Remembering a friend

April 22nd, 2015

Eleven years ago, my high school friend John Voland died. He was the first of my contemporaries to pass away, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. He was survived by his mother, Jean, brother, Mark, and his daughter, Hayley, then 14.

John wasn’t a particularly health-conscious person. He battled weight for years (he was 6’4″ and big), and his death from a heart attack was in some ways not surprising.  We hadn’t spoken in years, not out of animus but lack of proximity; I’d moved to Seattle and then Cleveland, he’d remained in L.A. freelance writing.

The last time we saw each other was a little rough.  My wife and I met John at DuPar’s on Ventura Blvd., a regular haunt following poker games, for lunch, and John was agitated and distracted. We talked at the time about how much we loved living outside of Los Angeles, and he denigrated our decision as moving to “the sticks.”  His behavior was rather off-putting, and so we quickly wrapped up the visit and went our separate ways, as it turned out, forever.

I thought of him often, wondering how he was, worried he might have some problem that perhaps I should have helped him with.  When he died several years later, I felt guilty, like I had failed him somehow.  I also worried that others in our coterie of pals might also be struggling. We’d been a tight group — Josh, John, Ken, Bill, and David formed a fairly regular six-some for poker or hearts or playing music or whatever. And of these, I’d lost touch with just about all of them.

Now, Josh and I are Facebook friends; Ken, following his usual pattern, was back in touch for a brief time; David and I corresponded a bit, and Bill disappeared.

I’m not sure what made me think of John today — maybe it was running across news of his brother’s death again (in 2010), or the impending 40th high school reunion next year, or maybe just finishing graduate school prompted a reflective mood.

I find that I wonder what he might have written, whether we might have regained our friendship, whether we had enough in common to stay in touch.  One thing is for sure – once, we were great, close friends, and that memory is something to keep close.

I’m so grateful for my friends now, so thankful they’re in my life — Jon and Patty, Janet and JJ, Lori and Jamie, Jim and Jodie (wow, lots of “J’s”), Heather and Brian, Greg.  We are only on this earth for a certain allotment of days, and none of us know how many.

If there are people in your life who mean something to you, be sure to let them know.

 

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5 questions to ask your employees now

April 17th, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-185452608We’re struggling in internal communication. The move to “social” within the enterprise is shifting our focus to tactics when we are still grappling with strategy.

What is internal communication for?  Are we advocates for employees? Advocates for management? Internal propaganda officers? Magazine editors?

We exist to help create organizational competitive advantage. Our executional elements for that will include tactics and tools, certainly, but in the end, our messaging and measures must reflect our existential mission.  Research from a few years ago (O’Neil, J. (2008)) shows that the answers to five questions can reveal *53% of the variance in employee comprehension of strategy, vision, values, etc. Here they are:

I am kept informed about the reasons behind company decisions. Nothing is more important to comprehension than reasons, and yet, organizations still persist in the belief that they’re not relevant or important enough to share. I think there’s a fear factor here — “What if they disagree with the reasons?” So what! Tell people plainly why you’re doing what you’re doing. They may not like it, but will respect you for sharing.

My business unit/function does a good job of communicating information to all employees. Perception of value is crucial. When employees believe the organization is good at internal communication, they tend to better understand the business.

The information I receive from my business/function is complete. Another faux pas is restricting information from internal communication. Employees are smart. They know when the sin of omission is committed, and in the absence of information, they will make up their own.

I am kept informed about major changes occurring within my business/function. When the answers to this question are poor, you’re almost guaranteed to have a workforce that doesn’t comprehend what you need it to. It’s shocking how many times leaders will assume that people don’t need to know about a major change, often claiming that because it’s outside of their area of direct responsibility, it’s not relevant.

I am kept informed about major changes occurring within the company. How can you operate your organization without keeping people abreast of the most significant changes? There are too many organizations which simply don’t think employees care. Good heavens, of course they care! Don’t you care about your organization? There are counter-examples, but the exchange relationship commonly associated with customer relationships usually doesn’t apply when you work for the company. It’s a less transactional, deeper and more substantive relationship with employees that leads to high performance.

