When the Media Kept Presidential Secrets


One of only a few photos of FDR in his wheelchair.

As I watched Ken Burns’ marvelous documentary, “The Roosevelts,” I couldn’t help but notice just how different the role of the national media was at the time. As a public relations practitioner, I am fascinated in particular by the fact that the media entered into and honored a gentlemen’s agreement with Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his staff to never publish a photograph of the president in his wheelchair or leg braces.

While most Americans at the time knew that FDR had been afflicted by polio at age 39, few actually realized that as a result he was left paralyzed. This was due in large part to the media not publishing those types of photos, but also to FDR’s dogged commitment to hiding his disability when campaigning.

FDR was worried that his disability would make him appear weak in the eyes of the American public. He was known to arrive so early at events and speeches, that crowds rarely ever saw him being lifted out of cars or ‘walking’ up to a microphone. Clearly, the lack of television and social media also helped keep FDR’s secret.

FDR managed to win four presidential campaigns and he led a weary America out of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. His leadership played a critical role in the Allies’ victory in World War II while his New Deal legislation, according to many, helped build up the American middle class, establishing a baseline for the “American Dream.”

He was anything but weak. But could he have stayed in office to accomplish so much had his disability been exposed early on?

The White House press corps acted similarly during John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s presidency. Though it was common knowledge among the media that President Kennedy had many romantic dalliances, the American public didn’t come to know about them until decades later.

So when did things change? When did the media stop adhering to the concept that politicians had a public life and a private life, and that the latter was thought to be inconsequential to the former?

Today, it seems that the media can’t do enough to expose politicians, athletes, celebrities and business leaders at their most vulnerable and weakest times. This is not a criticism.

No one can escape the media’s magnifying glass, yet there are still plenty of folks who say that the media is not uncovering enough. I’d say Anthony Weiner, Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson would disagree.

So just how much do we need to know about today’s political leaders or about our favorite celebrities and athletes? Are we somehow expecting complete perfection? Where is the balance between knowing too much and not knowing enough; and what is the media’s role in delivering this?

These are questions that I’m not certain of the answer. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

P.S. One final thought: do you think today’s media would have ever have agreed to FDR’s request?

Why History Matters if You Work in Marketing

Did you hear about American Apparel’s social media snafu last week? Apparently one of the social media managers was attempting to be festive for the July 4th holiday. Did he or she provide the obligatory patriotic image of the Stars & Stripes, the Liberty Bell or fireworks bursting over a city skyline? Nope. What about any images of baseball, hot dogs and apple pie? Nope, nope and nope.

A recent social media blunder by American Apparel

Instead, this person chose to use what he or she thought was a cool photo and re-blogged on the brand’s Tumblr account an image of the space shuttle Challenger exploding. You know the photo – it’s the one of the white trail of smoke that loops around against a deep blue sky. Accompanying the photo were hashtags with “smoke” and “clouds,” and the blue sky was changed to a red background.

#Fail. The image was immediately recognized and triggered a deluge of shaming responses that lit up Twitter as American Apparel was called out on such an egregious American error on the most American of holidays. Here’s the company’s response:

“We deeply apologize for today’s Tumblr post of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The image was re-blogged in error by one of our international social media employees who was born after the tragedy and was unaware of the event. We sincerely regret the insensitivity of that selection and the post has been deleted.”

Okay. I accept the apology. What I don’t accept among younger people today is what I have often observed to be a lack of iconic historical knowledge, accompanied by a blasé excuse that they truly believes gets them off the hook: “That happened before I was born.”

Really? No seriously, really? That attitude would be akin to me – born in 1967 – not knowing or caring to learn anything about WWII and its significance today, just because WWII ended 22 years before I was born.

I’m not suggesting that everyone in business have a history minor. But I do think that advertising and PR executives should realize that knowing key social, economic, and historical events and trends of years gone by is an advantage for them now for three reasons:

Geico ad with Lincoln

Geico ad with Lincoln

1) Being informed and well-rounded makes for more a marketable job candidate. It gives an edge to those that are able to draw from the past in order to help solve current business challenges and to generate creativity today (most of the best Creative Directors I know have a keen understanding of history that they have successfully incorporated into great client work – think of the Geico ad with Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln to be exact).

