Be thankful and kind

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It’s Thanksgiving 2016. Here are a few things I’m thankful for.

I’m thankful for kindness. I’m thankful for education. I’m thankful for the wisdom that life experiences have given me. I’m thankful for friends who have stuck by me through tough times. I’m thankful for thoughtful neighbors. I’m thankful for my children. I’m thankful for my parents and siblings. I’m thankful for love.

I’m thankful for the acts of kindness that happen every day, to me and to the people around me. Each one is an effort to influence others for good. Tomorrow, I will double my efforts to be an influencer for good.

The Nuisance Committee: Fighting Trump with Trump

How do you win headlines in an environment that rewards the loudest voices with the most outrageous messages? The makers of the wildly popular Cards Against Humanity board game think they have the answer.

Using the proceeds from the sales of its election-themed game expansion pack, they’ve created a political action committee to give Donald Trump a run for his money by giving the media more of what it wants: outrage, with a heaping side of mocking humor. Modeled after the “nuisance committee” formed by Jewish prisoners of war captured by Nazis during World War II, the PAC is focused on agitating and provoking Trump, who they compare to Hitler. Co-creator Max Temkin’s grandfather was a member of the Nuisance Committee.

It’s opening salvo is a huge billboard on the outskirts of Chicago’s O’Hare airport which challenges passersby with this question: “If Trump is so rich, why didn’t he buy this billboard?” There is also a plug for where the follow-up is “If Trump is so rich, why didn’t he buy this website?” There, visitors are treated to generous helpings of reports about Trump’s creative tax evasion tactics and hypocrisy. The campaign is aimed at millenials, the game’s biggest fans. More billboards are planned in strategically locations near campuses and battleground states, and perhaps even a blimp.

In an interview with bloggers at Dick’s Sporting Goods, Temkin explains why the Trump is winning media. “He sort of arbitrages the media’s unstoppable need for Trump stories by saying crazy stuff and getting millions of dollars of earned media whenever he tweets… But we also started thinking, we have an ethical responsibility to use all of the tools at our disposal—design, comedy writing, copywriting, all these things that we’re good at—to do whatever we can to resist Trump.”

And finally, “I feel like we are able to exploit the media’s thirst for Trump by doing these sorts of jokes. The more we can pick these provocative issues and do them in a surprising way, the more we’ll get our share of the media on the other side. Turn that tactic that’s been working really well for Trump against him.”  Read the full Q&A here. 

A Burger, Fries and Large Serving of Wisdom

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To everyone who has worked in the food industry, I salute you. I salute you for the physical exertion you put into your jobs to get hot food to your customers quickly. I salute you for serving it with a smile, and sometimes a knowing quip that makes all the difference. You influence more people than you realize.

Like many young people, I worked in the food service industry as a teen. The demands of the job, as well as the rewards, helped me mature into the worker that I became as an adult. Lessons such as show up on time. Keep moving. Listen more than you speak. Smile. These lessons never left me. Nonetheless, the passing of time has blurred my memory of the most important lesson of all. I forgot the power of lending an ear to a stranger and using a smile to make a difference on someone’s life outlook, even if only fleeting. I was reminded of this power when I took a part-time job in a restaurant recently. My coworkers come from all walks of life. Teachers supplementing their incomes, grad students trying to make tuition, single moms tryin to make rent, mid-life corporate execs taking a break… you name it. In all, there are 2.5 million waiters/waitresses in the U.S., according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, and earning a median annual salary of less than $20,000.

They are the cheapest therapists money can buy. They give you their full attention, listen to your troubles and make sure you feel better leaving than when your arrived. They are amazing people, who make others smile on the job while battling their own life drama off the job. I am in awe of their talent for suspending their needs while running around breathless tending to others.

Many people believe food service jobs serve as a great boot camp for young people entering the work force for the first time. I also believe that restaurant jobs can serve as a powerful refresher course for mid-life desk job workers, like me, re-learning to exercise their oft-neglected power to make or break someone else’s day. With a kind word or two, you can change your world, one customer at a time, one meal at a time. #waitressesrock

Amber Heard’s Masterful Stroke Strikes the Right Tone

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Divorce is hell. Even for rich celebrities. The case of Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp has all the markings of a trip to the deep dark recesses of human evil, including allegations of abuse and widely circulated images of bruises on the internet. The only bright spot on this smoldering pile of hate is the windfall for two charities.

In a masterful stroke of public relations, actress Amber Heard promised to donate the proceeds of the divorce to two charities, the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union to help victims of domestic abuse. In doing so, Ms. Heard killed two birds with one stone, simultaneously silencing those who accuse of her being a gold-digger while raising awareness for domestic abuse. It was a brilliant move.

