Consider a copy massage

You know how to write, right? It’s a rite of passage if you studied communication or business in college.

But sometimes you don’t have time to do it right. Or you just don’t feel comfortable in a medium that’s new to you.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a pro’s hands on your prose. That’s when it’s time for a copy massage.

For a small outlay, you can hire a professional writer’s magic fingers to smooth out your copy, get rid of the knots and infuse it with new energy.

Thirty minutes, an hour, a half a day. It won’t take long, and it won’t cost much. But, boy, will you feel better.

Contact me here.

Getting Unstuck

Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …”Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

Here’s what works for me:

Start in the middle.

Stop worrying about a great lead and just write something about your subject. It doesn’t have to be good; you can fix that later. Just get some blood . . . er . . . words on paper.

Just start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

Instead of the lead, try writing a working headline and deck.

Take a break.

Get a cup of coffee. Eat an apple. Take a walk. Listen to a podcast.

Revise what you wrote yesterday.

Merely retyping a couple of paragraphs can get you warmed up.

Write about something else.

Write a letter. Make a “to do” list. Turn to another writing project. 

Take a shower.

The flow of water on your body can get those writing juices flowing. Granted, I work at home, where this is possible anytime. 

If you don’t have that option, at least use your daily shower time for thinking—and writing.  How?

Invest in an AquaNotes waterproof pad and pencil—or send me a note, and I’ll mail you one. Don’t let your great ideas slip down the drain!

PR lessons from managing crises

10 crucial communication credos

The audience was all ears April 6 at PRSA Houston’s lunch meeting featuring Regester Larkin crisis-management expert Kate Brader. Her fact-filled presentation was built around 10 rules for communicators. Here are the first five:

1. Think the unthinkable.

  • Be expansive in your thinking and preparedness.
  • “Playback” responses can quickly be exposed as inadequate.
  • Train your leaders and communicators to be ready for anything.
  • Think through all the risks with imagination, not restraint.

2. Crises are never managed in a vacuum.

A major crisis rarely affects just one organization. Yet, in Regester Larkin’s 2015 survey of organizations worldwide, only 67 percent discussed crisis preparation with key partners and suppliers, and even fewer—27 percent—involved key suppliers in their crisis exercises.

“There’s nothing wrong with being prepared; the Boy Scouts have a 150-year history of doing that,” Brader said.


  • Contractual terms may not reflect how stakeholders will see responsibility and accountability.
  • Understand and map the complex stakeholder mix in which the crisis is playing out—get to know them in “peacetime.”

3. Looking after victims is the key to crisis response.

Crises are always seen through the eyes of the victims.

Brader quoted a colleague, also attending the luncheon: “People will forgive you for what happened, but they will never forgive you if you responded inappropriately.”


  • Crises are remembered for how the situation was managed as much as for what happened in the first place.
  • Even nonphysical crises can have victims: employees, customers and investors, for example.

4. Crisis recovery is about real change.

Most major crises mean major change.

“If something goes so terribly wrong in an organization, it needs to be fixed and seen to be fixed,” she said. “As a communicator, your job is to tell your leaders how your organization is perceived—and how your leaders and spokesperson are perceived.”


Change comes whether designed internally or by politicians and regulators. It is better to get “on the front foot” and demonstrate a sense of control.

5. The apology remains a stumbling block.

“Elton John was right: ‘Sorry’ is the hardest word,” said Brader. “Organizations need to get comfortable with how to say ‘Sorry.’”

Watch for Brader’s final five lessons in my next blog . . . .

What makes these ads great?

When the lights dimmed and the screen came to life in the banquet hall, members and guests of the American Advertising Federation-Houston watched, in silence and envy, the award-winning ads of some of our city’s top agencies. 

The new "My Houston" campaign was one of them.

Another was a subtle Hispanic response to Donald Trump’s stance on migrants: Lopez-Negrete Communications’ TV campaign for Ram trucks.

The March 23 panel discussion, "Dynamics of Award-Winning Work," led by "The High-Tech Texan" Michael Garfield, included five panelists:

  • Jeffrey McKay, principal and creative director at Pennebaker 
  • Rowan Gearon, vice president of creative services at Adcetera 
  • David Malamud, brand-management partner at Oak Interactive 
  • Fernando Osuna, chief creative officer at Lopez Negrete Communications
  • Holly Clapham-Rosenow, chief marketing officer at Houston First Corp.

