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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.

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

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.

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 under currents.

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.

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.

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.

Mark Twain said “I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” Who doesn’t like a good story well told? J.K. Rowling turned the story of British school children with magical powers into a multi-billion dollar cottage industry. When one of my first editors was pleased with an article my colleagues or I wrote for the newspaper he’d exclaim: “That’s a hell of a damn story.”

Too often, however, the public relations and corporate communications arenas are filled with stories that are dull, confusing or written in language only persons with advanced degrees could comprehend. They read as if the writer didn’t want you to grasp his message or he/she buried the news on the third page of the press release.

I take pride in producing good stories well and making complex topics accessible to different stakeholders. I put technical jargon into the layman’s language and strive to keep my sentences and paragraphs brief by editing out unnecessary verbiage.

But that’s not enough. A story needs to resonate with the reader, especially when that reader is a journalist. Within a split second he or she will decide whether to open or delete an email based on the subject line and, perhaps, a few lines of the lead paragraph. So, strong headlines are a must, as is compelling content. Here are a few devices to hook your audience.

Human Interest           The student body at City College of New York consists largely of young men and women from New York’s immigrant and working class families. Many are the first in their families to attend college. They persist to graduation despite juggling job and family responsibilities, and often they have overcome adversity. Their stories touch the heart and open the wallets of generous alumni.

An example is Lev Sviridov, who lived with his mother in a tent under the George Washington Bridge when he came to New York from Russia. Lev was an outstanding student and researcher who would become City College’s first Rhodes Scholar since before World War II.

One year we sent out a simple media pitch about two other high-achieving students who received doctoral fellowships from prestigious universities and had compelling human interest stories. The New York Post bit and ran a full-page feature with the headline “They’re Back! Best and Brightest Fuel CCNY Revival.” That’s quite a turnaround from a newspaper that a few years earlier was treating City College as a whipping boy.

We later institutionalized stories like these by creating a web site called Great Grads. It featured profiles of a dozen or so members of the graduating class from across the campus. The chosen students weren’t just high achievers. Many had great human interest stories, too. We promoted the site through social media (Facebook, Twitter) and received an excellent response. Great Grads became an annual project. The development office re-purposed the content as a journal and posters for a fundraising gala. They also invited the Great Grads to attend the dinner and sit among the alums.

Relevance           Readers need to relate to a story. It has to be about something they care about. A professor could be a terrific researcher or teacher, but often interest in his or her work is, unfortunately, confined largely to his or her field of expertise.

That wasn’t the case for Teresa Bandosz, a City College chemist who researched the odor-adsorbing properties of carbons. Professor Bandosz discovered that sludge pellets heated to high temperatures and converted to charcoal could reduce the odors emitted at sewage treatment plants. This held out the possibility of relief for New Yorkers who lived near the plants. Both The New York Times and Daily News ran stories about her work.

Timeliness           “Strike while the iron is hot.” The best time to put out a story is when it offers a fresh perspective on something people are already talking about. Such was the case with a story we issued in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy about landscape architecture Professor Catherine Seavitt’s research on use of soft infrastructure to protect against coastal flooding and storm surges. She and colleagues had published the research two years earlier, and suddenly it became topical. The story was picked up by several websites, including Business Insider and World Landscape Architect.

Graphics           We all know “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Some images remain etched in our memories. Good photos, illustrations, charts and graph enhance stories and help readers grasp the content. I’ll discuss what makes for good art another time. However, being able to provide supporting materials, including video, increases the chances a story will get picked up.

Sometimes, however, a good writer can paint a picture just by using keystrokes as his or her medium and a computer screen for a canvass. Such was the case with a reporter for the Greenville News who wrote a feature story about a pig farm. It ran on the front page of the Sunday edition without accompanying photos. It didn’t need any. The writer put the picture in the readers’ minds. It was a hell of a damn story.

Numbers           To be newsworthy, something has to be the first, the fastest or the biggest. To earn one of these accolades it needs to be quantified. Numbers are news. Colleges and universities are ranked by academic standing; research expenditures, acceptance rates and the prowess of their athletic teams. Those rankings get reported and shared widely. In the investment banking world, the league tables were watched religiously as bankers vied to be listed number one in underwriting debt or equity.

The numbers aren’t always readily apparent. One client wanted me to publicize his business producing telethons to sell cable TV. I asked how many units he had sold. He wasn’t sure. Then I asked whether we could say truthfully he was at or near his one millionth sale. That became our hook, and it resulted in a nice feature in one of the cable trade magazines.

No matter whether you’re trying to place a story in The New York Times, sharing via social media or writing for a newsletter or website seen by your best customers, the content needs to be well written and hook the reader. You are competing for their time and attention. Make sure it is time well spent. What else have you done to hook your audience?