September 11, 2001: Never forget

The following blog post originally ran on September 5, 2011, ten years after 9/11:

It’s been ten years and a common question these days is, “Where were you on 9/11?”

My memory is probably less interesting than most, but for that matter, I remember being in a meeting with a colleague right next to the Pittsburgh airport. The air traffic outside became a distraction over the course of the hour we met. By the time we finished, as I was leaving, an administrative staff member asked me if I had a plane to catch. I said, “No.” She said that was good because all of the air traffic was backed up due to a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

I hustled to my car and listened to the latest on the radio. By that time, it was being reported that two planes had hit the towers and one of them may have been from Delta. I have a niece who is a flight attendant stationed in Boston at the time. I spent the ride calling my sister to see if my niece was okay. She was fine. By the time I got back to home base, like everyone else, I was fixated on the live TV coverage the rest of the day.

A few months earlier, I had been on the 93rd floor of one of the towers in a meeting with people from Fred Alger Management. This was in my prior position just before starting my own business in May of that year. I wondered how the people I had met were doing on that day.

In the days to come, like so many others, I gained a new appreciation for so many things and continued to watch the news more carefully than I already had been doing.

Eventually, an article in a business publication reported that 35 of Fred Alger’s 39 employees at the World Trade Center had lost their lives on 9/11.

This past week, National Geographic has been running a series of compelling documentaries centered on 9/11, focusing on how leaders at that time felt and dealt with the minute-to-minute decisions they had to make.

If you have the chance to spend an hour or so watching, you won’t regret it. It’s a very good way to step back and reflect on how 9/11 changed this country’s worldview.

 

When Emotions are Weaponized Against You

If you step back and look at patterns in content and coverage that you see in digital and traditional media, you’ll find that the pendulum has swung decidedly toward the emotional as opposed to the factual.

Before the Houston flood waters receded last week, MarketWatch, (the financial media site), tweeted and featured a story by a New York Post writer that focused on the style of shoes the First Lady wore when boarding Air Force One on the way to Texas. Clearly, the intent of the story was to further inflame emotional feelings against and in support of the current administration.

You may wonder with good reason, “What do the First Lady’s shoes have to do my financial health or the nation’s business and economic well-being?”

The quick answer is “nothing,” but stories like that do two things. First, they enrage readers on both sides of the issue and that means traffic, the life-blood of any media organization, digital or otherwise. Second, they feed the echo chamber of social media, where “shares” and retweets further accelerate the constant movement of eyeballs from one page to the next. The highway for all of this traffic is emotion.

With this in mind, here are some tips for effectively engaging when simply laying out the facts does not seem to be as effective as emotion in making your case:

Pay Attention to Optics

Optics are symbols and visuals that you can use to send the right message, or that critics use to taint your reputation. The First Lady’s shoes, though trivial in a factual sense, gave the administration’s critics fodder to frame it as out of touch. While the story was clearly overshadowed by so many other Hurricane Harvey stories, this example serves as an illustration that in big and small ways, optics can become issues unto themselves.

As important as it is to consider optics when planning a communication or event, it is equally important to be prepared to respond to attacks from critics who seemingly can turn the most mundane visuals into a negative statement about you if that’s how they want to portray it.  If your critics are dead set towards finding something about you to make an issue, they will do so.  You just need to be prepared for it and know, at least in general, how you will respond. The one mistake to avoid is to automatically accept the premise of the criticism.

Exaggeration is King

From click-bait social media headlines to sensational TV news teasers, media thrive on exaggeration. Often, when you present most developments as accurately as possible in the proper context, it can be quite boring.  This is because when you communicate clearly, people get an understanding of the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story. Once they get the context, they are not as likely to be alarmed. If they are not alarmed, shocked surprised or angered, they won’t respond at an emotional level, which means they may not respond at all.  In media terms, this means they may not click, read or watch.

Generating an emotional response through exaggeration is highly effective. The tabloids have been doing this for decades. By exaggerating and selectively omitting certain aspects of a story tabloids sell newspapers.

