E-letter: Resolution 2018 is in our hands

RESOLVED: That the future of the secondary wood-products industry in North America is entirely in the hands of the secondary wood-products industry in North America.

Well, there it is, 2018, stretching out in front of us like some kind of latter-day Dominion Lands Act for us to claim, develop, sell off, build, plant or do with as we please. It is ours.

Kerry Knudsen

For the most part, we use the editorial letters to step back from the formal, day-to-day business of publishing a business magazine and take a broader outlook or take a detour. It depends on the day. Today, however, let’s be dead serious. We have years ahead and years behind, but only one “today.” What should we be thinking? Where has our industry been, and where is it going?

As I read the rest of the press, I see we should be more “competitive,” for a glittering generality, and we need to rely still more on technology. And I’m sure that is all true, more or less, for some.

But let’s be real. Our industry continues to shrink. Those of us remaining can gloat and look furtively behind as though we have a magic elixir, but the fact is, most of the survivors at this point are either sticking to a proven system or coming in with new ideas, not thrashing around and throwing money at concepts.

I talk a lot about principles, and I believe one of our most solid business principles is that it is best to be nice. This works extremely well in a closed system, where people’s reputations and connections are known. But we’re being real, and China is not nice. Neither is Turkey nice, nor is Brazil.

I was privileged many years ago to escort famed Gonzo Journalist Hunter S. Thompson at an event where he was featured. His first words to his audience once the applause calmed down were, “Who wants a piece of me?”

If you’re listening, China wants a piece of you, as does Turkey and Brazil and Malaysia and Vietnam and a hundred other countries that have more youth, more energy, more drive and a hell of a lot less money that we do, and they are working on the corners, on the edges and on the seams of our protocols. And they have been. With effect.

So the question presents: what can the media – what can Wood Industry – do to protect, conserve and advance the interests of secondary wood-products manufacturers in Canada?

Surprisingly, the answer may be, “quite a lot.”

 

Here’s an example. Let’s assume we want to affect our ability to hire qualified workers. And let’s assume we have allowed ourselves to be stuffed into a box that has the labels: low-wage, dead-end, hot, cold, dusty, loud, sharp and dark. Not much to like, there.

And let’s assume we know a different story: a much larger box that says you can own your own business, you can branch out into personnel, design, purchasing, sales, production, advertising, administration or almost any other management-level career you can dream of, not to mention traveling to China, Brazil, Turkey, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, following up on the leads that each of those management-level jobs develops over the year.

The fact is, most people don’t believe that I spend as much time in the air as I do following our industry, or the number of familiar faces I necessarily run into in Guangzhou, Bento Gonçalves, Cologne and Milan. Schweinhachse and Kölsch in Altstadt with friends in Cologne is a far cry from sharp, cold, dark and dusty, but how do we move public perception from there to here?

The answer to that is not as difficult as it may seem. All it takes is a bit of work and know-how. So pull up a chair and flag the waitress and let’s have a chat.

 

Marketing is the act of preparing a market for sales, and one aspect of marketing is public relations. Public relations (PR) and media relations are not the same, although they can cohabitate, but let’s talk first about PR.

In the paragraphs above, we established beyond any doubt that we have a public relations problem. In fact, let’s call it a debacle. It’s as if every time there is a dunce hat, a “mean” hat, a poor hat or a backward hat, we grab it as if it’s ours, put it on and head for the stage as if we have just won an award.

So we need to adjust our public image. We need to change the way people see us.

There are a number of ways we can approach this, but all of them require a medium. All mass marketing requires a mass media, and PR is a part of mass marketing, as already established.

Reaching broad swaths of society is a job to which social media is well adapted, and we would doubtless turn to social media in the latter stages of a PR plan, but the plan comes before the execution, and in this plan, I’m going to propose starting off with traditional print and broadcast.

Print and broadcast media are always looking for original content. In fact, they have about destroyed themselves with their inability to create original content and their willingness to let others provide it. Sometimes they steal or copy content, “repurpose” content, or, most often, rely on public relations operatives for other interests posing as “freelance writers” to provide it.

