Monthly Archives: December 2008

Thanks: I’ll be back in 2009

I enjoyed my run this morning. It was cold — but amazingly peaceful.  Getting out and hitting the concrete at 5 a.m. isn’t for everyone. I know that to be true. I almost never see another runner. And some days like this morning I don’t even see many cars. But I’ve been doing this now for about 30 years. It seems right. And on a morning like this — with the Xmas lights still shining on the houses and nary a sound — it’s peaceful. I expect I’ll keep at it next year and hopefully for many years to come.

I plan to continue writing here as well. I started this blog almost exactly a year ago. I thought it was a good idea to learn by doing about something that so many were talking about in the classroom and online. Now as we enter the last days of the year, I’ve managed to make this like running another part of my daily routine. Today marks post No. 228. And it is as good a time as any to take a few days off. As my friend Bill Sledzik says — time to go off the grid for a while.

But I do want to thank those of you who come here daily — or visit occasionally. I benefit — and other readers benefit as well — from your comments and encouraging remarks. And I’m still not sure what impact blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the rest will have on the worlds of journalism, public relations, communications in general. But even here in a very limited way to be sure I can see how a community of readers and writers can expand a story, add context and perspective — and in some cases, correct the views of the writer. That strikes me as having value. For someone who has spent 40 years in public relations, journalism and education, it’s exciting to see the changes that are taking place. And next year I believe we are going to see another step as the Obama administration uses the entire range of online tactics and media to enhance communications, decision making, advocacy, transparency and feedback.

Next year I want to write more about education — and the challenges facing our schools and our teachers. And I want to continue to explore this notion of a new ethic of responsibility. We’ve moved away from that as a nation. And now we need to get it back — through civility, ethical conduct and leadership.

So I’ll be back in 2009.

Happy New Year!

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Christmas Ale and Michelle Obama

Wow. I’ve been stuck on the treadmill all week. Nothing like winter in Northeast Ohio: perennially and pathetically grey, snow and occassionally an ice storm just to make things interesting. And yet, c’mon. For all of us who have lived here for years (decades?, forever?) would we really be happy in a place like Florida, playing shuffleboard and searching for the world’s softest yogurt?

christmasale_bottleglassNah. And besides. No Great Lakes Christmas Ale. There are certain things that define the season. This is one of them — and it bridges the generations. Here’s a for instance. I was at the Cleveland Cavaliers game last night sitting quietly next to a young guy and two of his friends. At mid-game I retired to the concession area with my wife, Mary, and son, Brian. And returned with a plastic cup filled to the rim with “a holiday ale brewed with honey and spiced with fresh ginger and cinnamon.”

“Christmas Ale?” my neighbor asked. “I can smell it. And it reminds me of Christmas.”

Well, it was as though LeBron had reupped for another tour of duty with the home team. High fives all around. And best wishes for the holidays. Bet that doesn’t happen with soft yogurt.

By the way, the Cavaliers are engaging in a nasty violation of customer relations. Every time they want the crowd to boo they display the Pittsburgh Steelers logo on the big arena screens. WTF. Better they flash the photo of my Merrill Lynch financial adviser. Or Dick Cheney. I digress.

Then I got home — surviving the ice storm that turned the roads into a combination hockey rink/demolition derby. But I had another nice e-mail from Michelle Obama. She has been good about keeping in touch, much better than I am at this time of year with friends who I have managed to let drift away over the years. Wonder if my high school buddies still gather on Christmas Eve to quaff a few at the Mayfield Lounge on Pittsburgh’s North Side?

Anyway, here’s Michelle’s note:

Rob —

This holiday season, the grassroots movement you helped build can make a big difference for those in need.

I hope you will join me in supporting your favorite charity or contributing to causes that are especially meaningful to me and my family.

While many of us will spend the holidays counting our blessings and sharing dinner with loved ones, millions of people around the country won’t be so fortunate. Donating to your local food bank will help provide a holiday meal to people in your community who can’t afford one.

