Mania, Creativity, and Living with Illness

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Early last March, I read a piece in the New York Times Book Review section and decided to pick up a book I might not otherwise have paid much attention too.

It was Kay Refield Jamison’s “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.” It was not so much a biography as a “psychological account” of the great poet’s life, a life spend wrestling with the demons of manic depression.

Jamison brings a unique perspective to the work, not only as a professor of psychiatry and expert on mood disorders, but as someone who suffers from manic depression herself, and wrote about it in a best-selling memoir called “An Unquiet Mind”. (That is now on my list of reads for the summer.)

I didn’t know much about Lowell or his work, but Jamison brings both the man and the artist to life in a quite wonderful way. She makes clear early on that she believes he was ill-served by the author of a biography of Lowell who spent much time with him before his death, only to write a fairly scathing portrait of the man and the damage he did to those around him, without showing much sensitivity to the challenges Lowell faced in dealing with an illness that often led him to episodes of manic behavior that hurt those he cared about and left him feeling ashamed of himself.

More than just a chronological description of his life, this book provides context for his illness, exploring the history of treatments of manic depression and probing the links between manic episodes and creative expression. Jamison also delves into the issue of character—making a strong case that it was an incredible act of will for Lowell to continue to pick up the pieces of his life after a manic episode (and the inevitable depression that followed) and to get back to the fundamentals of living and working.

It is a fascinating book, with healthy doses of his poetry, interviews with family and friends who remained loyal to him through the years. It may not be typical summer beach reading, but it’s well worth the time.

The Lingering Question Around the United Debacle— How Did Dr. Dao Get Back on the Plane?

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As a public relations person, it’s hard to imagine how United could have botched their response to crisis that hit last week when video of a United Express passenger being forcibly removed from a flight went viral and clogged our social media feeds.

Having police violently drag a paid customer from a flight that the airline had overbooked was a bad look. And it only got worse when United’s CEO tried to pretend no video existed of the incident and issued tone-deaf and disturbingly Orwellian statement apologizing only for having to “re-accommodate” some passengers.

(Of course, the best part may be the odd decision by someone within the Chicago Police Department to release a statement shortly after the story caught fire online expressing support for the forcible removal, referring to the customer being “belligerent” and suffering injuries only because “he fell”. The Chicago PD wasn’t even involved in this. It was the Chicago Aviation Police, a completely separate entity. Do elements within the Chicago PD now consider themselves experts on police abuse and brutality, willing to weigh in and offer their analysis on episodes of police violence now?)

But there is a lingering question I have yet to see answered and it raises even more trouble issues for United—how did a bloody and quite disoriented Dr. Dao manage to get back on the plane after his initial removal? Another video that went viral not long after the incident shows Dr. Dao, with blood and cuts around his mouth, jogging up the aisle of the plane, heading to the back, and saying, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

How does a supposedly belligerent passenger, forcibly removed after airline officials called security, apparently because his seat was vitally needed, end up back on the plane?

Did the police officials bring him somewhere only to have a responsible adult look at them and ask, “What’s going on here? What did you do? Let him get back on the plane.”

Or did he manage to somehow elude police and make it back to the plane from wherever he was initially taken?

Other passengers on the plane were clearly upset about the way Dr. Dao was treated, crying out and making statements during his removal. Whose idea was it to let this clearly upset and injured man back on the plane to get fellow passengers worked up all over again?

And what does it say about security around this and other United flights?

This has been a mess for United and they deserve all the abuse that is being hurled at them now, if only because their decision to call security, let them cut loose, and then try to act like nothing untoward happened is disgraceful. But they need to take a long, hard look not only at the way they treat customers, but how this situation quickly unraveled and led to a series of God-awful decisions, not only on the flight, but in the corporate offices of United. They need a top-to-bottom evaluation of their decision-making processes.

Oh, and one more thing…according to the Daily Mail, United failed to properly return the luggage that Dr. Dao and his wife left on the plane. Nice to see United can handle both the epic fails and the run-of-the-mill screw-ups. They’ve got all the bases covered!

Book Brief: Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow”

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If you grew up watching the original episodes of Saturday Night Live, as I did, you might remember a bit that actually ended up on the first SNL album—a commercial for a product called “Shimmer” that was both a floor wax and a dessert topping.

I couldn’t help think of that while reading Michael Chabon’s latest book, “Moonglow”. It’s described as a “novel” on the title page, only to be referred to by the narrator later as a “memoir” (a narrator who just happens to be a guy named Michael), and still later labeled as a “a pack of lies”.

