Misplaced Kiddush

So they asked me to get involved in Jewish Heritage Month. At first I wasn’t so sure. I mean, I am very proud of being Jewish, but honestly have forgotten a lot of what I learned in yeshiva. (Well, I guess most of it.) Who am I to be the authority on this kind of thing?

I ended up getting involved anyway because I figured maybe G-d would give me some brownie points for helping with the event. I’m not a huge fan of going to shul (synagogue) and sometimes I worry I will get punished for that.

Also, it was the first celebration of Jewish Heritage Month at my agency that anybody could remember. Certainly it had been years. Maybe it was never. I had complained silently about why we didn’t celebrate Jewish Diversity Day. Now was my chance to represent our faith!

Oh G-d.

Apparently the speaker was already planned. I was to be the M.C. I had no idea what that meant. Like M.C. Hammer? A deejay?

No – I would read the pre-scripted remarks for the event.

If you know me you know that I have never been able to stick to a script in my life. Except as a kid in high school theater. So that was out.

I ended up on the Food Committee. This is not as light a task as it may sound. For Jewish people have a very intense relationship with food. So right away there is an impassioned debate between the “falafel camp” (not me) and the “New York deli camp” (me). Both sides lose.

“My wife says falafel is more modern Jewish food.”

“I think New York deli is culturally authentic.”

The falafel is easily beaten. Nobody has sympathy for “modern” when you’re talking “heritage.” In contrast, in my informal poll among neutral sympathizers, the New York deli idea is universally loved. However, it proves difficult to implement because there are so few kosher delis in the D.C. area, and the one we pick presents some issues we can’t overcome. (Basically they were too expensive.)

So since I am responsible for the food, and there is a kosher butcher near me who caters, I successfully suggest the easiest, cheapest, and to me, actually the most authentic choice considering Jewish history: chulent and kugel and the like. You read me right: “Kiddush food.” (A Kiddush is the Jewish social event after synagogue – where we bless the wine and eat.) I can’t imagine what could be wrong with that.

The other members of the Food Committee are not sure. Chulent-kugel fare smacks of the Old World and we are Jewish Americans. But hey, it was my hassle, and so Kiddush food it was. (I was secretly thrilled. A shul! At work!)

I go to the butcher before work one day and find that indeed, I can actually order these things, have them heated up, have them delivered, and yes, it will work. Celebrate the faith. I like it. I smell those Heavenly bonus points adding up.

Not everyone was pleased at home, though. My family was absolutely stunned.

“You did WHAT?” one of my kids said disapprovingly. “Chulent? From there?”

My other one starts laughing hysterically. “You are going to make all the non-Jewish people have gas??” (Well she said it more colloquially but you get the idea.)

My mother is sort of laughing but a bit concerned as well. “Chulent??” she echoed. “You’re going to turn everybody anti-Semitic.”

“We eat it in shul, Ma,” I whined. “What is the problem.”

“Our stomachs are used to it.”

The only problem is, I’m not sure the butcher folks really paid attention when I placed the order. “What’s a federal Jewish Heritage Month celebration?” the deli counter person had asked me.

I tried to explain. He tuned me out. Then asked, “Is this a shul function?”

Again I clarified. “No, I work for a FEDERAL agency. The GOVERNMENT.”

Somehow I negotiate what I want. I know I said clearly, before I spent all our budgeted funds, “It has to be delivered HOT. Hot because people will be eating it. Like catering.”

I reassure myself. They understood. I’m worrying too much. It has to work.

Fast forward to the Big Day.

Delivery time arrives and I don’t hear anything. Nobody is at the security desk with the food.

It’s 10 a.m. – two hours to go, no need to panic. I reach for the phone and call the butcher. “Where are you? The event is soon. We have to get set up.”

“Who is this?”

“It’s me,” I say. “Remember me? A loyal customer? I PAID you to come to the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. Where’s the truck?”

An hour later there is a call from the lobby desk downstairs. “Some guy here says he has a delivery for you.”

The guy has not parked the van in a good place. It is sitting somewhere it is not supposed to be.

I’m toast.

I frantically run downstairs. “What’s the problem?”

