A Strategic Guide to Technical Communication | Rise Grind Repeat 077


Marketing and public relations aren’t the same, but you can use PR best practices to benefit your digital marketing efforts. So says Virgil Renzulli, and he would know. After more than four decades heading up strategic communications for some of the top universities in the U.S., and now with his own consulting firm, Virgil says PR gets a bad rap.

Good PR, he says, isn’t about deception and spin. It’s about making your best case to an audience without lying or stretching the truth. That’s what you want for marketing your brand. You can spin people, or you can find ways to help them while telling them the truth. Word will get around either way. In this episode Virgil lays out a strategic guide to technical communication.


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| Rise Grind Repeat 077 |


There was also a study I read a case study when I was a freshman in college inpsychology. And it was about a doomsday cult that said that the world is going to end midnight But there’s going to be a flying saucer land in my backyard at midnight Tuesday. And the people who are there will be saved, Well, at midnight, the saucer didn’t come. So some people said, this is a lot of baloney, and they left 2am it didn’t come more people left. But most of the people stayed until the following morning. And the leader of the group said, here’s what happened, your show of faith, saved the world. And the point of all this is, the more you invest in a belief, the older you are going to hold on to it. No matter how much factual information you come across.


On today’s episode of Rise, Grind, Repeat, we talked to Virgil from Virgil Communications Consulting, talking about the history of PR and a strategic guide to technical communication. Let’s dive right in. Virgil, thank you so much for joining on another episode of Rise, Grind, Repeat, I’m excited for this. Because, I mean, you have some some background in entrepreneurship and more. So you have a lot of a lot of history in the education side. You know, before this, I mean, I kind of worked over at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and helped to the digital marketing side there. And that was my full time is this was a side hustle. So huge passion for education and transferring knowledge. And, and you know, before we get too, too deep into that, I love to hear your background. I we’re getting a little bit, you know, into your time in New York and the education side. So what is


your story, and what I would, what I would mention as a preface before, before I get into that is I did teach Strategic Communications for four years at ASU at the Cronkite school. And I would say that 95% of my students either wanted to go into corporate PR, or agency PR, and the other 5% into not for profit, but usually with, you know, like Animal Rescue or, or some social service thing. I never came across a student in four years that wanted to go into university PR. And for me, that just turned out to be a I mean, I happened into it, but it turned out to be a very rich and complex experience. So I would start by by saying that I decided in graduate school actually went to the University of Pennsylvania in political science, and then went on to work graduate school marketing. And oddly enough, didn’t like it. Because what I found is there’s a difference between practicing it and studying it. And right now work school would require five years professional experience before you even consider applying there. But I decided I wanted to be a I wanted to be a novelist, I thought that would be some that could be like the greatest factor patient you could have. I was supporting myself of being a private school teacher making almost no money whatsoever. And during the summer, I would crank out these novels on a typewriter. This this goes back aways. And the third try, I thought I had really done it. And I got a actually got a read about New York literary agents and Time magazine and picked one center my manuscript, she asked me to come to New York. And she said, You know, I just paid Eric here. Now here’s how to change it and do this and do that and send me the revised copy. And then she told me she could sell the hardback rights, the soft back rights and the movie, right? Oh, wow, I actually quit my job from the small town, back to my hometown of Philadelphia. And you know, the weeks went by and the months went by, I finally decided to do a call. And when I told her who it was, she said, Who’s that again? Oh, yeah, well, I’m still working on it. So I went to bed that night. And it was like a lightning bolt hit me in the middle of the night. She’s never going to sell this book, which she didn’t.


