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.


10 things I wish I’d learned in college

UCMORecently I spoke to a group of undergrads in the communications school at my alma mater, the University of Central Missouri — something I always imagined doing but wasn’t sure how or when it would happen. As it turns out I was speaking at the Integrated Marketing Summit in Kansas City two days before UCM homecoming. I didn’t know what to expect when I reached out with an offer to share some insights from my career with the students, but the idea was warmly received by Tricial Hansen-Horn, public relations professor in the UCM Dept. of Communication.

My comments centered around things I’ve learned throughout my career that I would have like to have known sooner or felt would be relevant and helpful to these young people who are about to walk out of the halls of UCM and into the “real world” as I did nearly 20 years ago. 

Key points of my talk included:

  1. Learning to cut bait sooner and the art of saying “no” (including a rare public display of my “no card”)
  2. The art of “pitching,” the perception of public relations and the radical shifts in PR over the past 10 years
  3. The difference between product and service businesses and the importance of scale
  4. Partnerships and the value of imbalanced ownership 49/51%
  5. The importance of salesmanship and how to ask for (and get) what you want
  6. The importance of relationships and distinctions between friends and contacts
  7. Knowing what you want and creating a mission statement for your life 
  8. Why knowing yourself and your core values matters most
  9. The importance of learning to think critically
  10. Life is short, so thrive

While my talk was in the spirit of “giving back,” I did so knowing the fulfillment I would receive from doing it, something made even more meaningful by the feedback I’ve recived from both students and faculty who have followed up with me since then. The process was also cause for an introspective look at my career accomplishments, not judging good or bad, but rather taking a moment to reflect on several years of hard work and the value of those experiences. In sharing them I hope to have inspired a few of the students who turned out to hear me speak that rainy morning in October and that you too will consider doing the same and seeing what it does for you.

View my photos from UCM homecoming


Bill Clinton’s Win-Win Philosophy

clintonI attended a talk by the 42nd President of the U.S., William Jefferson Clinton last night at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, part of the Distinguished Speaker Series. Packing a wealth of stories, stats and a good sense of humor, he promised and then delivered a framework we can all use to make sense of today’s complex world in which we live. Wondering about what caused the financial meltdown of September 15, 2008? How about our education crisis (according to Clinton we slipped from first to tenth in the past decade)? Or how we’re to “win” in Afghanistan?  For most of us, it takes every bit of our energy to deal with life’s immediate challenges, let alone trying to sort fact from fiction from all the information we’re bombarded with in today’s fragmented and often biased media ecosystem. His talk gave a fresh perspective on how to interpret the world today and some guidance on what we can do to affect change.

The number one definining characteristic of the 21st century is our global interdependence.  The result of our diversity and new technologies like the Internet carry with it both good and bad consequences. Posit for a moment that we know the good things, namely technology. Most of the bad consequences of our interconnectedness are defined by inequality and instability.

Inequalityis presented primarily in education and income. One billion people live on less than $1 per day, one billion people will go hungry tonight and one billion don’t have access to clean water. One quarter of everyone who dies on the planet this year will be due to tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS or dirty water. And of the dirty water victims 80 perent will be under five years old. In the U.S., 90 percent of our growth in recent years has gone to 10 percent of the population.

Instabilityis created by how quickly thing can spread, from terrorism (easy access to information) to Swine Flue (permeability and uprootedness) to the world financial crisis (inter-connectedness of financial systems). Even with $3 trillion in cash, a whopping 2 million factory workers in China are unemployed because the rest of the world is not buying as much of their exports.

In light of the complexities in our interconnected world, we need a framework from which to act. How do we respond to these many challenges? Not more liberally, but in a more “communitarian” fashion — more succinctly put, by focusing on creating win-win situations. For every situation or decision, he asks “will this  bring us closer together or tear us further apart?” 

Prime examples where “win-win” has worked are in Iraq where the people ultimately declared a common enemy in Al Qaeda. In Tanzania where our continued efforts to finance AIDS and Malaria relief have demonstrated our commitment their children. And in Rwanda, where the Tutsi leader insisted his post-genocide successor be a Hutu, and engraining in his people the need for win-win by granting land to those who would live next door to someone from the rival tribe.

Another timely example of searching for win-win was through a clear explanation of health carereform, including the back-story on “death panels,” and distinctions between terms like “public option” and “socialized medicine.”  Every year we spend 17 percent of our income on health care– money consumers aren’t investing in other things, which gives other countries that much more of an advantage over us on the world economic stage.  The bottom line: if you’re not for some kind of change in health care, you are a proponent of win-lose, not win-win.

One of the things that stood out for me most was Clinton’s commentary on the differences between being a sitting president and a former president. “The good news is, you can say anything you like,” he said. “The bad news is that nobody cares about what you have to say…that is, unless your wife happens to be Secretary of Sate.”

While this was met with laughter, it was obvious everyone should care about what this former president has to say. He is using his clout and connections through the William J. Clinton Foundation to make a difference in the lives of millions through several thoughtful initiatives. And while he has raised hundreds of millions from the wealthiest people in the world, he stressed the importance of each individual being called into service in some way. He spoke of the secret of the U.S. economy having always been the strength of our middle class, and how this group must now stand and help the U.S. regain its footing in our inter-connected world. “It’s not enough to work and pay taxes, raise a good family and show up to vote.” There are one million public service groups to which we can donate our time and expertise, over half of which were started in the last year.

While it’s of course possible to donate to the Clinton Foundation, he did not make a direct pitch but rather spoke about, where for $25 you can make the difference in the life of someone anywhere in the world whom the group has already vetted as qualified for needing assistance.

Something else that resonated with me personally, and I don’t think he would have said as president, is how we treat others is dependent upon our own identity and what we think about ourselves. Identity is highly complex, but we need to realize how much we are all alike. In fact, the argument in genomic circles is whether we are genetically 99.5 or 99.9 percent alike. By continually forcing ourselves to communicate with the other side we become more comfortable with one another. When we see how alike we are, we eventually decide that it’s less costly to work with together than to keep killing each other and we collaborate in the interest of finding win-win situations. It is imperative in the modern world that we leave the door open.

While everything President Clinton had to say was in line with my own opinions, I hope his thoughtful presentation gave those of every political persuasion a new perspective on tolerance and possibility. It was awe-inspiring for me to hear this brilliant mind, speaking in his familiar and reassuring tone of so many examples of hope and of what is possible if we work together and apply ourselves to overcoming our collective challenges, be they local or global.

Think win-win and dedicate yourself to some form of public service. And when you do, I hope you’ll let me know about it.



Think smallFew things possess more Power than a Thought.
Because a Thought has the potential
to become something significant.
To solve something meaningful.
And to inspire us to achieve great things.

What makes a Thought so powerful is that it can be created by anybody.
At anytime.
From anywhere.

That’s why thinking should be encouraged
and nurtured in all its forms.
No matter how small.
Or how impossibly grand. 

Because wherever Thinking happens,
Big Ideas follow.
Minds become enlightened.
Knowledge grows.
And people discover new ways to unlock their Potential.

So start Thinking

View this inspiring spot for Qatar Foundation.