Rick Aspan, APR, Talks of Future Following Career in Technology Communications

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

So, what’s next for a public relations leader who forged a very successful three-decade-plus career in the technology industry and decided to seek a new direction in life? Rick Aspan, APR, will find an answer in the days to come. The first public relations pro to be featured in 2020, Rick shares thoughts on his work at a multi-national firm, the value of earning the Accredited in Public Relations credential and the professional baseball team he’s rooted for all his life.

1. You recently retired after 15 years as VP and global head of Corporate Communications for North Carolina-based CommScope, and you did so based in their Westchester, IL office. On the company website, CommScope is described as a leader “in innovating the network infrastructure of the future.” Please describe your role and responsibilities with the company.

I led a global team of nine talented people, and we provided the media relations, employee communications, social media, industry analyst relations and executive communications support for CommScope around the world.  The company now has approximately $10 billion in annual sales and 30,000 employees, with manufacturing, sales, engineering and administrative facilities in numerous nations. Needless to say, we stayed very busy, but I’m proud of all we did—we consistently outperformed and delivered results that enhanced the company brand, perception and performance.

2. How did you gain the experience required to lead communications at a publicly-traded technology company?

Rick Aspan, APR

Since my dream was to be a sportswriter, clearly there was an early fork in the road and a ton of experience gained along the way! I was fortunate to work at companies and for people who appreciated aggressiveness and creativity, which provided countless ways to learn by doing.  And, as a non-technology guy who has worked in technology for 35 years, I quickly realized I’d never be the smartest person in the room, but I sure can be the best business communicator they’d ever seen by being open to learning and developing. It never hurts, either, to have worked with some great leaders—my direct managers and company executives—who trusted me and from whom I’ve benefited tremendously.

3. What were some of the challenges you encountered? Did you ever have to mitigate a crisis?

With a relatively small team and budget, it felt every day presented some sort of challenge just to keep our collective heads above water! And I’m thankful that I never had to manage through a big-scale, headline-generating crisis.

But in the spirit of your question, I’ll point to two specific challenges.  First, as a supplier to all of the world’s top networking companies (think AT&T, Telefonica, Comcast, Microsoft, etc.), we serve industry giants and compete against some well-known brands.  But CommScope isn’t as well known, especially outside of our industry and because of its rapid growth via acquisition. So the communications team embraced this great opportunity (er, challenge) to make stronger connections to our customers and potential customers via PR and social media, while also building greater brand awareness outside of our traditional industry markets where we’re already well known. So far, good progress that I’m confident will continue after I’ve left.

Secondly, in employee communications, I’ve always joked that CommScope represents the perfect storm of employee communications challenges by nature of its workforce. For example:

  • 30,000 or so employees in numerous countries and nearly every time zone
  • Approximately 50% of those employees work in manufacturing, distribution or transportation functions where they are “non-connected,” or without workplace access to computers and Internet
  • More than 10,000 employees don’t speak English

So every global communication requires additional levels of planning and creativity to ensure that our diverse set of employees have a relatively equal chance to receive it, understand it and embrace it. We’re always translating copy, voicing-over videos, adjusting for time zones, and coaching regional and local leadership to boost our chance of success.

4. We met way, way back in 2003 when you were a panelist on my APR panel presentation. (Thanks again for advancing me!) How did earning Accreditation contribute to your success in public relations?

Wait, we let you through?  Haha. Earning Accreditation certainly helped me and was one of the most meaningful steps I took in my career in terms of personal development. And I emphasize “personal.” No one makes us do it, but choosing to take on this challenge and earn APR made it that much more significant to me. I did it for me, while it also helps advance our profession. Sure, I learned some new things even though I was mid-career when I did it. More importantly, the Accreditation process helped me take what I already knew and structured it in a way to be more meaningful and actionable for the rest of my career. Sort of like a guy who has played golf for several years and is good at it, then decides to take his first series of golf lessons. (If you’ve ever done that, you’ll know what I mean!)

5. Now, on to a less serious topic. From your Facebook posts, I see you are die-hard Chicago White Sox fan. The team made some significant off-season moves.  So, how will the Sox fare in 2020?

I’m stoked by the team’s progress and changes, but like a true South Sider, I will always be restrained in my optimism and fearful of the worst happening until I actually see good things unfold on the field. There was considerable energy and enthusiasm in the stands last season, despite the lousy team record. So yes, I’m excited. Let me put it this way….for the first time in years, I’m already blocking out my calendar for October.

Will Public Relations Score on the Legal Weed Boom in Illinois?