I’m 29 years old. I have no career, and I have no future. What am I going to do now? So I thought, What’s the closest thing you can do to writing novels, you could come a newspaper reporter. And that’s what I did. And I spent seven years doing that I did, which is, by the way, great preparation for going into at least a media relations, part of PR. And but there were there were two issues for me, kind of long term. One is that if you’re working at a major news outlet, unless you’re extremely senior, you’re working nights, weekends, possibly holidays, and so it’s very hard to combine your professional life with a half decent personal life. And then kind of the flashpoint that got me to think about leaving is the lack of civility. In a newsroom as deadline approaches, people in a room 45-50 people on they’re like ‘What the heck does this mean? Why did you do that? Can’t you spell? Why don’t you do this earlier?’ And so I was suddenly I got a telephone call, I was offered an opportunity to go back to my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania to work in the news bureau. And I would, I would honestly say, I didn’t know what it involves. And this goes back to 1980. And there’s been a whole transformation in university PR, they actually started as news bureaus, they actually worked almost as many wire services. For someone like me who had come from this was perfect, I just got to write stories. And if you look at any course catalog, at a major university, and look at the subjects that are taught, and you can essentially write in almost any of those things, whether it’s, it’s quantum mechanics, or law, or social work, or education or public policy, you’ve got this wealth of information to work with. And it took me a period of time before I realized it tends to be more strategic, you have to work to support the brand and, and things of that sort. And one of my beliefs, and I actually did write a published novel on this, there’s a Roman proverb that goes, Destiny leads those who willingly follow and drags those who don’t. So I ran into a rough port. At Penn, my alma mater, I got passed over for promotion, I was young enough to get my nose out of joint or something like that. And I took a job in New York, and New York University, which turned out to be a spectacular if you’re going to do Media Relations, public relations, you want to do it in New York. And it was really the big time, I had a really good run there after a couple of years. Once again, I did not have a career path. My boss wasn’t interested in adding to her portfolio, anything other than Media Relations. And actually, I say to someone in modestly, that Columbia was the big dog in terms of universities in New York City, we beat them over a period of five years. And so they fired the person who was in charge of public relations and hired me. And I went in there, and then ultimately came with Dr. Michael Crow, from Columbia, to ASU, which was another really good move. And I guess, when I got into it all those years ago, what I what I could not have imagined, is that I not only got to write and edit, but establish a newsletter on one line newsletter, a campus newspaper, two different alumni magazines, I actually made a video on my own, my own and I managed a video unit, I got involved in government relations, community relations, part of my portfolio was k at that PBS affiliate here in Phoenix, and, and then the damaged theater got into the field in 1980. I never realized the diversity and richness of what I would end up doing. I mean, not every PR job is that way. But if you advance through your career, it gets more than reading, writing and editing things getting involved a video and government license, and community relations with so many other things. And so I’m really thankful that I made that decision in 1980, not knowing exactly what I was getting into.


I mean, I think that happens more often than not, you kind of go in thinking what you’re passionate about. And then you know, you look back 1520 years, whatever that may be, and go, Wow, where I ended up was nowhere where I thought it would be, but I’m not disappointed in that overall journey. And it sounds like you’re just huge and passionate about just overall communications. I mean, through video through PR through newspaper. I mean, what, why are you so passionate about communicating to communities to people, whatever that may be? Where did this passion come from?


Wow, that was good question. I really haven’t given any thought to that. Except that I mentioned I wanted to be a novelist. I actually wrote my first illustrated book at the age of nine. It was called strong mess, no relation to Mighty Mouse. But, uh, so I always had this kind of creative tendency. And then when I taught in private when you teach in private school, at least when I did, you don’t need any training. You just get up in front of a class and you talk and maybe you’re good, maybe you aren’t, I think it was a combination of the wanting to communicate the, the wanting to teach. So you know, I used to read a lot of books on quantum physics and the nature of reality and the nature of time which basically is my my real fascination. You know, I’d be at a football game and I start, we start saying you understand how particle physics works, how one thing can be in two places at the same time. So I think it was this need for creativity, I’m fairly good with a camera, I not only can’t paint or draw, I can hardly write or sign my name. I can’t salt. But I can I can, I can write and I can, I can make films, which obviously can be very powerful if they’re, if they’re well done. So I think it’s a combination of being wanting to be creative, wanting to share what it is that I’ve learned. And then the final thing is that I like to think strategically. And I don’t play chess, and I used to play fantasy football. But what I’ve enjoyed most I guess, in my career is going to a job where there was an office that was not functioning the way it should, and basically, has been my career for tops. And it’s like, Okay, how do I do this? How do I change how they operate? How do I change their philosophy? Do I have to change any personnel? Just what do we do? So in a sense, if you were to compare it to, to say football, I would be the general manager, who would draft the team, hire the coaches and install certain things, and then sit back and like, let it happen. And so at one point, when I was at ASU, and things could not have been going better, a friend of mine asked me to come up and view the situation at the University of Colorado Boulder, and was an absolute disaster. And after reviewing the places, giving my opinion, and writing to the airport, I was actually envious. Because I was thinking, Well, here are the moves I would make to get this particular office to be functioning properly.


That’s awesome. And I mean, it’s a what what are the commonalities that you’ve seen between those four situations where you came in and really optimized revamped it? Because I think that’s something that, you know, part of it is the perspective not being in the day to day being able to come in and be an outside perspective would help. But I think, especially right now, a lot of business owners are kind of going through and how do I revamped restructure to make my business more efficient? I mean, more digital, whatever that may be. But is there any certain commonality in terms of internal communication or organization?


