May 16, 2008

'til then ...

For reasons too prosaic to merit sharing publicly—take that, you transparency geeks—I have stopped freelancing for Ragan Communications and will soon start working for another publisher. This blog will disappear, but I hope a similar conversation will resume sometime soon, likely on a personal site I plan to develop. When it launches, I’ll spread the word.

In the meantime, thanks to Shades readers for your interest and the generous spirit in which you received and in many cases clarified and amplified my ideas and added so many of your own.

And to Mark Ragan and my dear friends at the company, thank you for your rich, rich fellowship over all these years.

We will all, I trust, be in touch.

May 13, 2008

Drama-surfing on the bus

Nobody snorts more than I do at the pervasiveness of cell phones, but on days when I don't have a newspaper in my hands or an idea in my head, people flapping their gums on cell phones can be entertaining.

I fantasize about what 19th-century sounding thing I might turn around and say, very loudly, to the windbag who's haranguing his employees. "Sir," I usually begin. "Every soul on this train may guess that I am an ass—but about you, they have no doubt."

So many people are talking on a crowded bus, one can switch channels. The other day on the 66 Chicago Avenue bus I began listening to a young Latino woman who was clucking into her phone about the weird living arrangement of an acquaintance that involved four guys living with a woman who had a newborn baby.

"You know they're all going to have an affair with her," she said. (Actually, I did not know!)

But since most of the action on that phone seemed to be coming from the other end, I switched over to an African-American woman lecturing a friend on feminism.

"I won't be with some man who can't do nothin' more than just sit there and smile in my face, huh-uh. I'm sorry, I can do that in the mirror! You gonna help me."

Jerry Springer on one phone, Germaine Greer on the other. Some nights, there's less to watch on cable TV.

May 12, 2008

Why do consultants act the way they do?

In three separate discussions at the Corporate Communicators Conference:

I heard someone—was it you, Susan?—chuckle about consultants who avoid dealing with issues by putting them in "the parking lot."

I heard another consultant avoid a discussion by saying he didn't want to "get into the tall grass" on that particular issue.

And during a Q&A;, I heard another dodge: "Let's talk about that off line."

It's over-simplistic to say consultants use these terms simply to avoid saying, "I don't know." But it's also not coincidental you don't hear your car mechanic tell you, when you ask whether it's the carburetor or the fuel pump, "I'd rather not get into the tall grass on that issue."

Why do consultants use this kind of talk? Not because they know nothing, and not because they aren't smart enough to come up with clever solutions. It's because they're expected to have all the answers on their fingertips and they are not allowed to say: "That's a tough one. Let me think about that and talk to some of my colleagues and get back to you." (No, they say, "let me 'noodle' that issue.'")

I'm starting to think the problem isn't so much consultants who pretend to have all the answers, but clients, who force them to pretend.

Readers, do you agree?

May 9, 2008

Shades readers in town for Corporate Communicators Conference

Before I drove my old Scout to the Drake Hotel to pick up Joan Hope, Kristen Ridley and Susan Cellura for dinner Tuesday night—the ride home would include Eileen Burmeister and Colleen Hawk home (Amy Gooen values her life)—I thought of the lead in the newspaper:

"CHICAGO—A blogger died yesterday evening in a fiery one-car crash on Lake Shore Drive. But the tragedy was lessened because his most faithful readers also perished in the crash."

Thanks, Women of Like Minds—and women of unlike minds, too, Jane Greer. And you too, Robert Holland. It was a great week in Chicago.

May 6, 2008

A report from the Road to Find Out

I’ve got a story on the life and death of ex-Bolingbrook cop Drew Peterson’s third wife, Kathy Savio, in the May issue of Chicago Magazine.

I’ve done reporting before that could be described as investigative, but nothing quite as heavy as this one. I didn’t end up quite uncovering any monstrous new facts, and may have discovered that, on the angle I took into this story, no monstrous facts lay. But I’m pleased with its dutiful telling of an overlooked part of the sensational Peterson story.

But the whole time I was working on the piece—and doubting I’d ever be dumb enough to tackle such a piece again—I wondered:

How will investigative reporting ever get done in the future?

I wondered this as I spent four full months reporting, writing and working with the editors to finish the piece. Yes, I did other stuff in between—writing for Ragan, work for other organizations—but this effort involved:

Interviewing at least two dozen people, many of them a few times, a few of them many times. Phone calls long and short, often after hours, always sweaty—trying to get tons of information from busy people, trying to get any information from reluctant people, trying to assess the reliability of half-insane people. Trips over hill and dale to sit in deadly quiet living rooms and back rooms of greasy spoons for as long as it took to get truth from people, many of them stricken with grief or fear.