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

New Year’s Day 2020 was a day highly anticipated by many of my fellow Illinoisans. A definite, palatable buzz permeated across the Land of Lincoln. In fact, when the smoke cleared, there was outright euphoria among segments of the population.

Okay, enough with the silly puns and intended hyperbole.

Mild temperatures and bright sunshine greeted the scores of cannabis customers New Year’s Day at a dispensary on Milwaukee Avenue in the Logan Square neighborhood.

You know what I’m referring to: On January 1, Illinois became the 11th state to allow the sale and recreational use of cannabis to people 21 years and older.  Leading up to legal weed day, there was the expected media frenzy of stories regarding the impact of state-sanctioned sale of a product that remains illegal on a federal level. Would cannabis vendors run out of product? Would a rush by recreational weed patrons result in a diminished supply of medical cannabis? How much revenue will legal weed bring to the state? Where can pot possessors puff legally? Would there be a mad rush to stock up?

As noted in the image at left, on January 1 marijuana connoisseurs of all types waited in long lines at dispensaries across the state to score flower, edibles and tincture without fear of prosecution.  And, the rush for the green stuff has continued in the ensuing days. The result: the projected shortfall of product has happened.

And, in the “this just in” department, this recent Chicago Tribune story reports city has set up “cannabis amnesty boxes” at our two major airports for passengers who want to discard weed products before boarding to avoid the prospect of violating federal law.  My advice: Get high before you fly!

So many questions, so much uncertainty, so much still to unfold surrounding the debut of recreational marijuana; but I have a question of my own.

Back in November of last year, I published a post asking fellow public relations professionals if they would provide counsel to e-cigarette manufacturers, companies that produce another legal smoking product. Given the landmark events of last week, let me follow up with a new query:

Would you represent a cannabis company as public relations counsel?

If first-week sales statewide is an indication, legal cannabis is on track to reach major highs … I mean heights.  Cannabis shops sold nearly $11 million worth of product over the past seven days, a figure that assuredly would have soared had there been more product available and more dispensaries open.  So, the industry is legitimate, at least from a financial perspective.

It would be prudent for PR firms now representing cannabis companies to jointly share strategies and tactics. It blows my mind (figuratively, of course) to contemplate how account teams learn more about the product.

So please: Don’t bogart your comments and pass opinions and insight. Or, whatever.

Questions! I Have Questions to Ponder in the Year Ahead

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

“As we pull back the curtain on 2019 …” No, that’s contrived, outright hokey.

“With another decade on the horizon …” Been done, a cliche.

“The countdown to a new year begins!  So let’s reflect …” Perhaps appropriate for a television program.

Okay, enough.  I’ll dispense with trying to deliver a clever, inspiring and provocative lead to this post.  What follows are three questions I hope to have answers for in 2020.

Will Public Relations Continue to Remain Vital in Society?

To offer an answer based on my personal perspective, a resounding “Yes!” However, there are, of course, caveats to posting such a declarative response. The public relations profession, in my opinion, needs to continue to define itself as the source of ethical, strategic communications counsel to help build brands and minimize threats in the increasingly digitally-driven landscape. And, as I’ve tried to champion over the last few years, it’s the responsibility of those of us in  public relations to challenge misrepresentations of the profession.

This 2018 LinkedIn article presents my perspectives. Just google “2020 PR trends,” and the results will reveal lots of articles and prognostications.  But take note: My search included this 2015 Inc. magazine article on 10 “bold” projections on public and advertising for the year 2020. The author swung and missed on a few selections, especially the first prediction.

This parcel on Diversey at Francisco avenue once housed a row of modest storefronts. Now, it’s slated for what assuredly will be branded as “luxury” condos.

Will Upscale Real Estate Development Continue Unchecked?

Real estate development is a sign that a market is vital and ready to accommodate growth. But will the preponderance of new apartment, office and mixed-use projects now under development, planned or under consideration in metropolitan Chicago meet market needs or result in over-building?

According to this cool interactive report from Curbed Chicago, there are 33 high-rise projects being built in the city.  Think about that: 33 new “luxury” projects in a city that’s struggling to maintain population, in a city that’s becoming increasingly expensive. The site doesn’t include the more modest projects out in the neighborhoods. Let me conclude this segment by noting, that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, my state of Illinois has lost people for the sixth consecutive year.

Will The Actions of Some People Continue to Leave Me Baffled?

Why, why, why do some people ignore collecting U.S. mail?

