I love you, Dad, but…

My favorite childhood photo is of me holding up an Indiana basketball sweatshirt my dad got me for Christmas when I was three. I’m holding it up and smiling a smile larger than I’ve ever smiled since.

The first song I ever learned the words to was the Indiana fight song. I grew up loving Bobby Knight and hating everything about Purdue and anyone who ever even drove past the campus.

This is because my father is IU class of 1976. If you don’t know, the 1976 Hoosiers were the last team to finish an NCAA basketball season undefeated. The best gift I probably ever gave him was a piece of the old playing surface at Assembly Hall — the surface my dad got to watch those ’76 Hoosiers play on when he was in school. He’s since had it signed by Bobby Knight and it hangs on a plaque in my dad’s office.

I tell you all that to tell you (and my dad) this: Indy is going down tonight, baby!

Today, I officially throw off the shackles and the oppression of my dad’s Alma Mater and I say solidly that I hate that sweater Dad gave me as a kid. I’m sure I spilled food all over it repeatedly as a child, maybe I even got sick on it once or twice. Knowing how I was as a kid, I probably lost the darn thing before I could outgrow it. Well, that obviously was foreshadowing. I hate the IU fight song. I’m sure I sang it out of tune all the time as a kid. Well, that was obviously a sign of things to come.

Tonight, the #1 Indiana Hoosiers host the Carolina Tar Heels, a team that can’t be contained by a number assigned by sports writers or coaches. Tonight, in the battle of teams named after things no one can explain, the floorboards of Assembly Hall will become soaked with the blood and lost dignity of the Hoosier basketball squad, and the Tar Heels will come home triumphant.

Dad, I love you, but your boys are going down.

Oh, yeah — also, thanks for coming up to help me paint next week…


Today in Social Monitoring

The Old Guard, the Army unit responsible for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, provided a small example of the importance of social media monitoring today. As Sandy began her approach on the East Coast, the photo below started hitting the Twitterverse (I was one of many who tweeted it).

About three minutes after Samir Mezrahi (@samir) from BuzzFeed posted it on Twitter, The Old Guard (@The_Old_Guard) responded, saying the photo was actually from September and provided a couple of photos of the Soldier actually guarding the Tomb during the storm.

The unit has corrected a number of sources on this, including the Washington Post.

No, it wasn’t detrimental to The Old Guard’s image to have the incorrect photo circulating, but kudos to the unit’s public affairs team for using social monitoring to find the mistake and correct it. And — this probably goes without saying — props to the Soldiers who’ve guarded that Tomb every minute of every day since April 1948.


Friday Fun: Unapologetically Breaking Fashion Rules

Yes, I wore seersucker after Labor Day.

If you know me, you know I’m a big believer in a lot of rules of fashion. My shoes always match my belt, I never wear navy blue and black, and I never button the bottom button of my blazer. I even wrote a post once about some simple fashion rules– a post for which I was vilified on GovLoop. I’m in no way the world’s snazziest dresser, but I pay attention and probably try a little harder than most guys do.

So for a lot of folks, this Sept. 12 photo might be a shocker. Rules apparently dictate that seersucker and madras plaid (why would you wear that anyway?) should not be worn before Memorial Day or after Labor Day — the same rule that governs the wearing of white. I consulted Facebook and Twitter and most people seemed to agree, but I wore it anyway. The reason why is simple: it’s a dumb rule.

This is how some Facebook friends reacted when I asked if I was allowed to wear seersucker on Sept. 12.

The “rule” regarding white shoes, linen, seersucker, madras and whatever-the-heck else probably exists to make sure you wear summer fashions in the summer (though some attribute it simply to snobbery). Memorial Day and Labor Day mark the boundaries of summer in certain situations, like the operating dates of swimming pools. But guess what — it was hot as all-get-out on Sept. 12. Coincidentally, it’s also hot in the summer. Do these fashion rules not account for global warming? Or what if I travel to Argentina in December? Am I really going to have to leave my seersucker pants behind? What kind of international message does that send? Sorry, Argentina. You’re great, but not good enough for my summer outfits.

I’ve heard a quote attributed to Ed Murrow that says it’s OK to break the rules if you know why you’re breaking them (I wish I could find it because I use it all the time). This is one of those instances; I chose to wear a lightweight summer fabric on a post-Labor Day day that had a high temperature of 88. I stayed cool and I feel like I looked pretty darn good.