Why not ask these questions every three months for a year?  Quick, easy surveys, postcards after town halls, postscripts to intranet stories.  Ask them and use the results to guide your editorial and manager communication activities. You might find the results more than compensate for your time.
*R2 = .526; F = 625; p = .000

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I’m in a reflective mood, and thankful

March 26th, 2015

Seanwilliams-tieNext week, five years of part-time graduate school culminates with my defense of my Master’s thesis, “Beyond Klout®: An exploration of online influence.”  This has put me in a somewhat pensive mood, and a number of things are on my mind as I prepare for the defense and graduation from Kent State University.

First, when someone sets a goal, attaining that goal can bring a bit of a let down, an anti-climax. It happened to me when I went to work for Joe Williams Communications, leading the Face2Face Communication Learning program. I’d attended Joe’s Dialogue in the Desert workshop on strategic planning, and had kind of dreamed of working for Joe. it became a reality, and over the course of  two-and-a-half years, I worked with about 15 clients, taught communication skills to more than 5,000 managers, facilitated strategic planning workshops and generally learned a ton about myself.

It happened again, when I decided I wanted to lead internal communications for a global company, and joined The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in that role. I supervised the internship program (and what a great internship it was – a year-long, 20-hour per week gig for two students), and got introduced to the great people at Kent State.  I left Goodyear and went to National City Corporation, where I realized another ambition — to create a public relations measurement program from the ground up.

I had, for years, had the goal of becoming a teacher in university when my corporate life was through. For that, I knew I needed at least a Master’s degree. As it turned out Kent State had a need, I was available, and they let me come in to teach without one. My first class taught was a graduate class in PR Theory. Over the past five years, I’ve taught that and many other classes both in-person and online. I even created a course — PR Measurement and ROI — that is a smash hit.

I also had goals about writing and speaking, and have published four scholarly papers and presented them at the International PR Research Conference.  I speak 4-5 times per year at industry conferences. I’m finishing the thesis.

So, now, comes the realization (G-d willing!) that yet another life goal is on the cusp of being realized: I’ll have a Master’s in Journalism/Mass Communication.

This has made me very thankful this Thankful Thursday.  Here’s a short list of people I’m thankful for, who have helped me attain these life ambitions, and who sustain me.

Sandy – my wife.  I dedicate my thesis to her in gratitude for her love and faith in me. She has had to put up with my building a business at the same time I take graduate classes and write and present and teach and…You get the picture. Thanks hon.

Then, in alphabetical order:

  • Janet Gaydosh, Patty Vossler, Heather Marks, and their husbands, JJ, Jon and Brian, respectively, and Jamie and Lori Owen. Your friendship is the most amazing gift! Thank you.
  • Robert T. Gill — Rob was my boss in Seattle at KeyCorp, first as my supervisor when I interned during the management associate program, then as my manager when I became first employee communication manager for Washington, then for the Northwest Region. He taught me about responsibility, dedication, and deadlines, and about what the heck PR is all about. And also about the need for open communication and avoidance of “Reindeer Games,” his phrase for talking trash about your boss. Hard lessons, but essential.
  • Dennis Long — Formerly the head of Retail Banking for Key in the Northwest, Dennis taught me humility and the delicate art of asking questions rather than making sweeping pronouncements. It was my first lesson in consulting. A quote from Dennis: “There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and you’re crossing it.” Yipes.  Thank you.  He’s now the CEO of a bank in Western Washington.
  • Bill Sledzik – Professor, colleague, friend. He had faith in me and took a risk to have me teach. He now heads my Thesis Committee, and I am grateful for his wise counsel. I’m also grateful for the quality of student Bill and the Kent PR program produce!
  • Joe Williams — Joe, a Fellow of IABC, a pioneer in strategic planning for communicators, a veteran entrepreneur of more than 30 years, is an inspiration. I got to chat with him and his wife, Barbara, last year in Toronto at IABC. He has meant the world to me, not only because of his wisdom and talent, but also because of his imprecation to me: “Trust yourself!!!” It’s a long road to heeding that instruction from the depth of low self-esteem, but I’m finally about there!

