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It’s time to change our language in communications and marketing. Five phrases to leave behind.

Image from commons.wikipedia.org

There are several phrases that are often used in marketing and communications that it’s time to retire, if there was ever a place for them.  I’ve grouped them into two groups. The first group is primarily related to the use of military and gun metaphors and similes when referring to tactics.  This is especially notable as I often work for clients that are involved in education, both software and services and with universities.  The second group of words are those that are just tasteless and often I find that people don’t know the true origin of the phrases.

Military and gun phrases:

  • “Boots on the ground.” – Most often used to refer to staff being onsite for an event with the original phrase referring to the placing of soldiers in harms way.
  • “Bullets in the chamber.” – In PR it’s talking about how many opportunities still exist but in real life it’s referring to how many shots you have left after you’ve already fired.
  • “Keeping our powder dry.” – I’ve heard people use this phrase to refer to holding something in reserve such as a tactic or a critical piece of information that they’d like to pull out later.  Now, it’s been a long time since the primarily method of firing guns included pouring black powder into a gun and then following it with a wad and a ball, but when it did, it was necessary to keep the black powder from becoming wet so it would fire properly.

Phrases that I swear most people don’t know what they mean they use them:

  • “Drinking the kool aid.” – This is used to describe believing in your own product or service and using it. Often used interchangeably with, “eating our own dog food.”  The origin of this is the mass forced suicide/murder  of 900, including several hundred children, followers of Jim Jones in the jungles of Guyana.  He led them there after enthralling them in San Francisco, then when he believed the circle was finally closing in on him he forced them to drink grape Flavor Aid that was laced with cyanide.
  • “Money shot.” – Generically used to refer to a big finish to a campaign, this is hysterically close to the original usage, but in that case it referred to a climactic shot in a porn movie.  I’ll let you get specific.

Don’t try and build status by talking about things you shouldn’t

Today I was reminded of a scene from “West Wing,” where a junior staffer leaks some information to a reporter.  It doesn’t end well.  This afternoon we’re having to try and clean up something that may damage a lot of people because someone wanted to try and seem important by talking about something before they should

Think before you speak, and listen to Toby.

Great article for a client? Frame it and Give it.

If you help develop a great article for your client that runs in either a major publication, or in their hometown publication, have it matted and framed and give it to them.

  • They will love it and put it on their wall;
  • It will remind them of the service you provide them (even after they aren’t a client);
  • It’s inexpensive; and
  • It serves as advertising for you long after.

Agency Lessons from Mad Men Episode 710 – The Forecast

Image by Michael Yarish from IMDB.com

Image by Michael Yarish from IMDB.com

Mad Men still includes real issues faced by advertising (and yes PR firms) in an incredible show. If I wasn’t in this industry, I’m sure I would still be a fan of the show, but for me I get a bonus. I get to watch situations I encounter all the time dealt with by others. Mad Men continues to include real issues faced by advertising (and yes PR firms) in an incredible show. Throughout the course of the series I’ve written 25 posts about real world agency lessons from the show and here’s one from one of the last.

There are two junior creatives who had a rough time presenting to a client. The work was not well received and they turned on each other in front of the client.  One of them approaches Don and asks him to go with him to make amends with the client.  Don instead gives examples of how he met with a similar issue and provides guidance on how to deal with the situation.

Well, the attempt at amends didn’t go well and the young creative flipped the words and scenario Don presented him, offending the client.  As an agency leader you want to empower your staff to take command and fix problems on their own.  The problem is that you need to be ready to deal with the consequences if it it doesn’t go according to plan.  In this case, he was fired.  This was a “teachable moment,” for the agency and Don could have moved the person off the account and helped him learn how to deal with situations like this. But he’s Don, he didn’t.

Steve Jobs and Clarity in Communication

Image by Mike Evangelist at writersblocklive.com of SJ prepping for NECC 2001 keynote

I only worked at Apple for a short while, 2001-2004, but while there I learned some incredible lessons in communication.  Many of them were from my direct boss but others I got on the few instances when I was able to work directly with Steve Jobs.

Shortly after I joined Apple I found myself writing a press release to be distributed following a keynote by Jobs at NECC (at the time largest ed tech conference in the US). As it happened I ended up going back and forth a bit with Steve over email on wording in the release.

The paragraph was about Apple’s iBooks and how they had integrated wireless (this was a big deal back then!) and I had written something along the lines of “allows students to learn anywhere.”  Steve responded with “students can always learn anywhere. This frees them from a computer lab”

Thanks Steve.

PS – here’s a link to the release.

What I’m reading in 2015

Throughout the year when I find or hear about a book I might find interesting, I send myself a note with the name of the book.  This is an ongoing email throughout the year that I keep replying to and CC my wife.  Then at Christmas when someone asks my wife what I might like, she sends them the list of books. It works out pretty well and I end up with a nice stack of books to start the year.

Here’s one from 2010, and one from 2011.  Below is the stack I’m diving into for 2015. Most of the below were purchased from our local bookstore, Face In A Book.


  • The Forbidden Game by Dan Washburn – How the growth of once forbidden golf in China is a microcosm for how the country works.
  • One Lucky Bastard – Autobiography of Roger Moore. When I was a kid, he was James Bond and the epitome of a movie star.
  • Destiny of the Republic – Fascinating history of James Garfield.  A president taken way too soon, that could have had a huge impact on our country.
  • Goodbye Darkness – I’m a huge fan of William Manchester (see the next book) and I highly recommend A World Lit Only by Fire, but in this book he writes about his own experiences as a US Marine during WWII and the war in the Pacific.
  • The Last Lion – The first book in a trilogy biography of Winston Churchill. I started with the final of this series, and now go back to the beginning.

Communicating the benefits of IT security in higher education


As part of my job I spend a lot of time on college campuses talking with administrators, faculty and staff. One of the special things about higher education (for good or for ill) is the decentralization of basically everything.  Since many parts of a college or university have control over their own funding they run a lot of their own systems.  Right down to things like email servers.  This decentralization can often lead to exposure for IT breaches.

With an increased focus on data privacy and security (even the President is talking about it) how do administrators get everyone on board?

  • Avoid FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) tactics, but do articulate the risks and costs to both the institution and individuals (faculty, administrators and students) of a data breach. Each group will be impacted differently, from costs to the institution, potential loss of research and compromise of research data for academics and loss of individual privacy for students. The impact must be understood for end users to change current behaviors.
  • Communicate that the provided services meet the academic communities’ needs. Whether it be seamless file sharing or collaboration solutions, end users will gravitate towards the solutions that are easy to use.
  • Involve the campus community in the assessment of needs and deployment of IT solutions. A shared ownership in the end product increases the likelihood that the community will use the central services and encourage others to do the same.

The above is from a post on cybersecurity I wrote for Edelman.com. Take a look and let me know what you think.


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