Why the Son of a Bus Driver Might Become Florida’s Next Governor

I was delighted to learn of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s victory in the Democratic primary in Florida governor’s race. He has had a remarkable career in public service that dates back to 2003, when he became the youngest person elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at the age of 23. I think he is someone who could become an important national figure some day; I wish him luck in what will be a very difficult race.

Andrew Gillum
Andrew Gillum

Gillum’s story reminds me of many of the young men and women I met while working at City College. He was one of seven children. His father was construction worker. His mother drove a school bus. His alma mater, Florida A&M University, played a transformative role in his life. He served as president of the FAMU Student Government Association and was the first student to be a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. He also met his wife there.

On its home page, Florida A&M, which was founded in 1887 and is an HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities), states “What distinguishes Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University from other universities is its legacy of providing access to a high-quality, affordable education to many students who otherwise may never have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams of getting a college degree.”

While it serves a more diverse student body, City College, which is the flagship of the CUNY system, has lived up to “its legacy of access, opportunity and transformation” since it was founded in 1847, 40 years before Florida A&M. Had Mr. Gillum grown up in New York City, odds are strong he would have attended CCNY or one of the 24 other schools and colleges that comprise “the greatest urban university in the world.”

Andrew Gillum’s story, like those of CCNY alums Andrew Grove, Gen. Colin Powell (USA) ret., and countless others who graduated from public college and universities, reminds us of the important role these institutions play in our society and economy. They serve as a bridge between modest beginnings and limitless possibilities.

They are engines of upward mobility. Young men and women who are starting careers as teachers, engineers, accountants, nurses, architects, etc. often enter the middle class the moment they move the tassels on their mortarboards from the right side to the left.

Supporting public colleges and universities is one of the soundest investments a state or city could make. They create strong talent pools for employers, and, since college grads earn higher salaries, the additional tax revenue they generate will pay for the grants. Additionally, research universities can be centers of innovation that lead to entire new industries. Think Silicon Valley.

Yet, in most states, investment in public higher education has gone down while tuition has gone up. In 28 states, tuition generated more than 50 percent of public colleges total revenue for FY 2017, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Since 1987-88, tuition at public four-year colleges and universities has tripled.

In addition, many public universities now recruit heavily from other states. At one time, it was almost as difficult for an out-of-state student to be accepted at a flagship state university as at an Ivy League school. Now, however, schools such as University of Michigan and University of Virginia have sizable out-of-state enrollments. That’s because they pay up to three times what in-state students pay.

What becomes of a school’s public service mission when that happens? For every out-of-state student University of Michigan enrolls a student from Detroit, Flint or Lansing doesn’t get to go. How many will of them stay in Michigan after graduation?

The conversation about public colleges and universities these days revolves more around what their teams do on the gridiron than what faculty and students achieve in the classroom and laboratory. Recent sex abuse scandals have hurt their images.

However, the stories of people like Andrew Gillum remind us that public higher education remains a pathway of opportunity for young men and women who might not otherwise be able to attend college. We need to keep that pathway clear and wide. It’s not only just, it’s good business, too.

The Pace on Campus May Slow, but Story Ideas Abound

Summers are slow on college campuses. After the build-up to commencement, everything seems to come to a crashing halt. Most students return home or take jobs. Faculty and administrators go on vacation. How does one keep an institution’s brand in the public eye during this period?

Take a look around at what’s going on and what makes it different. There are students on campus, but they might be high school students enrolled in enrichment programs or summer workshops. Professors can devote more time to research during the summer break. Find out what they are up to and if they have new papers being published in major journals.

There are stories off campus to tell, as well. Your students might be enrolled in study abroad programs or working in distant lands on projects sponsored by prominent NGOs. They might be conducting field work with a faculty mentor or engaged in an undergraduate research experience at a major university on the other side of the country.

Every year a delegation from Shimoda, Japan, seen here with relatives of Townsend Harris and college librarians, visits City College to pay homage to Mr. Townsend, who helped open trade between Japan and the United States. Photo by Ellis Simon.

Summer is also a time when people who normally aren’t around come to visit, sometimes from afar. At City College, each year a delegation led by the mayor of Shimoda, Japan, would come to pay homage to Townsend Harris, the college’s founder, who also was instrumental in opening Japan to trade with the United States. That annual ritual piqued the interest of New York Times reporter Clyde Haberman, a CCNY alum, who wrote a feature story on the pilgrimage.

Most important, highlight the impacts summer programs have. Enrichment programs can steer students, especially those from disadvantaged communities, onto new pathways, such as exploring opportunities in the STEM disciplines. I was privileged to have my first formal journalism training at summer workshops at Ball State University in Muncie, IN, some 700 miles from my Long Island home.

College campuses serve also as laboratories for the visual and performing arts, where projects are transformed from rough cut stones into polished gems. An example is the Williamstown Theatre Festival on the campus of Williams College. Earlier this month, we saw a production there of “The Closet,” a new comedy starring Matthew Broderick, and had the opportunity to give feedback to the writer, director and cast.

Enjoy your vacation. You earned it. But, summer isn’t an excuse for your news feed to become dated. Stories abound. You just have to look for them.

Things might be slow now; but be ready for what’s coming. In just a few weeks the corridors will be a lot noisier and you’ll know “they’re back.”

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.

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.


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

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-


  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?

IMG_5012 (002)

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