Your Career and You: “Think Out of the Box!”

Publication1Sometimes I’m thrown for a loop by questions I’m asked by my students at Curry College, where I ride herd over the Communication Department’s Public Relations Concentration. You’d think, after ten years of doing this, I would have heard it all, but noooo…

Before I wander too far down this path, let me be clear…my PR troops are awesome! They are pushing themselves beyond what they thought was their limit and are going off after graduation to do amazing things!

But, for some, getting there has been…and continues to be…a bit of a challenge. Why?

My simplistic answer…they’ve never been challenged before. They’ve never been pushed to use their own thought and imagination to solve problems. The answers were always there for them if they so much as blinked an eye.

The upside to this spoonfeeding is that they have floated through their pre-adult years confident that answers could always be found.

The downside is that they have never been challenged to use their own resources to solve the problems…to actually find those answers.

In other words…they have arrived on my doorstep totally unprepared for “life.”

How do I usually identify this problem?

Easy…it’s when I give an assignment that can only be answered by looking outside the course reading materials…by assessing what’s going on in the “real world” and finding the solution.

The responses range from “what chapter of the book covers this?” to a flat out “it’s not in the book; I don’t understand.”

It’s at this point where I slide into my (more-or-less) “kindly father” role and say, “Welcome to the real world. The answers are not going to be handed to you on a silver platter. You are going to have to find them.”

Cue the moaning and groaning.

Prominent in our mission statement at Curry is that of teaching “critical thinking…of assessing a situation and identifying its possible cause or its solution. Concepts like devoting serious thought, conducting research, and weighing pros and cons are part and parcel of this.

But, from what I see on occasion, the troops are not prepared for this. They’ve grown up being spoonfed the answers and, until they wander into one of my classes, they haven’t been challenged to do otherwise.

And here’s where my “welcome to the real world” instruction kicks in. I don’t ask “yes or no” questions; I don’t provide a “guide” to help prepare for a quiz covering two chapters in a book.

Instead, I ask “why?” and “what if?” questions, and the answers have to be found through research, serious weighing of possible solutions, and out of the box thinking…again, real world scenarios.

My hope/dream/fondest wish is that this approach will prepare my charges for that inevitable day when their boss marches into their workspace and dumps a pile of papers onto their desk with these angst-producing words, “I need to have an answer for our client this afternoon.”

That’s when they will realize that they’re “all growed up,” and they are expected to get out of their comfortable “someone else will solve this for me” box if they want to get ahead in life.

Your Career and You: “Spring Ahead”

Publication1It’s spring semester registration time at Curry College, and my Communication advisees are in varying stages of “OMG!”

Thanksgiving’s not even here yet. Christmas is a dim vision on the horizon. WADDAYA MEAN REGISTER FOR SPRING SEMESTER?!?

This “real-life” inevitability is something I try to impress on my charges, especially those who have enlisted in my Public Relations Concentration.

As I remind the troops day after day, life after graduation is going to be filled to the brim with looming deadlines. Get used to it…and be prepared.

As one student said wistfully a few years ago, “But I’m just a kid.”

He had some other issues he was dealing with besides registering for courses, but I gently reminded him that he was only a “kid” in his mind. In the eyes of those around him, especially potential employers, he was a “young adult.”

Big difference, and one that I remember from my own experiences half a century ago. I wanted so badly to just finish my studies and go home to be taken care of by my long-suffering parents.

Stuff happened, though, and I wound up in Vietnam teaching English as a second language to the Vietnamese military. Saw some things I’d like to forget. Did some things I love to remember.

Learned a ton…grew up in the process.

And that’s the lesson I try to pass on to my disciples…things happen.

You learn from your successes and your failures, and you get a better sense of who you are and where you’re going in life.

But this won’t happen if you just sit around and wait for someone else to tell you what to do.

You have to take control. You have to make plans. You have to take action.

On your own…but with the help of others.

Now’s the time. Now’s your chance.

Don’t “fall behind”… “spring ahead”!

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again – and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.” Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” ch. 19 [1895]

Your Career and You: “You’re Smarter Than You Think”

Publication1The past few weeks have been, to put it as kindly as I can, freaking insane.

I spent a mind-blowing four days in Washington, DC, at the Public Relations Society of America’s International Conference (Note: This is the link to the 2015 Conference page) where I was surrounded by thousands of fellow PR professionals and students.

I also attended a half-dozen educational sessions where I got a TON of information and new ideas that I can bring back into the classroom.

