Cleaning Day

The weekend is when we have the time to pick up the pieces from the week. Sometimes it’s washing the car, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, or taking time for a bit of yard work. I am a big believer in having a clean environment to work, but it is also important to clean ourselves up with a little down time.

Island Life: Day 6

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Downloading Your Mom

RosieLet me just begin by saying that I love apps. I use many of them every day to feed my insatiable appetite for information. Apps alert me to breaking news, help me file feature stories to read later, enjoy my downtime with a few games, and find my way around cities when I travel. But that doesn’t change my view on how apps are hurting our lives.

Last week I received an email from Path with the subject line ‘Search Your Memories’. When I clicked it open I was greeted with a simple phrase: Remember life. The email asked me to “import my life from other networks to find any moment on Path.”

Import my life? Was life importable? Where was my life that it could be moved around from one spot to another? Was there more than the content I had imported? (Because I hadn’t updated anything in quite some time.)

I am not naïve. I understand that much of what we do in our lives is captured online either through our own posts or those from family, friends, or work colleagues. It was the phrasing that struck me. This app promised that it would help me reminisce, all one click away.

To be honest, it angered me a bit. Who did this app think it was? More importantly, who was the copywriter that dreamed up this email that was overstating its importance in my life? Path really only possessed as much of my life as I had contributed, leaving out the glue, the time in between moments that I captured and to be honest many weren’t captured because I was enjoying them too much to type anything into my phone.

I began to rethink my online life. It’s true that I had been spending more time online since I relocated to San Francisco. My job search has kept me bouncing around sites, scanning social networks for any hint of an opening that might interest me. I signed up for webinars and trudged through articles that would replace the on-the-job experiences of which I was no longer a part. I grew my network, writing daily posts to my blog, submitting articles that were published by virtual newsrooms, even being published in three books…well, e-books.

My life had become virtual, slowly and systematically I was an online entity with conversations springing from my fingertips far more often than my lips. That’s why this email pissed me off.

My mind raced for blame as it does during these moments of fault finding within myself. I blamed this culture that had sprung up within the last few years, steering us to the web more than out our doors. I looked at apps like Lift (I understand it yet it hasn’t clicked with me yet) and its popularity in my Twitter feed. People I followed rejoiced that the app told them how close they had come that week to their goals.

I remember when I used to journal my goals with a pen and paper. Throughout high school I tracked my caloric consumption as part of my athletic ventures. I noted my workouts by sets and reps. The act of writing kept me accountable because it was not in my memory, it was tangible and I had to own up to any failures on my own, through my journal.

Now there was this app that tells us if we are on the right track to being our best. Have we become a generation of grown-ups with online nannies? Have these app developers, in their efforts to make our lives easier really just invented virtual moms? Are these apps a false sense of self-reliance?

I remember when calendar reminders were new. The email alerts would remind us that we were about to miss a meeting or to prepare for tomorrow’s presentation. These were actionable items to be checked off of a list as we met requirements. Now it seems that these items are replaced with morals. How much have we read this week? Did we meditate enough hours? Are we becoming better?

How can an app measure our moral growth? Even to suggest so seems outlandish. Accomplishing and tracking daily tasks does not improve our inner being.

Is self-sufficiency and moral growth now accomplished by being smart enough to create or use an app that replaces our parents?

Yesterday’s News: Online Media, Running Shoes, Hip-Hop, New Books/Shady Marketing, and More

IMG_5360Each night when my wife arrives home she drops a stack of newspapers on our coffee table. She knows how much I still like to flip through a physical paper after spending all day online. The stack usually grows throughout the week until I binge one morning with a cup of tea in pure silence. I usually tear out a few stories that I want to read and put them aside, many times never touching them again. In an effort to keep up on my reading I am therefore creating a weekly post. Each Saturday I will share the stories that forced me to stop flipping and read beyond the headlines. Mind you these are not necessarily the biggest stories (I usually already read those online) or the ones that I should be reading (no assigned homework here). These are the few pieces of journalism that drew me in and informed me.

For reference I am provided with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and USA Today.