There are five thousand security procedures for this butcher delivery person to go through and he has gone through none.

Finally, I get the food.

Yes! I say to myself. I have three boxes. They’re heavy. We’re good. Right?

At 11:15 I open the box.

Jesus Christ, I realize (excuse me). It’s FROZEN! All of it. In the original boxes. Like BRICKS!

I start to shake. My religion, my heritage will now be trashed before a major federal agency because I will be serving BRICKS of FROZEN KUGEL!

I run upstairs to my desk to call the bucher and yell.

“How could you DO this to me?” I scream. I believe I shattered glass that day. “This food is FROZEN! I am so ASHAMED!”

Innocently the butcher says, “You never said you wanted it heated up.”

Oh my G-d. I am mortified.

I run the executive offices and find a rolling cart. I dump all three boxes into the cart and, shaking again, call a friend. “Please help me, I’m dying.”

She calms me down. She is so nice.

“We have an oven here. Put it in the oven.”

She gets an assistant to help me load it in. I flip the switch up to 500 degrees. And then the other switch to make it go faster.

I never prayed so hard in my life for food to heat up fast as I did during that half an hour before the “Ethnic Food Sampling.”

In the end I guess G-d got me to go to shul that day. Because the entire day, I was praying.

Yes, in the end, everything was fine. Nobody came running to the Health Unit, as far as I know. Thankfully.

As Hurricane Irene approaches, I remember that day. How crazy it was. I think about how G-d can make things turn out good or bad, without warning, and of course without explanation. I resolve to try to keep that in mind and be as good a person as I can.

Best wishes to everyone for safety – hope we all get through this OK. Be good to each other, and good luck!

My 20-Brand Checklist for Hurricane Irene

1. Spaghetti-os + Velveeta Mac & Cheese

2. OXO can opener

3. Hefty garbage bags + Charmin T.P.

4. iPod + Kindle

5. Bounty paper towels

6. Skippy peanut butter + Smuckers jelly + Pepperidge Farm bread

7. Life cereal + Fiber One

8. Uncle Ben's ready-made rice in a pouch + Quaker rice cakes

9. Deer Park water + Diet Snapple + Red Bull + Starbucks Frappuccino

10. Energizer batteries

Good luck!

Why Government Must Learn To Love Social Marketing

Americans are instinctively mistrustful of the government. It is popular to laugh at what we say, and to believe that we control the media, and in general to talk about social control through "propaganda."

Knowing this, and because in fact we cannot use appropriated funds for propaganda domestically, the government is nervous about marketing techniques; rightly so.

Unfortunately however, the energy created by this fear dynamic has led us to toss away the baby with the bathwater.

The reality is, we live in a marketing culture. It is impossible to get people’s attention unless you know something about how to engage them. And the government has lots of things to tell people – if only so that they can comply with the law and know where to get the basic services that are due to them.

In addition, we have transitioned from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, as everyone knows. So while in the past it was OK to say “we spend our time processing paperwork…figuring out how to file it is your problem,” today the computer has taken care of the paperwork.

But there is so much other “noise” and distraction out there today, and the general educational level is so poor, that it is incredibly daunting for the average person to comprehend who we are and how we can serve them.

So government desperately needs marketing to do its job. But - contrary to the dark perceptions held by some members of the public - we largely don’t understand what marketing is, refuse to learn it, refuse to hire for it (for the most part), and can’t admit out loud that we need it either. For fear of being condemned. Because we think we need to put the money elsewhere. And so we waste the money that we invest.

Make no mistake about it, if you set something up but don’t communicate about it to anyone, you have achieved absolutely nothing. Or worse. Our failure to communicate has led to massive confusion, misinformation, ridicule and outright anger by the public. They were laughing when we got stuck with the earthquake!

Also, troublingly, it is not uncommon to see private companies selling access to the stuff we offer for free – in a way that that public can understand.

There are some bright lights who re-do our work in a simpler way (e.g. they set up websites that are more user-friendly than ours), but why should we have a parallel structure to the government itself which has to explain what we do?

