How many Michiganders does it take to change a lightbulb?

Detroit Free Press Editor Ron Dzwonkowski wrote a good column for today’s paper about how elected officials are often the last people to “get it.” He wrote:

“Maybe that’s why they continue to bicker and shout and pander to noisy special interest groups while most of the people they are supposed to represent would prefer cooperation, meaningful change and progress.”

I was pleased to see Dzwonkowski quote my friend Becky Johns as a representative of her generation. Becky recently wrote an excellent blog post about Future Midwest — I especially liked the part where she asks, “Now what?”

I commented on her blog, saying it really is important to make sure events like Future Midwest don’t end up just becoming a bunch of people talking to themselves about what should be done. People have to take ideas and act upon them; that’s how you create positive change in a community.

Our elected leaders — at the state and local level — are such a disappointment lately with their petty battles. I was a speaker at a conference in Oklahoma City recently and they are making some amazing, positive improvements to that city. When I asked a colleague there about the changes and whether the mayor who has been championing a lot of them is a Republican or Democrat, he seemed surprised. He said the mayor is a Republican, but noted that in Oklahoma City, that doesn’t really matter. He said the city has a good track record of not worrying about the politics and focusing more on the problem at hand.

It was tough to admit to him that one of the issues we’re facing in Michigan is that politics often is the problem at hand. Hopefully, we’ll see some sensible people elected in November who can bring to Lansing some civility and a desire to do something because it’s a good idea regardless of which party proposed it.  Here are some things I’d like to pursue over the next year:

  • We need to keep hounding people who were at Future Midwest about what they’ve accomplished so far and prod them to keep achieving even more.
  • We need to put term limits back where they belong: in the voting booth.
  • And we need to ban elected officials from running for another office until they’ve completed the term of their current office. That would avoid the scenario of a Senate majority leader running for attorney general and the speaker of the House running for governor while the state they are charged with protecting crumbles around their election campaigns. (Addendum: In all fairness to Mike Bishop and Andy Dillon, they aren’t the only two leaders distracted by their own job searches. We have state representatives running for the state Senate and local office. We have senators running for countywide offices, the Secretary of State’s office and Congress. We have a congressman and an attorney general running for governor. And we have countywide officials running for governor and secretary of state while our secretary of state runs for lieutenant governor. No wonder no one can focus on the job at hand — they’re all too busy trying to land their next one.)

I hope Becky and her peers never lose their desire to do more than just talk about what’s wrong. In the end, they are not only the future of this state, but the catalyst to sweep away the flotsam and jetsam that is bobbing around the state Capitol and the city halls of Southeast Michigan. And those of us in other generations can help them do this. Get involved in the election process. Find out what a person really stands for and don’t vote based on what you see on TV ads or the campaign literature that is filled with half-truths, or worse.

In addition, let’s start working together across generations. People often wring their hands and wonder why young college graduates are leaving Michigan. Maybe that’s because, too often, we’re not giving them a reason to stay. It’s not just about jobs. Sometimes it’s about knowing that there is a bright future in Michigan. The light bulb has dimmed in the Great Lakes State, so it’s time for a new one.

How many Michiganders does it take to change a light bulb? All of us. So let’s get to it.

(Photo courtesy of Armistead Booker’s Flickr stream.)

Mentor, mentee, repeat

I often advocate for the idea of mentoring younger people in your profession because of the fantastic opportunities for learning that can arise from it.

The person you are mentoring can see firsthand how you’ve shaped your career and can learn from your experiences — both positive and negative. Plus, you have the opportunity to be the mentee — to learn a tremendous amount about the younger generation and, sometimes, about the technology they have grown up with but that you are still trying to master.

More important than that, however, is the feeling of wonder, excitement and joy you feel when you see the person you’ve been mentoring stand on their own two feet, spread their wings and finally jump out of the nest.

I had this experience just yesterday and I’m sharing this personal story because I hope it inspires you.

Almost a year ago, I met Becky Johns, a young professional who was just graduating from college. She started as an intern at Delta Dental of Michigan. She worked her tail off and impressed a lot of people. I like to think that, thanks to a little mentoring from me, she also learned better how to network and show her value to the company and to professionals around town and online. Her hard work and my perseverance through a jungle of red tape resulted in a full-time job being offered to Becky.

