1. Athletes as products

    I’ve spent a lot of time arguing against the use of the word “product” when describing a college or professional athlete. “Vernon Davis, the University of Maryland product,…” It dehumanizes the person and is reserved for big four sports that generate tons of money. I have yet to hear anyone talk about a tennis player being a product or a golfer being a product.

    It is a pretty straightforward argument to make.

    But now we have Fantex Inc. which is a company that commoditizes athletes as…well, products. Since last October, fantex has been selling shares of athletes. Basically, one could invest in future earnings an athlete may make. So far, I only know of the aforementioned Vernon Davis (San Francisco 49ers) and Arian Foster (Houston Texans) being on the menu. But you can learn more soon.

    Fantex is coming to Chicago this Sunday to give a sales presentation at Lucky Strike Lanes in Streeterville. Initial shares will start at $10…once the SEC approves this whole thing, first.

    Good luck, investors. Stay human, athletes!


  2. Optics are the key to getting your messages across

    I’m in the middle of another week of communications training and it just keeps reminding me of how important the visual and the vocal components of communications are.

    The science says 93 percent of effective communication comes from the visual and the vocal cues delivered — 55 percent and 38 percent respectively. Only seven percent — !!!! — of message delivery comes from the message! WTF!? I have spent my whole career working with words to deliver messages through scripts, talking points, press releases, white papers and web copy.

    In the end, though, to be effective you need to think about so much more than just the words you choose:

    - elongated eye contact

    - meaningful movement

    - facial expressions

    - hand gestures

    - vocal inflections

    - pace

    - tone

    - volumes

    - pauses

    So this is short and sweet, but DAMN…get your public speaking persona in shape if you want your message to be heard.


  3. U of I Needs to Become Part of the Diversity & Inclusion Solution



    It’s been six years since the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign retired Chief Illiniwek as a symbol of the school. A few days ago the school settled a six-year trademark dispute with Chief fans who have continued the tradition “underground.” In that settlement, the university protected misappropriation of the name and visuals associated with Chief Illiniwek, but it missed a huge opportunity to advance better understanding of why Chief was retired in the first place. In effect, the perception is that without being a part of the bigger solution of championing diversity & inclusion, the U of I continues to be part of the bigger problem of insensitivity toward Native Americans.

    Just recently, the National Football League’s issues management headache in Washington returned as the franchise located there – the Redskins – again began receiving pressure to change the incredibly offensive nickname. Owner Dan Snyder remains defiant even in the shadow of the first sitting president to question use of the nickname. In early October, the return of the Atlanta Braves to Major League Baseball playoff action brought with it the fatigue-inducing “Tomahawk chop.”

    Our hometown Blackhawks of the National Hockey League also have come under a little fire recently. They have some cover in that their name and logo are derived from a true Illinois historical Native American figure. But more importantly, the team has conducted positive outreach to Illinois’ Native American community. At the other extreme of the Redskins and Braves is Florida State University which has the full backing of the Seminole Nation, making that mascot and everything associated with it copacetic.

    Full disclosure: I’m an Illinois graduate (’91) and was a fervent advocate of Chief Illiniwek. I even sold buttons in 1989 that read “What’s the beef? Keep the Chief!” I still support phrases such as “He’s was a symbol, not a mascot! He was about reverence, not comical war dances!” Chief Illiniwek was a tradition that included raising awareness of Native American culture and history. The student portraying Chief made more than 50 appearance a year at schools across Illinois.

    But what matters is the perspective of those subjected to the “honor” – namely the Peoria Tribe (descendants of the Illinois) and other Native Americans. In 2007, the U of I finally recognized the changing attitudes and cultural climates. The Board of Trustees gave in to pressure from Native American groups, civil rights groups and individuals who could tell right from wrong. Our beloved Chief Illiniwek, a symbol since 1926, was retired in name, in image and in flesh with Dan Maloney performing the last dance.

    I would be honored if the U of I used its heritage as a world-class learning institution to lead the push for other schools and teams to surrender the Native American mascot tradition. It should work to fully eliminate the insensitive use of Native American symbols and activities in sports. Further, it should leverage those same teaching skills formerly employed by Chief Illiniwek in Illinois classrooms to educate at every opportunity those who have not yet been enlightened to their callousness.


  4. The Fourth Wave - The Age of Conception

    A Whole New Mind

    So this is the Conception Age.  This is the age of the storyteller.

    Great book I am reading right now … “A Whole New mind” by Daniel Pink.  It is eight years old, but it also is incredibly forward thinking.  The premise is that the Agricultural Age, Industrial Age and Information Age have given way to an age of thought, design, sensing and feeling.  We can no longer only be knowledge workers focused on left (brain)-directional thinking, but emotional workers that balance that approach with right (brain)-directional thinking.  