S.F. startup Inkling gives e-books a visual punch
Danielle Kucera explores how Inkling is making e-books interactive.

Logging Off To Trace A Web Photo To Its Source
David Carr follows the footsteps of a reporter who does the unthinkable – goes offline to report.

Apps vying to be the Instagram of mobile video
Tim Bradshaw rounds up some of the leading mobile video apps including Vine, Snapchat, and Cinemagram.

Unfriending Big Brother
Tom Shippey reviews Cory Doctorow’s Homeland. I read this after following the Bookish Twitter chat about Homeland this week.

When to Retire a Running Shoe
Gina Kolata probes the mystery every runner faces: when is it time to buy a new pair of sneaks?

Tweet For This Job ­– And It Could Be Yours
Bruce Horovitz examines attempts by companies to recruit using the popular social tool.

Avoiding Violent Images for an Anti-Poaching Campaign
Andrew Adam Newman looks at the World Wildlife Fund’s new ad campaign.

Getting to the Top: How Are Some Authors Landing On Best-Seller Lists? They’re Buying Their Way
Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg shines a light on the shady business of buying your way onto the best-seller lists.

A Hip-Hop Moment, But Is It Authentic?
Jon Caramanica assesses recent successes by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Baauer.

Agency struggles to bridge big divide
Peter Fimrite finds out why a name is important to hunters and animal welfare advocates.

Downton’s Not-So-Grim Reaper
Dave Itzkoff gets the skinny on why characters die on the popular show.

To Charm and Make Friends Fast: Share, Don’t Overshare
Elizabeth Bernstein learns why we need to be personal when making friends.

The Boy Wonder of Buzzfeed
Douglas Quenqua examines the accomplishments of Buzzfeed’s editor in chief.

New York Times Co. Selling ‘Boston Globe’
Roger Yu reports on the possible future sale of the nation’s 23rd largest newspaper, among others.

When You’ve Had One Meeting Too Many
Carson Tate examines this life of endless meetings that dominates corporate culture.

New screens require a new approach on TV content (Note: if you can find a working link please let me know in the comments section and I will add it on)
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson examines the shifting landscape of content presentation from media companies given the growth in internet video consumption.

Cutting Your Teeth: Let an Agency Kick-Off Your PR Career

I frequently give informational interviews to future public relations professionals looking for a bit of direction in their new career. I’m not sure if word got around that I almost always find time to mentor or if the trajectory of my own career appeals to amateur media wranglers but I keep receiving requests to chat.

No matter which soon-to-be graduate or mid-life job shifter sits across from me I always have the same advice: start at an agency. That may sound odd from someone who thoroughly enjoys in-house communications roles but by working at, drafting RFPs for, retaining, and yes, even firing agencies, I learned how to be a better communicator. It all started with practicing the basics. Let me explain why.

Write, Write, and Write Some More
If you are considering making public relations your career you better like writing. Sure you’ll be recording and cutting video or clicking away on your digital camera at times but writing remains the backbone of public relations.

At an agency you’ll be assigned to multiple clients all with various drafting needs including releases, social media posts, Op-Eds, white papers, and so forth. Writing multiple releases a day while also drafting a few blog posts may give you onset carpal tunnel but it’s worth it.

Cranking out copy and having it marked up so that only three words remain is how you become a better writer. Soon you will learn how to put your voice in the background and write in specific tones for your clients, your bosses, and eventually the media.

Pitches
My least favorite part of agency life that I am most grateful for having done is drafting pitches. I have not drafted a formal pitch in years thanks to these experiences. That sounds a little contradictory but let me explain.

The pitches are the little notes you send along to the media to accompany whatever release, alert, or advisory you created. While usually short and to the point these little bits of copy can be all that separate your story from being read or ignored. Each one is the hook or teaser to draw the reporter in further and I used to fail miserably at these when I started out for one reason – I couldn’t see what the news really was.

Drafting pitches will help you understand what the heart of the matter is and how to speak about it succinctly. The process of creating a pitch will eventually take place in your head so that you can draft better releases/alerts, put out more succinct social media posts, provide higher quality conversation with reporters, and generally not get lost in the fluff.