The persistent fear of marketing in the government, along with the recognition that we desperately need it, feeds a dysfunctional culture where we handle marketing in one of three ways – none of them optimal:

· “Let the vendor handle it” – pay someone millions of dollars for a short-term ad campaign they can walk away from.

· “Let the media handle it” – generate a press release, and let the news report on it through broadcast, print, etc.

· “Let our folks handle it, but don’t train them and don’t call it marketing” – which results in a lot of homemade desktop-published stuff.

King Solomon famously said that there is a time for everything, and this applies to marketing too. We also need specialists in mass media broadcast entertainment, public relations, corporate communication, and the dreaded “b” word, “branding.” Not to mention all things Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more.

Especially given a challenging economy where we don't have a single dollar to waste, we must come to terms with marketing and use it well. Templates, process, infrastructure, training, the works. Hey - I know what it's called - "social marketing." Isn't that an entire sub-industry? How come we don't talk about it or use it commonly? Why isn't it common to have a university degree that focuses on this area in particular?

I work for the government. I like it here. We do hugely important work and we have a great – complicated, urgent, often funny - story to tell. But more important we provide both social services and much-needed social control. And too often the public has no idea what is available to them, what the rules are, or how they can take advantage of all this.

Let’s get with the program now. We need to train our own marketers. And what we can’t do in-house, we should allow the private sector to help us do. Let’s harness their brainpower and heart power to better serve the public. It’s not about propaganda – it is about bringing the nation together.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


Image source here

10 communication tips for leaders in times of disaster (#PR)

1. Get in front of the camera, surrounded by people, and send a reassuring message immediately. Put it on YouTube and Facebook.

2. Set up an event-specific website and Twitter hashtag to follow. Aggregate info from various key sources.

3. Stream updates constantly over a dedicated radio channel that people know about.

4. Establish an emergency people can call and text for automated updates.

5. Set up a number people can subscribe to for text updates.

6. Follow up with people when it is over and ask how they are.

7. Assess outreach tools afterward - which were most effective? Which not?

8. Ask employees for suggestions regarding improving crisis plans for the future.

9. Do something light to help people calm down - scale this appropriately for size and complexity of audience.

10. Post photos, messages, Tweets, etc. in an online archive so people can refer to it later. This has an operational use (after action review) as well as a human one (memory book).

Good luck!

Citizen service reform --> from the simple to the radical


A friend of mine had to get something done because the government told her to.

The problem is, she didn't know how to follow the instructions because she is elderly and the type on the government form was too small.

She got some help and did what she was supposed to, but then had trouble following up.

This is because there are a lot of phone numbers listed on the website, but none of them are apparently right for her.

There is a message somewhere online about her particular situation, but since she is elderly and the type is small and hard to find, she wouldn't have known it was there unless it was pointed out to her.

How can we help this person and others like her to get what they need from the government? 

I call this "citizen service" rather than "customer service" to distinguish that the government is not a business (though I do think it should be run like one).

From my perspective three three things have to happen - from the short to the medium to the long term, respectively - but I would like to know what others think.

1) Short term: Establish a call center staffed by people who can answer any question pertaining to the federal government. "One call does it all." Optimally there would be a website where you could also chat with customer service representatives, search a knowledge base, or correspond by email. The questions that flow into this customer service center would be analyzed and reported on so that government leaders could know what is puzzling to people. (My agency has something like this on a smaller scale; I do not represent them here.)

2) Medium term: Ensure that people who work for the government are broadly literate across all agencies in terms of their functions, organizational structure, key issues, etc. Just like you can't graduate from university without studying a core curriculum, within 5 years of working for the government you should have a base of knowledge sufficient to equip you to answer questions from the public should you be the recipient of them. Doing this would also ensure that we think like one government because to the public - the USG is the brand.

3) Long term: Reorganize the agencies themselves along the lines of what citizens want, rather than setting them up as a patchwork driven by a multitude of priorities. More than that, make the institutional structures flexible enough to evolve with citizen needs, so that radical change isn't needed as society continues to evolve.

Some companies that do customer service well and along these lines are Amazon.com and Symantec.

What do you think? How can government increase the level of service it provides to the public in terms of responding to their questions?