Now, something on the less serious side. For a perspective on this question, please note the image showing mailboxes — the old-fashioned kind, the kind that holds the original means of mass communication.  This trio of mailboxes is located at a home just north of where we live. It’s been this way for days, possibly weeks. Who knows: Maybe months. Why don’t the occupants retrieve their mail!

Yes, this is anecdotal, but I’ve observed receptacles full with U.S. mail in other buildings around the neighborhood. I also wonder why so many people these days don’t wear gloves in the winter time, or why some fellow passengers on my morning Blue Line commute think it’s acceptable to stand in the entrance to the el car (on their handhelds, naturally) rather than move into the car.

Perhaps in 2020, which arrives here in a few hours beyond a full day, I’ll learn the answers to these three questions; and hopefully, many, many more.

 

So What Constitutes a “Christmas” Song?

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDudeP

This time of year — well, actually starting sometime around Thanksgiving — much of the world begins the ritual of enjoying, presenting, performing, producing, distributing and airing musical compositions that honor, celebrate or promote the day we celebrate today.

Google “Christmas Songs,” and the algorithms that drive the search engine reveal 1,520,000,000 options. That’s a lot or results, for any search.

Of course, you’ll find “best” and “greatest” lists, which I’ll let you scan for commentary. But I would gather that a sizeable majority of those included have “Christmas,” “Santa,” “snow” or another word characteristic of the holiday in the title or within the lyrics.

Which brings me to this multiple-part question: What is a “Christmas song?” How is it defined? What characteristics are required for the song to be added to the Christmas song canon?

I’ll let you provide answers or commentary. But I want to share a song written by one of my musical heroes (and I don’t have too many) that is all about the essence of what the Christmas holiday should represent — but doesn’t reference the Christ child by name, much less that jolly fellow, reindeer, presents, trees, tinsel, Black Friday or even snow.

The song is “Nothing But a Child,” and the author is Steve Earle.

This almost lullaby, which appeared on the Copperhead Road album of 1989, is ethereal, melodic and passionate; its blend of timeless, hopeful lyrics, straightforward vocal delivery and soothing pedal steel guitar interludes results in a compelling musical accomplishment.

There is a “Christmas” aspect to the song, yet, I’ve never heard it performed during the holiday. Hopefully, Earle’s peaceful song will someday be better recognized and interpreted by those of us who appreciate the power of music.

Here’s a Merry Christmas to all who read this entry into The PRDude and the 440 others I’ve posted over the past decade.  As I prepare to file this post, there’s six hours of Christmas Day left in 2019 to appreciate “Nothing But a Child.”

 

 

Was Martin Luther Among the World’s First “Publicists?”

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

To provide some background into the question noted in the title to this post, let me share thoughts on the latest course I completed in my scholarly pursuit of a Master’s degree in English.

Was this guy really a “publicist?”

Since late August, I and a dozen or so colleagues focused studies on British literature from the early seventeenth-century, a period fraught with a civil war between royalist and republican forces and a half-century following one of the most divisive and explosive movements in western civilization — the Protestant Reformation.

We read primary texts (mainly poetry, epic poems and longer prose works) written by some of the English language’s foremost writers and poets like John Milton and John Donne, along with works by writers new to me.

And, there were the assigned secondary texts, scholarly essays and chapters from books and journals that center on philology and hermeneutics.  Big words, I know. Look them up if you need to.

For my first required paper, I wrote an essay that focused on the writings of the architect of the Reformation — Martin Luther. (You can read the essay here, but I must point out that this version has excellent comments and notes provided by my professor.)

My thesis centered on elements of propaganda in the crude and banal pamphlets Luther wrote and had published early in his role as a stalwart opponent of the Catholic church, which I contrasted with the more elegant, refined and — in my opinion — biased introduction to a collection of the scholar’s Latin works, a relatively short document laden with self-deprecating prose that chronicles his “Reformation breakthrough.”

The point I attempted to make: With the introduction of the printing press in around 1450, Luther and others who believed in the Reformation and its principles were able to disseminate printed messages across much of Western Europe. He started with cheap and simple pamphlets featuring with wood carved images that put the Pope and Catholicism in a negative perspective; this allowed the message to be presented to the common folk, many being illiterate. A few decades later, Luther elevated the message through his scholarly prose geared to the learned class.

In both cases, he followed a sound strategy: Craft compelling, definitive messages targeted to a specific audience and employ an effective communications medium. The same strategy is used by strategic communicators today, of course, but the medium includes broadcast and digital.

Now, back to my initial question. One of the sources I referenced for the paper is an excellent book, Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther, by Mark U. Edwards, Jr. In this scholarly work, Edwards defined the printed works that promoted the Reformation cause as the world’s “first large-scale ‘media campaign,” and Luther as the the most prominent “publicist.”

