Remembering 9/11/01

While I have many memories of where I was, how I felt and the unfolding of events on 9/11/01, I am always struck by the irony of how I learned what was happening. I can’t remember who the client was that I was working for at the time, but I know I was working in my home office, alone in the house and nine-plus months pregnant. The baby was due in three days and I was trying to make sure I wrapped up or got ahead on as much work as possible before he came. I was spending my morning creating a media list and calling radio stations in several states to ask if they had a dedicated news department, accepted press releases and the like. I was struck by the fact that several of them gave me strange, almost sarcastic answers to my inquiries about their depth of daily news coverage:

“We are covering it today.”

“We’re in the middle of it right now.”

“Today we do.”

I think, but cannot recall clearly, that I had the passing thought that something big must be going on in their region because the stations were all in a particular state or area. While in the midst of this, my father called me. Retired and living in the Adirondacks, he often called at night but never during the day when I was working. He greeted me with, “Are you watching TV?” I was slightly irritated and offended that he would think I’d be watching television on a workday. I figured he hadn’t gotten his hands around this home-office, self-employment thing. Then he told me to turn on the news and I saw the first tower on fire. As I processed, Dad told me a plane had hit it and I thought it was a terrible accident. With the rest of the world, I watched in horror as the day unfolded and we as a country realized things would never be the same. We would never again hear about a plane crash or explosion and just assume a terrible accident had occurred.

As most people did, I reached out to my family and my friends. I called my husband who was teaching down the street to find out he couldn’t leave school because they were locked down as a precaution against an unknown and undefined threat. No one knew what was going to happen next or where. I prayed our baby would not be born on that day when his father would not be able to come with me to the hospital and when his birthday would forever be the day so many souls left the world.

I did not do anymore work that day and I didn’t process the news reports like a public relations professional looking for data that impacted clients’ overall communication programs. I watched emotionally as an American and a heartbroken human. The baby did not arrive then, nor three days later. Maybe he knew the world had just turned upside down outside and it was best to stay where he was, because doctors had to go get him when he was more than a week late. The front page of the paper the day he was finally born had a picture of President Bush and a headline that spoke of “War.” The flag outside the hospital window was at half-staff.

Fourteen years later, my father is gone and the baby is bigger than I am, healthy and happy. In school today he will watch a documentary about 9/11/01 for the first time. When he gets home, we’ll process it together as Americans and humans. It’s what each generation must do as we honor our commitment to “Never Forget.”

Lessons on Customer Service from the Family Car Trip

This summer, as always, our family visited my mother in the Adirondacks. There are many important life lessons to be learned from five-hour family car trips (i.e., ask kids if they have to ‘go’ before you pass the rest area and then the sign saying the next one is 30 miles away). Also hidden amidst the moderating of backseat arguments, however, is a very important business lesson about the critical role customer service plays in people’s experiences, large and small. If your company is not consistently evaluating its interactions with its customers, you are neglecting one of the most important public relations tactics available and possibly subjecting your consumers to a very rough ride.

In countless years making this trip to Mom’s, we’ve rushed directly from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’ limiting our stops to a bathroom break and fast meal at one of the interstate fast food joints. This did not make for a pleasant trip. Aside from taking a toll on my nutritional makeup, my wallet and my patience, eating at fast food restaurants while traveling often left me feeling somewhat abused and confounded. Countless times I waited in line, ordered, received my number and watched as someone picked food from shelves and bins while staring at the ticket on screen and never once looked me in the face as the consumer. Even without the distraction of eye contact, it was almost without fail that the order was faulty when I got it. I regularly returned to the counter from the parking lot to request the small chocolate milk that should have come with the meal, a sandwich that was ordered and not included or even to change out a wrong fish for the right chicken.

Customer service here was at its worst – no eye contact, scripted communication, customers by the numbers and mistakes aplenty. We put up with it because we were captive audience; it was on the way, quick and convenient. In fact, though, it wasn’t that quick or convenient to have to go back to fix mistakes and we were spending a small fortune for lunch for a family of four. As research shows most disgruntled consumers will do, we complained about this poor experience to many people.

As unhappy consumers are also inclined to do, we stopped frequenting these food businesses. We found a more friendly, delicious and economical solution and have stuck to it. The rest stops are now just that to us: a quick in and out along the road where we don’t spend money.