There are more, and I could go on, but I’ll stop there. My heart is so full! #ThankfulThursday

 

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Major imbroglio from Forbes piece on PR and ROI

March 12th, 2015

186140619I’m not including a link, because generally speaking, this is a case of not wanting to feed the trolls.  Over at Forbes, some guy wrote a post saying that nobody should pay for PR if they aren’t in a major organization. This brought the PR defense out onto the field, including Stephanie C from PRSA. Next thing you know, it’s a party.

OK, maybe not a party. Instead, it was a comment Battle Royale, with wounded PRs insisting that PR had value, and the writer asking for ROI figures as proof. Not awareness, not reputation, real money. Katie Paine ran in and offered her 30 examples of PR driving sales, and many others (including a great post from Gerry Corbett) supporting the bloodied public relations profession.  The writer, meanwhile, agreed that PR had value, but not for smaller enterprises who really need to convert prospects to dollars.

I thought about commenting myself, but in the end, it’s just a post with a link-bait headline and a pretty half-assed set of complaints about high retainers and lack of sales as a result. Yawn.  What’s interesting to me is the reaction from the industry. I mean, look, I say all the time that ROI is just one useful measurement of public relations — there are all kinds of things that organizations need we PRs to do other then sell. We certainly can, and do, do that, and often at much lower cost than our pals in marketing.

All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.

As I’ve said about 20,000 times, attempting to reduce all value to the monetary leads to all kinds of mischief.  If it’s just about revenue, get rid of your overhead departments entirely. Let managers take care of HR matters, use outsourced legal, stop internal communications, forget branding, make business units manage their own financials, and don’t bother with community relations or government relations… Yeah, right.

The biggest error in that guy’s thinking is that PR can be done by amateurs. Hey, if it’s only about getting your local media to cover you, just reach out to them, it’s easy, he says. Send a letter or email, do a list of media influencers on Twitter and tweet to them. Of course, unless what you have is newsworthy, you’re going to fail. Part of what we PR people do is counsel our internal or external clients on what constitutes news. We do all kinds of stuff that has value, but no direct contribution to sales. It’s not required. We help make a field more fertile for sales, we don’t plant the seeds, pull weeds (well, maybe we do that…) or spread fertilizer (except in political PR. Just kidding. )

In the end, if we add value, organizations invest in us. If we don’t we’re out. Some of that will be ROI. Some of it will be common sense.  We want to help our organizations win in the marketplace. How we do that is STRATEGY. And no matter how smart a business owner may be, chances are a professional public relations person can do a better job of creating comms strategy than he or she can.

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The ongoing debate about PR & Sales

February 28th, 2015

37c10c2This is how the meme goes: Every activity by a commercial organization, profit or nonprofit, is in the end about selling. It’s the ultimate triumph of marketing, the absolute ultimate objective. Let’s explore this thinking.

Mike Love (@therealitygap), in a Twitter discussion with Judy Gombita (@jgombita) and several others, avers this perspective, which prompts this post. Love’s view is that the sale is the thing and challenged all of us to describe what else it possibly could be.

I realize that I straddle the fence between practice and academy, and so that makes me a bit didactic, but my view is the all marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing. I therefore reject the conclusion that sales is the ultimate objective. This might be better understood through the prism of the “3-outs.” When we measure comm activity (internal, external, regardless of industry) we need to measure at all levels — the output level, whether we are conducting activities appropriately; the outtake level, examining the immediate result of our activity; and outcomes, the business results emerging from the communication results.

An example would be following a strategy intended to educate and inspire employees involving changing the content of our intranet, increasing the number of stories focusing on strategy and the human results of our business strategy — we analyze the content to determine whether that occurred. First level measurement, but important. Second, we look at intranet traffic, to see whether employees consumed the content, including commenting, sharing, downloading, etc., AND we ask them to what degree the content helped them better understand our organization, feel more connected to it, and/or prompted them to recommend it or its products to others. Lastly, we look at retention, job performance, internal job posting, managerial affinity, etc. For some, we may examine impact on revenue or expense control. These are the business results and they constitute the deepest level of measurement.