'Interactivity is the key.'

Clapham-Rosenow noted that the "My Houston" spot sped from concept to completion in just four days. She said an interactive "puzzle-piece" opening to the Web ad increased its open rate to four times that of the previous campaign.

'Breaking the mold'

A second Lopez Negrete TV campaign, "From the ordinary to the extraordinary," featured actor Gael García Bernal promoting the Chrysler C200 sedan.

Osuna described the midsize sedan as one that "no one really likes. In that case, we had to break the mold [with our ads] or no one would pay attention. So we tweaked the idea of ‘meeting your younger self,'" he said. 

'Physical stores support Web sales.'

Adcetera’s Gearon, describing his agency’s work for HP Technology, said “Retail is becoming more like the Web: Heat maps in the stores can identify a customer’s movement, for example. Now the physical stores actually support Web sales instead of vice versa.”

'Brands need content for people to share.'

The insights were abundant, and I’ll summarize more in my next post. But my favorite comment—for obvious reasons—was Osuna’s: 

"Brands are trying to be more transparent. They need content for people to share. That’s a nice change in advertising."

Need help with content? I can help you get your message out.

"Content" production is up—way up

But content engagement is down

What’s a writer to do?

Lara Zuehlke, director of content at Pierpont Communications, suggests a five-step plan.

  1. Set strategy—Why are we doing this?
  2. Identify your audience—Whom do we seek to engage?
  3. Execute—Focus on the channels where your audience is and let the others go.
  4. Measure—How will we identify success?
  5. Educate and empower—How can we repeat or improve?

Whom do we seek to engage?

“The most important of the five steps is understanding who you’re talking to—and not trying to speak to everyone,” Zuehlke told 30-plus attendees at IABC Houston’s Entrepreneurs Strategic Interest Group Thursday. “You can’t use a ‘push’ strategy these days; you need to create more of a ‘pull.'

“If you’re talking to visionaries (CEOs, leaders of nonprofits), think of it as a ‘heart share.’ If you’re talking to engineers or advocating for a change in direction, think of it as a ‘mind share’ of facts and figures,” she advised.

Write for your audience, not Google.

Not that Google isn’t important, she said, but stay focused on your audience. 

Make sure the keywords are in your H1s and the beginning of the story, but then tell the story

Write subheads for the readers who will scan your writing before committing. (That’s most of them, in my experience.)

Remember that it’s a story.

Zuehlke bookended her talk with a touching story by Paul Harvey about farmers, which she echoed at the end of the presentation with an equally touching TV spot by The Richards Group in Dallas. She connected her own story as the daughter of a small-town, small-time farmer—and emphasized that each of us has his or her own story to tell, whether individual or corporate.

Her guidelines: 

  1. Connect to inspire.
  2. Engage to educate.
  3. Motivate to action.

Visit Lara’s own blog on the subject.

CEOs, get out of your bunkers!

That’s the rallying cry of Edelman, a global communications marketing firm, whose Trust Barometer 2016 annual report was the subject of Wednesday’s American Marketing Association lunch meeting in Houston.

“CEOs are regarded as a class, not as people. But people trust people. CEOs must come out of their bunkers,” said AMA speaker Danielle Allen, general manager of Edelman, quoting her own CEO, Richard Edelman.

For 16 years, the firm has polled a global sample regarding its trust of:

  1. NGOs (nongovernmental organizations)—most trusted.
  2. Business—becoming more trusted.
  3. Media—generally distrusted.
  4. Government—most distrusted.

A growing divide

Edelman General Manager Danielle Allen (no relation to this blogger) said the 16-year survey shows a significant divide in trust between the informed public and the mass population—a gap that has been growing since 2012 and that Edelman links to income inequality.

“We surveyed the top 25 percent and bottom 25 percent of income earners and found the most significant difference in the United States,” said Allen. “And, in more than two-thirds of the 28 nations we surveyed, the mass population doesn’t expect to be better off in 10 years.”

