Tuesday, August 15, 2023


One hundred days ago, on May 7, the ACL in Jake’s left hind leg snapped. Two weeks after his surgery to repair that leg, the ACL in his right leg snapped, most likely from lugging around that big ol’ heart of his.

Over these last 100 days, we have been through one goddamned thing after another: weeks-long waits for surgeries, broken screws and dislodged plates that required further surgery, and an infection that almost obviated the need for euthanasia.  

Each step of the way, he and I went through this together. We discussed all our options and made – together – what we thought were the best decisions based on the data we had.

Every day, and I mean every single day, I thought about the drowning scene in “Sometimes a Great Notion.” We tried everything, but just as we thought we were in the clear, the log shifted.

We used to walk five times a day, every day. Our favorite path took us under the bridge on 15th Street to a field full of vole colonies. They were fast, but Jake would catch one every now and then. I knew that if I could just get him under that bridge to that field, we’d be fine.

We got close one day in July, right up to the bridge. But I didn’t take him through; I knew it was a just a little bit too far. We never got back there.

Since we were stuck at home for so long, I spent hours brushing his fur – really getting in there – while singing “Stuck With You” by Huey Lewis. Over and over. He really didn’t care for that song, I think. But he liked being brushed.

That infection hit him last Tuesday. He spent the night at the surgery center and when I picked him up Wednesday morning, they said his fever was down and he was on the road to recovery. It felt like a miracle. But it didn’t last.

On Sunday, Jake told me it was time.

I want to give a big hug to every one of you who knew Jake and loved him (redundant, I know) and a big “thank you” to everyone who has ever asked about him over the years. He knew he was loved. You guys made him the happiest dog in the world.

I really miss him.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Thank You for Stroking

My first live televised debate was opposite Katherine Prescott, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I played the role of the bad guy.

When I got to the FOX studios, I was escorted to the “green room,” which is basically a fancy holding cell for the show’s guests. Green room mixers are usually congenial affairs where the more well-known talking heads (everyone else) use the less well-known talking heads (me) as sounding boards to practice their pitch or, more likely, to boast about their latest book.

But, given the mix of guests that morning, the mood in this particular green room was less than convivial.

There was the aforementioned Ms. Prescott, of course; her handler, (then) Brandy Anderson; yours truly; and quite coincidentally, political satirist, Chris Buckley, who was there to promote “Thank You for Smoking,” his brilliantly funny new book about lobbyists for the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms industries who he affectionately dubbed “the Merchants of Death.”  

(Quick note: at the time, I was representing two of those three industries. I hit the trifecta some years after that.)

To break the chilly silence in the room, Ms. Prescott asked Chris what his book was about, and without missing a beat he pointed to me and said, “It’s about him, actually.” It wasn’t really, but at the time there was a lot of speculation that it was about the guy I worked for, a man so Merchant-of-Death-y that “60 Minutes” did an entire segment on him entitled “Meet Dr. Evil.”

(Another quick note: I’d often wondered if that exchange—and everything else that followed—really happened as I remembered it. When I recently asked my now dear friend Brandy if I was remembering correctly, she looked up from her gazpacho, smiled, and said, “Ayup.”)

It was a seven-minute segment, which is a decent chunk of time. But under the lights, time runs faster than a dingo with a baby so it’s imperative to get your points across as quickly and effectively as possible. For five minutes we were both on our game, thrusting with sound bites and parrying with eye rolls.

But then Katherine stopped talking. She just sat there staring at me as I rattled off my talkers, which actually threw me off my game a little because—much like sex—debate is often more fun when you’re doing it with someone else.

After the segment wrapped up, I went to the green room to get my coat and noticed on my way out that Katherine was still seated on the set with a bunch of people—including Chris Buckley—standing around her. I figured she must be pretty famous.

When I got back to the office about 20 minutes later, the receptionist said Jeff Becker was hold for me. The Jeff Becker—President and CEO of the Beer Institute. (Yes, there really is a Beer Institute. This is Washington.)