Did you ever click on a headline about an explosion in a factory or a nasty car accident only to find out buried deep in the story the fact that no one was hurt? Those are common examples of how exaggeration is used to get you to click. If you knew no one was hurt from the headline, you may not have clicked on the story from the start.  Buried or missing facts are often by design.

It’s much easier for originators to create caricatures of people and simplistic “good” versus “bad” scenarios rather than to delve into the complexities and nuances of a situation. These are major ingredients to creating an emotional response.

Critics will Attack Anyone Associated with You

In the jungle, the lion will chase after the herd until the weakest member of the herd falls away and becomes easy prey.

This same law of the jungle comes to play when critics use social media and traditional media to smear their targets. They don’t try to bring down the entire organization all at once, but rather, they will seek to find out as much as possible about individual employees, consultants, customers, consulting firms, partner firms and associates, anyone who has a relationship with the critics’ larger target.  They will then try to paint that individual or firm as a villain to generate an emotional response.

I once saw an activist group pour through the innocuous social media posts of a consultant who worked with an organization that was targeted for vilification. The activists took a select few social media posts so completely out of context it reached a level of all-out duplicity.  The group then featured those comments in a malicious document they passed off as an “investigative research report.” Their goal was to marginalize the consultant (and others) as part of the larger effort to discredit their main target.

The strategy was – one by one – to pick off anyone who might be associated with the larger target of a smear campaign with no basis in truth. It also sent a chilling message to anyone else who might have been considering working for or with the targeted organization.

Peer Pressure and the Social Media Mob

Thanks to social media, the peer pressure dynamics you thought you left behind in high school are still with us. Peer pressure relies on emotional dynamics to work. You must want to be popular, liked or accepted in order for peer pressure to have effect. If you have thick skin and are more resistant to peer pressure, it is much less effective.  Where this becomes complicated is if others in your organization are easily swayed by such pressure.

In many situations where public relations is involved, the desire to be liked and accepted is a fundamental premise. For this reason, we see an increasing amount of peer pressure used in support of and against our clients and brands.

When peer pressure is used against an organization or brand, it is oftentimes combined with shame. Critics will campaign to shame a targeted organization through a “social media mob.” Typically these groups and online communities are well-organized and calculatingly assembled, yet to many they appear as spontaneous, grassroots eruptions.  These sophisticated organizers seek to overwhelm a targeted organization into submission – again, through emotionally driven messaging and tactics.

What takes this dynamic to a higher level is that the “mob” may not simply want you to be quiet. Rather, the organizers may even seek to force you to endorse their position on a given issue even if that position is at odds with your own value system or best interests. The implied message is, “You either publicly endorse us or you’re our next target.”

Maybe the social media mob took its cue from Godfather movie mob boss Don Corleone when he talked about making “you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Know Your Core Values

In this environment, it is more important than ever to know what your organization stands for. What are the core values that you consider uncompromising?

Steve Jobs once described Apple as more than a company that sold computer boxes. He said that Apple is a company that exists to help those who think they can make the world better do so.

Most often, when you hear executives talk about their organizations’ core values, they’re speaking in platitudes that drive marketing and other routine business functions. Perhaps it is most important to be aware of your core values when your organization is under fire for sticking to them.

As we see every day, it doesn’t take much for digital media and traditional media to latch onto some superficial concept that uses emotion to draw you or your organization into potentially controversial and viral situation.

There can be tremendous pressure to compromise on your organization’s focus and core values, and to cave into the expectations of others who seek to use your organization as an example of how they can inflict their will. The kneejerk response is to quickly appease and concede in the hopes your critics will move on to another target. More often than not, this action tends to embolden the critics, not soften them, leading to a situation where the critics demand more than they did originally. The stakes get higher.

Many organizations succumb to this because managers themselves can get caught up in the emotions of the moment. Keep in mind, average news cycles usually last 24-48 hours. At the very least, your organization needs to be able to get through that period as responsively and responsibly as possible without hastily over-reacting, causing the kind of fallout you have to live with when the spotlight is no longer on your organization.