Image source here

Shopping to soothe the pain of loss.


When I was five years old I learned to ride my bicycle. 

My Zayde, may he rest in peace, held onto the back while I sped off.

I felt safe knowing that he was behind me and that if I fell he would catch me.

I fell over and over again of course. But then he was there. And it wasn't so bad.

That year I remember being happy. I had a big Raggedy Ann themed birthday party with all my friends. It wasn't the biggest deal in the world, but to me it was amazing.

One day that year I came home from school and my mother motioned to me to sit down on the couch. "Pack your things," she said. "Daddy got another job and we are leaving."

I was stunned but I did what she said. 

That was the house where I fed the birds with my dad. We used to stand in the doorway that led to the backyard from the kitchen. We tossed crumbs out on to the porch. The birds ate them.

I felt the loss of my house acutely that summer. After that we moved somewhere else and my dad traveled for business a lot. I missed him.

There have been other times in my life like that. Enough that I learned to live without attachments. I learned to travel light. I didn't know when my security would be taken away. So I decided not to need anything.

I guess I let down my guard a bit because I got married and had kids and I'm pretty attached to my family (to put it mildly). I try not to think about it too much. What would happen if everything, everyone were taken away. Knowing that one day it will happen. That I will be powerless to stop it.

We moved our older daughter to college recently. I was absolutely crying. I was. Almost as bad as her high school graduation. I knew to expect that same feeling this time, so it wasn't as bad.

My husband was funny. We had her stuff in the moving cart. I had been complaining about how hard I was working with all the shlepping and stuff. And he was flying around with the cart, laughing at how I was such a wuss. "A little work and look at you," he joked, spinning and spinning. "What's the big deal? Whee..."

My daughter had her head in her hands. I think she was praying that nobody would see her embarrassing parents moving her in.

I don't deal well with losing the things I am attached to. Much less the people. She isn't going to be that far away. But to me it is an aching void.

One of my students lost her son this summer. Suddenly - he passed away out of nowhere. I thought she would take the rest of the semester off, but she ended up coming back to class. I thought about it a lot. I marveled at her strength. I was terribly upset for her. I don't think she knows how much.

Worries about loss, the attempt to prevent it and the inability to, are pervasive not only in real life but in the movies too. Watch the version of "Planet of the Apes" in theaters now. It's not a spoiler to say that you'll find loss, and all the terrible feelings and consequences around it, everywhere in the film.

Look at all this intensity. It's heavy! So I know pretty clearly why I went into marketing. It's happy. It's fun. It seems easy to me (though I guess if it were so easy I would be a millionaire, right?)

More than that, it spares me from having to think about the losses that are coming, that have come, that I can't control.

When you go into the store, and you buy a pretty thing, you don't have to think about the heavy thoughts that have no solution.

All you have to do is pick red, or pink, or green or yellow or blue.

That's not so bad...that's something I can live with.

I've said it a million times over and I'll say it again: If you are a marketer you're not selling a thing. You're selling an experience. 

If you're really good you're selling a brief respite from the ordinary and extraordinary pain that comes with being alive.

And if you are amazing, you take joy in giving people that moment of happiness, over and above the money.

We're sitting in Starbucks now, and it's so peaceful. I get to write my blog, and reflect, and relax. I understand what CEO Schultz is trying to do, it works, and I appreciate it. And I'm happy to buy a tea to compensate the company for the effort they put into making my day just a little brighter.

Have a good day everyone - be good to each other - and good luck.


Image via terren (Creative Commons) on Flickr

Beyond Brand Transparency by Dannielle Blumenthal - now on Amazon.com


Well, my new book is out on Amazon's Kindle Store. It's the best of four years of blogging together with 365 inspirational thoughts about the future of brand strategy.

In the end, like my grandmother always said, it boils down to one basic idea: Be a mensch.

I hope you like the book but more importantly I hope you comment on it. I have published books before, but it is unbelievably exciting to have the power of the publishing pen in your own hands.

Good luck - go forward - and as you conquer, be kind.

Have a great day,

Dannielle Blumenthal

P.S. Book cover image by stevendepolo (Flickr Creative Commons)

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