Endless Internet searches. The existence of the Internet is a curse as much as a benefit, because when you just had a phone and a legal pad, you didn’t waste whole mornings doing fruitless Googling. You either got on the phone or you hit the bricks. And if you procrastinated in those days, you did so by smoking cigarettes. (What a net loss!)

Wakeful nights spent wondering: Have I really done enough reporting? What if I tried to call this guy? What if I asked that woman this question?

More wakeful nights wondering: Will my four full notebooks and 60,000-word electronic notes file come together in 4,000 coherent words? Dear Lord, let me choose the right words! There are no agnostics on a feature-length story deadline.

Long talks with nasty people about nasty things. I’ve told people, and I’ve meant it, that the murder suspect himself was one of the most charming people I interviewed in the course of reporting this story. There were others who I found pleasant and some even fun, but I was also hung up on, bullshitted, yelled at, bullied and manipulated. People aren’t at their best when you’re calling them to ask about a murder case; and it’s not the best people who you’re always calling, either. The whole subject, especially with the backdrop of the Chicago winter months, had me feeling pretty low at times.

De-listing of my home phone number after a lawyer told me I was nuts for looking into this case from the angle I was looking into it. For several weeks I entertained fantasies of being gunned down in the snow while walking my daughter home from school on a dark winter afternoon. Surely the scenario was outlandish, but you didn’t entertain it this winter, did you?

Taxing drink-ups. One of the best investigative journalists I know is a teetotaler but I don’t know how he does it. I needed to hear myself talk about this story a lot, to see what I really thought about it, and to get ideas about leads to pursue. In order to hear myself talk that much, I had at the very least to get my friends drunk, so naturally I got drunk too.

Amazing amounts of time and energy spent on the phone with magazine editors and fact-checkers who, with the help of lawyers, were protecting me from myself, and protecting the magazine from any potential lawsuit. I’m grateful now—there isn’t a questionable syllable in the piece—but the process stretched out for almost a full month. And it gave me the sense that the magazine had much more to lose from a lawsuit than to gain from a splashy story—and that their decision to commission me to make this investigation was an act of uncommon courage. Should that be true?

And all this for—wait for it (I sure did!)—$3,500. I have a wife, I have a kid, I live in the city, I have expenses: To keep my head above water at that rate, I’d need to do 20 of these kinds of stories in a year. If I tried to do that, I’d be the murder suspect.

When he read the story, my dad—an essayist and an ad man who’s used to putting all his energy into the thinking and the writing, and not familiar with all the mucking about this story clearly required—asked me in an e-mail what this experience was like. Was it interesting? Was it boring? Was it scary? Was it limiting? What he did not say was, “What on earth possibly inspires you to do this?”

Mark Ragan, a former newspaper reporter, theorizes that reporters have egos. They want to be the only guy or gal in the room who knows how shit works. And they write stories to prove that’s exactly who they are.

There’s truth in that. And especially living in Chicago, if you don’t know how politics work, you worry that you don’t know anything. So in one sense Chicago Magazine does me a favor by merely lending legitimacy to my own curiosities.

Still, as newspapers and magazines cut their budgets and thin their ranks and reporters grind out more and shorter and shallower stories every day, I’m beginning to wonder:

Am I the sort of weirdo America is increasingly depending on to get our investigative reporting done in this country?

Is it actually our plan to rely on hordes of half-educated desperadoes with a gnawing and erratic curiosity and an ego with an elephant’s appetite?

Come to think of it, I guess that pretty much describes journalists down through the years.

But as I take off my brown investigative journalist suit—until the next time I forget that political writing is not the most efficient use of my particular gifts—I wonder, I worry: As print declines and online news continues to trend away from heavy stories, how many reporters out there are going to be paid enough by how many publications to half-justify this kind of endeavor?

And what will it be like if there’s nobody in the room who knows how shit works?

Organic communication vehicles

My elementary school teacher wife and her colleague were talking the other day at Scout's soccer game. I overheard Cristie recapping to Liz a testy exchange she'd had with an administrator, "So I wrote down there .... And then she wrote back up .... And so I wrote back down ...."

The teachers have e-mail, so I chuckled at the notion that they think of e-mailing "down" to the office and getting e-mails back "up" to the classroom.

Nope, Cristie and Liz informed me. They don't do this via e-mail. To "write down" to the office, they write little notes and give them to a student to deliver. If they're writing something innocuous, they'll give any old kid the note. But if they're sending a particularly nasty message to an administrator or another teacher, they make sure they pick a poor reader to send the note down with.

"If Bryant comes into my room with a note," Liz said. "I know it's probably trouble."

May 5, 2008

Employee communicators: Are we special?

Over the years I've made the claim that employee communication is different from the other communication disciplines—media relations, investor relations, marketing—because it has a political, moral component. An internal communicator is a democratizer, someone who believes the whole world would be better if workers knew more about management's ideas and management knew more about workers. Whereas the other disciplines are more or less amoral in their aims.

