What can we learn from this?

For most Americans, 2009 will be a year to forget. The Great Recession took its toll. Millions lost jobs and millions more lost their health insurance. Businesses closed, families were torn apart and communities suffered.

If you were fortunate enough to survive you feel relief, but as you count your blessings you also feel sadness for those that did not fare as well. One thing for certain is that no matter how you did, there are some valuable lessons to gain from the experience. So what can we learn from this?

For one thing, we learned a lot about our survival skills. Do we have the ability to get creative in times of distress? Can we adapt to changing circumstances or have we become too rigid to change? Can we respond positively to a daunting challenge and even thrive when tested?

We also learned something about our capacity for compassion. Did our primal instinct to protect our turf take over, or did we extend a helping hand to someone in need? Even during hard times there are lots of ways to help, from volunteering at a food bank to being flexible with employees who can no longer afford childcare or health insurance. It can even be as simple as scheduling an information interview with a job seeker.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the past year is to never take anything for granted. Always deliver above and beyond what is expected. Make sure you consistently communicate with staff, clients, customers, contractors, patients, students, co-workers, vendors, partners, family and friends. Let them know how much you value and appreciate them.

As you look toward 2010, take some time off from worrying about what you've lost and remember to appreciate everything you have. Resolve to buy lunch for a client, drop a friend a thank-you note, forward a lead to a vendor or send a colleague a referral. Give a loved one a call and lend a hand to a stranger. Understand that in all the uncertainty the one thing you can count on is you.

Here's to a bright, happy, healthy and prosperous 2010.

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Chasing Tiger's Tale

Like Tiger himself, I am somewhat conflicted about how to respond to the episode of the mysterious car crash. The general consensus from PR pros is that Tiger could have avoided a drawn out media frenzy by quickly and truthfully addressing all the speculation, rumors and innuendo. In his words, the advice from the PR community was to come forward with a "public confession."

There is no doubt that using vague wording like "sins and transgressions" just fuels the speculation. The media and the public love to see revered figures brought low and when they smell blood they really get nasty. Knowing that an icon is "not perfect"
or "only human" just means they are weak enough to take them down. So in that regard, it might have been better for Tiger to accept the advice of his PR counsel and come clean. Explain what happened, answer any questions, beg forgiveness and move on with his life. Smart steps for any brand concerned about its reputation.

But the truth is that Tiger is more than a brand. He actually is human. So is his wife. And they have the right to work out their issues privately, without the assistance of the public, the media, the PR community or the floozy from Vegas. His brand has been damaged but not nearly as badly as his marriage. His sponsorships might suffer but not nearly as badly as his family. Corporate Tiger has taken a minor hit, but Personal Tiger's life is a mess.

So while I am certain that this episode will become a classic case study in crisis communications, my advice to the media, bloggers and PR pros is to back off. Let him be. Let his wife be. Let them work it out. Stop being so consumed with the personal problems of celebrities and celebrity wannabees and pay attention to the serious problems facing our planet, our country, our communities, our business and our own families. Let's stop chasing Tiger's tale. There's plenty to do right here at home.

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See the brand. Be the brand.

One of the most interesting discussions in public relations circles these days involves social media channels like Twitter and Facebook. The question is, who should be representing your brand? Are your tweets more authentic if they come from a person or from an organization? What is more effective, a Twitter handle that uses the name of the company or the name of an individual who works for the company? Can whoever speaks for the brand, actually be the brand?

In social media, authenticity is crucial. To be followed, you must be credible. To be friended, you must not be phony. On the other hand, many brands are using Twitter to provide quick, responsive customer service that they can't provide through a call center that reeks of "let us put you on hold until tomorrow because we don't really care about your whining."

Pete Codella is a social media strategist based in Salt Lake City. He says that just like companies raced to reserve their dot-com name, they should do the same to protect their brand on the various social media platforms. They can keep those URLs as placeholders or use them as active channels. Pete also says that in social media it's the people and personality that really shine.

