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Showing posts from October, 2013

'Black Swan' and the Fallacy of Neutrality

Ballerinas must be good or evil. Natalie Portman in Black Swan

The other day I was fascinated by Target's decision to carry (kosher) Meal Mart pastrami and corned beef in one of its stores. Just the sight of it brought back so many good memories. 
At the same time it was jarring to see the brand in Target. In my mind it belonged on the Upper West Side or in Monsey. I should have had to order it on the Internet and have it delivered in dry ice.
"That is fascinating," I said to my daughter. "Who would have thought that a Target out here would have this?" And I pointed to the meat.
"Why do you like marketing so much?" she said to me.
The question caught me aback. Why do I like marketing? What a crazy question!
Doesn't everybody?
I tried to explain it to her. What fascinates me about marketing is the play between truth and its representations. That is, I know that there is essential reality and I know that there are ways of describing it. 
The tension between…

Why Public Affairs Needs A "Brand Hijack" (Toward A Truly User-Driven Engagement Strategy)

The cover of Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing
Branding has evolved from an advertising-driven discipline to one that is led by social media. This is a scenario in which the user dictates the nature of the brand rather than the brand dictating an image to the user.

The idea that people would be "talking back" to, co-creating, and even overriding Big Brands was unheard of in the age of "Mad Men," but we are seeing this scenario come to pass.

The trend began with a move from solely externally focused branding to externally and internally focused communication in which the brand was said to have "values" that translated to all stakeholders. It is continuing as message senders recognize they must have more than the public's attention in order to be successful.

It's about having a pool of information or content that the user reaches into, pulls something out of, negotiates with in their mind, and returns in the form of an opinion, a creative piece …

Tim Ferriss Was Right, After All

Graphic by me. Balloon via and Woman With Juice via Freestockphotos.

It is hard to believe that you can actually work less and have more. But Tim Ferris was right, at least in concept. The "4-Hour Workweek" is an achievable ideal -- not a pipe dream.

Being calm, cool and collected frees your mind. It creates the space within which you create, innovate and learn. To achieve this state of mind, you have to "work" less.

(True creativity is a different kind of work -- it's the "zone" or the "flow" within which you achieve exponential gains.)
The free and sharp mind solves problems innately. Avoiding unnecessary work. Saving money.
Too often we look at busy people and think, "Wow, they must be so productive." But that is so not true. Crazy busy is a sign things are out of control, or that the person is unable to stop working - not healthy or balanced at all.
Other people make a living out of doing very little with the appearance of business. …

10 Things Your Employees Can't Tell You (But Wish You Would Figure Out Already)

Photo by Ianus via Flickr
1. You're overloading us without making priorities clear.

2. You're not holding the slackers on our team to account.

3. We can't get the approvals you insist on in a timely fashion.

4. You are inconsistent about rules.

5. We can't find you when we have questions.

6. Stop acting like a "friend" and start listening to our feedback.

7. We have no idea what's going on around here.

8. That thing that happened...what's the real story?

9. Everything's changing and I can't keep up. (Or you refuse to change anything.)

10. I'm giving this job my best, and you don't seem to notice.

* All opinions my own.

Sandra Bullock, 'Gravity' & America's Comeback

Revolutionary War - The Capture Of Yorktown. Lithograph by Turgis. 148-GW-565. Image via the National Archives.
In 'Gravity' Sandra Bullock plays a mother who lost her child "stupidly." And she walks around in a stupor of grief.
When we first see her in the movie she is battling a cold and her grief to complete a NASA mission with two colleagues.
Almost immediately "Houston" announces a problem - serious debris is headed their way, so bad it's knocked out "everybody's Facebook" on Earth. 
It shouldn't stop the mission. But of course it does. And Sandra Bullock isn't safe in her little cocoon anymore. Not the cocoon of her family. Not the cocoon of her ship.
There are many ways to look at this movie. At the end of it I was thinking of America.
We are looking at problems too numerous to mention. We do not want to think they will hit us like space debris, and knock out the life we currently know. In a serious way. The kind that will leave u…

