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Cosmo Screwed Up — But Maybe Not in the Way You’d Think

It’s been quite the week for lessons in brand protection, eh?  Between a United Airlines passenger being dragged off his flight and Cosmopolitan releasing an article detailing one woman’s weight loss journey, which included being hospitalized and treated for cancer, it’s probably not a fun time to work in public relations for either company.  I mean, I love a challenge as much as the next guy or gal, but sheesh.

I won’t get into whether United was warranted in having a man dragged off the plane because maybe it is in fact within their policy to do so; I’ve read conflicting stories and haven’t investigated to know which is the case.  Besides, it’s possible the passenger resisted other more reasonable efforts to the point of leaving them no choice; I wasn’t there, so I really can’t say.  Having previously spent many, many years in retail management, I have to wonder if this was really the only way since there is almost always a reasonable compromise, but this could be the exception to the rule.

Back in August, I flew United roundtrip from South Carolina to Oregon and back.  It was the first time I’d ever flown with the airline, and my experience on the way was pleasant enough.  Things took a nosedive on my way home though, when a flight delay caused me to miss my connecting flight in Houston, resulting in me having to spend the night in the airport and take another connecting flight the next day in Chicago.  I wasn’t upset about missing the flight.  Honestly, my friends and family will vouch for the fact that I’m totally laid back about things like this, too laid back even.  Plus, I love airports.  This was like a childhood dream come true.

What annoyed me is that I arrived at the terminal two minutes after our departure time.  Two minutes.  And I was flying with the same airline.  Maybe I’m asking too much, but it seems they could have communicated with on another and waited the two minutes.

Anyway, I wasn’t feeling the best about their customer service at that point.  The attendant at the airport who helped me rebook a flight back to South Carolina was kind, but I was surprised they couldn’t offer a hotel voucher or even a meal voucher for the trouble.  In any case, in all fairness to United, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived home to an apology letter from the company along with a $150 Visa gift card, no strings attached.  It didn’t make up for the day I lost catching up on flights, but the gesture gave me a better feeling about United, enough that I’d be willing to fly with them again and trust them to make it right if they provided poor service.

That said, I wasn’t dragged off a flight either.  They were asking for volunteers to take a later flight in Chicago, and if they hadn’t had people step up, they may have had to pry me out of my seat kicking and screaming too.  I had slept on a hard, concrete floor.  I was wearing day-old clothes.  Everything I packed was in a checked bag that somehow made it onto the flight even though I’d been left behind the day before.  So I could see how one could become resistant to being removed from their flight.  I could also see how this would create a safety issue that the airline couldn’t just “let slide,” and therefore, they’d have to make a tough decision.

I guess what I’m saying is this obviously doesn’t look great for United, but I can give them the benefit of the doubt here.

The Cosmo case gets a little greyer for me, particularly because you’re talking about cancer, a subject close to many of our hearts.  I went back and read the article in question after it became the subject of scrutiny, but as I understand, some wording had been modified since its original publication.  So maybe I’m missing part of the story, but from my angle, it isn’t really the content itself that’s disturbing.  I’m okay with a story that talks about one woman achieving her weight loss goals while simultaneously fighting for her life.  In spite of it, really.

In my opinion, it encompasses the fighter spirit of those who’ve bravely fought cancer.  It tells the story of someone who didn’t let an illness defeat them, someone who learned to love themselves at a time when it would be easier to give up.

My problem is the title of the article, which was something like How to Lose 40 Pounds Without Exercising.  (It has since been changed, by the way.)  And the problem with that isn’t just that it promotes the unhealthy ideal that weight loss is the goal, not health.  The bigger issue is that it suggest that’s the most important thing you’ll get from reading the article:  That you can lose weight without exercising.  Even if you have cancer.  Maybe even because you have cancer.  I mean, given the title of the original article, should readers deduce that Cosmo is suggesting that cancer may be the solution to their weight loss struggles?

The magazine changed the title of the article to A Serious Health Scare Helped Me Love My Body More Than Ever.  That still has a little bit of an ick factor because it suggests the illness aided in self-love by allowing her to lose weight.  It’s better than the first title (or is it?  Now I’m not so sure…), but something like, I Kicked Cancer’s A** and Achieved My Goals Too! might come closer to matching the spirit I can only hope they intended when they wrote this article.

