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Archive for December, 2009

Hope in the Mist

December 10, 2009 11 comments

I get home from the business trip after dark. It’s been two solid days of planes, trains and automobiles – doing the security line striptease, breaking nails on suitcase latches, schlepping from one client meeting to the next with bloodshot eyes from fitful hotel sleep and not enough Visine. I’m thrilled to be home but as usual, my return disrupts the fragile balance my stay-at-home husband has established with our son in my absence.

Enter Mommy, exit discipline. I realize as I lurch into the kitchen lugging suitcase and laptop bag that I’ve interrupted dinner. I’ve distracted my son during the all-important first course, by which I mean the plateful of vegetables he must finish before getting mac-and-cheese. He’ll eat veggies but like pulling off a bandaid, it’s best when it happens all at once, without interruption. I’ve shot his concentration and he’s now wrapped himself around me with the freakish strength 6 year olds can muster when it comes to bear hugs and marathon tickle sessions. I breathe him in. I haven’t seen him in two days.

My husband indulges the reunion for a while, then tries to coax our boy back to finish dinner. It’s swim team practice night which means dinner is served later and everyone’s exhausted. Bed time is minutes away and we’re not even through the carrots yet. My son ignores his father’s pleas to finish the meal, having run off to the TV room to find a drawing he needs to show me RIGHT NOW. He’s got two days of catching up to do with me and in his mind, carrots – and bedtime – can wait. On cue, my husband explodes.

The battle of wills between the 42 year old and the first grader is fierce. Testosterone flies fast and furious, both sides hell-bent on making sure the other knows “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME.”

Normally I’d intervene. Mediate and bargain. Make the peace. Tonight, something switches on in my brain. I realize, “I can’t fix this.” It occurs to me the men in my family will never figure out how to deal with one another productively as long as I’m in the ring refereeing.

So I leave. I pull my coat back on knowing full well this will trigger a fresh outburst of wailing from my son.

“PLEASE….DON’T…..LEAVE……ME!”

I tell him as calmly as I can that I’m going to take a walk so that he and his dad can make friends again. That they need to work it out themselves, that I love them both and I’ll be back in a little bit.

I walk out into the cool night air, willing myself not to look back at the house. I know I’ll see my son plastered against the living room window, yelling for me to come back. I am tired from my trip, tired of the drama, tired of undermining my husband in his parenting efforts.

It’s humid for December and a light fog has settled on and around the houses on my block. I pause at the end of the street and look at all the houses along our town’s main drag, decked out in friendly competition with a bright array of Christmas lights. I breathe slowly and deliberately, in and out, in and out. This grounds me in the here and now, because I refuse to project myself into a future where my husband and son can’t settle their differences,  come to blows, stop loving each other.

I’m touched by the sight of these houses lined up side by side in the night, lit up as far as the eye can see, all the way down to where our town’s main street intersects with the highway. The houses get smaller and a little more ragtag down there, but they have been decorated with care and tonight they are luminous.

Why do we hang lights at Christmas? To evoke the star of Bethlehem and the nativity? Keep up with the Joneses? Celebrate the Solstice and the return of the sun’s light? Me, I love Christmas lights for reasons so complex and emotionally intertwined it’s tough to peel apart. They are beacons that fill my heart with optimism that this Christmas will be different – no holiday dysfunction, no missed connections, no New Year’s resolutions made and abandoned. Hope that this year, things will be better.

I turn and make my way back down the block to our little blue house. I’ve only been gone ten minutes but I’m guessing things have diffused inside. I notice the lights have gone out on the evergreen garland I’ve twisted around the lamp pole in our front yard and though it’s dark, am able to correct the setting on the automatic timer. The strands of fairy lights nestled in the pine blaze brilliantly back to life. I look up to see my husband and son silhouetted in the front window, waiting for me together. I climb the porch stairs and go back inside, out of the mist and into the light.

 

Image via.