Remember, your critics may represent a small minority and not the majority of people’s perceptions. Your job is not to change their point of view, but rather, to make sure your most important stakeholders are aware of your position.

When you have a strong set of core values, and you unapologetically stand by them and the responsible decisions you make that are in keeping with them, you will win at an emotional level that drives to the very core of what really matters to most people.

Why Emotional Language is More Powerful than Facts

In more and more situations of late, I have found myself counseling clients that the facts can’t speak for themselves, and that we need to frame facts in the proper context with a little help from emotion. It would seem that in today’s communications environment, one person’s fact is another person’s opinion.

What does seem to break through is anger, fear, joy, surprise, sadness and trust, though some emotions seem to dominate more than others.

ESPN’s Emotional Decision Leads to Overwhelmingly Emotional Reaction

Consider the recent decision ESPN made not to have Asian-American broadcaster Robert Lee call an upcoming University of Virginia football game in September. At the center of the decision was the fact  that Robert Lee, the announcer, shares a name with the late Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That would seem to be all that they have in common.

An ESPN spokesperson told SI.com the rationale was based on what SI.com described as the possibility of “potential mockery that could come from doing the game.”

In a statement, ESPN said, “We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name. In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue.”

Needless to say, the social media backlash was immediate, viral and quite emotional.

Don’t Make Decisions Based on Emotion

Notice that in explaining its decision, ESPN said “in that moment it felt right.” That’s hardly a justification for any decision. In fact, just about every mistake we make as imperfect human beings can be traced back to such a statement.

“In that moment it felt right.”

What this reinforces is that when making decisions, leaders and managers must do so devoid of emotion while maintaining a sense of the emotional impact of those decisions.

Use Emotions to Influence

The ESPN case illustrates how an emotional narrative drove the network to make an ill-advised decision that in the end brought on the network the very thing it was trying to avoid.

If you want to influence somebody, use emotion. Sellers do this every day. Cars are not sold on the basis that they run better than other cars. They are sold because of the emotional statement they make about you. You are successful. You care about the environment. You are fun. The car you choose makes a statement about you.

The same can be said for the kind of beer you buy, the clothes you wear, the vacation destinations you choose. Each decision you make is based at least in part on how that decision makes you feel. Your emotions.

With this in mind, the language you choose to convince others should consider the facts for the sake of credibility (something ESPN should have done), and then communicate in emotional terms. Here are some examples:

Ultimately, both emotions and facts have their place in the decision-making and communications process. The key is to know when and where to rely on facts, and when messages must be delivered at an emotional level to truly connect.

O’Brien Communications conducts research and programs to help clients find the right balance between emotions and facts in the messaging and language they feature in their communications and marketing programs.

Can We Guess Why Some PR and Advertising Firms Like to Complicate the Simple?

On Twitter, I posted up a tweet that got some response and seemingly, a request for elaboration.

The tweet:

Here’s some context. All you have to do is visit the web site of any number of PR firms, and advertising and marketing firms for that matter, and you’ll notice that the firm before you likes to say it does things differently. It does things in ways no other firm has ever done. It has this proprietary method for getting to the root of your problem and delivering “strategic outcomes.” It’s even trademarked a spiffy acronym or name it uses to describe this mysterious process that only this firm and its people can understand.

Of course, all you have to do is hire this firm, and they’ll be glad to explain it to you, but you have to trust them with the big thinking.

The formula is familiar. Take a simple problem, like trying to sell more products, and apply some abstract methodology that most certainly is designed to head-fake you into thinking they really are doing something new. They use invented terminology, fad words like “ideation.” They want to confuse you into thinking they’ve figured out something no one else has. They try to make you think that effective PR, marketing or advertising can be so complex, that’s why you need to hire them.

This is nothing new. Management consultants invented the art of taking something simple and basic and complicating it to the point that they can assign hundreds of consultants to a project and bill millions for the work, all to unravel what is sometimes confusion that they themselves created.

