“I Voted.” Small sticker, precious step

Today I’m as powerful as Sheldon Adelson, Sean Hannity, Paul Ryan, John Roberts, David Axelrod or Elizabeth Warren.

My vote counts as much as each of theirs. And as I cast my vote today my heart lifted. I could feel it. For too many months I’ve been worrying and griping and moaning and arguing and living in fear of the unthinkable. An hour ago I took action. I feel empowered.

img_5163Our country has flaws. Disparity of rich and poor. Gross overconsumption of the planet’s resources. Poor education and a paucity of hope for too many. A system designed by those who already have the most to assure they get more. And our election system is far from perfect. Voter suppression. Hanging chads. Too much influence by the wealthiest. Gerrymandered districts that permit little challenge to incumbents.

But I just cast a vote that counts the same as Barack Obama’s. And it will be counted. The regular citizens who handed me the ballot and watched me slide it in the machine are the volunteer custodians of the dream the founders dreamed. My Uncle Bob died in World War II to protect the vote I cast today. John Lewis had his skull cracked to preserve the right of all of us to not just speak up about where we’re going as a country but to put our hands on the wheel.

There was a man standing at the corner of the street that leads to our local government center where Lisa and I voted. He was showing the world a life-size picture of Hillary Clinton behind bars. I firmly believe he’ll be disappointed a week from today. And as we drove past him I felt less of the despair I’ve been feeling for months, despair that the candidate he supports might actually, how could this possibly be true, win the election. I felt less depressed because I had just taken action. I had voted. To turn away that man’s vision and to bring my own closer to the light.

In a world full of despots I stood up and said to the preposterous, self-absorbed, ignorant, immature poseur who would be president: “I banish thee. Slink back under the foul rock you crawled out from. Begone.” Little old me, a guy of scant power, wealth or influence. But a guy with a vote.

In the car, Lisa and I did a Barack-Michelle fist bump. Is this a great country or what?

— Bruce Benidt

Neighborhoods the Romneys Don’t Know

“And it comes from neighborhoods we have yet to even discover,” Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and former head of the Republican National Committee, said Wednesday on MSNBC about the America that re-elected President Obama and that his party does not know. Steele, who’s black, was talking to host Alex Wagner, who is female and Asian-American. His party no longer looks like America, he said. America looks like you, it looks like me, he told Wagner. His party “has to take its head out of its you-know-what and understand exactly what’s going on in this country,” and realize we don’t represent all of America. “And don’t just put Marco Rubio out there and say ‘We got one.'”

Here’s the link to Steele:
Now
In 1968 Senator Robert Kennedy toured poor parts of Kentucky to help focus the nation’s attention on poverty. The trip was part of RFK’s transformation from knife-edged politician to compassionate crusader. He went to neighborhoods the majority of people in American hadn’t ever seen. Couldn’t believe existed. Didn’t want to believe existed in America.

My dear partner Lisa has said from the beginning of the presidential campaign that Mitt and Ann Romney should come to Pasco County, where we live north of Tampa, to see what the real America is like. Unemployment, 12 percent. Poverty level, 12 percent. Median household income, $44,000. Eighty percent non-Hispanic white, 12 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black. Certainly not Appalachia, but a place that’s hit hard times.

Lisa and I walked a few blocks of Port Richey on election day to get out the vote for the Obama campaign. We saw a part of our town, our state, that Romney doesn’t know. Hasn’t ever seen. Can’t comprehend. Middle America. Hurting. Small houses, many rented after the real estate crash. But many people in homes that they own. Hurting. One woman we drove to the polls had no car, no job, and a boyfriend suffering from ALS that they attribute to chemicals he was exposed to in the Gulf War. Lisa helped her decide on Obama — she voted for the first time in decades. My point to her, as we talked about her vote, was that Romney has no idea what life is like in this Port Richey neighborhood. Lisa asked the woman if she considered herself middle class. Yes, just barely, she said. Lisa asked what she thought Romney said when he was asked what a middle-class income was. Fifty thousand, the woman said. Lisa told her that Romney’s answer was $250,000. The woman was stunned. Another woman, a grandmother, whom we drove to the polls was part of five generations living in a small house. Her daughter has a good business — bail bonding. No other jobs in the house. They have a car and own the house. But they’re hurting. Struggling. This is one of the neighborhoods the GOP hasn’t even discovered yet, in Steele’s terms — and it’s far from the poorest neighborhood in our town, let alone in America.

Mitt and Ann Romney would have had their eyes opened if they’d walked with Lisa and me. But they — and too many in their party — don’t know this neighborhood, and seem not to care. Even though there were a few Romney signs in the neighborhood we walked, and we got a door slammed in our face by a Romney voter, this is the America that pays the price for Republican policies. Masquerading behind concern for the deficit, which is a huge threat to us all, Republican policies hurt these barely-middle-class people. Cuts in cops, schools, libraries, bus service, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, college loans, social services, emergency services. The Romney Ryan platform.