Note: I was inspired to write this post by the brilliant women of Blog Nosh Magazine who are hosting a blogging carnival to celebrate hope during the holiday season. They’re doing this to help raise awareness of a charity program called Loads of Hope which I am obliged to tell you was created by my agency’s client Tide. I assure you, I would support both Blog Nosh and Tide Loads of Hope regardless of the client relationship because good people and programs deserve to be promoted. My clients don’t know I wrote this but if they read it, I hope they like it. (You, too.)

Please visit Blog Nosh to learn about the carnival and the campaign.

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Should PR People be Part of the Story?

December 7, 2009 7 comments
Back in the days when publicists plotted from behind the scenes: Uber-flack Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) with columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in “The Sweet Smell of Success.” 
 
My first exposure to public relations came not in an agency but on the client side. I wasn’t in an official PR role but was working as an executive assistant to designer Donna Karan right at the time when her company was exploding in size and visibility. Donna was besieged with press requests from all corners of the globe 24/7. As keepers of her calendar, it was our job to coordinate all interviews with her communications team, a task of insane complexity and relentless pace.
I learned a lot during that time, namely that I did not want to pursue a career in fashion PR. I’m no stranger to crazy, but fashion PR is crazy crazy. At the helm of this insanity was Donna’s head of corporate communications, Patti Cohen. Patti was — and still is, I’m sure — a whirlwind of frenetic energy with bright red hair and swags of black cashmere wrapped around her tiny frame regardless of the season. I’d sit in her office discussing calendar details while she juggled a phone on one shoulder, whipped through the master calendar (paper!) looking for 15-minute increments of Donna’s day to dole out to WWD and Vogue like a mama bird feeding her babies…all the while chomping on raw sunflower seeds she kept in a big glass bowl on her desk, right next to the towering arrangement of Casablanca lilies and a mason jar full of impeccably sharpened black pencils.

 

The wall behind Patti’s desk was covered floor-to-ceiling with Donna’s press hits. For all I know Patti started tacking them up there when Donna first started the company and never stopped — by the early 90s, when I was there, several layers of magazine articles and photos and newspaper clippings had already accumulated. It was a gorgeous pastiche, and I’d pore over it whenever Patti got wrapped up in a call and forgot I was sitting in front of her.  One day I asked Patti why she wasn’t in any of the photos to which she replied, “A good publicist is never in the picture.”

 

That stayed with me for years. Not only did I put it into practice, sidestepping photos with clients at public events whenever I could, I also passed it along to the many young publicists I went on the manage at other companies. Somewhere along the line, Patti’s advice morphed into this:

“A good publicist is never part of the story.”

Except now…we are. Or at least, we can be. Sarah Evans talked about this during a panel discussion I moderated recently on how Twitter has changed journalism and PR, and one of the points she made was how boundaries have blurred among PR,  journalist and blogger roles. There are journalists who blog, bloggers who do PR consulting, PR people who blog… It is in fact quite possible for PR people to participate in on-line conversations about their client through blogging, micro-blogging, status updates, photo sharing, and so on.

So all due respect to Patti, I believe it’s okay for the publicist to be part of the story, or at least the conversation. I do it, but only with disclosure. I’ll tell you if I’m blogging or tweeting about a client, and it’ll be an honest reflection of my feelings.   For example:

I started taking pictures recently at the client events I attend. I’ve got the Droid megapixels, why not? There was a time when those pictures would only have been shared internally at the agency but now, why not share publicly? Especially when apps like Whrrl make it so easy.  Here’s how I captured the action at a client’s launch event last week:

So what do you think? I’d love to hear from other communications professionals on how they’re handling the transition from being behind the conversation to participating in the conversation about their clients and brands.

In Which JumpStart Allows Me to Review their Product

December 1, 2009 8 comments

I was contacted recently by the team at Knowledge Adventure, creators of the well-known JumpStart educational game software. They had released a virtual online world earlier this year; would I let my six-year old son test drive it and provide feedback? And would I share my perspective on using technology to help kids learn?