Talking with the families of deployed troops was one of the most rewarding experiences I had during the campaign. Giving to Operation USO Care Package is a great way to send members of our military stationed around the world a reminder that someone back home is thinking of them.

This is a time to celebrate our blessings, the new year, and a new era for our country. But it’s also a time to come together on behalf of those who need our help.

Do what you can to help today by locating your local food bank and giving your support:

http://my.barackobama.com/foodbanks

Or send a care package to an American in uniform:

http://my.barackobama.com/carepackage

Thank you for all that you do and have a very happy holiday season,

Michelle

I’m encouraged by Michelle’s apparent spirit of caring.  And I really am confident that we are going to see change begining next year that will help people throughout our nation. Let’s hope. This country is in a mess. We need leadership. We need honest, complete and timely communication. And we need to work together to solve the many problems facing our economy, our schools and our way of life in general. That’s my wish as we move into the holidays and beyond.

And if Michelle and Barack keep in touch, maybe next year I’ll invite them to stop by.

For a Christmas Ale.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Holiday hams and bank mergers

“I got my ham. Praise the Lord.” A man whose name I don’t recall said that on Christmas Eve two or three years ago — after leaving a HoneyBaked Ham Store in Cleveland just before closing time. The moment was recorded for history by a reporter with WEWS-TV.

It seems that the gentleman was given the assignment a few weeks prior. But, alas, as all of us in the communications business know, sometimes we just work better under the pressure of a deadline. So there he was, gripping the holiday ham and fielding questions like a PR pro: “Praise the Lord.”

Indeed. He had the ultimate sound bite: crisp and memorable. And are there any among us who ever came home from the store empty handed — or worse, with the wrong item — that couldn’t share in his glee?

I was thinking about that this morning after I made the short loop from the HoneyBaked Ham store close to where I live to my bank of 39 years, National City. Now defunct. National City now sleeps with the fishes — partly because its management wanted to swim with the sharks in the mortage-lending debacle and partly because PNC, the acquiring financial institution, is using federal bailout tax dollars to fund the acquisition.

This deal stinks. But it’s history. And I hope that when the time comes for the inevitable branch closings and employee layoffs that PNC management has as much media savvy as the gent heading home with the ham for the holidays. They are going to need it. Something tells me The Plain Dealer is going to be watching developments — and continuing some old-fashioned reporting here.

By the way, I was in the National City branch where I bank at about the time shareholders from both organizations approved the merger. I had to fill out a deposit slip — but there was no ink in the pen on the counter. Oh well. Cost cutting has to start somewhere.

On the bright side, I got to HoneyBaked Ham so early this morning that I didn’t even have to wait in the queue.

Praise the Lord.

Finding a job in tough economic times

OK. To call these tough economic times is to state the obvious. And it understates the reality of what is actually going on. Recent surveys by the Society for Human Resource Management and Watson Wyatt, a large benefits and human resources consulting firm, found that companies are planning additional layoffs next year. And that’s on top of the millions that are already looking for work. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, there are now 3.3 unemployed people for every job opening. (Statistics from the Wall Street Journal by subscription only, “Jobs, Benefits: Grim Outlook” December 18, 2008.)

Those are numbers. What made this personal for me last week were several e-mails I received from former students, now looking for their first job following graduation in December or looking for new jobs after being laid off. And then I read a story — well, a nonstory, really — in The Plain Dealer yesterday about a recent PR grad from the University of Texas who has been trying unsuccessfully for months to land a PR job in Chicago. I wish the young woman well and every success. But what made this a story is anyone’s guess. At the least, the Associated Press writer could have offered a tip  or two for finding a job in tough economic times. (This story, “Texan keeps positive in tough Chicago job market,” was so thin it apparently fell between the pixals on the PD’s website and vanished into cyberspace.)

