Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cancelling a Gym Membership

If you've ever joined a gym, you know how difficult it can be to leave. One gym I considered joining a few years ago had very low monthly rates but required significant documentation -- including a letter from a doctor -- to cancel a membership. When I decided not to join, the salesman accused me of using his gym for free and ripped up the contract. Needless to say, when I looked up the company, they had their own issues with commitment, as they regularly opened and closed clubs under new corporations.

So today when I joined New York Sports Club, I was surprised to hear the salesman tell me not only about the free month being offered with annual membership, but also a way to cancel that membership without incurring a $150 fee. (If you're curious, it just requires downgrading from an annual to a monthly fee which has no cancellation fee).

Why would a salesman, who is trying to get me to join, explain how I can leave? One word: empathy. Just as we appreciate the ability to return items we bought, we value services that allow us to cancel at any time. It shows that the person who is taking our money is human, and understands that by choice or circumstance, we may change our minds. That's why cell phone companies have changed to monthly plans with no contracts, and why companies like Zappos and Shoebuy offer free return shipping. Offering people the option to reconsider shows empathy for customers, who in turn feel a greater sense of power and ownership over the sale. Put simply: if you want to draw someone in, make sure you give them an out. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Top 10 Reasons Why Lists Are Listless

If you haven't noticed it yet, lists have become among the most popular posts on the web today. Mocked by some as "listicles", loved by others addicted to BuzzFeed -- for now, they are here to stay. As readers, we like lists for a variety of reasons, including our increasingly busy lifestyles and our preference for finite and easily remembered facts. Content producers adore lists because they increase their sites' SEO rankings. For a great top 10 on why lists are popular, check out this list from NPR:)

So in that spirit, I am going to give my top 10 list for why lists are listless. But so I don't sound like one of the top 10 hypocritical bloggers of 2013 , I will write my thoughts in a short essay:

Lists are listless because they're lists. In a mobile minute, the "best" lists tease us with ways to improve ourselves or laugh at others. But as quickly as we share them on Facebook and Twitter they're forgotten.Who remembers the "Top 10 Ways to Lose Weight Without Dieting"? (How does that work again?) Or the "Worst Five Hairstyles of the 2012 People's Choice Awards"? The best way to write memorable content is simple: take one item from your next list and write about it. You and your readers will be happy you did for more reasons than you can ever list.    

Sunday, July 28, 2013

When to Throw in the Towel

Arakawa takes a shot from Figueroa last night. (Source:
 So I have to admit: I love boxing. Boxers endure intense training to prepare for a fight, and in the ring, they battle not only their opponents, but also fear and exhaustion. But as much as I enjoy the sweet science, even I was a little uncomfortable watching last night's fight between Nihito Arakawa of Japan and Omar Figueroa of Texas. At first, Figueroa started bleeding from above his nose -- the result of an accidental headbutt. Then, Arakawa's eyes began to swell to Rocky-like proportions -- as he took an unbelievable number of power shots from the hard-punching Texan. The fight lasted the full 12 rounds, but many spectators on Twitter were thinking Arakawa's corner should have thrown in the towel. After all, it's those kinds of beatings that have been known to lead to long-term brain damage, and sometimes death. I have to agree with them. There was no point to fighting on once he'd lost the fight. People had gotten their money's worth, and he'd shown his courage.

History is replete with examples of times when armies should have retreated and regrouped. Sometimes in life, it's important to know when to stop what you're doing and live to fight another day. In business, they call this "pivoting." In the middle of team sports, they call it a "timeout." And if you're afraid that losing shows a lack of will, remember: no one ever becomes a success without learning how to fail.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

After Nearly a Billion Dollar Renovation, Why Move the World's Most Famous Arena?

Full disclosure: I was once named the Twitter Follower of the Week by MSG:)

If you missed the news yesterday, the New York City Council put the future of Madison Square Garden in question, when it approved a special operating permit for the arena for only 10 years. The permit's short time span is designed to push MSG to relocate and give its underground neighbor, Penn Station, room to expand. But while a renovated Penn Station would be great for commuters, MSG has almost completed a nearly one billion dollar, three-year renovation that has made the arena more beautiful than ever.

So how should MSG respond to the disappointing news? Should they criticize the City Council's decision and keep it in the public eye? Or should they ignore the story and let it die down?

MSG officials seemed to have chosen the latter, saying only that they are looking forward to the completion of the Garden's renovation. From a PR perspective, that was the right decision. Right now, there is no expansion plan for Penn Station. Who knows what such a plan would look like and how much it would affect taxpayers? Also, at least two of the city's mayoral candidates are backing MSG in this potential fight, according to The New York Times. The political landscape could change dramatically in 10 years.

