Behold, the Power of the Internet

Something simple yet interesting happened last week that proves, once again, the power of the Internet as a communication/networking/marketing tool.

I noticed a spike in the number of visitors to this blog last week. A big spike. This caught my eye because I had not posted a new entry in the 24 hours prior to the spike.

Then I noticed that most of the visitors were coming to this blog from “Writing Boots,” the wonderfully written blog of my friend David Murray. So I e-mailed David to find out what gives.

Turns out that marketing guru Seth Godin had linked from his blog to David’s. As a result, instead of the usual hundreds of visitors to “Writing Boots,” David saw his numbers swell to 10,000 last Friday.

And since David is kind enough to include my blog on his blogroll, I enjoyed an increase in visitors as well.

It’s a crazy, mixed up, highly networked world we live in.

Is Proving Our Worth Paying Off?

The Great Recession has ravaged many organizations and many lives. Everybody knows people who have lost their jobs in the last year. Some reports say the job market is likely to be difficult for some time.

But something seems different about this recession. As I look around, I don’t see the wholesale slashing and burning of communication jobs that has occurred in previous downturns. At least, communication jobs don’t seem to be faring any worse than those of other professions.

One indicator that the suffering might not be as bad this time around is the fact that my friend Ned Lundquist has had no problem filling his weekly “Job of the Week” newsletter with openings in a variety of communication fields.

Please don’t misunderstand: I know many out-of-work communicators. I know a great number of companies, agencies and nonprofits have eliminated jobs in corporate communications, public relations and marketing — just as they have eliminated jobs in sales, finance, human resources, manufacturing and most other sectors.

I don’t want to downplay or minimize the pain many of my communication colleagues are experiencing. It is real.

However, I recall previous economic downturns in which it seemed some organizations cut their communication departments to the bare bones. For example, I remember when George Allen was governor of my home state of Virginia, he ruthlessly eliminated many public affairs positions. Clearly, communication was not one of his priorities.

I just wonder if we haven’t turned a significant corner in the life of our profession. Perhaps all the work in trying to prove our worth in the last 10 to 15 years is beginning to pay off. Maybe all the effort to align our work to the bottom line has been worth it.

Could it be that business leaders now realize they really can’t live without the value communication professionals add to their organizations? What’s your take?

Nuts on the Flying Squirrels

I love Richmond, Va. Really I do. Last weekend’s Richmond Folk Festival just reinforced my love for the city that much more.

But sometimes this city’s hang-ups just drive me nuts.

I use the word nuts on purpose. You see, a Class AA minor league baseball team recently moved to Richmond (don’t get me started on how the city lost the AAA Richmond Braves to Gwinnett, Ga.) and the new team’s name is the Flying Squirrels.

Yes, the Flying Squirrels. That was the winner among the other finalists: Rhinos, Flatheads, Hambones, Rock Hoppers and Hush Puppies. That was the best the new ownership team could do after having a contest in which fans could submit names. Oh, and CNBC submitted the name Hush Puppies. I guess they felt that would be an improvement on the others.

Flying Squirrels is a stupid enough name, but here’s what really fluffs my tail. Team owners withdrew Hambones (a reference to Virginia hams) after complaints that the name is offensive to African-Americans. As the local newspaper described it, Hambones is a “foot-stomping, thigh-slapping dance brought here by enslaved West Africans and later performed at minstrel shows.” I’m sure that’s the first thing that pops into the average white person’s mind when Hambones is mentioned. Just another way to keep black folks down.

And as if that was not enough, a few days later came complaints that Flatheads is offensive to Native Americans. The intent was to honor a type of fish found in Richmond’s James River, but it seems there is a Native American reservation in Montana called Flat Head. Some Richmond area Native Americans could foresee a mascot dressed in ceremonial regalia rather than a mascot dressed as a fish.

This is one of Richmond’s worst traits. It can’t get past the ultra-sensitive feelings worn on too many sleeves. Everything has racial undertones. Everything is suspected to be a slap against the heritage of one group or another. Distrust reigns. And we get a baseball team named the Flying Squirrels.

