Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Welch Way

Serendipity plays a role in any successful publicity campaign. It's the break you didn't see coming that pretty much falls in your lap, and by definition it comes from an unexpected source. This happened for me recently, and the unexpected source behind it was Jack Welch.

I worked with Jack and his wife Suzy a few years ago when their bestselling book Winning was published. (Suzy's been highly visible lately promoting her own book, 10-10-10. Some book flack somewhere is doing a great job.) I always found Jack to be an energizing figure--decisive, of course, and demanding in the best sense. You always came out of a meeting with him more juiced about the project than when you went in.

When that Publishers Weekly essay about my layoff experience ran back in February I forwarded it to Jack's office as an FYI. I didn't really expect a response, but in fact he replied with a lovely note, calling the essay "a beautiful piece over such a difficult situation" and noting that "it is filled with lessons." He thanked me for sharing it and wished me all the best in the days ahead. I figured having Jack's good wishes couldn't be a bad thing, and thought that would be the end of it. But there was more to come.

A couple of weeks later he got in touch again to let me know that he and Suzy alluded to my essay in their regular BusinessWeek column The Welch Way. "Hope this saves a few from the experience you went through," he wrote. It would be nice to think that it did.

Incidentally, the folks over at Publishers Weekly connected the dots between The Welch Way column and my essay in their enewsletter PWDaily. Serendipity played a much smaller role in this break--I shamelessly called it to their attention.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Word About Flacks

Some visitors to this blog claim ignorance of the term "flack" as applied to publicists, press agents, or public relations reps. Clearly they don't spend a lot of time trolling the Oxford English Dictionary. (I can't recall just now who said, "The only book I read is the dictionary--I figure all the other books are in there.") The second definition listed by the OED (after "A blow, slap, or stroke") is "A press agent; a publicity man." I consulted an older edition, so presumably they've cleaned up that bit of casual sexism.

Flack is a versatile word. It can be used as a noun to refer to those who practice the gentle arts cited above. (A good example can be found in this headline from yesterday's Toronto Star: "Ex-Bush Flack Got $24,500 Canadian," a reference to former White House spokesman--whoops, I mean spokesperson--Ari Fleischer.) Flack can also be used as a transitive verb--as in, "I used to flack books"--or an intransitive verb--as in, "I'm not flacking for that publisher anymore" (to cite two totally random examples).

The term "flack" is almost always used in a disparaging way. I chose it because I happen to be one, and by applying it to myself I somehow remove the firing pin, neutralize the warhead, and disarm the thing. Truth is, the term has never really bothered me.

There are some PR pros out there who get their backs up when they hear it. I call your attention to Gil Schwartz, executive VP of communications for CBS. Some months ago Gil gave a spirited defense of the public relations profession on "CBS Sunday Morning," in response to a commentary by legal analyst Andrew Cohen a few weeks earlier. Gil paid particular attention to Cohen's use of the word "flack."

If Gil seems familiar to you, it may be that you know him better as Stanley Bing, author of a regular column in Fortune Magazine and a number of outstanding books, among them Executricks...Or How to Retire While You're Still Working and Crazy Bosses.

In my former life, I spent a lot of time flacking Bing's books. I think it's a worthwhile experience for a flack to flack for a flack. Especially an executive VP űberflack. Especially one with two personalities. It was a pretty good gig.

Monday, April 27, 2009


One week after my segment on Fox News--about five weeks after I'd been laid off--I found myself on CNN's daytime program "CNN Newsroom," hosted by the wonderful Kyra Phillips.

What happened was this: I had shared my "Fox & Friends" appearance with Corinna Lamb, a producer I knew at CNN, and she thought I might work for a segment she was developing. This was to be part of a special programming initiative that would feature segments about unemployment and the recession across all the shows at CNN for an entire week. The idea was to have me appear as someone recently laid off, and pair me up with an expert, yet to be determined, who would give me advice.

I'd managed to not fall off my stool during the Fox interview, and hadn't fainted or vomited on Brian Kilmeade, so I figured I was a shoo-in. Corinna is the cautious type, however, and wanted to talk it out a bit before committing. Thanks to her probing questions, we came up with three good topics that are genuine concerns for most people looking for a job: Effective networking; getting comfortable with promoting yourself; and using sites like LinkedIn and Facebook to find employment opportunities.

In the end I was paired up with bestselling author David Bach, whose new book is Fight For Your Money. When I met David in the green room just prior to the segment, he asked if I had a business card. I said no, and offered him a résumé instead. "You don't have a business card?" he said. Uh-oh, I thought, because his tone made it sound like I'd just confessed ignorance of the Pledge of Allegiance. Sure enough, David took me to task on that point during the interview, as you'll see if you watch the clip. I tell people that David overlooks the strategic advantage of having to give him a full résumé because, oops, I don't have a business card. I try to make them believe this was a tactic I thought of ahead of time. Nobody buys it.