At the same time, if MSG does have to move, focusing on growth now will only help. After all, a modern arena with sold-out crowds and die-hard fans will be worth a lot more than a building whose owners are fighting to keep alive. The best decision is to keep doing what they're doing and let the fight come to them. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Inventing Company Names

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story about the challenges of naming startups when the availability of domain names drops everyday. Many entrepreneurs, searching for short URLs, have used their to imagination to invent their company names, such as Kaggle, Mibblio, and Zaarly.

The creative names are part of the mentality of today's entrepreneurs, who are breaking all the rules as they follow their dreams. In a sense, that's what the startup is all about: creating not just a business but a home that expresses who you are. Entrepreneurs today want casual offices with ping-pong tables and free food and drinks. They want employees to love what they do, and share in the company's success. Most of all, they don't want to be bound by the established norms. They are ready to be part of a new world, where anyone with a dream, a strong work ethic, and access to cheap programmers overseas, can become a successful CEO.

So to all those doubters, beware: my company, is launching soon.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Prison in Dubai for Extramarital Sex: Human Rights Violation, or Something Else?

Abraham Lincoln's honest and direct communication was key to his success as president.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a reputation as one of the more modern countries in the Arab world, and Dubai is known as one of the most beautiful cities in the Middle East. But recently, a Norweigan woman who reported being raped in Dubai was sentenced to 16 months in prison, according to a report by Among the charges brought against her: having sex outside of marriage. The Norwegian foreign minister has said the conviction of the woman, Marte Deborah Dalelv, is "contrary to fundamental human rights" and could hurt Norway's relationship with the UAE. The story goes on to cite other examples of the UAE's human rights record, including three other foreign women, who reported being raped there and were punished with fines or jail time. All of this got me thinking: why do we call them "human rights violations"?
Obviously, "human rights" are a convenient way to categorize any number of acts that we consider immoral and inhumane. They are a euphemism that makes acts like imprisoning rape victims seem like a legal and political issue. But at a certain point, I think they do a disservice. A little specificity can go a long way in communicating your values. Norwegian officials could put it this way: "This is an atrocity that threatens the safety of all women in Dubai. We cannot sit idly while foreign women report being raped and are then jailed for extramarital sex. If the charges against Marte Deborah Dalelv are not dropped immediately, our relationship will soon end."

From a diplomatic perspective, this might be a little too aggressive for Norway's taste. But from a communications perspective, sometimes you just have to be a little direct.

Friday, July 19, 2013

How Does Bankruptcy Become a Compelling Story? People, People, People

Depression Bread Line (1999) by George Segal (For more on Segal, click here)
The royal baby, and for that matter, Kim and Kanye's newborn, seem to be getting more coverage in the media than Detroit declaring bankruptcy. It's not because Americans don't care about Detroit, a city that has been in decline for decades. Or that the public knows that the bankruptcy is a political issue that has upset city employees and is being challenged in court. (For more on this, read the excellent story by John Cassidy on The New Yorker website.) But the real reason is clear and simple: we relate more to people than to complex ideas. While many in Detroit would be affected by this bankruptcy, we don't know them. The idea of a city going bankrupt is just too big to process, and hard to believe and understand. But everyone can relate to mothers and babies, and I think most Americans have heard of Kate and Kim.

So how can the media increase the relevance of Detroit's bankruptcy? The old-fashioned way: just keep talking to people, digging for the most compelling stories that illustrate the impact of the bankruptcy. Perhaps focus on one or two Detroit families and create something akin to a reality series that traces their past, present, and future in the Motor City. Or maybe, find one business, big or small, that is emblematic of the decline, and create a series based on its experiences. There are many ways to humanize the story of Detroit, but at the heart of all them is its people.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ecstatic? Thrilled? How To Tell the Media You're Happy, When Others Are Still Suffering

Zimmerman attorney Mark O'Mara reacts to verdict. (Source:
While people debate whether justice was carried out in the George Zimmerman trial, I am still trying to get my head around the reaction of his lawyer, Mark O'Mara, to the verdict. I am not talking about his claim that that the media did a poor job covering the case. Most PR professionals know you should never criticize the media unless they made a serious error which you need to correct. (At best, blasting reporters will damage your relationship with them in the future; at worst, it will cause them to investigate how you do your job.)

But the issue that bothered me was how O'Mara said he was "ecstatic" with the verdict. He didn't look ecstatic, and it doesn't seem like the appropriate emotion to express. After all, at the end of the day, his client did kill Trayvon Martin. What would have been a better word to use? Reporters and publicists often face this question as they try to describe a reaction to controversial news that involved another's suffering. Thrilled? No, that is way to happy, and sometimes can sound sarcastic. Pleased? That is always a safe bet, but doesn't express much emotion. Maybe saying he had mixed emotions? Something like: "We are pleased that our client was acquitted, but we also know that this decision may hurt many who loved or identified with Trayvon Martin. We just ask that we leave George Zimmerman alone as he tries to move on as best he can, and as a country, work together to heal our wounds and help prevent future tragedies."

