Six Months and Counting

A late-September view from my office.

Today marks six months since I started publishing this blog. Although that’s not a lot of time in the life of most things—a strong, happy marriage; a coastal redwood in the middle of Muir Woods, or even a sentimental cigar in my mother-in-law’s freezer—I would suspect it’s a long time for a blog.

I have no way to prove it, but I would guess that of the 175,000 or so blogs started each day, most of them last only a few weeks before drying up like an old river in the summer heat.

It’s not easy to write a blog post or two each week. And unless it’s part of your job, or your dedication is that of an iPhone devotee, it’s far too easy to let it slip into oblivion.

While I’d like to think that Darwin would be proud of my blog’s survival, the truth is it means little. Among the 180 million blogs now on the Internet, mine is insignificant, followed by only a handful of people, each of whom could get along quite well without it.

But I knew that would be the case going into this endeavor six months ago. As much as I’d like to publish a powerful blog, recognized for its leading-edge thinking and ideas, and read by a half-million eager, enthusiastic followers, I’ll settle for what I have: a quiet blog that whispers, rather than shouts; that lets me expand my writing in ways I could never do working for businesses; and that keeps me alert to topics to write about just to see what I might be thinking about them.

While focusing on only one subject—communications—since this blog began, I’ve written about many topics. Something I read or heard sparked many of them: Walmart, social media and leadership, and Panera Bread’s community relations activities, among them.

Other topics are old favorites, and I just needed the right event to trigger my thinking about them. My post on the J-3 Cub airplane, for example, came after a trip to the EAA fly-in at which the Cub’s 75th anniversary was celebrated. Spotting Starbuck’s misspelling of vegetable and a local dairy’s use of wright instead of write led to posts about grammar and writing.

Some topics I didn’t see coming until I was staring at them and thoughts were already forming around them in my subconscious mind. Among blogs based on stealth topics were Lisa Simpson’s statement about being “the something of the something,” a crisis at the Vatican, and tattoos relating to the Olympics.

So now with six months’ experience, and 39 posts, behind me, it’s time to think about going forward. What will I write about next week, month, or year?

I can tell you what my next post will be. Beyond that, though, the possibilities are limitless.

The only thing I know for sure is that I will continue to write about communications. And I will continue to approach this subject through a prism, rather than a magnifying glass, so I can come at it with varied perspectives and not reiterate the same ideas presented by everyone else.

It should be fun.

A Dog by Your Side or Still on Your Mind

Henry, my companion for almost 15 years.

The new issue of The Fretboard Journal, a magazine about guitars (and other string instruments) and the people who play them, build them, and restore them) came this week. Publisher Jason Verlinde’s “Opening Notes” article, which caught my attention first, ended with a paragraph I found to be worth quoting and one that got me thinking about my own dog. Verlinde said:

The Fretboard Journal [FJ] lost one of its two “shop” dogs on May 2, 2012. Henny was a retired racing greyhound who has been my constant companion through the entire FJ ride to date. He sat by my side for the last six years of FJ brainstorming, writing, late night proofreading, jam sessions and even for a couple of interviews. In short, he kept me sane. If you have a pooch, feel free to give them a pat for Henny.

There are few things in life more enjoyable than having a dog—one that is your long-time friend and companion, especially one that sits by your side or at your feet while you write and is there to take you for a walk in the middle of the day when the writing needs a rest and then again in early evening after a good day of putting just the right words and sentences on the page.

My friend was Henry, a liver-and-white Springer Spaniel we got as a puppy and cared for (both lovingly and medicinally) until he was almost 15. He had an incurable, but treatable, illness, discovered when he was two. But I never for a moment thought we shouldn’t give him the treatment he needed, even when doing so required enough special medicines and visits to the vet to (as we almost-jokingly say) pay for the new wing built on the animal hospital.

Henry was not well behaved. As a puppy, he destroyed three couches, a number of leather items and more shoes than we wanted to count. He could grab food from the table faster than you could catch his collar and hold him back. And when we brought our newborn daughter home from the hospital, he wasn’t sure if we had a new toy or a menacing intruder.

Henry, after one of his swims in Lake Michigan.

But I saw past that behavior—to the way he loved jumping into Lake Michigan and swimming out to retrieve a stick (and do so over and over again until he was too tired to walk home) and to the way he would “sneak” into the middle of a large mud puddle, which remained all summer around a leaking water fountain in the park, while eyeing us, as if to say, “I’m about to do something you’re not going to like, but it’ll feel so good to me.” Then slowly, while still looking our way, lie down in the wet, oozing mud.