Their replacement is a small restaurant about an hour and a half away from my mother’s that serves pizza and subs. The pizza is fabulous and we often eat it outside at a table under a tent so the dog can get out of the car, too. We generally call the restaurant from the road and order pizza so it will be ready or in the oven by the time we arrive. Each time I call, a friendly voice asks me when I’d like it ready and how many plates I’ll need. We are greeted upon arrival with eye contact, the right pizza and number of plates, smiles and such a genuine desire on the part of the staff to make our meal enjoyable that we don’t feel we’ve stopped for lunch, we feel we’ve just had one of our favorite recurring experiences. Their regular staffers have become familiar faces that represent a refuge from hours of traffic, canned air and electronic device recharging. It’s not just the food that keeps us going back, it’s their “Welcome home; what can I feed you?” approach.

To generate the customer loyalty the pizza and sub restaurant has earned from us for your business, you need to make sure that really good, experience-generating customer service is practiced by everyone in your organization that comes in contact with a human that doesn’t work for you. On the interstate, the fast-food employees were thousands of miles removed from their corporate bosses and company’s culture, yet created a brand impression with us that ultimately lost them our business.

Evaluate and train everyone and always consider what more they could do to be treating your consumers the way they feel they deserve to be treated. If you don’t, there’s a competitor (or a pizza shop) around the corner who will.

Jan and Flo and Hannah and Her Horse

I was there for Rob Lowe’s Brat Pack years, including “Class” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and his Sam Seaborn was one of my favorite “West Wing” characters. You’ll understand, then, why the DirecTV commercials starring Lowe and all his alter-egos resonated with me. I imagine my demographic was in their sights when they set out to create those commercials and wittingly end each one with the theme from “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Watching the once-teen heart throb play roles such as ‘creepy,’ ‘far less attractive,’ and ‘peaked in high school,’ was hilarious. I didn’t switch to DirecTV and doubt I ever will, but I gave them props for original content and creativity. The Better Business Bureaus’ National Advertising Division wasn’t as thrilled, citing complaints about truthfulness and accuracy (not related to the fact that he didn’t really peak in high school). I won’t dispute those claims or DirecTV’s pulling of the Lowe ads in response. I think that was actually the best move for them given the circumstances. What I can’t support, however, is the replacement of those creative ads with “Hannah and Her Horse,” a trite, standby advertising approach of throwing a bikini-clad blond female on screen to sell something other than bikinis. Thanks, DirecTV, for taking a huge step back both in creativity and the portrayal of women in advertising. For that matter, you took a huge step back in portraying animals on television since even her horse comes off as a self-centered dip.

I won’t say that today’s TV commercials are still exclusively sexist or that no smart, educated or respect-worthy women are ever portrayed. I know they are out there, but not enough so that I can quickly think of the wonderful examples of empowered women in ads. I also won’t include Dove, since they use the empowerment angle to sell, rather than selling using portrayals of already powerful women. Somehow it seems patronizing to be told you’re not a supermodel so should buy this brand of soap to spite them.

More often than not, brands choose to rely on comedic powerhouses such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey (all of whom I love and respect, don’t get me wrong) or take a tongue-in-cheek approach to their female spokesperson. Take ‘Jan,’ Toyota’s spokes-secretary or ‘Flo,’ the now iconic Progressive sales agent in sanitary white attire. Sure, each is the lead in the commercial and seems to be presenting the critical information (even about such ‘man’ subjects as trucks and motorcycles) but does any little girl say she wants to be Jan or Flo when she grows up? Sadly, I think many are more likely to feel bad about themselves for not looking like Hannah, riding down the beach where there’s clearly no technology for miles talking about DirecTV.

As a woman with a master’s degree and a business in which I provide experience, insight, advice and well-crafted communication to clients, I don’t feel like I see my peers in commercials when I look at the women who are shocked at how pretty a car’s interior is. I recognize my peer group in the men who can intelligently talk about investments and retirement, insurance, health care and even how to grow a decent lawn. As a woman who grew up in the conceited ‘80s when male stars like Rob Lowe starred across from half-naked, bikini clad anorexics, I also recognize the character of Hannah and find myself hating her, the horse she rode in on, and DirecTV for setting it all back decades rather than once again raising the creative bar to come up with something really engaging.

News in the Post-Jennings Era

In today’s news-everywhere world, information is rapidly acquired, shared, revised, redistributed and filed away as “archive.” Those of us in the PR field are in permanent learning mode. We stay “current” in a world where that word seems to apply only to the last five minutes, and that’s fine by most of us because we are inherently lifelong learners. I know if I didn’t have the passion and interest for learning that I do, I would not be able to understand multiple clients’ industries well enough to be effective for them. This era’s constancy of shared information also feeds the inquisitive me, the individual who always wants to know who, what, when, where, why, how – and especially “what else?” Whatever of those can’t be answered by one source can usually be picked up through a combination for quick intellectual satisfaction.

