Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rock Star Runner

Hard to believe it’s been 40 years since Steve Prefontaine was suddenly and tragically killed in a car crash; a front-page story in The Register-Guard a few days ago reminded me of that week in May 1975. An undergraduate at the University of Oregon at the time, memories of “Pre” came flooding back into my consciousness.

In those days, Pre was the closest thing that Eugene-Springfield had to a sports superstar; indeed, he was even more popular than Ronnie Lee, another superlative athlete of the time who starred for the University of Oregon basketball team, known in those days as the “Kamikaze Kids.” Pre, however, was a rock star on a world stage.

Despite his preeminent status, Pre was a regular guy, whether out for a run along the Willamette River or pouring beers as a bartender at The Paddock Tavern. A native of Coos Bay, he won numerous NCAA titles, held seven American records from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters, and was preparing for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Living on Hilyard Street in 1975 (below) with more than a half dozen other students, I saw Pre often. He was a regular at our parties: his girlfriend was close to one of our female roommates. What I remember most about that fateful Saturday morning was the utter shock of losing someone so seemingly vital and poised for greatness.

Earlier that week, I received an offer of summer employment with the Wenatchee National Forest on the eastern slopes of the Cascades in Washington. The end of spring quarter was a blur, followed by a move to a new state. I don’t recall much else about those last two weeks other than Steve Prefontaine -- the man and the legend.

What I remember most about Pre? His ultra-competitive nature. “Somebody may beat me,” he said, "but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.” Sure, he faded in the 1972 Olympics, finishing fourth after leading in the 5,000-meter race, but Pre was only 21 at the time. I have no doubt he would have won the gold medal in 1976.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Of Thought Leaders And Trendsetters

This year’s Portland Communicators Conference, an annual gathering of public relations professionals, focused on the changing nature of the field. The digital revolution continues to challenge the dynamics of publishing, reporting, connecting and persuading, which begs the question: how does this evolving dynamic affect public relations?

Titled “Thought Leaders, Trendsetters and Trusted Advisors: Storytellers and The Modern C-Suite,” the conference -- sponsored by the Portland Metro Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the Oregon Columbia Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators -- is now in its 20th year.

Thought leadership is a ubiquitous term used in public relations. But what does it really mean? On the surface, it means an authority in a specialized field whose expertise others often seek. Trendsetters, on the other hand, march to the beat of their own drummer, while trusted advisors are the ones whose advice is considered golden.

We had all three on Friday, May 8 in The Nines Luxury Hotel in downtown Portland, where keynoters included Frank X. Shaw, corporate vice-president of Microsoft, Dr. Andre de Waal of the HPO Center, which studies high performance organizations, and Shonali Burke, a thought leader in social media and public relations.

Speaking of leaders, the conference coincided with President Barack Obama’s rather spontaneous visit to the City of Roses to promote the so-called fast-track trade authority, giving him leeway to negotiate an Asia-Pacific trade deal. The trip, announced just a week before, prompted concerns about traffic congestion downtown.

As luck would have it, President Obama would be staying at the Hotel Monaco, directly across Alder Street from The Nines (formerly Meier & Franks), where the PDX Communicators Conference would be held. Much like the mountains create their own weather, the entourage surrounding the commander-in-chief spawned its own dynamic.

Arriving at the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s George S. Turnbull Portland Center, I learned that Thursday’s evening's conference VIP reception was delayed long enough that I had to choose between the social and dinner with a few members of  “mia famiglia.” As you might expect, I chose the latter (above).

The next morning, after parking near the UO, I walked the mile or so to the conference hotel. After crossing Burnside, it soon became clear that a security perimeter had been established around the president’s hotel. Breaching the perimeter on foot, I saw city dump trucks blocking intersections and police on every street corner.

Once safely inside The Nines, the conference began a bit late, providing more time for networking. It’s always nice running into PRSA colleagues and former students of mine from the public relations sequence in the UO j-school. It’s particularly gratifying to see that these students are gainfully employed and thriving in the PR industry.

Frank X. Shaw (above) started off with “Modern Communications: Evolution and Revolution.” He discussed with bemusement describing PR to the uninitiated. First, he said, you tell them “communications,” followed by “marketing” and “advertising.” “You mean, like ‘Mad Men’?” they ask. “Exactly!” he replied, with a wry smile.

Citing Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, the pioneering multimedia story produced by the New York Times in 2012, Shaw -- a graduate of the UO SOJC -- said, “it was clear we needed that sort of platform at Microsoft to tell our story ourselves.” The notion led to 88 Acres: How Microsoft Quietly Built the City of the Future.

“Is what we do communications?” he asked. “Yes, absolutely. We tell our story ourselves. We tell our story through influencers. And we tell our story through our employees and partners.” Shaw added that the “stamp of approval” received through third party influencers (like the media) continues to be important in public relations.

Andre de Waal, an engaging and dynamic lunchtime speaker, counsels clients worldwide on performance management and high performance issues. Introducing de Waal to conference delegates, my colleague Mike Riley of Riley Research Associates in Portland noted that the only continent where he doesn’t have clients is Antarctica.

He literally had us on our feet as we dined with a clever “pop quiz” on dealing with performance issues in the workplace. His research shows that “a high performance organization is one that achieve (both) financial and non-financial results that are exceedingly better than those of its peer group over a period of at least five years.”

Shonali Burke, who has directed major events for clients such as Cirque du Soleil and directed media relations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, discussed how to harness the true promise of social media through the melding on content, conversation and community.

Breakout sessions focused on a range of subjects, including creating stories that connect with an audience, developing visual and video content for social media, the art and science of leadership communication, data analysis for “non-nerds,” and more. All told, it was another inspired and inspiring PDX Communicator’s Conference.