In the Balanced Scorecard, enlightened organizations consider not only the usual metrics, but also the non financial metrics — attitudes and behaviors that might be distantly connected with sales, but largely are not, or at least are not provable conclusively. These types of organization define success more broadly than purely at the bottom line; it is true that enlightened organizations often do perform better than their counterparts, but which came first? Chicken or egg?

Contrast that perspective with that of a company that places sales at the point of the triangle – some of the most notable scandals (WorldCom, Enron, Arthur Anderson, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers) were also notable for their “anything goes” attitudes, driving sales at all costs.

This is what I think of when I see a meme like the one above. If everything is about sales rather than customer relationships, being a great place to work, being a stalwart in communities, making a difference in the world, then we risk becoming amoral slaves to the sales imperative.

In some ways, it’s a semantic distinction, and probably reveals a soft view of the role of business in societies. In others though, it reflects a sincere belief in the power of words. That’s why I see the “it’s all marketing” crowd as reductivist. It reduces the core relationships between organization and publics to a mere transaction, an exchange relationship. Especially as regards employee communication, such thinking makes building strong communal relationships (absolutely critical to employee engagement) much more difficult, more disposable.

When we declare that the only purpose to our activity is to sell, we define ourselves solely as agents in a transaction, powerless and dependent on the payment received. When we see the sale as one possible result of an effort to build a trusted relationship, we elevate ourselves and our publics to a more sustainable, deeper and more ennobling purpose.

Your thoughts?

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3 reasons why independent schools must market

January 9th, 2015

CityOfLondonSchoolAn axiom in independent schools has been that marketing is unnecessary. Reputation, history and narrowness of market obviate the need to invest very much in the marketing effort, so the meme goes, especially in boarding schools. After all, when Presidents, Senators, and Captains of Industry graduated from your esteemed institution, why sell your school like soap?

Schools are finding, however, that a number of factors now are putting paid to the past preferences. It’s no longer nearly enough to buy a few ads in the local newspaper, and any effort to buy advertising in national publications carries a much bigger price tag than most schools are prepared to pay. But that’s a tactical problem, and the big issue is strategic; it’s the plans and thinking that most need to change, and here are three reasons why strategic and sophisticated marketing and communications are crucial for independent schools, especially boarding schools.

  1. Your alumni’s kids don’t live near you anymore. The demographic shift south and west has resulted in Washington, San Francisco, Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas as places your alums now live instead of New England, Pennsylvania and New York. While boarders might “come back,” they’re not doing so at the same rate as prior years. For independent day schools, it’s much the same story: there are fewer families to draw from locally, and many schools are located in older neighborhoods no longer favored by full pay families.
  1. There is competition never before seen. Charter schools. Parochial. Magnet schools. Independent day and boarding. Home schooling. There are many outstanding public schools. This places parents in the catbird seat for choice. Add to that a fountain of data, information and wisdom about education, educators and schools, and you’re just one piece of the puzzle.
  1. Changing trends in news are challenging communication strategies. Let’s not belabor the point, but suffice to say that people get their news and information differently today than just 10 years ago. TV ratings, terrestrial radio and newspapers have lost market share. People don’t have to rely on curators like editors to get access to crucial information, and that means your school’s story should be told in multiple ways in multiple channels. It’s more than just a website, because the story is told by more people than just you. That was the case before, too, but now social media has made it easier than ever. Mind you, this doesn’t mean eliminating other media — it just means being strategic and data-driven in your paid media mix, your public relations, your community relations and your admission contact strategy.

There’s no doubt that the independent school world is being tilted on its axis by these relatively recent developments. In many schools, there still is a sense of denial — but this is a world where even the top, elite boarding schools are banding together to share techniques, tips and strategy.

What is your school doing to prepare for the next disruption?

 

{Note: This post also appeared on LinkedIn.}

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5 facts that independent schools should take to heart about marketing

October 27th, 2014

462996881Independent schools (boarding and private schools) are bastions of wealth and privilege, packed to the ancient rafters with the sons and daughters of titans of industry, government and commerce, with long waiting lists of the 1 percent clamoring for entry. And the admission directors’ main job is to say, “no.”  Well, not exactly. This is 2014, and even alumni (many of whom have moved away from the old school) no longer “always” send their kids back. It’s a new world, and independent schools need to wake up about marketing.