I was put in a tiny studio by myself--just me, a desk, and an automated camera staring me in the face. Behind me a window looked out on Columbus Circle, but at the last minute they rolled in a fake cityscape backdrop because it was too cloudy outside. David Bach was in the same building but in another studio.

Kyra Phillips points out something in her introduction that I'd forgotten: The day before I was laid off, I'd booked an author on that very same show. The author in question is Dave Kansas, and here's a curious coincidence: About an hour before my appearance, as I was killing time at the Border's store in Time Warner Center, I overheard someone ask for Dave's book by name. There was no mistaking it because the title is irresistible: The Wall Street Journal Guide to the End of Wall Street as We Know It.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Musical Interlude

Anyone concerned about the plight of independent bookstores will either be amused or appalled by the opening lines of Al Stewart's song "Elvis at the Wheel" from his 2008 CD Sparks of Ancient Light. Goes like this:
There's an independent bookstore
The last one that remains
All the others you might look for
Have been eaten by the chains
They soldier on
No one cleans the window panes

Here the song's narrator comes across a book that recounts a bizarre episode in which Elvis Presley sees the face of Joseph Stalin forming in the clouds. I have no idea what book this might be. Anyone know?

Incidentally, another song on the CD, "Shah of Shahs," was inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski's book of the same name. The book's got a good pace, but I can't dance to it.

Fox & Friends, Act Two

Feedback about my appearance on "Fox & Friends" ran the gamut from "You looked serious" to "You looked kind of stern." (Note to self: Try to lighten up.) Fortunately my fearsome visage did not deter the brave Lisa Takeuchi Cullen from posting the segment on her blog "Act Two," found on the new Web news site True/Slant.

I'm not being facetious when I describe Lisa as brave. A journalist, Lisa walked away from a terrific job at Time Magazine in the middle of an economic meltdown to pursue her dream of screenwriting. "Act Two" is about creating that kind of second act in your life, and is something of a high-wire performance. Lisa's dream is a work in progress and the outcome is not at all certain. (Lisa is also the author of a terrific book, which is how I got to know her. Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death is the most entertaining book about funerals you'll ever read.)

Another bit of feedback I got about Fox came from a producer at CNN, who said, "Maybe you and I should talk about future segments." But more about that another day.

A couple of things about the Fox experience: I'd been to their green room many times before, accompanying authors who were appearing on the show. Usually the author would be escorted to the set, and I'd stay behind to pick at the fruit plate. This time I was brought to the set and plunked down on a stool with those bright lights shining in my eyes. It's good experience for a publicist to know what it's like to be on the other side of the camera.

The other thing is, Jack Hanna was on after us and brought a menagerie with him, including a hyena, some flamingos, and a perfectly adorable baby cheetah. (As I have a strict policy of not posting cat pictures on this blog, you can see the segment with the cheetah here.) There was also a monstrous Burmese python, I'd say about 10-12 feet long, lying in the hall when we came back from the set. We had to literally step over him to get back into the green room. He just lay there, sluggish. He wasn't impressed by my fearsome visage either.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Breaking News!

I'm interrupting the leisurely flow of this blog to bring you breaking news about--well, about this blog. I refer to the generous comments made today by BusinessWeek senior editor Diane Brady in the "Management IQ" blog at

We book flacks know BusinessWeek to be a particularly book-friendly operation. With her deep appreciation for books and authors, Diane embodies that spirit perfectly. Every author I ever sent to meet with her came away impressed, because she prepares thoroughly for each interview and poses challenging, informed questions. This approach takes some authors completely by surprise because they're not used to it, but I never knew an author yet who didn't appreciate it.

Diane is also a friend to the lowly book publicist, ready to offer guidance about the best point of entry to the magazine for a particular book.

Rumor has it Diane has her own book coming up later this year. I hope she gets to be interviewed by someone as good as she is. Or maybe she should just do what Stephen Colbert did and interview herself.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Taking It Like A Man

On March 9th--just one day shy of a month since I lost my job--I appeared on the Fox News Channel's morning show "Fox & Friends" to talk about how being laid off affects men. As I am a) a man, and b) laid off, I was in a position to bring a certain authority and gravitas to the discussion.

This interview was part of an ongoing series called "Faces of the Recession." I appeared on a panel with two other unemployed men: William Scheckel, a marketing executive who'd been laid off from a consultancy serving the asset management world, and Jonathan Steuer, who had worked for a market research firm. We did two segments together. I got a bit more air time in the second one, so of course that hasn't been posted. However, here is the first segment, which, unfortunately, is called "Taking It Like a Man."

This came about because of two Fox producers who were on the ball. The first was someone I'd worked with, booking authors on the network. I alerted her after I lost my job, and she replied to express her sympathy, but she did something else as well: She forwarded my email to a colleague who was working on "Faces of the Recession."

