My Mentor, My Friend

Eighteen years ago I was just a couple of years into my career as a corporate communicator, having come from the newspaper business like so many communicators used to do. I was still learning what this business is all about and one of the ways I learned was by attending the programs of my local IABC chapter.

In those days my chapter had a tradition of inviting the vice-chairperson of IABC to speak at our January meetings. In 1991, that person was Lester R. Potter, ABC. He spoke about strategic communication. This was the first time I’d ever met Les, or even heard of him, but it didn’t take long for me to understand why he was such a rock star in IABC circles and beyond. With great humor and a deep-South accent that was homespun but sophisticated at the same time, Les taught me more about my new profession in 30 minutes than I had learned in three years. I knew this was somebody with whom I wanted to keep up.

Les_Potter_09I did, too. Our paths crossed at IABC district and international conferences. His by-line appeared on articles and books. And years later, when the time came that my team needed outside help to develop a strategic communication plan, Les was the person I called.

Les also was the first person I called when I unexpectedly lost my job in 2000. I decided almost immediately that the time was right for me to venture out on my own as a consultant. He had been down that road before, building a successful consulting practice from the ground up. He didn’t hesitate when I called him for advice. And that’s when a mentoring relationship began that has since turned into a deep, abiding friendship.

I’m fortunate to call Les my best friend now, but he was my mentor first and he remains my mentor today. We’ve shared hopes and heartaches, successes and setbacks over many cups of coffee and tea. We’ve planned together, worked together and played together. I can think of no more significant influence on my career than Les’s guidance. He has taught me how to do this work with purpose, passion and gratitude.

Now with more than 20 years of experience behind me, I’m at the point in my career where people sometimes ask me to mentor them. I try always to oblige, humbly and with a great sense of responsibility. Those of us who practice this profession are guardians of it as well. We owe it to our colleagues to share what we’ve learned along the way, to talk about the mistakes we’ve made and the victories we’ve earned.

Mentorship is communication at its best. It’s the art of storytelling. It’s a form of folklore, the passing along of wisdom from one generation to the next. There’s no room for pride or boastfulness in a mentoring relationship. Mentors are obligated to share their experiences, warts and all, so that their protégés might improve the profession a bit here and there. And protégés must be willing to admit shortcomings and be open to learning.

I drew the long straw when it comes to choosing mentors. I was reminded of just how blessed I am when I read this blog post from Les. It reflects the kind of man he is: wise, insightful, spiritual, grateful.

Whatever your profession, find a mentor — someone who is great at what they do, someone who willingly shares what they know, someone you can trust. Not only your career, but your life will be richer for it.

Not Just Potty Talk

Since the Commonwealth of Virginia’s announcement a few weeks ago that it’s closing 18 highway rest stops, the potty jokes have been pretty much non-stop. My favorite is from one of my Facebook friends who suggested the famous “Virginia Is For Lovers” tourism slogan should be changed to “Virginia: Hold It or Go Around.”

It really is no laughing matter. Tourism is one of Virginia’s biggest industries, generating nearly $19 billion in visitor spending in 2007 and supporting 210,000 jobs. Creating a sense of welcome and travel comfort is an important part of any state’s tourism marketing effort. Virginia, which owns one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time with “Virginia Is For Lovers,” usually does a great job of making visitors feel welcome.

Closing the rest stops might save Virginia $9 million a year in these recession-racked times, but what is the cost to the state’s tourism industry, not only in real dollars but also in terms of public relations? What kind of message does it send to potential visitors? The Virginia Tourism Corporation touts the fact that every $1 spent in tourism marketing generates $5 in tax revenue for the state. Rest stops as marketing vehicles is not just potty talk. You could say it hits people where it hurts the most, at least on the highway.

Meanwhile, Texas is adding free Wi-Fi and Internet kiosks at all 98 rest stops in the state. Ironically, this announcement comes on the heels of news that Virginia overtook Texas to once again claim the #1 spot in CNBC’s ranking of top states for business. That ranking might be in jeopardy if the welcome mats to the state’s bathrooms stay rolled up.

The little things really do mean a lot when it comes to public relations. The message communicated by Virginia in this example is mixed: “We’re glad you’re here. Make yourself comfortable — but go behind that tree, will you?”

Family History

A trip to Lynchburg, Va., last week to conduct focus groups for a client led to a serendipitous revelation about my ancestors. A fact that had lain dormant, there for the taking, led me to a new appreciation for the Hollands who came before me.

It was an overnight trip, so I decided at the last minute to drive 20 minutes down the road to the town of Bedford. My father was born there and it’s the place my family visited to see grandparents when my sisters and I were growing up. Bedford is a beautiful, idyllic town that sits at the feet of the Peaks of Otter, twin mountains in the Blue Ridge range. We could see the Peaks out the kitchen window of my grandparents’ house.

I visited the burial places of my grandparents, an aunt, two great-aunts and my great-grandparents. Though I never met him, I feel a kinship to great-grandfather William Robert because I imagine my uncle Robert took his name from him and that it was passed along to me.

