You can travel on 10,000 miles

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Road through green fields

 

 

“But you can travel on 10,000 miles, and still be where you are.”

I borrowed my husband’s iPod this weekend, and went for a long run with his eclectic mix in the background. I’d heard this song before, but never really listened intently. In Harry Chapin’s W.O.L.D., a middle-aged DJ dreams of quitting his job and starting a record store (yes, it’s an old song), or just driving across the country.

As he figured out, running away isn’t the answer. (Though just running, I’ve found, can be quite cathartic.) After college, I moved to a new city, where I knew no one and had no job prospects. I figured I’d just wait tables if things got bad; I landed a great starter job within three weeks.

Looking back, I was very lucky. It was a different time, yes, but I was also young, eager and had almost no regard for salary.

I always told myself I moved south because I hate the cold, but really, I think I was trying to make a new start, where no one knew anything about me. I’d stand on my own, or I’d fail, but it would be mine–not my family, my college, my friends–mine.

I went expecting a destination, but found a journey … and it’s still in progress. A few things I’ve learned so far:

Wherever you go, there you are. You can go halfway around the world and you’ll still be yourself. Best tackle those problems, since they’ll follow you. Get to know yourself, and be OK with who you are. Introverts take note: you can succeed in PR.

Things really do happen for a reason. You may not figure out the reason for years, if ever. And often these “things” are painful. Learn what you can from them. Let them make you a better person, and remember, they weren’t the destination, just part of the journey.

Be an optimist. Believe in your dreams–even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy–and take steps to make them happen. Being a dreamer is fun, but it’s not enough. Success takes planning, and lots of hard work. Make a career plan, and lay out how you’ll get from A to B.

Embrace the cold. It’s really not so bad, winter. When else is it acceptable to spend an entire Sunday in fuzzy slippers on the couch with a good book? Hibernate a little (and, if you’re moving north from Florida, buy some warm clothes). I even like running in the cold now; it wakes my body and mind in a way those steamy summer miles can’t touch.

Ask for help. No matter how alone you may feel at times, you’re not alone. People are rooting for you (yes, even if they do think you’re crazy), and they’ll lend an ear, a shoulder. Find them, and cherish them, and never, ever take love and friendship for granted.

These may sound familiar. I think that’s because everyone who learns these lessons has to learn them the hard way. If you were looking for  strictly business tips: Don’t trust everyone at work. Take credit for your accomplishments. Document everything. But those are for another day. Today, I’m dreaming in the clouds, and planning how I’ll fly.

 

p.s. Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. Thanks for sticking around. If you have questions about communications or being a one-person shop I’ll try to answer them in future posts… just let me know in the comments.

 

 

Make Your Own Motivation

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Girl flying colorful kite in a grassy field

I’ve talked a lot here about self-motivation–the one thing I believe is key to success in a one-person communications shop (or any job, really). But everyone loses that drive every now and then. What do you do when that happens?

You could start looking for a new job. A decade or so ago, this was my preferred approach. I was green enough to believe the grass was more vividly verdant elsewhere. A stint in management has assured me that every organization has its challenges. Switching jobs means you’ll be exchanging a set of known issues–ones you’ve developed strategies for coping with–for unknown ones. In some cases it’s worth it, but you probably don’t need a new job to find your motivation again.

Here are some much less drastic approaches. Try one or more of these next time you need a little push.

Find some new reading material. I get my best ideas while running, but it’s usually because I’m thinking about something I’ve read. I don’t read a lot of blogs, books or magazines about PR; they all started to sound the same after about 10 years in the field. Try related topics like business, HR or content management. In college I often wondered at the coincidental connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. It wasn’t a coincidence. I make lots of connections now between non-PR reading material and work, and often think of ways these ideas can apply to my job. With a few tweaks, which brings me to…

Rewrite your job description. If I still followed the same job description I was given 9 years ago (when I started working for my current employer), I’d be doing the same job … and it would be increasingly irrelevant, since it was mostly creating print collateral back then. I’ve been promoted twice, and each of those was a result of looking at industry trends, and how we could apply new ideas or technologies to meet our business goals. I looked at the organization and noted what wasn’t happening (or happening consistently), and said, “I can do that.” Internal communications and market research are two examples. Take care to also examine what can go; you’ll probably need to reduce, delegate or eliminate other activities to make time for new priorities.

Talk to your boss, or even another department, about new projects. Chances are, you don’t have a complete view of the organization’s needs and priorities. Ask about them. If you’re having trouble determining how else you can help on your own, ask to hear more about the company’s long-term strategy and growth plans. During that conversation, you and your boss are both likely to have some a-ha moments about how you can help make the company’s top priorities happen. If these tasks are outside your usual job description, all the better–you’ll have the chance to learn, and grow not only yourself, but your company as well.