In the end, you find yourself back where you started. Sure, the consultant you hired may have delivered on its promise, but was all that jargon and complexity and cost really necessary?

Sometimes certain hiring managers like the idea of paying more for things they don’t understand, and when a consultant is able to break things down too simply, the hiring manager doesn’t have a full appreciation for the sophistication behind that simplicity, and therefore doesn’t perceive the value at play.

This is why some firms seem to think that making the simple sound more complex so as to confuse is their ticket to profit. If you want a red flag, just look for the “™” after their proprietary method that’s probably just a repackaging of what we all do. The only difference is some do it better than others.

I’m in the camp where our primary job is to take complex and sometimes abstract thoughts, concepts and information, and translate it in the most simple terms, terms that everyone can understand and relate to. That’s how we make a difference. No jargon. No new acronyms. Just effective public relations work that breaks through the clutter and connects with people. That’s the true value at play.

What Could be the Most Important Thing to Do in PR Before Labor Day?

Check your lists. Your media lists, your customer lists, your employee database. Check them all. Make sure they’re up to date.

Your analyst list, your vendor list, your influencer lists. Check them all.

Why?

Chances are you’ve been busy. You’ve had a fast start to the year and before you knew it, it was June or July. Then you took vacation. Then your team took vacation, and your bosses and their bosses. You did what you needed to do with who was available and what you had time to do it. Now, here you are about to cross over into Fall, and you just know there is more work in the pipeline. Are you ready?

Everyone will be back from their summer breaks. The kids will be in school, and you will have three-to-four months to get some big things accomplished.

If you work in public relations, there is a god chance the quality and currency of your lists will really matter, and by then, the time it takes to see these lists are up to date can prove to be a problem.

So where to start?

If you have a media database like Cision or Meltwater, take the time to go through your influencer lists. Make sure you have compiled all of the lists you think you may need. Purge those you no longer need. That’s a good start.

What about that employee phone list in your office or on your computer? Is it current?

What about that pile of business cards next to your computer? It’s probably time to input it all into your phone directories on your computer and your mobile phone. And while you do it, take the time to connect with some of those “new” contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter, do you maintain any lists there or elsewhere on social? If you do, take some time to revisit them and determine if they’re working for you.

Once you get past Labor Day Weekend, the one thing you should not have to worry about is if you have the tools and systems in place to communicate to all of your most important contacts and stakeholders.

It may seem like a mundane task now, but you won’t regret it in a few weeks.

How to Communicate Change Management Like a Boss

You may never have heard of Herclitus, but something he said a couple thousand years ago is as relevant today as it was when he lived around 500 BC. The Greek philosopher is credited with saying, “Change is constant.”

I would suspect that even he would be amazed at the pace at which the world seems to change today. An entire industry – Change Management – has grown up around that very concept just to normalize the process of introducing and executing change in organizations large and small.

Change management represents the planning, implementation and follow-through required to help both organizations and people inside and outside of those organizations deal with that change. Think mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations, downsizings, changes in policy or procedure, consolidations, and much more.

The common thread is that as senior leadership is concerned with how people will react, respond and adjust to the change, it takes steps to make sure that potential reaction to change does not derail the larger plans.

Effective communication plays a critical role in a successful change management program. With this in mind here are five ways to make sure your communications efforts effectively support your change management initiative:

Listen

Before you even start, you need to get a handle on what people are thinking, what they are concerned about now, and what they might be concerned about when the time comes for change. The listening process starts simply by getting out of your office and talking to people at every level of the organization on a regular basis, taking the pulse of everyone from the work force to customers. Formal research could include surveys, focus groups, interviews and customized, individualized outreach. The key is to make sure you know how your most important stakeholders feel and think about the issues that will form the center of the change process. If you can do that, you can better anticipate their reactions and response to change.