Because of his illness, he had to go out more often than most dogs. But I never questioned his right to wake me nearly every morning at about two to go for a walk around the block in rainy springs, scorching summers, blustery falls, and freezing winters (when I would often have to remove my gloves to pull packed snow and road salt from the pads of his feet).

Now I sleep so soundly I hear little at night. But when Henry was around, I could hear him get up from his sleep on the first floor and start across the carpet toward the door. And I would be dressed and heading for the stairs before he had a need to bark for me.

After 15 years, I still miss him—a lot—and wish he were lying under my desk today as I write this post. Since he’s not here, I’ll just mentally give him a pat for Jason Verlinde’s dog, Henny.

Then later, I’ll take a slow walk around the block, wishing Henry were, once again, on his leash beside me.

On the Wings of Brand, Marketing and Manufacturing

iPhone 5 photo by Eric Risberg, AP

Apple’s iPhone 5 does not go on sale in stores until Friday, yet the company has already broken records with the number of pre-ordered devices sold through its website. Customers bought out its initial supply in about 60 minutes and then bought more than two million devices in the first 24 hours the iPhone 5 was available online—about twice the number of last year’s iPhone 4s sold in a day, which was itself a record for the company.

Last week people started lining up at some of the company’s stores to be among the first to buy the new phone when the doors open Friday morning. Let me be clear: People were camped out eight days before the device goes on sale at the stores.

Why do people get so excited over yet another model of this smartphone that has looked so much the same since 2007 that most people can’t tell one version from the next?

It’s a combination of Apple’s brand, its marketing expertise, and its manufacturing details.

Few people would doubt that Apple has among the best—if not the very best—brand in the technology industry, a brand that still generates a feeling that the company makes products “for the rest of us,” as it stated many years ago when fighting for its life against all the Microsoft-based computers. That sense of being among the few who feel like an Apple insider and being among the “lucky” who own one of its products still exists—somehow—even though Apple now ranks as the largest U.S. company (measured by stock-market price).

We “lucky ones” must know there’s nothing unique about owning an Apple product; after all, it sold two million of them in 24 hours last week and is expected to sell nearly 50 million in the fourth quarter alone—enough to slightly move the overall U.S. economy forward. This reality sits in the back of our minds, but it can’t override our perception that runs clearly amuck in the front. It’s a lifestyle choice that we have bought in to—like owning a dog or driving a BMW.

That perception, embedded by brand, is driven by marketing and manufacturing.

It’s likely every company that makes cellphones introduced a new model in the past few months. In fact, some companies rushed their products to market just ahead of the iPhone 5 announcement last week, trying to gain some media coverage before being drowned out by reporters and bloggers loudly proclaiming the virtues of the new Apple device.

Yet, it’s unlikely you can name another company that held a major PR event for its new phone—especially one that drew hundreds of top tech reporters and bloggers from around the world, and then put a video of the two-hour event on its website where, one would guess, it was watched (in part or full) by thousands of consumers, and by an untold number of PR and marketing professionals trying to learn how it’s done.

These professionals (who consider such things in hopes of copying their effectiveness) also wonder how such a highly promotional statement as the following could work its magic yet again: “iPhone 5 is the best iPhone yet, the most beautiful product we’ve ever made, and we hope customers love it as much as we do.” This statement is used not only by Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, in the news release announcing the record-breaking pre-orders, but over and over again in the video.

And it works. Consumers believe it every time they hear it.

Then there’s Apple’s focus on trying to make the best product possible, a focus held dearly by Steve Jobs for his entire career (both times at Apple, at Next and at Pixar) and engrained deeply into the culture of the company. Whether Apple succeeds at this goal is debated—sometimes. But by trying, and then telling us and showing us that its trying, Apple goes a long way toward making the goal a reality in the minds and hands of millions of people.

A short iPhone 5 video on Apple’s website shows part of the manufacturing process and repeats language similar to that used in the Apple news release announcing the device: “Designed with an unprecedented level of precision, iPhone 5 combines an anodized aluminum body with diamond cut chamfered edges and glass inlays for a truly incredible fit and finish.”

Watching these edges being cut leaves some viewers amazed at the care put into the phone’s manufacture and leaves them knowing (before they’ve ever held the device) that it will feel like a piece of art in their hands—not a mere appliance on which to make calls and send texts. It increases their urgency to own one, an urgency like that felt by a rare-art collector bidding on a Gauguin or a Monet.

Each of those who have already pre-ordered the iPhone 5, who are now waiting in line to buy it on Friday, or who will be among those to have it before year end—each will feel that the device he/she will soon own will not be just one of millions of copies, but the only one. It will be masterpiece.

A Quote from James Gleick

One more thing to worry about: the better Autocorrect gets, the more we will come to rely on it. It’s happening already. People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic will soon forget how to spell. One by one we are outsourcing our mental functions to the global prosthetic brain.

