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Outbursts by Barr, Bee Symptoms of Deteriorating Public Discourse

Last week, Rosanne Barr had her show cancelled because of her racist tweet about a member of the Obama administration and Samantha Bee got into hot water for using the “C-word” to describe the President’s daughter. In both cases, their conduct was deplorable, although not equivalent, as some right-wing commentators have charged.

Arguing which was worse, however, is like debating whether to go to the gallows or stand in front of a firing squad. Both are awful. Since the outcome is the same, such a discussion is meaningless.

The outbursts by these two entertainers – and responses to them – are symptomatic of a larger problem: public discourse has sunk to a such a low level that it no longer seems possible to engage in civilized conversation on important subjects that affect the country’s future. Unless we, as a nation, are able achieve consensus on vital issues such as immigration, gun control, race, climate change and healthcare, we will become increasingly divided and gridlocked. How can we do that when all people do is repeat their side’s talking points?

People whose political leanings bend toward one end of the spectrum or the other no longer hear what the other side has to say. They get their news and analysis inside an echo chamber from outlets like MSNBC, The Atlantic and Daily Kos on the left and Fox News, Breitbart and Drudge Report on the right. Stories from the other point of view are branded as “fake news” and either ignored or attacked.

Often, social media, the great amplifier, is first place people get their news. On Facebook and Twitter we tend to connect with like-minded people and block those who don’t share our point of view. But, how can you formulate a cogent response to opposing views when you haven’t even heard or read them?

In normal times, the President tries to bring people together. It’s part of being a leader. We saw that from George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. We also saw that from New York City’s mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, who recently became a mouthpiece for the current President.

But these are not normal times, and we do not have a normal President. Instead of trying to put out the flames of divisiveness Donald Trump pours gasoline on them. Last year, he called white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, Va., “fine people.” This year, he uses the racially charged term “animals” to describe undocumented immigrants who have entered this country from Latin America.

While he said he was talking only about members of the vicious gang MS-13, as he continues using to using the term it is likely to become more generalized in the minds of his audience. Don’t believe me? Ask Italian-Americans who lived with the stigma of association with the mafia.

Changing the conversation – or at least it’s tone – in this environment is a tall order, but it must happen. We need to find common ground, so people can relate to one another again. Our political system needs reform so that elected officials are no longer beholden to one-issue voters and extremists. We can no longer allow the views of the majority to be marginalized.

We need to change the language, too. Talk about public safety rather than gun control, inclusion instead of diversity or affirmative action, coastal protection instead of climate change, etc. We should be compassionate and just in treating each other but deal harshly with those who break the rules and threaten others.

Regardless of where they stand politically, Americans share core values such as liberty, equality, democracy and individualism. We may debate their meanings and how we allocate resources, but we must never lose sight of what this country stands for.

How to Make Commencement Memorable

Commencement is probably the most important event of the academic year. It is a celebration of student success, and, at a time of rising skepticism about the value of a college degree, it may be higher education’s best marketing opportunity. Yet, often it is squandered.

I worked 11 commencements during my tenure as director of public relations for The City College of New York. For the most part, they were staid affairs marked by a series of lengthy, but unmemorable, speeches. The only speech I recall was the one I heard 10 times delivered by Sen. Charles Schumer in which he tells his story of being dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to go to law school and, eventually, into politics.

Schumer_CCNY Commencement
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, makes it his business to speak at as many commencements as he can. His message is the same: “Go for it.”

While a prominent commencement speaker can generate publicity, the resulting story might not align well with the institution’s mission. That happened my first year when City College gave President Bill Clinton an honorary degree. I started the job only two weeks before and had to scramble to get the word out and draw reporters to the event. We got good coverage, but the headlines focused mainly on Clinton’s criticism of his successor’s policies.

Commencement should be, first and foremost, about the students. That is why what I enjoyed most was walking among the students to take candid photos that we would post on the college Facebook page and the website.

Although the graduates get recognized individually in ceremonies conducted by their respective schools and divisions at City College, they are mostly anonymous participants in the college-wide event. All they get to do is listen to the speeches and move their tassel from one side of the cap to the other.

CCNY Commencement
The big moment: When students become graduates and alumni.

To bring greater recognition to the members of the graduating class and tell some of their individual stories, my staff and I created a special web site called Great Grads. It consisted of 12 – 15 brief profiles of the graduates. Ideally, all units of the college would be represented. In addition, we sought to reflect the diversity of the student body.

Early in the spring, we would request nominations from deans, faculty members and administrators. From this list of candidates, we would identify the students to profile. Although we included the valedictorian and salutatorian, our selection criteria were not limited to academic achievement.

We sought out students with compelling human-interest stories or unusual experiences because they tied into City College’s mission of providing “access to excellence” for generations of students from working class and immigrant families. We also wanted to reflect the diversity of the student body, since CCNY is one of the most diverse institutions in the country.

The product was a hit with the college community and alumni to the extent that the development office incorporated it into their fundraising. Print versions of Great Grads were produced for the President’s Gala dinner, a post-commencement event attended by well-off alumni.

