A New Beginning

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to communicate this, and there’s no easy way to do it.

My job at the American Red Cross has been eliminated.

I’m one of more than 1,000 people being let go as part of a major layoff at the Red Cross. (Reduction in Force, Restructuring? It’s a layoff.) I work in the regional office in Birmingham, serving more than 100 chapters in five states. My entire office, and the seven others just like it, are effectively closing down by the middle of May — and that only accounts for a fraction of the cuts.

No mismanagement, no performance issues, no internal politics. It’s about balancing the bottom line, and doing it in a way that will have the most minimal impact on the front line. Jobs at local chapters are unaffected.

So — how did we get to this point? It’s a three-pronged story. It’s the truth as I see it. The following is my opinion, and isn’t from any list of talking points or key messages.

1. Fallout from 9/11

Back in late 2001, patriotic Americans were throwing money hand-over-fist at the American Red Cross. The donations were pouring in, and they were adding up to a (then) record sum. At the same time, weeks and months into the aftermath, the number of victims started going down. (If you recall, early accounts listed more than 8,000 casualties, where the final numbers dropped below 4,000.) Faced with the prospect of more money than we could feasibly use, then Red Cross CEO Dr. Bernadine Healy proposed stashing some of that extra for preparation, and for bankrolling a response to what might be an imminent second-wave attack.

Needless to say, that idea wasn’t very popular.

Instead, the resultant outcry and furor over the proposal led the Red Cross to adopt some of the strictest donor language in the non-profit world. Nearly every dollar that came in for any reason was tagged with a purpose, with strings attached. You can spend it on this, you can spend it here, but you can’t do anything else. We also pledged to shut down fundraising when we’d reached the projected cost of a project. Again, great in theory, but completely unsustainable in the long run. We’ve got visible disasters where people want to give, and we have to turn them away. Then we have other disasters that don’t come near attracting enough attention to raise the associated costs. It’s a perpetual deficit machine. (Not just my opinion. Stephanie Strom of the New York Times reported on it back in January.)

2. Katrina-size Me

Hurricane Katrina blew through, and challenged the Red Cross both during and after. Eventually, a congressional inquiry into the response praised the work of the American Red Cross while adding some suggestions for improvement. The biggest ones? Work smarter with partnerships, work smarter with technology, and build up capacity.

Prior to the 2005 hurricane season, we were preparing for the time when we might be doing casework on as many as 10,000 families a day. That expectation grew an order of magnitude, as Katrina showed we needed to be ready to do 100,000 families in a day. That’s a tall order, but we rose to that occasion. We tripled our warehouse space, expanded our cooperative agreements with vendors and with other disaster relief agencies, closed the loop on other projects like the Safe and Well website. We helped chapters with the expertise and funding to greatly expand their base of local volunteers, so we could start local everywhere with a good first reponse.

We made strides in addressing the technology barrier, helping small chapters with the access and training that would get all our casework on a single platform, a single network. (Charges of fraud were overblown during Katrina. Through the courts, we’ve recovered most of the fraudulent claims, but now have the technology to prevent people from filing multiple claims to begin with.)

3. The Calm After The Storm

Despite predictions of the coming Apocalypse and destruction, the 2006 and 2007 hurricane seasons were light. The Yucatan got nailed, but the impact on the U.S. mainland was negligible. In fact, I remember one aggressive reporter writing a story about how we supposedly “kicked homeless people out of a shelter during Tropical Storm Humberto, while the winds reached their height of 25 miles per hour.” I kid you not. No one was left, so we closed the shelter. Non-event. And we took a beating from a Florida newspaper that thought we were inhumane for closing the doors during an almost-but-not-quite-stiff breeze.

Anyway, there were plenty of disasters. Ice storms, and floods, and mudslides, and fires. Many, many, many fires. Single-family house fires, which number over 70,000 annually. And big wildfires, that hit nearly every county in Florida, some in Georgia, southern California, and a good piece of the West. We were all over the place, helping families evacuate to a safe place and making sure people had the necessities. What we didn’t have was the Comparative Storm. We didn’t have the chance to show the American people, our government partners, and our supporters and donors exactly how we had morphed and evolved since Katrina. We came out of it smarter, and more flexible, and with better capacity. Our efforts in the past couple of years have helped bridge relationships with other disaster-focused organizations, where in the past we had a reputation for being “arrogant.”

With little opportunity to show what we’d done, we lost many chances to tell the Red Cross story, and help would-be supporters make that link between their donation and the meals that serve the newly-homeless. Or the link between their generosity and the training that makes a community stronger and more resilient. We weren’t hoping or praying for another big disaster — just hoping and praying that if we did have one, we’d rise to the challenge.