Get a support group. Everyone needs a sounding board. Find a few communications colleagues who aren’t your company’s competitors, and get together regularly. Share your latest ideas, and watch them take shape as your friends talk them out. Listening to others’ challenges and helping them work through solutions is not only very rewarding–it can help put you in a new mindset to approach an old problem in a new way. This group can also help you figure out if the grass really is greener, if you’ve tried all of the above and still need a new challenge.

And maybe–just maybe–ennui with work isn’t really the problem. When’s the last time you took a day off, or did something just for you? Regular breaks–when you do absolutely nothing work-related–are essential to creativity. Unplug for a day or two. Ride a bike, take a walk, fly a kite. Sometimes all it takes is a little time away.

What’s so different about a one-person shop?

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Business woman covered in post-it notes

Most organizations have a communications function for similar reasons, though size varies widely based on how big the company is, and what the communications department is expected to do. The good news–and the bad news–is that even in small and one-person communications departments, you’re still expected to produce results on par with those that have dozens of communications staff.

How could this possibly be good news? In a word: experience. You’ll have to do everything (or at least manage the outsourcing, if you’re lucky enough to have a budget). So, instead of updating media lists and fetching coffee early in your career, as an in-house staffer in a small org, you’ll do it all. As a result, you’ll be better prepared for the next step, whether it’s another job or striking out on your own. Lucky for you, you likely already have an entrepreneurial mindset as a one-person shop.

How one-person shops are different:

1. There is no one else. Obvious, yes, but with a host of implications. You need more than a little fortitude to thrive in such a position. You must be a self-starter, and provide your own sanity checks. Your co-workers are probably great, but if they don’t know much about communications except how to use “the Facebook,” you need to find trusted advisors elsewhere. Confidence in your own skills and judgment is a must; you don’t have to know how to do everything, but you have to know how to learn. You also have to think creatively (emphasis on think), since you’ll host brainstorming parties of one.

2. Your boss doesn’t know how to do your job. Or she doesn’t want to. (Smart bosses hire people who are good at things they aren’t.) You have to figure things out on your own. Even if you ask your boss, be prepared for “I don’t know.” Be prepared to explain your job, or parts of it, repeatedly (AKA “the press release talk”). Google is your friend. And so are we, the one-person shoppers. Find a few others in your boat, and start rowing together.

3. You have to be comfortable managing yourself. Your boss will still give you stuff to do, of course, but the how will be up to you. For example, you might be tasked to “help us sell stuff on social media.” You’ll need to figure out how to build an audience (and their trust), and still meet your organization’s goals (hint: be helpful–not pushy–and be patient). Much of communications is a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself time to succeed.

Starting my career–and continuing most of it–as a one-person shop has helped me in more ways than I can count. It’s helped me understand what I’m good at, and what I’m not, which helps answer “what’s next?”. When I was able to hire, I knew what skills to look for–those that would complement my own, rather than duplicate them.

How have you found life different in a one-person shop?

Internal Communications: A Quick Survival Guide

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Red Swingline stapler

Bonus points if you know why I photographed my stapler for this post.

Every good communicator does one thing: thinks about what the audience needs to know. Not what you want the audience to know, but what’s important from the other side. Master this, and people will pay attention.

This is as important for internal communications as it is for marketing. Like everyone else, employees are overloaded with information. To get their attention, you have to give them useful information, and only useful information. How? A few rules I follow:

Rule #1: Don’t assume everyone is like you. Most people are not content creators, and they don’t want to be. You think nothing of writing a blog post, tweeting some events and editing a video before lunch. Must employees stop at reading company news, and you’re lucky if they bother to do that. Even commenting on blog posts (at least at work) is beyond many employees’ comfort zones. (If participation is lagging on your new intranet, this is why.)

Rule #2: People don’t read your carefully crafted emails/fliers/intranet posts. They skim them (again, if you’re lucky). Get their attention, and fast. Think in bullets. Put the why first. (“If you don’t comply with this new time card policy, you will not receive a paycheck.”) Actions and deadlines must be absolutely clear. No matter how simple a task, include screenshots if it’s technical (preferably in a link, rather than embedded, for brevity). Put optional background information in links as well, so those few employees who want to read more can, without overwhelming those who don’t.