I’ve said many times on this blog that the real cost of No New Taxes is payed by average Americans. A recent New York Times story said crime is up in Sacramento due to deep cuts in police budgets and personnel. What a surprise.

Republicans lost the national election, although Florida’s legislature, like most in the country, stayed Republican. But the party will continue to shrink if it pays attention only to the neighborhoods where Mitt and Ann and their big contributors live. Most in Congress no longer know what the real America is like. Most people like me — privileged, white, educated, well off — don’t know the fraying neighborhoods and lives of people falling from the middle class.

“The white establishment is now the minority,” Bill O’Reilly said, right after Obama’s win, with a shocked voice. Hello, welcome to the 21st Century. But Obama’s re-election is not just about majorities and minorities. It’s about the increasing disparity between rich and poor, between Republicans like Mitt Romney and the rest of America.

Policies that continue to favor those who already have it made, at the expense of those who don’t, can’t continue. That’s part of what people said with their votes on Tuesday. And Michael Steele may have gotten the message.

— Bruce Benidt

(Photo from LATimes.com)

Online Brainstorms Overcome Many Problems of Traditional Brainstorms

The other day, I highlighted research showing that face-to-face brainstorming meetings are not as effective at generating ideas as quiet contemplation. It’s important to note one partial exception to that rule: online brainstorming.

E-brainstorming.
The research is very supportive of online brainstorming. With face-to-face brainstorming, the larger the group, the worse the performance, both in terms of quantity and quality. With online brainstorming, however, the bigger the group, the better the performance, according to the research.

Why? I’d say it is because online brainstorming fosters what introverts particularly need to excel, time for quiet contemplation and self-vetting. Online brainstorming – a prolonged email-based discussion, for instance – removes many of the problems associated with the ubiquitous face-to-face brainstorming sessions so many organizations adore.

First, online brainstorms remove many of the distractions inherent in face-to-face brainstorm sessions. In face-to-face brainstorming sessions, our minds are racing from irrelevant subject to irrelevant subject: “The facilitator is not as funny as he thinks he is…do people think I’m talking too little, or too much…why Snickers…bad hair day, dude…why does she always work the word “synergy” into every monologue…if I had pointy shoes like that guy, would people conclude that I’m creative…wouldn’t white boards be more environmentally sustainable than giant Post-it notes…is the facilitator on happy pills?”

When you’re back at your keyboard, those environmental distractions are removed, so you can focus on the task at hand. Sure, distractions still exist in your office, but nothing like the wild sideshows happening in Cirque du Brainstormsession.

Second, the problem of “evaluation apprehension” – the fear of looking moronic in front of colleaugues — is mitigated online. After all, with online brainstorms, you have ample time to self-scrutinize and research your argument before expressing it, which builds confidence in the value of the contribution. When allowed sufficient time to develop the idea, you are much more likely to share it, and it is likely to be a better developed idea. Not so with the spontaneous blurting required in face-to-face brainstorming.

Third, the problem of “production blocking” – where thoughts are lost as you’re waiting for others to express their ideas — is nearly eliminated during online brainstorms. With online brainstorms, thoughts can be written down, and fully developed, as you have them.

In short, online brainstorms allow for uninterrupted contemplation, while still taking advantages of the “wisdom of crowds” phenomena.

In the book Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki sings the praises of the decisions crowds jointly make. But Surowiecki also stresses that crowds are capable of making very bad decisions. He says that a primary factor that leads to poor crowd decision making is when members of the crowd are so conscious of the opinions of others that they start to emulate each other and conform, rather than thinking as individuals.

Face-to-face meetings are much more apt to generate this kind of blind following of vocal group leaders than large groups of people sitting at their keyboards thinking independently.

Granted, online brainstorms are far from perfect. For instance, the problem of social loafing – sitting back and letting others do the work – arguably could be aggravated with large online groups. And tragically, there is no junk food supplied at e-brainstorms. But online brainstorms do avoid many of the problems associated with face-to-face brainstorms, and research indicates that they produce better results.

– Loveland

Anoka Anti-Bullying Effort is Economic Development?

The War on Differentness
Today’s news reminds us that many parents, kids, and teachers in the Anoka County schools continue to oppose policies designed to prevent bullying of LGBT kids, and others. To them, such policies represent “politically correct (PC)” frivolity, or “promoting the gay agenda.”

But this isn’t just about politics or PC gotchas. There are a lot of other pretty solid reasons for supporting such initiatives. Common decency. Constitutional equality. The Golden Rule.

