Monday, November 9, 2009

"Adventures in (in)authenticity" starring Miley Cyrus

It's time to jam. Just push play ...

Come on, admit it. You started bobbing your head -- and perhaps even singing along -- the second you hit "play" on that video. At the very least, you recognized that song and would probably admit -- even if begrudgingly -- that it's really darn catchy.

But, sadly, "Party in the USA" is a fraud. And the party's over now that someone's turned on the lights and cleared out the room.

Over the weekend, the folks over at Best Week Ever informed us that Miley Cyrus admitted she's never heard a Jay-Z song, invalidating a lyric of the song that made Miss Cyrus a relatable, even -- gasp -- cool teenager who digs all sorts of music and gives props to other artists.

First of all ... WHAT?! What planet are you from, girl? I mean, I know your dad is famous for "Achy Breaky Heart" and all, but you're a popular music star. Jay-Z is a popular music star. You've probably been at -- and even performed at -- the same awards show at least once. There's no excuse for you to have never heard any of his work.

That bit of "Captain Obvious" commentary aside ...

You're probably thinking, "It's a song. A silly little pop song. It's not supposed to be an autobiography."

And you know what? I would agree with that argument approximately 99% of the time. Matt Nathanson, for example, is a singer/songwriter who spins vivid, brilliant stories in his songs. Are they autobiographical? Perhaps in parts; I really don't know ... but that's because they're written in a way that they could be about anyone, for anyone. And his music doesn't contain shout-outs -- contrived or otherwise -- to other artists, which means there's no related sincerity/authenticity issue inherent in his work.

As soon as you start singing songs that sound like autobiographies -- or like they're at least "loosely based on actual events," as they say -- you cross over into different territory. And when you start singing lyrics that offer shout-outs to fellow artists, you really start treading on special ground. Shout-outs -- especially in today's highly competitive, beef-filled music industry -- are rare and usually considered sacred, for lack of a better term. So to waste one of your two shout-outs in a song that is a huge hit (and was bound to become one from the start; let's face it) on an artist whose music you've never heard is both foolish and inauthentic.

In the communications world, we stress authenticity and hold each other accountable for it (or the lack of it). What Miley Cyrus did by not changing the Jay-Z lyric in "Party in the USA" to the name of an artist with whom she's familiar -- and preferably one she even likes -- is akin to, say, retweeting an article you haven't read, gushing about a book you haven't read, or raving about a product you haven't tried, all in an effort to earn favor with peers or to give the appearance that you're up on the latest trends.

A friend of mine has a daughter around 10 years old who, upon hearing the information about "Party in the USA" and its phony Jay-Z mention, proclaimed, "I'm MAD at her! She lied on her song!" Kids say the darndest -- and truest -- things, no?

(And if you want to dive into the conspiracy theories, what if the shout-outs were paid placements? I have no reason to believe that they were, but hey, there are product placements pretty much everywhere else these days.)

The bottom line: Authenticity is key. And, in any context, if you're going to give someone a shout-out, mean it ... because it's awfully embarrassing when the world finds out the truth.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Did Facebook just make a change that is -- *gasp* -- useful?!

I think it may have!

The other day, I laughed heartily when I saw the
"52 notifications later and i regret liking your status" fan page show up in my news feed after one of my friends joined it.

We all know what that's like, especially if we've opted to receive notification e-mails regarding comments that occur after we click "Like" on something and/or leave a comment on it.

Personally, I love getting the notification e-mails so I can stay apprised of conversations even if I'm not on Facebook. But, let's face it, it can get a little overwhelming if it turns out we've commented on something and it turns out to be an incredibly active and lively conversation, resulting in 25 notifications in your e-mail inbox in the morning.

This happened to me last night when I commented on a friend's status update regarding health care reform. I knew he was paying close attention to what was going on, and my comment was a simple question: "Since you are the expert here ... where does the extension of the COBRA subsidy stand in all of this?" Mine was the third comment on the status update.

Within minutes, the comments turned into a political debate among some of this friend's other friends. I went to bed dreading what my e-mail inbox and notification page would look like. When I I got up this morning, had a couple of notifications (via e-mail and on my notifications page) of additional comments on that status -- five notifications in all, including those that I saw before going to bed last night.

Imagine my surprise when I went to read the comments to find out what my friend might've been able to find out about the COBRA extension and found that there was a total of
21 comments on the post! And there didn't appear to be a problem with the notification system, since I'd received e-mail notifications and items on my notifications page regarding several other things I'd either posted myself or commented on.

So, could it be?! Did Facebook finally wise up and cap the number of notifications that you can receive regarding a single post?!

If so, I think this is GREAT! Less junk to deal with in the long run. However, I'm sure some people will dislike such a change because it -- *gasp* -- puts the onus on the Facebook user to keep track of high-volume conversations on his or her own if s/he wants to keep up on the conversation ... but I maintain that this is positive thing, because it cuts back on that "information overload" we all complain about while also making us personally responsible for being a part of the conversations that are happening in our respective communities and deciding which ones we care to keep up with.