"We're naturally accustomed to interacting with other people and not with big entities, so a brand is more effectively represented by its people than by the brand alone," says Codella.

There is also the issue of who owns your social media content, the employee or the company? What happens to all the company's followers, fans or friends if the employee leaves the company? But we will save that topic for another blog.

The bottom line is that both approaches are necessary. The brand should have its own channel, which may be most useful for customer service, contests and incentive programs, or directing online traffic to important news and announcements. Individual employees can serve as the brand's ambassadors while using their own channels to support the company's mission.

Ultimately, social media is a way for brands to build awareness and loyalty by connecting the brand with people who share the same passion or promise. Brand ambassadors play a critical role in evangelizing the brand through their own social networks.

Like other areas of PR, social media works best when it is part of an overall strategic communications program. And like any communications program, the best way to start is by asking, "What is the problem and what do we want to accomplish?" The answer to those two questions will determine the answers to all the questions that follow.

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Full Circle

As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I was fascinated by the Old West. Stories of cowboys and pioneers, and songs about hobos and freight trains struck a chord with me. So as soon as I could, I loaded up the wagon (in this case it was a VW squareback) and headed west.

I knew about the bums of Larimer Street from a Utah Phillips song and from Kerouac's On the Road, so the first place I stopped on my arrival in Denver was Larimer, where I explored the skid row saloons and freight yards. I soon discovered the Denver Folklore Center, where I learned another song called Larimer Street by a Denver songwriter named Chuck Pyle. Not long after that, I was street singing in Larimer Square and performing in clubs like Josephina's and the short-lived Cabaret, now the Comedy Works.

My journey took me to Texas, Minnesota, Estes Park, Boulder, Key West, Boston and back to Denver. Now, 12 years after opening Pushkin PR, I find myself back where I started, in a new office in Larimer Square. I move in November 1. Maybe I won't be doing much street singing, but I do expect the move to be good for my business, my brand and my spirit.

I look forward to being part of the downtown business community and I know I will enjoy the energy, diversity and opportunities to network with other creative firms. As a virtual agency and a member of the Sage Public Relations Group, I will continue to work collaboratively with the same team of talented colleagues, contractors and communications specialists that Pushkin PR clients have come to appreciate.

Coincidentally, I signed my lease on 9/9/09. The number 9 comes up a lot in my life, so hopefully, all those 9s are a good sign. At least that's what my wife keeps telling me as I stress out over the details of the move.

So now I've come full circle. I am where I want to be and excited about beginning the next phase in my business and my life. To quote Chuck Pyle, "everybody's down on Larimer Street." Hope to see you there soon.

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As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I was fascinated by the Old West. Stories of cowboys and pioneers, and songs about hobos and freight trains struck a chord with me. So as soon as I could, I loaded up the wagon (in this case it was a VW squareback) and headed west.

I knew about the bums of Larimer Street from a Utah Phillips song and from Kerouac's On the Road, so the first place I stopped on my arrival in Denver was Larimer, where I explored the skid row saloons and freight yards. I soon discovered the Denver Folklore Center, where I learned another song called Larimer Street by a Denver songwriter named Chuck Pyle. Not long after that, I was street singing in Larimer Square and performing in clubs like Josephina’s and the short-lived Cabaret, now the Comedy Works.

My journey took me to Texas, Minnesota, Estes Park, Boulder, Key West, Boston and back to Denver. Now, 12 years after opening Pushkin PR, I find myself back where I started, in a new office in Larimer Square. I move in November 1. Maybe I won’t be doing much street singing, but I do expect the move to be good for my business, my brand and my spirit.

I look forward to being part of the downtown business community and I know I will enjoy the energy, diversity and opportunities to network with other creative firms. As a virtual agency and a member of the Sage Public Relations Group, I will continue to work collaboratively with the same team of talented colleagues, contractors and communications specialists that Pushkin PR clients have come to appreciate.