When I came home the next day, I pulled out a family tree one of my great-aunts had created before she died. Lucy spent a lot of time tracing our direct line all the way back to Peter Holland, born around 1686 in England before coming to America sometime around the turn of the 18th century. But her research didn’t tell us where in England Peter lived and why he came here.

My 17-year-old son Max found the answers to those questions with a few mouse clicks. Peter came from Cheshire, England, home to a whole bunch of Hollands, and he came to America in 1699 as an indentured servant. Max also discovered that Peter’s son Charles and his wife died around 1767, leaving nine orphans (including my ancestor Stephen, who was just 7 at the time) in the care of church wardens.

There is much more to the story of how this line of Hollands moved from eastern Virginia westward and eventually to settle in Bedford. My dad has told me more recent family history: how my grandfather Arle ran away from home at age 16 because his father prohibited him from seeing a girl (it would distract him from chores on the farm), how he lied about his age to go to work on the railroad, and how that experience led him to the coal mines of West Virginia, where my dad grew up. I know about my grandfather being permanently disabled in a slate fall in the mines and how he kept working a variety of jobs despite constant pain.

I’ve passed these stories on to my sons. It’s important to know where you come from. It helps you understand who you are.

The same is true in business organizations. Smart companies understand the power of storytelling. They know how stories give us a sense of belonging and an appreciation of the stock (the non-financial kind) from which the company is built. Storytelling in organizations is worth the time. Stories look back on the past in order to build determination and commitment for the future.

I’ve worked for companies that use storytelling well. The rich history of AT&T gave employees a deep sense of pride. Similarly, its spinoff Lucent Technologies told stories of the brilliant minds that occupied Bell Labs, where the transistor was invented. At Capital One, CEO Rich Fairbank loves to tell the story of how he and co-founder Nigel Morris were turned down by every big bank except one, Signet Bank, which decided to take a chance on their innovative ideas for marketing credit cards.

Now, as a consultant, I work with numerous clients that harken back to challenges they have faced down through the years in order to inspire the sheer will and determination to make it through new difficulties.

There’s something invigorating about knowing your past. I think about Peter Holland and the sacrifice he made to get here. I think about his grandson Stephen and how, despite being orphaned, he propagated the family line (he and his wife Judith had 12 children, including my ancestor Charles Thomas Holland, born the year Thomas Jefferson was elected president). I think about my grandfather Arle and how his multiple injuries and disabilities didn’t keep him from lacing up his boots and going to work every day.

What stories are your companies telling and how might they help employees navigate these troubled times?

Trouble on Aisle 1

Having a great reputation in the community and being a local legend among businesses don’t protect you from the ravages of the rumor mill. Just ask the Ukrop family of Richmond, Va.

Ukrop’s is a family-owned grocery store chain with an ardent following. For loyal patrons, shopping there is not so much a household chore as it is a social event. The company is deeply embedded in the community, sponsoring a number of civic and cultural events. It has been recognized nationally as a great place to work. For many years, Ukrop’s staved off major regional and national grocery chains to remain the top food seller in the Richmond market. And it did so despite being closed on Sundays and refusing to sell alcoholic beverages — counter-intuitive decisions rooted in the Ukrop family’s beliefs and values.

The most recent rankings of grocers’ market shares, however, revealed trouble on Aisle 1. Ukrop’s fell to the #2 position. Then, just a few days later, a local blog reported that the Ukrop family was looking for someone to buy the business. The rumor made the rounds on local social-media outlets and even made it into the newspaper, although the reporter was careful to note the speculative nature of the information. Ukrop’s offered no public comment.

After the story appeared in the newspaper, company president Bobby Ukrop sent a short note to employees in an attempt to restore calm and dispel the rumors. The newspaper posted the note on its website. Comments on blogs and on the newspaper’s website dismissed the note and speculation continues to run rampant.

As of this writing, a cornerstone of the Richmond business community is showing some cracks. It’s an interesting real-time case study in public relations that already offers some valuable lessons:

  • “No comment” doesn’t work in the age of social media. In fact, “no comment” didn’t work very well in the age of traditional media, but it really fails today. Early on, at the first rumblings of rumors, Ukrop’s should have decided how it would engage the community and the media — including local bloggers. Engagement does not allow for “no comment.” You can engage without saying much: “We’re aware of the speculation out there concerning the future of our business. We don’t respond to rumors. We choose instead to focus on serving our customers.”
  • Be careful what you say. Many commenters on local media outlets are calling for Ukrop’s to say something — either to deny the rumors of its pending sale outright or to acknowledge that it might happen. From a business management standpoint, there is probably good reason for Ukrop’s not to say anything of substance. If the company is engaged in negotiations, public comments could negatively affect the deal. The company has nothing to gain by denying or confirming rumors at this point and there are ways to engage the public and employees without adversely affecting a possible business transaction.
  • Let your fans do the talking. Loyal Ukrop’s customers and employees are just as active on blogs and news websites as critics. Of course, they don’t officially represent the company, nor do they claim to, but they jump to the company’s defense against critics. Creating a devoted following is one thing Ukrop’s has done well over the years through great customer service and by nurturing a generally positive work culture. Now those practices are paying off.
  • Say something to employees. Bobby Ukrop tried to calm employees and dismiss the rumors in a memo to employees. It is not exactly a shining example of employee communications. He acknowledges that rumors are swirling, but then makes a huge misstep: “Anything I say at this point would just add fuel to fire. For example, I could say that, yes, other companies are interested in buying Ukrop’s. But, the truth is that there have always been companies interested in buying us, so there’s nothing new here. So, I’m not going to comment on rumors…” Well, he just did. Instead, Ukrop should have simply acknowledged the existence of rumors and then immediately refocused attention on the company’s priorities. On the positive side, Ukrop commits to informing employees first if there is anything to say about the company’s direction.
  • Don’t expect to control the message. Business leaders want to try to control information, which is one of the reasons so few embrace social media. The truth is, however, that they never had control of information and never will. In the age of social media, the name of the game is engagement. Engage in the conversations about your company where it makes sense. Assess the risks and benefits of saying something publicly, even if you really say nothing at all. At some point, however, accept that the conversation will take place whether or not you are part of it. The rumor mill is as old as time — and time marches on in spite of it.