Again, I'm merely speculating as to whether this is an actual change, but I'll be investigating the matter today and will keep you posted. In the meantime, if you have any insights or opinions, please do post them here!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wondering where I've been?

I guess you could say I'm on "sick leave" ...

That's right; I recently suffered my first broken bone, and it's a doozy -- a Jones fracture, a fifth-metatarsal fracture that the physician assistant who first examined me was kind enough to tell me is "the worst kind of fracture you can get in your foot."

As I've been telling all of the people who inevitably ask what happened to me, breaking my foot was a case of simple "math":

(wet parking lot + high heels) x my non-graceful nature
foot going one way and leg going another

The first day and a half was hard as I tried to get through -- and to enjoy -- Homecoming at Central Michigan University (and in all honesty, I probably should've just stayed home; I was in bad shape!). After that, I was bound to my couch for several days, moving only to use the restroom or get something to eat or drink. If you're an on-the-go person who's ever had a foot or leg injury, you know how horribly maddening this is.

And, of course, I had to use crutches. Oh, crutches. If I never have to use crutches again, it will be too soon. We are not friends. I still haven't gotten the hang of them -- and even managed to pull an ab muscle using them -- but that's okay, because the orthopedist gave me a prescription for one of these:

And I also have a walking cast (a "boot") that allows me to actually use my foot and has, in less than two weeks, clearly facilitated a heck of a lot of healing in my foot. I love the boot!

Around mid-November, I go back to my awesome orthopedist and will hopefully get the go-ahead to start walking without the boot. But I can't help but wonder how long it will take me to get rid of this lovely hobble/swagger that the boot has given me ...

But in all seriousness -- just for a moment -- scroll back up to that picture of me on crutches. Look at me, at age 31, with my first broken bone ... and remember that I don't have a job. But I have insurance, thanks to my decision to pay for COBRA benefits (which were made affordable thanks to the federal government's 65 percent subsidy of COBRA). Let this be a lesson to you: If you lose your job, don't lose your health benefits! Find a way to pay for COBRA, even if it means shutting off your cable (that's a big chunk of how I pay for mine) or giving up something else unnecessary. The monthly checks I've written for the last several months are paying off in a big way right now as I see doctors, have X-rays taken, and rent/purchase costly medical equipment ... all of which is covered by my insurance. Protect yourself, because the impossible and unlikely can and just might happen!

Monday, August 31, 2009

30 lessons learned in my 30th year

So, it's here. Today is my 31st birthday -- and my golden birthday, to boot!

While the thought of turning 30 last year initially caused me a bit of anguish (in fact, I long referred to it as "the first anniversary of my 29th birthday), I quickly got over it and embraced the big 3-0. And then my 30th year of life unfolded.

If you know me at all, you know that the word "unfolded" doesn't really describe the last 12 months, if only because unfolding is usually a fairly smooth, fluid process. It would probably be more accurate to describe August 31, 2008, through August 30, 2009, as resembling a can of marbles that gets dumped onto the floor, collected and put back into the can, only to be dumped out again. (The good news is that they're all in the can again, and I think I've found a pretty good lid).

From being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder last fall to losing a job I'd worked hard at for nearly seven years when it and two others were eliminated this spring, my 30th year was ... tumultuous. Would I want to do it again? I don't know. Does the gift of hindsight make me appreciate the events of the past year? Certainly.

As such, I've decided to compile a list of 30 things I learned -- or was reminded of -- during my 30th year of life. I share these in no particular order, as this post is largely a "brain dump" of ideas that have been rolling around in my head.

☞ Being good to others without even thinking about it is a blessing to others and to yourself.

☞ There are two true tests of your character: How you behave when no one's looking, and how hard you work when you know it's largely unappreciated by those who control your professional fate.

☞ No matter how old you are, you're still someone's kid. And a hug from your mom can still fix a heck of a lot at any age.

☞ In the event of major and minor life catastrophes, your family will always sift through the rubble and help drag you out. (My family rocks!)

☞ A positive attitude is the best gift you can give yourself. Surrounding yourself with people who inspire, encourage and recognize your good attitude is a close second.

☞ You can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it. Ultimately, the part you control is the more important part anyway.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
-- Viktor Frankl

☞ Trust your instincts. If you think something is off, it probably is.

☞ Financially, live like you could lose your job at any time ... because, well, you could. A healthy savings account and a low amount of debt will prove highly valuable if your income suddenly disappears.

☞ If you're diagnosed with a disorder -- particularly one that could affect your work, life and relationships -- devote yourself to learning about it. Read everything you can on the subject, especially the most practical and accessible books. Learn about the problematic behaviors to which you may be predisposed and how you can minimize them, but also determine how you actually can harness the disorder's typical effects and turn them into advantages. Also, recognize that those who have been or may be affected by the disorder's effects on you deserve an explanation, so explain and/or apologize as needed, but never use your disorder as an excuse. Do not exist under a shroud of secrecy and silence; it will only stress you out in the end.