Yeah, I think was a friend of mine might have said, the three P’s. It’s, it’s, it’s people, procedures, and policy. And what I think has happened, and I’m not a historian of the field of communications. But if you go back, I guess, into the post World War Two period, when there were a lot of Public Information Officers in the military, the whole country was metal, mobilized. And these people then went into PR. And I think, most schools, most people that got into PR, or even television, were trained as print journalists. Now, of course, you have programs in PR and marketing and broadcast, broadcast news, but you didn’t it. And so what happens, one of the problems is that people move over from the media into PR, and they keep acting the same way. It’s a problem I run into virtually every place, I bet. So for example, they would pick the low hanging fruit. Okay, so when I was hired at NYU, and I said in my first staff, me, an NYU is a university that had gone from almost closing its doors in the 1970s, actually moving its main campus, if you could imagine ASU moving from Tempe, to everything to downtown Phoenix. And so the Tempe campus, this is what they are doing there. And they’re saying, Oh, so what are you working on? Oh, Kathleen Turner is coming to campus this week. And this band is going to be coming to campus this week. And it’s like, wait a minute, you know, we’re not the Holiday Inn. We’re not we’re not an entertainment venue. We are a university. Why are you not working on the things that will help support our brand? And like one example, I mean, I knew this but it was it was brought home to me and pretty stark fashion by a provost. I had one of my staff people come in and say, Oh, I have a really cute story. The New York Post is interested in they were doing some renovation work in a subway in Greenwich Village. And they ran a coat bought it was no coke bottles, like, well, how old is this coke bottles like 1940s 1910 1890? Can you get an archaeologist to talk with him about the copart and you know what the previous enemy? He said to me, we have the three most important archaeological digs in the Middle East. Mostly interact. You don’t nothing on that. And now you’re doing a coke bottle in the subway. So I think there was this sense of low hanging fruit. There’s also the sense Well, what is the medium what I have to I have to make sure the media are happy. Well, yeah, that’s true. But then I would have to say, who’s paying you? I mean, who signs that object? It’s not that it’s not the media. Another thing that perhaps people who work in a corporation might not know about a university, a university, if it’s doing done right, is being running like an agency. So, so I would list our clients, the clients were present number one person, the provost. But at ASU, there were 16 schools. And within those schools, you had departments, and then you have research institutes. And then in another sense, it’s like, it’s like a staffing, commerce. Okay, so we’re gonna have a speaker of the house, guess what, you have three 450 tenured faculty members, who are all important. And if you don’t service them, they’re they’re talking to your boss. So one thing I’ve learned, for example, when I went into Columbia University, and 80% of their stories came out of the slur journalism. Well, the School of Journalism only paid 45% of their budget. And so what I had to teach them is look, you know, the School of Continuing Education is opening up an office on Broadway are about 25 years behind everybody else in terms in terms of taking education to the business. But you know, what, for the next year, it’s the single most important project they have. And so you have to, you have to focus on that. So those are a couple of things that I’ve found straight across the board, I would add to that.


So I worked at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, they’re both Ivy League schools. And academically, they’re interchangeable, but ones in Philadelphia, and one’s 90 miles away in New York, and for when you’re in New York, it’s so much easier to cover over Nashville. I, we had a Nobel laureate. One year actually, the Nobel Prize was shared between a Columbia faculty member and one in Princeton, now, Princeton’s like, I don’t know, Prince is probably 70 miles south of New York. We call the press conference, we had 32 news organizations. And I remember Stan and coming in saying, Yeah, we had a choice between going here, or 90 miles down the New Jersey Turnpike, we weren’t going to do that. So any school including ASU, we had a big challenge in the fact that you’re not local. There’s really no national media. In a Yeah, there’s a p office. And there’s a there’s a PBS and NPR. But you don’t have the major news headquarters here that you would have in New York.


Now, that makes sense. And I mean, a lot of great insights there. And I think the biggest thing there is, it seems like what happened is you went in and kind of reminded people what the ultimate vision is of this business, what are our business goals? What is it that we want accomplish? And I think that again, as you get in the day to day, you kind of lose that long term vision on what are we trying to serve? What What problems are we trying to solve, and you get more into while we’re trying to appease this audience, and it just takes a step, taking a step back and really looking at it and steering that ship in the right direction.


When I would apply for a job, and usually the latter part of my Caribbean management jobs Associate Vice President, Vice President, that when I said, What do you say most to recommend yourself? I said, Well, first of all, I understand the role My office is supposed to play in supporting the institutional goals. And to me, that’s number one. Because if you don’t understand that, and you really can’t be very successful. Yep. No, I


couldn’t agree more. And something you mentioned is, as you were going into that is one thing you noticed, you know, you’re no historian on the communications and all that. But one thing you did notice was when people were coming from radio and trying to get on TV, it’s the reason that TV to really try and serve radio ads and not changing the communication based off of that particular channel. Is this something that has always been a trend? Because I, you know, I’m big into digital marketing and working with people that have been in traditional radio and traditional TV, they try and take the same tactics and strategies and apply it to digital.