Well, I’m thinking of protesting the selection of Flying Squirrels as the team’s name. It’s offensive to me because I hate squirrels. Squirrels are simply rats with good PR. Besides, I believe my ancestors hunted squirrels. To desecrate the name of game hunted by my ancestors is to disgrace my heritage.

Yeah. Come to think of it, maybe this city deserves a minor league team named the Flying Squirrels.

The Only Time Jargon Works

A few weeks ago I spoke to a group of job-seeking professionals about how to market themselves. One bit of advice I gave them is to avoid jargon in their written and spoken communications.

Afterward, one of the participants challenged me on that point. “I’m a tax accountant,” he said. “If I don’t use tax lingo with my peers, they won’t know what I’m talking about.”

That, my friends, is the only time it is appropriate to use jargon: when its absence would reduce clarity and understanding among your audience.

As I said to the tax accountant, my work is all about helping people and organizations communicate clearly. One of the greatest barriers to clear communication is the use of jargon. Ninety-nine percent of the time, jargon gets in the way of effective communication. And there is a more insidious side to jargon, too. Often, people use it in order to purposely obfuscate.

Once while preparing a presentation to a group of marketers about writing clear copy, I used this example from a website. The name has been changed to protect the guilty:

XYZ is a unique, patented software solution that addresses the problem of organizational disconnectedness. By automatically understanding enterprise activity in real time, XYZ enables employees throughout the organization to connect with one another on key topics and speeds the organization’s ability to solve problems and address issues.

That’s a lot of words to say this company’s software helps people talk about the stuff they need to talk about. There’s really not a lot of “there” there, so the copywriter used big words to cover that fact up. The message is not clear and not easily understood — but it sure sounds impressive.

Instead of relying on jargon to get your point across, think about these things before you write:

  • How would you say it to a neighbor at a backyard barbecue?
  • Does it really pass the “smell” test? Could you speak those words without cracking up?
  • What are you trying to hide by using big words and long sentences? An unclear message? A weak argument? Lack of confidence in what you’re saying?
  • Would people really get the point without you having to explain it to them?
  • Are you just trying to impress someone by using jargon? And if so, why?

If you eliminate jargon, people will easily understand what you’re trying to say and they’ll have a lot more respect for you (or your organization) for saying it clearly.

But, hey, if you work with a bunch of tax accountants and they know what the jargon means, go for it.

Richmond Folk Festival: Communication’s Essence

My favorite cultural/entertainment event of the year comes to Richmond, Va., this weekend. It’s the Richmond Folk Festival, now in its second year although the predecessor National Folk Festival ran here for three years.

I’m afraid when people hear the term “folk festival,” a lot of misconceptions pop into their minds. The Richmond Folk Festival is not a concert of Arlo Guthrie songs. It is not a latter-day version of Woodstock. It is not seminars about basket weaving. While each of these might have some relevance to folk arts, that’s not what the Richmond Folk Festival is all about.

To me, the Richmond Folk Festival is a celebration of the essence of communication.

What makes something a folk art is the fact that it has been shared within a culture, from one generation to the next, from one artist or performer or craftsperson to the next. With its transfer comes history, heritage, instructions for life, stories about ancestors, a sense of place and time and self.

So the nearly 200,000 people that will fill Richmond’s riverfront this weekend will witness musical and dance performances, see craft skills, hear stories, view art and sample foods that span the generations of peoples from all over the world. For example:

  • Khogzhumchu, who will perform xöömei, or throat-singing, one of the oldest vocal traditions in the world. It is unlike anything in western vocal music and it was largely unknown outside of the tiny Russian republic of Tuva until the 1990s. Khogzhumchu has never before performed in the United States.
  • La Gran Banda, a Colombian papayera band. The style combines the European municipal brass band tradition with the percussion instruments and African dance rhythms typical of the Colombian coastal region.
  • Lloyd Arneach, a Cherokee storyteller who learned the stories told by two of his uncles when he was growing up. Arneach’s ancestors hid in the remote hollows of the Great Smoky Mountains to avoid being forced to march on the “Trail of Tears” from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma. Much of the history and knowledge of Cherokee life was passed through storytelling.
  • Bluegrass innovator Jerry Douglas, who is perhaps best known for collaborating with T-Bone Burnett to create the soundtrack for the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? Five years ago, he was awarded the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists, the National Heritage Fellowship, by the National Endowment for the Arts.

