like today (especially computers and electronics) are built with planned obsolescence in mind. They’re only designed to last until the next version comes along. Think Swiffer, Microsoft Office 2000  and iPod 3G. Products have generations now. Today’s latest and greatest will be replaced sooner or later (usually sooner).

Certainly there have been many advancements in vacuum cleaner technology since Jim Kirby started making dirt separators in 1906. Yet Kirby continues to make a product that is built to last. They have improved their product regularly over the years, and the brand is one of the most respected in its industry. Why do so many companies make products that are built with their eventual demise in mind? Theoretically, one could repair a Kirby vacuum indefinitely. Certainly this would cost you far less over a lifetime than buying a new Hoover or Dyson at Costco every 5 years.

Dear reader, in your opinion, are there any other companies out there whose products are still built to last?

Five Things You Need to Know About Obama’s Public Health Insurance Option

The choice of a public health insurance plan is crucial to real health care reform. Here’s what you really need to know:

1. Choice, choice, choice. If the public health insurance option passes, Americans will be able to choose between their current insurance and a high-quality, government-run plan similar to Medicare. If you like your current care, you can keep it. If you don’t—or don’t have any—you can get the public insurance plan.

2. It will be high-quality coverage with a choice of doctors. Government-run plans have a track record of innovating to improve quality, because they’re not just focused on short-term profits. And if you choose the public plan, you’ll still get to choose your doctor and hospital.

3. We’ll all save a bunch of money. The public health insurance option won’t have to spend money on things like CEO bonuses, shareholder dividends, or excessive advertising, so it’ll cost a lot less. Plus, the private plans will have to lower their rates and provide better value to compete, so people who keep their current insurance will save, too.

4. It will always be there for you and your family. A for-profit insurer can close, move out of the area, or just kick you off their insurance rolls. The public health insurance option will always be available to provide you with the health security you need.

5. And it’s a key part of universal health care. No longer will sick people or folks in rural communities, or low-income Americans be forced to go without coverage. The public health insurance plan will be available and accessible to everyone. And for those struggling to make ends meet, the premiums will be subsidized by the government.

Sources:

1. “Words Designed to Kill Health Care Reform,” Huffington Post, May 7, 2009 http://bit.ly/Btp7O

2, 3, 4, 5, 6. “The Case for Public Plan Choice in National Health Reform,” Institute for America’s Future
http://bit.ly/UgrIP

Rummy-Nation …

Walter Pincus wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post about a $10 million per year bid that’s been released by the Pentagon that “calls for extensive monitoring of U.S. and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive coverage of news from Iraq.”

Rumsfeld has said many times (including earlier this week … see yesterday’s post on this blog) that he’s cranky about how much bad news comes out of Iraq. He often cites that the troops get far more bad press about things like Abu Ghraib and Marine soldier misconduct than they do about good things that happen like the recent announcement about the Medal of Honor recipient.

Donald, if you’re reading this (and I’m sure some one is), first of all: does this surprise you? It should come as no surprise to anyone that bad news sells a lot more papers than good news. Just pick up any newspaper in America. The stories about fuzzy puppies and acts of heroism are almost ALWAYS buried somewhere other than the front page.

Bad news sells.

You can’t censor the bad news to try to manipulate the public into believing that Iraq is going smoothly.

But you’re going to try. And in doing so, you’re going to waste $20 million. We’re not buying it, Donald.

And that goes for you, too. Dubya.

As of today: 2642 American deaths in Iraq.

Bad news, no matter how you look at it.

Feeling morally, intellectually confused?

Donald H. Rumsfeld, our Secreaty of Defense gave a speech Tuesday to the American Legion post in Salt Lake City. The text of the speech can be found here. 

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann wrote about Rumsfeld’s speech. Here’s an excerpt from Olbermann’s article:

The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack.

Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarkable speech to the American Legion yesterday demands the deep analysis—and the sober contemplation—of every American.

 

Click here for the full article.

 

 

 

On Profit and The Bible

Bob Pritchett wrote a book recently that has received some notoriety. It’s called “Fire Someone Today (And Other Surprising Tactics for Making Your Business a Success).” In addition to being an author, Bob is a successful entrepreneur. He claims to have started his first business at age six, and is currently president and CEO of Logos, the largest developer of Bible software.

The bible says a lot of things about a lot of things, and one would presume that someone who runs a company devoted to making it easier to study the bible would also be a devotee of its message.

Perhaps I’m being presumptuous. The bible and business have long had an interesting relationship, and a great many people have used biblical principles as justification for advancing their careers and making a profit. But when I see such an obvious example as the one I found on Bob’s Web site the other day, I’m troubled.

Click here. Now maybe Bob’s just being cute. And I’m sure this kind of humor is very popular among business readers who feel that the Profit Motive is one of the highest callings imaginable. This web site, which Bob calls an “Interactive Business Tool … Just For Fun!!!” Asks readers a simple question:

“Is It Profitable?”

If the user clicks “No”, the interactive tool answers “Don’t Do It.”

If the user click “Yes”, the tool says “Consider It.”

This message seems to go directly counter to the overarching message of the bible Pritchett makes his money on.

I’m no biblical scholar, but I seem to hear a lot about biblical messages of charity and giving. And I seems to recollect that it says a lot about the evils of avarice and greed.

To Mr. Pritchett, I would say that there are a great many things that are not “profitable” that should be done. Providing health coverage is not profitable. Paying people a livable wage is not profitable.

And this is precisely why companies like Wal-Mart are so profitable. Because they’ve taken the advice and philosophies of people like Bob Pritchett too literally: if it’s not profitable, they don’t do it.

But even if the company doesn’t pay for those things, the burdens are shifted to the rest of us.

While that may be profitable, how can it be right and just? And what does the bible have to say about these immmoral practices, Mr. Pritchett?