The Day I Quit the Best PR Job in Chicago to Start My Own Company

Exactly 15 years ago — on Feb. 1, 1999 (my birthday!) — I walked away from the best PR job in Chicago.

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Jonathan Lehrer,  Gov. George Ryan

Former Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan (before he was governor and before he went to the slammer) thanks me for my service on the Safe Trucking Task Force (1991).

This is still true! (Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1991)

This is still true! (Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1991)

Keeping the media and public informed about Chicago-area highway projects.

Keeping the media and public informed about Chicago-area highway projects.

This is still true! (Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1991)

This is also still true! (Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 1991)

Frightening thought: More than 15 years later, I'm still wearing that hat and coat.

Frightening thought: More than 15 years later, I’m still wearing that hat and coat.

Jonathan Lehrer marks 15 years as an Internet communications consultant.

Welcome to the Internet of 1999. Using my then-new Web site to explain why I walked away from the best PR job in Chicago. (Click the image for a readable version.)

At the AAA-Chicago Motor Club I was vice president of public affairs, nearing my 18th year of service. As spokesman for the company, I was occasionally seen and heard on TV and radio offering tips on cold weather driving, gas prices and traffic safety; I was regional editor of the club’s travel magazine; and an active participant in a number of government and community committees and task forces.

It was my annual practice to bring a cake for the office on my birthday. (It was also my practice, on days that were not my birthday, to wander from department to department all around the building, foraging for other employees’ b-day goodies.)

On this particular occasion, I instructed my staff to refrain from cutting in to the cake until later.

I had been planning this day for some time.

For the previous few years, I had been doing some free-lance work for several Jewish organizations and a small business. That business was owned by my long-term friend, Joe Sameh, who sensed (before I did) that it was time for me to move on with my life. He offered me a part-time position, with a computer, an office, a phone and a health-insurance plan. Too good to pass up, right?

In pursuit of poetic justice, I targeted my birthday as Day One of my new career. It was not unusual in many companies for a resigning exec to be stripped of his company stuff and escorted to the door by security. I had no reason to think that would happen to me. But in the weeks leading up to the big day, I copied files from the computer I thought I might need and surreptitiously took home my Rolodex and other personal items. I also cleaned out the company car that was assigned to me and arranged for my wife, Estee, to pick me up at the office in case the car was taken away.

After depositing the aforementioned cake on top of a file cabinet to discourage hungry staff members from jumping the gun, I called Zoe, the executive secretary, to get me an appointment with the company’s president, Rich Bensen.

What would I tell him?

Shove it! (Or maybe not.)

Truth is, I’d been thinking about a rhetorical approach best described as “take this job and shove it.” On advice of a few friends, though, I took a different tack.

“The story of my time at AAA has had many chapters,” I told Rich. “It’s time for me to write a new chapter.” I told him of my desire to try working on my own, and of the opportunity my friend Joe had put in front of me.

Rich didn’t beg me to stay. Instead, he shocked me by offering a consulting agreement to help me get started with my new venture.

With that, I went back to my department, took the cake out of the box and told everyone “I have an announcement.”

While Rich may have seen this coming, my staff was completely shocked. They had expected I’d spend the rest of my life there. Which was exactly why I left.

During my nearly 18 years at AAA, I had gotten pretty good at challenging myself creatively, finding new ways to manage annual programs, avoiding the trap of rehashing and recycling. But that wasn’t enough.

For me, the security of a corporate job with benefits was outweighed by the world of possibilities just outside the office door.

As a newly hatched consultant, I ended up working directly with Rich several hours a week, helping him identify a replacement for me, creating his presentations for the board of directors and facilitating the update of the company’s strategic plan. When Rich’s AAA career ended abruptly two years later, my consulting deal ended, too.

Clients from A to Z

But by that time, with Joe Sameh’s support, I had developed a solid client base. I never could have imagined that my creativity would be applied to everything from associations to zinc manufacturers.

It’s fun (to a point) to contemplate the successes and challenges of the past 15 years. But even today my career wanderlust still beckons me to a world beyond my Gmail inbox, a world populated by interesting clients, rewarding projects, smart business partners, new technologies and endless creative possibilities.

Meanwhile, I could really go for a slice of that cake from 15 years ago.