Press Lists
You’ll learn how to be organized at an agency by creating editorial calendars, listing speaking engagements, and assisting with events among other items. However, the most vital public relations creation often left to new or recent hires is the press list. Learning which reporters, bloggers, thought leaders, authors, and news gatherers to approach is not magically bestowed upon you when you are hired. Deciding whom to write to, call, have coffee with, or invite to an event takes research and lots of it.

Every campaign for each client needs a foundation and the press list will be yours. By going through this process of aggregating contacts you’ll better understand each industry and the personalities behind each byline. It includes reading more than you probably ever have before and, come to think of it, really deserves it’s own subhead here along the lines of Reading, Reading, and More Reading. If you write you need to read everything you can get your hands or your eyes on to help your clients.

Life at the Buffet Table
You’ll juggle more than a few clients as I mentioned. The average is usually somewhere from 4-6 with some agencies putting you on less teams as they scout for new business or more clients if they are running low on resources.

By handling multiple clients in various industries, or at least with different products, you’ll be provided with invaluable opportunities to learn what really gets your blood pumping. This is the best way to decide if you want to eventually narrow your focus in one field of expertise or remain a floater, able to move with ease among clients. If you choose to go in-house this will help greatly with juggling different departments and personalities.

New Business
Eventually you’ll be asked to help retain new business. This will involve countless meetings, more research, and the creation of presentations at first; ultimately culminating with accompanying your agency for the in-person pitch with perspective clients.

This is a time for fresh ideas and you will soon learn when to speak up and when to listen. Since you may be a PR genius I will not tell you to listen first but if your ideas don’t seem to be met with streamers and confetti you may want to take notes and mull over a few things before opening your mouth.

Cold Calling
I hope you like talking to strangers. I was lucky to have been a reporter before going into PR. Approaching people on the street was easy for me so I took quickly to picking up the phone and talking. The hard part is talking with focus.

Every conversation, you’ll learn, has a goal. Sometimes it may be obtaining an interview for a client and other days it may be touching base to see what a reporter is working on. Just remember that whenever you open your mouth or put your fingers to work you’re making a connection that will hopefully last the entirety of your career.

Your thoughts?
There are many more skills to be learned at an agency that help those starting out to decide if they want to stay or shift in-house. These are the few that left a lasting impression and made me better at my job. What were yours? Drop me a line on Twitter (@brianadamspr) with #AgencySkills or leave a comment below.

The Public Sector Takes a (Web) Page from Journalists

Picture 11Since when is the public sector ahead of the curve when it comes to website design? Well it may still be somewhat behind given this latest effort.

The Obama Administration literally pulled a virtual page from The New York Times with its new gun control page “Now is the Time”. The page, extremely similar of the Times’ “Snow Fall” project, is already winning accolades online and yet I don’t agree with most of the excitement.

Sure the page contains multimedia as videos breathe a bit of life into transcribed sound bites, but it’s reminiscent of my school field trips to rooms filled with animatronic historical figures. Those voices always clicked on just as you approached, a step up from having to press a button to hear the recorded speech.

On this page the chosen videos are just as lifeless, making me feel disconnected from the message, removed from history rather than closer to it. It’s hard to imagine that from all of the clips available, the creators of this page could not find more compelling content.

If that were my only concern with the site, I would say it was a nice attempt and that I look forward to the next try, however there was a more glaring issue — storytelling. As one author wrote: “A good story beats a good lecture.

Unfortunately, for all of the videos, this page tells more than it shows. I don’t know if the creators felt that the emotional pull of recent shootings would carry the reader through the call to action or if they felt rushed to produce a page to guarantee the rapt attention of a concerned nation in the midst of debate. In my case it left me wanting. I was looking for something more, a deeper dive into the issue of gun control rather than what felt like hastily aggregated re-hashings from our 24-hour news cycle.