Then I came back to Boston and immediately began prepping for my own presentation at the annual conference of the National Coalition of State Housing Agencies. I talked to a roomful of communication professionals from around the country about one of my favorite topics…social media and customer service.

Now the dust is settling, and I’m looking forward to the next great adventure…whatever that might be.

At the same time, I’m teaching my undergraduate Communication classes at Curry College and having the time of my life introducing young future-professionals to the world that has been my life for going on 40 years.

So what’s the point, Kirk?

The “point” is that, if you had asked me 10 years ago what I would be doing today, I would probably have said, “Running a PR department for some cool nonprofit somewhere in the world.”

I definitely would have been involved with PRSA…joined in 1981 and have been an active member ever since.

But the other stuff…hard to say. I didn’t really think I was smart enough to be teaching others how to succeed in public relations. And I’m definitely not smart enough to be advising others on how to conduct their own PR programs.

But others seem to think so. Cool!

The point…again…is that I came into this world equipped with a massive inferiority complex, and I can’t shake it.

Today I sit in faculty or department meetings listening to my colleagues, and I think “Oh my God, he (or she) is sooo smart.” And I curl up into a ball and try to hide.

But, then, I reflect on things that I’ve done recently, and I think “Maybe…just maybe…I’m not as dumb as I think. Other people think I have a clue. Maybe I do!!”

The point for you, young grasshopper, is that you should not let your self-doubt stop you from doing something. Just dive in and do it.

Not everything’s going to work perfectly…Thomas Edison experimented with umpteen types of materials before he found the one that worked as a filament for his soon-to-be-invented light bulb. The Wright Brothers’ first attempt to fly didn’t get off the ground.

But they didn’t give up…nor should you.

Believe in yourself. Try new things. Take chances. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. You’ll find that you’re smarter than you think!!

Your Career and You: “How ‘Social’ Are You?”

Publication1This has been an interesting semester thus far at Curry College, where I teach most of the public relations courses in our undergraduate Communication Department.

Good students for the most part. A little rocky getting started, but the bumps are getting smoothed out and we’re starting to chug along nicely.

One of the courses I’m teaching is “Social Media Communication,” designed to provide an overview of how social media is being and can be used in the communication area, especially in public relations.

But I also throw in some “it’s your future” stuff.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer for these folks…after all, they entered the world with a Facebook account and were tweeting before their first tooth appeared. It’s not, though.

While most (not “all”) are on Facebook, and some are using Twitter, many don’t see the value that an active…professional…presence on these and other platforms can bring.

For those of you who, in an unprecedented fit of insanity, chose to either “connect with,” “friend” or “follow” me, you know that I’m all over the place when it comes to posts and tweets. If I’m not ranting about the inferior service of our public transit system here in Boston or making snarky comments about Penny’s new hairdo on “Big Bang Theory,” I’m sharing or commenting on articles on public relations and/or social media.

In other words, I’m balancing the “kid” in me with the “professional” side. I’m not a “bot.”

And that’s the lesson that I’m trying to pass on to my troops in the classroom. Social media is so much more than photos posted on Facebook of your latest vaguely-remembered, unauthorized party in your room at college or profanity-laden tweets during a football or baseball game.

Today, social media platforms are your first introduction in the eyes of a potential internship supervisor or hiring manager for that way cool position you’ve been lusting after.

As I tell those who ask and are willing to listen, “I’m going to check you out before I add your name to my list of possible interviews. What am I going to find online?”

Public relations as a profession is just that… “public”…and my image as an organization will benefit from or be smudged by your public image.

Yes, I know that there is a growing unhappiness with the mandates of Facebook and other currently popular social media platforms to reveal your “real” self. And I’ve been reading a lot recently about “Ello,” an anti-Facebook platform that allows you to register as “Snickerty-Doodle” if you so wish.

My point here is that, yes, you should have fun, and yes, you should have the right to say and do stupid things. But say and do those things in the company of other human beings. Don’t do them in your closet and then post them online for the virtual…rapidly becoming very real…world to see.

It’s good to be “out there” with your thoughts and opinions. Just remember to be “social” when you do.

Your Career and You: “Ethics – ‘When You Come to a Fork in the Road…’”

Publication1September for the Public Relations Society of America is branded as “Ethics Month,” and we as a Society are running like gerbils on the wheel in our cage to inform, educate, and increase awareness of the role that ethics plays in our lives as PR professionals.

My undergrad Communication students at Curry College are getting a healthy dose of this in my “Principles of Public Relations” and other classes, and I send them to PRSA’s “Code of Ethics” for an early writing assignment to reinforce our classroom discussions.