Influence no longer linked to authority

“Gone are the days when a small group had both authority and influence,” said Allen. “Now, influence is passed via social media, especially television, search and social (Facebook and Twitter). News is socially curated through the lens of your friends.”

For the first time last year, search engines moved into the “most trusted” spot for general news and information, and millenials are even more trusting of digital media than the general population.

Opportunities for business

Yet who is most trusted to keep pace with changing times? Business, by a strong margin, Allen said. 

“People believe that business can solve problems. People believe businesses can make a profit while improving economic and social life. The keys are integrity, engagement and transparency.” Sadly, the report showed that one-third of employees distrust their employers.

CEOs can solve both problems by discussing societal issues, Allen recommended. “These do not have to be controversial issues,” she said, citing “green” as one example. 

Note: I’ve seen that effect firsthand in my work writing sustainable-development reports and websites for companies that include ExxonMobil, Conoco, and LyondellBasell, by the way. 

Takeaways for marketers

Allen concluded with seven takeaways for the 200 Houston marketers who attended the meeting:

  1. Make sure your content can be found through search, the No. 1 trusted source of news and information.
  2. Encourage the sharing of information by your customers and peers.
  3. Express your values through honest, ethical engagement.
  4. Engage across channels.
  5. Ignite your most powerful advocate, your employees.
  6. Demonstrate that you are listening.
  7. Show that your company and its leaders are solving societal issues.

If you’d like a hard copy of the 20-page executive summary, send me an email:

Or, click here for the full report.

It’s true: We went to the moon. It wasn’t a hoax.

After grabbing the attention of all 100 PR professionals at PRSA Houston’s lunch meeting Wednesday, Michael A. Kincaid, a NASA director of external relations, continued to engage his audience, sprinkling space-trivia questions into his description of NASA’s communication efforts.

  1. Out of 135 space-shuttle missions, 35 flew parts to assemble what?
  2. Name one requirement for becoming an astronaut.
  3. Who landed from space yesterday (March 1) after 340 days?
  4. Why do we need a space station to explore the universe?

(Answers below.)

NASA’s mission is threefold: 

Reach new heights. Reveal the unknown. Benefit all mankind.

It’s no surprise that he compared his team’s job to Lucy and Ethel working the chocolate-factory assembly line.

Kincaid got laughs for other comments as well, including, “We don’t have a bottom line like most businesses. We spend your tax money, and we always want more of it.”

Kincaid said the movie “’The Martian’ was a great opportunity to help tell our story.” Perhaps that’s why this year’s eight-week astronaut-application window pulled in a record 18,300-plus applicants.

“On a personal note, I’d like to say that Matt Damon deserved the best-actor award,” he said. 



“One of our astronauts said 90 percent of the movie/book is exactly right. Five percent is silly. And 5 percent is ‘Dang—that’s a great idea.’”

Kincaid and crew took full advantage of the movie’s popularity and, among other missions, created a website called The Real Martians.

In fact, was it “The Martian” or NASA’s external communication that spurred One Direction, the English-Irish pop boy band to create a video that has been viewed, so far, by 373 million people?


  1. The International Space Station. 
  2. To apply, you need a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math; three-plus years of related professional experience; and the ability to pass a NASA astronaut physical. 
  3. Scott Kelly (whose twin brother Mark, also an astronaut, served as part of the Earth-bound control group). 
  4. So we know what we’re up against.

Do you work for a 'family' or the Marines?

“Steve Jobs was a jerk. . . . He cheated his friend and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak . . . ; he denied fathering his daughter Lisa for years and implied that her mother was loose; he parked his Mercedes in the handicapped slot at Apple; he tried to ‘fix” the Silicon Valley labor market.

“One of Steve Jobs’ legacies is the revival of an eternal question: Is being a jerk a feature or a flaw of being an entrepreneur, CEO and/or leader,” wrote Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard recently. 

“Earlier this year I sat in on a conversation between Jim Davis, the chief marketing officer at analytics company SAS, and a Silicon Valley startup CEO who had once worked for Jeff Bezos at Amazon. SAS, a private corporation, is regularly listed as one of the world’s best places to work. Employees enjoy its beautiful corporate campus, on‐site child care, fabulous food, doctors on staff, salons, etc. Not surprisingly, its turnover is 3.6 percent per year,” wrote Karlgaard.