5 Types Of People On Every Manager's "A" Team

If confronted with a random crowd, who would you pick to work for you, and why?
It's an important question because it enables you to take the perspective of the boss. 
Lacking that perspective, people at work tend to waste a lot of time on irrelevant stuff while ignoring the things they really need to be doing.
They want to do well but do not realize what their manager actually cares about. Yes doing your job matters, but there is more.
What follows are five "ideal types" of employees every manager wants on their team. 
1) The "All-Around"
Consistent, reliable, skilled. Knows a little bit about how every aspect of the operation works. Works within the system to achieve real results. Performs the work then looks for ways to work smarter. 
2) "Special Forces"
Innovative and technically capable. Independently keeps up with the latest developments in their field. Especially good in a crisis.
3) "The Volunteer"
Willing to jump in and help, no questions ask…

5 Things Apple Can Learn From Xiaomi

Photo by Zack Leiws via Flickr
For its October 8 edition, The Wall Street Journal interviewed Lei Jun, founder of Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. I saved the article because Jun made a number of important points for Internet companies generally:

1. Selling things for free

Lei alluded to the concept of an "Internet thought process," in which users see the Web as inherently free. Therefore, sell products "as close to the cost of materials as possible" and make money from selling add-on services, such as apps, movies and accessories.

2. Have a mascot for your brand

Xiaomi has a rabbit. You can pick your own mascot. But you should have a physical, visual symbol that is accessible to fans. Another company, Sweet Frog (yogurt), does something similar through selling their distinctive frogs.

3. Include users in the design

Users are in the best position to know how well the product is working and they feel a sense of engagement when you let them into the design process, says Lei…

Healthcare For All: Let's Make The Shot

Photo by The Image Group via Flickr
We have all been to the emergency room at some point in our lives. And we have all seen poor families holding their sick children and elderly parents and praying that someone will help them.
It is a basic social need and duty to help those who can't help themselves. But we've gotten so busy fighting each other that we can't see our way clear to do that. Here is a suggested approach.
1. Forget the past and focus on moving forward. Not just politicians, all of us. The reality is that universal healthcare is a universal goal. The current version has its roots in the Clinton administration and integrates Republican input, such as the belief that people should buy their own coverage (the "individual mandate") rather than being automatically covered as under a socialized medicine system. As Ezra Klein notes,
"Members of the Republican Party didn’t express concerns that the individual mandate might be an unconstitutional assault on l…

Shut Down, But Not Shut Out: Achieving Productivity During Difficult Times

Photo by Lars Plougman via Flickr
One of the most demoralizing things about the shutdown is that feeling of losing control over your life.

But the fact that you are powerless over one thing, does not make you powerless over everything. 
The news had a story about federal employees who volunteered at Martha's Kitchen in D.C. I thought it was awesome that they were giving to others at a time when they could easily have sat around feeling sorry for themselves.
I'm not as noble as them, unfortunately. But I do feel kind of good about how I'm spending my time. In addition to looking for freelance work that doesn't conflict with my job (hard to do when I can be called back any time, any day now), here's what I've been doing: Blogging more about things that are practical, and starting a larger writing project that is meaningful to me.Spending more time with my family.Self-training on computer programming.Implementing the techniques for healthy eating I've been reading …

For An Office of Federal Communications, OMB

Photo by Pranav Bhatt via Flickr
Imagine if the federal government employed pilots who couldn't fly. Doctors that couldn't do surgery. Lawyers who couldn't analyze a case. Budget analysts who couldn't add. Computer scientists who couldn't read code. Criminal investigators who could not track a suspect. And so on.

What would happen to the troops overseas absent intelligence analysts at home?

Yet we have no problem with obvious communication blunders on the part of the Federal government. The reason of course is that we do not see the financial cost of poor communication right away, or in a tangible way. But of course they are there. For example:
Waste, fraud and abuse: Due to duplicative outreach by multiple agencies, i.e. human trafficking campaigns. Due to allowing agencies to buy unnecessary outreach services. Due to excessive reliance on vendors for web design and failure to manage their implementation, as occurred with the launch of the Obamacare system. Of course …

5 Elements of Stephanie Cutter's PR Genius

I don't agree with Stephanie Cutter's politics. But every time I see her on TV, I find myself taking notes. In a cluttered field of talking heads she comes across as committed, credible, consistent and extraordinarily skilled at what she does.