Ethics is an interesting topic that usually sparks lively pro-and-con discussions on what’s considered “right” or “wrong.” It also usually triggers the question, “Who cares?”

That last part, in my opinion, is the heart of the matter. Who does care?

The last time I checked, the world had not stopped in its tracks because someone chose to act unethically.

Molten lava didn’t fall from the sky to wipe out entire cities.

Nope. Life chugged along as usual. People went to work. Babies cried. Students freaked out over homework assignments. Life as usual.

But, I would offer, unethical acts done by public relations professionals (and others, I hasten to add…are we listening, NFL leadership??) do matter. And things do happen.
> Corporate as well as personal reputations are smudged.
> Brands are tarnished.
> Doubt and distrust begin to fester in the dark corners of the public’s minds.

And so the slip down the slope begins.

I’m an optimist. You know that if you’ve spent even a micro-second on my blog. I believe that we all are born programmed to do the right thing.

But some of us, for all kinds of personal or professional reasons, choose not to do the “right” thing at some point.
> We cut corners.
> We fudge facts.
> We play favorites.
> We act unethically.

We don’t have to, though. We can stand firm when dealing with clients, employers, or employees who just can’t see why ethical practice is so important.

This isn’t always the proverbial “walk in the park.” The concepts that we, as PR professionals, hold as important don’t always match the perceptions of others. So it falls on our shoulders to not only adhere to ethical standards of practice, but also to try to help others understand why it is important.

So here’s a thought…If you’re not already, make yourself familiar with PRSA’s Code of Ethics. Do as I have done for countless years and display a copy of the Code in your work area for others to see.

Most important, be alert for potential ethical issues and be prepared and willing to point out…and offer alternatives to…possible unethical acts.

Your actions and suggestions are not always going to be greeted with open arms. You will meet resistance from some.

It’s your choice.

It’s your profession.

It’s your professional pride and reputation.

Ethical? Or unethical?

To quote the famous philosopher Leo Durocher, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Your Career and You: “UNcommon Courtesies”

Publication1I had a brief conversation with a friend at Curry College recently who commented on the habit of younger (than the two of us!) people today responding to a “Thank You” with a (usually) muttered “No Problem.”

No Problem?!? I didn’t ask for a recap of the state of the nation…although “no problem” would be as far from accurate as humanly possible at this point if that were the case.

It seems that common courtesies are becoming more and more uncommon. And it’s not just the younger generations who are the guilty parties. I went to dinner with some friends a while back. We enjoyed great service from an attentive…and engaging…waitperson who took extra pains to make our experience outstanding.

I noticed almost immediately that one of my dinner companions absolutely would not even acknowledge this person’s existence…never looked at her…never spoke to her…nothing.

Before you launch into your “Kirk, you’re showing your age” speech, I’m not suggesting that we should bring back the sanitary conditions of the 17th and 18th centuries that “inspired” the custom of the gentleman walking on the street side when accompanying a lady in the event someone chose that moment to dump (how do we say it daintily?) “waste” out the upstairs window onto the sidewalk below.

No. I’m simply saying that it’s not an onerous duty to, at the very least, let the person with whom you’re interacting feel that he or she actually exists.

It’s not rocket science. It’s a very simple effort to maintain what is slowly eroding thanks to the proliferation of internet-based communication platforms (I’m talking about you, Twitter and Facebook…and other culprits!) that facilitate person-to-person or person-to-group communication without the actual face-to-face contact.

A simple and sincere request from yours truly. The next time you go to eat, or to shop, try this…

Look at the person who is assisting you.
Smile. Say “hello.” Say “thank you.” Say “you’re welcome.”

You might be pleasantly surprised by the reaction you get.

Relationships…It’s about the UNcommon courtesies.

“Your Career and You: Reflections”

Publication1Today is one of those days that, thankfully, comes just once a year…my birthday. I’ve endured enough of these days that the excitement of childhood occasions has faded away.

This particular birthday, though, is somewhat significant in a “ships passing in the night” sort of way. My age matches the year I graduated from the University of Georgia and embarked on a totally unplanned-for and unexpected life…’68.

I woke up this morning and immediately thought of those people whose path I have crossed (or impeded, depending on who you ask!) and their influence on where I am today. I’ve mentioned some in previous blog posts; others you’re meeting for the first time. And this is by no means a comprehensive listing…it would take another 68 years to compile that list!