Aftermath

So, you put a slow leak in the balloon, expand it beyond reason, then stop blowing air into it. That’s what happened to the American Red Cross. And now my balloon has burst. (Note: Posts like this tend to attract cranks who like to dredge up some scandal or another and use that as proof positive of criminal wrongdoing. To them, I say find me $200-million/year in fraud and abuse. There are the occasional problems or bad decisions, but they don’t add up to the deficit. We’d still be in the same exact shape without adding them in, so save us the links. This is not going to become a Red Cross gripevine.)

I’m not sure where I’m going to wind up. There’s a chance I might stay on in some capacity, but there are a lot of people competing for a tiny pool of jobs. I’ve got some options: my bread-and-butter is Crisis Communications, but I can also dabble in New Media/Social Media. I’ve got the skill sets to be a corporate trainer. I have at least one colleague that wants me to help him set up a consultancy of some type. He says I have a knack for helping others see talents and skills of which they aren’t aware. Maybe he’s right.

I called this piece A New Beginning, because that’s the way I’m looking at it. I’ll continue to support the Red Cross, even if my new job isn’t flexible enough for me to deploy on disasters. They need people who can train volunteers and staff on the finer points of telling the story — and that I can do.

I’m still going to keep writing, though. I can’t express enough how well this site brings my wandering thoughts into focus. The clarity is addictive. I’ll update as I can on the search for a new perch, and I look forward to sharing those perspectives with you soon.

For those of you going through an unexpected job change (or who have gone through one), what did you do to keep pushing forward? Faith? Routine? Breaking routine? Share in the comments…

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR[/tags]

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Back from the Brink

It’s only fair to update my cousin’s situation from here, since I had brought it up.

Bill (my cousin, not my uncle) is still on a ventilator, and still heavily sedated.  They are waiting for him to stabilize and be off the ventilator before they can do the surgery to remove the blockages.  The CT scan on his head came back without complications (he fell and hit his head in the collapse.)

Thanks to everyone who pitched in with prayers and support.

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Don’t Recreate the Wheel

Pipes

Every so often, I check my site statistics to see who comes to Occam’s RazR. Primarily, it’s to answer the question “Why on Earth would they care?

Last Friday, after publishing the piece about important news happening slow, I caught the following hit from Mountain View, California:

Pipes

I do have the occasional human hit from Google. (I even know a guy working there. Yeah Crutcher. I’m talking about you.) What caught my eye was the referral linkfrom Yahoo Pipes. Pipes is a wonderful tool for taking big chunks of RSS data, and pushing it through a series of operations. Slice, dice, chop, pop, concatenate, delineate, sort, de-dupe, and throw for a loop. You can do a lot of things with Pipes. (I use pipes myself, to track Red Cross-related stories in a dozen states. Primarily, I use the tool to strip out the duplicate stories that run on different websites.)

So — someone at Google is using Yahoo Pipes, in this case to track any mentions of Google’s bid in the federal spectrum auction I referenced last week. And who can blame them? It’s a wonderful tool. I’m sure many on the Google campus also use del.icio.us and Flickr too (now owned by Yahoo.)

A New Culture

Those who grew up ahead of me did so at a time when this would have been unthinkable. An unpardonable sin, being caught using the competition’s product. Times have changed. The generation coming in behind me wouldn’t give this a second thought. It’s about getting the job done, and the appearances be damned.

If you’re coding at Google, you might spend some time trying to develop a new way of accomplishing the same thing, but what would be the point? The race is to get out in front with the new Killer Application, the service that no one could imagine today and couldn’t imagine being without tomorrow. It’s a race to the top, where everyone is standing on each others’ shoulders, whether they are giants or not. Why re-create the wheel, when the point is to build things for the cars that use them?

True, the landscape of web technology and coding is very different. We’re talking about technologies that use RSS — a standard based on the idea that information should be free of proprietary shackles, and ought to be as nimble as possible to be as useful as can be. But as you think about how to apply this notion, you’ve got to consider the arena. Are we talking about an end-product with a fixed value? Are we talking about a culture of competition or collaboration? Are we dealing with a generation that will look down on you for borrowing? Or one who will pass you by for not using the tools that maximize your time?

Those who fail to re-examine the rules of the game get beaten before they know it. Don’t re-create the wheel, when what you should re-create is your perspective.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, yahoo, google, yahoo pipes, RSS, technology[/tags]

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News Happens Slow

I can get stock information in real-time, and can monitor the scores and play-by-play of games with each passing instant. When a noteworthy person dies, the appropriate Wikipedia page is updated long before I get to it. I’ve been alerted to a number of natural disasters within moments through my growing Twitter community.

However, the mere fact that information comes at you quickly does not make it truly important. Real news with real impact typically happens slowly. Mount Everest rises up a few inches every year, because two massive tectonic plates are on a slow-motion collision course. (Impact being a function of both speed and mass, and we’re talking a lot of mass…)

Real Time vs. Real Life

As a communicator, and one that deals with crisis communications, time is usually of the essence. In crafting an appropriate response, one has to take into account who the message is for, and how and when it will likely be consumed. One notion I try to keep in the forefront is that the skills I use in assessment and execution have very little to do with matters of permanence. Emergency messages rarely matter beyond the news cycle. In fact, has anything you’ve ever shared in an email saved a life, or profoundly changed one?