The Great Grads were invited to the dinner, as well, where they sat among the guests and were recognized during the program. Their presence helped the alums connect with the graduating class and share each other’s experiences.

I keep in touch with some of the Great Grads through Facebook. Some are doing exciting things in their life, such as running for Congress. A few are “dreamers” who must be wondering how long they will be allowed to stay in this country. All of them had great stories that deserved to be told. No doubt, so did most of the other graduates.

My boss had a saying: “Nothing comes easy at City College.” That certainly could be said for earning a degree there. Many graduates had to juggle work and family responsibilities with schoolwork. The student who was able to finish his or her undergraduate studies in four years was rare.

The students should be the stars of commencement. With all due respect to Senator Schumer and the other speakers, the stories that matter belong to the graduates. They have a common theme: “If I can make it, so can you.”

You don’t need to go to the trouble of creating a program like Great Grads. Use social media to tell those stories and give the grads their platform. Have them post on YouTube and Facebook. Create a hashtag to incorporate tweets from commencement into the program. You’ll create a mass of content including dozens of testimonials that can be incorporated into videos, viewbooks and web pages. Can anything be a better celebration of student success at your institution?

Wolf Howls and Washington Quakes

As I finish writing this, the brouhaha over comedienne Michelle Wolf’s performance at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents Association dinner is in its fourth day. The response has been predictable: The political and media right is damning Wolf; their counterparts on the left are praising her.

Michelle Wolf cnnI am a true blue Democrat, but I did not care for her act. My issues have more to do with style than substance. Many, if not most, of her jokes and digs were funny. However, her delivery was off. Ms. Wolf failed to connect with her audience. Much of the material landed like a leaden matzo ball.

My wife, who has done stand-up comedy and shares most of my political views, had the same opinion. Her biggest concern is that this set the cause of women in comedy back decades.

The best I can say about Michelle Wolf’s set is that it spared me the agony of watching the New York Mets get blown away by the San Diego Padres. Ms. Wolf did have some hits, but so did the Mets, just not enough.

Marketing and media relations pros know that to succeed you need to understand your audience and tailor your pitch accordingly. You wouldn’t pitch the same kind of story to a tabloid like the New York Post as you would to a more staid publication like The New York Times.

But what of Ms. Wolf’s audience? Everyone whom she targeted was fair game, even if some of her barbs were unkind. They are at the top of the food chain, so they should expect it and accept it. I learned long ago not to dignify attacks with a response. Besides, you could give your critic more ammo.

That’s what I did once when I was a journalist. The head of communications for a new cable network chewed me out over a report on his channel’s debut that I thought was “fair and balanced.” My next story, however, truly was damaging and ran on the front page. I wasn’t after revenge. I was just trying to make sense of what was going on. That is what reporters are supposed to do.

One of Barack and Michelle Obama’s most endearing traits was that if they were irked by the attacks lobbed at them they never let it show. The same cannot be said for the current President.

The man who taunted his political foes with names like “Crooked Hillary” and “Little Marco” and his supporters seem to be rather thin skinned. Should that have given Ms. Wolf cause to be more cautious?

As any court jester could tell you, when you poke fun at the king you better make him laugh. However, that’s a tall order with the current occupant of the White House. He is as dour a person as I’ve ever seen.

Perhaps, as Joe Concha, a media reporter for The Hill pointed out, Michelle Wolf’s real audience wasn’t the folks in the room at the Washington Hilton, the viewers on C-SPAN or the President, his men and his women. She might have been playing to her “Daily Show” fans and the people she hopes will tune in to her new series on Netflix.

Regardless, she has changed the conversation. People who should be talking about Trump’s weekend speech in Michigan, the Mueller investigation, North Korea and other serious matters are talking about her. If what she did last Saturday night in Washington pays off in ratings, I will tip my hat to her. “Well played, Ms. Wolf. Well played.”

Working in Higher Ed: Great Crisis Communications Training

If you’ve worked in higher education public relations you know life on campus never gets dull. All sorts of crisis situations will confront you. Just this week, the Binghamton University community was shaken by the second murder of a student within five weeks. Some 70 miles to the north, my alma mater, Syracuse University, suspended [Update: expelled] a fraternity after a video surfaced that contained lewd behavior as well as racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and sexist comments.

You might have to deal with professors who make controversial statements, athletic rules violations that warrant sanctions, corrupt officials, sexual misconduct and – far too often – mass shootings. Relatively speaking, I got off easy during my ten years at City College of New York. I came after Professor Leonard Jeffries got everyone riled up over anti-Semitic remarks and left before President Lisa Coico was forced to resign in a scandal involving misuse of funds.

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When Rep. Charles B. Rangel was found to have used Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for an eponymous center at City College contributions for the project dried up.

Not that everything was peaches and cream. When a cover story in the New York Daily News reported that a room on campus was named for a terrorist and a convicted cop killer, it provoked tremendous outrage, especially in the police community. The sign over the door was taken down the next day, but the controversy reignited seven years later when the community organization that was using the room was thrown out.

