On the simple life: find your peaceful thing.

Every new year, I hear many of the people I know express that they want to “return to a simpler life” or eliminate clutter. I often have this noble ambition myself. This year, I asked myself what this really means. I came up with a couple of ideas.

Eliminating clutter doesn’t mean stripping back all things you do. Rather, I think it means looking at why you do the things you do and asking yourself if there is a reason for each. When I went through this exercise, I found that of the things that caused me stress were inherently stressful. No, rather, it was that I simply didn’t really want to do them.

So how do you determine if you really want to do something? It’s a tougher question than it seems. First, you have to ask yourself what it is that organizes your life: is it religion? is your family relationships? is it friendships? is it work? Then, you ask yourself whether that organizing factor brings you peace or whether it sends a jolt of stress or anxiety when you think of it.

If it sends a jolt of stress or anxiety then you have your answer: the thing around which you have organized your life is wrong for you. If it brings you peace, then it is probably that many of the things you do are in sync with the thing that your life is organized around. That means that you are doing things that, in the end, are meaningless to your life.

So, find the thing that your life centers on or is organized by. Ask yourself if it brings you peace. If not, change it. If it brings you peace, then evaluate the other things you fill your life with: do they jive with your organizing center? If not, jettison them.

I am in the process of doing this. It feels good.

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Authenticity versus consistency in PR

“Authenticity” has become a buzzword in public relations especially in talk about social media. I think this may be an error. I think the best we can do is consistency.

Authenticity is a tricky concept. The dictionary defines authenticity as adhering to tradition or sticking to the facts, but that isn’t how most people understand the term. The folk understanding of authenticity is “be yourself” or “be original.”

The problem is that organizations have very little possibility of ever presenting an “authentic” self. The same goes for anyone who doesn’t have the time or ability forge personal relationships with their online “friends.”

I suspect that the best we can do, in the ephemeral world of fleeting status updates and tweets is maintain consistency. Really, isn’t consistency and predictability what we really mean by authenticity, anyhow?

“Be yourself” or “be original might just be code for “be consistent” and “be predictable.”

Freedom of speech and public relations

Today’s barbaric and murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly newsmagazine was the work of an imperialist movement that wants to impose one way of thinking on everyone else. One of the key elements of imposing your will on others is making sure that nobody is allowed to publicize an attractive alternative. There are two professions whose responsibility it is to present a diversity of perspectives and ideas to the public: journalism and public relations.

We have heard a lot today about the courage and responsibility of journalists – even satirical journalists – to challenge power and seek to present alternative perspectives. I would briefly like to reflect on the role of PR in this regard.

The role of public relations is represent organizations and individuals and try to fashion and manage their reputations, relationships and brands, amongst other things, of course. This would not be possible without freedom of speech. It would not be possible for practitioners to promote the ideas of minority groups, start up companies, civic action groups or social justice causes. The fact that over 40% of PR jobs are in the not-for-profit and government sectors is an indication of the how much professional communicators are involved in public communication.

Unlike journalists, who are by their very definition, external to organizations and to power, public relations practitioners usually provide counsel to organizations from the inside. They are often consiglieri to the leaders of organizations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. As PR counsel, we provide advice about how to best communicate in the court of public opinion – how to be heard, understood and believed. At our best, PR counsel helps ethically influence public opinion and inspires behaviour change that helps society progress.

Public relations and communications management form a profession that relies upon the ability to express diverse and often contradictory ideas publicly. PR pros put the ideas of our clients to the test of public controversy. As PR practitioners, we should be outspoken and fearless in stubbornly protecting freedom of speech – for the good of our profession and for the good of democracy.

#JeSuisCharlie

Replacing fear with mindfulness

In our interactive era, you spend a lot of time with yourself and the internet. You ask yourself a lot of questions.

I think it is important to listen to the questions that you are asking yourself and be mindful of why you are asking them. If you find yourself asking whether you spend enough time working, then you probably ought to work more. If you find yourself asking whether you should be developing more of a homelife, then you should focus on people.

This is a question of managing fear.  We fear that there is a line that will be blurred and that we will not meet expectations, whether our own or those of others. But that line is ill-defined – the only thing that you will be judged on by others is your level of confidence and mindfulness.