Here’s a sample of the story, focusing on Kimberly Bratton, who graduated from the University of Texas this summer and headed to Chicago, without a job but with the hope of landing a spot in PR and advertising:

“So far it has meant taking office temp jobs and lining up baby-sitting gigs while she networks, sends applications and schedules the occasional interview.”

I’m sure Kimberly isn’t alone. But it’s too bad that the writer, Martha Irvine, didn’t provide some advice. So since I’ve been through a few — too many, really — recessions during the past 40 years, I’ll offer a few modest suggestions. Here goes:

  • Make sure your resume is current and free of errors. Highlight your strengths, skills and accomplishments. Particularly if you are looking for that first full-time job, remember that you are now most likely competing with people who have several years of experience. You have to sell yourself. And don’t neglect the experience you do have, gained through internships or volunteer work. It all counts.
  • And — that’s why I believe a cover letter is much more important in the early stages of a career (and subsequent job search) than a resume. Make your cover letter specific — let the employer know what you can contribute and how you can make his/her job easier — and let him/her know at the end of the letter that you are going to follow-up with a phone call. That says you’re serious. And engaged in a job search. Here’s a good source for tips on writing cover letters — and for in-person and phone interviews.
  • Let everyone and anyone know you are looking for a job. Networking is tough in ideal conditions. But having someone tell you about a job opening — or better yet, recommending you for a job — is still the best bet. I know the band has passed me by on a lot of things, but I’ll bet more people get jobs through personal contacts than online job lists and related services. And most people in public relations are willing to spend a few minutes — on the phone or in person — talking to you about job opportunities or offering advice in general. PRSA and other organizations that have lunches, meetings, etc. help. But I’m still a big believer that you have to do it the old fashioned way: pick up the phone and call.
  • Look for jobs in areas that tend to be more immune to economic downturns: colleges and universities, health care, government and community nonprofits. Also, for those with public relations backgrounds and skills, consider positions in fundraising and development. You have the necessary skills. You need to make the case that the skills — communications, planning and evaluation — are transferable. They are.
  • Also, employers these days — in all areas — want to hire people who can take on responsibility, work well with limited supervision, are critical thinkers, recognize the value of planning and evaluation,  and who can contribute to the overall success of an organization by working as part of a team. Oh, yeah. In public relations they would like it if you could write well, have some background for strategic planning, media relations, social and online media. Highlight those skills when talking to potential employers.  Here’s a quiz for those of you PRKent grads, recent or otherwise. Know many who have left Kent State with degrees in public relations who don’t have a majority of those skills?
  • And I’m not a strong advocate for unpaid internships — under any condition. But I recognize that might be a necessity as part of a degree requirement or just as an opportunity to enhance your background. Saying all that, given the dearth of full-time jobs you might have to consider another internship, paid or unpaid. But my first question would be: What’s the chance this could lead to a full-time paid position?

And one last thing. Don’t get discouraged or give up hope. And I know that is easier advice to give than to receive. But I really have been through this a lot in 40 years. The economy will improve. Jobs will become available. And for those of you with skills, talents and enthusiasm, things will work out. Trust me.

That’s what I try to tell the students from Kent who contact me. I would have told Kimberly Bratton the same thing if given the chance in the PD story yesterday.

And if you’ve stuck with me this far, here’s an article in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning, “Some advice on job hunting in a dreary economy.”

“Could We Uncover Watergate Today?”

An update to my post yesterday about “Deep Throat,” Obama and the news media — from Leonard Downie Jr, recently retired editor of The Washington Post. Here’s from his article, “Could We Uncover Watergate Today?“; he says we could, but it would play out quite differently.

In an age when the media have been turned upside-down by the biggest shifts in audiences and economic models since the advent of television, my two biggest questions about whether we could still pursue a story like Watergate center on resources and verification. Many Americans, including opinion leaders in Washington and elsewhere, simply didn’t or wouldn’t believe The Washington Post’s reporting about Watergate during its early months — not until we were joined by the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS News, Judge John J. Sirica, the Senate Watergate committee and the special Watergate prosecutor.