Identify the Most Powerful Core Values at Play

Your organization may have a mission or vision statement that cites its core values. This is part of that, but it can be a mistake to assume that simply because the organization committed to those core values that the work force and external stakeholders are on the same page. As part of the listening and outreach process, you will likely get strong clues as what core values are most important to stakeholders. Some may be in your mission statement, some may surprise you. The core values you’re looking for are quite simply what matters most, culturally speaking, across diverse constituencies.

You should start to see patterns of what internal and external groups find to be the most important values that come to play in their relationship with the organization. Once you can identify these values, you will uncover what to many will be considered non-negotiable. These values will be the keys or the obstacles to success.

Create an Embraceable Vision

One of the more common mistakes organizations make when introducing change is to place the focus on the good the change will do for the organization, never adequately telling individuals how the change will help them on their terms. It is too often assumed that people will connect the dots themselves. If you’re charged with communicating change, you must create a vision that people can readily embrace. This usually involves speaking in simple terms, helping people best envision how their lives will be better (or not as bad as it otherwise could be) by embracing that vision. Whatever you do, don’t overstate the promise of that vision. Herclitus didn’t say it, but whomever said, “Don’t kid a kidder,” probably worked in change management. People can see through hyperbole and may not respond as you hope.

Demonstrate Your Commitment to People

Once you’ve revealed your plans for change, and what those plans are, you must do more than talk a good game. You must walk the walk, or demonstrate that the organization is committed to keeping its promises. Start with all of the little things you may be doing, but make sure to broadly publicize those steps, so that no one can ignore what is being done to deliver on your promises. This is important for the organization’s credibility, which it will need later when it asks people to make uncomfortable adjustments at some other point in the change process.

Be Responsive

Little things matter. Return phone calls, emails and suggestions left in “suggestion boxes.” When internal committees and work teams pass along feedback, insights or other information that goes up the chain, make sure they know the organization received it and is using it in the spirit it was provided – for the good of the organization and its people. If external stakeholders call your customer service line, tweet something positive or negative, a posture of aggressive responsiveness will go a long way towards building the goodwill needed to implement the sometimes volatile process of change.

These are just a few important things you can do to ease people through the change process at your organization. If you want to talk about change management, feel free to email me at timobrien@timobrienpr.com, or call 412.854.8845.

Can You Really Enjoy Working on a Crisis?

In a brief recent exchange with a former crisis communications client of mine, it dawned on me that it may be possible to enjoy a crisis experience. But you can be sure, I won’t let a comment like that sit without proper context.

First – the exchange. I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Couldn’t be better,” and then he mentioned that he had “really enjoyed” working with me.

We all like to hear that from time to time, but his use of the word “enjoy” caught me by surprise.  When we worked together, the nature of the crisis was such that I couldn’t have imagined him enjoying that unwanted experience at any level. I could think of many words he might use to describe that experience, but “enjoy” wasn’t in the top 10.

To be sure, the situation was handled well and things worked out, and now it’s years later and everyone has moved on. Still, it may be worthwhile to explore this issue of whether it’s possible to enjoy a crisis experience. Here are some things to consider:

You’re Not Alone

Once the crisis communications team is established, strategies and decisions are explored as a team. Crisis situations are not a time to posture and position. People who would otherwise hold back in meetings are forced to be more direct and candid. There is a lot on the line. People get real. Good crisis communications teams form and function well due in part as a response to the pressures they face. Once this happens and the team gels, almost every single member of the group starts to feel that he or she is not an island facing this crisis, that they are not heading into uncertain territory by themselves. There is comfort in that.  In some of the crises I’ve experienced, that’s what I remember most.

Bonds are Formed in Adversity

Nothing builds the strong bonds of camaraderie like facing adversity together. Soldiers come back from battle with “brothers” and “sisters” they never even knew before they entered battle together. That sort of dynamic, though not life or death in many crisis communications scenarios, feeds the nurturing of strong bonds that can be formed through a crisis.