We make a good team at work because we have discovered that mentoring is a two-way street. She learned a lot from me. I don’t say that to sound conceited, I think it’s just a fact of life. I’m 20 years her senior and I’ve held a variety of jobs in journalism, media relations and public relations. I’ve been around the block more times than she has and I was happy to share my experiences with her.

At the same time, I’ve learned a lot from her. I’ve learned about her generation and what makes it tick, in ways that I don’t from the classroom-based interactions I have as an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University. I’ve learned to be a calmer person because mentoring Becky has helped me put things in perspective. I know that if I’m going to blow up over something, I have to justify it to her. So, I’ve often found that remaining calm and just working toward a solution is setting a better example for her.

And yesterday, in what I’m sure was a tough conversation for her to initiate, Becky told me she’s ready to leave the nest. She’s ready to strike out on her own and no longer be seen as “Ari’s intern.” She’s fighting to make a name for herself in a way that ensures the first question she gets when attending conferences isn’t, “Where’s Ari?” She was almost apologetic, telling me that she needed to get out from under my shadow.

Honestly, I was a little put off at first. I joked with her to “not forget about me” when she makes it to the big times. Deeper inside, though, I was disappointed that she felt like she didn’t need me as much as she used to. And I couldn’t help being a little jealous, watching her career and her networking starting to take off, knowing that she is already finding success at an age earlier than I did.

And then, I realized that this is exactly what mentoring is all about. It’s about teaching someone how to fly and then cheering when they jump out of the nest. It’s about knowing you’ve done your job as a mentor well enough that the person who looked up to you now feels confident enough to speak to you as an equal. And it’s about instilling in someone the passion to succeed and to share that success with someone in the future by becoming a mentor themselves.

For mentoring to be successful, it needs to be more than just a concept. It needs to be a living, breathing thing that ebbs and flows like the tide. It needs to follow a cycle of mentor, mentee, repeat.

So get out there and find a young person who needs a mentor. You’ll be amazed at how much you can learn.

(Bird photo courtesy of novemberwolf’s Flickr stream.)

(Becky Johns photo courtesy of Becky Johns.)

Has the Web explosion created a new Lost Generation?

The first Lost Generation is widely considered to be those who were wandering through a post-WWI world trying to come to terms with a new global reality unlike any seen before. It was the generation that includes infamous authors like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In more modern times, Lost Generation has been used to describe groups of younger people heavily impacted by an economic shock — the lost ones are those folks unable to jump right back into the ranks of the gainfully employed when the economy starts to turn around.

I’ve been thinking of another type of lost generation lately though — the students who graduated college in the early 2000s, a time period when the Internet was seen as the future but no one had a clue about how large a role it would play. I was having a discussion about this last night with my wife, Jessi, and two colleagues from work: Becky Johns and Angela Minicuci. Jessi could be considered part of this new lost generation to which I’m referring. A graduate of Ferris State University in 2003, she had classes on Web design and was certainly interested in the promise of a future that would involve the Internet in some way. Since then, she took her degree and her college experiences and built a solid career in public and media relations. Now, because of term limits in Michigan, she’s looking for the next step in her career as the senator she works for will be unceremoniously booted from office at the end of the year.

One of the frustrations she’s commented to me about is having to compete with students coming out of college who seem to have so many Web skills and who have probably had 10 times the opportunities she had in regard to Web design and interaction with the Internet.

Becky and Angela are good examples of this next generation of recent graduates. Just check out Angela’s online profile. She has six different ways for people to connect with her — six ways that didn’t exist when Jessi graduated from Ferris just a handful of years ago. Becky has a large personal and professional network for someone her age, and I’d attribute a lot of that to online activities via Twitter and LinkedIn.

Certainly things change over time and what we learn in college is never going to stay static. And to Jessi’s credit, she hasn’t been one to just sit and whine about the changes that have occurred. She’s involved in many of the same online services that Angela is. She has her face buried in a computer screen because of social media almost as much as I do. But as the Web-based world has grown exponentially, she’s been working to pay the bills and using her free time to try to keep up. In the meantime, young professionals like Angela and Becky have been growing up alongside the Internet. Now, it seems many potential employers see them as Internet natives whereas Jessi has to prove that, while not a native, she’s certainly a full citizen of the online nation.

What do you think? There’s no question I’m biased about this because of my relationship with Jessi. But has there ever been a time when a technology has affected a generation of relatively recent grads the way the Internet and social media are impacting the university classes of 2003?

(Jessi’s photo courtesy of Capital Gains.)