Coincidentally, I signed my lease on 9/9/09. The number 9 comes up a lot in my life, so hopefully, all those 9s are a good sign. At least that’s what my wife keeps telling me as I stress out over the details of the move.

So now I’ve come full circle. I am where I want to be and excited about beginning the next phase in my business and my life. To quote Chuck Pyle, “everybody’s down on Larimer Street.” Hope to see you there soon.

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Look, I feel bad enough as it is without you reminding me. I know that I've been neglecting my blog lately. I've been busy and I just have not had that much to say, at least not anything very interesting. Sometimes even public relations pros can run out of clever things to say.

When that happens in any business, it is a good time to take stock and evaluate where you are. Take your pulse and check your vital signs. Are things going the way you planned or is a change in course in order?

It could also be time to make sure you are not neglecting other relationships in your personal and professional life. Are you taking the time to communicate with your staff? Are you neglecting your clients? How about your wife and kids?

When we over extend, we risk failing to do anything right. We cut corners, we lose sleep and we get sick. Then we feel stressed and guilty for neglecting the things and people that are most important to us.

When I was president of the Colorado chapter of PRSA, a few former chapter presidents gave me some good advice. Basically, you could sum it up in one word. Delegate. Know when to hand things off and make sure you surround yourself with people you can trust. They will have your back.

Just ask the Colorado Rockies. If you put together the right team, no one player has to shoulder the entire load. Someone always steps up when another player gets hurt. The team wins or loses, not just one player. They support each other, they take care of each other, and they fight for each other. They leave their egos at the door.

It's Rocktober. The Rockies are in the playoffs and the Denver forecast calls for snow. Go celebrate.

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New Rules

Shana tova (Happy New Year). It is the beginning of the ten-day period called the High Holy Days. It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the book is written, and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the book is sealed.

That means we have this time to make amends and reflect on how we want to live our lives. If we reflect well, we will be written into the Book of Life for a good year. If only it were so simple in business. We could just look back on the past year, make up for all the times we screwed up, promise to be nicer to our employees, clients and colleagues, and know that this year, everything will be different. New year. New rules.

It reminds me of a Steve Goodman song that goes like this:

If your life was on videotape
Everything would be all right
When your head hurts the morning after, you could roll it back to late last night
You could replay all of the good parts and cut out what you don't like
Wouldn't we be in good shape, if our life was on videotape.

Unfortunately, nobody uses videotape any more. Everything we do or say is on file somewhere in cyberspace, digitized and spread around instantly for anyone to see. In the digital world, nothing is off the record and it is much harder to take it back. Unless you are a politician and you have people who specialize in pretending something never happened and explaining what you really meant to say.

The point is that in business and in life, we need to be more thoughtful, more civil and more responsible with our words and our actions. We need to speak and act with integrity and respect toward others. We need to understand that everything we do impacts others and make sure that we remind ourselves of that every day.

All of us can benefit by taking some time to renew, to recharge, to reflect. To make amends for our blunders. To make a promise to do better. We can, we must, we will.

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous year.

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Don't get fooled again.

One year ago my friend Seth got sick. He was healthy one day and deathly sick the next, but in spite of his terrible pain he refused to see a doctor. Seth had no health insurance.

By the time his brother convinced him to go to the emergency room it was too late. They rushed him into surgery but there was nothing they could do. He never made it out of the hospital. This is America. No one should die because they can't afford health insurance, but every day, thousands of people lose their coverage and thousands more go bankrupt trying to pay their health care bills. Fewer companies provide employee health benefits and more people gamble that they won't get sick.

As the debate about how to fix a broken system rages on in Congress and across the country, powerful lobbies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars scaring people into believing that health care reform is something to fear. That is just a lie. Making health care more affordable and making health insurance available to every American is not scary. It is something every American should want. It is patriotic to support it. To not support it is morally indefensible.