Yeah, I think that’s probably true. In fact, you know, I’m a Marx Brothers fan. And if you look at the first Marx Brothers movie, it was in the 30s. And it was, it was a stage play, they move made into a movie, and you know, what, they shot it as a stage play. Kind of stationary camera, and that was that was like it. So I think that’s part of it. I know, I kind of go both ways with that. I mean, I kind of left the practice of the field. Let me make this parallel. First, I think I have a decent visual sense. And I would look at videos produced by channel eight. And I would say, Well, I think you know, the music is off proficiency, you need more of this, you need a better patient, but I would not hire myself to be my own videographer. You know, I don’t have those skills. And I feel that way. about social media and digital media, I have a good sense of it. I’ve actually taught it. But I’ve never done that. And I think what happens is that, you know, so in my area, I managed Media Relations and publications, and marketing and branding and social media, and community relations and carrier relations, yet my hands on experience was only in one of those fields. Some of us were a little hesitant to use a field where you couldn’t go in and replace your own staff member. But not the other way I look at this, I’ve been in the business a while and when I started in 1980, we mailed out news releases, and we had actually a cat we had 600 categories of media that we we send people to I mean, for example, you would have local Philadelphia newspapers, business asset is just chasing desk artists, all that. And what the office manager would do is she would run off multiple copies and store them of the envelopes. And then what you would do is you would write your news release, you get a releases, you punch out the different places you want to get it. I mean, you had a staff of people that would sec staff the stuff the news release into the letter and mail it. Well, then along comes in it was Rutgers University, they were really ahead of the curve. They were they were faxing, news releases. And then of course, you could email these releases. And then of course, you could put them on websites. And I’ve always felt and I’m a bit of a London, London, I wonder. Alight, those were the people that were against the Industrial Revolution. But I think the you have to respect the format. But I still put a great deal of priority to the message. And, and maybe I feel like that’s my specialty, and somebody can help me shape it for TV or whatever. I mean, for example, I get maybe I get overly concerned about this stuff. There’s, there’s a new type of frozen food, and I live on frozen foods. And I see the packets in the store. But I’ve never seen a commercial. Last week I saw the first television commercial was for macaroni and cheese, which was something I like, right? So is this guy on the fishing because it’s called devour and they want to bring fish into it. So they take this package open package, a macaroni and cheese and they have it floating on the water. Or God pops out of the water he grabs it. So all I can visualize is my macaroni and cheese is now wet. What really made you think about this, and there’s a Domino’s Pizza commercial, where they talk about well, you know, now we’ve got takeout, and a guy walks out and he has a thing of a piece of box. And he throws it at the core like or hits the window and it goes down and all I can think of what a pizza looks like. When all the cheese slides to the bottom. It’s like what makes you think that’s appealing? You know what I saw? I focus so much on on the message. And I certainly realized that there’s different ways to do this. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in social media, particularly like any university, doing student recruitment, to start with some kind of content marketing. Because in my view, the average high school kid doesn’t know what they want to do for their lives. life’s work. If they do know, they don’t know what classes they have to take. And if they knew do know the classes, they don’t know where which institution to go to, to take them. So I mean, that’s an opportunity for something you can do, where you can build to your marketing efforts. The other thing I would point out, and again, I would say I’m not a real big techie. So I lose, you know, we’re


got perfect


back in like 1999 or 2000. When I was Columbia, Columbia, I recognized how the web could circumvent the media. And so we actually created a c span of Columbia University. Or in one year we did 97 little two and three minute interviews of faculty on all kinds of topics such as you know, the new group of leaders in the Middle East. We also then videoed 125 in one nine month period, symposia and conferences and had them on our website and the average conference would get maybe 2000 viewers is not as much as c span. But if you’re doing 125 of them, and most of the most of the, and you can tell that most of those people are coming from other Ivy League schools. That’s tremendously important. So usually with the media, you have this two step process, you’ve got to first communicate and cultivate with the media, then you want to go through them to another audience. And I think what digital media does is give you an opportunity to go straight to the to the person is the end product, the end user.


Yeah, it’s the the direct to consumer, essentially. And I love everything that you said, I mean, that the whole content marketing, and what is that you want to do was a huge proponent of that and trying to get that going at the Teachers College. But you know, kind of a lot of the things that you brought up with, you know, the direction of commercials and whatnot doesn’t really communicate the right message. I think a lot of people do understand or appreciate that you do need to communicate what you do as a business, what solutions you bring to the table. But I think everyone always stumbles on the Okay, well, how do I do this? Now? Do you have any tips on on how a business or someone could do that successfully, to where they’re not, you know, miscommunicating what it is that they do? And not really get get what it is they’re trying to communicate across?