I also jaywalk and occasionally violate the rule of thirds when I take pictures.

A Fraternity Responds to a Tragedy

I called my father 13 years ago to let him know I was planning to pledge a fraternity. His response: “Don’t become a statistic.”

At Cal State-Fresno this past weekend, we saw coverage of the kind of event that leads so many parents to say similar messages to their sons. Regardless of the circumstances of the death of Philip Dhanens, a Theta Chi Fraternity pledge, it’s certainly a tragic event and a blemish on the reputation of the Greek system, Cal State-Fresno and Theta Chi Fraternity (full disclosure: I am also a Theta Chi).

Theta Chi has responded to the event with this statement:

The thoughts and prayers of the members of Theta Chi International Fraternity are with the family and friends of Philip Dhanens. Our deepest sympathy is with them during this difficult time.

Theta Chi Fraternity has a strict anti-hazing policy, and strict guidelines for chapters which prohibit underage alcohol consumption. Theta Chi Fraternity has dispatched senior representatives of the international organization to Fresno to assess the situation. The Fraternity intends to fully cooperate with local authorities and the administration of California State University, Fresno, to find out exactly what happened, and to determine what course of action to take next with respect to the local chapter. Based upon the preliminary details reported to our International Headquarters office, the CSU Fresno chapter was suspended by the Fraternity on Saturday.

What does this statement do well?

  • It expresses sympathy without laying blame. We aren’t sure about exact details of Philip’s death yet, but we know it was a tragic event and I’m sure that everyone is sorry that it happened. It’s sad that organizations have to think this way, but sympathy is a heartfelt sentiment that avoids any legal implications (i.e. accepting responsibility).
  • It lets the public know the Fraternity has policies against hazing and underage drinking. We still don’t know if Philip chose to drink too much or was forced to drink too much, but we know he wasn’t old enough to drink legally. That means that if Philip consumed alcohol at the fraternity house under any circumstances, this Theta Chi chapter did not abide by Fraternity policy .
  • It explains what the Fraternity has done. Senior Fraternity representatives have been sent to Fresno to assess the situation and the chapter involved has been suspended. This lets people know that the Fraternity is actively looking into and reacting to the situation.
  • It makes clear that the Fraternity intends to cooperate with authorities. This lets the public know that the Fraternity wants to be part of making sure events like this aren’t repeated.

What is the statement missing?

  • Details. Theta Chi needs to establish itself as an information source on this event. ┬áThe statement doesn’t mention anything about what happened and that information needs to be available through the Fraternity. The Fraternity leadership needs to communicate proactively and become an information source to build credibility — something fraternities often lack in these situations.
  • History. What has the Fraternity done in the past to prevent hazing/underage drinking? What has the chapter done to prevent foul play? Policies are great, but how is the Fraternity proactively enforcing them? I know for a fact that the Fraternity headquarters sends out representatives throughout the year to consult with leaders at every chapter across the country, but there’s no mention of that here. That information needs to be out there and it needs to be prominent.

What does the Fraternity need to do?

  • Be honest. There can’t be any cover-ups here. Every bit of information Fraternity leaders and members have needs to be out there. If the chapter was involved, it needs to be held responsible and all actions taken need to be made public.
  • Be human. Let’s be real here — a young man is dead. No spin, no BS, no dodging responsibility.
  • Be visible. The local chapter can’t simply hide in the fraternity house. Fraternity leaders and chapter members need to be involved in communicating about what happened. Not communicating simply creates a vacuum of information and if the Fraternity isn’t providing the information, someone else will.
  • Be patient. No one can jump to conclusions yet. It’s tragic that a young man is dead, but let’s not punish other young men until we’re certain how and to what extent they were involved.
  • Change up its website. The Fraternity was right to add a link to the statement on its home page, but it may want to edit the scrolling photos on the top of the page. Yes, it’s good to publicize the accomplishments of other Theta Chi chapters, but maybe the last thing a friend or member of the Dhanens family wants to see is a photo of a bunch of smiling Brothers from another chapter front and center on the Fraternity’s website.

Personally, I’ll say that the experiences I’ve had as a Theta Chi Brother have been wonderful and have positively affected the relationships I’ve had throughout my adult life. I continue to believe in my Fraternity’s traditions and ideals. I express my sincerest sympathies to the family and friends of Philip Dhanens and I hope that, through the actions taken in responding to his tragic death, events like this will be prevented from happening again.