☞ Sometimes, a typically devastating event -- like, say, losing your job -- can turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.

☞ Not having a job can provide a huge boost to your career if you use the time wisely.

☞ Good friends are a cure-all (especially good friends who'll share a bottle of wine with you. ha!).

☞ There's no substitute for good customer service. Its impact can be deep.

☞ Diplomacy does not make you a phony.

☞ A benefit of being sincere and truthful is that you never have to worry about remembering what you said to whom. The clear conscience is the best part, though.

☞ A true friendship is one that seemingly ended abruptly and badly years ago but somehow manages to pick right back up in its best place when you see that old friend again.

☞ The smallest thing can make someone's day in a major way.

☞ Being bitter takes far more energy than being gracious. Besides, being gracious is more fun than being bitter because it drives the people who expected -- or perhaps even wanted -- you to be bitter completely nuts.

☞ When you take the time to mentor young people, you'll most likely see them become high achievers, and you'll probably even receive sincere thanks from them. And it feels amazing.

☞ Being an adult does have its privileges. The option to have ice cream for dinner is my favorite of those.

☞ The most amazing people in your life might be the ones you originally found in the most unexpected places. (You know who you are!)

☞ Flying isn't that scary after all. (And now that I realize that, I'm making the most of it!)

☞ Look out for yourself; you're the only one who's obligated to do so.

☞ If you feel that someone in a position of power has painted a bullseye on your back, don't write that feeling off. It's real. And the more that person unsolicitedly tells you that you're paranoid, the more real it is, But don't crack. Continue to do good work and be pleasant. You'll feel better about yourself in the end.

☞ People who have reputations as being kind, fun and reasonable are capable of being quite the opposite, especially if you see through it and they know it.

☞ Buzzwords and corporate-speak do nothing to enhance your credibility.

☞ Everything happens for a reason. Everything. Don't question it; just roll with it. You'll be a better person for it.

☞ Self-awareness is highly underrated, but dedicate yourself to it anyway. However, don't obsess over it, or you'll drive yourself and everyone else crazy.

☞ Recognizing your natural talents and limitations and acting accordingly is wise and brave. Don't let anyone tell you it means you're not ambitious; in fact, the people who tell you it means you're not ambitious are probably in over their heads at jobs that they hate.

☞ If you take care of/help others when you're in a position to do so, you'll find that the universe "has your back" when you're the one who needs help ... especially if you weren't thinking about that when you were doing your good deeds.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My Bob Dylan moment

Come gather 'round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin', then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

I had my Bob Dylan/"The Times They Are A-Changin'" moment yesterday. And it was surprisingly bearable.

Yesterday, for the first time in the last 14 Augusts, the start of Central Michigan University's academic year held no significance for me (aside from the fact that it was the first one that held no significance for me, of course).

I moved to Mount Pleasant, Mich., in August 1996. I was a 17-year-old (almost 18-year-old) freshman on a full academic scholarship. I still remember more things about that day than I should: Being the first one to arrive in my room. Getting antsy about getting my parents out of there so I could have MY room (and then feeling a bit lonely when they did leave). Playing The Refreshments' "Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy" as soon as I was alone -- the first CD to be played on my stereo in my room. Smelling roofing tar nearly constantly for the first several weeks (and the smell still takes me back). Having a room phone number that spelled a farm animal's name and therefore getting plenty of prank calls, beginning five minutes into my residency. You get the idea. I remember it really, really well.

And something amazing happened in the years that followed: I became a part of a community that I didn't want to leave. While most of my fellow May 2000 CMU graduates went to lunch or dinner after graduation and then stopped by their apartments to retrieve the already-packed U-Haul and get the heck out of dodge, my family and I moved the last of my things into my own apartment across town, and I prepared to start graduate school in the fall.

In August 2000 and 2001, I was in graduate school and was serving as an instructor at CMU. In August 2002, I began working full time in the university's public relations and marketing office (where I'd also worked as a student) right around the start of the academic year (in fact, last Wednesday would have been my seven-year anniversary). In August 2005, I started my first academic year in a new role in the office, having become assistant director of media relations the month before, and each August after that brought the traditional flood of meetings, welcome-back preparations and an overall flurry of activity that occurs when your job largely involves working with faculty.

But this August was/is/has been different, as the elimination of my job earlier this spring has, in essence, made me "just another Mount Pleasant resident." And while it's pretty weird to not be in the start-of-the-academic-year mix after having it be a part of my life for nearly a decade and a half, I'm okay with it. I had no meetings or after-hours mixers to attend last week. I didn't leave my apartment on Thursday -- the always-crazy move-in day -- because I didn't have to (which was really, really nice; I'm not going to lie!). I could hear the sounds of the annual MAINstage concert Sunday night, but instead of thinking, "Yep, this means the madness begins tomorrow!," I relaxed on the couch and relished the thought of a Monday morning completely under my control.