What’s happened now is a massive demographic shift, from north and east to south and west, mirroring the wider trends in societies. For example, the state of Ohio, home to four boarding schools and countless private day schools, lost 150,000 households with children under 18 between 2001 and 2010. Who were those people? Young families from the state’s main metro areas, Toledo, Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Youngstown and Cincinnati.

In Massachusetts, nearly 31 percent of households had children under 18 in 2000. That figure dropped to 28 percent in 2010, and just 8.6 percent had children under 14… Connecticut:  20 percent of households had children under 14 in 2000. 17.7 percent in 2010. On the surface, these are changes of just a few percentage points, but given the continued trends, and the lower birth rates associated with modern American life, they’re sobering. SSATB’s recent survey noted a 33% decline in domestic boarding students since 2001, and a precipitous decline in inquiries.

How do independent schools need to respond to the shift?

1. Realize you are battling with your peers over a declining market. Differentiating your product is essential — the traditional New England boarding school experience can be had many places, and the cost to value calculation is being conducted more often than you think.  Your brand must differentiate you.

2.  People outside of the I-95 corridor don’t understand boarding schools. That’s why the highest proportion of boarding school attendees come from just six states, according to The Association of Boarding Schools.  Creating new boarding school families is critical, but it’s an expensive proposition that independent schools haven’t budgeted for. By one calculus, a prospect needs to be exposed to messaging 30 times before the product or service has a shot at entering the consideration set, and that’s assuming your targeting is precise enough to find the most likely people to be prospects.

3.  People have good choices other than independent schools. Many cities with challenging public schools not only have great private options, they have charter schools and parochial schools that compete with your school. Even in cities that are struggling, there are people who believe in public schools and want to support them, or who want a religious education, (or who just want to be five minutes closer to school), rather than send their kids to yours.

4.  For boarding schools and private high schools, the kids are driving the decision process, and they aren’t reading your viewbooks and brochures, or your letters. They’re using Instagram and Facebook to find your current students and evaluate your school from that angle. They hit your website looking for multimedia content that’s real, open, honest and focused on them. They find your followers on Twitter and engage on Snapchat. They don’t care about your marketing messages, they care about discovering the real story of your school.  They don’t read long articles. They are harsh judges.

5. Digital marketing is more targeted, more effective and more measurable than analog marketing. It can be efficient, too (ask me for details), but it still takes budget and expertise. It’s more than search engine optimization or buying Google Adwords (which can get spendy very quickly), it’s managing your digital strategy from objectives to creative in concert with your other communications. Public relations, social media, internal communication, parent communications and alumni communications all play crucial roles in the marketing mix. You need experience and talent to manage all of that.

It’s doable. But your school has to let go of the ego-centric conceit that it doesn’t NEED marketing because of its history, its venerable buildings, its location or its alumni base. The world is changing fast, and only the adaptable will survive.

Data retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml , 2013 State of the Independent School Admission Industry (SSATB)  This post also appeared on LinkedIn. 

 

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Many conferences, many objectives

October 20th, 2014
PRSA's big dance kicks off

PRSA’s big dance kicks off

During the past 12 months, I’ve spoken at six conferences and attended three others. That’s a lot, no? Yes, a lot. Several were communication conferences, Ragan’s measurement conference, IABC’s 2013 Heritage Region and their International Conference, PRSA’s Connect ’14 employee comms conference and just a week ago, it’s big shebang, the International (#PRSAICON).

Plus, I went to Fusion 13, an IT service management conference; the National Association of Independent Schools conference, the SSATB conference for independent schools admission officers and (my favorite) the International PR Research Conference.

For the most part, all of these were, at least, good. I confess that at this time in my career, the comms related conferences are a mixed bag. That’s not a dig at the dais or planners; it’s hard to put these things together. I’ve done it for Heritage Region and for Connect, and you’re serving five different masters. You need content and speakers who will drive registration (the famous or nearly famous, the veteran speakers who have their fans, the striking, surprising people who will make people say, “OK, her I have to see!”)