Six Public Speaking Tips from Toyota’s Wil James

Some people are naturals are public speaking. Most public relations professionals probably wish that the leaders of their organizations fit into that category. But as hard as many PR pros try, sometimes it’s an uphill battle to get our bosses comfortable and natural in front of a crowd. It’s an important goal, as a confident, comfortable speaker is credible, and a credibility is priceless for any organization that is trying to deliver a message.

Wil James

I recently had the chance to hear a presentation from Wil James, president of Toyota manufacturing in Kentucky, and that man is a natural. Here are six things I picked up from his presentation that every public relations pro should share with his/her leaders.

1. Practice Just because you’re a natural, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to practice. James had his public relations guy running the slides and he never had to ask for a slide to change and he always knew what slide was showing behind him. He spoke confidently and the two of them moved through the presentation flawlessly.

2. Chill Out. Practicing also gives you the confidence to be yourself. James spoke in a very natural tone and used his natural dialect. He was funny and endearing, which no one ever is if they’re focusing too hard on the material – or just reading the slides.

Toyota's Wil James shows his public speaking skills at the Blue Grass Unite function in Central Kentucky.

Wil James speaking at the Blue Grass Army Depot

3. Easy on the Details. I’m sure there are a million things going on at Toyota that Mr. James could have spoken about for hours, but he didn’t. Knowing that his audience wasn’t going to be writing a novel about Toyota operations, he kept his presentation brief and high-level. That said, when someone did ask for details about Toyota’s new initiative to provide power to the plant by using landfill gas, he provided them.

4. Stay in Your Lane That said, sometimes a public speaker might get a question outside his or her purview. When that happens, it isn’t time to promote yourself or make something up. “I don’t know” is always a good answer if you promise to get back to someone with more info.

When James was asked about the future of the hybrid, he said, “I can’t speak for Toyota, but I think…”

5. Ixnay on the I. As far as I know, Wil James hasn’t had a single idea or initiative in his position. That’s because he never used the word, “I.” Everything was “we.” That’s good because it helps the morale of his team and kept his audience from thinking he was pompous.

6. Connect. When James realized he didn’t need his microphone to be heard, he stepped out from behind the podium, removing the obstacle between himself and his audience. He asked the audience questions, spoke directly to people and told a couple of decent jokes.

D-Day plus 24,837

Today is the 68th anniversary of D-Day. Eight years ago, I was lucky enough to participate in the ceremony recognizing the 60th anniversary of the invasion. I can’t think of another experience I had in the Army that was more special. I got to record some interviews with a few veterans of that invasion and somewhere I have two or three mini DV tapes on which I recorded some of their stories.

Storming the beachOne man had been in a wheelchair since the war. He told me about the friends he lost that day — some to gunfire, some to water, some to both. A couple of weeks later he met a French woman who eventually became his wife. The first part of that story was told distantly; the second tearfully. I always wonder how someone could manage to court a foreign woman in the middle of a war; I really hope I asked him that…

There was another guy who I spoke to under a shady tree. I remember because the light was behind him and he looks like a silhouette. His memories weren’t of storming the beach, but of advancing through France over the following months. He said that they’d walk through the most beautiful farmlands and countryside, only to have it ruined by the carcasses of livestock rotting in the fields. He told me how the French farmers would come out to offer the advancing Allied soldiers fresh milk, even though it was scarce and they often had to dodge gunfire to do it.

I remember the guy who played it off like D-Day was just another day. I asked him if he was scared when the door of his landing craft opened and he jumped into the water. He said, “It didn’t bother me at all.” I still don’t believe him, but what do I know.

I visited France for this event in the midst of a really unpopular war. The whole time I was there, I wore the uniform of the Army that was in Iraq, a war the French were against. But I remember that I was never burdened with a bill for food or drink. Strangers came up to me and shook my hand. One little girl came up and hugged me and her father asked if she could have one of my dog tags (don’t tell anyone, but I gave one to her).

I don’t really have a point to make. As we watch more and more of our WWII veterans pass away, I feel it’s increasingly important to remember on days like today, so that’s what I’m doing. I hope that as I write this, a cool breeze is coming off the English Channel and the sun is shining brightly on those headstones. Someday I’ll have to do something with those stories.

