Archive | October, 2011

The Power of the Narrative

27 Oct

Every good story has a beginning, middle, and end.  This story begins with a note from a long lost friend needing a small favor.

My old colleague Cortney Napurski always had sharp skills and big ambitions.  She’s more than proven it in the past four years, no longer the young journalist just out of college.  During that time she’s chased dreams while the rest of us chased paychecks.   And all the while she became the kind of young woman who no longer fits on a one page resume: a Londoner, master’s graduate, and a mother.

Now, she’s chasing another dream called a PhD.  It’s also where her note fits in asking for a letter of recommendation for a research grant.  What Cortney hopes to prove is that literature is a better tool at teaching history than by forcing kids to memorize dates, facts and names from a text book.   In other words, she’s attempting to prove what her journalism background has instinctively taught her—the instructional power of the narrative.  The best journalism has always been a collection of verifiable facts woven into narrative form.   Narratives are the glue by which humans cognitively communicate and connect with one another.  There’s a reason why the Anasazi carved petroglyphs, why Homer wrote poems, why Jesus told parables—because they work.

We use narratives to sell and define products, presidential candidates, even ourselves.  They tell the story of our lives, even our careers.  As a reporter, I’ve written hundreds of narratives.  But ask my colleagues about the one that perhaps best defines me as a storyteller, and they’ll most often say it’s a little ditty called Motown.   It’s a memorable gem I had the honor to co-write with NPPA National Photographer of the Year Andy Shilts.


What Motown Adams teaches us is that we all have a story to tell.   Motown’s story is one of redemption.  Watch it once and you’ll remember him forever.

And that’s exactly why my friend Cortney is onto something.  If literary narratives from the early 20th century can elicit the same connection and emotion, then Cortney is hypothesizing they can also become an effective teaching tool that connects students to the people, culture, events, and higher level values of that time.

In the process, Cortney is writing her own narrative.  She has a great beginning.  I can’t wait to see where she goes next…

Steve Jobs and the Power of Self-Actualization

15 Oct

            Search the Apple Apps Store on a brand new iPhone 4S and one will find 424 applications to “create.”  There are no apps for “conformity.” 

            Mark it up to the lasting legacy of Steve Jobs.

             The Apple co-founder who lost his battle with cancer last week developed technology devices that allowed people to easily create things.  He dared us to be different.  Nothing expressed it more than Apple’s ad copy when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” (Apple Inc.)

             What Jobs tapped into was the psychological notion of self-actualization.  Everyone has the power to change themselves and those around them, what Jobs and Apple did was design the technology to make it happen.  In the process he asked us not only to think differently, but to create differently.  Break out of the box. 

             On the day of Job’s passing, we did just that at Fox 9.  We left our $30,000 video camera in the trunk and instead pulled out our iPhone and iPad. 

            The genius of the culture Apple has created is in the loyalty of its customers.  If Jobs created any legacy it’s in the notion that people want technology that easily helps them be who they are.  The proof is in the web traffic scores since the announcement of the iPhone 4S. 

Web page traffic for Apple, Verizon, and ATT

            Visits to Apple’s site are up nearly 50%, 24% at ATT, and 19% at Verizon Wireless, two of the dominant service providers for the iPhone.   All three expect record sales.

            Admittedly, it creates an interesting paradox that the company which has pushed people to become individuals has them lining up like Lemmings.  But what this is really all about is a dominant brand idea.  In a world that too often settles for “me too,” Steve Jobs taught us to say, “I am…”

Branding Famine Relief: How The American Refugee Committee is Feeding Starvation Through a Community of Stars

12 Oct

           It’s hard enough to get the world to care about famine.  It’s even harder when that famine is part of a 20-year cycle of endless white noise
called Somalia.

Therein lies the challenge of the American Refugee Committee.   Just how do you encourage people to contribute money to solve a seemingly endless crisis?  Its answer is in a new branding campaign that turns famine relief fundraising on its head.   Instead of asking people look outward at the results of famine, they’re now pushing them to look inward and become a “Star for Somalia.”


The new campaign is the brainchild of ARC and the creative team at IDEO in Palo Alto, California.  IDEO is fundamentally a design firm, known for creating breakthrough products such as the Apple mouse.  At its core, IDEO helps people channel creativity to solve problems.   Somalia is a big problem, but its team worked with ARC to un-harness the creative energy of everyday people to not just feed starving people, but to create a conversation about it.

Instead of forming a traditional campaign pumping out one-way messages about Somalia, ARC’s Daniel Wordsworth says the “I Am A Star” effort creates a multi-channel dialogue.

“Here is a chance for folks in Minnesota, in the US and all over the world to say this shouldn’t be like this and that we can make a difference. And what we’re trying to do is launch a campaign that says you can make a difference and we want you to do it your way,” said Wordsworth.

It’s already working.  Inspired to do something, Mohamed Samatar and Bonnie Bentson formed their own 5K Run called “Run to Unite.”  They are among the first “Stars” in the new ARC sky.

“Everybody can do something in some way,” said Benston. “And whether it’s as big as creating a 5K or as small as walking in it or running in it, or telling your friends that I’ve heard about this, we can all help in some way.”

That’s what happens when you ask people to look inward.  That’s personal empowerment and the beginning of a potentially powerful brand.