This quote comes from James Gleick, the author of the book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, in his recent New York Times article on the autocorrect function on our computers, laptops, and handheld devices.

A young friend, who tutors elementary- and middle-school students—many who are very bright and in the tutoring sessions to further their advantage—says several of her students no longer worry about spelling correctly, using apostrophes when needed, or even capitalizing words that should be capitalized. Instead, they rely on the autocorrect function, she says, because it’s easier than being concerned about getting these things right.

To Make It up or Just Plagiarize It

Time magazine and CNN this summer suspended Fareed Zakaria, a well-respected editor at the magazine and host of one of the network’s Sunday news shows, after discovering he had plagiarized information from an article written by someone else.

Zakaria may be the most highly visible person suspended, fired, or otherwise punished this summer for plagiarizing material, making up information, or lying in books, articles, or blogs. But he is not the only one.

Among others was Jonah Lehrer, a bestselling author and rising journalism star, who apparently fabricated a quote from Bob Dylan for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. This error became apparent after the book had been on multiple bestseller
lists for weeks, and soon after he had been caught reusing in his New Yorker blog posts some material he had written for Wired and other publications. His made-up Dylan quote was costly. The publisher recalled the printed copies of Imagine, and Lehrer resigned as a staff writer for The New Yorker, one of the most coveted positions in journalism.

These examples of questionable writing tell us three things of importance to business communicators.

1. People are willing to play the game of odds.

Some people are always willing to take the chance of not getting caught when they make up or steal information for their books or blogs—even in the days of the Internet with everyone watching what everyone else does. Surely Lehrer had to expect that some Dylan expert would have his hands—or database—on everything ever written or said by, or written about, the singer/songwriter, and would pounce on the opportunity to question whether a big-time journalist had really interviewed him and gotten him to say something that did not ring true with his other statements.

This game is stacked against the writer. He/she may get away with it for a while—but not forever. Lehrer was willing to play the odds, and he lost.

2. The borderline between right and wrong is getting grayer.

Lehrer’s reuse of his own Wired material in his New Yorker blog was in a gray—and graying—area of acceptable/unacceptable behavior. Maybe some people would give him the benefit of the doubt here, as The New Yorker seems to have done by only reprimanding him for this mistake (although not for the Dylan quote). After all, it was his own writing that he repurposed, so maybe he thought he had a right to use it again. He wouldn’t be the first writer to do so. In fact, bloggers are always publishing blog posts (or parts of them) in more than one place. My guess, however, is that they first have permission to do so.

You need to know the rules. What’s acceptable at one publication or online outlet is not acceptable at another. Every writer needs to know the particular rules under which he/she is working and know that the correct edge of the gray borderline for one outlet may be the wrong edge for another. He/she needs to question whether walking anywhere close to the edge is too dangerous.

3. It’s too easy to plagiarize—by mistake.

Zakaria was suspended from his Time and CNN positions for only a few days before management decided that he had not purposely plagiarized someone else’s writing. In his apology, he said that it was a mistake to not give credit to the material he found during his research and used uncredited in his article.

As any writer who uses the Internet for research knows, this is an easy mistake to make. How many times have you found just the right statement supporting a point you want to make and then copied it onto your screen—thinking you’ll remember where you found it and will give proper credit? It happens to almost everyone.

Before the Internet, people still found ways to make this mistake, but it was much more difficult to do accidently because they had to photocopy a page, or retype or rewrite the passage. Today, the words—a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole section—can be copied into a document with a couple of keyboard clicks, flowing sometimes in the right typeface and size. The next day, they seem—to the careless and less observant, but also to those with the highest ethical standards—as if they had been written along with the surrounding information.

One would like to think that these acts of plagiarism and of using made-up material in nonfiction writing would never happen within corporate America. But they do.

Perhaps they happen because some writer in the PR, marketing, or corporate communications department gets someone else’s writing mixed up with his or hers by mistake; or they happen on purpose when the pressure to write something great and fast is too much for the writer; or on a rare occasion when the odds of getting caught don’t seen so high because fewer people in business are actually looking for these mistakes and errors of judgment.

Sometimes they happen not at the lowly writer level but at the highest level of the corporation. In 2005, for example, William Swanson, CEO of Raytheon, published a book of management rules, rules he claimed to have developed over his many years in business. After the company gave out about 300,000 copies of the book, and he was praised for his insights, it was discovered that about half of the rules had been taken from a 1944 book on engineering laws and some of the others had come from additional sources. His punishment?  The book was withdrawn and his compensation for 2006 was reduced by almost $1 million.