2) It prevents future offenses like the American Apparel one – or something even worse – from occurring in the future.

3) It helps you do your job better. As a marketer it gives you a better understanding of your target audience, and to me, that’s what it’s all about. Your target audiences’ past experiences have played an important role in shaping their buying habits and purchasing power today.

Think about it. You could be missing a game-changing opportunity to engage and truly resonate with your target audience; all because you weren’t born before “Friends” originally aired.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

A Tribute to the Heroes of D-Day and Their Profound Effect on My Life

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  My own photo.

My own photo of the American Cemetery in Normandy, France

I stood behind the entanglement of rusted barbed wire as my hair whipped furiously in the strong wind. It was a chilly but sunny day in March 2000. I was at the top of the Pointe du Hoc, the cliff in Normandy, France that made history on D-Day during World War II.

I had always wanted to visit the Normandy beaches on so many of my past trips to France. As a history lover and a proud patriot, I needed to see for myself this hallowed ground where the Allies helped turn the tide of the war. I looked down on this cheery day, amazed at the sheer steepness of the cliff I was on, 100 feet straight down.

On June 6, 1944, the Pointe du Hoc was a German stronghold that was fortified with blockhouses and gun pits which spewed bullets and hellfire, picking off soldier upon soldier as the American troops tried desperately to make their way onto the beachhead that morning. Taking out this battery would prove to be significant to the outcome of the battle that day, and in turn, the entire war.

This was a cliff I wouldn’t want to be forced to scale even on this peaceful day where calmness prevailed and the only sounds I could hear were those of hungry seagulls and the howling sea winds. So, to imagine what it was like to climb on June 6 was almost incomprehensible to me. But, I closed my eyes and envisioned courageous men using all of the limited tools they had with them to scale the jagged rocks as they were continuously pummeled by machine guns and grenades. Their physical and mental faculties were put even further to the test under the sheer chaos and the cacophony of war: the clattering noise of machineguns, exploding mines and missiles, and the helpless screams of the wounded.

I opened my eyes and focused below on one triangular rock formation. I didn’t have a clear view of it because of the barbed wire between the blockhouse and the edge of the cliff. It was then when I had an epiphany in which I realized what real challenges and sacrifice is about. I thought about how once the US Army 2nd Ranger Battalion did the impossible by bravely and doggedly scaling the cliff and reaching the top, they couldn’t even rest. Now they were faced with yet another formidable task: breaking through the entangled barbed wire, past the gunfire and enemy defense lines, in order to clear the gun pits and blockhouses so that the rest of the allied troops could safely set foot on the beach.

At this moment, I felt rather insignificant. What I thought were challenges in my life were really just personal and work trials and tribulations, stupid things like getting angry over slow morning commute, a difficult co-worker or a friend cancelling weekend plans at the last minute. Compared to what these men – and all of the brave men fighting that day – had faced, I felt ashamed of the things that I typically complained about. How trivial these things seemed to me as I gazed out at the English Channel, picturing the largest armada in history.

I told myself that in the future, whenever anything got tough for me – under any circumstance and however often – that I would draw strength knowing that greater and more significant challenges were met here on June 6, 1944 – 70 years ago. If those WWII veterans faced their fears here on this ground, there wasn’t anything I too couldn’t contend with in my own life.

Unfortunately, I had to put that mantra to the test in 2007 when, at the age of 40, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Though weary from the fear of the unknown and dying as well as the unbelievable pain of bone marrow biopsies, a blood clot and 6 months of chemo and radiation, I was determined to fight my own battle as best I could.

Every cancer patient has something inspiring that helps them focus on getting through it – something that makes them strong. For me, it was remembering and honoring all of the brave men of D-Day: young men in the prime of their youth facing the unimaginable. I thought of the fear and anxiety they must have felt every single minute, never knowing when they awakened if that day would be their last.

For some it was. For others, they trudged on reluctantly and saw the end of the war. They came home and got married, started families and new jobs. They contributed to society and made something of their lives. Moreover, they did it without complaining or carrying a chip on their shoulders for their lost youth, pain and suffering. It was their duty, they believed which further demonstrated their great character and subsequently earned them the fitting moniker of “The Greatest Generation.”