When Measurement isn’t Measurement

So today was the big physical fitness test for my Army Reserve unit. We all gathered for the semi-annual assessment of our fitness by doing push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. It’s always a nerve-racking event full of troops either trying to push for a good score so they can get promoted or just trying to pass so they can retire. Splendid fun.

We used a new course for our two-mile run this time, which is fine, but at this random point along the course one of the graders started calling out the time that had elapsed. “4:26, 4:27, 4:28…” he yelled out (yes, it’s common for graders to call out every passing second). So I asked him how far along on the course we were. He said he didn’t know.


And since I find myself so often trying to compare life experiences to my career, I started thinking about measurement in public relations and social media. I try to read up on what people are talking about as far as new methods to measure communication efforts (and there’s a lot to read) and one thing I haven’t seen much of is the importance of having something to measure against. It’s great to have a lot of followers or to have a lot of people visiting your site or to see a lot of comments on your blog. But if you haven’t set a goal for yourself or your organization, or if you aren’t benchmarking against competitors in your industry, what exactly are you measuring?

I did just fine on my PT test, but that dude calling out a random time at a random point along the run didn’t help. Had I known I was about a third of the way through the course, I could have stepped it up and really beaten my goal — just like how you can use your communication metrics at a given time to compare against your goals. That way, you can change course or step up your effort if you find yourself lagging. Without goals, you don’t know if what you’re doing is working or not.

The bottom line is that without having some sort of definition of success, measurement is just a waste of time.

The Physics of PR: Newton’s First Law of Crisis Communication

Confession: If I could work in any field other than communication, I’d want to be a physicist. I mean, if there were a fantasy world in which my mathematical clumsiness were not an issue in a field like physics, I would totally be a physicist.

Anyway, I opened up my old physics book from college and while thumbing through it I realized that there actually are some similarities between physics (minus the math) and public relations. So, I’m going to explore the physics of PR from time to time here. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I live to make analogies, so here’s my chance to do that for everyone to see.

First analogy: Newton’s First Law of Motion. Now, if you remember, Newton’s First Law states that any body will tend to stay at rest or maintain a constant velocity until it’s acted upon by another force. So, if you roll a marble across a table, it theoretically could roll forever. It doesn’t because forces of friction and air resistance act upon it. Eventually, it stops, and once it’s stopped, it isn’t going to move again unless something makes it move.

Think about it: That’s crisis communication. As we all know, effective crisis communication begins long before a crisis actually happens. That’s called reputation management. You help create a positive reputation for your organization by maintaining good relationships with stakeholders, being open about your operations, effectively communicating key messages, etc. So, keeping with the example above, your organization is the marble. As you communicate outside of crisis and manage your reputation, you begin rolling your marble and gaining momentum. Theoretically, that momentum could last forever. When your organization experiences a crisis, that’s when the friction and wind resistance begin acting upon your marble. See how it works?

Now here’s the thing: The more momentum you have going into a crisis, the more difficult it is for the crisis to stop your organization’s operations. Remember, not all organizations survive crisis situations. Your existing reputation going into a crisis can help you survive.

So – and I’m not claiming to be a great writer of laws here – we could say that Newton’s First Law of Crisis Communication states that an organization that actively practices reputation management is more likely to maintain its reputation, resist the negative forces of a crisis and maintain its operations than an organization that does not practice good reputation management. Perhaps not the best wording, but I don’t think we need to go so far as to put it to a vote or anything (chuckle).

Many thanks to Khan Academy for a) being awesome and b) teaching the world about so many things. I’ll be relying on Khan Academy for these posts to give more in-depth explanation of the physics concepts. I barely understand the stuff anyway…

Back to School

So, I’m about to head back to Chapel Hill to give a lecture at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’m lecturing on my thesis, which was a case study on crisis communication in the Air Force.

I decided to use Storify to mix it up a bit. I think we’re all getting tired of PowerPoint for everything. So, my initial draft is below.

Now, this is meant to help the students prepare for the lecture, so I intentionally left some things out. I know they are supposed to read my whole thesis, but it’s almost 150 pages with appendices and I know the students just aren’t going to read that. So, below is the draft, with a few holes in it. I’m going to add in the rest tomorrow before the lecture. I thought it’d be fun to see how it changes after tomorrow.

For now, if you have an opinion on the presentation, let me know. Enjoy!

Lost Missiles and Lost Messages