Not to be outdone, Team Depp has taken the unusual step of sending the money directly to the charities on behalf of Team Heard. Going on the offense expedites the money transfer, but more importantly, it eliminates the opportunity for Team Heard to create publicity a second time when she turns over the check. This is also a brilliant move.

Team Heard quickly responded by challenging Team Depp to prove their direct payment isn’t a sneaky way to gain tax advantages by DOUBLING the donation to $14 million, thereby compensating for tax write-off.

No word yet on Team Depp’s next move. Don’t let us down.

Ryan Lochte: The Power of Public Shame



Public shaming remains one of the most powerful forces that shape human interaction. If it didn’t exist, I fear a big part of what makes us civilized would be gone with it. Politeness is not natural, unfortunately.

The power of “us” calling out inappropriate, unethical or just rude behavior keeps those behaviors in check. The fear of being publicly disowned, disdained or mocked gives us pause. The consequences have to be severe in order to act as an inhibitor.

More than losing litigation, corporations fear losing face, i.e. losing customers. This is why their lawyers and publicists stay up at night drafting internal policies to keep their employees upstanding and creating damage control plans when those policies fail.

It’s no different when the brand is an individual. As disgraced U.S. Olympian Ryan Lochte learned last week, public shame is unforgiving. If Team Lochte – by that I mean his handlers – parents, agents, or whoever – had sufficient “internal” policies in place, maybe Lochte wouldn’t have gotten that drunk to start with. Having failed a preventative measure, his handlers should have asked more questions before allowing him to be interviewed by a reporter and given free rein to fabricate a story that never happened. 

The Reputation of Parents


Watching the family reactions to the victorious Olympians in Rio this week reminded me of a Bible verse I learned as a child in Sunday School. Matthew 7:16 reads “Ye shall know them by their fruits…”

I couldn’t help but admire the parents in the crowd whose backstories were filled with sacrifices, difficult decisions and other human drama overcome. It is clear that the preparation for achieving such greatness started well before an athlete takes his first lesson in physical sport. What they learn about the sport is preceded and constantly supplemented by what they learn about life, and those life lessons – more often than not – came from the people who raised them.

Gold medal gymnast Simone Biles’ story of how her grandparents who encouraged her to call them “mom and dad” after they rescued her from a dysfunctional home, affirmed again the life-changing power of adoption. The parents of her team mate Aly Raisman, didn’t hide their parental instincts – openly twisting, squirming, squealing – as if simultaneously doing Aly’s routine in their seats. It made me think of the instinct to identify with our kids in times of acute stress – of when it’s impossible to physically take their place, how we still can feel their pain.

Unlike so many influencers who use media to create a reputation for the masses, parents have to earn their reputation on the strength of their abilities alone.  And the results are evident for all the world to see, bringing fame or shame. In public, you can distance or disown your kids. But in private, their emotional health, and therefore, their ability to succeed in life, is a constant reminder, a permanent grade card, that won’t go away even if we are the only ones who know it.

We recognize the success of individuals in business school, in awards programs and in the media generally. Why not recognize the successful parenting of those individual’s parents as well? Let us praise the parents of Bill Gates. Let us recognize the parents of Marie Curie. Let us not forget the parents of Malala Yousafzai or Martin Luther King Jr.

What do you think? Can parenting change the world? How were you influenced by your parents?  Please comment below.

Haters, Own Your Hate


Thank you Jason Steed @5thCircAppeals. America thanks you for your persuasive argument about why Donald Trump wasn’t “just joking” when he called for Hillary Clinton’s assassination.

You don’t know me. But in a crucial way, you do know me. I have been in the past, and will inevitably be again and again, the kid in the hallway referenced in your dissertation. I’m only human. In fact, all of us have been that kid in the hallway, waiting nervously for acceptance and fearing rejection under the scrutiny of peers.

Your dissection of humor as a social tool to alienate or accept ideas and people is insightful and incisive. It’s popular to hide hate behind the mask of politically incorrect humor. I’m speaking not only of Trump and the rabid supporters who cheer his most outrageous declarations including his call for assassinating his opponent, but of the professional comics such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.

I’m talking about the comics who complain that college audiences are too politically correct to find humor in their jokes. I’m talking about the people who defend cultural-misappropriation-themed fraternity parties such as “Colonial Bros & Nava-ho’s” and “Crip-mas.” I’m talking about the advocates at organizations such as Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who document how white students are being oppressed by people who object to such parties. They believe something must be wrong with college students if they can’t accept a joke. That’s their explanation. And that’s their cover for antipathy and hate.