Yeah, I’ll tell you how I would go about and sort of what I did an issue. And let me say, just to give you some background, and you know, some of this from your time with the teachers, colleges, but there are hundreds of universities, if you include colleges and junior community colleges think they’re 5000 colleges and universities. And some of them are extremely expensive, the most important, biggest expenditure you make in your life, and probably the most important. And if you were to go back 50 years ago, 75 years ago, 100 years ago, what would be the top corporations? I mean, you wouldn’t have Google, you wouldn’t have Amazon, wouldn’t Microsoft, go back 100 years, you still have Harvard, Princeton and Yale, or in the higher education space is really difficult to, to move up. And it’s really difficult to get a different message. I mean, I watch a lot of college football, I watch they have time they flex your future starts here, be all over you can be. So what I would suggest, and what I did it is here we took four months to come up with a new brand is to talk to people. Everybody, you can’t have a senior administrators, mid level administrator, faculty, students, members of the community, alumni, political leaders. First of all, you have to have this a sense of what the place, what are you. Also, the president of Columbia University, who is also I believe, the president of Rice University have described his job is it’s my job to figure out what a university is, and make it more of what it is, I would say his job should be making more of what it can be here. And so that’s what you want to do you want to find out. So one experience I had when I was at the University of Pennsylvania, it was considered the 14th best university in the country, and wanted to be Stanford. And you know what, I couldn’t make it Stanford. It’s not Stanford, I would go to New York University, and their president. And he was, he was an interesting guy, because he was really kind of a he wasn’t a typical academic. He was from Brooklyn and proud of it. And he used to say you lose to plead with the lawyers. Are you with Ted, and we did videos. And if you want to go to school in a cornfield, don’t even look at us. You know, go to MIT, go to Kansas, if you want to go to school up against the world, if you want to go to a place that doesn’t have any grass, but its village, its campus is granite village, and the most exciting city in the world and come to New York. And that was right, you can’t appeal to everybody. You can’t be what you’re not. So figure out what it is you are. So you want to find a really good way of figuring out what it is and how you can develop that. And then how can you express it? And I think the only really real issue is that, how do you how do you differentiate yourself? So give me an example where we were able to do it. As I said earlier, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University to Ivy League schools. They’re both about 270 years old. They’re both excellent. They both have great research. What differentiates? Well, the difference is Columbia’s in New York. Also, they have something called a great books collect curriculum, so their entire recruitment video was on the great books in New York City.


That that that Awesome. I mean, everything that you just mentioned there, I mean, it’s kind of to tie it back to small businesses and whatnot, a lot, a lot of creative gets done and just let’s get it to market without taking the time to research. Who are we? What problems are we solving? And who are the people this involves? Because then you’re kind of just producing off of assumptions, rather than what people actually want? How do they perceive you? Is this an actual problem? And I think I think that’s a big missing piece, when it comes to a lot of a lot of marketing strategies is, is that research and validation? On? If If we go to market with this, is this going to be perceived? Well, are we going to communicate what we’re trying to accomplish and get that across properly?


I mean, when I when I was in graduate school, there was a cookware company, we had a special project. And say, from like 30 million, during the Great Depression, million a year to 5 million in 1968, which is quite a drop off, consider inflation. And we we showed, I mean, the company didn’t do this, we show their product to their consumers, a panel of consumers, and they absolutely, they didn’t like it. And there were a lot of problems with it. And I don’t think they had ever done that. And then I think two is, is testing the messages. Are people getting what it is that you’re doing, I think, and I realized, too, when you when you look at look at some of the stuff that said, What’s on TV now, it’s so extreme, because how do you get it? How do you get attention? Right, so how do you? How do you balance getting someone’s attention and talking about your brand or marketing advantage? And doing it in a compelling way? And that’s what I think is really critical?


Yeah. All as that attention span is decreasing, decreasing, decreasing. So it’s like, how do you do all that and used to be 30 to 62nd spots? Now? It’s 15. And YouTube now has six second spots? I mean, it’s, you get having the ability to do that is where there’s tons of whitespace. But I mean, do you have any tips on on how someone can consolidate that or figure out how to how to do that and such, you know, I


think the only two things you can do, you can you can do a lot of research. And, you know, starting internally working out, and then you need to test your different approaches, and then find out which one may work best. And, you know, actually, I keep thinking of higher education, that’s a really, it’s a really tough space to be in. Mainly because, I mean, therefore, there are four or 5000 brands, and they’re all offering English and marketing and biology. But I’ll tell you the, believe it or not, is going to sound crazy. But a show that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t like reality television, but I like to show Bar Rescue. Or if you’ve ever seen it, I love it. It’s this marketing thing. Okay, so there’s a guy who has a bar with a golf simulator. And Laurie have it like golf? Well, that’s, you know, that’s not the point. It’s, and then there was a who kolache in Omaha, Nebraska, and a tab or tab or comes in and says, you know, in the whole town, they’re like 3000 people that smoke cuckoos here in the woods, but I like, what you’re burning your own customers. So I think what you have to guard against, you have to you have to guard against the assumption of what you like other people will like, I also what I found in, in media relations, is what I would call the the baby pictures, syndrome that people have, you know, I would say, you know, at the time, my son was about six months old, he was really very handsome. And I say you see this baby picture? Isn’t that like the greatest picture you’ve ever seen? I don’t think I could sit tell it to the New York Times. I mean, it’s important to me, but it’s not somebody else. So you have clients who say, you know, what is the 75th anniversary of our School of Social Work? Yeah. Why should anybody care about that? Or there would be an alumni event to which you’re not invited? So I think it’s like getting out of yourself. Not, not I you know, I guess my bottom line would be, if you actually do have a competitive advantage of some sort, you can do it. And if you don’t have a competitive advantage, then you’re really stuck. You know, if you’re one more coffee shop, if you one more sandwich shop, if you’re one more University, then you then you have to, you have to back down, and then again, you know, one of the things about marketing and this is certainly true in places like the appealing History. This was a big deal back in the post World War Two era when the styles of cars began to change, how do you change the product? So for example, I’m affiliated with a digital marketing firm in Philadelphia, or putting a proposal for a college in in the panhandle of Florida. I’ve been in the field for 35 years, I never heard of this. And in Florida, you have a lot of, I think Florida is right after California, a number of schools. And the only thing I could think of as lucky you got to change your focus, you’re in an area where there are a lot of military bases. And so what you need to do is you need to construct programs that focus on that. And they would be not only your lead, but maybe your bread and butter.