There are no villains in this story. Insurance companies and doctors and hospitals and the government are not intrinsically bad people or businesses. Most of them want to find a way to do the right thing, to communicate civilly, to collaborate in a positive way to solve a huge problem. They may be suspicious of someone else's motives or protective of their own interests, but ultimately everyone wants to be part of the solution.

As communicators, that is our opening. That is where we can play a positive role by encouraging constructive dialogue and keeping the debate transparent and civil.

Don't get fooled again. Now is the time to put people before profits. The time to fix our broken health care system is now.

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Communicating Strategically Helps Nonprofits Get Attention

Non-profit leaders are stressed out. How can anyone survive, let alone thrive as funding dries up, endowments shrink and long-time donors disappear? Even in a good year, every nonprofit thinks they are a well-kept secret. How can we get some attention for the great work we do? We have a great story but how can we get people to listen?

Too often, the answer is to focus on tactics. Getting a story on TV may get you some nice results, but if it is not part of strategic communications program the results will likely be short-term. Long-term success depends on moving strategically. A tactical campaign is like putting the cart before the horse. You might make some progress but you won't get very far.

So what does a strategic communications plan look like? It should include your goals, measurable objectives, strategies to meet those objectives and tactics to support your strategies. A good place to start is by asking, "What is the problem and how can we solve it?"

Situation analysis

The first step is to see where you are now. What is the problem we need to solve? What are our challenges and opportunities? Is the problem that we've been around for years but nobody knows us? Or we have a serious competitor? Or we need to reach Hispanics but we don't speak Spanish?

Define your goals

Depending on the situation analysis, your overarching goal might be to raise brand awareness or to reach a wider audience. Maybe it's establishing a multicultural outreach program. The goal is really the solution to your problem.

Identify clear objectives

Establishing measurable objectives at the outset will help you determine if the campaign was successful. A measurable objective must be specific. We will increase donations by 15% by year-end. We will add 200 new members within the next year. We will increase Web hits or calls to our hotline by 25% over the next six months.

Know your audience

Who do you want to reach? Every organization has multiple stakeholders. Some are internal, like employees and volunteers. Others are external, like donors, foundations or clients. Understanding your audience is essential before you can decide which strategies and tactics you will use to reach them.

Craft your messages

What are the three most important things you want to communicate? If you want them to resonate, they should be culturally relevant, clear and consistent.

Design your strategies

Your strategies should help you meet your objectives. For example, a media relations program is a strategy that could help you increase donations. A social media program could increase traffic to your Web site. A community relations program could help you target potential new members.

Create your tactics

Each strategy needs supporting tactics. A media relations program might need a media kit and a news release. A social media strategy might require an online newsroom and Twitter. Community relations might include a booth at a cultural festival or health fair.

Starting strategically makes determining the success of the campaign easy. Just see how you did at meeting your objectives. If you did well, you should also see that you achieved your overall goal.

If you want to be a highly regarded success instead of a well-kept secret, resist the temptation to focus on tactics. Take the time to think strategically and develop a plan that gains you the attention you deserve.

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Teachable moments

As a former history teacher, I was fascinated by the Budweiser sponsored teachable moment at the White House. Most teachers don't include beer with their lesson plans but hey, whatever it takes to get through to your students.

Denver public relations pros have been fascinated by some other teachable moments lately. One was the never-ending saga involving Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado. That one involved issues of free speech, tenure, plagiarism, meddling politicians and how not to handle a crisis. Another one involved a surgical tech at Denver's Rose Medical Center who may have exposed thousands of surgical patients to hepatitis C by stealing their pain medication and replacing it with her used, saline filled syringes.

Public relations pros can use situations like these to teach our clients how to manage conflicts, communicate complex, controversial issues to diverse groups of stakeholders, and repair damaged reputations. Whether you are dealing with a conflict that needs resolution or a crisis that needs managing, there are some basic lessons to remember.