Pointe du Hoc

Another of my photos, this view from the top of the Pointe du Hoc

Each year we lose more and more of our World War II veterans and it makes me very, very sad. In fact, most of you who know me aren’t at all surprised when I run up to any older gentleman I see with a WWII Veteran hat or jacket.

I did this just a few weeks ago when I was having dinner with friends. During our meal, I had caught a glimpse of a man at another table wearing a ‘WWII Veteran’ hat. He was old and frail now, a shadow of himself during his prime, during the war. As we ate, I monitored his activity and watched as he got up to leave, grabbing his cane. I politely excused myself and went to him as he slowly moved passed our table.

“Hello Sir,” I said, touching him on the sleeve. He stopped and stared at me, and he seemed confused. I continued, “I see that you are a WWII veteran and I just want to thank you for your service. Thank you so very much.”

He didn’t smile as he looked me squarely in the eye, but simply responded, “You’re Welcome.”  The greatest generation indeed.

So on this commemorative anniversary of D-Day, please remember those brave men and all of our servicemen and women who have protected and served our country through the years, and especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

God Bless America.

3 Grammar Rules I Cannot Adhere to (and yes, I ended this with a preposition – see point #2)

Photo by Jesse Wojdylo

Photo by Jesse Wojdylo

There is no doubt that I have had many visits from the grammar police over the years. Most times I am guilty because of an oversight or error. Then there are other times when I just don’t agree with some of the rules as they apply to language and the way we communicate today.   The following grammar rules are the ones I violate the most often, and here’s why.

1.  Single space after a period
I suppose this is more of a punctuation rule. Nonetheless, I don’t stick to it, mainly because I am physically unable to. I’m told the double-spacing rule was originally made for the typewriter in order to mimic the style used by traditional typesetters. But as my friend, Charlene, likes to point out often, the double space rule is dead. I guess I’m just in denial. No matter how hard I try, it’s a reflex for me to type two spaces. After all, I did learn to type on a typewriter in typing class (when it was called that and not ‘keyboarding’). As to why this post seems to be only single-spaced, I believe WordPress automatically adjusted it.

2. Ending a sentence with a proposition

I think this rule was created by a bunch of tea-drinking British linguists from centuries gone by – back when the written and spoken words were much more formal. In any formal writing I do I try to abide by this rule if it doesn’t sound too unnatural, but in everyday emails and conversations, I don’t worry about it. Again, no one talks like that anymore. For instance:

Scenario 1 – my way

“Good morning, Stacey.”
“Good morning, Clovis.”
“You sure are in a hurry. Where are you running to?”
“I am. I have another meeting to go to.” (I stub my toe on a box in the kitchen) “Oww, I just stubbed my toe.”
“Oh no, what did you stub it on?”
“This dumb box.”

That’s typical conversational American English, no? Here’s the same interaction going by the rule:

Scenario 2 – By the rule

“Good morning, Stacey.”
“Good morning, Clovis.”
“You sure are in a hurry. To where are you running?
“I am. I have another meeting to attend. (I stub my toe on a box in the kitchen) “Oww, I just stubbed my toe.”
“Oh no, on what did you stub your toe?”
“A box, alright? Stop sounding like such a snob, Clovis!!”

My case is rested.

3.  Never write a one-sentence paragraph
Oh poppycock. Sometimes using just one sentence is needed to underscore a point. I occasionally use it – even in an occasional news release (gasp!) – For emphasis. There’s no point in writing another sentence just because there should be two, and especially if it only detracts from the point being made in the first sentence. Novelists do it all the time. I don’t have a specific example from the book itself, but I’m sure Colleen McCullough used this technique in her risqué and tantalizing novel, The Thorn Birds, which I read many, many years ago.

Are there grammar rules that you don’t follow or that you disagree with? What are they?

Any PR is better than none, right? Wrong.

There’s been some controversy over an event that happened over the weekend. A professional golfer, Alastair Forsyth of Scotland, was playing in the Madeira Islands Open when his caddy suddenly collapsed on the fairway of the ninth hole which was Forsyth’s final hole of the event.

Caddies react to the sudden death of a fellow caddy who died on the fairway during a tournament.

Caddies react to the sudden death of a fellow caddy who died on the fairway during a tournament.

