What a trip to my alma mater can teach us about marketing and life

When I decided to travel back to my alma mater, the University of Central Missouri, for the 50th reunion of my Lambda Chi Alpha chapter, I offered to speak to the public relations undergrads and Dr. Tricia Hansen-Horn graciously accepted. Throughout the day, last Thursday, I had the opportunity to speak with more than 120 students.

Searching for an interesting topic beyond just droning on about myself, I was inspired enough by some of the interactions I had on my trip that I decided to use them as anecdotes for sharing a few lessons about marketing and life with the undergrads. Perhaps you too can find some value in my situation.

Parking Spot Shuttle Driver

The last time I parked at the parking spot I found myself frustrated by the lack of communication about the recent change to pick up returning passengers on the upper level at LAX. I swore I would never be back, but a free day of parking in my email a few days earlier prompted me to try again. This time, however, the driver taking us to the airport went out of his way to let passengers know about the change, making me feel like my speaking up might have had some small impact.

The lesson: Organizations need to telegraph change, and we as individuals can effect change by speaking up. Also, email marketing work and be sure to tip well when someone goes out of their way to help you.

Activision Programmer

In the security line, I met a young programmer from Activision. His t-shirt caused me to strike up a conversation since I worked in the games industry many years ago. This led to a conversation about how their company uses intranet software, which helped me a little with a current challenge for a client, but could easily have led to a larger business development opportunity or friendship.

The lesson: Get your head out of your phone and strike up a conversation. You’ll be amazed at what happens. Also, T-shirts are a great tchotchke item every company should consider.

TSA Manager

I tend to find airport security stressful, but I was running on time that morning, so at least I wasn’t crawling out of my skin thinking I needed to jump the line. I knew the can of shaving cream might get taken away, but I was willing to try getting it through rather than check my bag. My bag did get flagged, and the can of Edge gel was taken, but in the process I shared a good laugh with the TSA agent and the woman in front of me when it was discovered that a certain battery-operated toy, which she was allowed to keep, turned out to be the subject of the search. Afterward, I approached the TSA manager in charge and let him know what a great job I thought the entire team was doing.

The lesson: Take calculated risks and let people know when they’re doing a great job even if there’s nothing in it for you.

Passenger on Crutches

Getting to my plane turned out to take longer than expected because we needed to be bussed to our remote gate. I had seen the young man with one leg on crutches in the security line, but now he was right behind me boarding the plane. I chose not to strike up a conversation this time, but quietly was grateful for my mobility, humbled by the difficulty his handicap must cause him on a daily basis and cognizant of our human resilience in the face of adversity.

The lesson: Sometimes it’s better not to speak and always important to put things in perspective and be grateful for what you have.

Man in the Seat Behind Me

Once I finally sat down on the plane for our early morning flight, I was ready to get some sleep on my way to Kansas City. My window shade was in that awkward spot between two rows, but I closed it anyway not expecting to have it immediately reopened by the man behind me who pointed out that I was welcome to put something over my face should I care to block the light. What was odd, however, was that he closed the shade again less than a minute later and went to sleep himself.

The lesson: Focus on those things you can control and let go of what you can’t. It’s impossible to know what motivates others or what they are truly thinking.

Antwone Fisher

The highlight of my trip was learning that the inspirational figure whose life was chronicled in the Antwone Fisher story was sitting right next to me. Our common ground was that we were both giving speeches the next day. When I shared with him some of the advice I was planning on giving the UCM students, he was happy to provide a couple of his own insights which I promised to share with the students the next day, including:

  1. Dress well. It was probably his Navy experience that created such an emphasis on looking great. He explained that our entire persona is on display when first impressions are made, and that everyone recognizes high fashion, even if they don’t have good fashion sense. He suggested everyone in business needs to own a great suit. Guys, polish your shoes. Gals, have a pair of shoes for business that’s different from the Stilettos you wear to the club.
  2. Be a good listener. Let people speak and consciously take good mental notes of everything they have to say. Then, when it’s your turn to talk, you’re guaranteed to be a much better conversationalist.
  3. Remember why you’re here in the first place. A student’s number one job is to graduate from college and get out into the real world. Don’t get bogged down by love, pregnancy, drugs or alcohol, and remember that while you may make a few lifetime friends, most of them will change over time.
Uber Driver

By now, I was on a roll, collecting unsolicited advice for the students from anyone willing to have the conversation. So I let Alvin the Uber driver in on my plan. Recently retired from the Marines at 39, he didn’t have a care in the world. Drawing from his experience abroad, Alvin’s advice for the young American students was to avoid falling into the trap of materialism. “You’re not truly free until you are debt-free,” he said. All too often we take on credit card debt for things we don’t need and end up in a vicious cycle of doing jobs we hate to make money to pay for things we don’t need when all we’re really doing is feeding consumerism and making big banks wealthier.

Independent PR Colleagues

Finally, during my walk through LAX I had posted a question to colleagues on a discussion list of independent PR professionals, asking them to share any advice they would offer the PR undergrads. Here’s a summary of what they had to say:

  • Build your network now, the importance of networking
  • Take internships seriously and do as many as you can
  • Take a service job to show your work ethic
  • Keep well-informed, PR is not the world unto itself
  • Become a voracious news reader and put yourself in journalists shoes
  • PR is hard, so don’t forget to keep a good work/life balance
  • Take the opportunity to work across many categories
  • Promise effort, not results, you can lead a horse to water…
  • Think like a salesperson, many sales adages apply to a career in PR
  • Be loyal, but not to the point it becomes detrimental to yourself


I was honored and humbled by the opportunity to speak to the young students. The whole process gave me a greater appreciation for how much work it is to prepare content and to be “on” for so many hours in front of the class. I was extremely proud of the work of the entire University of Central Missouri PR department is doing, and especially grateful to Dr. Hansen-Horn for the invitation to speak and also to join the department’s Professional Advisory Board.

Got a similar lesson to share? I’d love to hear about it.