May 07

Never has so much been owed by so many to so few

My alma mater, Northeastern University, has totally revamped its look, feel and delivery in recent Nulogo2_3 years. The transformation has been so complete that visiting alumni are astonished to see what’s been done.

As a result of its renaissance, Northeastern has become a smaller, better school. It has attracted better administrators and faculty, and now accepts less than 2,000 applicants from a pool well in excess of 20,000. It has also skyrocketed in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and is now a top 100 school with aims to go even higher.

All of this makes me proud. But, in the process of getting better, NU has also made what, in my mind, is a classic image mistake. They’ve fired or re-assigned some of their best teachers and lecturers simply because they don’t possess a Ph.D. The degree, says, NU, is a critical component in its quest to becoming a truly great academic institution, attracting grant money and endowments, and continuing its inexorable rise to the top.

One key customer constituency, however, is up in arms about the mass firings: the students. Some believe the very best faculty is being pushed out, simply because they lack that extra credential. Others have told me the soon-to-be-dismissed profs made a huge difference in their academic lives and eased their transition from high school to college. Speaking directly to some and reading the e-mails of others, I can see how much the school’s decision is affecting them.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of credentials, since they exist to assure us the individual in question is properly trained and adheres to a certain ethical standard (note: one exception to the credentials rule is the APR in public relations which, in my mind, is truly worthless).

The powers-that-be at NU need to re-think their Ph.D-only dictum. Credentials do not make a great teacher. And, it seems to me that more than one great teacher is being given the heave-ho in this pell-mell rush to the top of the charts. A Ph.D.-only faculty may present an impressive image to the greater world of higher education, but what does it say to the student body?

In thinking through the situation, I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous quote about the RAF fighter pilots who defended their country against tremendous odds in the Battle of Britain. It certainly holds true for the unfortunate NU faculty and the countless students whose lives they’ve impacted: ‘Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.’

Apr 24

The brand of you

With countless college seniors about to graduate and enter the workforce, many are naturally beginning to sweat the process of landing that first, full-time gig.

Having addressed many student groups (and about to speak to two separate classes next week at the University of Vermont), I can tell you that interviewing and resume writing are top-of-mind for the business, marketing and communications students with whom I speak.

When I address them, I tell students to think of themselves as a discrete brand. Like a brand, they need to:

– differentiate themselves from competitors

– address their strengths

– connect and resonate with the end user

– provide a perceived value-add

College seniors can do so by creating what I call "the brand of you." This includes:

– writing a resume that clearly and concisely establishes a short-term career objective, lists any and all relevant work experience and suggests how you’ll be able to hit the ground running (waiting tables at the local TGI Friday’s isn’t going to land anyone a job).

– "connecting" with the interviewer by asking what business-related pain points are keeping him or her up at night (i.e. "What’s your number one business issue?"). Based upon classroom or real-world experience, suggest ways in which you might be able to ease that pain (i.e. If the interviewer suggests the firm hasn’t had much success connecting with prospective customers, suggest things you might have done in work-study/intern assignments or, suggest doing some research and following up with a few recommendations).

– develop three key points about yourself that, regardless of the questions asked, you’ll be sure to communicate in the interview.

– if the company has a blog, post comments on it. Even better, if the interviewer blogs, engage in a digital conversation with him/her prior to and following the interview. This approach has clearly differentiated job prospects seeking employment at Peppercom.

– send a hand-written thank you note. Everyone uses e-mail. Be different.

– write a press release about the firm having already hired you and send it along with the thank you note. It will get you noticed.

I’m surprised how unaware and unprepared most students are when it comes to marketing themselves. So, as I finalize next week’s 60-minute presentation for the UVM students, I’ll be sure to remember that, while they’ll undoubtedly be interested in my case studies and trends analysis, what they really want to know is how they can land that first, important job.