But hey, that’s just my opinion.  Do you have a different one?  If so, I’d love to hear it.

Meanwhile, let’s all take a moment to remember something Shakespeare wrote:  All the world’s a stage.  Dance like no one’s watching on your own time, but in your work, assume everyone is watching (because more than likely, they are!).

 

I Don’t Know How to Use an Umbrella (and apparently I’m not the only one!)

Yesterday in the upstate of South Carolina, it rained.  A lot.  And it occurred to me (not for the first time) that I don’t actually know how to use an umbrella.  Yes, I understand the whole concept of popping the thing open to walk under it as a shield from rain.  I’m not that incompetent.  (I do, however, take issue with the inconvenient way some umbrellas open, but I digress.)

I’m talking about that moment when you’ve reached your vehicle, and you have to figure out how to close the frickin’ thing and get into the car without getting soaked.  I mean, does anyone actually know how to do that?  Because if you do, I feel like that could be listed under special skills in your resume:  Excellent problem solver; ability to effectively close umbrella upon vehicle entry.

I ditched umbrellas for rain coats years ago, but since I live and work downtown now, I walk more places than I used to and have an occasional need for an umbrella.  So I was really excited when my mom bought me this Totes umbrella I’d been eyeing as a recent birthday gift. (This is what you have to look forward to in your 30s, kids).  But then I decided to drive across town to pick up groceries, and that’s when the umbrella debacle unfolded (hehe…unfolded…get it?).

I took to social media for answers and learned that I’m not alone.  Apparently nobody knows how to use an umbrella.  One friend did suggest an inverted umbrella, which is cool in theory, but the realist in me tells me it would still pose problems.  I can just imagine closing the thing, then getting the whole “inside” drenched so that when I re-open the umbrella, it drips onto my hair and clothes.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Has anyone had success with those?

 

The New Cheerios Campaign Is the Bees Knees

Cheerios, you win.  Your #bringbackthebees campaign is both simple and brilliant.

I love when a company uses their clout for a good cause.  Cheerios has made their beloved mascot, Buzz the bee, disappear in the name of drawing attention to the rapid decline of bees, which, in case you don’t already know, is a major problem.  We need bees.

They’ve pledged to give out 100 million wildflower seeds across America to help bring back the bees.  According to their website, they’ve already exceeded their goal, but were still distributing them last I checked.  They’ve even included a map so you can see where the seeds are being planted.  Isn’t that awesome?

Note:  Please continue to excuse my manners.  My links have all curiously died, so I have removed them.  They will return once they are working.  Meanwhile, visit cheerios.com/bringbackthebees for details on this campaign.

Here’s How I Think Jack Pearson Dies (and it’s not what you’re thinking)

[DISCLAIMER:  There are no major spoilers ahead; however, if you’re like me and don’t want to know anything that happened before you watch, you may want to be caught up before you read this.]

this is us

 

I hadn’t planned to watch This Is Us, despite the endless positive reviews I saw every week on my newsfeed, if not because of it.  It annoys me when people start overhyping a show, which inevitably leads to a letdown.  The previews for the show were admittedly intriguing, but they had emotional vibes.  I don’t like being sad while I’m watching TV (this is my relaxation time!), so I fully intended to forgo this one.

But I got hooked.

As a writer, I have serious plot envy right now.  I really, really wish I’d thought of this first, even though this isn’t the kind of writing I do.  The details of the story are so intricately woven together.  It’s really a work of art.

Also as a writer, I can’t help paying attention to things like foreshadowing.  And simply because I’m one of those annoying people who guesses her way through mysteries and thrillers in a race to call the ending before it’s revealed, I can’t help using those little details I pick up to speculate about the moment we’re all dreading — Jack’s death.  The finale left us to wonder what’s going to happen, but I couldn’t resist developing a theory of my own.  I think Jack’s death is going to be a suicide.

I began to suspect Jack would die from suicide back when Toby admitted going through a dark time after his divorce, causing Kate to shutdown.  When she finally talked to him about it — around the same time she revealed her dad was dead — she asked him about whether he still battles depression and suicidal thoughts.  With the show’s heavy emphasis on how their upbringing made them who they are today, it doesn’t seem like a giant leap to think Kate’s fear was born from her own father not being able to pull himself out of his downward spiral after his marriage became rocky.

