Disruption is so 2019. As we close what seems to be the most disruptive year ever, aka 2020, many of us are probably looking to normalize our work instead of opportunities to “disrupt the industry,” a common phase many entrepreneurs and executives used in 2019. Dropping “disruption bombs” into our corporate mantras, company missions and keynote speeches seemed natural just last year, but now seems a little jarring in a world that is constantly disrupting our every move.
However, if you truly want to be a change agent or “disrupter,” now is the time to do it. With our environment and society in constant flux, it’s easier now to make change happen, because most people want it. This doesn’t often happen when everything in the universe is running smoothly.
The misstep I see with those wanting to be a “disrupter” is that you cannot disrupt something, until you first build something. Sure, it sounds cool to say you “disrupted an industry,” but how do you get there? Before you start blowing things up like a super-CEO, you have to build something like a worker bee. The build is not the glamorous part. In fact, it can be a lot of work and take a long time. Just like a worker bee’s plight, don’t expect to get any credit while you are building. In fact, it’s more likely you will be criticized for what you are doing in the beginning. Then, be ready, because once you have laid a firm foundation for the change you want to make, the disruption may surprise you.
As a 20-year veteran entrepreneur, I have disrupted many things in my career, but rarely do I start out by saying I’m going to disrupt something. And if I have been bold enough to make that declaration, I’ll admit to you, that most of the time it’s not what I end up doing; but usually find myself having a different breakthrough that I wasn’t expecting. One thing I have observed is that there is a sequence to disruption if you want to make change.
Just Do the Next Right Thing
June 2: My morning was rattled by a frantic call from one of our clients. Today was the day of Harold and Rachel’s book launch that they had been planning for more than a year with the goal to make The New York Times Best Sellers list. But at 7 a.m., their plans were disrupted by something called #BlackoutTuesday. This all-American Army couple (who also happen to be white) had to put the promotional plans for their love-conquers-all book on the backburner for a day that was spontaneously deemed on social media as a collective action to protest racism and police brutality. Originally organized in response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, #BlackoutTuesday was a way to show your support on this issue by simply displaying a black box on your social media and not posting anything else for the rest of the day, which soon turned into a week of silence (if you were white), to elevate Black voices.
Once I had a new publicity strategy in place for the authors, I quickly turned my attention to my own company, Pitch Publicity. A lot of our activity during the day involves promoting our clients’ work on social media, so I knew I had to do something. My next call was with Ledora, a longtime team member, to brainstorm on ways we should respond. The conversation went like this:
Me: I think we should blackout all our social media today. Maybe just include a quote from a female Black journalist.
Ledora: Agreed. I like that. But just for today and then go back to business as usual tomorrow.
Me: Why? I think this is something we should do for the entire week. I’m not sure one day is enough considering the issues at hand.
Ledora: OK, I can see that. Are you sure though? There may be push back from clients over making a statement like this. Have you thought about that?
Me: If I lose a client over blacking out my social media for supporting Black lives for a week, I don’t care. I care about you and what Pitch represents.
Ledora: Oh, wow I didn’t know you felt that strongly about these issues.
This statement from Ledora will stick with me forever and it’s what prompted me to do the next right thing. It was at that moment I realized that although in my “boss brain” I thought I had a great, open relationship with all my team members, it did not seem to be the case with Ledora, which was shocking to me since we have been working together for more than a decade. I thought to myself, did she actually believe that I would value my reputation or success over her?
It’s moments like these where we have to stop ourselves and ask some hard questions. I could have easily breezed by Ledora’s comment as insignificant or an error in the perception of our relationship, but instead I took a deeper look at her perception of me and decided that the next right thing to do was not only blackout our social media for a week, but also build something with Ledora that would change this conversation forever.
Pick Up a Brick
Bricks are heavy, dirty and can easily cut your hand if you are not careful. A brick exemplifies hard work and picking up one indicates that you are about to do something that requires a commitment.
June 7: I had just posted my last social media protest post of the week. I said a lot of things in that last post reflecting on the week and ended it with a quote from Maria W. Stewart from 200 years ago that said, “Talk without effort is nothing,” so stay tuned. With that statement, I had just picked up a virtual brick.
If you are going to disrupt something, you can’t be silent about it. You have to let people know you are taking up a cause, that you are putting yourself out there. This is where accountability will come into play. If you pick up a brick, but don’t tell anyone about it because you want to make sure your disruption is a success story, you aren’t disrupting anything. You are silently trying to improve your image or resume. But if you pick up a brick and make it known to all, then you have to do the work and get it done someway, somehow, while everyone is watching.
June 8: With my virtual brick in hand, and blackout week behind us, I called Ledora first thing.
Me: So how did you think we did as a company during the social media blackout week?
Ledora: Good, I thought it was really good. I’m proud of our company.
Me: Do you think we did enough?
Ledora: (Pause) What do you mean?
