As I strolled the several acre grounds of client The Canine Center for Training & Behavior today for their grand opening, it was easy to remember how experiences like an afternoon outdoors with my dog were motivation enough to push away from the Internet and enabled gadgets. So simple and peaceful and easy.
Just over a week ago, however, I was reminded about what makes the ones and zeros so utterly seductive. For the last dozen years or so, I have been working in public relations—five of those for myself. I did not study that in college (art degree) and generally considered marketing and PR to be a career path of professional liars to sell sneakers or cover up oil spills. That was before I discovered cultural/arts/community PR. It had honestly never occurred to me that one could promote things that were… good.
Working at the Austin Symphony and Austin Museum of Art, I quickly fell in love with the art of getting the story told of this soloist or that exhibition—through editorial coverage and later social media. Unlike the science of paid advertising where you can throw down your money and buy an ad—dictating it’s size, wording, and placement—”earned” coverage comes with a special thrill as you work to draw out the most compelling attributes of something, pitching it to media contacts, then helping them assemble all the pieces that go into a well-crafted feature story, for example. Then there’s the great fun of reading it, sharing it with the client, and so forth. Even today, it is my favorite part of what I do.
While I can still remember the days of faxing a press release then calling to follow up about whether not it was received, most everything is now done digitally. On any given workday, I might well send a couple hundred emails in correspondence, with an additional 300 to 1,500 if we are sending a small or large announcement out to our media lists. Like any modern day office worker, I’m jumping between email, the server, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Word, Excel, and a few other utilities with a few calls thrown in. It seems kinda crazy, but when I’m in it, it is actually a lot of fun.
Last Thursday, we had a big media and VIP event at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas for client Texas Cultural Trust. For the assembled guests followed by a few thousand media contacts, we were announcing the dozen honorees for the 2011 Texas Medal of Arts Awards, including such notable Texans as Bill Paxton, Bob Schieffer, Barbara Smith Conrad, and ZZ Top. We had been preparing for months and had kept the names closely guarded until the big moment.
We came armed with phones, laptop, and iPad. Media lists and social media accounts were all queued up in advance. From the time we arrived at the venue, we were tweaking and prepping, tweeting and posting, and generally getting amped up to throw the big switch. I found myself feeling almost high from the combination of excitement and technological activity. I was anticipating the coverage we would be getting, hunting down planned and surprise reports, checking email replies moment to moment, and generally reveling in the afterglow of a widespread announcement. We hit the road almost immediately after, but I had my co-worker checking my email on her smartphone regularly throughout the drive. It would have been both impractical and maddening to wait the four hours until we got back. As far as pushing the lever and getting feeder pellets, making a big media announcement is like a feeder pellet smörgåsbord.
I once went to an employer-suggested professional development thing where the ‘facilitator’ used the expression “getting your yummies” – meaning doing or saying things that give you a response that supplies you with a boost of praise or self confidence. I have used the term many times since, and it definitely applies here. In building up for that big media announcement and following the response obsessively, I was definitely getting my yummies.
That’s not to say that I feel like using technology as an implicit part of my job—and loving what it makes possible—is some sort of contradiction to the premise of The Off Switch. As I’ve written in previous posts, it’s the incessant interruptions of smart phones and the rabbit holes of Facebook and the ever-present work mentality of laptops that I am actively trying to escape. But the whole Dallas episode was a good reminder of how complicit my vocation is in the struggle. If I had a job that didn’t involve lots of “urgent” emails and phone calls, I somehow doubt that I’d take issue with the associated technology in my off hours. I feel like incessant phone checking and Facebooking are rampant among most parts of the American population, but I somehow feel that I would not be as susceptible if I were, say, a barista or park ranger.
In contemplating this post, I tried to think of a parallel. I’m not like an alcoholic who can never take a drink again. Nor am I like an Muslim who can’t eat pork. It’s not even comparable to a vegetarian who refuses meat, which I am. For me, this whole paradigm shift is more like a filter that I have the privilege of applying to my life. Like being a locavore or someone who buys only American or a green-living type or a coffee snob (which I also am), this life change is about selectively participating in what’s available—on principle.
Several months back, my wife asked me which I’d choose if I had to give up coffee or using a Mac. I can’t remember my response, but something tells me that I chose Macs. It’s not that coffee isn’t one of my favorite things, it is, but at the time, I couldn’t imagine doing without one. Until recently, I’d even go as far as to say that being a Mac user was a central part of my identity. To be perfectly honest, I felt dependent on interacting with the operating system to feel like me. I know. But now that I’ve gotten rid of the iPhone and my MacBook, and I’m no longer fooling with those interfaces from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep and every 15 minutes in between, it’s not so important to me. I’ll probably be a Mac user as long as there are Macs, but it’s just not that big of a deal any more.
So, while I still get plenty of professional yummies electronically, and will continue to around the big PR moments, these days I’ve been getting more of my personal yummies face to face – over coffee when possible.