I absolutely love that. Because it’s I mean, when I started in digital marketing, he was helping with google google ads and all that. And it was it was the the ugly baby conversation. And it’s, well, we’re getting we’re driving that or we’re driving traffic, but it’s not converting and it’s like, yeah, you go back to the website, you’ll love it. But it’s sometimes a conversation because you you love it, but what your customer see is something different. And I think to your point on the differentiators, it’s if you’re having a hard time figuring out how to clearly say that in 30 seconds or whatever that may be. Maybe it’s not that it’s the communication, it’s that you haven’t dug deep enough to figure out how you’re different. And then it might be going back to the drawing boards on on that which then could be do we change our products? Do we change your business models? Which I mean, a lot of people are going through at this moment?


Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, that if you can’t express it, maybe you haven’t you haven’t hit upon it.


Yeah, no, I I agree. And, you know, been talking a lot about the history and everything on on communications, I mean, with everything evolving with technology and everything. I mean, what do you see the future of communication looking? Like? I mean, it’s not getting any easier to try and reach everyone, all these different devices and and platforms and whatnot. I mean, what what does the future look like for communication?


Wow, you know, I just saw something this morning, where, and I’m not gonna remember the name of what it is. You may want to know it. But AOC, Alexandria, Virginia, she did a fundraising event yesterday online. Maybe it’s called ticket, something like that. But where you can, you can have conversations to play video games. So I think what’s happening is this great fragmentation of things, we’re still in it where it is going to get more difficult. For example, there was a period of time in the 1950s, when there were only three television networks. And if you’re going to introduce Elvis Presley, or introduce the beat the Beatles, you did the Ed Sullivan Show at eight o’clock on Sunday night on CBS. Well, you still have, you know, three major news networks now. cable networks is still up, you know, I can’t find a new york times a print, I have to read it online, because Star Wars does. And one of the things I did and this is this is what I worry about. I have a theory of media relations, that’s based on the capital campaign fundraising approach that universities use. So if you’re going to have a fundraising campaign, you’re going to have categories, you’re going to have thousand dollar donors $50,000 donors 100,000 bucks, if you’re lucky, you’re going to have 100 million dollars. Well, how many hundred million dollars does it take to have 100 million? Wow. And as you got that from Mr. Full, and they haven’t gotten to $50 million gifts. Okay, how many thousand dollar gifts? Do you need to equal 100 million? The answer is 100,000. What I found in working at universities, that the staff are working on the $50 stories. And so what I tried to do is I tried to work on the hundred million dollar story when I got one foot from enter NYU, and that is an institutional profile well displayed at a national publication. And we got a 2400 word story on the front page of the New York Times above the fold. Wow, word pictures in two graphs I heard from people all around the country. I’d never be able to do that again. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you the other thing that worries me which which I’ve been thinking about a lot. I thought one of the things we might talk about is why PR has such a bad reputation. But I’m really worried now about what’s happened on the political front of that And it’s driving me crazy. There’s so much lying so much deflection. I sit there and watch these interviews. I said, Please just answer the question. You’ve got all these names, or Bad’s? Right. And so it’s very, it’s it’s not only so the people who are in the advocacy business, the people who are trying to convince you of something is PR people. Yeah, it was marketers, it’s it’s lobbyists as politicians. But now, it’s also the news media itself. And so if you watch MSNBC, versus Fox or Fox versus MSNBC, you’re in two different universes. Yep. And so there’s now this absolute difficulty and getting somebody to believe anything that’s not from their news source from their tribe. That’s the political world. I don’t know what it’s gonna be like in the future. But is that going to carry into other areas, too? Is there going to be just complete distrust of what other people say? I mean, this is always kind of been the case that people want to believe in what they would like to believe. I think there was a study done back during the Bush administration, that every time you challenge somebody about a political belief, you will you won’t convince them you get them to dig deeper to support their presentation. And there was also a study, I read a case study when I was a freshman in college and psychology. And it was about a doomsday cult that said that the world is going to end Minda. But there’s going to be a flying saucer land in my backyard at midnight Tuesday. And the people who are there will be saying, Well, at midnight, the saucer did come. So some people said this is a lot of baloney. And they left 2am it didn’t come more people. But most of the people stayed until the following morning. And the leader of the group said,


here’s what happened, your show of faith, save the world. And the point of all this is, the more you invest in a belief, the longer you’re going to hold to it, no matter how much factual information you come across. So, you know, so I think now, it’ll be very interesting to see what happens in 2021. I mean, just when you look at something as serious as a pandemic, you either believe is killed 220,000 Americans and may kill twice as many more, or you believe it’s a media thing. If you can believe something that that is so important to your health.