No one ever asks me to review anything, which is tragic considering how willing a consumer I am, also considering how eager I am as a PR person to be on the receiving end of a product pitch for once. So of course I said yes, also because everyone I interacted with at Knowledge Adventure was professional and friendly to a tee.

Back to my take on kids learning with technology: it’s awesome.  I’m a member of the first generation to grow up with “Sesame Street,” “School House Rock” and “Zoom,” all of which used technology to educate, early-70s style.  By which I mean TV.  And you better believe that TV-learnin’ stuck. It’s been nearly four decades and I can still recite the Preamble to the Constitution, tell a conjunction from a preposition, and sing the Boston zip code. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you were probably born after 1975. 

But don’t think we’re lax about computer use and gaming in the Smirnov household. DS, Wii and watching “Charlie the Unicorn” on YouTube for the 9000th time are strictly curtailed to weekends or an hour after school. That said, I always knew I’d be willing to bend the rules if there were an educational reason for my son to be on the computer.

Enter JumpStart.com. I had my doubts at first, just looking at the sweet, cartoony imagery on the home page. My kid is used to the 360-degree immersion of Wii Sports gaming and the non-stop kinetic blitz of Sonic and Mario, so I wondered how well JumpStart would hold his attention.  Well, that was before we installed the required 3-D plug-in, registered and started exploring the AdventureLand portion of the JumpStart online world.  The kid’s first comment?  

“This. Is. Awesome.”

In a nutshell, JumpStart combines traditional video game elements with learning challenges and age-appropriate, secure social interaction in a series of shimmering, immersive worlds geared to kids ages 3-10. The company says the educational curriculum is “based on state standards from the top, most influential states: CA, FL, TX, IL and NY” and that they “combined all the standards from these states to create our proprietary scope and sequence which spirals through skills based on grade level.” That’s fancy teacher talk for they take their curriculum development very seriously, which is good enough for me.

You should note there is a $7.99 monthly subscription fee (per family, not child), though you can try the game out for free for a 10-day trial period. (Not bad when you compare it to the one-time game rental fees Blockbuster’s charging these days.) Here are some highlights from my little gamer’s test drive:

  • One of the first things your kid will do is customize his or her avatar or “Jumpee.” I don’t know about yours, but my child spends hours hanging out in the Wii Plaza, messing with his own Mii and creating different ones for his friends. The JumpStart creators tap into that childish need to customize and control their game image out of the gate.
  • I ask my kid what he thinks of the look of the game. “I love it. Write that down.”
  • After swimming his Jumpee through the gorgeous underwater environment MarineLand, my son chooses his first game. He is initially non-plussed: “Dude. This is math.” But waiting at the end of the math challenge is part of a sand dollar. Earn enough sand dollars (or coins, depending on what Land you’re in) and you unlock awesome stuff like a shark tail for your Jumpee, or a cuddly friend at the Petz Shop. My son gets over himself and plunges in happily.
  • Later. “This is like Club Penguin, except with stuff for big kids.”
  • And still later. “They should call this 3-D World instead of JumpStart.”
  • The ultimate accolade: “I think the guy who made Star Wars made this.”

Game developer Chris Williams says the worlds are designed so kids can explore on, around, underneath and behind cool objects -- like waterfalls, for instance.

My kid’s been hanging at JumpStart.com consistently for over a month with no sign of waning interest. He’s even put the new JumpStart Adventure Island Wii game on his Christmas wish list. Can learning and computer fun co-exist? Apparently yes, even to the most jaded of 6 year-old gaming sensibilities.

Final verdict: thumbs-up.

Check out the JumpStart blog here, and visit the home page for a guided tour.

Love note to the FTC: I received no payment for reviewing this website, including neither sand dollars nor cuddly Petz. We were given access to the site for a limited time to try it out but ongoingly I would happily pay the monthly  fee. It’s good stuff and worth the sand dollars.

Images via Knowledge Adventure.