    Knowledge workers are more linear (accountants, lawyers, doctors) and deal more directly in facts and absolutes.  They led the charge to a huge white-collar work environment in the United States.  The new wave of worker is focused on empathy (musicians, writers, designers).  Numbers still play a role, but feeling - the emotional connection - plays as big a role in success.  

    I love reading items that predict a specific future when I am in the position of determining how right or wrong the author was.  Pink pretty much nailed it with his.  In the business world, the idea of the story being central was not bandied about in 2005.  Of course in marketing communications - and in public relations specifically - we talked of “story” and of finding the rigt “pitch” for reporters.  But only recently has the strategy turned to “storytelling.”  Only recently have we focused more heavily on the emotional connection every pitch needs in order to be effective.  As importantly, only recently have we determined every person within an organization is a viable storyteller.

    When I work with organizations, I spend a lot of time talking about the “YOU” factor.  This is the personality each storyteller possesses.  It manifests itself in visual cues such as posture, eye contact, hand gestures and movement.  It manifests itself in vocal cues such as tone, volume, inflections and intensity.  Think about what signals the storyteller delivers is there was no sound, only sight … or no sight, only sound.  These components collaborate with the verbal content - the words chosen to deliver - to create the “net impression.”  

    These are the building blocks of storytelling.  It is not just about the fascinating facts that audiences need to be informed, to be persuaded, to be motivated.  It is the package in which those facts are delivered to make people remember and to care.  That package is made up of context and emotion.  So now storytelling doesn’t only occur when a reporter is being approached about a breakthrough product about which the world needs to hear, but also when a monthly presentation is being made to a small internal team of executives.

    Pink borrows and mutates a great phrase from E.M. Forster.  ”The queen died and the king died are facts.  The queen died and the king died of a broken heart is a story.”

    We are in the age of the storyteller.


  5. Speak Clearly!


    OK…a bit of semi-elitist ranting.

    This may have been going on for generations, but I swear to anyone’s god that I am caught between two worlds of communication at all times.  And it’s a freaking nightmare.  

    On one end I have corporate linguists spouting “ideation” and “paradigm shifts” and all that conference room crap.  On the other side I have my 15-year-old son and all of his new slang, dropped words/Gs, and sentences ending in prepositions.

    Clear language is the key to connecting with your audience.  And — sadly — either of the examples above may fit one’s situation.  We all can agree language is in constant change…hence “twerk” and “selfie” now gracing pages of the Oxford dictionary.  But clarity starts in the middle…and it begins with smart word choices.  George Orwell picks the bone to the marrow about this (https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm), but his point is well taken: simplify, be aprropriate, keep buzz down to an absolute minimum.  

    And, for the love of all that doesn’t suck, please demonstrate a strong understanding of grammar.  If you are writing, get yourself an AP stylebook.  I can go the rest of my life without hearing another “me and him are going…” or “it has less people…”  Re-read Strunk and White.  Hell, even check out Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing.  Note his 11th rule: “If it sounds like writing, re-write it.”  

    I know the Center for Plain Language gets this.  They are in the government watchdog business with the mission to “support those who use plain language, train those who should use plain language, and urge people to demand plain language in all the documents they receive, read, and use.”

    Not a bad thing.


  6. How Piano Competitions Exposed the Visual Messenger


    We are turning back into cavemen.  Anyone can see it in the rise of the still image, the crowning of video, and the diminishing shelf-space for the written word.  If content is king, the crown is just a collage.

    Last week I heard a story on NPR that got me thinking about how important visuals cues are in communications.  About how important the voice becomes on the radio or on the phone when visual vehicles are absent.  About the 55/38/7 breakdown between visual/vocal/verbal in presentation.  And, frankly, about how the good looking get a pass from audiences.

    OK, the last point may be true in segments of our society, but that was not a component of the NRP story.

    The NPR story (http://www.npr.org/2013/08/20/213551358/how-to-win-that-music-competition-send-a-video) centered on piano competitions and how winners were more likely triumphant due to their visual performance than their musical performance.  Seriously.  The study appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/16/1221454110.abstract) and was conducted by Chia-Jung Tsay, a psychologist at University College in London…and a former star on the piano competition circuit.  Even as an early teen, she could tell that she did better when visual performances for a part of the deal.

    From the abstract:  "People consistently report that sound is the most important source of information in evaluating performance in music. However, the findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance."

    Huh?  At a competition focused on sound, people consistently let their eyes do the judging?

    Now it may not be an apples to apples comparison, but it is surely fruit to fruit to think about the results through the lens of a media interview or a sales presentation.  Think about all of the time put into using just the right words, in just the right order, with just the right amount of humor or calls to action or storytelling.  

    In the end, if you didn’t put the time into your visual storytelling…your visual connection, you have lost a huge opportunity to successfully deliver your message.  Practicing stage movements, using one’s hands for emphasis, and emoting with one’s eyes are critical to delivering a story with impact.