What do you think about that kind of response? Ecstatic? Thrilled? Disappointed? Please share your thoughts.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Soup Meets Good Day NY

Left to right: Scotto, McHale, and Kelly (Source: Good Day NY FB page)
If you have ever watched The Soup on E!, you know that one of Joel McHale's favorite targets is Greg Kelly, the candid, comedic, and sometimes clumsy host of Good Day NY. Whether spilling a large drink on his co-host (Rosanna Scotto), hitting her in the head with a hula hoop, or interjecting one of his many non sequiturs, Greg is one of the funniest and most unpredictable morning talk show hosts today. So this morning, when McHale visited Good Day NY to promote his upcoming movie and Klondike bars, you'd expect to see Kelly provide a little payback. But aside from an illustration that depicts Joel as a large monkey, it was quite civil. At the end, they both thanked each other for the reciprocal publicity their shows provided.

So does that mean there's no such thing as bad publicity? Absolutely not. But often, if you embrace who you are and don't take yourself too seriously, you'll connect more with people and reap the rewards.

Friday, July 12, 2013

If It's a Need, It Leads: Why Local News is Reporting Less Crime and More Traffic/Weather

When I was living in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I found a local blog that was a great way to stay informed about the neighborhood. The blog,, featured stories on new restaurants and stores, on movies being filmed in the neighborhood, and on free or inexpensive events on the weekends. Quite simply, it was news that people could use to make decisions about how to spend their time and money in their community.

Sites like MyUpperWest represent a shift from the local news of the past few decades. Acording to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, local TV news shows are spending less time on crime stories, and more time on traffic and weather. In my view, the reason is clear and simple: people want news they can use. Maybe it's the endless stream of crime shows on TV, or the reality of living with the constant threat of terrorism? Or maybe it's the economy, which has left many people both un- and under-employed and worried about their financial futures?  Either way, local TV news seems to be getting the picture: people are less fascinated by violence, and more intrigued by how to enjoy life on tight budgets. The old mantra -- if it bleeds, it leads -- has been replaced with -- if it's a need, it leads.

Now that I moved to Forest Hills, I have been picking up the local newspapers and reading them on a regular basis to learn about my neighborhood. And if I find anything like, or hear about a major traffic jam on the Grand Central, I will be sure to let you know.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Three Questions to Improve Post-Game Interviews

Most of the time, there is nothing more boring than a post-game interview with an athlete. How do you feel about the victory? What was your key to winning? What was going through your mind when you were on the brink of defeat? Of those, the last question is probably the most interesting. But the answers are usually just cliches: "I just dug deep and took it one play at a time." "I just gave it 110 percent." "We left it all on the field." And the list goes on...just check out the Sports Cliche List.

So what's the solution? Do your homework before the interview and ask specific questions that might teach us something about the player as a person and an athlete. For instance:

  1. It was obvious that your quickness has increased and become a much more prevalent part of your game. How did you do it? A new diet? A new workout? 
  2. At one point you looked like you were going to lose the game. How did you mentally keep yourself in the game when you were feeling down? Do you think of family or happy places? Do you tell yourself it's only a game?  
  3. Your victory has no doubt inspired many kids who want to achieve like you. What advice would you give kids who want to be an athlete like you? Spend more time in the gym? Play a lot of different sports or just focus on one?
What do you think? What questions would you ask?

Friday, July 5, 2013

How are PR Consultants Perceived?

When I was a reporter at a daily newspaper, people who worked in PR were called "flacks," and those journalists who left to work in public relations were "going to the dark side." This was understandable. People in PR are often trying to shield their clients from the press, and instead of helping journalists, are giving them flak. (To learn more about the origin of flack and flak, check out this post from The Word Detective.)

I always thought the problem was just about common courtesy and about the way people in PR treat journalists. But there is also the issue of how people in PR treat potential clients. What are clients paying for? And what are the results? A restaurant owner wrote an interesting post about his experience with PR firms, and a follow-up piece about the benefits of social media. I think it sounds a little extreme, and there is a benefit to public relations when it's done right. But what do you think?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Value of One Outstanding Story

There is no getting around the fact that public relations is sales. PR consultants sell their value to potential clients and their clients' stories to the press. But the problem is when too much of their value is placed on quantity over quality. How many hits or media placements did you have? What outlets covered you story? How did that compare from previous years?

These are all important questions., and there is some truth to the idea that the more media you obtain, the more likely you are to reach your market. But the reality is that today, our attention spans are shorter. We are more likely to read or watch one compelling story about your company, than check out a syndicated press release, or a brief mention in the media. And that one quality story pays you dividends in the future, as you repurpose it: getting it framed, sending out copies to your employees and customers, and posting links to it on your website and social media channels. That one story can be an inspiration, and help create a sense of pride and community for all who are connected to your organization.

Don't get me wrong. I always try to cast a wide net when I pitch stories. But in the end, there are always one or two outstanding stories that stand out. Those are the ones you have to repurpose. And remember: it's not how big your coverage is, but how you use it, that really counts.