Dobby the Wonderdog, Truck Stop Coffee and Other Roadtrip Ruminations

At about three hours into our road trip to Houston from San Diego for a week of Thanksgiving eating, I finally decided to reach down for my neglected pile of public relations trade magazines.

Somehow, I wasn’t months behind in my reading, but I don’t imagine I gave the articles nearly the same attention as I did with nothing else but endless sky to distract me.

Road trips force you to slow down your brain, think deeply about what you want and also what you don’t want (another Sonic burger…).

I read some thought-provoking pieces out loud to my patient husband on the role of CEOs and the importance of self branding. Bridging those two takes time and I realized that I do what we all probably do throughout our workdays. I grind. There’s not a lot of personal thought that goes into my work sometimes and that causes a nasty side-effect: I lose the chance to tell stories.

My clients range from politically-adjacent to completely grassroots and independent-thinking, but they all have the same two basic goals: grow membership and increase influence.

But what makes a Steve Jobs stand out with his product compared to Bill Gates and his product? In recent years, we’ve grown to like Gates but not in the way that we love Jobs. Perhaps because we saw a person in Jobs, not just a CEO, who founded a company he ended up losing to another leader for a time. He learned much and humbled himself in later years at the helm once again making light of his failure.

Gates lost our support during the monopoly scandal and then started a nonprofit with his wife to benefit public education. We like him, but we don’t love him and the brand loyalty of Microsoft certainly isn’t as rabid or personal as Apple.

Perhaps that’s why CEO blogs rose in popularity for some companies. When used properly and with a certain level of transparency, our fondness grows for their product and perhaps we’re more forgiving of mistakes.

On the second day of driving, I enjoyed some of the most delicious coffee I’ve had in a while and it wasn’t from Starbucks. In fact, I hadn’t seen a designer coffee place anywhere between San Diego and San Antonio. No, it was from a Love’s truck stop. I liked the coffee and the unpolished, but friendly service so much, I stopped there on my way back for two tank fill ups – my car and my caffeine levels.

Road signs flew past me along the desolate West Texas highway. It seemed to take forever, but time does pass and experiences collect.

How do we capitalize on making a lasting impression on just one passer through enough to love and benefit our brand for life?

I shared some of my ruminations with my brother, Jeff, who handled human relations for some 15 years at Exxon. He learned much and some the hard way about what resonates with the public for CEOs and what doesn’t. He now works in a similar capacity in foreign relations for a private oil company, but the challenges to humanize CEOs remains a challenge.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the company CEO took a back burner and became a case study of what not to do. In the end, another “face” might have been better to look at than his but he needed to step up and learn how to be his company’s brand. It’s where we public relations professionals can make such a difference  by making sure our people are prepared for the sharp fork in the road.

“What the CEOs don’t get is that they’re the company,” he said, as we watched our hometown team lose – a long-standing Thanksgiving tradition for Detroit.

When the game was truly hopeless, Jeff walked me around his ranch grounds visit with his horses, sheep and some dang noisy chickens. As we walked, some plucky dogs and sneaky cats zipped in and out of fence lines.

One dog rescued in the 11th hour was fondly named Dobby for her strange appearance of large eyes and ears similar to that of the Harry Potter character. She’s not a traditional sheep dog, but she has the love and enthusiasm for it. The sheep resist at first, but then they respond eventually and go with the program more readily than they do with the other ranch dog more suited to the work. In fact, they actually try to bite the other dog.

You could say Dobby dresses for the job she wants and my brother happily encourages her good work.

Companies aren’t much different. Some people “look” the part, others work at being the part despite rough edges. In the end, it’s the heart and passion behind the job that motivates the best results and loyalty.

With the notion of being personal on my mind, I prepared a client during a conference call for what’s to be a great opportunity for her organization and decided that her focus shouldn’t be all work and no play.

“Be personal and visionary,” I suggested, while stretching out my mom’s house phone cord to my laptop. “Tell your story about what leading this organization means to you. With all the jobs in the world, why do you love this one?”

Sounds a tad touchy-feely, doesn’t it? But think back to those narratives that tells us about the lifes-blood of people’s work.

What drove Mark Twain to write about a poor boy in the south? Why did James Watt dedicate his life to building the steam engine? How did Tom Brady forge ahead after being a bench-sitter in college to winning three Super Bowls? Can a middle-aged Julia Child just rise to French-food stardom in a freezer-dinner world?

We’re suckers for the story behind the story.

And while most CEOs struggle to seem cool, calm and collected under pressure, as my brother pointed out, sometimes the best approach is the human one.

Standing at what seemed like my 20th fast-food counter somewhere in west Arizona, I thought about the parallel to my work ethic. I’m more of a from-scratch type who bakes my proposals with personal love.

As a friend who shares my mantra says to clients: “For better or worse, you get me.”

But I’ll admit, during a hard and heavy work week, those french-fry ideas do seem better. They save time, money and lots of people think they’re just fine. Plus, just imagine how many more clients I could serve with a few fry cooks. Fresh idea require research, vetting and sometimes, a few trials before they’re just right.

Even still, visions of poulet a la creme looking, smelling and tasting good enough to make Julia warble “Bon Appetit!”danced in my head as I looked contemptuously at my final handful of fries. I dumped the remainder in the bag.

After a full week away from my desk, I’m back to work cooking up new approaches to help my clients speak their language, not a “CEO” language, but in genuine terms that are practical, ambitious and true. We should all aspire for the lasting impressions Dobby the Wonder Dog and Love’s coffee.

Be real, be yourself, do what you love and do it well. And try to stay away from French fries – figuratively and literally.

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