In today’s cacophonous media world, in which news, rumor, opinion and infotainment from every kind of source are jumbled together and often presented indiscriminately, how would such an improbable-sounding story ever get verified?

As newsrooms rapidly shrink, will they still have the resources, steadily amassed by newspapers since Watergate, for investigative reporting that takes months and even years of sustained work.

These questions are not just about holding presidents accountable to the American people, as vital as that is. The answers could affect anyone whose conditions could be helped by great journalism, such as the wounded Iraq veterans whose care at Walter Reed Hospital has been greatly improved because of investigative reporting by Dana Priest and Anne Hull in this newspaper.

Despite the fame that came to Woodward and Bernstein after the book and movie “All the President’s Men,” these questions aren’t about the greater glory of journalists either. In fact, Woodward, Bernstein and The Post were under almost constant attack during the early days of Watergate. Near the end of “Frost/Nixon,” when Langella’s Nixon refers to those “sons of whores” in the news media, a friend turned to me and whispered, “He’s talking about you.” I played only a supporting role in editing some of our Watergate coverage, but even after all these years, that still felt good.

“Deep Throat,” Obama and the news media

I was going to write about this earlier in the week. But didn’t get to it. Dick Feagler, the longtime reporter and commentator in Cleveland, wrote Sunday that his Plain Dealer column would be kaput at the end of the year. I don’t know if Feagler jumped, or was pushed. Doesn’t matter. Feagler is a news guy. And I still think we need news guys — even though everyone with a computer and a cellphone can aspire to be a journalist these days.

Feagler began writing his column in 1971 with The Cleveland Press (now defunct). That was a year before Watergate. And before Woodward, Bernstein and “Deep Throat.” Mark Felt — “Deep Throat” — died yesterday. He’s the guy who feed Woodward the inside scoop on Tricky Dick Nixon — leading to the resignation of the president and the glory days of journalism. Ah, history. And journalism when the traditional media folks were watchdogs.

I wonder if Woodward and Bernstein would get their stories published today — either in dead tree editions or online? Not so sure. The real hero of Watergate was Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post and related media properties. She put everything on the line in the face of intense government pressure that could have resulted in criminal action and financial ruin. Gee. Wonder what Sam Zell would do? Or the now financially wounded New York Times?

Oh, well. With some luck maybe we won’t have to find out. Obama’s communications team says we’ll see an administration dedicated to “transparency and openness.” And the incoming president has gone out of his way to talk about a new ethic of responsibility. That to me means honesty — and civility. All qualities that have been sadly lacking in government, corporate America and elsewhere.

From an article that will be published in The New York Times Magazine this Sunday:

In spite of their closed-ranks tendencies, the Obama communications team’s buzzwords of choice are “transparency” and “openness.” These are notions few people would quibble with, although they tend to mean different things to different people — White House officials and reporters, for instance.

After the arrest of Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois governor, Obama was criticized by some reporters for dodging questions on contacts between his staff and the governor, using the familiar Washington phrase that it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment during “an ongoing investigation.”

When you press Obama aides on how they would define “transparency” and “openness,” they often invoke their willingness to make documents public during the campaign. “We had our donors online, we had our bundlers online, we had Obama’s birth certificate online,” Hari Sevugan, a senior spokesman who specialized in rapid response and opposition research, told me.

As with the Bush model, Obama’s view of transparency and openness did not include exposing internal discussions. “Sometimes the press corps thinks transparency and openness should be defined as carrying out all of our internal deliberations on the Web so they could watch,” Dunn said. “But in fact, transparency and openness is about the process of how government is run. It’s not necessarily about who might be mad at whom on a different day.”