Your dissertation uncovered a different explanation, one that has been recognized by the wittiest men throughout history. People like Aristotle and Hobbes. The superiority theory, the relief theory and the incongruity theory together offer the best explanation for how humor functions in our society. All jokes are designed to do one of two things. Either make people laugh at themselves, to feel relief. Or laugh at others, to feel superior. There is no in-between.

It’s time for the anti-PC crowd to stop insisting that a joke is a joke, that there is no difference between feeling relief and feeling superior. You are asking us to accept your worldview by laughing with you. Those who have the courage to resist laughing along and object to your worldview are mocked. Instead, let me ask those who feel superior to stand by your conviction with pride. I ask you to take off the mask of “it’s just a joke.” Haters, own your hate.

A link to Mr. Steed’s dissertation is posted on his twitter feed. Follow @5thCircAppeals on Twitter.

Selling Sex


In an Op-Ed in today’s edition of the Washington Post, Lyz Lenz’regrets about sexual abstinence lessons learned in her youth bring to mind memories of “purity rings” in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That was a time when young celebrities such as Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Miley Cyrus and Jonas Brothers publicly boasted of their vows to refrain from sex before marriage. Abstinence was a very popular publicity stunt for brands with a pre-pubescent fan base, and each celebrity’s declaration was met with great fanfare in the news media.

But as these celebrities and their publicists soon found out, the benefits of such publicity is short-lived, and the risk of scandal very high (I’m talking to you, Mr. Duggar). It should be noted that both Ms. Simpson and the Jonas brothers were managed by their respective fathers, who were both ministers before going into the entertainment business. If you are not a cynic, you might believe that abstinence before marriage was a sincerely held belief, not just a marketing ploy. If these celebrities hadn’t gone public with their virginity vows, I would agree with those non-cynics. Selling “no sex,” in my book, is still selling sex. It’s the promise of sex.

Fast-forward to 2016. Although a number of these celebrities remain single, nearly all have abandoned their wholesome purity messages in favor of raunchy and rebellious ones. The most publicized rings on them today are fastened to their noses, nipples and nether regions not suitable for viewing by family audiences. No one is surprised. You don’t have to be a cynic to recognize that Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers brands are master purveyors of the best-selling message yet discovered by marketers.

Reputation management 101:  A holier-than-thou proclamation is the plague. It threatens the longevity of your brand and promises to be an embarrassment of riches in future interviews (I’m talking to you, Jonas Bros.)  Avoid at all costs.

Theranos Prepares a Comeback

Two weeks ahead of its presentation to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry’s annual convention in Philadelphia, struggling tech start-up Theranos is apparently coordinating a PR campaign to salvage its tattered reputation and to stay in the blood-testing business.

Theranos announced the hiring of two executives, one each to oversee regulatory compliance and quality control. The announcement came on the heels of a published opinion piece by William Foerge, a trained MD and former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who joined the company’s  newly created Scientific and Medical Advisory Board or SMAB in April. These two moves would suggest that Theranos is girding for the fight of its life.

In his Op-Ed, Foerge threw the full weight of his professional reputation behind Theranos. “In my opinion, the very foundation of Theranos’ inventions – and its hundreds of patents – is credible.”  Foerge further wrote, “Based on my experience, I believe that Theranos can collect, transport and test small samples, including finger-stick, with clinical integrity.”

Foerge’s Op-Ed, which leverages his expertise and professional credentials, like the appointment of quality control and compliance executives, is standard operating procedure for a company managing a crisis. It will be followed by a presentation of science on August 1, which is a much riskier, but potentially more effective move to repair its brand.

The high-anticipated presentation on August 1 to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry promises to deliver what critics have been clamoring for: data from its blood test methodology that details how Theranos’ test machines, called Edison, can diagnose up to 200 diseases and ailments based on only a few droplets of blood captured from a finger prick for a fraction of the cost of conventional blood tests that rely on larger samples drawn intravenously in the presence of nurses. It will be delivered by Founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes, once a media and wall street darling whose personal reputation now is at stake.

This will be the first time the company has presented its top-secret research to the scientific community. Although the materials will not be peer-reviewed in advance (none of Theranos’ research has been published in peer-review scientific journals), it presents a significant milestone in the company’s journey to becoming more transparent. This is a move in the right direction.

But the journey to authenticity will be a long and rocky one.

Until now, the company has been able to get away with being vague about how its blood tests work. Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout who was only 19 at the time of Theranos’ founding, achieves an iconic level of fame, gracing magazine covers as the subject of fawning stories about her audacity and success in raising funding from investors.

That all changed last fall, when the Wall Street Journal published a piece last fall that was critical of the high-flying startup. Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a scathing report, calling into question practices that present “immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.”

The CMS subsequently called for the suspension of Holmes from the industry for two years, a ban that would begin at the end of August pending any appeals the company may file. It’s license to operate a lab in California has also been revoked. In the meantime, the SEC has launched its own investigation into whether investors have been misled.