Look for my story on ARC and how it’s trying to change the conversation on Somalia on Fox 9 News Saturday night right after baseball.

The Price and Weight of Freedom

5 Oct

            If it’s true that freedom bears a heavy price, then it comes in a heavy box, too.

            In this  case freedom’s box weighs 135 pounds and is delivered by UPS.  Sixty years ago, it was delivered by the U.S. 8th Air Force.   A B-24 crew member by the name of Wally Grotz was among the brave airmen who delivered freedom to the people of Poland in the form of heavy bombs raining down on the Nazi’s.   For his bravery, he paid an equally heavy price: shot down, captured, and imprisoned.

U.S Airman Statue by Polish Artist Zygmunt Wujek

               “Freedom is a wonderful thing and you don’t know what it really is until you don’t have it anymore,” said Grotz.

            The German Luftwaffe sent Grotz to the infamous Stalag Luft IV near Koszalin, Poland.    By the end of the war it would house 7,000 American POW’s.   He spent two months there before the Germans forced him and hundreds of other prisoners on a 500 mile march to Berlin.  Grotz was among the few to survive the march.  The Russians and British finally liberated him as they closed in and the Third Reich collapsed.

            Grotz never forgot the experience.  Neither did Poland.  When the Pomerania region of Poland dedicated the old Stalag Luft IV site as a memorial in 2006, Grotz was the only living American POW to return.  They raised a statue to the airmen of the U.S. 8th Air Force but the sculptor, Zygmunt Wujek, wanted to give Grotz something more.  This week if finally arrived—the box of freedom.

            It took two hammers and a crowbar for Wally and his son Jim to pry open the box’s green wooden slats.  They pulled at the packing Styrofoam like curious kids on Christmas morning to finally reveal the surprise.  There, gleaming in the October Minnesota sun was a bronze bust of an American airman.  An exact replica of the statue dedicated at Stalag Luft IV in Poland.  To the Pole’s it might as well be their version of the Statue of Liberty.

            When the artist told Grotz of his gift, he was stunned.  “I asked them, how so much appreciation after 60 years?  He said, ‘it took us a hundred and 25 years to get our freedom and we appreciate it.’”

            As a former POW, Grotz is one of the few of us in America who uniquely understands.  “There’s just a few of us left who actually remember what these poor Polish people went through,” said Grotz.  “Five years under the Nazi’s and then from 1945 until the end of the cold war under the communist rule.”

Former POW Wally Grotz, UPS Sales Representative Lisa Anderson, and Wally's son, Jim Grotz
Former POW Wally Grotz, UPS Sales Rep Lisa Anderson, and Wally’s son, Jim Grotz

                 Grotz has accepted the sculpture on behalf of all his fellow 8th Air Force veterans.  He intends to display it in the lobby of the Veterans Hospital Minneapolis.  Then, on Veterans’ Day he and his family will drive it to the 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia where curators will display the sculpture among its permanent collection.

            Grotz’s family, especially his son Jim could not be more humbled.  “I think it’s a very fitting tribute to all veterans of this country that people of a small region of the world would come back after the fact and say, ‘Thank you veterans for having made us a free nation,’” said Jim.

            Yes, freedom has a price.  In this case it comes with deep gratitude, and a box that can no longer carry it.

PR Failure: When Good Brands Like Applebee’s Refuse To Join The Conversation About Bad News

1 Oct

            Mistakes come in all packages.  This one comes on a 5 x 11” piece of paper.

            The slick color direct mailer went out to 10,000 customers with a nice $5 coupon.  The mailer trumpets a newly remodeled Applebee’s in Maple Grove, MN.  Any marketing executive would tell you it’s a great and efficient “activation” driver to bring lapsed users into the restaurant.  Tragically, the headline on the back of the mailer launches another driver: Buzz.  And this buzz is not good.

            Here’s the headline:  “REDISCOVER YOUR WHITE MAPLE GROVE APPLEBEE’S!”

Applebee's Mailer

            It speaks for itself.  Applebee’s did not.

            Several irritated viewers contacted us about the mailer wondering how could the neighborhood restaurant be so insensitive?  It turns out it was a printing
mistake.   Similar mailers were created earlier in the year for the reopening of the Applebee’s in White Bear Lake, MN.  Applebee’s believes the printer didn’t quite
interchange all of the words.

            When Fox 9 contacted the corporate spokeswoman, there was no apology and little explanation.  My colleague Erik Runge, a good and seasoned reporter, was stunned.  He inquired about getting an interview from someone at Applebee’s explaining the error and was denied.  He then asked about getting a written statement and again—denied.

            There are some basic rules about crisis management.  One of them is get ahead of the discussion.  But the most important rule is to become a part of the discussion.  Applebee’s corporate silence is equivalent to sticking its head in the sand.   By not becoming a part of the narrative, they let everyone else—including their customers and the media—create the narrative for them.  Once that happens, they have lost control of their brand.

             Those of us who are Applebee’s customers know it as a good neighborhood restaurant chain with great service.  The tragedy is it’s painfully obvious that the spokeswoman in the corporate office is not committed to the brand or its soul.

            She needs to be force-fed some PR soul food.  And then she needs to be fired.

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