Jon Lax wrote a great piece here on Medium about the “Snow Fall” feature called Subcompact Publishing meet Epic Storytelling in which he tackled a similar matter only from the viewpoint of a job well done. Lax described the differences between stories that have been stripped of cruft and those possessing attributes that aid in the consumption of that story. He concluded that moving forward, the more successful publications will possess the ability to do both well.

To accomplish this goal one aspect of a story must compliment the other. Each piece has to build upon or move forward the narrative. At no point should one part of the story impede another or slow the pace of the reader.

This is where the public sector frequently falls flat, away from the podium. Our leaders can grab us with their rhetoric, hold us with their conviction, and make us believe through their fist pounding, but without that emotional connection we are left uninspired. Government websites are rarely intuitive, full of dated information, and frequently left to die slowly when limited resources are needed elsewhere.

This page had potential. It needed to be a marriage of the senses where each piece could stand on its own while drawing the reader in with complimentary offerings. In the end it appears to be a paper version of what could have been. At a time when it should lead us forward it made me halfheartedly sign up because it was the right thing to do, from a feeling of obligation and not from a place of inspiration.

Going In-House: Shifting from the agency world

The public relations world is split into two distinct categories — those who work at agencies and those who work “in-house” at organizations. I juggled clients and prepped for pitch meetings as well as managed PR vendors for specific campaigns and those on retainer. I spent years learning clients’ stories and later captured news on-site with my trusty camera and note pad.

Looking back at when I made the shift away from the agency side in 2006 I wish someone had explained how things would stay the same yet change so dramatically. In the hopes that I may be able to provide some advice to those making a similar leap I took this opportunity to lay out what I found once I went in-house.

Experiencing stories
SWOT analysis, competitive research, company tours, and so forth. None of these things can take the place of living and breathing an organization every day. When working at an agency I juggled an average of 6 clients, all with different stories and needs. I logged my time, adhered to weekly call sheets, and strove to meet agreed upon deliverables. When I made the switch to in-house communications my perception of PR changed.

When you’re on-site you realize that your clients are the departments that need your help sharing their stories. The workload is the same, just different; the bonus being that you can poke around. There are still buffers that impede you from learning everything about a company and you’ll find ways around that, however for the most part you’re there to chronicle daily life.

Real time
By experiencing stories in real time you can react faster to the 24-hour news cycle. I can hear someone behind a desk at an agency reading this saying, “Hold your horses mister! When news breaks with a client, my phone rings and I am on it.”

While that is true, the agency PR staffer is receiving a filtered story from their client contact. I know this because I used to be on both sides of that call. The story that is told to a PR vendor is on its third, fourth, fifth iteration. Decisions have been made either by the contact or an internal team about what to share and how to proceed: dictate terms, ask for consultation, or frequently both in reverse order.

The on-site communications leader experiences news in real time. You uncover the news as it happens and choose those items you want to pursue from the unfiltered source. It’s a huge distinction between the trough of stories that you will be allowed to experience when you are in-house and those you are permitted to see on the agency side. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule and some agencies actually place a staff member in-house several days a week to better experience their client.

Response time
As the in-house communications leader you’re the barometer of response time. I’ve waited for clients to call me back with updates as I craft a press release, media alert, or whatever people want to call it these days. It stalls a conversation and kills momentum. In-house you can become known for pushing, in a good way, and carrying a story through to completion.

Sometimes you’ll be greeted with a sigh by co-workers and other times a smile. You’ll interview your colleagues every day, search for and learn about kernels of stories, vet them, and decide which should blossom into news. The more you perform this duty the faster you’ll be able to gauge the success of your news.

Decisions
Welcome to your new role as being the decision maker. As part of an in-house team you will have multiple team members, you may even have a VP to report to, however you were hired to bring your expertise and consultation in-house and you better use it.

Some days you’ll see a story, take photos and video, write a release, and send it out, all without running it up the usual chain of command. Your process is different and more likely consists of department heads that verify information rather than sign offs from your boss. Now you can stand in doorways, hold up a red pen, and ask for corrections before the story wilts on the vine. This may have been unique to my experiences however if you can balance how you ask your colleagues for assistance with demonstrating how you are helping, this can become a smooth process.