Rule #3: Talk to employees. Ask them what they want to read about, what they have questions about. Do a survey, but don’t expect everyone to respond, and don’t rely on this as your only source of information. Consider an email marketing system for internal communications, so you’ll know exactly what gets read and clicked, or use URL shorteners like bit.ly so you can track clicks on embedded links sent from your own email system. If a message or link is particularly popular, look at what you did differently, and repeat it next time.

Rule #4: Be an optimist. Assume people want to follow the rules, and that they’ll read useful information. Make your messages engaging. Corporate newsletters don’t have to be “grip and grin” photos and overly cheerful executive notes. They don’t even have to be totally about your company. Consider covering industry trends, news and conferences. If one person goes to a conference, ask him for highlights to share with those who couldn’t be there. Have silly contests. The executives won’t participate, but a small percentage of your employees will really engage with these (and it’s usually not executives who need motivation to stay engaged anyway).

Do you have any rules for internal communication? Would love to hear what works for you.

Management: Trial by Fire

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Burning match on black background

Yes! You’ve finally gotten some help (buh-bye one-person shop!), or been invited to the coveted ranks of management. You got there because you’re good at what you do, and someone saw your potential to do more (go you!). Here’s what they won’t tell you about management before you accept that promotion.

1. Management is trial by fire

No training course–no matter how carefully simulated–can totally prepare you to manage people. I can say this with some certainty, after earning an MBA and surviving countless management seminars. Why? People have emotions, and they don’t check them at the door (with the possible exception of prison guards–I gave a speech to such a group once, and could swear they were carved from stone).

You never know what’s going on in someone’s personal life unless they tell you. And, believe it or not, some of them will tell you. More than you wanted to know.  Some employees want to talk about illnesses (in graphic detail), family problems and relationships with you, their boss. As a manager, you have to listen, whether or not you have time. (And you usually won’t.)

No two employees are the same.They all need things from you, but different things. The new college grad may want mentoring, or some help as he adjusts to life after State U. The experienced professional may just want someone to listen as she vents, and support her professional decisions.

2. You’ll learn stuff you don’t want to know

Communications needs a seat at the table early, to head off potential communication problems. Be glad you work at an organization that recognizes this. But at that table you’ll hear things that make you uncomfortable. You might realize that your company’s “people first” motto is complete B.S. (see Pam Slim’s excellent letter for more on this). You can bet if you work for a public company that shareholders (and thus earnings) come first, middle and last; that’s the first thing they teach you in business school.

You might become aware of major issues affecting your company’s future. It’s exciting to help solve big business problems, but you have to grow a thick skin, and have more than a little confidence that your company is on the right path to push through both large and small issues. Because there will always be issues.

You might also learn that simply being in Communications puts a big “Overhead Expense Here!” target on your back. Speak up in meetings. Share that great idea, or angle no one has mentioned. It might be uncomfortable at first to speak up. Do it anyway. Prove that you deserve your seat at that table–that your organization needs you–then do it again. Every single day.

3. No one wants to hear you complain

You’re required to be there for employees who need to vent, but it doesn’t work in reverse. You’re not allowed to vent to your employees. You’ll never convince them that your struggles are greater than theirs, so don’t even try. With the privilege of sitting at the management table comes a degree of isolation. Keep your gripes among your management peers, or grouse to your spouse. And remember: before you complain to your boss, be sure it’s a real issue, and you’ve thought through several alternatives.

4. Giving feedback is harder than it looks

Praise in public, correct in private. Feedback works best when it is specific and in close proximity to the event. For example, if your employee did a great job preparing for an upcoming trade show, tell her exactly what you appreciated about that while you’re there, or shortly after you return. It’s easy to let your stars go on autopilot–they’ll do a great job regardless. Resist the temptation, and make a point to regularly remind them how awesome they are (specifically, of course).

5. You don’t get to do the cool stuff any more

If you’re great at what you do, and work in a big enough organization, you’ll likely end up promoted to management. This is great, of course, until you realize you don’t get to do the things that got you there any more. You have to spend much more time on paperwork and people management (which takes longer than you would think), and delegate the cool stuff. You can’t just delegate busy work. It is now your job to help your employees grow and learn new skills. So no matter how much you want to do that video editing project yourself, let it go.

Delegating is especially hard if you’re used to not just running but being the show. No one will do it exactly as you would. Bite your tongue and let it go. Give your employees the freedom to figure out how to do things (lest you become the dreaded micromanager). They might find a quicker or better way to do something, but only if you let them try. Correct only on the important things, like strategy, and stay out of the details.

Have your own lessons from becoming a manager? I’d love to hear them.

Do Your Shoes Fit?