You also need content for different levels of experience, from newbies to crusty old coots (present company excepted…) That can mean that at any one time, 80 percent of your audience won’t be happy. “Why is HE here again. She’s an idiot! He’s a moron!”  So I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him!

IPRRC is all academic research that boggles my mind in the best way. The Schools and IT conferences are business development opportunities. The Connect conference is my responsibility as Chair of PRSA Employee Communication professional interest section, and the Heritage conference is my comfortable IABC slippers. The internationals are another thing entirely. In some ways, they are merely about being seen among the crowds, though Twitter (and conference apps) give opportunities to stand out (I still didn’t make the top 20 posters in the conference app. Blame my lousy battery!).

IABC was in Toronto, one of my favorite places, and it had been since it was last there that I had been there. With all that has transpired to damage IABC’s brand over the past few years, I felt invested in the organization enough to go.  PRSA I had attended only once before, and as my Section leadership position requires a level of visibility and participation, it was a good thing to be there for Saturday’s general assembly and the many leadership-related meetings that the international conference includes.

Another reason to go is the need to identify speakers who’ll fit in other conferences. Let’s face it, you can’t be a good speaker without seeing good speakers anyway, and since we’ve got PRSA Connect ’15 in May upcoming, why not go see a few and have some firsthand experience of their abilities to go along with the cold paper of their proposals?

Sooooo…. what about the PRSA conference? Hey. 500 words of preamble – it’s a CommAMMO post. Wait for part two.

 

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Indep Schools face challenge of trends

September 18th, 2014

186140619Independent schools have nearly always been a world apart from the scruffy marketing-essential business world, but a series of trends from SSATB Exec Director Heather Hoerle show how the economic pressures are changing how these elite private schools need to market.

First — Pricing negotiations are here. Full-pay families with the ability to pay are demanding discounts. Some schools are even eliminating the “this is the price” from their websites in favor of a scale of discount available by family income.

Second — Markets, after years of fragmentation, are coelescing around two profiles: Value-oriented families who demand discounts and are constantly seeking validation for their thriftiness, and those seeking a new economic order based on authenticity. The latter care deeply about a customized experience, which complicates a marketing process traditionally based on unified messaging.

Third — Demographics. It’s not our imagination. There are fewer full-pay families in our traditional markets, and we need to be aware of that.

Finally — choices! There is unprecedented growth in charter schools, many public schools have significantly improved their offerings, and private and parochial schools continue to compete.

More to follow, no doubt.

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Is it energy, will power or caffeine?

July 30th, 2014

WorldHQI just ran across this list: 61 best social media tools for small business. Good gravy. I know of or have used five (5). This kind of discovery gets repeated frequently at the beautiful World Headquarters of Communication AMMO.  What I’m wondering is how in the world anyone keeps track of this stuff.

Yes, I’m aware of outstanding tools like a pen and paper for such matters, but really. Is my deficit attributable to a lack of high-test coffee? I gave up caffeine some time ago, relegating myself to the wilds of what’s the point Coke and Decaf (Letterman: “It’s what they’re drinking in Hell.”)

Or is it a question of not caring enough to take the time? Maybe my cynicism about social media overcomes my professional desire to be The One Who Knows Everything.  It could be a suffering from comparisons — I’m not as smart as the cool kids who drop these names like elderly debutantes (True story: She: “You’re from Seattle! You must know the Weyerhaeusers!” Me: “We ran in somewhat different circles.”)

It could also be a deficit of energy — I’m busy with clients and now with research for my thesis and shortly with writing the darn thing and defending it. I also have friends, family, home, cats and books to read, movies to watch and music to play and listen to. I don’t have the energy to “live social,” darn it. I like to sleep and do offline things (see above.)

So Mr. Google (and Mrs.Twitter, Ms. Facebook, Monsieur LinkedIn and the occasional Herr Pinterest) will have to do.  I just have to wean myself off the idea that I can be the font of all wisdom in that space. Instead, I’ll keep pushing for quality over quantity, for probity and wisdom over transience and faddism, for support and positivity instead of snark and self-aggrandizement.

How about you?

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