A Sense of Humor Doesn’t Hurt

I’ve found that there are times when a well-timed quip or comment can ease the tension in the room when certain sensitive issues and subjects are at the center of discussion and it just feels too intense. Keep in mind, though, ill-timed comments can totally backfire. Be careful with humor, especially in crisis situations when people are already on edge and it doesn’t take much to light someone’s fuse. Still, if you have the right perspective and know how to ease the tension in the right way at the right time, you not only will play a vital role on the crisis team, but you really will contribute to creating an experience that someone someday may remember as having had its encouraging moments.

Doing the Right Thing Gives Peace of Mind

In almost every crisis situation I’ve seen, generally speaking, I’ve found people want to do the right thing. The types of obstacles that may complicate decision-making could be legal, regulatory or business-driven. Still, the job of a crisis communicator is to help management teams do what they know they must, while staying true to all of their other business and legal obligations. In simplistic terms, you may find that doing right by one stakeholder group can have a potentially negative impact on another, so you have to help the organization find balance. Through it all, the communicator must be a calming force, serving as counselor, sounding board, hand-holder, and sometimes the honest bearer of bad news. In the end this can give clients peace of mind and sometimes the confidence needed to make tough but sound decisions. Later, they see their crisis communicators as invaluable catalysts in that process.

You’ll Laugh Later

Every crisis is a story in itself, and it is often the mother of countless other stories. Like the time I was misquoted in a news article and a fellow crisis team member decided to prank-call me immediately after, pretending to be an angry shareholder. Funny.

Or, the time a group of us were hashing out a statement in a hotel room on deadline. Someone moved a very hot floor lamp over to where we were working. Unbeknownst to all of us, it was right under a sprinkler head and sensor. Luckily, the heat only triggered flashing lights and sirens, not water. The visual still etched in my memory is two members of that team trying in vain under flashing strobe lights to use a hotel couch as a launching pad to jump up to hit the sprinkler’s kill switch.

Some of the funniest stories I have from working in public relations emerged from crisis situations. I think it’s because of the natural tension that serves as the backdrop for the scene, which only makes the unexpected that much more compelling of a story later.

So, can you enjoy a crisis?

Answer: No one enjoys what causes a crisis or the fact that an organization is in crisis. All too often some stories emerge from crisis situations can break your heart.

But it is this understanding that makes the good things we see, hear and experience that much more meaningful when we look back. It’s the relationships and sometimes the friendships we sometimes form with people – facing adversity together and doing our jobs in good conscience – that we come to treasure.

Ultimately, yes, we can look back and find there truly were some things we did enjoy.

This May Make You Think Twice Next Time Someone Tells You that You’re Over-qualified

You may have been wondering about this for a while. But if you’ve been told you’re over-qualified for a particular position, here is what certain hiring managers may really be telling you.

They think you’re too old.

Yes, the EEOC has regulations against age discrimination, but it still happens on occasion. One way this happens is when an untrustworthy hiring manager tells you that you’re over-qualified, increasing the likelihood that the job goes to someone younger.

They don’t trust that you’ll adapt to new ways, new technologies.

All too often, this concern is valid, but it’s a faulty generalization on the employer’s part. If you’re in the business of communications and you haven’t kept up with the latest communications tech, you reinforce their concerns. If you want to stay relevant, then stay abreast of changing operating processes, systems and communications technologies.

The manager feels threatened by you.

Not many managers like to be upstaged or second-guessed by a subordinate, even those who pride themselves on surrounding themselves with the best people. Some managers don’t like to hire potential rivals who could serve as natural leaders within the work group, and possibly serve as an easy replacement should the manager not perform.

You’re perceived as too expensive.

Even if you’re willing to take a pay cut in order to get the job, as a veteran professional there is a good chance your health benefits and other non-monetary forms of compensation will be important to you. And there is an increased likelihood that you will use those benefits which younger staffers often ignore. In the end, when you take into consideration these sorts of hidden costs, seasoned employees can tend to be more expensive than younger ones.

You may not buy what they are selling.