There was also the fundraising scandal for the Charles B. Rangel Center. City College hadn’t done anything wrong, but Rep. Rangel did, and he was censured for his actions. Nevertheless, prospective donors abandoned the project and the center had to be scaled back from its lofty aspirations.

These two incidents occurred at a time when public support for higher education remained high. Both the college and its parent, City University of New York, had engendered goodwill as a result of reforms and favorable publicity.

But the worm has turned. Public attitudes toward higher education have become less favorable, especially among conservatives and Republicans. People feel the price has become too high relative to the benefit. The conversation in the media about college is now focused on scandals, tuition hikes and reduced government support, topics that reinforce this narrative. Meanwhile stories about student success and other favorable topics receive short shrift.

In this environment, people charged with protecting an institution’s brand must have a good crisis communications plan that can be put into effect quickly. It should cover the kinds of situations that can occur on a campus, and it should address all affected stakeholder groups, not just the press.

In executing the plan, communicators need to develop succinct, consistent messages that: 1. Sincerely express empathy with affected persons. 2. Address the institution’s point of view and what near-term steps it will take to rectify the situation. 3. Discuss how it will look to prevent similar events from occurring in the future. For example, after suspending the fraternity responsible for the video, Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud announced the university planned to conduct a “top to bottom review” of Greek life on campus.

Spokespersons should deliver their statements and avoid engaging in disputes with journalists. Q&A talking points should anticipate likely questions and include responses that draw the audience back to the school’s message. We used email to communicate with journalists to ensure our statements would be accurately reported.

Time is of the essence in crises. Communications chiefs should be empowered to make decisions and have access to the people who have vital information that needs to get out to stakeholders. Working out of an ad hoc situation room facilitates this conversation. Waiting for higher ups, who could have ten other matters on their agendas, to approve statements puts you behind the eight ball, especially when negative comments can be tweeted in an instant.

Speaking of social media, both official and unofficial channels need to be monitored during a crisis. Social media managers should have statements at their ready. I experienced this first hand when I tweeted about lengthy delays on my mother’s recent flight to Florida. An airline representative tweeted back at me within minutes.

Contingency plans can not anticipate every crisis. However, they can serve as a playbook that communications leaders and their teams can readily adapt when new situations arise. A CCO who knows how to successfully manage crises will be an invaluable member of the institution’s leadership team.

Fix Rails to Make Travel Great Again

PRR 1953

About 10 days ago, I found on Facebook a photograph taken in 1953 that perfectly captured what travel and big cities were like in those days. It shows a Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) passenger locomotive peering out from that railroad’s station in Pittsburgh about to head west toward Columbus, Indianapolis and St. Louis. In the distance, there is a massive civic building that the train will soon pass under.

In those days, this was one of 47 scheduled intercity passenger trains that passed through the station in a 24-hour period. Six of them went to St. Louis. Passengers could also take the PRR from Pittsburgh to Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Almost all routes had multiple frequencies, and most of the trains were equipped with sleeping cars, parlor cars, dining cars and lounges.

Over the next two decades, the airlines and motor vehicles grabbed market share from the railroads with the help of government subsidies and policies. The passenger rail business became unprofitable, so the railroads combined, downgraded and/or discontinued their trains. Things got so bad that the federal government had to step in to save the passenger train by creating Amtrak.

Today, the Pittsburgh station is served by only three trains a day: one to New York, one to Chicago and one to Washington. The line to St. Louis is gone. Trains have to use a more circuitous route via Crestline, Ohio, to get there.

Flash forward to today. Actually yesterday, to be precise. I got up early to take my mother to JFK airport to make a flight back to West Palm Beach (PBI). Things went smoothly. An attendant checked her bag and walker. Another got a wheelchair to bring her to the plane. I gave her a hug and kiss and sent her on her way.

Or so I thought. During breakfast, I got a voicemail that her plane, which was supposed to leave at 8:30 a.m., was delayed two hours. That got pushed back to 12 noon, then to four p.m. and, finally 6 p.m. It arrived at PBI around 9:30 p.m., 10 hours late.

Mom had the smarts to rebook on another flight that left and arrived on time and well ahead of the first one. She got home a little after 7 p.m. Unfortunately, her luggage didn’t go with her. It stayed on the original flight and was delivered this morning. Her walker was damaged and is unusable. Delta Airlines will buy her a new one.

However, more troubling to me was a comment on my Facebook thread from my cousin, a corporate travel agent from Minnesota. “That’s like a nothing delay. Save your ire for “we can get you on a flight two days from now.” That was a professional opinion, BTW.”

Since she works on the front lines of dealing with the airlines I understand where she is coming from. But, why should the traveling public, especially corporate road warriors, have to tolerate this?

People should be up in arms and insist that our do-nothing Congress take action. Better yet, start demanding better rail service, comparable to what is available in industrialized nations in Europe and Asia.

How about, for example, a rail line with hourly service from downtown Minneapolis to downtown Chicago in three hours with stops in St. Paul, Madison and Milwaukee along the way! That is not an abstract concept or unproven novel technology. It is a clear, actionable idea. Take a ride on Florida’s Brightline to see what I am talking about. There are dozens of potential routes like this throughout the country. This is what we must advocate for.