Frantic efforts were made on the course to resuscitate the 52-year old caddy, Ian MacGregor, but unfortunately he was pronounced dead at the scene from an apparent heart attack. MacGregor was well-loved among the caddies, and they, along with other players and fans, were stunned over what had happened.

What happens next is a bit bizarre.   For one, the tournament officials didn’t call the tournament right then and there. But what appears to be even more disturbing is that Forsyth decided to keep playing.

Yes, Forsyth’s caddy literally dropped dead on the final hole of the tournament and he felt it best to play through. Bad decision? Well, it would have seemed completely understandable for him to drop out of the tournament and give a heartfelt speech about the tragic loss of his dear friend and caddy. In doing so he would surely lose the tournament, but he would have gained much sympathy and respect from fans and the media for his noble gesture.

Instead he’s received much notoriety.  His fans, the media and people around the world are portraying him as callous and heartless.

Oh, and he didn’t win the tournament.

What do you think about it?

5 Pearls of wisdom from my little Italian-American mother

Mom and me - Florence

Mom and me in Florence

This weekend is Mother’s Day in the U.S., so I thought it would only be appropriate to share some of the wisdom and truths from my mom that have profoundly shaped me both personally and professionally. I owe so much to her (and my dad too, of course).

Mom grew up in Cleveland in an Italian neighborhood on the city’s East side. Like many Italian-American moms I know, she is warm, affectionate and extremely loyal. She’s also equally as tough, having weathered many of life’s storms. As with many folks her age, it’s clear that her heritage as well as living during the tail end of the Great Depression and World War II were instrumental in developing her great character.

My mom is the most cheerful person I know. She has always been that way.   She appreciates life and her loved ones, and rarely belies that persona (only in the direst of circumstances). She’s also the most caring and loving individual I have ever met.   While she might tell you she doesn’t have a sense of humor, I think she’s hilariously funny, more lately in her newfound bluntness, which is one of the privileges that comes with age.

Throughout my life – in good times and in bad ones – I’ve always looked to her for guidance and advice. At this point in my life I am ready to admit that yes, my mother is always right. I had some doubt in my youth, sure – but doggone it, when I really examine things; she’s got a ‘being right’ slugging percentage of 3 point something (for you non baseball fans, that’s pretty dang great as 4.0 is perfect).

Some of the following pearls of wisdom from mom continue to resonate with me in every aspect of my life:

1.  Good manners really do make a difference
Of course I’ve mastered those tried and true manners like putting a napkin in my lap and keeping my elbows off the table. My mother always made sure I wrote my thank you notes – as a kid just a few sentences – and that I understood this gesture to be a truly sincere and appreciative way to demonstrate one’s gratitude.   Saying please, thank you and wishing someone to have a nice day have also always stayed with me. Trust me, it makes a big difference.

2.  I can do it.
I don’t believe I have or have ever had a greater champion than my mother. Whether I was starting out with violin lessons, making the varsity softball team or getting national coverage on the Today show for one of my clients.   She’s never wavered, even if she secretly thought I couldn’t do something. I think part of the feeling for me that I can do something is that I really believe my mom thinks there’s nothing I can’t do. Of course it’s not true, but how great is it to have my own Stuart Smalley?

3.  Brush your hair so it doesn’t look stringy
What can I say, I have fine hair and when I wear it long, I can easily look like one of those poor urchins hiding behind the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Future at the end of A Christmas Carol. Mom’s got my back!

4.  Be financially independent
There was never any doubt when I was young that I would attend college. My parents went for a little while but never finished.   My mother was a stay at home mom, and like other women in her generation, she depended on my father for money. She didn’t want that for me. She always made sure to instill in me strength in myself to be financially self-reliant and independent.   Thanks, Mom!

5.  If you lose something, just ask St. Anthony to help you find it
Saint Anthony (the patron saint of lost things) must really be sick and tired of me losing my keys in my purse.   I find he’s progressed with the times and can even help find lost files on the computer as well. For the most part, he always comes through. Except in the case of my 14th birthday present, a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt shorts which I never received because my mother forgot where she hid them. I am still waiting.

And so it appears that mom does always know best. I love you Mom! Happy Mother’s Day to you and to all the wonderful moms out there!

Mad Men? Been there, done that.