Lesson #1: Pipe down. I can't hear you when you are shouting.
Professional mediators know that conflict resolution depends on establishing a safe environment for respectful conversation. Maybe it's a community forum or maybe it's over a beer, but before you can get another group to understand your point of view you need to stop shouting and start listening. Communication is a two-way process. You need to listen before you can have a chance for constructive dialogue.

Lesson #2: You can bury your head in the sand but it won't save your butt.
I was recently called in to help a company handle some negative press. The company felt that the reporter was out to get them, but when the reporter called for a comment the company ignored the call. Then they demanded the paper print a retraction. I proposed that we arrange a meeting with the reporter so the company could express its point of view in a non-confrontational setting but the company was convinced it would not get a fair shake. They used the excuse of protecting the privacy of their investors, but they should have been worried about protecting the reputation of their company. When you say "no comment" it just looks like you have something to hide.

Lesson #3: You can't control the message if you don't take charge of the situation.
The beer summit, CU, Rose and the company facing bad press all have something in common. They let outside forces manipulate the situation, and in the process they lost control of the message. At the White House it was the media and political special interests. At CU it was the Governor and State Legislature. At Rose it was the health department and lawyers. And at the company with bad press it was the attitude of one misguided executive who thought he had all the answers.

In every crisis someone will try to influence the outcome or control the way an organization responds to the situation. Our job is to help our clients communicate their messages quickly, clearly, and openly.

If you are faced with a crisis that can damage your reputation, remember these basic rules. Show compassion and do not speculate. Tell the truth and do not hesitate. Be ready to listen without getting defensive.

If you follow these guidelines you may find that you and your stakeholders actually learn something from your teachable moment. Class dismissed.

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Bon voyage

There is an active debate going on within the public relations community about the future of the profession. It is the kind of soul searching that we encourage our clients to do. It keeps brands fresh and makes sure they deliver what they promise.

The debate centers on how we perceive our brand and how we want others to perceive it. On one side we have people who see PR as publicity. Publicists are about who you know. They believe that being seen with the right people in the right places is what makes you influential, and that clients will pay for that kind of influence because it creates buzz and word of mouth.

On the other side we have people who see public relations as strategic counsel. Counselors are about what you know. They believe that their value is in their experience, wisdom and savvy. They perceive of themselves as trusted advisors to successful entrepreneurs and CEOs.

This debate got me to thinking about how the public perceives public relations. In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglass Adams described how the people of the planet Golgafrincham decided to get rid of the useless third of their population. They told them the planet was about to be destroyed and they had to leave immediately. So they built a space ark and loaded up their middle men -- insurance salesmen, HR directors, management consultants, accountants, hairdressers, TV producers, marketing consultants and yes, public relations pros -- and blasted them into space. The useful people stayed on the planet, while the ship of fools eventually crash-landed on Earth, where the mediocre, useless Golgafrinchams mated with the cavemen and became our ancestors.

If this is how the public thinks of us, we have a big time branding problem. As the public relations profession continues to evolve, we have an opportunity to blend traditional approaches with new technology to create a brand that can be taken seriously. Mediocre and useless is unacceptable. It is time to ship the spin doctors into space and make a clear distinction between publicity and public relations.

OK, maybe I am being a little too judgmental, but if you want to be a self-promoting bimbo specializing in fluff, fine. Get on the ark. Bon voyage. The rest of us will stay here working on thoughtful approaches to complex problems for ethical clients contributing to a better society. Have a nice flight.

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Knock on wood

The King of Pop is dead. OK, I admit it. I was never a fan. I'm not a fan of pop music in general. And like Farrah Fawcett, another pop culture icon who also died last week, Michael Jackson and his music seemed too slick, too artificial, too produced for my taste. Not phony exactly, just too made up, too commercial, and too manufactured.