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Using Twitter and Facebook in Adverse Event Situations

Twitter in crisis communications

Put Twitter in your crisis communications plan.

Dear Mr. Communicator: We’re a large nonprofit organization with a crisis communications plan written in the pre-Twitter era. How can we incorporate Twitter into our handling of adverse events?  a cautious PR exec

Dear Cautious:

You have an alert, well-trained staff and a detailed crisis communications plan. Here are some suggested tweaks about tweets.

In the examples below, I’m using ORG and Organization as the hypothetical name of your group.

Preparing to use social media a communications crisis

Ensure that key staff members and your leadership have their own Twitter accounts. These don’t need to be actual personal accounts, but they could have usernames like ORG_communications and ORG_advocacy, etc.

Continue reading “Using Twitter and Facebook in Adverse Event Situations” »

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Do-It-Yourself B2B Marketing and Communications Tools

Note from Jonathan: You’re busy running your business. How can you possibly keep track of your marketing efforts, especially when the list of available tools gets longer every hour? Our colleague Morrie Goldman penned this helpful list of resources for business-to-business (B2B) marketing that will send you in the right directions.


By Morrie S. Goldman
Definitive Marketing, Evanston, Ill.
(Guest writer)

Web Sites and Blogs

Morrie Goldman

Morrie Goldman, B2B Marketing Expert in Chicago

If you don’t have a Web site and you are in business, you need one! If you have one that’s more than a few years old, you probably need to re-evaluate it. Look at competitor Web sites for comparison, then try searching your keywords or business category on Google and see if you can find your site. Talk to an experienced marketing communications professional.

Limited funds? Build your own basic Web site from a variety of templates, from web hosts like these.

Without even registering a domain name, you can build an attractive site by mustering your creativity and heading over to wordpress.com or weebly.com.

These low-cost hosting providers offer many good templates:

Better solution: learn how to build a site in WordPress or have a pro build it for you. This open-source (no charge) software is also the most popular for creating a blog. Learn much more at wordpress.org.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Continue reading “Do-It-Yourself B2B Marketing and Communications Tools” »

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Getting Started with WordPress

You’ve heard a lot about using WordPress to create a website or publish your ideas on the blogosphere. But how do you get started?

One way is to find a free WordPress training workshop. I would be happy to give one for your organization. (Contact me for more info.)

This brief online slideshow was prepared for a WordPress training workshop for Jewish B2B Networking.

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Getting in Front of Your Audience by Email

Constant Contact newsletters we’ve designed and managed recently.

Some time ago, I wrote about whether the popular online communications tools (Survey Monkey, WordPress, etc.) are as user-friendly as they claim to be.

They’re getting better, of course. In particular, Constant Contact has been making frequent improvements in their user interface, as well as adding quite a few new templates.

That’s one of the reasons I signed up with Constant Contact to be a Solution Provider. Visit the Jonathan Lehrer Communications site for the whole story and how you can sign up for a 60-day free trial with Constant Contact.

You might also benefit from my critiques of some Constant Contact newsletters. Maybe you’ll pick up a few tips for your own email marketing efforts.

If you want to chat about what your organization might do with an email newsletter, I’m here to help.

Our communications know-how and editorial experience, along with the leading online newsletter provider is a combination that will turn you into a publisher-marketer.

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Core Concept: Key Ingredient for Blogs, Facebook and More

Dear Mr. Communicator: Should I blog? Should I be on Twitter? — an executive looking for inspiration

Use your Fundamental Idea as the key ingredient, whether the recipe is for a blog, a website a company brochure or a white paper. If you get this right, you deserve latkes — potato pancakes — with applesauce (lower left).

When clients ask me these questions, the answer is almost always, “do you have something to say?” In other words, if you don’t have a message — a Core Concept — it’s fairly useless to worry about how you’ll deliver it.

To the business owner who dreams of getting a lot of “likes” on his Facebook postings, the concept of a message strategy can seem a bit foreign. So I illustrate it by talking about my favorite topic: dessert.

Lately, as I have been having occasional business meetings at Baker’s Square – for their free wireless Internet, of course – I’ve been thinking about pies.