Upon meeting me and discovering that I work in the field of advertising and PR, it’s really strange that a good amount of those people end up telling me how much they love the show “Mad Men” and its main character, Don Draper.  They gush about it.  They then ask me if I watch it.Mad men

My reply is “No, I already lived it.”

Well, I didn’t live in the hey day when the show takes place (50s/60s), but when I took my first job in 1990 at the largest advertising agency in Cleveland at the time, the mad men work/lifestyle was nowhere near extinct.

I’ve only watched a handful of “Mad Men” episodes, but enough to recognize that I witnessed and experienced the tail end of that era filled with the same antics and behavior which I have seen glorified on the show.

There was the drinking. Lots of drinking.

I was genuinely shocked on my first day of work when my boss and our SVP took me to lunch at the Hermit Club. They ordered manhattans and the SVP tried unsuccessfully to get me to do the same.   What kind of business was this, I thought?

Well, I quickly learned just how acceptable and important drinking was in the industry.   Typically, it was the old timers who wheeled and dealed at the 2-martini lunch.   Most of us youngsters only grabbed a few beers a couple of times a week or whenever we could afford it. But it was the mad men, with their endless expense accounts, who perfected the liquid lunch as well as  schmoozing, and wining and dining.

By 1990, most of the quintessential “mad men” were approaching their 60s, not quite ready to retire because they were “still in the game,” or so they thought in more ways than one. There was a bar conveniently located on the first floor of our building in what had been the vault room of a bank that was formerly located there. My friends and I might grab a quick drink after work occasionally, but for the mad men, it served as an endless watering hole. To be honest, I visited that bar more during office hours.

Since there were no cell phones at the time, when a client called looking for one of the mad men, we didn’t even bother looking first in the office. Instead, we immediately checked the bar. It wasn’t sad or pathetic at the time. It was just the way it was.

On one occasion, I was sent to find one particular mad man, who had a very angry and unhappy client on the other end of the phone looking for him. Of course I found him at the bar “just having a few highballs.” Imagine me at 5’ 3” struggling to help a 6’ plus, 200 pound man stumble to the elevator. In heels, no less (me, not him).

Oh, and don’t forget happy hour! Those guys rocked it. The famous Friday Happy Hours occurred precisely at 4:00 p.m. in the president’s office which had a fully and frequently stocked liquor cabinet. Typically, only the pretty, buxom administrative assistants were invited to mingle with the mad men. Somehow, I think I was invited once or twice.

Inappropriateness abounded.

Often when I tell my stories to 20 & 30-somethings today, they find it hard to believe that these things actually happened.   I can’t even remember the countless inappropriate things that were said or done on any given day. After all, the phrase ‘PC’ was not yet widespread.

One of the stories I do remember is so incredulous, it’s actually funny to me now:

I sat next to my friend, another traffic coordinator. She was pretty, thin and extremely smart and efficient at her job. Oh, and did I mention she was blond?

We had a blast sitting near each other and muttering sarcastic quips under our breath or rolling our eyes at the antics that never ceased to amaze us.  One day close to Christmas, my friend received a call from the president’s secretary (yes, at that time the president didn’t even make internal calls). The secretary said that the president would for like her to come to his office.   My friend looked scared. We imagined what she could’ve done to get herself in trouble, but we came up with nothing.   In fact, we didn’t even realize he knew who she was.

She trudged slowly down the very long hallway and finally into the corner office. Not even five minutes later, I see her walking back with a weird look on her face – carrying a very pretty wrapped clothing box. She had a gift in her hand from the president.

She said that he had said to her. “I bought this for my girlfriend, but we broke up. You look to be about her size so I thought maybe you could take it.”

“It’s a silk scarf!” I blurted out, eager to see what we knew would be an expensive gift meant for the ex-girlfriend, a 30-year-old model.   “Maybe it’s a nice pair of leather gloves,” my friend said cheerfully, carefully unwrapping the box.

Once the paper was off, she lifted the lid off the box; the object was blocked from my sight by tissue paper. “I can’t see it. What is it???” I demanded. She said nothing. Her mouth was completely agape and she just stared absently at the box.

“Oh my God,” she said as she pushed aside the tissue paper and held up a very lacy and very red teddy with black trim.

All we could do was burst out laughing.

But that was then, and something like that would never fly in this day and age. I hope I’m right.


