Monday, November 2, 2009

Poets Can Do PR: A Monday Matters . . . You Do, Too, Interview

With this post, I introduce the first of what I intend to be a new series of periodic online chats (if you have a virtual fire, stoke it now) that I'm calling Monday Matters . . . You Do, Too interviews. Through this series, you're likely to meet anyone who is not a professional artist. You get to know the artists with whom I trade questions and answers through my All Art Friday Special Edition interviews. Please note,  the people I feature in Monday Matters have artistic talents, too.

I selected as my first Monday Matters interviewee Glynn Young, whom I have met only virtually, through his FaithFictionFriends blog. I selected him because he doesn't do just one thing and do it well; he does a lot and does a lot well.

Glynn is a writer; a poet who can do PR, too; an explorer of faith in fiction. He has his own communications consulting firm. He works for a huge corporation where he manages to still stand out. He haunts book stores and writes book reviews for Amazon and his blog. He's a speechwriter who on the strength of a talk given by somebody else helped initiate change in a vitally important industry. He's a Fellow of the Public Relations Society of America who gets to see his speeches printed in Vital Speeches of the Day.

Wait, there's more. Glynn "gets" how to use social media in different contexts. He indulges his wife's abiding love of Chad & Jeremy, and isn't afraid to let us know it. He's from New Orleans and loves the cafe au lait and beignets that wonderful city still serves up. He's got a lot of awards in some box somewhere, or maybe on a shelf in his study; I'm not sure, I couldn't find a photo of them online. And, he has a dog he describes as "great". What's not to like?

Poets Can Do PR, Too
A Monday Matters . . . You Do, Too 
Interview with Glynn Young

Maureen Doallas: Glynn, we've been having a bit of fun online, writing responses on our blogs to one-word prompts. So, I'm going to start off our interview by asking you, what one word best describes what you do or who you are professionally?

Glynn Young: Writer.

On [Bradley J. Moore's] Shrinking the Camel blog, I recently answered the "one word to describe you" question with the word "poet". Most of my career has been spent working in corporate America, where you won't find a job description for "poet". Which may explain a lot about my career.

MD: Now, to be fair, I'm going to explore a bit. You have a degree in journalism from Louisiana State University and a master's in liberal arts from Washington University in St. Louis. Your entire professional life, if I'm correct, has been spent in communications work of one type or another. How did your academic work prepare you for your professional responsibilities?

GY: I graduated with a B.J. in journalism from LSU, and that's where I really learned to write as a journalist. My first journalism class was taught by an instructor who was determined to weed out the driftwood. So, one style error, one factual error, one misspelled word, or one grammatical error got you an automatic F. Seventy percent of the class was gone by the end of the semester. You had to learn fast and you had to be accurate.

[That instructor] also taught us about dealing with distractions and deadlines. During quizzes and timed assignments, he would do calisthenics like jumping jacks, sing opera, [do] anything to distract us. I am still able to blot out the world when I write.

My master's program at Washington University was a different story. It was essentially a program for adult learners; I was the youngest person in the class at the time. I took a lot of courses in the humanities, and read everything from [the works of] Augustine and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to James Fennimore Cooper's The Deerslayer.

MD: What was the first professional job you landed, and what did you learn from it that you applied in subsequent communications positions?

GY: Right after graduation from LSU, I joined the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise as a copy editor. Because of high turnover, by the end of that first summer, I was number 2 on the copy desk and essentially edited three editions of the newspaper on Saturdays and Sundays. I learned to work fast and diligently, and completely trust the people in the backshop, because they always knew what they were doing.

MD: A lot has been written about the communications skills of the generations behind us (at least, behind me), some of it quite negative. In the workplace, are you seeing any erosion in ability to communicate among employees, customers, executives? If yes, what is this likely attributable to and how can it be overcome?

GY: Writing skills have been in long decline—at least [for] the last 30 years or so. A lot of things simply stopped being taught in schools. We're seeing a minor "renaissance" in writing with the advent of social media, but it's different. With others kinds of communication skills — presentation skills, electronic communications — the younger generation puts the older to shame.

MD: Do companies consult with you about how to handle issues related to workers' communications skills and, if so, what do you tell them?

GY: I tell them to think broadly — it's not just about writing press releases or an article in the internal newsletter. It's being able to clearly articulate — in writing and speaking — your thoughts and ideas in at least a descriptive (if not persuasive) way.

MD: What's the worst communications blunder a company can make and, once made, what should the firm do to rectify the problem?

GY: Refusing to say, "we screwed up" and "we're sorry" [is the worst mistake]. If you can't do at least that, you're in serious trouble, without many options left.

MD: Tell us about your work as a speechwriter, for which you've won a host of national awards. How did you get into speechwriting?

GY: Thirty-three years ago, I was working on a major-issue project at Shell Oil. An executive needed a speech on the subject, and [the speechwriting task] was "tossed" in my direction. So, without much understanding, I wrote a speech. It turned out ok, and the executive really liked it and made such a big deal over it that PR management began to pay attention to what I was up to (double-edged sword, that). They moved me, at [age] 25, into the corporate speechwriting group, and [speechwriting] has been part of what I've done no matter what kind of job I've had.