My perspective: The Reformation was not a media campaign because the sources of the communications were not media companies; nor was Luther a publicist because the messages he and other Reformists (by the way, the Catholics issued their own anti-Luther/Reformation messages) shared in in the sixteenth century were clearly propaganda in nature.

As I maintain, a legitimate and honest media organization is predicated on ethical standards; and, the role of a publicist — which falls under modern public relations practices as media relations — is to generate positive media coverage for the client.

So, to summarize, the communications practices followed Martin Luther and others more than four centuries ago don’t equate to publicity, and those who originated the messages were not publicists. But the plans and courses of actions put into motion back then clearly have relevance today.

Okay: Your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

Thankful This Thanksgiving Towards These

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

With the big family celebration out of town, Susan and I “improvised” yesterday for our official Thanksgiving meal.

Served hot with hot red peppers and a spicy dipping sauce, Japanese Style Fried Turkey was a standout during our meal. The New Zealand sauvignon blanc made it all the better.

We enjoyed a three-course “Thanksgiving Tasting Menu” offered by Roka Akor, a Japanese-themed restaurant with stores around the country. Our meal took place at the store in the Westfield Old Orchard shopping mall in Skokie.

And, along with the Hamachi Serrano Chili Maki, Salmon Teriyaki with House-Pickled Cucumbers and other delicious offerings, we had turkey two ways: Japanese Style Fried Turkey and Braised Turkey Rice Hot Pot with Mountain Greens.

Of course, we missed the traditional holiday fare and gathering with family; but we were thankful for the opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal with others who did not or could not participate in the Thanksgiving feast depicted in the famous Norman Rockwell painting.

And, while I’m on the subject, here are few other things I’m thankful for:

  • Living in a nation that — despite the challenges faced on a national scale with the impeachment proceedings and unbridled partisanship — is still a pretty good place to reside.
  • Completing another course in my journey toward earning my Master’s degree in English. This semester’s subject matter — seventeenth century British literature — was new to me, but I gained a better understanding of the Reformation and the process of researching and drafting scholarly papers.
  • Modern public relations practices and the positive impact those of us in the profession can and will have in making society a better place.

Oh, and one more thing: I’m thankful for this platform and the ability to share my thoughts, opinions and images in this space. And, of course, I’m thankful to everyone who reads what I have to say.

 

 

Would You Represent an E-Cigarette Manufacturer as PR Counsel?

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Several years ago, a friend and I were discussing our careers. My friend held creative positions in advertising and back in the 1970s worked on a major cigarette brand.  A non-smoker, I asked my friend whether she faced any personal issues by helping to sell a product that caused serious ailments and death for generations.

“Well,” my friend said, “It’s still legal to manufacturer and sell cigarettes.”

Two images of vaping today: The outcome for some, and the “cool factor” embodied in a cloud. Image courtesy of Metro UK.

Fast forward to today, and the focus is on another kind of legal smoking product — e-cigarettes.  Over the past several months, the manufacturers of e-cigarettes have been embroiled in controversy regarding their products and the impact on people.

This recent news story reports about lab tests that revealed toxins were found in people sickened by vaping; nationally, the grisly fallout from vaping is sobering: More than 2,000 sickened and at least 39 killed.

Manufacturers of vaping products claim e-cigarettes help adult tobacco smokers quit cigarettes, which on the surface has merits. Yet, given the now regular news coverage of the harmful fallout vaping has created for some users, perhaps that contention is way, way misguided.

For this post, I wanted to learn more; so, I visited the American Vaping Association for insight on the health concerns related to vaping.  I found an article on the “facts” related to illness and death, which cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that cite a high percentage of those who got sick used illegal THC vaping products.

There is a Contact page for the AVA, but it’s a little challenging to find because the link is within a drop-down menu accessed by three small horizontal bars to the right of the masthead.  And, the AVA site does have pages devoted to news, testimonials, how to donate and more, all accessed from the somewhat hidden drop-down.

The question to the AVA: Why almost disguise the way viewers reach critical pages on your site?

Back to the anecdote that started this post: Vaping remains legal in the United States. So, to colleagues in the public relations and other communications mediums:

Would you represent the AVA or a vaping products manufacturer as a client?

I’ll start: No.

Public relations should be predicated on doing something beneficial for society. I don’t agree with the vaping industry’s altruistic mantra that their products help adult smokers kick the tobacco habit.

Your thoughts are highly encouraged.