Care to share any of your mad men stories? I’d love to hear them.

6 Social Media Customer Service Tips for Small Businesses

"The Scream" by Munch

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch

We’ve all been there.  That moment we become so utterly frustrated and incensed over a product or service mishap that we angrily dial the phone to reach a live person for help.   If we survive the exasperating labyrinth of automated phone hell, we may finally connect with someone who – after all that – may or may not (“I have to check with my supervisor”) be able to help us. Argh!

Well, it seems that phone complaints are becoming passé.  The often profane-laden phone tirades, accusations and pleas have yielded to a new medium through which to get a company’s attention: Social media.

I believe there are several reasons for this. First, social media correspondence has taken over for many as a preferred method of communication, especially among millenials.  Second, today’s  automated customer service phone systems are designed to work more as a moat surrounding the corporate castle, and only the fittest and those with too much time on their hands can steamroll past the murky water to reach a representative. Third, consumers have realized that the last thing a brand wants is to be shamed on Twitter or Facebook for all their customers to see.  In my experience, consumers posting problems via social media channels have typically led to companies resolving matters fairly quickly.

Large brands employ a social media community manager whose job is to create awareness and engagement for the brand as well as observe and respond to customer inquiries and complaints.   However many small and mid-sized companies don’t have the time and resources for a full-time community manager.  So what happens in many instances is that monitoring the social channels becomes an afterthought.  Companies double up social media duties, throwing them into the lap of a sales executive, administrative assistant or even (gasp) IT.  And, I’ve seen many times with small businesses, the CEO/owner takes the helm of the social media channels.

If any of those scenarios are the case for you, here are some tips to effectively address customer complaints within social media channels:

1. Regularly monitor your social media sites – I believe one of the biggest assets of social media (particularly Twitter) is listening.  It’s not glamorous or edgy, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to help understand your customers’ wants and needs. You don’t want to hear it second hand that someone has dissed your brand on social media; you want catch it first.  Be active in monitoring brand mentions and complaints so that you can swiftly react and rectify the situation and nip situations in the bud. Jetblue social media

2. Respond quickly – but not too quickly – Waiting five minutes before addressing a complaint can help eliminate the possibility of a hot-headed response from a gut reaction for which we are all capable.  Just as you should think before you speak, think before you tweet or post and avoid the possibility of making the matter worse. Here’s a great example (left) of the airline Jet Blue responding to a customer’s frustrated tweet.   Brands that do it right respond to a complaint in four hours or less.

3. Don’t be defensive or condescending – Look, you and your brand are never going to come out ahead in a name-calling match, so try your best to avoid that scenario.  And, keep in mind that while most complaints are valid, there are a group of folks out there who simply like to stir the pot just for fun.  Make sure you can tell the difference between the two.

4. Acknowledge their problem – Customers – whether in-store, on the phone or online want to know that their voice is being heard.   Respond initially with something like “I’m sorry to hear your [product] is not working/broken/missing a part, etc.  I can help you.”  Then as a next step:

5. Do your best to get them offline – You don’t want the dialogue to go on publicly through social media, especially when the customer is very angry.  I recently voiced my frustration via Twitter about – of all things – the phone system maze at my bank.  Within an hour, I received a response from a point person at the bank who gave me her direct number and I was able to get the matter resolved.  If you really can promptly and effortlessly solve the problem, it’s alright to do so publicly – just be careful not to appear as self-serving.

6. Use humor when applicable – I’m not advocating that you make light of any complaint.  But, In some cases when the problem is not a grave or serious one, adding some friendly humor can help disarm some egghead who is ranting and raving without due cause (remember those folks who love to stir the pot). Sometimes the best way to silence them is with an unexpected, cheeky response.  Use discretion as this can be a tricky line to cross.  A great example of this is a recent letter written from BIC pens UK, in response to what we infer was one man’s outrageous and profane complaint about his new pens (strong and explicit language here so read at your own risk): http://www.brandwatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/bicletter.jpg

In most cases, acknowledging a customer complaint and responding quickly and purposefully will be enough to resolve matters.   As with all of us, customers appreciate being heard.