It is high time we get with the rest of the industrialized world and rebuild our rail network with fast, direct routes free from freight train interference. The freight railroads don’t want passenger trains on their tracks, anyway.

We also need new rolling stock and locomotives to replace Amtrak’s aging fleet. In addition, we need increased frequencies and more routes to cover unserved and under-served markets. Finally, we must spend billions to repair and upgrade fragile, aging infrastructure like the Hudson River tunnels on the Northeast Corridor.

With the exception of St. Louis, every city I listed above is within 500 miles of Pittsburgh. That is the sweet spot for high-speed rail travel, i.e. the maximum distance where rail is competitive, timewise, with air. Hence, they are potential markets for intermediate-distance high-speed rail.

Instead, we – the United States – have let our passenger rail system, which once was the world’s best, deteriorate. Today, it is characterized by slow trains, frequent delays and inconvenient schedules, which doesn’t make it a good alternative to air travel.

If we want better air travel we need better rail service, too. It would force airlines to either compete and offer better service or cede the short-haul market, i.e. less than 500 miles, to rail and concentrate on long-haul business. Either way, the traveling public would win since fewer short-haul flights would mean less airport congestion. Mr. Trump, if you truly want to make America great again, start with our trains.

Photo by John Dziobko Jr. http://www.godfatherrails.com/photos/pv.asp?pid=1395

 

The Experience is the Brand

I’m back home from a quick trip to Florida to visit Mom. Along the way, I had varying experiences with enterprises engaged in transportation, sports and religion. In marketing, experience is important because it shapes the brand and vice versa. Marketers may establish parameters for what they want their brand to represent, but customer experience informs what the brand represents. If an airline promotes on-time performance but its planes are chronically late then customers will perceive it to be unreliable.

With that in mind, here are my thoughts on some of the brands I experienced. Some good, some not-so-good. Some are global. Many were local.

JetBlue  We have been flying JetBlue since they began service in the late 1990s, and we love them. The service is excellent, the planes have leather seats and flight attendants offer complimentary beverages and snacks. Our flights arrived early in both directions. We hardly felt the touch down when we landed at JFK the day of a Nor’easter. Many passengers, myself included, applauded the pilot. The only flaw: it took nearly 30 minutes to get a piece of luggage we checked at the airline’s request. To add insult to injury, the baggage crew sent the bags to the wrong baggage carousel. Grade: A-

Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport          This is one of busiest airports in the country, and it could use a serious updating. Its corridors are cramped, crowded and lengthy. It needs more – and better – food options, although we found some good turkey sandwiches for dinner. There is a long walk to the bus that ferries passengers to the car rental counters. The bus driver had to navigate around the limos, taxis and other vehicles that were jamming the roadway. Grade: C

Budget Car Rental           Its name says it all. It has the lowest rates, so it has many customers. The drawback: incredibly long lines at the airport. It took an hour and 20 minutes to get to the counter. Even though the station had more than a dozen computer terminals, only four agents were serving customers at any time; they constantly shuffled in and out of the office behind the wall. When I finally got to the counter, to speed the process I told the agent that I didn’t want insurance or a toll pass and that I would return the car with a full tank of gas. There were some saving graces, however. We had a nice car and had no wait at the drop-off. Grade: D

Temple Torat Emet         This is my mother’s synagogue. We went to morning services with her all three days of our visit. The congregation has several excellent lay readers so the service went swiftly. On two days the rabbi, who assumed the pulpit last year, delivered brief lessons from the Talmud on the subject of revenge. After services, bagels and coffee were available “in the ballroom.”            Grade: A

IMG_7827
Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel

Houston Astros / Ballpark of the Palm Beaches  Let me state that I have never been a fan of this team. However, they are the world champions and they were playing a spring training game at home in the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Despite making four errors and a poor outing by starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, who left the game in the second inning, the Astros beat the Miami Marlins 5-3. Their spring training facility, which they share with the Washington Nationals, is a delight. A tram car took us from the handicapped parking lot to the stadium gate. We had seats behind third base with great sight lines. They also have a terrific fish taco – we ordered three for lunch – and craft beer is available on tap. Grade: A

3G’s Gourmet Deli & Restaurant              This is a popular eatery on the west side of Delray Beach offering non-kosher Jewish favorites. The clientele is largely retirees in their 70s and 80s, many of whom are transplants from New York and other Northeast states. When we arrived, the hostess told us the wait for a table would be 20 – 30 minutes, and she was accurate. The place is large and noisy. The food is good and the portions are large; my combo corned beef and pastrami sandwich was at least four inches thick. Tracey had stuffed cabbage and Mom had cheese blintzes. The service is fast and friendly and prices are low. We found nothing to complain about.         Grade: A

Brightline interior
Brightline Select Class Service includes complimentary drinks and snacks. Photo by Tracey B. Simon