But since those arguments haven’t swayed opponents of anti-gay bullying initiatives yet, here’s another reason that might resonate on the right.

Jobs, jobs, jobs.

In the book “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” author Alexandra Robbins makes the case for Quirk Theory.

Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.

Quirk theory suggests that popularity in school is not a key to success and satisfaction in adulthood. Conventional notions of popularity are wrong. What if popularity is not the same thing as social success? What if students who are considered outsiders aren’t really socially inadequate at all? Being an outsider doesn’t necessarily indicate any sort of social failing. We do not view a tuba player as musically challenged if he cannot play the violin. He’s just a different kind of musician. A sprinter is still considered an athlete even if she can’t play basketball. She’s a different kind of athlete. Rather than view the cafeteria fringe as less socially successful than the popular crowd, we could simply accept that they are a different kind of social.

To support her theory, Robbins cites many examples of people who were “cafeteria fringe” in high school – “geeks, loners, punks, floaters, nerds, freaks, dorks, gamers, bandies, art kids, theater geeks, choir kids, Goths, weirdos, indies, scenes, emos, skaters, and various types of racial and other minorities” — but later were a resounding success in the adult world. J.K. Rowling. Bruce Springsteen. Steve Jobs. Tim Gunn. Bill Gates.

How many jobs and exports do you suppose those marginalized cafeteria fringers have created for the cafeteria core dwellers?

As for LGBT students, George Mason University Professor George Florida employs a “Bohemian-Gay Index” to find that the more “gay friendly” a city is, the more economically successful it tends to be.

So, maybe this anti-bullying business is about more than just fluffy PC-ness?

Schools can’t eliminate bullying, but they can do more. Robbins finds that teachers and administratrators aren’t nearly as neutral as they claim to be in the War on Differentness. They enforce social hierarchies by creating institutional mechanisms for celebrating athletics, cheerleading and a few select activities over all others. Teachers and administrators set the social cues by who they choose to befriend, praise or spend time with. And they too often turn blind eyes toward subtle and not-so-subtle cruelty.

So, Anoka anti-bullying champions, keep fighting the good fight. It’s the right thing to do. Besides, the jocks could use some more jobs right now.

– Loveland

Beyond People Persons

“I’m a people person!” That was the battle cry of most of the students I knew in college as they declared, with several exclamation points and a smiley face, that they had decided to major in public relations, marketing or communications.

And indeed, things have not changed a lot since my college years. The field remains populated with individuals sporting superior moods, manners and manes. When I’m in a PR agency suite, the REM lyric “shiny happy people holding hands” is the soundtrack I often unconsciously put to the scene.

Still, there are a relative few unreformed, unrepentant Grumpy Guses and Gertrudes in the business. They close their doors and look inward as their colleagues chirp about all the trendy things they did together over the weekend. They slink away in horror when ice breaker games inevitably break out at inter-office meetings. They do their best thinking alone in their drab, toyless offices, not in those madcap agency brainstorming sessions. They work in public relations, but avoid relations with the public.

And the business needs more of them.

This is wholly unscientific, but I’d guess 80% of folks who work in PR are more extroverted and 20% are more introverted. In some types of practices the mix may be even more lopsided, such as consumer relations.

And it doesn’t seem like that trend is likely to end any time soon. When recently addressing a class of earnest University of Minnesota PR majors, I mentioned off-handedly that I was introverted. A young man with exquisitely highlighted hair expressed genuine shock that an introvert could work in public relations. I felt like Lobster Boy at a carnival freak show.

When I mentioned to this same class that I studied history and political science in college, a lovely young woman asked me, with sympathy in her voice, how I learned to write without the benefit of a public relations major. Her concern was genuine, and oddly touching.

Look, don’t get me wrong. The perky People Person is clearly a great profile for many aspects of public relations. It helps with the initial job interview, event planning, most types of new business pitching, interoffice team building, and many other aspects of PR work. Moreover, extroverted PR people connect well with extroverted clients, of which there are many in this world.

However, it strikes me that the biggest downside of overstaffing with extroverts is that many extroverts are a bit too eager to please and be liked. PR people often are most valuable when they are delivering the least popular counsel. “I recommend you not say that because it’s not true and fudging will kill our reputation.” “I know you’ve always done things that way, but you have to change with the times.” “You’ll look foolish if you do that, because it doesn’t pass the smell test with our target audience.” “We can’t charge for that because it’s not in their best interest.” “Sure it’s hip and fun, but it doesn’t achieve the goal we were hired to achieve.”

Now more than ever, the PR business needs to be offering more of this kind of tough love. Few enjoy delivering such unpopular counsel, but my experience is that those who most love to be loved particularly avoid it. Such candid counsel often chills relationships, and that is a higher price to pay for the extrovert than the introvert.