Should I have Country Apple, French Apple or Apple Cinnamon? Should I accompany the pie with a cup of apple-flavored herbal tea?

They’re all different formats of apples, and obviously they couldn’t exist without the apple.

(At about this point, it should occur to you that in my fruit-flavored analogy, the apple represents the Core Concept. Clever, no?)

Let’s expand the analogy to include just plain apple slices, apple slices with peanut butter, apple slices in a salad, applesauce (on potato pancakes, of course), apple cider and taffy apples (a favorite of both my wife, Estee, and my daughter, Lia).

Before Blogging, Know Your Basic Message

If you don’t have an apple – a Core Concept – you’ll have a hard time coming up with something to blog about on a regular basis.

But if you have a basic message, or a perspective on your business, you’ll never run out of topics.

Continue reading “Core Concept: Key Ingredient for Blogs, Facebook and More” »

Posted in Blogging, Creativity, Ideas, Marketing/Communications, Small Business Marketing, Social Media | Leave a comment

Business Card is No Longer the First Impression

I’m Proud of My Business Card

In the Internet Age, you need more than a nice business card to create a good first impression.

In the midst of a recent Communications Audit – that’s my term for a brainstorming session and review of marketing materials – a lively discussion developed on the topic of business cards.

In this Age of the Internet, ye olde business card remains an important marketing asset.

The discussion on this particular day was the value of embossing the firm’s logo on the card.

It’s a well-turned phrase, but also a truism, that a nicely embossed card creates a good impression.

Describing his embossed card, the client said, “When I present my business card to a customer, I feel proud about the way the card looks, and it shows that I’m proud of the business.” The sincerity in his voice and his dedication to running a customer-focused company helped me to understand why he is such a successful salesman.

Creating a Good First Impression on the Internet

But while we’re examining his embossed calling card, let’s also think about how effective it is in creating a first impression.

Continue reading “Business Card is No Longer the First Impression” »

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New Website is Live — Now What?

Dear Mr. Communicator: We just went live with our new website. How do we get people to look at it? –a curious marketing manager

The kind of traffic your website needs

Take the right steps and traffic like this will be headed to your website.

Dear Curious:

Begin by telling the world.

  • Ask employees to link to the site in their email signatures.
  • Schedule social media posts with links to specific pages on the site.
  • Write a blog article about the business decision process that led to the new site. Here’s an example from a site I recently completed for Joseph Robertson Foundries, Limited, a Toronto company that makes brass, bronze and aluminum castings.
  • Ask your execs — lawyers, accountants, marketing pros — to ensure that their personal listings in professional organizations include links to the site.
  • Promote the site on any and all customer communications, such as billing statements, store signage, business cards and print advertising.
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For My Birthday, Please Pronounce “February” Correctly

Who put the “you” in “February”?

This is my month and I wish you would pronounce it correctly.

My birthday — the first of the month — ushers in 28 (or 29) days of the most mispronounced period on the calendar. I understand that marketers are trying to personalize their message by inserting “you” in everything, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept Feb-YOO-ary.

February pronunciation

Who put the "you" in February? I don't see it anywhere in there.

Yet professional newscasters and announcers lately have succumbed to widespread adoption of this error. Given the amount of time broadcasters historically have spent in bars, you’d think they could pronounce a word that has “brew” in the middle.

In honor of poor February — short, cold (except for 2012) and mispronounced — I am declaring it National Let’s Stop the Mispronunciation Madness Month.

Continue reading “For My Birthday, Please Pronounce “February” Correctly” »

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Create the Perfect Blog Post

Blog articles should be short

A blog post should be 300-400 words.

A client recently sent me an article to post on the organization’s blog. Her email noted that it might be “a little long.”

No kidding! It was more than 1,300 words.

In this era of what I like to call the Internet-Induced Attention Deficit Issue, my client’s proposed blog post was about 1,000 words too long. Edit it, slice it, cut it or split it into three posts.

Bloggers and webmasters have become obsessed with SEO — search engine optimization — a collection of techniques that get your page ranked highly by Google, thus attracting visitors to your site and bringing bundles of fame and fortune. The folks at Google say the best way to get their attention is to create a page that is useful for a human reader.

The best length and format for a blog entry

Continue reading “Create the Perfect Blog Post” »

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