7 Tips for a Better Brainstorming Session


photo credit: clearmarketboard.com

Having worked in the marketing and communications industry my entire career, I’ve participated in my share of brainstorming sessions. Many have been very successful in reaching objectives; others not so much. One of the biggest misconceptions about brainstorming is that it’s only the marketing or creative department experts that can add value to a session. I completely disagree.

Watch the Master
One of my fondest brainstorming bombs was when I worked for a vacuum cleaner manufacturer years ago. While the small marketing department had always done a fine job of naming products, on this particular occasion, the chairman of the company had hired a “real expert” advertising consultant to join us in the session. This guy was some big-shot ex advertising agency CEO who now peddled his years of experience and expertise to consumer products’ companies in exchange for big consulting bucks.

The new product was a hand-held vacuum cleaner that actually housed a light, stretchy hose (for suction in hard to reach places) on the little vacuum itself. It’s old hat now, but at the time in the early 90s, it was a real breakthrough for the hose not to be a separate attachment.

The team was on a roll spewing out words and phrases that embodied the new product’s main feature and benefits: the hose on board offered power, ease of use and convenience.

We were a half hour into the session and our consultant hadn’t uttered a word. We all figured he was drawing from his vast experience and wizardly marketing talents, strategically waiting to wow us. We knew that once he did speak, he would utter the ‘be all end all’ of names, one that would end the session and henceforth be the genesis for all new product names.

Then he magically spoke. We waited for his wisdom.

“How about,” he asked while beaming and nodding his head, “…hand vac with hose?” He looked around the room, now nodding his head more fervently. The group was silent as we couldn’t tell if he was joking. Soon enough, we realized he was indeed serious.  We did our best to contain our laughter, and a few of us offered several disingenuous nods.

Correctly interpreting our silence for disapproval, he appeared to have another “Aha” moment and stood up with excitement, waving his arms. “No, no, no. Wait,” he shouted proudly. “This is it. I’ve got it! I’ve got it.” He could no longer contain his own excitement and flashed a huge smile, “What about… hose vac!?”

Needless to say, that was not what we named the product.

Tips For A Better Brainstorm Session
Over the years, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, and I’ve come to recognize a few practices to get the most for your time and money.

  1. Include a mix of people from different departments or areas of expertise – Creativity and great ideas aren’t just limited to the marketing folks (as my story clearly proves). In fact, sometimes marketing folks are too close to a project and lack the objectivity to see an idea from all sides. Plus, everyone is a consumer. I was in a brainstorming session once when someone from the financial department had a great idea that eventually germinated into the platform for a successful new product launch. You really never know where a great idea will come from.
  2. Have a desired result for this particular brainstorm – Be sure to establish what you want out of this particular meeting. Are you looking to develop an employee incentive program? Or maybe a great new product name or the theme for your next annual meeting? Remember that it will likely take a few meetings to reach your goal. Define what your objective is and let the team know so that everyone is on the same page at the session.
  3. Have the meeting off-site if possible – A different setting helps get people out of the usual “work mode” which can be stifling for brainstorming. Being offsite also better prevents the chance that a fellow brainstormer might be paged or interrupted and consequentially throws off the momentum of the entire session.
  4. Implement at fun exercise to get people in a relaxed and positive mood – Start off with a fun exercise to get the group in a mindset that lends itself to creativity. It could be a group game of MadLib’s, or the game where everyone tells two truths and one lie about themselves and the audience guesses the lie. The point is to create a sense of belonging and camaraderie where members won’t feel embarrassed or restrained to contribute.
  5. No bad ideas – Try not to be discouraging to ideas you don’t agree with or like. Write everything down. Be open-minded to know that any idea can ultimately lead to “The” idea. Well, except for ‘hose vac’ maybe.
  6. Provide a recap to participants – This is beneficial because, as stated above, seeing these ideas and notes from the brainstorm might actually trigger other creative thoughts and ideas from the brainstorm members.
  7. Don’t be disappointed – If you don’t reach your objective in the first brainstorm session as it typically the case, realize that the initial brainstorm is a stepping stone to other ideas and insights from participants. Who knows, someone might even mull the idea around at home over the family dinner and come back with some great options.