I'm not upset or angry about the changing of the times, nor am I letting myself be stuck in the past that could so easily have consumed me. I feel as though I've accepted it all with a certain sense of grace and perspective. Jesus Jones captured that sentiment in a song that, coincidentally, mentions Mr. Dylan:

A woman on the radio talked about revolution
when it's already passed her by
Bob Dylan didnt have this to sing about
You know, it feels good to be alive

I was alive and I waited, waited; I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Guest blogging excitement!

I know ... it seems odd that I'll be guest blogging elsewhere when my own blog has been a bit neglected as of late. Fear not; posts are cooking for right here in this very spot, too!

At any rate ... I kind of feel like this right now:

No, really. It's an honor and a pleasure to announce that I'll soon be featured as a guest blogger on two excellent blogs run by fantastic colleagues from the communications and social media realm:

"The Buzz Bin": Musings and analysis on marketing, buzz, PR and Washington, DC
Blogger: Geoff Livingston, whom I met in June when I attended his fantastic BlogPotomac social media marketing (un)conference in Falls Church, Va.

"Mengel Musings -- Socially Acceptable": Thoughts on communications, marketing, PR and social media
Blogger: Amy Mengel, whom I met in May when we were in Chicago for Ragan Communications' first-ever Social Media un-Conference and Brainstorming Summit; we had the chance to meet up again at BlogPotomac over the summer.

In addition, strategic communications advisor Dave Van de Walle of Area 224 in Chicago has invited me to contribute to a special vlogging project that I can't tell you too much about just yet, other than that I think it's going to be pretty neat!

Big thanks go to Geoff, Amy and Dave for inviting me into their respective spaces to share my thoughts!

I'll post links to these posts and projects when they go live.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

"Independence is a precious thing indeed."

The quote above, which was tweeted this morning by the fabulous, witty and brilliant Amber Naslund (you Twitter types will know her as @AmberCadabra) of Altitude Branding and Radian6, who I've had the good fortune of meeting and getting to know in the last couple of months, seemed simple enough at first read. But then it inspired me to sit down and hammer out a few thoughts today, Independence Day 2009.

Interestingly, Independence Day comes just a few days after I began my third month of unemployment.

In many meaningful ways, this summer has been the most independent period of my life. For the first time in a long time, I don't answer to an alarm clock; a dress code; bosses; a monstrous, color-coded to-do list; or anything else. I answer to myself, and to the people with whom I choose to associate at this point in time.

Despite the lack of people and things to which to answer, a strange thing is happening: I'm getting up earlier than I ever did when I had to set an alarm, I'm being productive, I'm learning skills that will make me more attractive to prospective employers and I'm getting things done without needing a to-do list.

And even though I'm living on far less money than I'm accustomed to, I feel like I have such a rich life right now. I've had more time to spend with friends and family, so many of whom have reached out generously to be sure I'm taken care of and enjoying myself; I've gotten to travel out of state three times in the last two months (on the cheap every time, thanks to banking-points freebies, an eye for bargains and a skill set that provides me with fodder for bartering) for a combination of business and pleasure each time; I've attended three -- yes, three -- professional conferences (as compared to the one I attended in nearly seven years in my previous job); and I've learned the joys and benefits of sale ads, coupons, stock-up sales, the "scanner law" and even polite haggling.

Yes, that's right. What could have been the most oppressive, distressing, financially dismal, personally and professionally unproductive, and downright crummy time of my life has instead turned out to perhaps be the best thing that's ever happened to me. So, while today is officially Independence Day for our nation, I suppose I've been celebrating "Independence Days" of my own since May 1.

What independence are you celebrating?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Organizational culture often needs a good Zap(po)

If you've ever worked for an organization that you thought could use a shot of culture (and not of the "let's all go to the theatre" variety), you're probably beyond envious when you hear the true stories of the incredible corporate culture and resulting positive morale at Zappos.

Currently unemployed following a reorganization that led to my position and two others in my office being eliminated, I've had time to reflect on the importance of organizational culture and identify some desirable qualities for the culture of my next employer. (Perhaps this is just as ridiculous as those lists of "must-have attributes" that people often make when thinking about their future mate, but I can live with that).

My list of organizational desirables, which is inspired by Zappos, by my life experiences and by wise words from friends and family:

Empowerment. How many times has a manager told you to "innovate" but then slapped you on the wrist for "experimenting" with new techniques or technologies? Or asked you to complete a project but then looked over your shoulder the entire time as if you were not bright enough to handle it (and perhaps even changing his or her mind about what was desired in the first place once you've gotten the whole thing done)? Or asked you to prepare a report for the company's executives but not given you the opportunity to present that work (and maybe taking credit for it him/herself in the process)? If you're like most people, you probably read those questions and thought, "Geez ... more times than I can even count!" A culture of empowerment is, for all intents and purposes, the exact opposite of the scenarios I just described.