Moreover, some parts of PR work lend themselves to introversion. The essence of public relations is empathy. It’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, because you can’t effectively persuade the target audience or your client until you can get yourself to think and feel like them. It strikes me that empathetic analysis is often an inward looking endeavor that suits the introverted well. Likewise, introspection can come in handy crafting a persuasive argument, analysis, plan or strategy.

None of this is to argue that PR agency Human Relations Department directors should replace all their Perky Pauls with Petulant Pams. Extroverts will always be the backbone of PR operations. And I must admit, sometimes the icebreaker games aren’t as humiliating as I expected. But it is to say that Meyers Briggs diversity in PR is as important as other kinds of diversity, and that the best hire may not always be the best interviewer, or the person with the most narrowly relevant resume.

– Loveland

tax amnesty kind

PRSA needs to diversify its view of diversity

I’m the new guy here, so let’s this out of the way: Hi, my name is Mike (“Hi, Mike!”), and I’m addicted to MSNBC.

I have a short bio here. OK, so let’s get on with it…

As a student, I served on the national committee for the Public Relations Student Society of America, the kiddie version of the Public Relations Society of America. I was lucky enough to almost literally stumble into this outstanding experience. I met some amazingly fun and talented people, and we worked with leaders from PRSA to make both organizations more meaningful to the industry they serve.

And I once stood next to James Grunig.

I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, but that’s not to say it was perfect. Even on the kiddie committee, we wrestled with some fairly heavy issues – one of which still nags me today, despite my total lack of involvement with the organization since my national committee stint.

PRSA and PRSSA shared the noble goal of improving diversity within the groups and the industry at large, particularly in terms of organizational membership and leadership but also in the educational sense, helping all members better understand the less familiar corners of world’s population. The nobility of the goal was complemented by the practicality of the idea that if a PR professional better understands, say, the Hispanic communities in the southwestern United States, he or she could better pitch stories to that community’s media outlets.

In many respects, PRSA has done well in educating its membership about a variety of specific communities who identify themselves with a common language, race, orientation, nationality, profession, political preference or mix thereof. For example, the July issue of Tactics, the association’s newspaper (the last one I received before my membership expired) featured an article titled “LGBTinos: a unique niche market effectively reached online,” which informs readers on the ins and outs of conducting media outreach directed toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Latinos. The next page has a similar article aiming to give readers a basic understanding of the disabled community.

These types of stories are helpful and interesting, often (thankfully) written by members of the very communities being discussed. I could complain about how most of these articles are the same and rarely go beyond generic, “PR 101” advice like read the publication before pitching the editor, know what they cover, know the audience, etc. – but I won’t. I have something else to complain about.

Another part of PRSA’s diversity initiative, arguably the more significant part, is improving the diversity of the organization’s membership and leadership while helping agencies and communications departments improve the diversity within. As the thinking goes, how can you communicate to diverse audiences without truly knowing, understanding, relating? Again, a noble goal, but it’s in this regard that I think PRSA’s efforts fall short.

In that same issue of Tactics, I read an article that sums up my experiences with PRSA’s diversity efforts: “Where are all the diverse PR practitioners?” laments the lack of diversity the author sees in his visits to PR classes “at several Midwestern universities,” making the not-unreasonable claim that this problem is reflected in the population of practicing PR professionals.

What’s the author’s evidence of the diversity problem? Too many Caucasians, apparently.

“Generally, only a handful of African-American students are in these classes, and even fewer Hispanics and Asians.”

I don’t disagree, speaking from my almost exclusively Midwestern perspective. But why the focus solely on race? I use this article as an example, but it’s representative of much of my experience with PRSA’s approach to diversity. We’re loaded with ideas for how to pitch stories to “diverse” media outlets, but when it comes to being more diverse, the solution is to be more epidermally colorful.

PRSSA wanted to improve membership diversity, so our committee discussed a plan that involved targeting HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities, a phrase I’m glad PRSSA didn’t invent). Discussions of diversity did often include mention of matters beyond race, but actions taken stayed squarely in the realm of skin tone.

Our committee itself was truly diverse. We were European and African and Asian and Mormon and Buddhist and Catholic and male and female and large and small and come from families of divorce and families of, well, not divorce and – you get the point. You’d think protestations of an incorrect focus with regard to diversity would have been acted upon. Nay.

I know many people have devoted much blood, sweat and tears to PRSA broadly and its diversity initiative specifically, and I know many of those people, and I love a few of them. I hope some of these people will tell me I’m wrong, that I’m not seeing a lot of other, better informed work going on. Or maybe that things have gotten better since I’ve faded away from the PRSSA/PRSA circle.

But I don’t hold out too much hope. After all, these are PR people. If they were doing something even remotely well, I’m pretty damn sure we’d have heard about it.