A Cursive Letter from Overseas

shutterstock_9776056When we recently visited The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, I stopped to view Thomas Hart Benton’s Letter from Overseas. This small lithograph shows a woman sitting on a fence near her mailbox reading a letter by lantern light. It’s an ominous, dark drawing done in 1943, the middle of World War II.

The drawing struck a chord with me, but so too did the note on the gallery wall next to it. The note quoted letters written by soldiers from battlefields overseas and suggested similar letters may have inspired Benton’s work. I wondered if he would have been so motivated by emails sent from soldiers who had never learned to write cursive and could only type their letters home.

This thought came to me because a few days earlier I had read a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal announcing that several elementary schools across the country have stopped teaching cursive writing. Others are planning to drop this subject in the near future.

As schools in 45 states begin implementing the new common core state standards for math and English, they are, according to the Journal, sending “cursive the way of the quill pen, while requiring instead that students be proficient in keyboarding by fourth grade.”

Clearly, in our technology-driven world, having keyboard skills is essential. Every student must be able to type accurately on a computer and a tablet—and perhaps a smartphone—at a very young age.

But do we now need formal typing classes in school—especially if they replace classes for cursive handwriting? I’d be surprised if most children can’t use a keyboard much earlier than fourth grade—most, by the time they finish preschool—even without training from their teachers.

I know one young girl who at one-and-a-half can already turn on her iPad, key in the password, and then find and play her games. She can’t type words, but then she isn’t yet able to read and can’t quite speak in sentences. My guess is she will be emailing before she is three.

So, it doesn’t make sense to me that teachers have to choose (or should even be given a choice) between teaching their students to use a keyboard and teaching them cursive writing. Kids will learn keyboarding on their own, but they’ll never learn handwriting if they are not taught in school.

None of us is blind to the fact that little demand for cursive writing exists today in business or social settings. But it’s still used in a lot of ways important to each of us.

For example, just as our DNA and fingerprints make each of us unique, our individual signatures also define who we are. That’s why teenagers still practice signing their signatures until they represent them in just the right way.

Without cursive, they lose one important aspect of what it means to be an individual.

If schools stop teaching cursive handwriting, other important things might be lost as well:

  • A daughter might never be able to put away with other treasures the letter of love and respect written on her wedding day in her father’s distinctive handwriting.
  • Without his distinctive signature, one of today’s young students might never know the thrill of signing with a flourish the contract for his first apartment after graduate school.
  • When one of today’s preschoolers becomes the most important writer of the 21st century, the world will always miss the cursive handwritten corrections on her manuscripts.
  • The mother of a future soldier might never receive from an overseas battlefield a letter written in her son’s unmistakable cursive handwriting.

Graphic: Shutterstock

Knowing Your Company’s Product

Verizon Wireless workers with a Cell on Light Truck that is used to provide additional wireless call capacity.

In announcing its third-quarter earnings results recently, Verizon—as usual—attributed much of its success to its wireless unit. Fran Shammo, Verizon’s chief financial officer, noted that the reason Verizon Wireless leads the industry in the number of wireless customers is that it has always focused on its network.

“Scale is important,” he is quoted by The New York Times as saying. “But the network is the product here. This has been a long-term strategic investment for us.”

Knowing what its real product is and focusing on making it the best in the industry are two reasons Verizon Wireless excels. They also provide lessons for other companies wanting to lead their industries.

Even at the company’s founding in April 2000 (from a merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE, along with a few smaller operations) Verizon Wireless stressed the quality of its network. At that time, the company—or more correctly, perhaps, Denny Strigl, its strong CEO then and for the next several years—knew that no matter what brand or style of wireless phones customers used, they would not be happy if their calls did not go through. And, although many of us—especially those who live in or near large metropolitan areas—may have forgotten this fact, wireless coverage was for many years often very bad for much of the country’s cell phone users.

So, over the years, Verizon Wireless has focused on making sure its network—whether analog, 2G (the first generation digital wireless service, 3G (an updated digital service), or now 4G (the latest digital service known as LTE or Long Term Evolution)—has been as good as its technicians and billions of dollars could make it.

This focus is part of the reason why 79 percent of the phones purchased from the company during the third quarter were smartphones—a huge increase over its 25 percent goal only a few years ago. These phones suck data like candy, and they need a great network if they are to function flawlessly.

The lesson here, I think, is that a company must know what its real product is, and it must work to make it the best. In Verizon Wireless’ case, the product is its network. Other wireless carriers—those who trail their competitors and are looking for merger opportunities and funding injections to stay alive—may not see it that way. They might think their product is cheap service or phones, perhaps; or maybe they’re still not sure what it is, even after years of operation.

Verizon Wireless never stops improving its customer service and retail operations, or offering the best cell phones and wireless devices available. But it knows that while these aspects strengthen its business, it is its network that drives the company’s success.

Photo: Verizon Wireless

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.

Crisis Communications at the Vatican

The Vatican, which has been subject to scandal for years, recently hired a senior communications advisor to help coordinate its communications efforts and serve as a press spokesperson. The primary responsibility of the role is to “formulate the message and then try to make sure everyone remains on message,” said the new advisor in a statement that, at first glance, makes the job seem easy, but which professionals know is one of the most difficult crisis communications tasks they ever have to face.

Chosen for the job was Greg Burke, a Fox news correspondent who has covered the Vatican for many years. He is the “first communications expert hired from outside the insular world of the Roman Catholic news media,” according to The New York Times. His background suggests that he has never—certainly not in the past 25 years—had any experience in crisis communications management.

The Roman Catholic Church is now confronting a major crisis: from ongoing accusations of pedophiles among its priests, which have to date led to settlements of more than $1 billion dollars; the release of secret Vatican files prompting the arrest of the Pope’s butler; this week’s sentencing of the first senior Church official in the United States for child endangerment for covering up sexual abuse acts by priests. With all these issues facing the Church, communications professionals have to wonder why the Vatican didn’t bring in a PR executive with strong experience in crisis management, one who could grasp the full scope of the issues, set strategies, and know how to execute them where necessary around the world.

This is the kind of person most corporate communications experts would recommend if their companies faced issues as severe as those now challenging the Vatican. They would not hire a newsman (unless he had a lot of crisis communications management somewhere in his background). Moreover, they might go beyond hiring a single person and enlist a PR agency with a worldwide staff to address the problems whose scope calls for message and media experts in specific locations besides Rome.

I’ve worked on both sides of corporate PR: inside companies, leading teams of communicators; and inside agencies, working with client staff members. Alongside me as my company handles a crisis, I want an experienced communications leader to craft the message and a number of well-trained people to spread that message through the right blog and Twitter posts and make it part of the coverage of every print and online media outlet we target.