Being mindful and confident means living without fear, because it means that you are present in your life and in the lives of others. We live in a world where our selves are shared out so much, that we often fall into the trap of not really being in the moment. Not really being in our relationships: friendship, family, intimate, work.

When you’re not really there, you tend objectify things, because you have to manage them as objects in your mind, rather than as holistic human experiences that occupy your soul and mind. Call this a concept of “nowness” if you will. People hate to be objectified because it is reductive, and it signals to them that you are not present in your life, so they do not really exist to you fully.

Try practicing “nowness” in your life. Be present in your work, your relationships, your spirituality. Don’t just go through the motions or skitter through your days. Many will achieve this through prayer, contemplation or even just through breathing.

In doing this, you will help others feel welcome and all aspects of your life will improve.  This will mean transformation – certain relationships or activities may fall away because they are actually not meant to be part of your life, your now.

When you are mindful and present, you will naturally ask the questions I mentioned earlier as you need to. The answers will be obvious. The only that will stop you from answering them will be fear.

Don’t be afraid. Be mindful.

The generosity of those who have little

I have recently had occasion to witness how those who have little can give almost everything to others. I was attending a board meeting recently, where we were fed gourmet pizza, given that the meeting happened over the dinner hour. This privilege seemed normal – a proper compensation. After all, we were giving up our dinner hour to serve the organization. The meeting wasn’t well attended, so we had several boxes of pizza left at the end. I was thinking that this would make a great lunch the next day. It might even make me popular at the office: I would be the distributor of gourmet pizza, albeit a day old. As I was gathering the boxes, our association president started chatting with a member of the janitorial staff. They were chatting about how cold it was. Our president offered the pizza as a nice dinner for the cleaning lady’s family. Her response surprised me: “Well, I could do that, but I think I’ll just take it down to the shelter. They know me there, I volunteer several times a week – they’ll trust open pizza boxes coming from me. The gentlemen living at the shelter will appreciate the treat.” I asked her if this meant a longer drive home for her. It was a bitterly cold, snowy night. The temperature was well below zero. Again, she said, with a shake of her head and a big, wide smile: “Yessir, maybe an extra half an hour at the end of my shift. But honestly, if few minutes extra to my drive mean that those poor gentlemen at the shelter have some tasty pizza tonight – well, that makes it all worthwhile, don’t it?” Where I could only think of the treat the pizza would be for me, and how it could make me more popular, this woman, who makes so little money and works so hard, thought not of herself, but of bringing some happiness to those who have less than her. She reminded me of something that night: poverty of the wallet doesn’t mean poverty of the spirit. While she may have little money, she possesses a greater treasure: a heart full of caring love.

The future of communications is interpersonal

I began teaching communication studies in 2001, when I was hired out of my post-doctoral fellowship to be the first professor in the new communication studies program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. My first week was marked by the first great tragedy of the 21st Century, when the World Trade Centre was bombed and everything changed. Suddenly, the world seemed smaller and more interconnected. Cable news network, cellphones and email gave us a sense of being there and participating in the events as they unfolded in New York City – a feeling that was only intensified by the advent of social media and ubiquitous mobile computing.

The technologies of communication have always had a big impact on our society, culture and business. The printing press ushered in a new age of knowledge sharing and standardization that culminated in the industrial revolution. Now social media, smartphones and tablet technologies are binding us into a tightly knit network that doesn’t so much resemble an orderly grid, as it does the heaving surges and flows of communication in a town square packed with people, awaiting an event. If anything, social media have turned daily life into an unmissable event which captures the poetry of the everyday. We have all heard the complaint that “no one wants to know what you had for lunch” and yet we share this information on Twitter and Facebook and we are inspired by it, wanting to meet the challenge posed by knowledge of what another has done. Indeed, social media have begun to transform our culture, politics and economics.

Our world is no longer as it was. Our world is no longer as even I – with my 39 short years on this Earth – remember it to be. My father often speaks wistfully of a rural Northern Ontario world that is long gone and mostly forgotten. I always thought that I would not be in his position, that the world I lived in was always vital and real and true – that it would persist and exist forever. It has not. The world I grew up in during the 1970s and 1980s is as remote to the digital natives of today as the world of my father’s youth in the Northern bush camps was to me.