MD: What kinds of challenges does speechwriting present?

GY: Most PR people hate it —it's a ferocious amount of work and someone else always gets the credit (at least until Peggy Noonan started bragging about her speeches for Ronald Reagan).

The major challenge of writing a speech is that you are writing in one medium (on paper or computer screen) for presentation via another medium (the human voice) for delivery to a third medium (the human ear) to achieve understanding in a fourth medium (the human mind). It's complex to do it right.

MD: Is there a particular speech of yours you're most proud of?

GY: It was nicknamed "the speech that refused to die." It was given by an executive to a group of 1,500 American and British chemical engineers in London, and it told the story of two chemical industries: one that had achieved great improvements in people's quality of life but also one that was responsible for major pollution. The speaker had the audience cheering, literally, and the demand for copies of the speech didn't stop for six years! [That speech] also helped changed the course of the chemical industry and how it responded to environmental stewardship (long story but true). It was the coolest thing!

MD: You work for a huge corporation, Monsanto, as director of online strategy and communications. What do you most like about your work at Monsanto?

GY: I love the work — figuring out what we should or shoudn't be doing online and working with the Web and social media teams. And I love the people I work with. We have a great team.

MD: What's the most difficult PR situation you've faced at Monsanto?

GY: I could cop out and say they were all difficult. Several [situations] stand out, and one in particular.

Twenty years ago, all manufacturers were going to have to begin reporting emission levels of toxic substances. It [the reporting requirement] affected everyone (including newspapers) but the chemical companies were going to be reporting some big numbers. We worked for months in planning, testing, refining, arguing — to get the strategy and implementation right. We argued for two things. First, that we voluntarily disclose all of our reports ourselves, and not wait a year for the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to do it. Second, [that we undertake] some kind of voluntary initiative to reduce the emissions. Eventually (and it was no slam dunk), the company accepted both recommendations. We disclosed our own data and we announced an initiative to reduce toxic air emissions by 90 percent over four years.

That speech I mentioned earlier, the one in London, played a major role in [achieving] this. The program changed the course of the chemical industry. What a cool thing to be part of!

MD: You have more than 30 years of experience in communications work, ranging from content development, to crisis communications, to communication via print and Web. Like me, you've seen, been part of, and contributed to tremendous change in the field. What, in your opinion, has been the greatest innovation in communications?

GY: No question about it: the advent of electronic communications. There are still PR people who think of e-mail, blogs, Twitter, FaceBook, message boards, and Websites as "just some additional channels and tools". [Electronic communications] are far more than that; they're changing everything, and especially PR.

MD: Any thoughts on what the future of communications generally and organizational communications particularly might look like?

GY: More open, more democratic, and much more oriented to relationships. The era of mass communications has passed.

MD: You are an avid reader and a book reviewer. When and why did you begin writing book reviews?

GY: I wrote a few [reviews] in college for the school newspaper, and then, for about three years, for the Houston Chronicle, when we lived in Houston. I also reviewed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for several years. For about three years, I reviewed all of the Hispanic literature in translation for the Post-Dispatch.

MD: What kinds of books do you review?

GY: Today, it's generally Christian fiction and a few business things.

MD: Do you know if any of your reviews have influenced a decision to buy and read a book? (And, note to the FCC: Glynn mostly buys his own books to review.)

GY: Don't get me going on the FCC! And it's already backpedaling on its rules [for bloggers].

Just recently, I reviewed Ian Cron's Chasing Francis, and several people, including one of my brothers, said they ordered it after reading the review. Book stores will tell you that book reviews result in sales.

MD: I've been impressed with your immersion in and command of social media—Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc. I've also concluded that people who tweet never sleep. How do professionals such as yourself benefit from using these social media? What's the "power" of these tools? Any negatives to using them?

GY: The power of social media is in the creating and building of relationships. Most of my tweeting and "facebooking" is personal, as opposed to work-related, although it looks like I'll be setting up a work Twitter account [as part of] an upcoming blogging project.

The negatives: social media may be electronic but they are labor-intensive. They require a time commitment.

MD: What's the business case for organizations using Twitter or FaceBook? Does your employer Monsanto use Twitter or FB and, if yes, for what purposes?

GY: Monsanto is on Twitter and FaceBook; it also has a YouTube channel and a Flickr account. [And a blog, too.]

The business case is relationship-building. I've seen some of my colleagues do some amazing things with Twitter, FaceBook, and blogs, in reaching out to farmers, for example.

MD: How long ago did you begin blogging? 

GY: I set up a blog for about three weeks in 2007, realized how much time it took, and then shut it down. I started my current blog,, in March of this year.

MD: I read recently that bloggers should have a mission statement for their blogs. My first thought was, God forbid! What prompted you to start your blog?