Brightline            Just one month old, this new passenger railroad has raised the bar for daytime intercity rail travel in the United States. It currently runs between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, making the nonstop run in just 40 minutes. Later this year, service will expand to Miami, and an extension to Orlando International Airport is scheduled to enter service in 2020. The experience begins when you arrive at the station. You wait in a large concourse above the tracks that features a café, souvenir shop, children’s play area and separate lounge for premium customers. Once on board, a steward wheels a cart down the aisle offering free refreshments in the Select coach, the equivalent of first class. The ride is smooth, quiet and swift, although the constant horn blasts for grade crossing was annoying. We were nine minutes late into Fort Lauderdale on account of construction but arrived two minutes early at West Palm Beach. Brightline should have a bright future.              Grade: A-

Century Grill       Mom insisted we go to a kosher restaurant our last night in town. Several of her friends recommended Century Grill in Boca Raton, so we gave it a try. It’s a meat restaurant that features hamburgers, steak and chicken. While keeping kosher means higher prices, the portions were generous and the quality made it a good value. Plus, service was satisfactory. A worthy alternative to our kosher stand-by, Ben’s Delicatessen.       Grade: B+

Green Owl          This was a favorite breakfast joint in downtown Delray Beach until a real estate developer acquired the site and forced them to leave. The owners moved to Boynton Beach and replicated the original’s layout, décor and menu. Here, grits and biscuits are staples. Both the food and coffee are good. The pancakes were large enough to cover the entire plate. All-in-all, a great experience. Grade: A-

Takeaways        

  1. Take care of your customers. Make them feel welcome and treat them with respect. They will be the ones to share their experiences, and they are credible. Who knows? Some of them might be writing reviews like this one.
  2. Do what you are good at and be good at what you do. Customers expect good experiences and product quality drives that experience. Whether you make pancakes or transport people from Point A to Point B do it well. On JetBlue, flight attendants ask passengers to “sit back and enjoy the JetBlue experience.” We almost always do.
  3. Reflect on the experience and adjust. A successful enterprise does not rest on its laurels. It continually seeks ways to improve its product and service. New technologies make it easy for even small companies, like the local veterinarian, to survey customers. Analyze feedback and identify what you can do to improve.

Most products and services meet fairly basic needs that can be readily satisfied. The tricky part is organizing all the disparate elements and assembling them into a smooth-running machine.

Will a New Casino Hotel Help Sullivan County Reinvent Itself?

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IMG_5011 (002)I went up to the country last week. More specifically, I went to the opening of the Resorts World Catskills casino and hotel, which was built on property owned by the erstwhile Concord Hotel.

This was a moment many people thought they would never see. Sullivan County had been trying to get New York State to allow casino gambling for more than 40 years. It was to be the savior of the struggling Borscht Belt resorts. Alas, the legislature never voted on the issue and one by one the hotels went out of business.

Finally, with leadership from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a casino gambling law was enacted in 2013 that would permit four full casinos (table games and video games) to be built around the state. Resorts World’s owners submitted a winning proposal and a little more than four years later Sullivan County got its casino.

Before going to play (and lose some money), I watched the speechmaking and ribbon cutting ceremony. Company execuIMG_5030 (002)tives, politicians and labor leaders all got their turn at the podium. They talked about changing the conversation about Sullivan County. “This new resort truly heralds the rebirth of the Catskills, and will serve as an economic driver, generating thousands of jobs and opportunities for people in the region,” Cuomo said in delivering remarks via video from offsite.

IMG_5037 (002)Resorts World is indeed a shining city on a hill. One approaches it via a new road built from Exit 106 on Route 17 without seeing the degradation found elsewhere in Sullivan County: abandoned hotels, bungalow colonies, stores, etc. Has Sullivan County’s phoenix arisen from the ashes?

Sullivan County was a part of my life growing up. When my sister and I were young, we often traveled with our parents to Monticello, where the local hotel workers union was Dad’s client. If he had to be there for a few days, we’d stay at the Concord, which was a union shop, or one of the local motels. I later worked as a busboy at the Concord for two summers while I was in college.

This was during the early 1970s, and people were already saying the resorts, were past their prime, Concord included. Of the 500 or so resort hotels that once operated in the southern Catskills, only the Raleigh, which markets exclusively to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Villa Roma, an Italian hotel, remain. The cause of the decline can be summed up as the three As: air conditioning, assimilation and air travel. The hotel owners could not adapt to the secular shifts in the marketplace that confronted their businesses.

Like many, I am nostalgic for the Borscht Belt’s golden years. However, I know it will never be replicated. Still, I was heartened to see a new hotel built on the property of the place that was once billed as “the world’s foremost resort.” I am sure my Dad and his clients were looking down from heaven and smiling that day. The Catskills will rise again, but in a different form.

I believe in reinvention. I played a role in the renaissance of the City College of New York, an institution once known as the “Harvard of the Poor,” that, like the Catskills, had suffered a long, slow decline. I learned from that experience that reinvention is something that doesn’t end. It has to be ongoing if it is to succeed. I am the early stages of my own reinvention. I’ll keep working at it because the day you stop is the day you die.