Just last night, I had a conversation with my friend Tim, a high-level executive at a major telecommunications company, about his management style. In a nutshell, Tim is every employee's dream manager and, undoubtedly, has made immeasurably positive contributions to the culture of his company. The abridged version of his strategy: To surround himself with the right team of bright, capable people ("probably even smarter than I am!" he says); to identify team members' strengths and play to those strengths when assigning responsibilities; to trust that his team members know how to do what they need to do (but supportively and non-condescendingly address their questions and concerns when they arise); and to allow the members of his team to present their own work, even if it means putting them in front of a panel of his fellow executives. In other words, the members of Tim's team know they are trusted and valued members of the organization ... and they feel empowered to do their jobs without fear, to make decisions as appropriate, and even to take some calculated risks and try some new strategies.

Collaboration. How can you feel like you're part of a team if no one ever brings you in on the "game plan?" When an organization operates in a top-down fashion 100 percent of the time, it's hard for employees to feel like they have any stake in the organization, as everything feels like an order rather than something they helped create. Certainly, there are many occasions when a top-down approach is warranted (especially when you're talking about personnel decisions, the specifics of budgets, etc.), but it's not always the best way, especially when you're talking about setting goals, defining values, planning projects and other initiatives in which success depends almost entirely on employee enthusiasm and buy-in.

Direction. A mission. A vision. Core values. Clear expectations. Positive reinforcement when warranted. Corrective action at the first sign of a problem (rather than letting mistakes add up and then blindsiding an employee with a slew of negative feedback). A leader who gets to know the organization and its employees and guides the organization based on what s/he recognizes as needs of the organization and its constituents and based on an understanding of what each employee brings to the table. Managers who ask for what they actually want and are there to assist employees through the process as needed without anyone ever having to feel foolish for asking for clarification.

I look at it this way: You wouldn't hop in the car and head to a new destination without looking at a map and/or programming your GPS. Who knows where you'd end up?! Working for an organization with good direction is like driving a car with a good GPS unit -- and with your "side destinations" along the way mapped out before you hit the road. If you go off course, the GPS will immediately (and quite politely!) put you back on the right path before you go too far astray. And you never have to feel foolish for programming that GPS to get you where you need to go or asking it to reprogram if you want to make an unplanned pit stop.

Flexibility. The reality of being a salaried employee just about anywhere is that there's no longer any such thing as an 8-to-5 workday. We're on call or "on duty" much of the time, due in large part to cell phones, laptop computers, etc. We're coming into work early and staying late, sometimes having only a couple hours of down time at home before it's time to go to bed to rest up for the next day. We're traveling for work, returning home at 2 a.m. and then being expected to be in bright and early (and productive and useful!) the next morning. People feel less able to take vacation time, even when they've earned it; the thought of trying to prepare yourself and your colleagues for any sort of extended absence is daunting, as is the dreaded feeling of returning to literally hundreds of e-mails and a pile of new projects when you return. Oh, and you have to be dressed up while doing all of this.

But what if your supervisor told you to take the morning off after a long business trip -- without having to use up vacation time to do it? Or if you were at the office until after dark and your supervisor encourages you to head out a couple hours early the next day? Or if you had a "casual Friday" program in which employees could pay a couple of dollars for the opportunity to dress down on Fridays, and all of the money went to a charitable organization? Sounds nice, doesn't it?! And with employees working at all hours, some flexibility in scheduling, dress code, etc. could make the all-important work/life balance a bit more achievable.

Commitment and ownership. It is amazing how quickly you can tell whether an organization has a strong sense of employee commitment and ownership (two things that often are a byproduct of empowerment, collaboration, direction and flexibility, I'd argue). It can be found in the sincerity of a response when you ask someone how they like working at his or her job ... or the things s/he chooses to highlight when you ask what s/he likes about the job ... or in the morale (or lack thereof) you sense if you visit the workplace ... or in the tweets or Facebook status updates of the employees. I feel like I've developed a "sixth sense" about this as of late, and I definitely know what to look for in a potential future employer.

One of the things on which I prided myself most in my last job was my commitment to what I was doing. I often was the first one in and the last one out. People said I was crazy, but I kept my eyes on the difference that my contributions made to the clients I was serving, to the institution I was serving and to the institution's various constituents. Can you imagine an organizational culture in which everyone was like that (instead of your enthusiasm for your work making you "weird" or someone who "tries too hard")?

(And before accusing me of being out of touch, being too idealistic, speaking with a sense of entitlement, etc., please realize that I write from the "in a perfect world ..." perspective based on eight years in the workforce ... and based on what I know an organization's culture can be, what its employees can strive for, and what kind of impact a solid organizational culture can have on customers'/constituents' experiences and satisfaction).


So, how can I really, truly figure all of this out, learn how to identify it and make it work ... both for me and for my next employer?

What I'm hoping for -- and the impetus for this blog entry -- is to earn a scholarship to Zappos Insights LIVE, a two-day company-culture boot camp at Zappos HQ. It is a nearly $5K opportunity, and Zappos will accept only a 22 people into the program, including two individuals on full scholarships. What can I promise if I am selected:

• A promise to myself and to those I love that I will use this opportunity to ponder and refine my list of "must haves" based on what is and, perhaps, isn't practical in a corporate culture. Is there really a better way to do this than by learning from the leaders of a company known far and wide for its culture and core values (and the outstanding customer service that can surely be attributed to Zappos' approach)?