My suspicions were heightened after the show revealed that, indeed, he and Rebecca had been having trouble.  Couple that with Jack’s own troubled childhood, his struggles with alcoholism and some of his statements in the season one finale about how the good guys never win, and you’ve got all the makings for someone who is likely to become depressed and suicidal.  Assuming Rebecca doesn’t chase him out the door to stop him in season two, we also know he’s headed to stay with Mannie, who’s recently gone through a divorce of his own.  That would certainly cast a cloud over Jack’s optimism that things will turn around.

It also seems to fit the progressive spirit of the show, which hits on issues that so many others have missed or made light of or danced around because they’re hard.  Suicide is a tough one, arguably tougher than if Jack had died in a drunk driving accident even (which is a popular assumption right now).  Suicide is often associated with the perception that the victim was selfish, even though the reality is often far more complicated to understand.

America loves Jack.  America knows Jack is husband and father of the year.  How far would it go in terms of helping people understand mental illness if, in fact, Jack’s death is a suicide?  I am far from being a mental health expert, but I believe it could make a profound impact on the de-stigmatization of mental illness and encourage people to get help if America sees Jack’s story unfold this way.  Thank goodness we have far more resources available today than someone in his shoes would have had in the 70s or 80s.

This is one of those times when I hope I’m wrong, but even if I am, you’re going to need tissues for season two because we know his death is coming.

 

 

Professional Fail (About the Time I Screwed Up a Cover Letter…Twice)

Among my social circle, I’m the friend that gets random texts saying things like “Hey, we’re having a debate at my house about which sentence is grammatically correct, and we need you to settle the score.”  My people know me well.  I’m a total grammar junkie who actually gets excited about things like finding the best way to compose a sentence.  But the truth is, sometimes I get it wrong too.  Not terribly long ago, my sister called me out for using “write” instead of “right” when I wasn’t paying attention.

I’m always gabbing about things like which side of a quotation mark to place the punctuation mark, so I thought it’d be a fun change of pace to share one of my fails with you today because, you know, nobody’s perfect.

So here’s a little story at my own expense:

Fresh out of college in 2009, I applied for an open reporter position with a smallish newspaper in South Carolina.  Between the English degree and my previous experience with a larger newspaper, I was feeling pretty confident.  I attached my resume and cover letter according to instructions, then sat back eagerly awaiting their call.

In some industries, a few days of silence is no cause for alarm.  However, I knew how stressful it was to be understaffed in a newsroom, and I was aware that the editors there intended to move quickly to fill an open position.  When a few days passed and I hadn’t heard a peep, I began to worry.  I obsessively checked the email address to make sure I’d spelled everything correctly (which I had — many glances confirmed!), then realized I had actually misspelled the recipients name in the cover letter.

It wasn’t a huge misspell.  Let’s pretend his last name was Whitfield.  It would be the equivalent of me spelling it “Whittfield.”  Very careless for anyone trying to impress an employer, let alone someone who is trying to impress an employer specifically for their grasp on the writing and self-editing process.  But still, the worst thing was probably that I wouldn’t get the job.  I doubted it was the kind of error he’d dish about to others in the industry to have me permanently blackballed.

The thing was, I really wanted this job.  I had a few friends in this particular area, and I already could see me fitting in there.  I couldn’t stand the thoughts that I’d miss out on the opportunity for a mistake I could easily correct.  I sent another email to the editor that said something like, “Mr. Whitfield, I was horrified to realize I misspelled your name in the cover letter I submitted for the reporter position on Tuesday.  I understand if it’s too late to correct my mistake, but I am very interested in the position and couldn’t stand the thoughts of not making an attempt to fix it.  I have attached an updated cover letter and resume for your viewing.”

His response was immediate and went something like, “Ms. Burns, I appreciate your acknowledging the error.  As you know, there’s not much room for mistakes like this in the job you are apply to, so I can’t ignore it, but I will take your acknowledgment into consideration and get back to you if I’m able to interview you.”

I realized shortly after I read his reply that I’d actually attached two copies of my resume instead of my cover letter and resume.  He never got back to me.  I never attempted to rectify the situation either.  I knew at this point I was wasting my time.