At one point, Michael’s grandfather calls it a mishmash. He should know, as the story we are told in “Moonglow” is that of his life, and the life of his beloved and troubled wife.

“Anyway, it’s a pretty good story,” I said. “You have to admit.”

“Yeah?” He crumpled up the Kleenex, having dispatched the solitary tear. “You can have it. I’m giving it to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not this mishmash I’m making you. Start with the night I was born. March second, 1915. There was a lunar eclipse that night, you know what that is?” 

“When the earth’s shadow falls across the Moon.”

“Very significant. I’m sure it’s a perfect metaphor for something. Start with that.”

“Kind of trite,” I said. 

He threw the Kleenex at my head.

“Make it mean something.” For all the playfulness and sleight of hand around the issue of fiction vs. real life in “Moonglow”, I think Chabon is quite content to present his grandfather’s story as a mishmash, for the very reason it is a meaningful mishmash. One that involves the likes of Wild Bill Donovan and Wernher von Braun. One that brings some degree of clarity and understanding to a family that lived with secrets and silences.

The fact is life doesn’t always make sense. Things don’t always come about in our lives as the result of a natural order. Sometimes in life, a mishmash is what we get. Being able to recognize that, celebrate it, and make art of it is the gift Chabon has given us with this wonderful book.

Navigating Chaos: Lessons abound as businesses grapple with unexpected challenges in Trump Era

imagesA CEO’s poorly timed tweet leads to a Twitter campaign that leads 200,000 customers to delete the company’s app from their phones.

An iconic motorcycle manufacturer sees the President pull out of a planned visit to their Wisconsin facility when company officials express concern about a protest that could mar the event.

Ninety-seven American firms, including some technology giants, sign on to an amicus brief denouncing President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

A new administration in the White House with a distinctly different approach to governing has left many people nervous about what may come next. It also has American companies jittery, wondering how to operate in a divided political environment and fearful they’ll be caught in the crossfire the next time a controversial issue explodes in the media.

There are ways to navigate the chaos caused by a White House with a fondness for sweeping executive orders, denouncing critics in late-night tweets, and framing policy discussions in “us against them” terms. The actions of Uber, Harley-Davidson, and dozens of other firms speaking out against a travel ban targeting immigration provide some important insights on how to avoid crisis situations in the Age of Trump and respond to challenges in a nimble manner that can protect your business brand.

Be Extra Careful on Social Media

When the Trump administration signed its controversial travel ban on a Friday afternoon, the time usually preferred by politicians for dumping bad news or decisions they don’t want scrutinized, it led to an immediate firestorm of protests at airports across the country. The day after the executive order hit, cabbies working JFK Airport in New York City launched a one-hour strike, halting service to highlight their support for the protests.

Uber immediately tweeted it would halt its surge pricing at a time when demand for a lift to or from the airport was expected to intensify. The move was seen by critics as a way to break the strike and profit off the slowdown in service. Within an hour, it led to the creation of a hashtag campaign on Twitter, urging customers of the service to #DeleteUber, dumping the popular app from their cell phones. It worked and Uber’s been scrambling since to unwind this debacle.

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Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quit his position on a Presidential business advisory board and announced the company would donate $3 million to a legal defense fund for drivers needing immigration and translation services. Good moves in response to a crisis, but steps that would not have been necessary if Uber hadn’t waded into the news cycle with a ham-fisted attempt to get some free publicity during the crisis. There was no good reason to throw out a tweet that could hardly be interpreted as anything but an attempt to undermine the protests and profit off a courageous decision by cab drivers to stand up for immigration.

An active and effective presence on social media means moving at the speed of the platform—which is fast. But it also requires knowing when to put the brakes on, understanding that in times when emotions run high and people are sharing up-to-the-minute news on Twitter, comments and statements can be misinterpreted and your ability to control your messaging can disappear. A missed opportunity is better than a high-profile stumble that antagonizes your customers.

You Don’t Have to Go Whole Hog

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Harley-Davidson managed to sidestep a serious crisis when the backlash to Trump’s executive order on immigration threatened to damage the motorcycle manufacturer’s brand. The Midwest firm is located in a purple state, one that Trump unexpectedly won. Getting sucked into an early term controversy swirling around the new administration in Washington was not something Harley executives were looking for.