Feb 08

OK, the next item up for bid is a college tuition. And, we’ll start the bidding at one penny

OwuIt must have been a particularly long, hard winter in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for the marketing whizzes at the local university to have come up with this idea: an eBay auction in which bidders compete for one year of college tuition, room and board at Oklahoma Wesleyan University (which bills itself as the 12th ranked Christian university in the country).

So far, 12 bidders have gone back-and-forth on this gem of a gift for that special someone in their lives. The current bid is $18,669.99.

So I ask: Is the school so desperate for students that it needs to auction off one full year at OWU? Or, is it a sly, guerilla  marketing ploy aimed at breaking OWU into the top 10 Christian college rankings? Regardless of the motive, I wonder why they’ve limited themselves to just one year’s tuition, room and board? Why not auction off a guaranteed 3.0 GPA as well? How about a weekend’s worth of wining and dining with the school president and his/her significant other? Since it’s a Christian school, maybe OWU can up the ante and even auction off guaranteed access to the Pearly Gates. Wonder what the opening bid on that would be?

OWU administrators should have weighed the image and reputation impact on the school before embarking on such a hare-brained scheme. How credible is an institution that gives away a spot to the highest bidder? What does it say about the rigor of the curriculum? How demeaning is such a ploy to the other students and their families who have actually earned their way into OWU? And didn’t Christ have an issue with moneychangers towards the end of his career?

The OWU/eBay auction is wrong in every conceivable way. One positive outcome, though, might be an opportunity to change the school’s name to something that more accurately reflects its Las Vegas-type approach to higher education. Here are my thoughts:

– OWU is renamed Online Wagers University

– Alternatively, to reflect its new, digital initiative, Oklahoma Wesleyan becomes eOWU

– The school’s nickname is changed to God’s Gamblers. Heaven’s Heathens? How about The Auctioning Angels?

OWU may have started an interesting trend that could result in future online partnerships between religious organizations and eBay. Why not have the Catholic Church auction off one year’s tuition, room and board for wanna-be priests and nuns? How about the Episcopalians holding an online bid to pay for a particularly deserving deacon’s honeymoon expenses? Synogogues could weigh in and auction a trip to the Holy Land to the highest bid from rabbinical students.

The sky’s the limit (literally). So, let the bidding begin…..

Jan 31

I recognize your sneeze

I’ve always disliked political correctness, finding it both reactionary and intrusive. I won’t bore you with the myriad examples that rub me the wrong way but, right at the top of my list are:

1) PC names for traditional job titles ("sanitation engineer" instead of "garbageman")

2) PC names for physical infirmities ("hearing impaired" instead of "deaf")

3) The lovely quota systems that reward mediocrity over excellence.

I think political correctness hits rock bottom when it enters the classroom and messes with our kids’ senses and sensibilities. My daughter’s college, for example, just issued a mandate insisting their faculty no longer respond to a student’s sneeze by saying, ‘God bless you.’ Instead, believe it or not, the PC-approved response is now, "I recognize your sneeze."

Prayer in the classroom is one thing. But, banishing the time-honored response to a sneeze is way, way over the line, and clearly calls for a big "gimme a break!"

I don’t know what’s more pathetic: the PC response or the person who came up with it in the first place. It says a lot about an institution’s image and reputation when it allows this degree of nonsensical mind games to be played.

I’d be interested in knowing how the phrase "god bless you" is offensive or inappropriate in the classroom. Whatever the explanation, I’m giving the administration at Catharine’s school a big fat "F in Common Sense 101.

Thanks to Catharine "Goose" Cody for her thoughts.

Oct 23

Students, listen up. Today’s lecture is: “Tomorrow’s journalists, publicists and ad execs should embrace digital media. But, look before you leap.”

Dawn M. Lauer (Peppercom’s resident expert on spirituality and a crack management supervisor to boot) accompanied me this past week to Northeastern University, where we helped launch the new School of Technological Entrepreneurship. While on campus, we also had the opportunity to lecture before a mixed group of about 50 students who were majoring in PR, Advertising, Journalism, Speech and Communications.