• A promise to myself and my future employer that I will learn from the Zappos experience and the experiences of my past and will combine them to implement a "taste of Zappos" wherever I may work. That is, if I'm fortunate to work somewhere with a strong corporate culture (which is likely, given my list!), I'll find ways to leverage the existing culture and enhance it, no matter where I rank within the organization ... and if I end up somewhere that doesn't have the strongest organizational culture, employee morale, etc., I will take what I've learned and do everything in my power to improve it and inspire change from within the organization ... even working from the ground up if need be.

Simply put, applying for this Zappos Insights LIVE experience is a commitment to excellence on my part -- a commitment that, I hope, will turn any organization in which I work into one known for its outstanding customer service and for being a most desirable place to work. (And don't worry, Zappos ... I promise I won't go into the shoe biz!).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Today marks two months since my last day of work ...

... and all the positivity I felt about my future soon after learning that my job was being eliminated is still holding true.

And just what does that positivity consist of?

To find out, read this guest post that I wrote for Rachel Esterline's blog in March.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Like it or not, front-line employees = brand ambassadors

In my recent travels to various conferences and workshops on PR, marketing, social media and the like, I've heard a recurring message ... and seen it in action:

Your front-line employees are your brand ambassadors and your most visible public relations tools. They constantly interact with your customers, and, to those customers, are the "face of the company" more than any executive or spokesperson ever has been or will be.

And guess what? Putting the right people versus the wrong people into those positions as visible public relations tools is just as critical as picking the right tool for a job. A grumpy, unprofessional front-line employee can collapse a customer's image of your brand just as quickly as a wrecking ball sent to the wrong location can knock down a home you've painstakingly been working to build for years.

In other words, don't send in a wrecking ball when a carefully wielded hammer and nails are actually what is needed.

Nothing illustrated this better than my recent experience flying to the Washington, D.C., area for Geoff Livingston's fabulous BlogPotomac social media marketing conference.

As a bit of background, I should mention that my flight to our nation's capital was my first major commercial flight in more than 10 years, due in large part to the fact that I'd long been terrified of flying, thanks to the combined effects of my fear of heights and my irrational fear of airplane crashes. As you can imagine, I was a bit reluctant to hop on a plane and knew I'd need to have a pretty good experience on the first leg of my trip in order to feel comfortable with the rest of the trip.

That's exactly what happened ... at first, anyway. The Delta Air Lines flight operated by Northwest Airlines that took me from MBS airport to Detroit offered exactly what I needed: A pleasant flight attendant and a smooth, quick flight into DTW. I had absolutely no trepidation about boarding my DTW-to-Dulles flight, also a Delta-via-Northwest flight. Things were looking good for this flight, too, until the flight attendant was on and off the phone several times after making the requisite safety announcements. When she reopened the cabin door, I looked at the guy next to me and said, "I haven't flown in awhile, but I know that door isn't supposed to open once it's closed. This can't be good."

And it wasn't.

Our flight attendant came onto the PA and announced, "So ... we're WAY over weight on this plane. We're going to have to ask some of you to get off, but I don't know how many yet. I'll let you know."

Everyone kind of looked at each other, clearly thinking, "Well, that wasn't much of an explanation."

Moments later, a woman who'd been working in the gate area came onto the plane to make an announcement about what was happening.

"As you know, this plane is over weight. We need SIX of you to get off. We will do whatever we need to to accommodate you."

(By the way, this was only about a 26-person plane, so six was a pretty high number).

"When's the next plane?" several people asked, echoing the thought in my own head.

"We don't know that yet," the woman said quite curtly and unapologetically. "You'll have to get off, and then we'll figure it out."

Time out.

Wouldn't it have been logical to check on the next available flight before coming onto the plane and trying to get people to voluntarily delay themselves? Seems like common-sense customer service to me.

Miraculously, a few people volunteered, but I noticed it wasn't going to be enough.

Meanwhile, the woman and the flight attendant lost track of how many people had gotten off the plane.

The woman disappeared off the plane and returned, still agitated.

"Look. More of you have to get off this plane. We'll give you a $300 flight voucher, meal vouchers, etc."

Someone else volunteered and got off the plane. Everyone else sat still.

(I should note that under normal circumstances, I probably would have gotten off the plane on the first call, but I had somewhere to be that night, shortly after my planned arrival time in northern Virginia — as well the conference to attend the next morning — so I couldn't risk not getting there. And since no one could tell us when the next plane was, that was exactly the risk I would have been taking).

Anyway, back to the plane ...

"PEOPLE. We are in a weight-critical situation here. Either two more of you have to get off this plane voluntarily, or I'll just start going down the (passenger) list, and then it'll be over," the woman practically barked at us.

That was my boiling point. Who talks to people that way?! It was obvious why she wasn't a flight attendant; that's for sure. I bit my lip, not wanting to draw attention to myself by asking the woman to soften her tone with us.