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Peep-toe heels with black, white and silver pattern

The Shoes

A couple birthdays ago, I went shoe shopping. (Free advice: don’t buy shoes on a milestone birthday.) I was feeling a bit rebellious, which led to stilettos-that-shall-not-be-named. I was pumped (pun intended), and ready to start my new, more glamorous life.

But here’s the thing. I’m much happier in my Friday shoes.

Pink hiking shoes

Friday shoes

I’ve never actually worn the aforementioned heels because they just don’t feel right. They technically fit, and I like them, but more in a “wow, those shoes look awesome on her” kind of way. Kind of like when I see a super-confident extrovert at a networking event, with people lining up to shake her hand. I admire that, but it’ll never be me.

Sure, I could teeter around in those shoes for a while, but at the end of the day, I’ll probably have sore feet and blisters–not the glamorous persona I was striving for.

In one of my first jobs (before we used email for everything), I had to cold call nonprofit donors and ask them to buy our special holiday donation cards instead of sending gifts to their clients. It was a great program, and I actually sold some cards… but it was probably because the poor souls felt sorry for the awkward, stammering mess (me). I could not be worse at cold call sales, and it’ll be a cold day in you-know-where before I willingly do it again.

Cold-calling and willingly being the center of attention are like my stilettos–I can’t get out of there fast enough. Mercifully, we now have better ways to build relationships (thank you, social media).

The point of all this clodhopper clamor is that you can build your skills and learn new things to a point, but some things you just can’t fake. And even if you can, you’re probably not going to be very happy for the duration. Instead, embrace what you are good at.

If you’ve ever felt bad because you’re just “not a people person,” read Quiet by Susan Cain. While exploring inborn differences in personalities, she gives practical advice for not just surviving, but thriving in your work.

A good closet-cleaning also works wonders. Get rid of the “if I just lose 5 pounds” pants already, and fill your closet with things you feel awesome in right now. Look at your work to-do list. What do you put off? Chances are, it’s something that doesn’t quite fit, but it has to be done. Maybe it’s calling members of your organization. Is there someone outgoing who might like a change of pace? Maybe a receptionist, intern or recent college grad would welcome a task that allows them to talk with new people.

Instead of envying someone else’s shoes (read: talents), spend that energy improving your mind. Read. Learn new things. Try a new approach to your dreaded task(s), or just stop doing them. Would anyone notice or care? Some of my previous to-do list offenders were self-inflicted. When I stopped doing them, you know what happened? Absolutely nothing.

p.s. If you’d like a lovely pair of never-been-worn peep-toe heels, size 9, they’re free to the first taker. Seriously. (Will deliver in Frederick, MD, or ship to continental U.S.) The only condition? You have to feel awesome in The Shoes. And maybe send me a photo.

Making Stuff Up 101

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Light bulb drawn on a chalkboard

It’s happened again. The next issue of your newsletter is due next week. You’ve been scanning for content so you’ve got industry news and events, but your planned feature fell through. What now?

You have  a few options.  Number 5 is probably your best bet at the last minute, but you can only use it once (or maybe once a year, though I would avoid the predictable rush of December/January news highlights).

  1. Read. Keep a running list of ideas from your daily news “download.” Subscribe to industry news, customer or partner newsletters, and updates from industry associations. Government reports are a great source, especially in the health field. Check CDC, NIH and FDA for starters.
  2. Borrow. (But don’t steal.) Everyone is overloaded with news. Curate others’ content (with attribution/links, of course). Do this well, and you’ll stand out. Get ideas from internal meetings, conference presentations, technical publications–but be sure anything you’ve gleaned from these sources is OK to share. Linking to source files is always a good option.
  3. Beg. Ask your staff for news (for the 47th time). Ask your Twitter followers, Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections what they want to know more about. Do a survey of your engaged readers; any email marketing platform should let you create a segment of readers who opened your last message, or you can put a link in the next edition. Check your web analytics. Look at popular searches on your site, and create content around those.
  4. Record. Interview your colleagues about their areas of expertise or frequently asked questions, and videotape it. Edit the interviews down to short segments to make a series. Post them on your website and YouTube channel, and select one to highlight in each newsletter. If people aren’t reading your FAQs page, maybe they’ll watch a quick video. Worth a shot, right?
  5. Rerun. Have web pages with great content but so-so traffic? Repurpose them as newsletter features, or put a teaser in your newsletter linking to the page. Do a “best of” edition. List links and features that were your most-liked or most-clicked in the last year. If you get regular web hits on this content, people are still looking for it. Put it out there again.

If you happen to see a “best of” feature in my next newsletter, you’ll know I take my own advice.

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