Communicators are ramping up their skills and tools to deal with speed, but are doing so at the possible expense of context. We have all these wonderful strategies for dealing with problems and solutions and message gaps and negative perception — and are missing a very big piece of the picture: who owns the means of distribution? And what is my stake in that?

Selling Air

Mostly lost amid the hubbub over Obama’s speech, or his passport, or March Madness, or any of the other Breaking Headline Events of the Now, was this little piece of news:

Verizon Wireless Wins Large Chunk of 700MHz Spectrum

Verizon Wireless has won a nationwide block of spectrum that could be used to create a wireless data network, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission announced Thursday.

Verizon was the winning bidder in the 22MHz band of spectrum called the C block in the FCC’s 700MHz auction, which concluded Tuesday. The company bid $4.7 billion for the spectrum, which covers nearly all of the United States, while the high bids on the entire 700MHz auction totalled nearly $19.6 billion.

The FCC put so-called open-access provisions on the C block, meaning Verizon must allow outside devices such as mobile handsets from other carriers and must allow users to run outside applications on the network. Verizon originally filed a lawsuit against the FCC’s open-access rules, but dropped out while trade group the CTIA continued with the lawsuit.

Didn’t mean to geek out on everyone, but this is the sort of news that has a major impact on how we operate as communicators.

The Staredown and the Blink

This auction of wavelength was part of a long-running game between the cell carriers and Google. Google had announced a bid of $4.6-billion, and had enough cash to do it. The wireless companies started to get worried about the prospect that Google might get enough bandwidth to start opening up wireless across the country. Add in Google’s penchant for open standards on devices, and the business model was starting to look grim for the current carriers. After all, Google would basically give away handsets for free, lock you into your Google services (like GMail and search and Google Maps) and get money back through its online advertising arm.

Then Verizon stepped in, barely beating Google’s long-announced price. Google stared them down, and Verizon blinked. And Google essentially won the piece it wanted anyway — which was a covenant on the bandwidth that stops the winner from locking out others. You can’t dictate which equipment can work on the spectrum, and you can’t block third-party applications.

The Fallout

For me as a communicator, this is huge news. And I won’t even know exactly why for quite some time. But here are a few guesses:

  1. It tells me that the trend toward mobile computing and communications is going to continue. My future strategies need to reflect that.
  2. The notion of exclusive networks (walled gardens) may soon be a thing of the past. Open networks that are open to outside programs lead to innovation. That’s good and bad, because that wide-open innovation could lead to even greater splits and bifurcations in the ways in which I send my message.
  3. Individual users will be empowered with more choice. Good for development, bad for adoption. The bulk of the people who aren’t on the mobile communications bandwagon aren’t tweakers and hackers. They want things that work. They don’t want things that require decisions, options, thinking, or debugging.

None of this changes what I will do for the rest of the day. Or the week. Or the year. But for those getting buried under the ever-present datalanche, it’s time to broaden out the perspective and look out at the horizon — before we find the continent has moved beneath our feet.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, communication, technology[/tags]

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Home Field Advantage

{{myquote|Never get into an argument with a guy who buys ink by the barrel — unless you can keep the fight on your patch of pixels!}}

Inspired by BlogMaverick Mark Cuban and
NY Times sports editor Tom Jolly.

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Good Writing

Recently, I’ve focused on the creative craft of language and communication. Knowing what to say is important, but knowing how to say it and what not to say is also crucial. It can be the difference between informing and inspiring. Along this kick, I’ve mentioned writing at multiple levels and sources of inspiration.

Now, I want to share some short insights from some people I solicited in the Twitter community:

Good writing is…

Meg Fowler
is that which delights, annoys, inspires, impassions, entertains, challenges… or otherwise demands a response.

BL Ochman
is clear communication of thought with flair, artfulness, heart, good grammar, talent, and skill

Rob La Gesse

“alive”

Nedra Weinreich
…is like one of those wooden 3-D puzzles that fits together sequentially and tightly, locking together into a perfect whole.

They were limited to 140 characters or less. In the comments below, feel free to expound, rebut, reclassify, or answer the question in your own manner. Good writing is..?

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, communication, writing, language[/tags]

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An Update on Billy

Here’s what we’ve been able to determine so far:

We don’t know exactly what precipitated the collapse, but it appears that he had complete blockage in two arteries.  Surgery coming to remove those.

At one point, he was on nine different medications to keep him alive; slowly, those are being reduced.  He’s now down to 6 different IV drips and three machines, including cardiac assist and a ventilator.

We still don’t know why there was an initial pronouncement.  Who told Patrick?  How much time elapsed before he did find out?  Apparently, he did recognize and respond to Patrick, so there is hope for some type of recovery.  Medicine has come a long way, but please — don’t take moments for granted.

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