Becker: “Congratulations, man. You got your first kill!”
Me: “Ummm … excuse me?”
Becker: “You didn’t hear? Prescott had a stroke during your debate. Way to go!”
Becker: “Did you hear what I just said?”
Me: “Ayup.”

Katherine recovered fully. Sadly, cancer killed Jeff in January of 2010. I saw a lot of Washington’s elite at his wake, including then-House Minority Leader John Boehner. But most impressive of all was the decked-out Budweiser Clydesdale that Anheuser Busch sent to stand vigil.

As I walked past the massive horse, I thought of the line from Buckley’s novel, “Tobacco takes care of its own.”

I always found it difficult to explain what it is I actually did for a living back then. But after Buckley’s book came out, I’d just say, “Have you read Thank You for Smoking? That pretty much sums it up.”

Monday, June 24, 2019

Taking Equal Opportunity to Extremes

“Dad, please don’t make a scene” is the request my girls make every time we step into an Apple store. This time it was Claire. We were there to get her a Mac Daddy Probe, or whatever it’s called, for Christmas.

I promised to “try.”

Things got off to an auspicious start. We were greeted by a tall, red-headed self-labeled “genius” who listened to Claire’s request, opened one of the cupboards under the Genius Bar and, finding it bare, went to the Genius Storeroom in search of the laptop. But things quickly soured when it became clear that Young Red had decided to take a Genius Break.

We stood there simmering for 10 minutes. Well, I simmered.

Then, in an effort to not make a scene, I calmly approached another genius standing alone against the wall clutching a tablet to his chest and asked if he could help us. He smiled, pointed to his right ear, extended the tablet with his left hand and gestured that he wanted me to type my request.

I was not going to type my request.

I’m not saying he wasn’t deaf. By all indications, he was profoundly deaf, which is why I knew he knew exactly what I had just said. And he knew I knew he knew.

“All I need is someone to help my daughter buy a laptop.”

He offered the tablet again, this time in both hands, head slightly bowed, eyebrows raised as if doing everything in his power to help me, which is exactly what he wanted the small but growing crowd watching us to think. And he knew I knew that’s what he was up to.

So recalling the lessons I learned in my Wonder Years from communicating with my brother, Michael, who has always been hard of hearing, I looked Tablet Boy square in the eyes and slowly and clearly articulated, “I need someone to help my daughter” – turn head slowly, point to Claire, turn head back – “buy a laptop.”

He offered me the tablet for the third time, wide smile, raised eyebrows.

“Look,” I said slowly and clearly, looking straight into his eyes, “this is very simple, I need …”

Well, I guess technically I was making a scene at this point because Young Red cut his break short and rushed over to explain to me that, “in case you were unaware,” Tablet Boy is deaf “so we would all greatly appreciate it if you would simply type your request.”

"You know exactly what I want. I told you 15 minutes ago," I said (in my head).

There wasn’t a chance in Hell I was taking that tablet from that kid’s earnestly outstretched hands. The store had gotten quiet and people were watching us. I had to think fast.

Do you remember that scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Butch and Sundance were trapped on a high cliff with La Forge and his men on one side and a raging river at the bottom of the cliff? Butch (Paul Newman) was trying to convince Sundance (Robert Redford) that they had to jump into the river before La Forge and his gang shot them. After arguing that he’d rather stand and fight, Sundance finally admitted he couldn’t swim.

And it was with that scene in mind when I finally “admitted” to the two Apple geniuses and the crowd we had attracted that, “I can’t read!”

Young Red could not have been more embarrassed for, well, basically all of us. He rushed back to the Genius Storeroom and got the Mac Boy Prone and gave it to Claire. I gave him my AmEx which he plugged it into his Genius register hanging from his belt. Then, not knowing exactly how to proceed, he handed the device to Claire so she could sign for her illiterate dad.

Yes, it was humiliating. But it was worth it to see the expression on Tablet Boy’s face because—understanding every word I said—he knew exactly what had just gone down. And he knew I knew he knew … even before I winked at him.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Allergan's blog post is nothing to sneeze at

Did the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company really publicly vow to “not engage in price gouging actions or predatory pricing”?