GY: I wanted to explore areas of culture and work through the lens of faith. So, my posts are generally about books, poetry, and sometimes work. I've also guest-blogged on some different sites, such as Shrinking the Camel. That [blogpost], in fact, was a book review of Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. [Click here to read Glynn's guest post.]

MD: We met virtually, through L.L. Barkat's Random Acts of Poetry site. I was very much taken with the poetry being created by you and others in the online group I've since joined; so, I wrote and posted on my blog a piece inspired by one of your own poems and then sent you a note about it. Your story of how you began writing poetry in church is delightful. Share a bit of it, will you?

GY: I'll get into trouble over this (my wife already fussed at me) but here goes. It happened during a sermon at church one Sunday. The passage was the Gospel of John, the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3, and, as I listened, images started coming to mind. And then a question I hadn't considered before: Why did this happen at night? I kept jotting things down in my church bulletin. And over the course of the next few days, I started shaping [those jottings] into a poem. I finally posted it on July 18. [Click here to read Glynn's poem.]

MD: What's poetry's appeal for you? Is it a kind of "calling" for you?

GY: I think I answered that question for myself on the Shrinking the Camel Website, in response to the question, "What one word describes you?" I thought and thought about that, and kept coming back to the word "poet".

I don't think of [poetry writing] as a calling; I think of it as something I do, but also something that describes who I am. There are no corporate assessment categories like "poet", and that may explain a lot about what has happened to me over the course of my working career.

In some ways, a speechwriter is like a poet. [Aside by MD: Now that might be a very interesting discussion!]

MD: How would you characterize the poetry you write?

GY: The poems fall into three categories: love poems (have I told you about my wife yet?); impressionistic poems, like the ones I've done about the Edward Hopper paintings; and the "Bible" poems, like the ones I've done on passages from John and the life of David. David's life, in fact, is like the psalms he wrote.

MD: Recently, on your blog, you described being in a book store in New Orleans and being asked by the person ringing up your purchases whether you are a poet. You had to be asked twice. What was behind your hesitation to answer right away in the affirmative?

GY: It was the first time I publicly said, "I'm a poet." It's easy to say, "I'm in PR" or "I'm a speechwriter" or "I do online communications." But to say I was a poet was both an answer and, in a way, the staking of a claim.

MD: Do you have any plans to submit any of your poems for publication in poetry magazines or the like?

GY: I've been thinking about it. I've also got novel manuscripts I'm thinking about as well.

MD: You are one the "forces" behind Tell us about the impetus for creating this site and how it's evolving.

GY: A few weeks ago, L.L. Barkat, Eric Swalberg, and I were having a conversation on Twitter about doing a poetry jam, and we went ahead and did one. I collected all of the tweets and then shaped them into a longish narrative poem. We had such a good time that we decided to do it again. And then L.L. sent an e-mail to Eric and me, asking about the idea of setting up an online place to "house" the poems and related materials. And just like that, we said yes. Eric actually set up the site on WordPress; L.L. provided the artwork illustration; and I volunteered to edit and manage the posts. The editing of the "tweet parties", as L.L. named them, is becoming more complex, but it's also great fun. I've never done anything quite like this before.

MD: What would you most like to be doing two to five years from now?

GY: Writing a lot more poetry and fiction. Playing with my granchild, who's due in March. Loving my wife even more than I do today. Teaching kids in Sunday school. That's probably enough.

MD: Glynn, I wish you much success in all those activities! Thank you so much for agreeing to do my first Monday Matters . . . And You Do, Too interview. 

A side-note: I conducted this interview via e-mail. After snooping around a bit to get some background on Glynn (be prepared to go through a lot of search results), I wrote a set of questions and e-mailed them to Glynn, who kindly and promptly answered them. Had we been conducting this interview live, I would have had a lot of follow-up questions. If you have any questions for Glynn, please post them in my Comments section and we'll get you some answers. Thank you for taking the time to read about Glynn.


L.L. Barkat said...

very fun interview! :)

This is my favorite thing...

"The major challenge of writing a speech is that you are writing in one medium (on paper or computer screen) for presentation via another medium (the human voice) for delivery to a third medium (the human ear) to achieve understanding in a fourth medium (the human mind). It's complex to do it right."

I have to do this too. And I find it terribly challenging.

Anne Lang Bundy said...

Twitter has a tendency to level the playing field. That's good for us up-and-coming types. It also hides a good bit of others like Glynn. All I can say is "Wow."

Billy Coffey said...

What an amazing interview of a truly amazing man. Thanks to you both!

Anonymous said...

Maureen, thank you for this interview. He's always in the background, always helping others. He is an incredible blessing from God.
Janet (the wife)

Anonymous said...

oh my, this is very interestng and well done!
congrats, to you both, on the first mm&ydt interview post.

Louise Gallagher said...

Okay -- so I was fascinated. Not just by Glynn, but by your initiative and creativity. Thanks Maureen. Awesome stuff! (now ain't that good Inglush!)


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Susan Bell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter P said...

Great interview.

Glynn, I've really enjoyed learning a little about your fascinating life!