Assuming I'd be called first or second once she started going down the passenger list (since, you know, my last name is Allen), I braced for the worst.

Finally, after a few agonizing moments of everyone avoiding eye contact with the angry airline employee and each other, a couple agreed to get off the plane and we were allowed to take off.

I don't care how critical the situation is; you never talk to your customers that way. Ever.

And if you're going to ask your customers to sacrifice themselves and be inconvenienced, you need to do it kindly and come armed with the information you know they'll ask for. Had someone been able to pleasantly inform me that the next flight was in 30 minutes, I would have volunteered to be one of the six to exit the plane. Instead, I — a nervous enough traveler as it was — got to cower in my seat while being shouted at by an airline employee and hoping to not get booted from the plane.

"Friendly skies," eh?

Lesson learned: If your employees can't take the heat, don't put them in the kitchen. But don't put them in the dining room, either, because then they'll be interacting with your customers. But wait; that leaves ... well, nowhere. My point precisely.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Does the corporate approach to social media make sense?

I attended the Ragan Social Media UnConference and Brainstorming Summit May 8 in Chicago, which I haven’t yet blogged about (but you may want to check out these recaps from Rachel Esterline and Al Krueger for more on that).

An idea that was raised at the UnConference -- and that nearly prompted me to shout “Amen” -- was the notion that companies/organizations should be calling upon their social media-savvy employees (the younger ones, in many cases ... but certainly not all cases) to be the ones to take the lead on engaging the company in social media initiatives; training other employees how to use various social media tools; and attending conferences to learn more about business-oriented strategies for using the technologies with which they’re already familiar, as well as those about which they have yet to learn.

I agree completely. And think about it: Who hasn’t worked in an organization in which people are being sent to workshops to learn how to do “task X” or a new position is created to manage “task X” when there’s already someone in the organization who understands the finer points of said task and would be great at handling it as part of his or her duties, even if it meant perhaps shuffling around a few responsibilities to others in the organization to balance out the workload?

Some of the conversation at the UnConference also focused on the development of “social media policies” for employees, both in terms of how they use social media on the company’s behalf and how they use social media on their own. (For the curious, IBM and Intel were cited as specific examples of best practices in social media policy, and there are plenty of other social media policy examples on the NewPRWiki as well).

Since the last organization I worked for did not have a social media policy -- and the organization I worked for before that didn’t really need one, since social media had not yet become very pervasive -- I wasn’t terribly familiar with such policies, although the idea, in general, made sense to me. However, upon reflection, I realized that I had kind of had my own “social media policy” all along; I just referred to it as “common sense,” but, apparently, I am the exception and not the rule, which is why more and more organizations are developing formalized policies regarding social media use.

At any rate, this perspective ended up coming in handy when I had a conversation the other day with someone whose organization is in the process of developing a social media policy. However, it sounded to me like the policy was being developed by people who don’t use and/or really understand social media.

Wait, what?!?

People who don’t really understand the ins and outs of social media tools and, in fact, call upon their younger employees who are social media-savvy to explain things to them and others in the organization are creating a policy by which the people who actually understand the technology must abide? How does this make sense?

The answer: It doesn’t!

Just as the C-suite and managers should be tapping the existing skills and expertise of their employees who know these technologies and tools and calling upon them to be organizational champions for social media, they also should be consulting these individuals when developing social media policies.

Think about it this way: I know how to drive an automatic-transmission car (and I have a clean driving record, FYI). Does that mean I should be creating traffic laws? Writing users’ manuals for manual-transmission cars? Driving 18-wheelers? Of course not!

Developing social media policies in a vacuum makes no sense. How can the policy be effective if you haven’t consulted the people to whom it will actually apply? And I’m not saying the consultation should be of the “do you think this is fair?” variety; that would basically be letting the inmates run the asylum, as the old saying goes.

Rather, what I’m suggesting is a consultation that involves talking to the social media users to find out what tools and technologies they are using; how they are using them; what concerns they have about how they should be managing their own online presence, as well as the organization’s (if they’re being called upon to do so); if they have suggestions for potential policy items; etc. This single conversation could likely produce details regarding almost everything that should be included in an organization’s social media policy, including many things that the C-suite and managers perhaps did not even know about or understand.

And don’t you think the buy-in from existing employees would be much more likely if they feel like the policy’s creation was a collaborative process rather than executives quietly making a bunch of rules about something they don’t understand and then passing out a policy that does not really address relevant issues or, even worse, creates more confusion than it does clarity? (Then there’s the whole “approval from legal” issue -- another recurring theme at the UnConference -- but I’m not even going to touch that here ...).

The same sentiment applies to the creation of social media plans and strategies. Why not engage your social media “experts” in that process, since they’ll know the subtle tips, tricks and shortcuts to make your social media communication plans even more timely, relevant and effective ... plus, they’re the ones who will probably ending up executing the plans, so why not give them that sense of ownership?