Move over, content; consumers will be kings this year

Here’s a piece I was commissioned to write by Ragan Communications. Thanks to the great folks quoted in this article who were willing to spend time helping me with it.

Published: 1/4/2010

Move over, content; consumers will be kings this year
By Ari B. Adler

A customizable Web and mobile apps and augment users’ already formidable clout

From banks and Big Three automakers that needed rescuing, to the governors and golf pros who couldn’t master monogamy, 2009 may well go down in history as the year of the bailouts.

Public relations professionals have spent a tremendous amount of effort trying to fix things for their clients while the news broke faster than birds can tweet.

So, what’s in store for 2010 in the communications industry? That depends on whom you ask, but a common theme is the idea that consumers will have even more control, whether they are consumers of a product or of information about that product. In short, communications professionals will have to fight even harder for their client’s reputations.

“As social networking adoption continues, frontline communications and PR will become the responsibility of everyone inside a company,” said Charlie Wollborg of Curve Detroit. “Social media will stop being ‘some newfangled doohickey the kids play with’ and simply become the de facto way business is done.”

If Wollborg is right and social media use continues to grow, which is likely, will consumers eventually reach a saturation point?

“As more companies build an online presence, the ability or desire for consumers to keep up with all the content generated will max out,” said Amy Mengel, a communications professional from the capital region of New York.

Mengel believes we’ll see increased filtering in 2010, particularly in the field of tools that allow people to sort, rank and prioritize content.

The sorting of information is going to be especially important to keep tabs on if you have a client targeting the younger population, says Becky Johns, communications coordinator for Delta Dental of Michigan and a member of the Millennial Generation.

“We don’t find the news anymore; the news finds us,” Johns said. “As PR pros, we need to package our messages in a way that they will actually reach young people who aren’t out trolling for what’s going on.”

She said that for the younger generations, the source is still important because the information needs to be credible, but they care more about how relevant the information is than where it comes from.

“The Internet has made everything so customizable that there is no need or room for anything not relevant to what someone is looking for,” Johns said.

“We grew up typing a set of words into a box and being fed information about whatever we want, whenever we want it. We have choices beyond the mainstream media and dealing with that reality has to be a priority for PR pros in 2010.”

A year of transition

For Jason Kintzler, founder of PitchEngine, 2010 will be the year social media is tested as a resource, perhaps because people like Johns aren’t as concerned about sources anymore.

“We’ll see some ethical questions raised,” Kintzler said. “False reports, investor mishaps and other fails will likely spark some mainstream dilemmas. People flocked to Twitter and Facebook in 2009. They began to consume news in ways never imagined. Many of them even shut off their televisions and closed the newspaper. In 2010, questions of trust will run rampant.”

Johns and Kintzler do agree that metrics will be tested this year.

“We need to take ownership of the way communication has changed,” Johns said. “Social media is still widely considered broadcast media, and the focus is all on ‘What can we put out there?’ when it really should be on ‘What can we learn from it in order to do business better?’ ”

Kintzler said success in PR and advertising will need to be measured on more than impressions alone. “With marketers getting savvy to the ways of the social web, they’ll adopt more organic ways of reaching consumers and new forms of reporting,” he said.

Get familiar with mobile apps

The use of video and mobile applications also will see an uptick in 2010, according to Kintzler and Wollborg.

“Company YouTube channels and video blogs will replace company text blogs and news feeds,” Wollborg said. “Company iPhone and Droid apps will become as ubiquitous as company Web sites, and you’ll see PR and communications firms rebrand as ‘community relations firms.’ ”

Kintzler said startup companies will see a boom as retailers find ways to connect fans and followers to their brick-and-mortar stores. “Consumers will use their smart phones on a transactional level, and retailers will salivate,” he said.

With all the buzz about social media, mobile devices and online interaction, will there be any room left for old-fashioned PR basics? Absolutely, says Sam Sims, APR, account director at Jones Public Relations in Oklahoma City.

“With the outburst of new communications tools, mediums and vehicles, successful PR practitioners will root themselves in the foundations and be successful regardless of hype,” Sims said. “What’s new to PR in 2010 is really not new. It’s the four-step process centered on communications theories. Call it retro, antique, rustic—it’s good old-fashioned PR foundation.”

Ari B. Adler is a media relations professional with experience as a newspaper reporter and editor as well as a government and corporate spokesperson. You can follow him on Twitter at @aribadler.