And Now For Something Really Important

I don’t use this blog for blatantly commercial reasons. Sure, I hope readers will get a sense of who I am and what my work is all about and think of me when they could use the skills and expertise I offer. But really this blog is commercial free.

I’m making an exception in this entry, but I hope you’ll stick with me. You see, what I’m plugging here is vitally important.

In April, the life of one of my dearest friends changed suddenly and forever. Faith called me early one morning and said she needed my help. She had not been feeling well for quite a while, went to an urgent-care facility and they told her to go directly to the emergency room of a local hospital. And they told her she shouldn’t drive herself because she was seriously anemic.

I stayed with Faith all day while doctors and nurses came and went, taking blood samples, asking questions, giving her fluids and blood transfusions in an effort to keep her strong. A few days later, she received the diagnosis everyone dreads: cancer. Specifically, Faith is fighting Hodgkin’s disease, a type of blood cancer that spreads through the lymphatic system.

I won’t share too many details about the road Faith has traveled since then. Anyone who knows someone with cancer understands how difficult this disease and its treatments can be — and the personal nature of the fight. Suffice it to say that Faith is a courageous and determined young woman. She is nearly halfway through her chemotherapy regimen and she is winning this battle. The chemo is doing its work.

What’s more impressive to me is how Faith has decided to engage the enemy. She has faced it head-on. She follows the doctor’s orders that have led to significant changes to her diet and her daily routines. She has educated herself on the disease because knowing your enemy is one of the first steps to defeating it. And, like many other cancer patients, she has used her experience for greater good. Faith has formed a team of friends and family who are raising funds for cancer research through the Light the Night Walk that takes place this fall. It’s sponsored by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Faith’s Hope Team is well on its way to its goal of raising $5,000 for cancer research.

I’m a member of Faith’s Hope Team. I’ll be walking on October 29 in honor of my friend who has enriched my life so much. I invite you to sponsor me in this walk and help me surpass my personal fundraising goal of $350. Visit my page on the Faith’s Hope Team website. It’s easy to make a donation.

Faith is living proof of the value of research into causes and treatments of blood cancers. I hope you’ll help me honor my friend this way.

Don’t Blow Your Chance

I used to get worked up over meeting someone for the first time. That old axiom that you only get one chance to make a first impression was tucked into the corners of my mind and controlled my actions in mishievous ways: fumbled words, cracking voice and awkward mannerisms.

I still get nervous about introductions, but I’ve learned to control it  mostly by thinking ahead about what I will say, paying more attention to the other person and relying on social skills and experience I’ve accumulated over the years.

Professional communicators would do well to adopt the same strategy when it comes to writing headlines, teasers and leads for our work. Think ahead about what we want to say, pay attention to our audience and rely on our skills and experience.

If we did, we wouldn’t produce drivel like this subhead from a recent press release annoucing the merger of two global consulting firms:

Combined Company Positioned for Sustainable Growth and Profitability with a Broader Portfolio and Wider Geographic Footprint

This jargon-laden statement could have been written about any merger anywhere in the world. It says nothing. It’s lazy. It’s unimaginative. It leaves a poor first impression. My guess is that few people wanted to read further, fearing they might stumble over a stray mission statement or vision.

Contrast that subhead with this teaser for an intranet story written by one of my colleagues. The story, frankly, was a fairly routine account of an annual awards dinner, but check out how the writer draws readers into it (I replaced some names for the sake of propriety):

SVP Jane Smith’s closing remarks: “Just over a year ago, I was outside the XYZ Companies, looking in. Let me tell you what I saw…”

I can imagine employees reading this teaser and thinking, “Tell us! Tell us what you saw, Jane Smith! We want to know how we look to the outside world.” It’s a short, fairly simple subhead, but it gets the job done. The writer picked out just the right thing to say (a senior vice president delivered some unique insight about the company), put herself in the audience’s place (what would compel them to read the piece?) and relied on her skills and experience to write a compelling 25-word introduction.

You have limited opportunities to make good first impressions on your audiences. Don’t blow your chance.

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