  • I just recently gave a shout-out to Professor Bob Hill Anderson who, during my brief dalliance at Middle Georgia College, jerked me out of my pig-lazy state of mind and re-introduced me to the joys of reading.
  • Then there was Professor Ray Register, who I first met during my disastrous encounter with Auburn University (my fault, not theirs) and reconnected with again at the University of Georgia. Ray’s joie de vivre was nothing short of infectious.
  • Clinton Parks, my public affairs internship supervisor at the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, has appeared several times over the past few years as someone who showed me how genuine, from-the-heart, caring can make a difference in one’s life and career.
  • My late step-father, William Malcolm Towson, set an example for me of how “successful” and “good” do not have to be contradictory terms. “Bill,” as I called him from the git-go, was a truly good, caring father, husband, and role model. I have done my best over the years to live my life as he lived his…placing the well-being of others ahead of everything else.
  • “Papa So,” my father-in-law, whose insatiable curiosity and enthusiastic love of life cemented my relationship with a culture and a way of thinking that have influenced my own life and lifestyle.

There are…and will be…others who impact my life in one way or another in the coming years, but these are at the top of my mind on this particular day.

What’s the point of all this, you ask?

Very simply…that I hope with all my heart that these gentlemen…and the countless others who go unnamed today…understood the impact that they have had.

I would not be doing what I’m doing today and would not have done what I did for the earlier part of my career had it not been for their influence and their example. They gave me the courage, the conviction, and the commitment to follow my instincts…and my heart.

The challenge for me and for you, dear reader, is to live our lives in such a way as to help someone else find his or her way in life.

By our actions, both direct and indirect, we can and will influence others.

Are you ready?

Your Career and You: “What Does PR Do?”

Publication1My Curry College Communication students often ask me why I believe public relations is important for an organization.

They eagerly point out the oceans of very visible advertising that surround the release of new software…or cars…or movies…and they ask, logically enough, What role does public relations play in all this?”

A visit to my favorite locally-owned and operated farmstand recently gave me a terrific example for a response. As my wife and I neared the stand, we noticed that traffic was backed up almost a quarter of a mile…cars trying to enter and to leave the parking lot.

It wasn’t a holiday period, so what was going on??

Turns out the folks who run the place were having a fundraising “Ice Cream Social” to support a well-known charity.

And people were pouring in by the carload to support the cause by paying to eat ice cream…and to then buy stuff…fruits and veggies.

Wilson Farm is widely known not only for its very fresh products but also for its commitment to and involvement in the community. And this is not “corporate speak.” This attitude is reflected in the actions of management and employees who all enthusiastically get involved.

Community involvement is not a new concept, but it is one that is carried out with varying degrees of success by organizations large and small, global and local, for-profit and not-for-profit.

What we’re talking about here, purely and simply, is “relationship-building”…creating a connection with stakeholders…people or organizations who either are affected by your activities or could potentially affect your activities in some way…customers, suppliers, neighbors, town government…the list runs on and on.

And here’s why this is important.

No matter how important or different you think you are…others don’t. A farmstand is a grocery store is a farmer’s market. They all sell fruits, vegetables, and “stuff.”

So why should or would people come to you??

Simple answer…because they feel like they know you…they feel like you’re a part of their community or their life…they see the genuineness of your actions and, for that reason, they want to support you.

As is the case with Wilson Farm, their prices are not necessarily the lowest, and there are easily a half-dozen supermarkets within a ten-minute drive, mostly with lower prices.

But…and here’s the difference…those supermarket “boxes” have zero “personality.” They have less than zero recognition in their communities. They are, purely and simply, “corporate outposts” that hire (mostly) local help.

Wilson Farm is a “destination”…a place to go to for fun, community-related activities…and quality products. Hayrides in the fall. Ice cream socials in the summer. Farm tours for adults as well as for children. Something for everyone!

And, when you get there, not only are you able to get some great fruit and veggies…you see a family-owned and operated business that cares.

And so kids, to borrow a line from “How I Met Your Mother,” that’s how public relations works.

You commit to doing…and you DO…good things.

You get the community involved whenever possible.

You “walk the walk, and you talk the talk.”

It’s not rocket science, but it is good PR!

Your Career and You: “Say ‘No’ to Negativity”

Publication1I just spent what seems like an eternity with someone who has, without doubt, the most negative approach to life of anyone I’ve run into in my entire life. We’re talking serious “no…unh-unh…no way.”

By the end of the day (That’s all it was??? Seemed like forever!!!), I was mentally, spiritually, and emotionally whipped. And, as those of you who know me can testify, that takes some doing!

When it was all over, I did what is becoming a habit of late…I took a l-o-o-n-n-n-g-g-g-g nap.

Then I started thinking about what had taken place and the effect the whole thing had had on me as well as, I’m sure, the countless dozens of people we came in contact with in the course of the day.