We can go another way. We are able to create original content and present it professionally. We can also, with time and effort, convince target media that we are not hired guns for advertisers or special interests, but that we have special interests into some very real human-interest stories in their own back yards.

Think about a local media outlet that had a bona fide story about an entrepreneur, a success story, a recovery story, a love story, a goals-achieved story or any number of other fascinating human-interest stories that are real, that are educational and that are happening each day across our industry. Any local outlet should jump at that on a slow-news day, assuming it already had a reason to trust the proposal. The element of trust cannot be understated in these untrusting times.

Clearly, trade media across all industries have done much to make the “trust” approach difficult, because of its ham-handed impulse to insert a commercial message into a human-interest story and somehow take credit. It’s as if nobody ever watched the hilarious bit John Cleese did on Schwepps and subliminal persuasion at the end of A Fish Called Wanda. If you haven’t seen it, is runs 98 seconds, and is available here. I have checked the link.

The problem with subliminal persuasion, which I used to teach, is that it only works so far, it only works when people are already predisposed to respond, and it only works when handled with a certain degree of finesse. Seriously, you need to understand the liminal before you start playing with the sub. Finesse has not been our strong suit.

One model of human interest story you can review is the industry profile we put in each issue of our print magazine. No Schwepps. But there are many other models of human-interest story that can be pitched to a content-hungry national or regional media. Coming home stories, escape from oppression stories, rags-to-riches stories, recovery from adversity stories, helping the community stories … the list goes on.

Once published, these stories can then be moved to social media, providing the target media have been properly prepared. As I assume we all know, simply launching a “meme” at a medium and praying for it to “go viral” is fools’ work. Amateur night. Jimmy Fallon with a Stradivarius. But it can be done.

Public relations can be used defensively or preemptively, and attracting workers is only one example of its use as a tool. Just ask yourselves what the industry has done to protect its interests in such areas as import/export, compliance with regulations, environmental attacks (yes, wood is sustainable) or any one of a hundred other factors that affect the economics of manufacturing. If you ask what could be done, the answer likely begins with public relations. We simply must stand up on our legs. Nobody else will do it for us.

 

We do not lack value. The kitchen will forever remain the focus of social and family memories, and we don’t need to let outside programs or suppliers decide how we will engineer those memories. We can do it ourselves, and we may require tools. However, first we need to incorporate ingenuity, creativity, energy, and empathy. We need to get the attention of the market.

The bedroom may be another matter. Long held as the centre of intimacy and heart of loyalty in the family, the bedroom has been stuffed over the past generation with wiis and wifis, 88-inch LCD 4K televisions, 16 channel audio with dual subwoofers, programmable LED lighting and who-knows-what-all. There hasn’t been any wood in there in recent memory.

But that doesn’t have to be the way it is. We have his and her ensuite baths we can offer, with countless upgrading potential, and even “out-there” ideas like floor-to-ceiling windows, third-floor balconies and other imagination-catching ways we can help our own markets create their own character, completely without help from off-shore meta-data blenders.

Just as we can adjust our products to invite the market, we can adjust our public perception. But we cannot keep doing what we’ve done. It is not working.

If we want to work on public relations, we need a plan, and we need a professional. With all due respect to those that shuffle news releases around as PR, we need a stand-out advocate: somebody that can tell a compelling story and flip from academic findings to humour in a wink. Somebody that knows the industry and the markets and has professional training in what the words “public relations plan” actually means.

And that person (not committee, not company, not employee) should have a spine. The countries and competitors listed above are reflexive assassins and parasites.

During my career as an employee, I operated with one rule. That rule was, “If you hire me, you will do what I say.” The reason for that is because if you hire me, do not do what I say and the project fails, I will get blamed. Or, if you hire me, do not do what I say and it works, you did not need me in the first place. So, you see, I would lose either way, so the rule was that I am a professional, and we do things my way. I suggest anybody we hire should have lived by that rule him- or herself, and have survived. It’s called competence with accountability.

Too much to bite off? Maybe so. The alternative is to lie still and enjoy it.

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