But that’s exactly how it played out. On the heels of the immigration crisis, the White House was planning to send the President on the road, to sign a new executive order or two aimed at improving America’s business climate. What looked like a great opportunity for Harley-Davidson to serve as a backdrop to a Presidential effort to improve American manufacturing was now shaping up to be an event that was going to tie the company to an ongoing political crisis involving cries of executive overreach.

Word of a planned protest caused Harley executives to approach the White House and, according to the latest media accounts, Trump administration officials pulled the plug on the visit. Instead, Harley-Davidson officials traveled to Washington for a photo op and meeting to discuss manufacturing issues.

That’s about as good an outcome as Harley-Davidson could have hoped for—not playing a central role in an event that was sure to feature questions about the heated protests surrounding the President’s travel ban, but taking part in a meeting that could be positioned as focusing on jobs and reviving American manufacturing. Harley-Davidson’s leadership team was nimble enough to understand the bad optics of hosting a Presidential visit that was going to be met by local protests and to settle for a very workable (and much less damaging) Plan B—a visit by corporate executives to the White House to discuss a topic that is central to their business.

Don’t Be Afraid to Lead

Nearly one hundred companies have signed on to an amicus brief, filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, designed to block President Trump’s executive order on immigration. The group includes many technology firms and some very well-known companies—Facebook, Google, Intel, Apple, Netflix, Levi Stauss & Co., Uber, Airbnb, and Chobani.

The court filing makes a powerful argument about the role of immigrants in American life, their contributions to innovation, and their importance in the growth and development of “some of the country’s most innovative and iconic companies”.

Tom O’Guinn, a professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business has made the case that companies sometimes need to get ahead of issues and identify themselves with a cause they consider important. In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio last month, he stated;

“What marketers want is to create brand loyalty and brand loyalty isn’t just repeat purchases. It’s where you form an emotional bond that changes how you process information. Most companies now believe you are better off to take a stand to make 10 million people really happy with you and create long-term loyalty than to take no stand and have 50 million feel neutral about you.”

In the case of dealing with a new President, it may seem counterintuitive for executives to take this kind of action now, essentially putting themselves in the crosshairs of a White House that has not been shy about attacking critics. But on an issue that is central to the operations of these companies—being able to recruit a diverse, talented workforce from around the globe—engagement can have a powerful impact. And if they believe a significant number of their customers will understand their position, all the more reason to step into the debate and take a stand.

The first weeks of the Trump administration have been a maelstrom of activity and controversy. Companies need to understand that this kind of chaos creates danger and can lead to unintended outcomes. It can also create opportunities to send effective messages that will build brand loyalty and positively impact the bottom line.

The Surprising Value of “The Big Short”

I grudgingly went to see “The Big Short” tonight, believing I wasn’t going to like it for making heroes out of a group of people who profited from the global financial meltdown of 2008.

Sure the movie focuses on a handful of guys who saw the danger in mortgage-backed securities coming and chose to bet against the American economy. I expected Hollywood would turn this into a tale of some wacky, financial industry mischief-makers who gleefully took advantage of the system with no harm/no foul for the rest of us. (While Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett pretty much falls into that category, he does give voice to some of the most unpleasant truths about the real-world impacts of the crisis.)

My favorite part of this movie is that it spelled out the lunacy of no one going to jail for this nonsense. It laid it out on the line by speaking the fundamental truth that drives each generation of Wall Street robber barons—when it all goes to hell, don’t worry. We’ll blame it on the immigrants and the poor (and in this case, for the first time, the teachers).

To this day, I never cease to be gobsmacked by the number of people who want to blame Barney Frank and Democratic efforts to stop redlining as the real driver of the 2008 financial debacle. As if banks somehow finally caved in to Barney Franks’ awesome power and just started writing mortgages to anyone he sent their way.

Umm, no. Banks started writing mortgages to anyone with a pulse because they found a way to make money off it. Poor lending practices were not the result of imposed do-gooderism on the industry. They were the result of complex, largely unregulated securities created by Wall Street that ended up dominating the balance sheets of too many big banks.

So you may hear some crackpot running this rap about Democrats strong-arming banks into giving poor people mortgages. It usually comes when they are attacking financial regulation or blasting Elizabeth Warren for being too tough on the banks and trying to pretend that the 2008 collapse was about something other than Wall Street malfeasance. When you do, mention this movie or to the original book of the same name by Michael Lewis. If they’ve seen it and are still peddling such nonsensical arguments, there’s no hope, so it’s best to just move on. But if they haven’t seen it, maybe there’s a chance for a teachable moment.