There is no doubt that skeptics, emboldened by the steady stream of gotcha headlines over the last year, will rake through Holmes’ presentation with a fine-toothed comb. Whereas Theranos and Holmes got a free pass early on from the media which was eager to tout the next “Steve Jobs” and hail the rise of another Silicon Valley hero, that media goodwill is severely eroded. Any attempt to dodge tough questions at the CMS forum will do irreparable harm to an already damaged brand. On the other hand, full disclosure presented earnestly with humility where necessarily could signal a turnaround for Theranos’ reputation.

Next week, Holmes and Theranos are playing catch-up. The CMS presentation will be an opportunity to re-engage and re-energize its audience. This is not the time to sell her personal brand, nor make promises about Theranos’ future. Rather, Holmes is well advised to be humbled by the discovery of missteps and to own mistakes made under her watch. It’s time to prove that Theranos’ media-made reputation is not a sideshow, but an earnest effort to revolutionize the blood testing industry and make the world a better place.


Candor in Crisis


Although “Poker Face” helped Lady Gaga amass a huge following, it’s her candor in crisis that keeps that huge following loyal through highs and lows, both professional and personal. When bad news breaks, audiences value accessibility and authenticity, and Gaga delivered it with the confidence of a true PR pro.

A day after rumors circulated that her longtime engagement with partner, actor Taylor Kinney, had been broken off, Team Gaga resisted the temptation to plant juicy details in an exclusive in next week’s People magazine. Instead of a perfunctory statement issued by a publicist (too impersonal and inaccessible) or an over-wrought contrived explanation filled with made-up words like “conscious uncoupling,” Team Gaga choose the path of being real. It’s authentic enough that you may beleive the popstar wrote it herself. Alas, I’m too jaded to go that far.

In a short but revealing  Instagram post accompanied by a nostalgic photo of the couple in happier times, Team Gaga took their message straight to her fans. And it was raw with emotion. Most effectively, Team Gaga’s message was simple and specific, leaving nothing up for speculation or interpretation by the jaded paparazzi. This is how they did it.

After offering this tender insight, “Taylor and I have always believed we are soul mates,” the message explained their hopes for “the simple love we have always shared” was strained by conflicting ambition, work schedules and physical distance.

Gaga then asked her audience straight up to “please root us on.”

The short statement takes for granted that we all want true love to last, even when conflicts create daunting barriers. Gaga’s appeal for empathy reminds me of the “Celebrities Are Just Like Us” spreads in gossip magazines, featuring candid photography of celebrities buying coffee, soothing cranky babies and walking out of the gym in sweatpants and a ponytail. In Gaga’s words, “We’re just like everybody else, and we really love each other.”

Well done. Very well done, Team Gaga.



Lipstick on a Trump


“I wrote it with as little help as possible.” – Melania Trump 

At the Republican National Convention last night, Melania Trump proved that she has what it takes to be a successful public figure in American politics. She has nerve. Her delivery was nearly flawless. Melania delivered what we expected – beauty and poise in front of the camera. More importantly, she delivered what few expected – thoughtful insight that we could relate to as authentic.

Unfortunately for the Trump campaign, Melania proved she has what it takes to become an epic failure. She has too much nerve. 

This morning, we woke up to evidence that Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama’s 2008 keynote speech. That’s a PR crisis. This could be easily fixed if the Donald could tell her speechwriter what he’s told so many contestants on his reality TV show: “you’re fired!”  Unfortunately, the speechwriter responsible is his wife.  You see, she proudly claimed credit for writing her own remarks in an interview captured on camera while Donald stood by, nodding approval.  Melania is sunk by her own bombast.

When you are a media-made success, nerve is like salt. It comes naturally but you have to control its usage. Sprinkle some of it here and there, and you become a zero-to-hero celebrity loved by all. Pour it on too thick, and you will be caught doing what Donald Trump’s ghostwriter wishes he hadn’t: putting lipstick on a pig.

Fake News Wins

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How does fake news win? The same way used car salesmen win – by encouraging us believe what we want to believe. Fake news wins when:

  • We believe stories that justify our biases, even if they defy logic and are contradicted by evidence we see with our own eyes.
  • We “like” fake stories on social media, to gin up support for our beliefs even when we know the stories are not true.
  • We embrace the loudest, the brashest, most vehement evangelists on our side because they have the courage to spread our beliefs whether or not they are illegal or immoral.
  • We disrespect, disparage and bury the truth when it threatens our beliefs.

To fight off the influence of fake news, we have to be willing to believe evidence we see with our own eyes and resist the temptation to believe stories that support our biases but are too good to be true.