Truthfully, we are in the beginnings of a move from the print and broadcast model of newspapers, book publishers, terrestrial radios stations and broadcast television networks to an age of self-publishing and interpersonal sharing via social media. This change is a shift from a culture of gatekeepers, editors and experts to a culture of storytellers, rhetoric and persuasion. This means a move from understanding culture and business through the lens of mass communication theory toward thinking of mediated communication as a primarily interpersonal phenomenon.

While this might seem to many to be a largely academic distinction, having little bearing on the world of motion and action outside the university, in fact it is a phenomenally important distinction to begin to fathom. Mass communication privileged experts and gate keepers. It had very high production values that demanded significant investment on the part of media companies to create content that was fit to print or broadcast. It was a world of hierarchy, rules and constraint. That world is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by a place where the human voice, the story and the village are of primary importance.

We are morphing into a society shaped and organized by the tenets of oral culture – fluid, chatty, playful, emotional and mistrustful of expertise and authority. Its rhythms are in tune with the flow of conversation, rather than segregated by the categories and boxes of print and broadcast. The operative skills, identified half a century ago by Marshall McLuhan, are pattern matching and fit. Statistics and probability reign in this world, while rigid logic fades. It is a world of relative and local understanding, not universalism. It is world where people are motivated by principles rather than constrained by unenforceable rules.

It’s a whole new world and I will be back at regularly writing this blog to explore it with you.

How I did with my 2011 new year’s resolutions: a journey of growth towards principled living

Last year, I had an ambitious list of new year’s resolutions. Here’s a recap and a report on how I did:

1. Get fit and lose weight. Partial success – I got fit for a part of the year, but then a stressful term and many preoccupations caught up to me and I gained it back again! So I am at 172 now, exactly where I was at this time last year.

2. Organise my time to get two books written. Half-Success. Well, I got one done! Understanding Human Communication, 2nd Edition came out. I am still working on the other one: Understanding Public Relations in Canada, and thinking about yet another on the topic of social media philosophy and strategy.

3. Keep a clean driving record. Yay! Success! I kept this one!

4. Take an advanced driving course. I just didn’t have time. Life caught up to me. I do have plans to eventually acquire a sports car, so this one will eventually come true, I guess. I learned this year, that this is really a back-burner issue.

5. Take at least one real vacation. Again, life caught up to me. I have never been busier or more stressed than I was in the last six months. Well, at least since my tenure year – that was pretty stressful.

6. Enjoy nature. Yay! Success! I got out for a quite a good number of walks, particularly in the first six months of 2011.

7. Pray and meditate more. A mixed result. I have definitely prayed and meditated more. But I have also had moments of complete self-absorption and dark anxiety, which weren’t in the spirit of this resolution.

8. Make more time for art and culture. Again, a mixed result. I have been to symphony more than ever before, but haven’t really been to the opera or the ballet, both of which I love.

9. Play the piano more. This wasn’t successful. I haven’t played much at all. Feel a little sad about this one.

10. Take life a little less seriously. Well, I think that while I haven’t really succeeded in doing this, in trying to, I learned something about myself. That is that I think taking life less seriously is heavily tied to prayer and meditation.

All in all, this year of resolutions was mixed. I think it was mixed because many of the resolutions I made would have been completely life-changing had I been successful. I have discovered that it takes time and dedication to change your life. It also means a fundamental and basic change in perspective. What this requires is not a change in the rules that you impose on yourself in your life, but rather a change in the principles that guide you.

What I have discovered is that one of of the most difficult things to do is to find the first principles which are at the root of your behaviour and your perceptions. Are you motivated by love? Do you want to build a good life filled with good things? Do you want to be a constructive and supportive force for good in the lives of others?

We can quibble over definitions of the Good, but the fact is that the Good is something we understand in context, given the people we are dealing with and the situations that they are in. That is where wisdom comes in – you have to understand and empathize with others, as well as have a connection with the history of human experience, feelings and stories to really be able to establish what is Good in a given circumstance.

What is most important is to make sure that your principles are always point you away from nihilism, selfishness, insecurity, cynicism and destructive thinking. Your principles should push you – stubbornly and relentlessly – toward the Good.

If you calibrate your principles this way, you will find the Good Life. Even if it takes you a long time and some errors along the way.

I will post a new set of resolutions for 2012 on New Year’s Day.

Merry Christmas everyone.