Because if nothing else, “The Big Short” takes the story that was so compellingly told in the documentary “Inside Job” and lays it out in a more digestible, entertainment product. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from this mess.

Deflategate and the Scourge of Modern Journalism

CMOpoC2WcAIKyJ7Before stuff gets real again for Sheriff Roger Goodell and yet another court hands him yet another reminder that he is not quite the master of his NFL domain, I wanted to pose a question about one element of “Deflategate” that has really bothered me.

Why won’t Chris Mortensen torch his source?

Or—to offer what should be a less heretical alternative for those in the media who can’t imagine a world where reporters actually do their readers a favor and release the names of sources who lie to them (and us)—why doesn’t he publicly commit to never using that source again?

Because what we have here in this little episode is, I think, a perfect example of what’s wrong with America’s media.

For those unfamiliar with Mortensen’s unique role in the Deflategate fiasco, it was the ESPN football reporter’s January 21, 2015 story which pretty much turned some garden variety kvetching from the Indianapolis Colts front office in the wake of another post-season thrashing at the hands of the New England Patriots into a full-blown scandal. This particular Mort report relied on unnamed “league sources” to offer the bombshell that 11 of the Patriots’ 12 game balls were “inflated 2 pounds per square inch below what’s required by NFL regulations”.

That single report led to breathless speculation in the run-up to the Super Bowl and a memorable press conference where Patriot QB Tom Brady seemed stunned by the news.

Unfortunately, the whole thing turned out be a load of hooey. Complete nonsense. Utter poppycock. Or, as some Pat fans (like yours truly) like to think, the first of a series of slanderous salvos coming from an NFL front office that doesn’t much like our organization and will do anything to tarnish it.

Today, a federal court judge considering the NFL’s 4-game suspension of one of their marquee players over the incident, pretty much asked Commissioner Goodell’s team of independent legal eagles, “Where’s the damned beef, boys?” In so doing, he pretty much drove a final stake through the heart of Mort’s story and the credibility of the goons running the NFL, who have not had a very good track record when it comes to truly independent people—like judges—taking a look at their disciplinary handiwork.

Which begs the question of why Mort has allowed his reputation as a sports journalist to be tarnished for being such a willing tool of such willful liars in the NFL front office. He recently ducked out of an appearance on Boston sports radio’s WEEI, after one of his colleagues went on air and defended Mort as “a pioneer in this industry” and “as good a reporter as there is”. Mort decided to let those words stand rather than be forced into answering tough questions that might leave this particular “pioneer” looking more like a gullible rube getting taken at by a Three Card Monte grifter.

It’s a sad sign of where the modern media has come—and not just the sports media. Modern journalists have come to rely on unnamed sources way consumers have taken to online shopping—something they didn’t have at one point but now can’t seem to live without. And that’s fine.

What’s less than fine is their similar dependency on being first out of the gate with a story, even it proves to a tissue of lies, and on preserving access to the key people they rely on for information. Because that means when a source lies to them, they won’t do anything about it, because burning that source—even for a very good reason—might scare away other potential sources or send them to another, less scrupulous reporter/outlet. Now I happen to think that’s a load of crap, especially in a case like this where we can reasonably assume that the sources feeding Mortensen nonsense were among a few well known NFL front office folks with grudges against the Patriots. Burning the folks who exposed Mort to ridicule and have caused people to question his journalistic standards would be fair play, an understandable response to people who were happy to feed him garbage to advance their own agendas with no fear of any consequences.

But let’s assume the terror of doing anything that might offend potential unnamed sources and risk losing out on the next big story is preventing Mort from taking such action. Why in the name of Joe Montana’s perfect spirals can’t he at least come out and say, “I know who fed me this crap, and my audience can rest assured that I will not be relying on these individuals again for information or granting them anonymity, as they have violated the right to that protection after feeding me false information.”?

Wouldn’t it be liberating? Wouldn’t it be a commitment to avoid the journalistic malpractice which has caused people to question his credibility? Shouldn’t it be standard operating procedure in this kind of circumstance?

Mort could become a journalistic trendsetter, showing the way for outlets like the New York Times, which  recently took it on the chin for getting fed some nonsense about an alleged Justice Department criminal probe into the Hilary Clinton emails…a probe that wasn’t happening anywhere but in the fevered imaginations of some Republican House members.