“Amazon, said the ex‐Amazon employee, is the opposite. It ‘works the crap’ out of its people and suffers double‐digit turnover per year. Jeff Bezos is a tough drill sergeant or a ferocious micromanager, depending on whom you talk to. . . . 

“How is it possible that SAS, with its nourishing culture, and Amazon, with its merciless one, both work and are successful?

“The answer is that both SAS and Amazon are clear about their cultures. . . SAS’ message is: We’re a family; spend a career with us. Amazon’s is: We’re the Marines; challenge yourself with us.”

Karlgaard concludes that being clear about your culture comes down to leadership. He cites Dell as an example of a company that became lost, but now is found—through the decisive leadership of Michael Dell.

Karlgaard’s column reminds me of the great talk given to a very full house at the American Marketing Association‐Houston February 11 by Dave Ridley. Ridley is the newly retired senior vice president of marketing for Southwest Airlines, one of the most well‐liked companies in the country.

Anyone who lives in Texas knows that Southwest, based here, is all about customer service. As Southwest president emeritus Colleen Barrett said, “We are in the customer‐service business. We just happen to fly airplanes.”

Southwest treats its customers right and treats its employees right. Ridley reminded us, for example, that Southwest has never involuntarily furloughed or laid off employees. Cofounder Herb Kelleher said, “The business of business is people”—and Southwest lives that credo every day.

Ridley stressed in his talk that a successful company has to be healthy as well as smart. Southwest Airlines has chosen to be a family. Heck, its stock‐market moniker is LUV! Who wouldn’t want to work there?

Another option, I suppose, is to join the Marines.


Why I’m a fan of theSkimm

It’s so nice to see theSkimm cofounders Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, both 28, included in Forbes’ “30 under 30” feature January 19. This engaging daily “newspaper” offers up succinct stories that inform not only those who don’t have time to read the paper or listen to the radio, but also information junkies like me.

How do they do it so well?

  1. They’ve perfected the “skim” for which they are so aptly named. Every issue is spare. Every news item is stripped to its essentials.
  2. But it’s more than that: These reporters are, in their own words, “information concierges.” They report not just the facts, but also the meaning behind the facts.
  3. They understand the value of heads, subheads and links. You can skim theSkimm or click on a link for greater depth.
  4. The graphic design is clean and appealing, although I‘m wondering how they’ll handle the birthday list when their subscribers (currently more than 1 million) triple.
  5. The writing is clever and engaging. But always informative first.
  6. The opening quote and closing definition are useful and fun. What a nice way to start your day.

See for yourself what clarity does for the daily news.


How your vision becomes reality

In a new year full of personal resolutions and business visions, Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes, has found a way to transform those visions into reality.

When our resolutions—and our corporate vision statements—are vague, they are only airy hopes, he says. “Without a plan so clear that it can be seen almost as a movie in one’s head, such resolutions will sputter,” Karlgaard wrote in the January 19 issue of Forbes.

Karlgaard summarizes the advice of businessman Cameron Herold. Herold, like many others in business and sports, used visualization techniques—what he calls “vivid visions”—to increase sales of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? from $2 million to $125 million.

“A vivid vision starts when an entrepreneur, founder or CEO plants one foot in the present and then leans out and places the other in the future, the ‘what could be,’” wrote Herold. Find a remote, quiet, inspiring place, take a pad and pencil, and imagine your success in the next three years: every aspect of it, in detail. 

To help, Herold offers a free “Vivid Vision Checklist” at He recommends sketching out 1,000 to 1,500 words. But don’t stop there. Hire a professional writer to make the words pop and a graphic artist to make it look good, says Herold.

“Your vision won’t help your company if others don’t see it as vividly as you do. Too many CEOs expect others to see the movie in their head. Well, that’s impossible. You have to make the movie available and vivid to everybody.”

Put it on your website. Take laminated copies to board and executive meetings. Start your meetings by asking executives to read aloud from it. 

It should act like a magnet, attracting people who are committed to your vision and repelling those who aren’t. That commitment is what will transform your vision into reality.