Is it Good for the Jews?

Sometime in the 1950s rabbi at a Brooklyn yeshiva heard a great commotion coming from one of the classrooms, so he walked in to investigate. All of the kids were shouting and jumping up and down.

shavuot-learning21_B“What’s going on?” he inquired.

“The Dodgers just won the pennant!” a little boy exclaimed.

“So, is it good for the Jews?” the rabbi asked. *

The rabbi was probably well aware of what was happening in the sports world, but it mattered little to him. He looked at events through the filter of how they would affect his people. That is not surprising given the amount of persecution Jews have suffered over the centuries. .

Our stakeholders, i.e. the constituencies we, as communicators, are trying to reach are of the same mindset. They look at news and information through the filter of how it affects their lives or how they could use the information to gain an advantage. For example, a new treatment for a health condition, a new CEO at a company they hold stock in.

When I was a journalist, one of my editors taught me to include in my stories, immediately after the lead paragraph, a “so what” paragraph. This would answer the questions that help readers decide whether to continue reading: “So what? Who cares? What’s in it for me?” It’s a simple principle: write from the point of view of your audience so that it matters to them, be it a prospective donor on your email list, a journalist receiving a story pitch or members of social media groups.

If you visit the news section of typical college website, you are likely to find lots of stories about events, honors and awards, books by faculty, etc. At some institutions, teams of writers churn out dozens of such articles each month. Reports on how the institution’s community engagement, impacts of faculty research, innovative pedagogies that give graduates a leg up in the workplace are scarcer.

No doubt the former matters to members of the college community, but how much interest will they generate beyond campus? Think of how the education writer who gets bombarded with this fare from dozens of the institutions in his or her market will respond. The open rate for your news release emails will clue you in on his or her thinking. You can post the stories on your social media feeds, but how many likes, shares, clicks and comments will they generate?

One of my early successes at City College of New York, where I was director of public relations for more than a decade, came from a story pitch about a chemistry professor who was working with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection on novel ways to counter sewage treatment plant odors. It earned feature stories in both the New York Times and Daily News. The pitch worked because the professor was applying her research to solve a problem that affected many New Yorkers.

I devised my own filter question to decide which stories to prioritize: Why would someone south of 130th Street (campus boundary) care about it? If there wasn’t a good answer, it would fall to the bottom of the list.

Since our staff was small, we had to choose our stories strategically. We still wrote prolifically and were successful at generating placements, clicks and “likes.” Further, we were able to convey our marketing messages and relate the content to our mission.

Regardless of whether your communications priority is your internal or external audience, you must make your story relevant to the reader. You need an effective strategy to produce and distribute content that delivers your message and is on target with your audience. Unless it matters to them, like the Brooklyn rabbi they will tune you out.

(*) It depends on your point of view. A few years later the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Many Jews living in Brooklyn bought homes on Long Island and became Mets fans. #lgm

Photo: Matanya via Wikimedia Commons.

Remember: Know for Whom you Write

Tax Law Creates Marketing Opportunities

Whether you support it or abhor it, the tax reform legislation just passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by President Trump will profoundly impact just about every American individual, business and institution, but in different ways.

For example, homeowners in high-tax states such as New York, where I live, will only be able to deduct a small portion of their state and local taxes. Lower federal income tax rates and a higher standard deduction are not likely to offset the lost deductions, which in many cases will run to the tens of thousands of dollars. I.e. my wife and I will probably see our taxes go up. In a low-tax state, such as Alabama or Nebraska, we’d probably be looking forward to more money in our paychecks.

The enormous changes under the new law create marketing opportunities for professional and financial service providers who can position themselves as knowledgeable experts by communicating about how the new law will impact businesses and individuals and how to plan for it. Among those most affected are likely to be institutions of higher learning and other non-profits. They might need new strategies to appeal to donors who, because they will be paying lower taxes, will have less incentive to give.

Because of the rushed manner in which the law was passed, many of the details are not known. Even though the President has signed the bill, which puts it into law, it will be a while before the Treasury Department and IRS issue the rules by which it will enforced. Tax professionals need to quickly learn as much as they can about the new law in order to assess what it means to their clients. Accountants, in particular, have a short window of opportunity because tax preparation season is rapidly approaching.

How can you incorporate the new law into your marketing strategy? First and foremost, don’t try to become an expert on all facets of the law. It’s too big and too broad, and there isn’t a lot of time to learn it. Focus on those sections most likely to affect youger clients and/or people or organizations you want as clients.

You will need a marketing and communications plan to let people know of your expertise. Decide who you want to target and establish objectives, e.g. raise visibility, generate leads, etc. An array of tactics is available to you. Choose and incorporate into your plan those that best reach your target audience, can deliver your message(s) in a consistent way and you are comfortable with. Here are some vehicles to consider:

Media relations

Media interviews can put you in front of a large audience of potential clients. However, journalists can be hard to reach. Make yourself known to those who matter to your audience and available when they need an expert to turn to. Getting quoted in Tier One media outlets such as “The New York Times” or “Wall Street Journal” is a tremendous coup, but if your market is a specialized field, an interview with a respected trade journalist can be just as influential.