Our subject was the impact of Web 2.0 on the relationship between the media and PR (and between the media and the general public). We covered a wide variety of topics and subjects, including:

1) The fact that every single student, save one, had their own "page" on either MySpace or Facebook. Social networking sites are as ubiquitous among college kids today as bell bottoms, long hair and tie-dyed shirts were when I roamed the N.U. campus way back when. And, the implications to marketers large and small are tremendous.

2) The realization that, in a digital world, individual and institutional images and reputations can be blown to smithereens in a nanosecond. Examples we discussed ranged from the bloggers who "ousted" James Frey ("A Million Little Pieces") and Dan Rather (his ill-fated, poorly-researched 60 Minutes segment) to PR publicists who sent ill-advised, poorly thought-out pitches to influential bloggers and subsequently paid the price in career-wrecking, web-wide humiliation.

3) The ongoing love-hate relationship between the media and public relations. Professor Bill Kirtz, who taught my journalism class and continues to bring his incredible energy and enthusiasm to N.U. classes today, said he’s always felt there were "good" PR people and "good" journalists (and vice versa). Bill said he’s never understood why journalists looked down their respective noses at us PR folk. I’ve always felt it’s because journalists are loathe to admit they count on publicists for many of their story ideas/angles. While they willingly accept our ideas and notions, they’ll publicly deny our contributions and, adding insult to injury; oftentimes demean us as "the evil empire."

Regardless of how the media may feel about we PR types, Dawn and I told the students that the mainstream "Fourth Estate" continues to play a critical role in our world. And, even though traditional journalism has been hit upside the head by the rise of citizen journalists, message boards, social networking sites and other forms of digital communications, they still wield tremendous influence. Our message was not that digital will be the be-all and end-all of their future careers in advertising, journalism or PR but, rather, that they need to embrace and leverage each and every marketing/communications method and mode at their disposal.

We encouraged them to "dive into the digital communications pool" but, based upon the misadventures and mistakes of the Rathers, Freys and unsuspecting publicists, told the students to be sure they knew how to "swim" first.

We promised the students that today’s post would be devoted to the lecture. So, c’mon students, lay it on us: how did you like the lecture and what thoughts do you have about this particular blog? Remember, though, to think about what you write before you hit the "send" button. The reputation you save may be your own.

Oct 06

Don’t know much about history…

America’s top colleges and universities are doing a terrible job of preparing tomorrow’s leaders in the basics of history, government and the market economy, according to a study conducted by the University of Connecticut and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Dunce713973_1 

The eye-opening survey of 14,000 students at 50 large and small colleges and universities revealed that many of our country’s most prestigious schools including Duke, Johns Hopkins and Yale finished at the very bottom of the list. The reason, says various academics, is that our colleges and universities are focusing more and more on theory and less and less on basic, core requirements.

So, while they may be graduating the next Voltaire or Galileo, our schools aren’t equipping tomorrow’s leaders with the basic tools they’ll need to govern (note: that said, how much worse they could do at governing than our current crop?). To underscore the horrific lack of basic knowledge of history and current events, consider this: half of the students couldn’t correctly identify the century when the first American colony at Jamestown was established (17th). Nor could the majority identify the main source of Saddam Hussein’s political support in Iraq prior to the war (the Baath Party).

These findings don’t surprise me. With a rare exceptions, it seems like even our best and brightest college students have little appreciation for, or understanding of, history. In fact, to most of them, it almost seems as if the world simply didn’t exist before MTV or the Internet. An out-of-touch and unaware next generation will not only further tarnish our country’s lousy image and reputation around the world, it will damage our ability to remain competitive. The UConn survey provided a real wake-up call and should be taken very seriously by leaders in academic, political and business circles.

The findings remind me of the old television commercial for, I believe the United Negro College Fund that carried the memorable tagline: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." By not teaching our kids about history, government and current events, we’re wasting an entire generation of minds, and putting our country’s future at risk.