And in case anyone’s attempting to learn from my mistakes, here are my notes about the experience:

– My first mistake was assuming I’d done everything right the first time.  I didn’t bother to review and revise.  Maybe I’d just become so big-headed that I thought I was above making mistakes.  I honestly don’t remember what I was thinking (or not), but it was stupid not to take a few minutes to look for errors, especially something as important (and obvious!) as misspelling a name.

– If the same thing were to happen to me now, I seriously doubt I’d make another immediate attempt at the job.  An argument could easily be made for responding to it the way I did (sans the second error), so I won’t try to convince you that you shouldn’t if you ever find yourself in that situation.  I think there are certainly situations where it would be appropriate, but in my field, having to contact the employer to acknowledge a mistake directly related to the type of work I’d be doing sounds like a bigger disaster than if I’d just let the position cycle through and apply again at the next opening.  I’m usually one for facing issues head-on, but in this instance, I really feel like I drew more attention to my mistake and got myself blackballed from their payroll indefinitely.  (For the record, I never actually applied again to find out, so I’m going with my gut feeling on this one.)

– That was a pretty bad screw-up, and I had no excuse.  I was totally careless to my own detriment.  That said, sometimes we have to remind ourselves it could always be worse.  And so I give you this true story:  A friend of mine was applying to two jobs in two different fields (mental health and child services).  She wrote compelling cover letters for each, explaining in detail the reasons she was a good fit for each job.  She outlined her passion for the respective field in each cover letter.  Then, she sent them on their way…each TO THE OTHER EMPLOYER.

Like me, said friend attempted to rectify the situation by explaining what happened.  Though I’m sure it won’t shock you to learn she didn’t land either job, props to her for having the courage to face those folks.  (Can you imagine sending a detailed cover letter to a mental health counselor about your love for children or vice versa?  I would love to have seen the confusion on their faces as they read those letters!)

I’m sharing this with her permission because enough years have passed that we can laugh about those mistakes now.

Get Good Press: How to Increase Your Odds

As promised, today I’m going to talk about whether it’s possible to tip the scales in your favor in terms of press coverage.  Can you do anything to get more coverage?  And can you do anything to make sure that coverage paints you and/or your organization in a flattering light?

Honestly, sometimes that depends on factors outside of your control.  For instance, your story is far more likely to get picked up as “fluff” on a slow news week, but it’s hard to say when that will be.  Sure, there are some cultural trends to look out for.  (e.g. Tourist towns will likely have more traffic and events happening during their peak season, thus more news.)  But you can never really be sure something unexpected won’t happen to bump your story off the page on a seemingly ordinary day, especially if your press release isn’t so urgent that they can’t move it to a future edition with little explanation.

That said, here are some things you can do to help yourself:

  1. Create a list of every media source in your coverage area.  This includes newspapers, local broadcast channels, radio stations, trade journals, lifestyle magazines, even digital-only or social network-only sources.  (Pro Tip:  Create contact lists that include several people from each outlet; that way, when one person leaves, you aren’t re-building communication from scratch.)
  2. Familiarize yourself with the voices on your media list.  People who CCed me on a mass email for a press release were far less likely to get published than those who took time to get to know my writing and whether this was something I was likely to cover.  Each time the same sender did this, their odds of getting my attention decreased because I began to assume they weren’t sending me anything specific to what I cover.  (Pro Tip:  When an article really speaks to you or your market, clip it and save it in your media file for future reference.  Be sure you save the part that notes who wrote the article.  Also, follow media outlets and their reporters’ public profiles on social media to get a feel for their communication style.)
  3. Make nice with the press.  As a reporter, having good relationships with officials in my coverage area made my job so much easier because once they knew they could count on me for fair, reliable coverage, they came to me first with their information and gave me priority over others who wanted interviews.  That relationship goes both ways.  If you want them to favor you, be easy to reach when they are contacting you for interviews, even if it’s about something you’re less than thrilled to talk to them about.  You don’t have to have them over for dinner, but make sure you treat them as an ally rather than an adversary, and they’re far more likely to scratch your back when you need it. (Pro Tip:  Use flattery in moderation.  Call it egotistical, but an email that began with “Hey Jamie, I loved your recent article on _______” could always grab my attention.  Be careful though.  Do it too much, and we’ll think you’re being insincere, buttering us up just to use us to advance your cause.  Bonus points if you send “thank you” notes after we’ve given you great coverage.)
  4. Include photos and quotes.  It may not all be used, but I for one always wanted to have more information than I needed when I sat down to write.  Don’t go overboard.  A journalist isn’t your personal PR agency or editor, but give them enough.  If I was in need of some last minute “fluff,” the things closest to being ready for print were more likely to get published, assuming they were worthy of being printed in the first place.  (Pro Tip:  Familiarize yourself with some of the basics of press formatting, like writing in AP Style and using quotes that don’t require lots of extra context.)
  5. Have newsworthy content.  This one should be obvious, but it isn’t always.  I’ve come to understand this so much more since I began working in PR.  It’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening in your world and think the rest of the world should care about it too.  That isn’t always the case though.  Make sure you’re submitting the information to the right audience.  Don’t be the boy who cried wolf — er, news.(Pro Tip:  Create goals and an objective for every press release.  You don’t need to share it with anyone, but know exactly what it is, then decide which media sources appeal to that audience and approach them first.)
  6. Have a presence in your community.  In order of importance, this is somewhere near the top.  If you’re already relevant, people automatically care more about whatever it is you have to say.  Make an impact in your community in whatever way makes sense for your organization, whether it be by donating to charitable events, providing extended lunches to employees who want to deliver for Meals on Wheels, participating in festivals and tradeshows or something else.  (Pro Tip:  This is more of a reinforcement than a tip, but a “bonus” to following this step is that media is often out in droves during public/charitable events anyway, so you’re likely to have an opportunity for exposure just by participating in things!)