And there is so much more. Korean dance. East African rumba. Piedmont blues. Cowboy poetry. Western music. Bluegrass gospel. Irish fiddle music. Old Regular Baptist singing. Klezmer. Not to mention folk arts like violin making, handmade household items, vintage fishing lures and decoys, handmade shawls and more. You will feel as if you’ve taken a whirlwind weekend trip around the world and experienced the best of dozens of cultures.

And all of these arts have survived because people kept them alive, passing the techniques and skills and stories from person to person — communicating in the most fundamental form.

If you are within driving distance of Richmond, Va., come to the Richmond Folk Festival on Friday night, Saturday or Sunday. It is well worth the trip.

Communication Best Practices — At Home

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a perilous place this world is in which to raise kids. The murder of four people – two of them teens — in a small college town just west of here was set against a backdrop of a dark musical subculture known as “horrorcore.” A teen who is close to us is also dealing with the consequences of some poor choices.

As the father of two teenage boys ages 17 and 13, I think about all the factors that add up to the their adolescent experiences. As someone who makes a living in communication, I believe it is near the top of the list. That frightens me because despite being a professional communicator, I know I don’t always practice it as well as I could. And I know I’m not alone.

If you want a glimpse into the communication taking place (or not) in America’s homes, just take a look at the people with whom and for whom you work. If your boss closes his door and fails to make herself available to you, chances are good that she’s closing the door on her husband or her daughter at home. If your co-worker refuses to share details about a project that you need in order to do your job well, chances are he’s refusing to share the details of his activities with his wife. If there are people in your office who primarily communicate with a demeaning tone or with sarcasm, I’d be willing to bet that’s how they communicate with their kids.

It’s no wonder, then, that half of all marriages end in divorce and so many kids go elsewhere to find acceptance and encouragement — often from people who don’t have their best interests at heart.

I know whereof I speak. Although I like to think my professional communication skills are fairly sharp, I know I haven’t always been a great communicator at home. I have no doubt my communication shortcomings contributed to my own divorce. I believe I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes.  For the sake of my sons, who live with me, I hope I have.

If I look at communication from the standpoint of my work, I can see some parallels that apply to my personal life. The communication advice I give to clients, to seminar audiences and to readers is easily transferable to my home:

  • Be genuine. I’m participating in a seminar at my church about parenting teenagers. This was one of the first principles we learned. In the business world, it’s essentially the same as “transparency.” Kids, like employees, can smell a phony a mile away. It’s difficult to gain the trust and respect of people who sense you are not being genuine in the things you say and how you say them. Being genuine requires a certain degree of vulnerability — something that business leaders as well as parents often find difficult. But it’s worth the risk because it helps build a foundation of trust.
  • Be available. I work from home, which is both a blessing and a curse. It enables me to be home nearly every day when my sons get home from school, but I admit it’s sometimes frustrating to be in the middle of writing a story or working on a communication plan when they walk in and want to talk about their days. But what a golden opportunity it is to communicate with them! I remind myself how important my availability is to them. Recently I conducted focus groups for a client and one of the chief complaints of employees was that their bosses weren’t available. Communication can’t happen if one party isn’t there.
  • Be engaged. Neither can communication happen if both parties aren’t engaged. There’s the old cliche of the dad sitting behind an open newspaper while his wife or kids are trying to engage him in conversation. Well, that’s not far from the truth in many families as well as many organizations. Today, the newspaper has been replaced by the BlackBerry, but the effect is the same. Put it down. It’s so important to really hear what our kids are saying. Ask questions. Have a real dialogue. I’m amazed at how little engagement on my part it takes for my sons to open up and start talking about what’s going on at school or with their friends.
  • Be empathetic. This word is often misunderstood. Empathy doesn’t mean validating or agreeing with everything our kids say. It means putting ourselves in their shoes so we at least understand why they feel the way they do or say the things they say. I’ve had plenty of bosses in my career who weren’t professional communicators, so I often felt isolated and misunderstood in my work. However, I can think of one who empathized with the challenges I faced even though he had never faced them himself. He was one of my best bosses. I’ve found when I show empathy to my sons, they are much more willing to open up to me about what’s going on in their lives.
  • Be clear. Occasionally my 13-year-old comes home from school and tells me about an assignment, but he is unclear on some of the details. The lack of clarity is sometimes due to his not listening very well and it is sometimes due to vague instructions from the teacher. Regardless, clear communication has not taken place. Effective communication is an interactive process. It requires give and take, repetition and inqusitiveness. Saying something once rarely is sufficient. I’ve learned this is true in my own interactions with my sons. Yes, I get tired of repeating myself — but if it ensures that my kids are clear about rules, instructions and expectations, I’ll do it. At work, bosses often are required to discuss expectations with employees and then document them. Maybe we should have the same requirement in our homes.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about workplace communication, it is that the most successful organizations have given considerable thought and planning to communication and have executed those plans with rigor and discipline. Maybe our families could benefit from the same.