Yes, Allergan president and CEO Brent Saunders really did, in a blog that he posted on the company’s website this morning.

When I learned about the blog post from an article on TheStreet.com, I jumped to the post itself looking for fodder for a piece I planned to write about the dangers of making false promises in the digital age. I mean, we live in the era of the 300 EpiPen, where you have to increase the price of your pharmaceutical products by 4,000 percent before anybody pays attention to you. There was no way Allergan’s CEO promised to “take price increases no more than once per year and, when we do, they will be limited to single-digit percentage increases.”

But he did. And he encouraged his CEO peers to do the same.

And while this is fascinating in itself and good news for shareholders (Allergan closed up 1.34%), what I found most intriguing about Saunders’ blog post is that it was a textbook example (or would that be a “kindle example” now) of effective 21st century communications.

Here are four lessons you need to learn from one of the most unlikely blog posts on the Internet today.

You have to have something significant to say. I’ll admit I struggled a bit as I waded through the first few paragraphs of corporate-speak about “commitment to innovation, access and responsible pricing ideals” before I got to “we will limit price increases.” But then I was hooked.

You have to be candid. Check this out. Not only does Saunders vow that, “We will not engage in the practice of taking major price increases without corresponding cost increases as our products near patent expiration,” but he accentuates the point by admitting they have done just that in the past. “While we have participated in this industry practice in the past, we will stop this practice going forward.” That’s gold, Jerry! GOLD!

It helps to speak from the heart. I’m sure Saunders’ post had to get cleared by Legal, but it still contains the language of a man who is being honest. One small example: “I don’t like what is happening, and despite the fact that it is hard to speak out publicly on this, now is the time to take action to spell out what this social contract means to me.” 

Deliver a call to action. A good blog post inspires. A great one directs people to act. And Saunders does just that. “For our industry to remain a vibrant and important part of the healthcare ecosystem, Allergan commits to this social contract and I encourage others to formulate their own self-policing actions.”

It’s not often that I am impressed by a corporate blog post, especially one signed by the CEO. But this one is worth the read.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Four tricks to help you build a loyal, engaged, and responsive Millennial audience. Sirius-ly.

"Look at me! Look. At. ME!"
At 11:02 a.m. on May 25, Millennial Ashley Parker, a New York Times reporter embedded with the Clinton campaign, tweeted: “Young embed (born in ’91!) next to me: What the hell is Whitewater?! [Begins Googling].”

Minutes later, Baby Boomer Karen Tumulty, the Washington Post’s national political correspondent, responded: “SMH. Seriously, youth is not an excuse. You are covering this candidate. READ A BOOK, PEOPLE.”

And so began the great generational tweet-off of 2016

But as entertaining as the dust-up was, the fact is there was no reason Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter and child of the digital age, should have heard of Whitewater. Just as there is no reason we relics of the Huntley-Brinkley era (google it) shouldn’t have.

We had no choice … and he had no need.

We old dogs got our news dolloped out to us on a strict schedule by a handful of “trusted” news hounds. When Whitewater was declared news, we wolfed down Whitewater stories every weekday night at 6:30/5:30 Central.

Our reporter pup and his millennial pack, on the other hand, are grazers who consume their news all day long from countless sources. They don’t have many cultural touch stones catalogued in their heads for two reasons. 1. With so many news outlets today, it takes a monumental story indeed to achieve “cultural touch stone” status. And 2., if they do need to learn about a historic news item, they know how to find everything they need.

So if you plan to communicate with Millennials, you need to understand that their way of consuming information is very different from ours. You can’t simply shout “news treat!” and expect them to come running. You’ve got to create content that interests them, and then put it where they can sniff it out themselves.

Here are four simple ways to do just that:                 

Discover your passionate audience. You need to identify who really cares about your issues. If your strategic communications plan calls for you to target “women 35 to 54,” you’re not really targeting anybody. To discover your passionate audience, you have to forget size and focus instead on common interest. I can guarantee you that there are plenty of people you’ve never even heard of who are passionate about some aspect of your organization’s quest. Your job is to discover who they are so they can discover who you are.