What are you going to believe from a marketer? Yep. Yeah.


And I mean, how do you think something like that, like, that gets solved? I don’t know if there is a solve for it. But I totally hear where you’re coming from. It’s a it’s tough. And I mean, I think that there’s gonna be more I think there is more wanting of kind of a neutral party or a neutral news source. And and I think there’s going to be a growing trend of that, where you’re going to have maybe little shops pop up that deliver unbiased news or whatever that that may be. I mean, but, you know, are people actually gonna listen to it? Because I totally agree. It’s, it’s, you can have a headline, and whether it’s positive or negative is all dictated based off of that person telling the story.


Here’s a problem I think you had. And I ran into this when I was teaching, and I was teaching, strategic communications, basically, PR, and I did not want to get into politics. But the most important PR person visit PR job in the country is being the President’s folks. And the first thing Sean Spicer said, was that this was the biggest crowd ever attended in all worlds. And the news media presented pictures showing that wasn’t. So the problem is, if the washington post is correct, how do you not point that out? And you say, well, in the interest of being neutral, I’m not going to tell you that wearing a mask really works, because there’s some people who thinks that married wearing a mask doesn’t work. But you know, what I would say on an individual level, is that it is possible for an individual PR person to have a lot of credibility. And that means I think, number one, you have to work for an organization that is ethical and credible. And then they have to allow you to do that. And Columbia University is a very ethical institution. But there was a day when the executive vice president told me to lie to the media. I wasn’t going to do it. I went to my boss and I said, if she forces me to do that I’m quitting. He said, I’m going to quit with you We went in, we took one more chance to talk her out of it, and we succeeded. So what we need are more john mccain’s who will say what they believe to be true, regardless of the consequences, and that’s going to be a long haul, where you can get back to people believing in first individuals and then later on in institutions, because you know, if you go back to the 50s, if you read any books on the 50s, or anything, a president said, People believed people in authority said they believed it was a completely different world. So I think that what’s going to have to happen is a lot of individual behavior has to be changed. And then maybe you’re right. You know, we start with shorts, short, small shops, that will be honest, that will change it, by the way, I’ve always been curious about this is the strangest advertising campaign I’ve ever seen. It was about five, four or five years ago, when Domino’s Pizza, did a series of focus groups, where people tore their product report, or it was like, the crust is awful. It’s the worst sauce I’ve ever had. It was like, catch it. And he did this for six months. And then they came back and with a new product, and then went back to some of the same people. And I don’t know how well that worked out for them. But that would really be, you know, something that would get us on the right track. And kind of related to that. One of the things that I’ve personally never understood, and you could look at the Boy Scouts, Catholic Church, five or six major universities, and probably both the Boeing Corporation, if you have a problem somewhere in your organization is an organizational wide, it could be one person, two people to be a group of people could be a bad product, it could be whatever. And for fear of getting bad PR for that little thing, you covered up and you let it go on. And then what happens is the whole place comes down. So you have all the presidents of Baylor University, Michigan State University, can state universities, all having to lose their jobs, because they wouldn’t tell the truth about sexual misconduct within the universities. And so that is another example of think of where people just sort of have to be honest and have credibility.


Yeah, no, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, it goes back to how I grew up, what my dad taught me is that if you tell a lie, it’s lying get deeper and deeper and deeper. And it’s just, yeah, couldn’t agree on all fronts. And before we kind of kind of wrap it up, I’d love to touch on what you mentioned, on PR having a bad name, I’d love to get your thoughts on that. I mean, we don’t dive into the the PR side a whole lot. But there’s a lot that we’re trying to work with PR firms on because there’s a lot of synergy between PR and SEO and digital and all that type of stuff.