So, you’ve been through a couple of reorganizations already. You’ve experienced change, and maybe you’ve even led a change-management program or two. Your experience has taught you what works and what doesn’t. Now you’re talking to a potential employer that prides itself on a “new approach” to doing things. It’s not that you won’t take it where it needs to go. You may even be able and willing to perfect it in your own role. But if you’re in the least bit skeptical and it shows, don’t expect to get the job.

Chemistry with younger coworkers could be an issue.

Even if you are willing to come to work every day with an open mind and a complete commitment to finding common ground with your younger coworkers, there is a chance they may not feel the same way. Some may want their coworkers to be friends away from work, too, since work is as much a social experience as a professional one. They may want to work with people who are like them, in the same life stages, have the same questions they have, and have the same worldview. Unfortunate as it is, even some of the most inclusive workplaces still have a way to go in creating cohesive work environments that cross generations.

Usually when someone tells you that you are over-qualified for a particular position, they will explain that their fear is that once something more to your level of qualifications comes a long you’ll bolt for greener pastures. While there are cases where this is true, given the relatively large talent pool of “over-qualified” candidates on the market at the moment, there’s a good chance their concern is not warranted or genuine.

If you happen to be someone who has been told you are over-qualified, perhaps one of the best strategies to consider is niching yourself as someone seeking to scale back in your career and focus on your core strengths and duties you’ve grown to love over the years. And then make sure that in this context, you have a preemptive message on each of the six possible concerns cited in this post.

As a consultant, I rarely encounter the issue of “over-qualification” directly, but I see how it affects others almost every day in my work.

You may also find some good resources on CareerBuilder.com, Indeed.com, Monster.com,  and GlassDoor.com.

So, what are your “over-qualification” stories? I’d love to hear

This is One Reason Why I Don’t Respond to Every RFP I Get

I respectfully declined to participate in a couple Request-for-Proposals (RFPs) recently, telling them I wasn’t the best fit. This was true but perhaps I was being diplomatic as well. If I were brutally honest, I probably would have told them that the reason I didn’t respond was that even if I did win the work, I didn’t trust them or the process.

Let me be clear. I do selectively respond to RFPs, and I have participated in many professionally managed RFP processes. But all too often, the playing field feels a bit tilted.

It would be easy for me to get into my rationale, but maybe a better way is to take a composite dubious RFP and give it the “in other words” treatment. Here goes:

Overview:

The Acme Organization is seeking to engage a communications agency to create and implement a communications plan that will generate sales leads and corresponding market share to become the #1 player in the marketplace in the coming year.

In other words, we haven’t found a way to raise awareness, generate sales leads and increase market share to this point, so now we are ready to try PR. With that in mind, if PR doesn’t solve our problems, and if our past patterns of poor organizational performance continue we can now blame PR.

About Acme Organization:

Acme is a privately held firm located in the hometown of its founder somewhere in the Midwest, far away from any major media centers. The company was founded over 100 years ago and has primarily grown on the good reputation of its work.

In other words, we have insulated ourselves from the national business and trade media and other stakeholders for decades. PR would represent a complete philosophical and cultural shift for us. Change is never easy.

Scope of Work:

Proposals should include the following items:

Background/Experience:

A statement of your firm’s background and experience that will include biographies of key personnel assigned to the project; the organizational structure, including in-house staff and external consultants or resources to be used.

In other words, we want to know you will not delegate this program to junior staff. And, since anyone on the team could be a potential liability we don’t want to be blindsided. At the same time, we know that your sharing of the inner workings of your firm will also give us the added benefit to micromanage when the situation calls for it.

Case Studies:

Three-four examples that demonstrate your success in planning a similar communications program. Your case study should include sample creative work. It should also include, problem, strategy, solution, action steps, and budget.

In other words, show us similar work you have done in the past so we know you aren’t lying about your experience, but also so that we have some good reference material for ourselves and our team going forward.

Solution:

Describe how you will approach development of a communications plan for Acme, the systems and tools you will use, and your timeline for developing and implementing the plan.

In other words, while we are asking you to propose development of a communications program as part of your paid assignment, we really want you to do the bulk of that now, customized for free with no assurances that you will be compensated for any of your original thinking.