Crisis
All of this ties together nicely when a crisis strikes. While agencies can be prepared for layoffs, facility closures, or changes in leadership, the in-house communications leader is uniquely positioned when disaster strikes. If a crisis strikes quickly it is extremely beneficial to be on-site. I have had the unfortunate pleasure of handling arson, thefts, and unannounced picketing while in-house and I believe that the internal and external communications benefited greatly from time-saved and institutional knowledge.

When it comes to long-lead crisis, such as downsizing, the external communications may be handled equally well by agencies or an on-site team however the real difference can be seen when the dust has settled. At this point it is the in-house communications leader that walks the halls, takes the pulse of the organization, shapes and reshapes messaging, keeps departments informed, and calms many of the nerves once the ground has finished shifting underneath employees.

Your thoughts?
I’m sure there is more to say on this topic, which is why I started this discussion. I would love to hear from anyone in PR that is passionate about working in-house or on the agency side. What makes it ideal for you? Write a post about your experiences and let me know or drop me an email at brianadamspr@gmail.com.

Writer’s Block: 5 (more) Tips on…Writing from Writers

As communications professionals we write each and every day. Whether it is a press release, an Op/Ed, a letter to the editor, a proposal, a blog post, or a tweet, the writing process can occasionally become stale.

When the writing blahs strike I like to look to authors for sage advice. Today was such a day. When I sat down at my desk this afternoon to write my daily post I did not feel particularly motivated. I decided to search for some inspiration and came across some genuine nuggets of wisdom for overcoming early onset writer’s block.

As a follow up to my original post “5 Tips on…Writing from Writers” I present 5 more tips on writing from writers:

Go Outside
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” ― Benjamin Franklin

Put Pen To Paper (or finger to keyboard/touch screen or quill to parchment or whatever)
“I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” ― Robert Frost

Make Your Own Rules
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” ― W. Somerset Maugham

Keep At It
“You fail only if you stop writing.” ― Ray Bradbury

Finally, the advice that I took:

“…writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all…”
Charles Bukowski

How do you overcome writer’s block?

10:30 and 50 Miles from San Francisco

A haiku:

An empty theater
A decision made lightly
A “Lawless” movie

image

Learning v. Discovery

I’m splitting hairs today.

“Discover” is an overused word. Too many of us throw it around. How many times today have you discovered a story on the Internet, a video on YouTube, or a new function on your phone? We tell our friends about the “new” restaurant we “discovered” or the television series we are only now “discovering” after our social network recommended it.

But do we really discover these things? Sure, we didn’t know about it until the moment that we did, but we can assume these videos were seen, restaurants were eaten at, and television shows were watched before we knew of them. To be put another way, did Christopher Columbus “discover” new lands or did he just become the next person to set foot there?

Information

As we promote much of the trivia that fills our day, we can overlook actual moments of discovery. We have so much information at our hands that there is rarely a fact that we cannot find. The level of “discovery” that I share with others, hear about in conversations, and see among users of social media is immense. For me this takes a bit of the magic out of life. Each time I Google a bit of information I feel hollow afterwards, as if I ate a bag of chips hoping to be satiated. It’s the regret of possessing the answer but knowing that I came about it the cheap way, taking a shortcut.

Meanings

The truth is we are changing the meaning of “discovery” a little more each day, weakening it through overuse. So why do we use it? Does it make us feel a bit more adventurous even though we never left our desks? Does it give us a sense of leadership or authority as if we now know what no one else does?

I think so. I think that with so much knowledge at our fingertips, many of us do not want to admit that we did not know something. We want to present facts as if they came from us and not through us, which is one reason, I think, that we Tweet news stories so often. While we credit the news source (at least you should if you are a responsible tweeter) we also repurpose it, giving it our own spin. In reality we never discovered these things. In many instances we more accurately knew of them.

Learning

Moving forward, I think we should try our best to remove “discover” from our collective vocabulary along with “found” and “unearthed”. Instead we should try our best to say “learned” since that is what we are all doing – learning. Let’s leave discovery to those rare moments in our lives when we actually do find something.

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