Remember, brainstorming is a process. Treating it as such helps eliminate the anxiety of having to come up with a solution with your back up against the wall. Of course, this will happen from time to time, but in most cases, if you choose your group wisely and determine goals, you’ll be able to reach your objective in a reasonable time frame. If not, I think I might know a very talented, retired ex agency CEO who might be able to help you…at least he’d be good for a laugh or two.

4 Great Reasons to Hire a Freelancer

There is still a lingering misconception today that freelancers – or sole practitioners – are simply professionals between jobs, and that the act of freelancing is more of a necessity for them than a choice.  This misconception is also fortified by the perception that most of these individuals must have been let go from a job or passed up for new opportunities because they are not talented or good at what they do.

This is simply not true.  In fact the opposite reigns:  freelancers today are doing their own thing, on their own terms, by choice.

For a myriad of reasons,  these individuals have chosen to work in a sole proprietor or freelance capacity because it better suits their current professional and/or personal goals.  They might desire greater flexibility or just simply want to have more control of their professional destinies.

Thanks to technology — specifically the ability to be able to connect anywhere at any time—   individuals spanning all generations are now working in a free-lance capacity.  According to Fabio Rosati, CEO of elance.com, an online community of over 2.5 million freelancers and 500,000 businesses, freelancers, consultants and temps make up twenty-five percent of the workforce.

That number isn’t expected to shrink in the upcoming years. Earlier this year, software company Intuit  predicted that by 2020, 40% of the American workforce (or 60 million people) will be employed as freelancers.

So as a business leader, why should you consider working with freelancers?

1.  Value – You retain the services  of a seasoned practitioner for less than you’d pay for their same services at an agency

While there are many millennial developers, graphic designers and social media freelancers today,  I believe that much of the marketing and communications fields are comprised of seasoned and successful veterans in their industry.

Because of their experience and expertise, they are able to command a higher fee for their services. This is great for them, but it’s also good for you as a business owner, because their fees are still typically much less than the hourly rate you would pay for their same services if they were working at a big agency, since its rates and costs are higher in order to help cover fixed costs including salaries, building rent, benefits, etc.

2.  The person you hired is actually the one working on your account

As a business owner or marketing manager, selecting an agency as a partner has as much to do with the agency’s reputation and portfolio as it does the folks involved in the pitch.  Chemistry,  personality and work styles play a large part in why businesses may select one agency over another.   So, it’s no surprise that many companies are often blind-sided when they call the account supervisor (who was in the pitch) with a problem or challenge, and discover that this person knows very little of what’s been happening daily on the account.

Sure, underlings are supposed to communicate to their team leaders, but those team leaders might be managing other accounts as well as being pulled in to pitch new business.   It’s part a function of and part good business sense for the agency to utilize junior people for the blocking and tackling since their hourly rates are lower.  However, junior folks lack the experience and confidence that allows them to make a quick decision on a dime or handle conflict in an effective manner.

Working with an accomplished freelancer gives you the best of both worlds.  Your experienced account person is deep in the trenches, and at the same time, has the savvy and skillset to handle any situation – whether it’s a negative Tweet or an emerging crisis situation – in a quick and efficient manner.

3.  Flexibility

Working with a freelancer is advantageous since they are able to respond and adapt to your needs or any changes in a program without a hassle.  Solo practitioners don’t have to go through a series of processes in order to accommodate any changes in the scope of a project.

Agency processes are typically very rigid, and while they are meant to streamline project time and costs, they often have the opposite effect.  Think of all the internal meetings and steps the agency must implement– and that’s all before they begin any  actual work on your account.

4.  Speed

Freelancers work quickly.  Their expertise allows them to speedily turn over projects. For instance, a seasoned PR person can write a news release in about half the time of a less experienced practitioner.

Years of ‘doing’ gives them the advantage in knowing all of the steps to successfully complete a project.  After all, they’ve done it many, many times before and know all of the short cuts.  Moreover, as was mentioned above, they don’t get bogged down following all of the agency processes (or office politics) that add time to jobs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that businesses forego agencies to only work with freelancers.  Agencies do serve a great purpose.  Larger companies and big brands can justify hiring an agency, since they often require a more dynamic, integrated marketing plan involving many resources that are often under one agency roof.

But, if you are own a smaller business or run a small marketing department and you don’t want to sacrifice great counsel and service for a lower price, I encourage you to check out the local freelancers in your area, myself included.