Writing for the media

Op-eds, letters to the editor, and bylined articles also create great visibility. However, the odds of getting an unsolicited piece published can be long. Public relations practitioners sometimes use the terms “op-ed” and “bylined article’ interchangeably. There are significant differences, however. Bylined articles tend to run longer and the content is more technical in nature.

While an op-ed expresses an opinion on an issue and suggests a solution to a problem, a bylined article might, for instance, analyze a new product or service to assess its suitability or legal ramifications. One caveat: In some industries, media outlets do not accept articles from consultants and vendors.

Owned Media

Client newsletters, white papers and other “owned media,” such as websites, are great vehicles for reaching current and prospective clients directly. You also can share them quickly and broadly via social media. While they don’t carry the authority of a respected newspaper, magazine or radio program, they enable you to deliver your message unfiltered.

Social Media

Like with traditional media, your approach toward social media needs to be targeted. If you are a B-2-B marketer, you will want to be on LinkedIn, where not only can you network, but you can publish and share content, and comment in bulletin boards related to your field. Twitter is a great vehicle for quickly sharing news or opinion, but be prepared for blowback from people who disagree with you. The trolls can get nasty.

Public Speaking

If you can speak to a topic for a half hour or longer, you will have opportunities to share your thinking with people who need help. If you can do that and keep your audience engaged you will look brilliant. Among the venues to approach are chambers of commerce, service organizations such as Kiwanis and Rotary, and social affiliates of churches, synagogues and mosques, i.e. Men’s Clubs, Knight of Columbus. If you target businesses, offer to speak at industry conferences and seminars.

No matter which vehicles you incorporate into your marketing and communications strategy, your content needs to be accessible, logical and compelling since you will be addressing complicated topics such as tax law and financial planning. A communications consultant who can write clear, concise content on complex topics that is on target with your audience can be a true partner in creating value for your organization.

Changing the Conversation and Dead Cats

One of my favorite lines from the television series “Mad Men” was “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Sadly, the protagonist, advertising executive Don Draper, delivered it in the context of defending one of the worst corporate travesties of my lifetime, the destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Draper framed the act as creating something new, modern and clean. I’m sure commuters would disagree vehemently.

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Jon Hamm as Don Draper. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21087404

Today, there is a real person named Donald who constantly changes the conversation. He occupies the Oval Office. Under investigation for possible campaign collusion with the Russian government and obstruction of justice, he condemns professional athletes for kneeling during the national anthem. Criticized over the pace of hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, he attacks the mayor of San Juan, accusing her of “poor leadership. On Monday, with the country reeling from the news of the worst gun massacre in modern U.S. history, he had his press spokesperson deflect attention from gun law reform.

The tactic is known as “throwing a dead cat on the table” i.e. raising an issue so dramatic or shocking that it draws attention away from a more damaging topic. Google “Trump dead cat” and you get more than a million results.

Conservatives frequently deploy the tactic. Sarah Palin talked about “death panels” when opposing the Affordable Care Act. One of my Facebook friends sparked a lively debate when he posted an item criticizing San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz’s T-shirt. A Trump supporter said she was fair game since “liberals” attached the First Lady’s choice of shoes when she traveled to Texas with the President after Hurricane Harvey. Often the issues raised by dead cat throwers appeal to people’s fears and have racial undercurrents.

When I became as director of public relations of City College, I was given a charge to “change the conversation about City College.” I did that, but I deployed a very different approach. I produced and placed “good stories, well told” about what its faculty and students were doing, and their impact on the greater community.

Instead of talking about faded glory, controversial professors and remedial classes; people began to speak of high-achieving students, transformative gifts from alumni and cutting-edge research. Enrollment grew by one third, SAT scores for entering freshmen rose 150 points, and the college raised more than a half billion dollars from proud alumni and other donors. We not only appealed to our base of faithful alumni, but made new fans, as well, as evidenced by the rise in applications and contributions.

Although it may seem at times that our country has gone mad, the challenge is to rise above it. Like Michelle Obama said: “when they go low we go high.” If you have a good story, tell it, tell it well and keep on telling it so that the people you want to reach hear it instead of what your detractors are saying.

Ten good reasons to publicize research

At City College, I was fortunate to work with many prominent research-active scientists and engineers in a wide range of fields. Many were great sources of story ideas we could use to publicize the college as well as their work. Others, however, were publicity-shy, and concerned only with getting published in the relevant journals.

I met recently with a former colleague who, in the role of devil’s advocate, raised the issue: why should researchers publicize their work? After all, reviewers don’t take newspaper clippings into account when evaluating a grant. Here are 10 good reasons why, even if publicity doesn’t lead to more financial support.