Negativity is just that…a negative force. It’s a vacuum that sucks the enthusiasm and optimism out of everything it comes near.

Nothing kills creativity, passion, spontaneity, and will-to-succeed like a looming dark cloud of “unh-unh…no way.”

This applies regardless of whether you’re a seasoned professional heading a team of younger, less experienced practitioners who are looking to you for guidance to help them succeed or you’re a younger, less experienced practitioner hoping to make your own mark on your chosen profession.

In either case, your approach to challenges and opportunities is noticed by and reacted to by those around you. It doesn’t matter if they’re directly connected or not. Your attitude is seen. Your attitude is judged. And your attitude causes others to act either positively or negatively.

This isn’t to suggest that you should simply go along with every single idea and suggestion that flows your way.

People (subordinates as well as superiors) are fully capable of generating truly bad/blatantly idiotic ideas. I speak both as the recipient…and the creator…of some doozies.

And that’s okay on both sides. Ideas are an indication of someone’s interest and creativity. We don’t all come pre-packaged with the same experiences and perceptions, so there are bound to be some differences of opinion about the true usefulness of an idea.

But I’ve learned over time to listen and evaluate first, then provide either positive or negative feedback. And I’ve learned that, by my taking that time, the other party often is able to better understand why the suggestion is not appropriate.

I’ve also seen the positive results of negative feedback in more carefully thought-out planning and increased enthusiasm because of my willingness to listen and respond openly and honestly.

So what’s this all about?

Simple. Listen to yourself.

How are you reacting or responding to others’ ideas? Do you encourage or discourage creativity?

Just say “no” to negativity.

Your Career and You: “Just Doin’ MY Job”

Publication1I just had a very disappointing experience that reinforced one of my longest-standing personal standards…that of simply doing whatever is necessary to get the job done regardless of whether or not the task is in your job description.

My long-suffering undergraduate Communication disciples at Curry College, particularly those in the Public Relations Concentration, hear about this a lot!

We went to lunch at a restaurant that used to be one of the top dining spots in Taipei. We have been there before and had a fabulous experience, so expectations were high.

♥ The restaurant manager greeted us and escorted us to our table…her job was done.
♥ The young lady who took our meal order was gracious and efficient…she did her job.
♥ A couple of other wait staff brought our dishes as they were prepared…they did their jobs.
♥ The young fellow responsible for removing empty dishes did so quickly and efficiently…he did his job.

Then it happened. Our (petite) teapot was empty…

⊗ The restaurant manager walked by and saw that we had no tea…she kept on walking.
⊗ The young lady who took our meal order walked by and saw that we had no tea…she kept on walking.
⊗ The other wait staff noted that we had no tea…but we didn’t need another serving of food…they stood and looked at our table.
⊗ The young fellow responsible for removing empty dishes removed our empty plates and bowls…

I finally called out to the four wait staff now standing and looking and asked as politely as I could muster if someone could refill our teapot.

One of the quartet broke away from the herd, came over, removed the teapot, took it to the back of the dining room, placed it on a counter, and called out to another young lady lurking behind the scenes (I would assume) for just such an occurrence. She appeared, removed the offending article, and disappeared.

Ten minutes later, she reemerged with our now-refilled teapot, delivered it to our table, and vanished.

Then it happened about 20 minutes later…our (petite) teapot was empty…

Ditto the above.

What’s the moral of this story, you ask?

Each of the above cast members has a specific job as (apparently) defined by the restaurant’s powers-that-be. And, either by dictate or by choice, each one does exactly what his or her job description defines as a duty.

“Efficiency” experts would have us marching to the mantra of “if everyone does his job, the job will get done.” And that’s valid in general…until the issue of customer service raises its hand to get our attention.

Here’s where…in successful companies…the focus shifts…from “I’m doing my job” to “I’m doing my job as a member of a team.”

Big difference here.

The former approach is task-oriented… “What incremental contribution can I make to the project at hand by doing my job?”

The latter is results-oriented… “How does my role within the organization contribute to our overall and lasting success?

I recall so vividly spotting the president of a company I worked for years ago washing dirty dishes in the staff break room. When I asked him why he was doing that menial task, his response was, “How can I expect others to care if I don’t care myself?”

Wow!

I’ve observed folks at companies for which I worked or which I happened to be visiting since that time, and I’ve arrived at a very informal research conclusion:

“Those companies where every single employee sees him- or herself as a member of a seamless team of contributors are the companies that will realize sustainable success because every single member of that company cares.”

How about YOU???

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