In pop culture, fame and fortune are destinations we aspire to. But when it comes to the way we want people or businesses or politicians to communicate, we prefer it to be authentic. It's like the difference between acoustic and electric music. They are both good, but acoustic music is more authentic because it sounds the way a wooden instrument was built to sound. It is not distorted by effects or electronics, or forced through speakers. It is as real as it gets.

Authentic communication is one reason why social media is so powerful. It is raw, uncensored, personal and emotional. We demand authentic communication from our political leaders, and when they deliver, we support them in a way that is also authentic because they connect with us on a level we can accept without skepticism. We don't always agree with them on everything, but we accept the fact that they are not just blowing smoke.

Organizations that communicate authentically are better positioned to build long-term brand loyalty. Healthcare organizations can reach more patients, and nonprofits can serve more constituents, if they earn the trust of the community. Corporations can protect their reputation and retain their customers even when hard times force them to make difficult decisions. Even if tuition goes up, students will want to attend a university that communicates authentically about the challenges that lie ahead.

Farrah and the King of Pop found out that fame can be fleeting and fans can be fickle, even for pop culture icons. But if we make the commitment to communicate authentically, the chances are good - knock on wood - that we will reap real and long lasting rewards.

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Father's Day

Today is Father's Day and I'm thinking about my dad. I think about him a lot since he's been gone, but most of all during baseball season. Baseball is one of those true things that fathers and sons share and pass down, like war stories or treasured heirlooms. It was the one way my father and I could still connect even during those years when we weren't communicating at all.

It was at a Father's Day doubleheader at Shea Stadium where I learned that my dad was a baseball genius. He taught me how to keep score. He knew exactly when the Dodgers bus would pull up to the player's gate before the game so I could get Sandy Koufax's autograph, and how to slip the usher a five so we could get down to the good seats. I inherited from my father, who grew up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, the unfortunate genetic trait that makes me live and die with my team even though I know that I am doomed to be bitterly disappointed year after year after year.

Today on Father's Day, I realize that even when communication seems hopeless there is always a way for people to find a connection. Even in Iran, where the government cuts off access to cell phones and TV, but the people use Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to tell the world what is going on in the streets of Tehran. Even in Washington, where the debate over health care becomes louder and more contentious while reasonable compromises are being floated behind the scenes that make finding common ground seem possible.

This weekend, I went to my first game at the Mets new stadium, Citi Field, and I thought about my father. Today I realize that an even better way to honor him would be to figure out how to connect with people when it seems impossible, and how to sidestep the traps that prevent us from communicating. We all have lessons we learned from our fathers. If we are as smart as they were, we take those lessons and use them in our daily lives to make our little corner of the world a better place.

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Don't rain on my parade

Let's review the recent national news. The first Latina ever nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, who was raised by a single mother in the Bronx housing projects and worked her way up to the top of the judicial system, is called a racist by a bunch of cranky old white guys. Democrats and Republicans took turns locking themselves out of the New York State Senate. When asked to take a seat at the healthcare reform table, special interest groups responded by drawing a line in the sand. We saw two Americans murdered by domestic terrorists.

What we have here is more than just a failure to communicate. We are drowning in a sea of toxic rhetoric that makes respectful dialogue impossible. You can blame it on anger and fear and economic stress if you want, but this hate filled atmosphere did not happen overnight. It is fueled by insults, slurs and verbal tantrums on radio, TV and the Internet, and it will not disappear overnight either.

Jack Kerouac wrote, "Imagine trying to explain to 1,000 raving Tokyo snake dancers in the street that you are looking for peace but you won't join the parade." When we try and communicate with people who just cannot see things from our point of view, we are in for trouble. Either we are not communicating clearly or the other party is not willing to listen. Finding common ground becomes impossible if we insist on remaining in our own separate camps.