I’d be interested in hearing what else has worked for others.  What pro tips would you add to the list?

 

 

 

What Career Would You Choose If Money Was No Object?

This seems to be a favorite among interviewers lately.  I imagine myself answering something like, “You’re assuming I’d work at all,” a smug grin on my face.  Of course, I wouldn’t really answer that way if I were attempting to snag a job because I think I know what employers are getting at here — and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with determining whether you’re a flight risk if you win the lottery (but then again, who knows).

Interviewers ask all sorts of questions for all sorts of reasons, some of them stranger than others.  I once interviewed for a position where the ability to think on one’s feet and react quickly was essential to the role’s success.  I got asked lots of things I couldn’t have prepared for — things like what kind of animal best describes me and where I’d travel if I knew it was the last place I’d ever get to travel.  These were snap judgment calls, and the interviewer left no extra time for commentary after I answered.  I never asked, but if I had to guess, I’d say he probably didn’t really care what my answer was so much as whether I could come up with anything at all under pressure.

And in the case of questioning what your career path would be if you had no need to make money, I’d speculate that most interviewers who ask this question are doing so to see what you’re passionate about.  What a person chooses to do when the only motivation is her natural desire can tell a lot about what drives her.

I can think of a few honest answers to this question.  I’d love to help small businesses with solid ideas.  I know it’s not always in the budget for a start-up to hire on a Marketing/PR team, but sometimes I see their weak web presence (if it exists at all), and it just makes me sad for what could have been.  I have to pay the bills, so I can’t devote that kind of time to non-paying gigs, but I would if I could because there’s something so rewarding about putting your own stamp on a team’s success.

I’d also love to be one of those undercover bosses (like from the show on CBS).  Seriously.  How fun would that be?!  Traveling around the world in different disguises, rewarding good employees and retraining the not-so-great to reach their potential (assuming nothing happened to warrant firing them).

But the one thing I’d choose if I had to choose one thing would be education.  People who know me know my passion for education.  I’ve been involved in several education initiatives in my community because I firmly stand behind the idea that knowledge is power.  Who doesn’t want to empower people?!

Thinking about all the things I’d care enough to do without compensation, they all share that theme, which is interesting.  Some people think of me first as a writer, but I really aspire to be an “empowerer,” a person who makes others’ dreams a reality (business/person/whatever).  I’ve heard people say you shouldn’t spend your life making everyone else’s dreams come true, but in a way, that actually is my dream.

What about you?  Is there a job you’d do even if you wouldn’t get paid for it?

Note:  Excuse my manners.  My links weren’t working, so I’ve removed them.  I promise to re-link any text I’ve provided references for once I correct the problem.  In the meantime, my apologies if anything here requires a Google for context  🙂  – J