Learn where the Venn diagram of your story overlaps with their interests. Nobody cares about every aspect of your organization’s mission, except your CEO. And he may be jiving, too. To understand what your audience wants from you, you have to understand what aspects of your quest people care about enough to talk about. To do that, search Twitter using terms that reflect your quest and see who is tweeting (and re-tweeting) about them. Or visit the sites that cover issues directly and indirectly related to your quest and read the comments section see who has dropped by. 

Keep the relationship alive. When you have found your audience, connect with them on social platforms, subscribe to their blogs, react to their posts, react to their influencers’ posts, comment on articles that they are reacting to. (You’ll recognize the more fruitful avenues by the enormous number of “shares” and “likes.”) In short, develop a genuine relationship with your audience.

The power of the “share.” Nothing pleases a blogger more than someone sharing her post. If you find interesting content, share it. But don’t just put it on your website, because nobody goes there—not even you, if we’re being honest about it. Instead, scotch tape it to the Internet’s refrigerator—Facebook, LinkedIn and other social platforms.

It will take effort to build your audience. And your metrics will not be nearly as impressive as the proverbial “three billion impressions,” which as we all know is the teacup poodle of metrics: fascinating but absolutely useless. But this investment will result in a dependable, useful, and exponentially more engaged audience—a King Shepherd of an audience, if you will. And that will make all the difference.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Turks and Caicos!

Welcome aboard! You represent the 96th nation to visit this little shake shack! Come on in and meet all the folks!! There're are cold beers in the fridge and some M&Ms and pretzels on the coffee table. Mind the iguana. He tends to snap at strangers.

To reach your audience today, fire Ted Baxter and color outside the lines

"Oooo, part-time clerk
at Toys-R-Us! That sounds
fun, daddy!!"
I discovered the secret to effective online communication before Mark Zuckerberg lost all his milk teeth.

It was in the mid-1990s and my new boss, Rick Berman, was not pleased with my progress in generating media coverage of an economic study entitled, “Effects of Minimum Wages on Teenage Employment, Enrollment and Idleness.” I just couldn’t seem to craft a press release that made that topic interesting to reporters. Imagine that.

Following yet another of his increasingly menacing pep-threats, I locked myself in my office, thought back to my days as a reporter at The Red Bank Register, and tried to imagine what might make me pick up the phone and call the guy flacking this report. Then I drew my “press release.”

It was a mock-up of the faux resume of one “Les Likely,” an unremarkable teenager with a spotty work history and a very poor command of the English language. I added a coffee-cup ring stain in the corner and a red stenciled “REJECT” stamp in the middle of it and had the graphics department lay out and print 150 copies. Then I sent them to my media list with this short note attached: “Les Likely is about to lose his job again. Give me a call and I’ll tell you why.”

And they called. And I never wrote a traditional release again.

The lesson I learned then—which I use to this day—is this: before delivering any message, I must first determine exactly what it is about what I have to say that could possibly be of interest to my audience.

And as important as that lesson was in the 1990s, it is imperative today. You see, the days of making declarations in your best Ted Baxter voice and expecting the fish to bite are over. In fact, the more Ted Baxter-y you are the less likely you are to connect with your audiences.

Of course, there are inherent risks whenever you color outside the lines, but the benefits of creativity 
are worth the occasional ding, such as that time my laminated dollar-bill plan got us on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, above the fold. I’ll let them recount it, since they tell it best:

We were intrigued by The Employment Policies Institute's latest cost-saving endeavor. To protest President Clinton's proposed minimum wage increase of $1 an hour, the Washington, D.C., business-funded think tank mailed laminated $1 bills to 300 reporters at various news outlets. According to our calculations, the cost of that little stunt could've furnished a minimum-wage earner with more than two months of the boosted hourly rate.

It’s true that my heart stopped beating briefly when I read the Journal that morning. But that hit actually lit up the phones with calls from other reporters interested in the study, demonstrating once again that any press is good press.