But I think there’s I think there’s a misunderstanding of what it is you’re supposed to do. In my class, I would compare it to a law case where you having a, you have a defense attorney and a prosecuting attorney. And and both are supposed to give the best defense they can, without breaking any rules. You don’t hide evidence, you don’t, you know, let people perjure themselves. And that, to me is what PR is, is to make the best case you can for your client or employer. without, without stretching the truth without lying. You know, in a lot of cases where there’s more than one perspective, but I think a lot of people just think that your your job is to spend deceive convinced. And then I think you do have people who are unethical in the field. But then I when I mentioned earlier, I think maybe the biggest problem right now is that PR people get lumped into this category of people who are advocating and trying to convince us things. And that includes advertisers and marketing people and not that advertising isn’t part of marketing, but it’s the what we see most. And then you have politicians and others. And so it’s like everybody is trying to convince you of something all the time. The way I think you need to approach it is you have to be you just have to be as ethical and useful as as you possibly can. So for example back in. I have professional friends who are in the news. And I know that if there’s a problem, they’re going to hit. That’s their job. And they also know that if there’s something else I’m not supposed to tell them because financial, I’m not gonna violate that confidentiality. So I started a media dinner in New York City in 1988, to bring together university presidents and members of the national news media to discuss issues in higher education. And what was different about it was what we weren’t lecturing them. It wasn’t a podium, it wasn’t a presentation. They were full and equal partners to this conversation. And this lasted, is now 33 years, I did a virtual one in December in September, we actually have 45 Media around the come the country in it. And these are people I’ve been dealing with, with 12 years, 20 years, and longer. So I think you need to have that. That kind of relationship. I know my there was a fellow I know who was like marginally associated with my family, who wasn’t the smartest man in the world, aluminum salesman. And he was so kind of challenged as his wife, for the first week had to go with him in the car show was rude. He was incredibly successful, because he was honest. And so I don’t think you can. And I think there’s a there is a there’s a trainee, individual PR person or firm is a great advantage that, you know, I make some weird connections in my life. There is a, or was a frozen food company in Philadelphia called Mrs. Paul’s kitchen. And they made crab cakes, and then a fish sticks. And it was a family owned business. And I saw the I saw the owner on television one night. And they said, well, what’s your secret to success? He said, Well, this is what we’ve done. This is false. We have taken a business in which is easily to shortchange the public, we can put second rate fish in there, we can put filler in there. But we don’t we give them a one product. And we could get away with doing it. I think, you know, that’s, there’s a lesson in PR. You could spend people you can also tell them the truth.


Yeah. And the truth is always what’s going to come back and generate the results that you want. I mean, at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. No, I, this has been great. And as we kind of kind of wrap this up, I mean, lots of learning. I mean, there’s a lot that I’ve learned through this. I mean, if there’s someone that’s trying to figure out how to just communicate just better with their audience, I mean, one of the biggest pieces of advice is that our biggest piece of advice you’d have to give to them?


Is I would say that, if it’s, well, it depends on which part of the communication or so. So you basically have got, obviously any communications got two pieces. And the first is, what’s the message? And the message has to do with what I was talking about earlier, which is making you know, what’s your competitive advantage? Why are you different? How’s it fact base? How can you express it in a creative and concise way that will have impact. The other thing is, what channel Are you is a few 10 years, 12 years, I was bored of the Urban League, and the Urban League, you know, it’s a group that fosters diversity. And most of their members are 4050 and 60. And most of their fundraising comes from an annual dinner that they have where they sell tables, and an annual golf outing that they have. They didn’t have a marketing person. So they decided to hire a digital marketing person. I said, Well, wait a minute. I mean, who is that geared to? You’re talking about corporate executives who are going to buy tables, and golf courses. So you have to know just like I mentioned AOC with this, please, she did last night online, you have to know what channel your audience reaches. So and whether or not the channel is appropriate to the message. So I think you have to look at those two things. And it’s always doing a certain amount of research inside and outside and then testing it, testing it, see what you come up with. And I think certainly, and my son is a software engineer and my, my daughter in law is a digital marketing person. The great advantage is there. You can know everything, right? You can know who’s looking at your stuff, who’s moving on to the next page, who’s converting where they tuned out. And so there’s an enormous enormous advantage in that. And I guess the final thing I would say, taking from science is somebody once was asked some great scientist I don’t know who was how do new scientific theories take hold. And he said is one of the people that hold the old theories die out and I think what you have to realize Lies now is that it’s a youth country. The youth are the you know, if you look at the political agendas right now, if you look at the political world, what they would say is like in the state of Arizona, is mostly kids in the majority of kids in high school or Hispanic. So if you’re in politics or if you’re in if you are in marketing, what does that tell you? What What do Hispanics I mean, there are market as it is now, how much work you should do should be in Spanish language, how much of it should be targeted to Hispanic population in English? And if not now, what, five or 10 years so you have to look at the future and you need to be prepared to change.


I absolutely love every every piece of that and it couldn’t agree more especially with the the amount of data and analytics that we have. And and we have a little acronym here a b t, which is always be testing and although none of us are great copywriters through testing, we can hone in on that message. But there’s an abundance of opportunity and figuring out that how to land on that message through and through data and whatnot.


So there was a I’ll tell you one more quick story. When I was in graduate school taking communication theory. They what they would do is they would they took two students up to the blackboard, there was a divider between them. And then they would show a one student a picture of a tree and say, right now you talk without that person looking at, you talk the other person into drawing that tree, right? Never happened, except somebody said, Excuse me, would you walk around the divider until the look at the tree. Okay, so when you communicate, you know what you’re supposed to say? You’re not a tester that you already know, you can’t get it wrong. At least you want other people to tell you if you’re even in the race.


That was great. And Virgil, thank you so much for the time today.


I really appreciate it. This


has been great. I mean, if there’s anyone that that wants to reach out and connect with you, I mean, how can someone find you?


Yeah, my email is my name and Yahoo. So it’s Virgil vi er, gi l.rb, and z you ll [email protected] Glad to talk to anyone.


Awesome. Thanks so much again for the time.


Take care

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