    And apparently watching Liberace, Little Richard or Robert Randolph can’t hurt…



  7. TV is a Media Training Drag

    I’ve been lucky enough to have been a media trainer for about 16 or 17 years.  I say lucky because the teaching process is so much freaking fun.  The exposure I have had to industries outside of my day-to-day environment has made me a more curious person, if not a smarter one.  

    The “students” — almost always C-suite or executives…even US Army generals — are way more likely than not to be eager learners.  They welcome the constructive coaching.  But whether they are a novice to media interactions or veterans, I make sue the session are difficult for them…make them uncomfortable.

    This comes from lessons I learned in sports: creating drag improves performance.  In soccer, we’d test the offense by putting extra defenders on the field.  We’d test the defense by adding extra attackers.  In swimming, we’d take laps wearing sweatshirts or long shorts.  In basketball, off-handed layup drills would go on forever…not to mention the river runs (a little shout-out to all other faded athletes).

    So when it comes to training for media interviews, I like to use the TV format to scare my students.  The ominous camera, the bright light and the invasive microphone all rolled together are difficult to ignore and make a solid distraction for the interviewee.  

    I believe media training is about getting comfortable with the process of providing complete answers, understanding the theory behind effective participation in the interview.  Because, in the end, the interview is an opportunity to move the business forward.  If the spokesperson can deliver key messages under the assault of a TV news crew, she or he will be able to control the print and radio format, as well.

    I heard it argued that the print format is most difficult because one may forget the nature of the conversation.  Complacency will kill you.  It is hard to get complacent with the TV lights working on your retinae.  Others say any phone interview is toughest because there are no visual cues on either end to support the dialogue.  This may be true for the student here and there.

    But the immediacy and intimidation of the TV interview…the fact that one needs to think about the visual messages along with the verbal and vocal…is unmatched in creating stress.  The question’s answer and the key message needs to be delivered in a 10-15 bite, and there needs to be ocular engagement.  All of this is makes up the heavy sweatshirt during a media training.

    So create the drag.  Make practice hard enough that the real situation is easy.


  8. Social Media in a Crisis

    A recently unveiled Business Continuity Insights Survey by PwC US (http://www.pwc.com/us/en/press-releases/2013/2013-bcm-survey-results.jhtml) shows nearly 60 percent of businesses do not formally address social media in their crisis communications plans.

    This is a mistake.

    When a new technology or tool becomes available, it is understandable that early adoption is left to the early adopters.  Many companies do not have the progressive disposition to take on these new technologies just for the simple fact that they are available.  However, both time and cultural impact have shown social media channels (mainly Twitter and Facebook) are primary reference points in the event of both flashpoint crises as well as those that slowly heat up to a boil.  And companies need to be prepared to participate in and monitor the conversations.

    This is true for both consumer facing and B2B situations.  The primary tenets of crisis communications are 1) communicate current situation and 2) communicate actions.  Key audiences and secondary audiences alike will be looking for this information from your company on social channels.

    The content developed for the social media posts is easily extracted from the content put together for releases, statements, letters, presentations, etc.  In fact, the social media posts can provide the links to the primary locations for this information.  By doing this, the company can not only control the dissemination of information, but also speed along the dissemination.  Tapping into the social channels syndicate and amplify the company action items.

    Social media should be viewed as a tactical platform the same way we view paper, word processing, and video.  It is a tool to communicate, and should be leveraged for as long as one’s audiences find it useful.


  9. Starting up the Shop

    Pontification comes pretty easily to me.  

    I love conversation and I have strong opinions.  Right now, I am working on standing up my own communications shop — Steve Johnson Connects.  The double-edged sword is that I have created my own platform to opine on myriad subjects related to communications — but I need to keep broader opinions in check so as not to marginalize any clients or prospects.

    This is no easy task for someone as opinionated as I am.  I have a brand crafted from 20 years of communications experience…as a reporter, a public affairs rep., an agency leader, and as a free-lance consultant. My interests in sports, music, Italy, and all things Chicago have played a role in affecting my brand as much as my success in issues management, media training and event communications.

    Throughout my career — and as critical now as ever — it is necessary for me to continue to carefully curate the brand, and it also is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate what I counsel.  The brand is developed not only by the product, but by what the product reflects.  As much as one can help burnish the brand, that same person can do a ton to kill it.  That is most true in relation to the voice of leadership — the “shadow of the leader.”  PR News has a great blog post on this recently (http://www.prnewsonline.com/topics/media-relations/2013/07/22/when-c-level-execs-personal-beliefs-compromise-the-brand/).  

    So as I get my shop launched, I look forward to providing counsel and perspective that reflects the brand.  And it will be a continued challenge to ensure my personal belief system — while guiding me as a citizen, father, husband and professional — only burnish the brand.

    A piu tardi! (See you soon!)