Me: I don’t think we did enough. There’s more to be done.
From this conversation, Ledora and I began working together in partnership to build what would later be known as our, “Identifying The Elephant In The Room: Critical Communications Strategies In The Face of Racism” virtual event series. In just a couple days we fleshed out the entire concept and went to work. The program would be a collaborative and proactive seminar series on race relations and critical communications strategies for students pursuing degrees in journalism, public relations and advertising at Ledora’s alma mater, Howard University (HU), and my alma mater, the University of Florida (UF). Our companies, Pitch Publicity and INICIVOX, would fund the technology platform and we would work to find student groups at both universities to host and help promote the series designed to mentor all students interested in entering careers within the communications industry, while preparing them for meaningful, impactful work that involves addressing the long-standing elephant in the room when it comes to racism. Participating professionals in the series would be successful alumni of HU and UF with valuable career lessons to share from all sides of the elephant.
Our vision is to create a space where alumni and students can discuss topical race-related communication issues that reflect the current business and social climate. We believe exposure to this content will help journalism and communications students develop more effective strategies and important soft skills by learning from wins and losses of other successful professionals working in various communication roles.
Our goal is to better prepare future journalism and communications professionals with confidence in confronting and taking action against racism through various communications channels that they will influence during the course of their careers.
Don’t Look Back
During any “disruption” there are moments where you will be asking yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?” When this happens, don’t look back, and don’t double guess your original idea.
Once we built out the elephant project it was time for me and Ledora to pitch it to our respective alma maters. Wearing our altruistic hearts on our sleeves, we were certain our plan would be met with enthusiasm and praise. In reality it wasn’t that easy. Much like the title of our series, we discovered there were elephants in certain rooms that even we were unaware of, but we refused to look back. Although it would have been easy to throw in the towel and return to our day-to-day work, we continued to pitch the elephant project with the same tenacity we pitch all of our client campaigns. Finally, after several weeks of not giving up we got the green light from both schools and started working with the students on the program.
Go, Learn and Grow
When I think back to all the disruption projects I’ve tackled in my career, from starting my own PR agency, to running publicity campaigns in underwater laboratories for 31 days straight, or on the peak of Mount Everest, the Elephant In The Room project may be my most meaningful disruption yet. When Ledora and I set out on this project we did not dictate how we wanted it to turn out. We both agreed that we would just do the work, learn from it and grow it where it needed to go.
Our go-to-market plan on this project was quick. Any hesitation on our part would have killed the timing. Instead it was perfectly positioned for the fall semester because we trusted our instinct and said let’s go before knew exactly how it would turn out.
Through this project, we have learned a new skill for our company on how to masterfully put together virtual events; how to bring two completely different groups of people together and create an incredible synergy; and provide a format and platform that gives access to voices that need to be heard.
The Elephant In The Room project continues to grow, and we are not sure where it will take us next, but what we do know for sure is that we are not afraid of discussing the elephants in the room anymore and neither are the hundreds of students who have participated in the seminar series. My relationship with Ledora has also grown, and it all started with just doing the next right thing.
Change Is So 2021
Anyone can disrupt something, but lasting change comes from starting with doing the next right thing, picking up a brick, building something, refusing to look back and committing to go, learn and grow.
Problems are all around us and every day we make decisions on whether to tackle, delegate or avoid them. We are forced to deal with some problems, so we do, like picking up a sick child from school or making a grocery run when we run out of food. Other problems may be easier to avoid. Perhaps you don’t appreciate the way your minority or female colleagues are being treated at work, but it’s easier to not get involved; or you recognize nursing homes aren’t the safest, cleanest or healthiest environment for our seniors, but you turn a blind eye because no one you know lives there. These problems are easily avoidable because no one is expecting you to do anything about them in the way they would be expecting you to pick up your sick child from school. However, these are the really big problems to consider disrupting because they could be life changing for you and others for generations to come.
Each year, I pick one word that is my intention for the year. For 2020, ironically, I picked the word “detach” – and I have to say, I lived and learned how to detach this year. My word for 2021 is “change,” because I believe to make change, we have to be the change. What will you change in 2021? You can start by building it today. NIE
Amy Summers launched Pitch Publicity in 2003 in the face of a rapidly changing climate for communication and media relations. She has 20 years of experience working with major clients in the natural products industry to increase visibility and exposure to targeted audiences through national publicity exposure across all mass media outlets, high-level fundraising campaigns and developing key strategic communication strategies. She serves on the board of directors of the University of Florida Alumni Association and the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Public Relations Advisory Council. Pitch Publicity is based in New York City. Receive free daily pitch tips from “The Pitch with Amy Summers” flash briefing on Amazon’s Alexa, Google Play, iTunes, Spotify and Podbean: www.PitchPublicityNYC.com/ThePitch. For more information, visit www.pitchpublicitynyc.com and take a communications deep dive at: www.INICIVOX.com.