I've never been real sure if anybody buys what I'm saying. Until I heard recently from a long-ago correspondent who describes himself as a "right-wing communicator" who also believes employee communication is special. Listen to Dan Grubbs, internal communications manager at HNTB Holdings, in Kansas City, Mo. He goes one further, claiming that employee communication is not only more moral, but more strategically important, too:

"Regarding your question about internal being different than other disciplines of communications, I'm here to reinforce the notion that it very much is different. I consider myself very much like an evangelist converting and discipling employees to work for a larger, common purpose. I have intentionally kept my corporate career at a middle-management level because I don't want to supervise people, I want to plan and execute communications that are aligned with a larger vision for the company. That's what floats my boat.

"Consider this, is the person writing a news release impacting the culture of the company for which he works? Not directly, no. I'd say the fact that you can hire and fire and hire another outside agency to successfully conduct media relations is an indicator that the disciplines are vastly different. One very famous PR agency tried unsuccessfully to grow an internal communications practice, but it never seemed to take root.

"One of the primary reasons is because you just can't do internal communications from the outside. You have to be a believer ... to persuade others effectively. You also have to be a believer ... to hold a place at the strategic table. Company leaders aren't going to trust or rely on someone that doesn't bleed the company vision/mission.

"Can an IR/PR/GR practitioner feel just as passionately about the company as an internal person? Absolutely. Let's naively hope we all feel that way. But it's in the purpose of our crafts that make the distinction. Yes, we're all creating messages, striving for message penetration and comprehension and hopefully, affecting behavior. But, doing those things well internally can create an amazing line of sight through an entire line organization that dramatically impacts the performance of the company. Which makes the internal communications practitioner a valuable ally for senior leaders."

I'm interested to getting reaction to Grubbs' statement from readers who have purposely specialized in internal communication—and from those who purposely haven't.

Are internal communicators more virtuous, more strategically valuable or just more self-satisfied?

May 1, 2008

A courageous communicator is gone

Shel Holtz alerts me to the death of longtime General Motors employee communicator Alvie Smith.

To Shel's nice summary of Smith's career I'd add only an anecdote that I always thought was apocryphal until Smith confirmed it in an interview a few years ago:

Once in the 1970s, Smith wanted to shake up the hundreds—yes, hundreds—of GM publication editors he'd convened for a communication meeting in Detroit. He brought in Larry Ragan to stand before these complacent editors, who Smith knew would expect a flattering appraisal from Larry. Larry began:

"I am here to tell you that General Motors' publications are, across the board, the worst written, worst edited, worst designed and dullest newspapers, magazines and newsletters we see in Ragan offices ...."

He had their attention—for the rest of an intense two-day workshop where they all recreated their publications, under Larry's direction, clearly at Smith's prodding.

"I put Larry up to it!" Smith said in 2004. I can still hear him laughing.

The subject of everything

Was out last night at a bar called the Hideout, having a birthday drink with my writer friend Paul Engleman.

Deep into the evening, he remarked that all of the best stuff he's ever written has somehow involved his mother—as a character, as a subject, as an inspiration.

And the following thing came out of my mouth, came to me as easily as an exhale—and this is why we drink:

"Well of course, Paul. The real subject of everything we write is, 'Why I loved my mommy.'"

I'm not saying that's brilliant. But I do believe it's true. And that, at the more realistic age of 39, is enough.

(I did have a hilarious experience about this yesterday. Furiously writing a story in the morning, I started getting happy-birthday e-mails from people like Robert Holland, Les Potter, Mike Klein—great colleagues, but not people I expect to remember my birthday. First distracted thought: "My God, how is it that men are suddenly becoming so thoughtful about people's birthdays?" But even when I discovered Facebook was sending out the friendly reminder about my birthday, I sure appreciated the good wishes from these lugs.)

April 29, 2008

Sports, kids and America—all the way insane

A friend of mine has a son in a baseball league in a leafy neighborhood in far-north Chicago. My friend is a coach.

The league's co-commissioner—since when couldn't one commissioner handle a knothole baseball league—sends an e-mail to the coaches suggesting they provide "game notes" on the Web site used to record league action. (Already getting on my nerves.)

In the e-mail, the co-commish writes, "Teams that use [the game] notes feature will find it a huge morale-booster for their team and individual players. By the way, you can file game notes even if you're the losing team: often it helps to find a silver lining in the cloud of a loss. ..."

It seriously freaks me out to read this. Since when do kids need a "morale-booster" beyond playing little league baseball in the first place?

And "the cloud of a loss"?

What on earth could that possibly be? What is going on here? What is this co-commissioner thinking of? What cosmic shift have I missed?