Then there are days like today, however, when I am surrounded in my every interaction by stories of a child care provider who allegedly preyed on little boys and a pilot who intentionally flew 150 lives into the ground –along with numerous other examples of depravity, sorrow and hopelessness from around the country and around the world. On these days, I find myself missing the news cycle of my childhood. Then, my interest in the newspaper was singularly focused on the Sunday comics and Peter Jennings broke all bad news to me gently, with a soulful look and a slightly roguish accent for good measure. I wasn’t alone; after his days-long reporting of the the 911 attacks, TV Guide referred to Jennings as “the center of gravity.”

Of course, the adult I’ve grown to be would no longer be happy in that environment (although I would still love it if Jennings were my go-to source for the world’s bad news). We don’t live there anymore and we shouldn’t. After all, our ability to see what is going on around the globe within minutes, hours or days has made us more aware of the needs of our fellow humans. It has stirred action and reaction. I’d like to think it has saved lives and advanced science, medicine and the social sciences. I know it has also shone a light on our shortcomings as people and as countries, but with all good comes some bad (and vice versa).

In his last broadcast in 2007 Jennings said, “Even I’m amazed at how far and how fast news travels.” He was referring to the support he received when he announced he was diagnosed with cancer. My new “center of gravity” in the world where the speed of news would truly stun Jennings is the ability to find examples of human compassion, strength, endurance and connection. They are out there strewn among the bad news that is in overdrive. Sure, no one slaps a 300-point font headline on them to scream at me the second I land on the website (yep, looking at you CNN), but they are there and not too hard to find.

In life as in public relations, after all, there needs to be both balance and a human connection. A truthful and informative message –whether good or bad news – has to be delivered with the real person on the other end in mind, much as Jennings’ broadcasts made people watching in their living rooms feel as if he were talking directly to them. Remember, as he seemed to, that the “target audience” in any communication is a human being. Maybe you can become someone’s center of gravity in this boundless world, too.


Basketball and Public Relations: Sweet!

As the nation gears up for the exciting end of the college basketball season, I’ve had a personal epiphany. I’ve realized I love the sport because it has many of the same elements as my chosen profession of public relations. Not obvious? I can see how the lack of silky shorts and high tops could be confusing, but there really are similarities.

Basketball is a fast-paced team sport. There are well-defined and thoroughly researched plays and strategies that can easily go unnoticed by the untrained eye. In fact, for most of my life I watched the game unaware that the college and pro players weren’t just acting on some general guideline of get the ball, make a basket, keep the other team from doing same. After all, that’s what we’d done as kids in our backyards. I’d never given much thought to the professional coaching staff in the background that spent days researching opponents and their own team’s strengths to determine how to guide individual games. I thought they were calling it as they saw it in the moment. I’m happy to say I’ve learned some things about basketball strategy in recent years and it’s made me love it even more. (Although, I’ve moved on to trying to figure out all the different penalties.)

In public relations, practitioners also work in teams with their clients and sometimes other PR people to analyze their clients’ strengths, skills and roles in the marketplace to guide communication. We develop strategic plans and approaches based on years of education, experience and in some cases a gifted instinct like that of many ball players. We hone our writing abilities with our own kind of workout and practice. We even follow strict guidelines (it could be said that double-dribbling, traveling and illegal screens are also a “no-no” in PR writing). Then, we hit the court and write press releases, pitch the media, and define and maintain a social media presence. To the untrained eye, we also look like we are following general playground guidelines – aiming for a basket, missing sometimes and reacting to the other team’s plays. Many people watch what we do and also think they could replicate it because, after all, everyone learned how to write as children before heading outside to those hoops over the garage.

Whether basketball or public relations, the truth is that it isn’t as easy as the pros make it look (but it really can be as much fun as it looks).

Recently, sitting in a restaurant surrounded by televisions broadcasting different sports, I also realized that among the ways basketball differs from other sports is in the way goals are celebrated. Soccer players lift each other and run; football players have the jumping chest bump (ouch), but in basketball the game goes on. Players may have a chance to smile and high-five on their way down the court after a basket, but they’d also better be chasing the other team to their basket – or better yet, beating them to it – and listening to their coach call their defense.