This second producer gave me a call at home and asked me a lot of questions about my background and experience. She said she would keep in touch and I thought that would be the end of it. But she was true to her word, and good at her job. A couple of weeks later she called me again to see if I wanted to participate in a segment, and the next thing I knew, I was in the Fox green room at 6:15 am scarfing down coffee and banana nut muffins.

Confidence Game

Immediately after I was laid off, I did what you do in those circumstances: sent emails to everyone I could think of, telling them I'd lost my job and suggesting, in as proper and decorous a manner as possible, that they'd better drop everything and help me find another one or God knows what would become of me and it would all be on their heads. Something to that effect, anyway.

When I began this process, I could almost hear my confidence leaving my body. It sounds a lot like whining. Who could I call upon? Who did I know? Did I even have any good industry contacts? I was convinced that most of the people I knew in the business had just been laid off with me.

Which was nonsense. I knew more people than I realized--so do you. After a layoff, it is a useful and necessary exercise to go through your Outlook contacts, your files, the business cards you've accumulated, your mental Rolodex and determine just how big a network you have. You will almost certainly be surprised, as I was, and you'll feel a lot better.

This slight bump in self-esteem will help you deal with the next confidence sapper that will rear up and bite you: Has it been too long since I've been in touch? Will they resent me for trying to contact them after so much time--especially with my motives so transparent? Will they just hit delete when they see my name in their inbox?

Well, maybe they will, and maybe you'd deserve it--but give them the benefit of the doubt. In my experience, people will come through for you with expressions of sympathy, offers of help, practical suggestions and even specific leads. People you haven't spoken to in years.

Which leads to one final challenge to your confidence: I don't deserve friends like these. Still working on that one.

To Quote Lazlo Bane, I'm No Superman

One of the inescapable ironies of my situation is that shortly before I was laid off, I publicized a book called Bulletproof Your Job. It offers a number of strategies for avoiding a pink slip by making yourself a visible and valued employee, not only to your boss but to your boss's boss. It's a smart approach, but it comes with no guarantees. I'm pretty confident I was visible to and valued by my boss and my boss's boss, right up to the moment all three of us were booted out the door. Unfortunately, there's always another layer of boss. This űberboss is often the one who will determine your fate, and when they decide to shut down the entire division you work for, you can wear Kevlar and be from Krypton and still take the hit. These days, no one is bulletproof. Some layoff scenarios are just too apocalyptic to survive, even for the visible and valued.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bullish on Gloria

Gloria McDonough-Taub writes the wonderful "Bullish on Books" blog on CNBC's web site (among other things). Earlier this year Gloria generously referred to me as "one of the best publicists out there." That was back when I was still, you know, out there.

The week my Publishers Weekly essay ran, Gloria gave it (and me) a tremendous boost by featuring it in "Bullish on Books."
It’s a great read – filled with reality, optimism and lessons for those who know how it really feels - AND - for those who have to make the difficult choices of who to let go and who to keep.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lay Off

It occurs to me that all of the interesting things that are going to happen to me following my layoff may have already happened. Which would make this a singularly unfortunate time to start blogging about it. However, let's forge ahead and hope for the best.

I was laid off on February 10th, so I'll have to play a little catch-up here. The morning after I was let go, I wrote an essay about the experience and submitted it to the "Soapbox" column of Publishers Weekly, the book industry's trade magazine. I wanted to stay visible, and thought this would be a good way to put my name and status in front of the industry. I had written several humor pieces for PW over the last few years, so fortunately this was an avenue that was available to me.

Publishers Weekly accepted my essay, which was called "Lay Off," and it ran in the February 23rd issue. The response has been very satisfying. I think my favorite comment came from a college professor in Oklahoma, who said, “You don’t know me from Adam, but reading your ‘Soapbox’ piece in PW just now I felt as if I had just heard some bad news from my best friend." Nice.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Enter the Book Flack

I am, in fact, a book flack at large. I'm not at large by choice, though, and if I weren't at large I probably wouldn't be blogging.

I spent a lot of years publicizing books and authors. If I were to name some of them--and I may--you would almost certainly recognize a few. Most recently I was a senior director of publicity at a large publishing company, the name of which you would also know (OK, it was HarperCollins). After working there for more than five years, I was laid off in February when they folded Collins, the division that employed me.

I thought hard about how to respond to this layoff. I came up with the notion that I could apply my publicity skills to my situation, and essentially publicize myself into my next position. Instead of telling people what I've done, I'd just show them what I can do, and see if perhaps some opportunities might find me instead of the other way around.

This approach has yielded some interesting results, which I'll describe in future posts. I'll probably also digress into commentary, random musings, and occasional name dropping, much of it book-related. So be warned.