Here she is in an interview on CNN discussing the current government shutdown.



Watching closely, there are at least 5 tactics she employed that translate into any situation:

1. Acknowledgment: Cutter is in touch with the popular consciousness. She begins by acknowledging what the audience is thinking, even if it may technically hurt her side: In a shutdown, "nobody wins."

2. Attack: Cutter is direct, not tentative or mealymouthed. She goes after the opposition head-on, claiming that the shutdown is a crisis that the Republicans "manufactured." She also calls the Republicans arsonists.

3. Think High-Contrast: She tells a very simple, black-and-white story in which her client is good and the opposition is bad. I can easily i…

Fair Trade In A Bad Economy

On October 6 the Associated Press shared its analysis of global spending. The bottom line is that people are hoarding cash - avoiding debt, avoiding the stock market:
"A flight to safety on such a global scale is unprecedented since the end of World War II."
According to the article, the consumer is holding fast to their money because they are nervous about putting it in the hands of Wall Street or Main Street: The watchword is "safety."

At the same time people are showing an increasing willingness to pay more for products that are marked "fair trade." According to one report the market was up 19% in 2012 to £1.57 billion.
Clearly the fair trade customer is not holding fast to cash, but they are socially conscious. How do you get them to spend more, when they see that others have less? And if perhaps they're worried about a downturn themselves?

On a bright sunny day we visited Tenfold, a store in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia that may provide some answers. …

Is Your Mind Too Closed To See These 3 Brands Objectively?

Today we visited a park nearby. The trip just wasn't worth it.
"It's a great park don't you think?" I said bravely, wanting to make the best of it.
"No," responded my husband. "It's humid today, the park is crowded, and there are dogs everywhere. Plus I can hear the traffic."
"Well I had fun," I scowled. "Some date you are."
"Why can't you ever admit it when something is not right?"
He has a good point there. Because I am not emotionally invested in any brands per se, I can be objective about them.
Along these lines, here is some contrarian thinking on 3 frequently discussed brands:
1. Twitter - negative: Like Facebook it enjoys ubiquity and familiarity. But unlike Facebook there is no higher-level purpose. Not a good long-term investment plus we won't want to see ads or sponsored content on it.
2. Miley Cyrus - positive: Miley's songs are good and she has a relevant, appealing message for parents of Gen Y…

What If There Was A Shutdown & Nobody Cared?

Photo by Rebecca Wilson via Flickr
It's an unfortunate fact of life: "Man plans and G-d laughs."

From a communication perspective it was clear as Windex: The shutdown was a bargaining chip. The equivalent of: "You see? You see? We're gonna shut down the government, and then everyone will be mad at you."

Reminds me of those years when I tried, really tried to make a homemade dinner. What a good wife and mother I am, I told myself. How much appreciation I am entitled to.

Unfortunately I was allergic to that thing they call a "recipe."

So my kids ate anything but those dinners. Regularly they Tupperware-rotted in the fridge.

They didn't care.

Much like nobody seems to care about the government shutdown, other than those directly impacted in a negative way (note: I work for the government myself; all opinions my own).

For example, take these status updates, from a random Twitter search of "nobody cares" and "shutdown" done today, Octob…

Critics To The Gulag

Photo by Mouse via Flickr
Underneath my door was a piece of white paper, folded in three as if an old-fashioned letter. 
I told the staff to write me with feedback, questions and complaints and drop them in two plastic buckets on my desk. It never occurred to me they would not know when or how to step in to my office.
On leave for a couple of days, the note came in. I unfolded it and read.
My stomach gnawed a little in the negative parts. Need more clarity (ouch). Too much change (ouch again). But honestly I was happy too. Someone actually cared, and more than that felt empowered enough to speak up.
The branch chiefs and I talked about the letter. The staff got a point-by-point response by the end of the day.
Countless studies show that the more helpless you feel, the more anxious and depressed you get. Dr. Martin Seligmann's is head of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and their work is completely centered on counteracting the depression that results when…