The PR profession gets a bad rap, but the PR pros I am privileged to call my colleagues are sincere, ethical communicators who counsel their clients to practice integrity and to communicate with respect. It is time for us as a profession to step up to the plate and take a leadership role in guiding America away from the precipice and back toward undivided ground. It is time for us to return America to a place where we can voice our own individual opinions in our churches or synagogues or capitols or museums without fear of being shut up or shot down.

We can begin by challenging the media to behave responsibly. We can counsel our clients to engage in positive collaboration that builds healthy communities. And we can challenge ourselves to motivate our extensive social networks toward positive change and to make sure we always communicate responsibly within those networks.

You don't have to join the parade to see that the dancers are having fun. Let them. Maybe that simple act of tolerance is all it takes to make a difference.

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Hat Man

I've always been a hat man. Panama hats, fedoras, baseball hats, cowboy hats, I like them all. But these days it seems like everyone is wearing a lot of hats, especially PR pros.

That was the topic of conversation at the Colorado Healthcare Communicators program this week. As the media landscape shrinks due to mergers, layoffs and closures, journalists are becoming scarce. So to get our clients' stories told, we have to play the role of journalists. We have to be writers, editors, producers, reporters and photographers. We have to produce the stories and feed them to the media in a format they can use in print, on the air, or online.

Not long ago, the media would have turned up their nose at our VNR. Now they are practically begging us to send them video. The good news about this trend is we have a lot more control over the story. Now we can actually create it instead of wondering if our messages will be diluted, misconstrued or edited out altogether, or if the story will paint our clients in a negative light. We can make sure our clients say something clever, compassionate or profound, and that they always look like an expert. Then we can take the story and put it on our own video channel. Just like an ad.

In some ways, that is also the bad news. Bad because we are losing a level of journalistic integrity that allows the public to trust that the source of the news is credible, honest and objective. We can debate about whether the news media has already lost that claim, but if PR pros can now deliver not just the idea for the story but the actual finished product, what's to prevent us from only telling one-sided stories that always paint a positive picture? Nothing, really, except our own professional code of ethics, which we can choose to abide by or ignore.

The real question is, if PR is evolving into citizen journalism, do citizen journalists have an obligation to adhere to the same ethical standards as professional journalists? Do citizen journalists have an obligation to practice journalistic integrity? The answer is, it depends. And the way you feel about that depends on how you answered.

Like every complicated issue, there are two ways of looking at it. Which is why we as a profession are so conflicted. By day I'm a PR pro. By night I'm a citizen journalist. What can I say? It's my fate. It's my curse. I'm hat man.

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The Dumb and the Useless

Like an episode of the classic soap opera, The Young and Restless, which a friend of mine aptly dubbed The Dumb and the Useless, I am becoming a little annoyed with the crusading social media evangelists who gleefully dance on the graves of newspapers and PR firms while busily texting and tweeting people they've never met about every inane thought and intimate detail of their apparently really cool and exciting lives.

I admit it, watching a room full of people at a conference tapping away on their iPhones and Blackberries instead of giving the speaker the courtesy of listening seems to me to be rude and obnoxious, not hip and trendy. If never being present anywhere is the future, let me off at the next stop.

And another thing, I don't care what you had for breakfast or when you are going to the gym or how bored you are at work. Keep it to yourself. Tell me something I don't know, share your opinion about something important, or let me know about an event or cause or organization I might be interested in, and you might get my attention. Otherwise you are just wasting my time.

Look, I get it. It's new, it's evolving, it's your world and you love it. But please try and explain it to me in a way that doesn't sound like anyone who has a different opinion about it or doesn't quite see it the way you do is a total moron just living in the past and hanging on for dear life against the rising tide of global change. Dig (with one g) this: We are all members of the same family and there is room here for all of us.

Social media has its place but so does traditional journalism. Public relations is evolving and it should evolve, but it is still about building relationships with groups you need to communicate with and determining what you want to tell them. Sometimes the best way to build those relationships is over the phone, or even (gulp) being present enough to meet someone face to face. Imagine the possibilities.