In public relations, too, the game moves too quickly to stop and celebrate every little victory at risk of losing sight of the ball. While we smile and maybe get a quick high-five moment with clients after successes, we’re likely already on to the next pitch and the next story that needs to be told. Personally, I don’t mind skipping the jumping chest bump (ouch, seriously?) because I enjoy the pace it takes to not just make baskets, but to win the whole game with my clients – to authentically and consistently represent their messages and their brand as a valuable member of their team.

Of course, there are many more ways basketball and PR are different than they are the same. A key difference being that the little guy can be successful in PR whereas it gets harder and harder to be little as the level of play is elevated in basketball. In public relations, the “little guy” solo practitioner can deliver just as many wins for a client as a big agency team. It all really comes down to education, practice, talent and that nearly invisible strategy.

So, as you begin to fill out your basketball brackets, good luck to you and your picks! When it’s time to start filling in some gaps in your communication program, recruit your talent based on the skills, experience and strategy they can bring to the table. Things will move quickly once you set your program in motion; you want to be sure your team can make it look easy and deliver the win.

This Mom Accepts Your Apology

Earlier this week, Fortune published a commentary piece with a pretty compelling title, “Female company president: I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with.’” Author Katherine Zaleski wrote “…in my mid-twenties, I committed a long list of infractions against mothers or said nothing while I saw others do the same.” The infractions boil down to disregarding the ability of a woman with children to do a job as well or with as much dedication as one without children (or a man, regardless of whether he has children or not). This article resonated with me as a self-employed professional with an insane amount of dedication both to my profession and my family.

I started Cindy Lee Associates married but without children in 1996. It was a tenuous time, a little early in the tech era for people to work from home with such newfangled tools as email. I found a number of clients accepting of the fact that I could write, edit and distribute materials from my home office. I also ran across many skeptics who hired larger agencies to do work which I could easily do because they just weren’t convinced I wouldn’t spend my days in slippers eating bon-bons. In truth, I did often wear slippers and my bulldog snored so loudly next to the desk I would occasionally take calls in another room. However, I never ate bon-bons in my life and I always put in a full and highly productive workday.

When I was pregnant with my first son, I had already operated Cindy Lee Associates for five years. Virtual offices were less rare and clients appreciated the personal approach of an independent. However, while people could accept a woman working from home, they had trouble believing a mother could do so effectively. I chose clothes for meetings that would best hide my expanding mid-section, afraid I would be seen as about to become less reliable.

When I did discuss pregnancy with clients, more often than not the men were logistical: “Let’s set up a plan for while you’re gone.” It was the women who told me “You’ll never be able to work from home with a baby.” I imagine none thought they were being cruel, condescending or biased, but it struck fear in me nonetheless. I had no desire to kill the business I nurtured, and the idea of having to do so drove panic through to my soul.

Zaleski wrote, “For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives.” Sadly, she couldn’t be more right. By the time my second son was born six years later, the world had changed. Virtual offices and telecommuting were “normal.” Even people who worked in offices did it at least sometimes! I had clients celebrate his birth with me, send cards, flowers or gifts, and appreciate the work I did before he was born to get them in a position to do without me for a little while after. They also eagerly awaited my return and knew I’d be back. Coincidentally, they were all women – wonderful women. Conversely, it was usually women for whom I worked who said all the right things to sound like they understood, respected or admired professional women with children, but whose actions were in stark contrast.

I give my very best to every client and every project. I adore what I do. I’ve been in the public relations profession for 20 years and I still get as giddy as an intern when a story I’ve pitched and/or written appears – and it’s no longer a rare thing! I love the research phase of every story, writing, honing and editing to give the gem its greatest shine. I also do the best I can for my family. I am home with my children when they’re sick, run glasses to school when contacts fail, attend as many games and tournaments as possible and work out with them to keep us all healthier. I like honing them into the best gems they can be, too. What’s more, I can. I can do both because I have excellent time management skills, am super-organized and am passionate about succeeding in everything I do. Aren’t those the skills that make men and professional women without children successful too?

I wish all people, men and women alike, would come to the conclusion that Zaleski did, “that mothers are the people you need on your team.” I’m not sure it will ever happen. In all honesty, I was reluctant to write this, knowing some may bash it as a mother’s ranting or whining. I’m not whining. I love my life and my business. I am hoping that all mothers can someday soon be respected for their professionalism, as much as their male counterparts with and without kids.

As for me, I’ll continue to appreciate and cultivate working relationships with those who give me the chance to show how valuable a team member I can be. I promise, my boxer snores way less than my bulldog and I still don’t eat bon-bons.