  1. Visibility  Having a wider audience increases an investigator’s visibility in his or her field. It can lead to more citations, opportunities to speak at conferences and exposure to potential collaborators, in turn raising the investigator’s prominence in the field.
  2. Rankings  Research is a factor in many university rankings. Higher ranked institutions will attract more and better applicants. This could potentially increase the supply of graduate students who can become research assistants.
  3. Expert Status  Journalists constantly seek experts who can help them understand the topics they cover. Since research, especially fundamental research, advances knowledge in a field, active investigators are sought out because they work on the frontiers of knowledge.
  4. Campus Collaboration  Professors often know little knowledge about what colleagues outside their department do. Publicizing research findings to the college community builds awareness for what peers are doing. This can, in turn, promote interdisciplinary collaboration, especially when two or more professors are investigating the same subject from the perspectives of their respective disciplines.
  5. Community Relations  Similarly, members of the surrounding community often are not aware of an institution’s research role. Promoting that college faculty are actively investigating everything from climate change to human and animal behavior to finding cures for cancer portrays the institution in a more positive light and can improve town-gown relations.
  6. Enrollment  Research stories can reach prospective students, both graduate and undergraduate.  They can help familiarize them with an institution’s faculty and their work and influence where they apply.
  7. Promote STEM  The shortage of students in the STEM disciplines is a longstanding issue in the United States. Articles in the popular press about research investigations and other content can expose students to creative career opportunities they might not have otherwise considered. This can lead to more students becoming STEM majors.
  8. Knowledge Sharing  The wider the dissemination of information on a significant development the more people become aware of it. In turn, other researchers can use that discovery as a starting point for additional investigations, accelerating the advancement of knowledge.
  9. Public Awareness  Science communicators like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku and Bill Nye are popularizing science, helping to increase public awareness and interest.  At the same time that investigators are advancing knowledge, they can generate public interest and support for in their work, especially when it directly impacts people’s lives. Public support can translate into political support at a time when government funding for research is threatened.
  10. You Never Know  Corporations are constantly looking for new product ideas, ways to improve existing products and make their manufacturing processes run better. A well-placed story in front of the right person could lead to a lucrative licensing deal.

Research is a fertile ground for story ideas at a college, university or teaching hospital. It not only helps build an institution’s brand, but positions it on the front lines of discovery. And, it helps people see institutions in a different light, where academics not only train students, but advance knowledge in areas that impact their lives.

Lee statue: propaganda in bronze

Five years ago, my wife and I visited Charlottesville, Va. It’s a lovely little city as well as the home of one of our finest colleges, the University of Virginia. I thought Charlottesville could be a nice place to retire.

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Statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va. For some it is to be revered. For others reviled.

Among the sights we saw was a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee riding his famed horse, Traveler. The sculptor created a beautiful depiction of the Confederate military leader, who cut a striking, majestic figure atop the pedestal upon which the statue rests. At the time, I thought little of it, since statues of General Lee and other monuments to Confederates are common throughout the South.

Fast forward five years. The statue has become a flashpoint ever since the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove it. White supremacists, members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis have come to Charlottesville to demand the statue stay put and to rally on behalf of racism and intolerance. The most recent protests, this past weekend, led to three deaths and gripped the national conversation, especially after the President voiced sympathy with the organizers of the rally.

What I did not know, and learned in the course of following the controversy, was that the Confederate statues were more than just a memorial. They were part of a concerted effort to whitewash the sins of the South and promote white supremacy, no pun intended. These figures, erected in parks and in front of courthouses, ascribed heroic qualities to those who fought for the “Lost Cause,” but made no mention of what that Lost Cause was.

When the Civil War began, the South framed the dispute as an argument over states’ rights. The North fought to keep the Union indivisible. It wasn’t until President Lincoln made the war about eradicating slavery that the tide turned.

The rebellion continued after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox and the Confederacy was disbanded, however.  Local militias fought with freed former slaves and occupying Union forces. The old guard eventually regained control of state and local governments as the northern soldiers withdrew; and they imposed “Jim Crow” segregation in everything from schools to railroad cars to drinking fountains. They also looked the other way as the KKK and lynch mobs terrorized African Americans and their supporters. The purpose: keeping white supremacy embedded in the social and cultural fabric of the South.

In a similar vein, the Nazis used propaganda to glorify the German people as the master race and to denigrate those they considered inferior, especially Jews. The effort to annihilate the Jewish people through the concentration camp system did not manifest itself in the early years of the Third Reich. Rather, the Nazis ratcheted up the pressure gradually by imposing increasingly tougher restrictions and using stronger rhetoric. Eventually, many Germans viewed their Jewish neighbors as less than human.

Thus, it was disturbing to see the intersectionality of racism and anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville, even though this is not a new phenomenon. Even more troubling were the President’s statements, which one day condemned the bigotry seen in Charlottesville and walked back that position the next.

Propaganda and public relations are often confused in the public mind. While both attempt to change peoples’ thinking, the difference comes from the truthfulness of the messages. A public relations practitioner’s reputation rests on his or her credibility. I don’t see much of a future pushing “alternative facts,” and I like going to bed knowing that I did my job honestly.

The musical “Hamilton” ends with the company asking “who tells your story?” Whoever it is, make sure they tell it right.