Unfortunately, being first and having a steady gravy train of information, even if it proves to be laughably unreliable, seems to be Mort’s top priority and journalists across the board. And it’s not doing us any favors…as sports fans, as consumers of information, or even as a country.

Uber Doesn’t Have a PR Problem–It Has a Corporate Culture Problem

As a public relations professional, I’m in a number of LinkedIn groups for PR/communications practitioners and every time a corporate scandal pops up, I see the inevitable posts about what the company could have done to avoid their problem or what they should do to get out of the mess.

Quite often, I feel like offering up a comment along the lines that in some cases there’s nothing to be done in some cases because some people/companies aren’t well-positioned to  project a positive public image or can’t be bothered to do so.

The latest flap over Uber and the comments of senior executive Emil Michael–who chose to opine at a well-attended dinner event last Friday night that it would be a neat idea for the company to hire an opposition research team to dig up dirt on journalists as a means of fighting negative press–exemplify this notion.  He suggested they could look into “your personal lives, your families” as a means of going after media critics.  The words seemed particularly targeted at reporter Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily who had accused the company of “sexism and misogyny” and previously included them in an “asshole roll call” of Silicon Valley companies.

Here is perhaps the most disturbing nugget of Ben Smith’s story on Buzzfeed’s which broke the story on Michael’s unique approach to PR strategy:

“Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.  

Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.”

Yeah, right.  Why come out and say you are actually doing something like that when simply threatening to do it and clearly stating you would have no problem doing it are probably good enough to do the trick in terms of making some reporters think twice before taking a shot at your company?

Let me just stop here for a second and offer up what should be a fairly obvious lesson to all the tough-talking execs out there who like to take their macho swagger out for a public trot every once in a blue moon.

If you or your company are being accused of frat-boy/bully boy tactics and it’s being suggested that you have a problem with how you treat women, a significant portion of your customer base, then maybe…just maybe…and remember, I’m only spitballing here…but maybe you should be a little less thin-skinned and not feel compelled to lash out a female reporter in a manner which pretty much confirms everything she said and turns a one-day story into an ongoing nightmare.

But if you are not capable of it, if your entire business model is based on a thuggish/”us against the world”/destroy our enemies” ethos, maybe there’s not a whole lot sensible PR people can do for you.

Just look at Uber’s response to the Buzzfeed story.  First, Michael tried to insist it was an off-the-record, private comment, even though it was made to a room full of people who apparently didn’t sign anything or offer a blood oath.  (As if the idea of breaking that supposed off-the-record code was somehow worse than what he actually said,  Priceless.)  Then they trotted out the guy who brought Ben Smith to the dinner, the USA Today‘s Michael Wolff, to say Smith hadn’t reported the words in their proper context.  Suffice to say, I don’t think Wolff’s attempt to gussy up Michael’s comments are very convincing, although I guess it does show the value of offering up free dinners to members of the media.

And then they hit the Trifecta of Stupid, when Ashton Kutcher hit Twitter to give his thumbs up to the idea of attacking “shady reporters” like Lacy.  Without bothering to mention he’s an investor in the company.  Yeah, thanks for weighing in, funny man.

It’s one thing to declare war on business competitors and do anything you can to wipe them out.  It happens in business all the time.  But taking that same approach with media people who don’t treat you with the fealty you feel you are entitled to is just plain stupid and symptomatic of a greater problem.

This “crush, kill, destroy” approach to business seems to be in Uber’s DNA and is clearly infecting their public relations.  Because when you say indefensible things in public, you need to take immediate action to fix the problem.  The weak string of Tweets from Uber’s CEO denouncing Michael’s remarks don’t cut it, especially since there is no indication he will in any way be punished for his remarks.  (OK, you don’t want to fire the guy because he’s indispensable?  How about a month off without pay to get his head around the fact that he can’t be stupid in public?)

Maybe Lacy was onto something.  Maybe the bad-boy culture of Uber has fostered a recklessness and arrogance that can’t be contained or simply targeted on the company’s competitors.  When a senior executive can talk about smearing reporters and suffer no consequences, there’s no way that attitude doesn’t work it’s way down the food chain.  Maybe the only thing that will change it is if enough people delete the Uber app from their phone, as Lacy did.  That may be the only kind of reckoning these folks understand.

And let me share one other wild thought.  In a roomful of media people, why was there only one reporter willing to call out Michael for his absurd and offensive comments?  Did they get the message he was sending and figure silence was better than incurring the wrath of Uber?  Or did they merely think it would be unseemly to bite the hand that fed them that night?