While I’m very much a team player and pride myself on lacking that sense of entitlement that younger workers (hmm ... not even sure I qualify for that category anymore!) are so often accused of having, I am always frustrated when people who don’t necessarily understand my clients, my responsibilities, the politics of my clients’ situations, etc. laying out plans without my input and saying, “Here’s what you need to do and when you need to do it,” not realizing that the plan is completely impractical (which I could have told them if they’d consulted me before writing a plan in stone and committing to it).

For me, nothing illustrated this better than when I sat down at my computer yesterday to watch last week’s episode of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” which had somehow failed to record on my DVR.

In once scene, Tom Scavo returned home from a job interview, distraught that he had “become irrelevant.” He explained to his wife, Lynnette, that he got stumped in the interview by a question about “whether (he’d) used ‘Twittering’ as part of a marketing campaign.” While I was put off enough by that inaccurate reference -- since we all know the line should have been “Twitter” or “tweeting” -- the continuation of the dialogue was somewhat painful to watch. Clearly, it was not written by someone who uses -- or even fully understands -- Twitter.

Similarly, last week’s episode of TBS’s “My Boys” focused entirely on Facebook. While the references actually were all accurate, the problem with the episode is that it was terribly outdated, in my opinion. I remarked to someone that it was about 18 months too late. And I bet there is someone on the staff of that show who, if consulted, would have said, “Shouldn’t we be focusing this episode on Twitter instead? Or at least talking about more current Facebook-related topics (the new, never-ending stream of LivingSocial quizzes, perhaps? Or even the relatively recent ‘25 things about me’ flood? Terms of service controversy, anyone?)?”

And to be honest, these nails-on-a-chalkboard moments of social media on TV were what really spurred this blog entry: The notion of, “How can someone who doesn’t really get this stuff be the one who gets to write about it?!?” was just too overwhelming to let the opportunity pass without some comments, especially since the fictional, televised faux pas only served to reinforce the larger issue: Organizations are missing the social media boat by not consulting -- and subsequently empowering -- their potential social media champions and capitalizing on their knowledge and ideas to ensure relevance, timeliness and the all-important buy-in.

To follow my adventures in job searching, subscribe to this blog, follow me on Twitter and visit my Web site.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is looking for a job after a layoff like dating after a divorce?

After I wrote my guest post for “A Step Ahead,” Rachel Esterline’s blog, shortly after learning of my impending layoff, I had a concept for a second post that really rang true for me at the time and continues to do so now that I actually am laid off:

Losing your job is like getting a divorce, and looking for a new job in the aftermath of being laid off is like finding yourself back on the dating market again.

I know it sounds odd, but just think about it for a minute ...

  • You’re in a relationship (job) for a number of years, and while it has had its share of ups and downs, you’re content overall and don’t have any plans to end the relationship (quit your job), but then your spouse (employer) tells you it’s over.

  • You are stunned by the loss and must figure out where you’ll live, what life will be like on your new income, etc.

  • You find yourself alone (unemployed) and needing to re-enter the dating pool (job-seeking market). Since you’ve been in this relationship (job) for so long and didn’t expect it to end, you’re somewhat unfamiliar with the current dating scene (job-search process) and lack the stylish wardrobe, hairstyle, etc. (fancy portfolio, personal Web site, e-résumé, technical skills, etc.) to be an attractive potential mate (employee). The game has changed since you last had to play it.

  • You give yourself a bit of a makeover (building a Web site, creating a modern portfolio, reformatting your résumé, trying out some of the newest tools of your trade and becoming proficient with them, etc.) and start going to new hangouts (networking events, professional conferences, etc.) where you might meet new people (find new job leads).

  • You go on dates (interviews), and when you really like the person (job opportunity), you sit by the phone and await a call back for another date (second interview); if that does happen and the situation seems promising, you start thinking maybe this could lead to a proposal (a viable job offer) and marriage (acceptance of a job offer and the start of a new job or career).

I ran this concept, in its simplest form, by someone who is both divorced and a job-search/career development expert, and she enthusiastically agreed that the comparison is a valid one (although divorce and job loss are not the same; don’t think for a moment that that’s what I’m suggesting!), which made me feel like I could share it.

Personally, I’ve been in the “waiting by the phone” stage for awhile, since my last “date” was one I really liked. Unfortunately, I’ve heard through the grapevine that he was just not that into me, but he hasn’t yet called or dropped me a line to tell me so. It’s a shame, too, since we are old friends.

I also recently completed most of my “makeover,” doing a complete overhaul of my résumé, working with a friend to create my Web site, and securing letters of recommendation and organizing other materials for what I think will turn out to be a pretty fantastic portfolio.

So it’s back to “going to new hangouts” for now; in fact, I just did that this weekend, attending the Ragan Communications Social Media Un-Conference in Chicago, where I met lots of folks, collected many business cards and heard plenty of interesting discussion about the use of social media in public relations and marketing. Perhaps I’ve even met my next potential “date.”

To follow my adventures in job searching, subscribe to this blog, follow me on Twitter and visit my Web site.

Sunday, May 10, 2009