In the course of the campaign, the Obama team showcased a number of new-media applications designed to project a sense of open-book communications to the public. They promoted the fact that the campaign made major announcements — like Obama’s selection of Biden — by communicating “directly” with voters who provided their e-mail and text addresses.

So let’s be optimistic that we are about to enter into an era of openness and transparency — guided by honest communications. Still — let’s salute news guys and gals: Feagler, Woodward, Bernstein and the thousands of others out there who we still need to keep a watchful eye on people in government, business and elsewhere.

And since I’m thinking about it, I guess I might as well head off soon to see Frost Nixon. Ah, history.

Kent State, Chrysler and the holidays

Well, looks like Kent State and Chrysler are closing for the holidays. I expect Kent State will reopen in January. Not so sure about the Detroit automaker.

I’m also not sure that from a practical point of view there is anything wrong with Kent State giving administrative staff an additional four days of paid vacation. (Faculty are off from mid-December until mid-January. Ah, the good old days.) And I’m sure KSU Prez Lefton felt the heat from the staff since Akron U now shuts down every year at this time. The reality is that when a public university is closed there is no lost sales, no diminished income.

Unfortunately, in the context of everything else that is happening in the economy these days, that reality is going to fly smack into the public’s perception that universities (and education in general) are wasteful stewards of taxpayer funds. And that students — and many parents — are getting gouged.

Here’s the reality facing Chrysler and others:

Auto plants normally shut down over the winter holiday, but the new reductions extend the usual closures. Chrysler’s plants had been scheduled to stop production from Dec. 24 to Jan. 2, but now will close Friday and stay dark until at least Jan. 19.

Two factories in Toledo that make the Jeep Liberty, Jeep Wrangler and Dodge Nitro will be closed until Jan. 26, the company said. A minivan plant in Canada and a plant in Detroit that makes the Dodge Viper will remain shut until Feb. 2.

Most of the workers will receive unemployment coverage equivalent to nearly full pay during the furloughs, officials said. Asked whether the announcement might be viewed as a means of influencing politicians who are weighing a bailout, Chrysler spokeswoman Mary Beth Halprin said, “This is really a response to what we’re seeing in the marketplace. . . . We run plants when we have orders. We don’t run plants when we don’t have orders.”

Folks, those are a lot of  jobs here in the Buckeye State. So you can count on the dead tree version of the Akron Beacon Journal printing at least one letter expressing outrage over the KSU holiday closing. And many — inside the university administration and out — will view reader reactions with the usual, “ho hum.”

They shouldn’t. In the not-to-distant future some heads of public universities are going to be traveling  to Columbus asking for money. Dare we call it a bailout? They can’t keep passing the costs along to students in the form of higher tuition and fees. In fact, a recent report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says, “The rising cost of college — even before the recession — threatens to put higher education out of react for most Americans.” From The New York Times article:

Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007 while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.

“If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won’t have an affordable system of higher education,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes access to higher education.

“When we come out of the recession,” Mr. Callan added, “we’re really going to be in jeopardy, because the educational gap between our work force and the rest of the world will make it very hard to be competitive. Already, we’re one of the few countries where 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than older workers.”

I guess if you could sell more cars — oops, meant to say enroll and retain more students — then I guess the problem goes away. But I don’t think that is realistic here in Ohio with an aging and declining population. And a lot of those jobs at Chrysler, Ford, GM and related suppliers in Toledo and throughout the state that aren’t coming back were held by middle-class families who were helping first-generation students attend public universities.

OK. Here’s a quiz. Given the continuing need to increase revenue, what will Ohio public universities do?

A — Head to Columbus for more taxpayer money. (Note to administrators: Please drive.)

B — Increase tuition and fees (once the current freeze has been lifted).

C — Reduce administrative costs and operating expenses.

Clearly “C” is out of the question. So if you are looking at either “A” or “B” — you’ll find out that perception, and maybe a few extra vacation days over the holidays, matter.