I'll make you a deal. I'll listen and learn from you if you will be present long enough to listen to me. Or as Dylan said, "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours."

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It's about the band

The Dead came to Denver this month on their first tour in years, and the party was on. Non-Deadheads may wonder what the big deal is about a band that's been around for 45 years and has lost a few members along the way, including its spiritual leader, Jerry Garcia. But as any Deadhead can tell you, what makes the band special is their ability to play as a team.

Like jazz musicians, they seem to telepathically communicate and instinctively understand what the other band members are going to do next. On stage, everyone is improvising. With few words and minimal body language, they can play long sets of complex songs, shifting gears seamlessly as one cohesive unit. No set or solo or concert is exactly the same from one night to the next. The fans have their favorites but the band has no stars. The difference between the Dead and most other rock bands is that the Dead is about the band, not the players.

So what is it that creates teamwork and how can you instill that attitude in your organization? In sports it's called chemistry. Winning teams have chemistry and losing teams need it. But do winning teams have natural chemistry or do they create an environment that encourages it? Does team chemistry require a charismatic leader to set the right example, or can a group of players with a common goal create their own chemistry?

Not to be Zen about it, but the answer to those questions is yes. Teamwork is something everyone can appreciate but it is difficult to accomplish. Each leader and each organization is capable of creating it, but many are not willing to devote the time or make the commitment. And sometimes it just happens.

Take the mysterious case of the Denver Nuggets. Maybe some of the Dead's attitude rubbed off on them, because the notoriously me first Nuggets are suddenly playing the type of team first game that NBA coaches dream about. They are even talking championship. The lesson here is, if the Nuggets can play as a team, anyone can. It takes a major commitment but the rewards are worth the effort. Once everyone buys into the concept, the results will come quickly.

There is no specific roadmap to teamwork, but the path becomes illuminated once an organization is open to following it. To quote the Dead, "that path is for your steps alone." Ramble on easy.

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When a pig flies

Swine flu is making us sick. Not the virus, just the overwhelming media frenzy that is scaring the pants off everyone. It would be one thing if pigs were actually flying, but the reality is that so far, this appears to be a new but milder strain of the seasonal influenza virus, which causes 36,000 deaths every year in the U.S. To put that number in perspective, to date we've seen 26 deaths in Mexico and only 35 of the 286 confirmed cases in the U.S. have resulted in hospitalization. Not exactly cause for widespread panic.

It seems that what we have here is a failure to communicate, or at least a failure to coordinate clear, consistent and factual messages. The media, seeing a great opportunity to jump to conclusions, sensationalizes the flu hoping for news of deaths or at least a few school closings and people on airplanes in surgical masks. Public health officials are sending mixed messages, one day warning us about a scary pandemic and conjuring images of the Black Plague, and the next day reassuring us that it is not as bad as we thought. One day we should not get on a plane and the next day we should not overreact. One day it's off with the pigs' heads and the next day it's not even called swine flu anymore.

No wonder we are all confused. It's situations like this that make PR people crazy. We'd like to sit everyone down, have them all take a deep breath, find out exactly what the facts are and then prepare a few clear consistent messages for a few key spokespeople so that each expert speaks to their area of expertise in one collective, level-headed voice.

When a crisis happens it breeds chaos. It is natural for people to speak before they know the facts or to panic if there is too much uncertainty. Rumors can spread and the damage can grow worse by the minute. But the only way to put out the fire is to be deliberate, disciplined and organized. Follow the plan and stick to the rules. Be compassionate. Do not speculate. Maintain your composure. Communicate clearly, consistently, factually and transparently.

No doubt, public health officials, media and PR pros will learn a lot from this crisis once it finally resolves. We will look back and examine what we did right and what went terribly wrong. It will be a good crisis communications case study. But for now we must endure weeks and months of rumor, speculation and recrimination, while the media camps out at schools and hospitals, following every parent with a sick child, hoping for some drama.

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