Budget:

Detail the number of hours and hourly rate for team members assigned to the project over its duration, and any related out-of-pocket costs. Identify any subcontractors and the kinds of service to be provided. Detail design and development costs for any print, television or digital media.

In other words, we know you can’t give us the budget numbers in the specificity we have detailed without creating a comprehensive communications approach in blind faith on your part. This budget and the accompanying program provided on spec will serve as a good reference for us and the firm we select.

Criteria for Selection:

Our decision will be based on the qualifications and experience of your firm, the program design and/or solution you offer, and cost.

In other words, we may already have someone in mind who has the qualifications and experience we desire at the cost we want, but this RFP process could be an exercise just to make it look fair. Or, we really may be doing our best to be fair, but at the end of the day, we’re asking you to spend countless hours away from your paying clients to impress us. For our part, we will make no assurances that we will select you, compensate you, or not “borrow” some of the original thinking (the kind clients normally pay fair value for) included in your proposal.

What Can a Traffic Cop Teach You About Business and Communications?

My dad’s birthday was always around or on Father’s Day, so the annual flurry of sentimental social media posts I see from others often spurs me to reflect on my own dad. So, when it all came around this year, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the lessons he taught me about business and communications, even though he spent the majority of his own working life as a police officer.

Outside of starting his career after World War II in the steel mill for a couple years, for the most part his career involved donning a City of Pittsburgh Police uniform every day. He started as a beat cop and eventually, he was assigned a corner (Grant & 6th) and that was his domain, directing traffic and keeping the peace for roughly 20 years or so.

So, when I contemplated a career in business and communications, what could a guy like that glean from his work and life experience to serve as my most important mentor? Quite a bit, actually, but I’ll narrow it to four things.

Reading People

One of the things he was best at was sizing someone up from first glance to handshake, which all could have transpired in a matter of seconds or minutes. While he wasn’t one to make snap judgements, he had learned how to quickly detect whether someone was real or not, well-intentioned or not, hiding something or not. This usually involved an instinctive trust of his own read of nonverbal communications, such as eye contact, body language, etc. This came in handy on the job, but it also carried over into his daily life. If he sensed someone was “faking it,” it took quite a while for that person to shed his suspicion.

The Importance of Genuineness

As much as he valued genuineness in other people, he strived to be the real thing in his own dealings with others. He was positive, open and friendly, which made him very popular around the Downtown area. Sometimes I used to stop by his corner while he was working, and you’d have thought he was running for mayor when he wasn’t out in the middle of the intersection keeping traffic flowing. He was liked because he genuinely liked other people and it was obvious.

Respect for the Individual

As I grew up and began my own career, my dad was at once my father, my friend and all too often my sounding board. Whenever I ran into something or someone I didn’t understand, I’d get frustrated and often air out my frustrations in talks with my father. He was a good listener, and even though he didn’t always have the perfect life experience for the situations I may have faced, he was always able to bring it back to people. More to the point, if I could sum a typical “counseling session” with my dad, it would go like this. I’d ramble about somebody who was making my life difficult at the time, for whatever reasons, and he’d come back with, “It takes all kind of people to make the world go ‘round.” This was his constant way of reminding me to come back to center. To remember that not everyone sees things the way I do, and to be open to that.

Doing the Right Thing

Being a police officer then and now has its moments. If something happened in Downtown Pittsburgh that required a police response, there was a good chance he was called in, along with so many other fellow officers. He didn’t often talk in detail about every call or every situation he faced, but he didn’t shy away from it, either. As his son, what I most often remember was that whatever the situation, the moral of the story for me, which he always made clear was, “You have to do the right thing.”

This meant doing what was expected of you by your superiors, by society, and in the end by your own moral compass. What honor is there in doing the right thing only when other people are looking, he would say. You have to do the right thing all the time.

Those are some of the lessons I received at the University of Dad, though they never show up on my LinkedIn profile.

I’m sure you learned some valuable life and career lessons from your own dad. Feel free to share in the comments section below.