Should Ghostwriters Tweet for the CEO?

We’re still in the wild-west period of social media. The tools and their applications in the business world are new enough that we can chalk up the occasional misstep to the fact that we’re still figuring out the rules.

But now and then we hear something about a social-media practice that just doesn’t set well and it’s worth having a discussion about it so we can figure out the right thing to do.

A recent meeting of PR professionals featured a speaker who is president of an advertising agency and who is known as an expert in social media. Toward the end of the program, in response to a question, he made a statement that caused quite a stir. He mentioned that an intern in his agency tweets for a client’s CEO.

I didn’t attend the meeting, but I checked with several who did to verify that the speaker made the statement.

Since it was an off-the-cuff statement, perhaps the speaker didn’t literally mean that an intern tweets for the client’s CEO. Perhaps the tweets don’t really appear under the CEO’s Twitter handle, but the client’s. My purpose here is not to impugn a professional colleague’s reputation through misinterpretation of what he said. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But, assuming the speaker meant what he said, his statement raises a serious question — one that I know has been debated in other forums:  Should a ghostwriter (intern or otherwise) pose as the CEO of an organization in social media?

I believe the answer is no. In fact, I believe doing so borders on the unethical. Let me explain why.

It is true that many CEOs rely on their public relations or corporate communications departments to help craft speeches, write columns and op-eds and perhaps even write letters for their signatures. In these cases, a professional communicator will spend significant time with the CEO to determine what he or she wants to say and, just as important, how to say it. This is a widely accepted practice and I would guess that most people in the intended audiences for these communications recognize it. Even the president of the United States has speechwriters and we know this.

There is no deception going on. It’s out in the open. We understand that crafting a speech or constructing a well-written column takes time and effort and that professional communicators are employed to carry out the task.

However, social media are different from traditional media. The biggest difference is that social media are about personal interaction. Blogs, for example, are not just electronic versions of the CEO’s newsletter column. They are personal observations, ideally brief and not necessarily letter-perfect. A blog is an online journal. Many CEOs and other executives write their own blogs, as they should.

Twitter is even more personal. It’s like having an online chat or a phone conversation. There is back-and-forth. You don’t have to worry so much about cadence and flow in 140 characters. More important, I believe the audience’s expectation is that a tweet is coming directly from the person who is identified as sending it.

Having an intern — or anyone else — write tweets for a CEO would be akin to having that person impersonate the CEO’s voice on a conference call or webcast. It just wouldn’t be right.

And that’s what it comes down to for me and for some others with whom I’ve discussed this issue. It just doesn’t feel right. The audience’s expectation when using social media is that they are interacting with the person whose name appears on that icon. Anything else feels deceptive.

If someone other than the CEO is writing for social media, then the organization should be identified as the sender, not the CEO.

No guideline has been written about ghostwriting on social media as far as I know, so this is just my take on it. I’m interested in what you think.

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