PR Niblets

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Visit to Coney Island in Tribute to My Mentor

Life's travels often take us in unexpected directions.  Growing up in Coney Island to immigrant parents was my only frame of reference.  I had no clue that one of the part-time jobs I would secure at age 16 would imprint my life so heavily.... but then Lou Powsner was no ordinary employer.

Lou was the owner of a small haberdashery store -- Powsner's Mens Shop -- but stopping there wouldn't scratch the surface. Over the 10 years of my employment there, and decades of friendship, he would  serve as a role model for what salesmanship meant and as inspiration for a career in journalism and later public relations. Lou died on April 6, 2014 at age 93.

New York City decided to honor Lou for his contributions to Coney Island, Brooklyn and New York City by naming the street corner near the former clothing store in his memory. The ceremony was held on Saturday, September 25, 2015. Lou's family honored me by asking me to speak at the event, together with speakers including former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, N.Y.C. Councilman Mark Treyger and N.Y.S. Assemblyman William Colton.  

My comments (apologies for the length) and some images taken by my son Alex appear below.

"Good morning everyone.  My name is Henry Feintuch. And for the first 25 years of my life starting in the early 1950s, I was a Coney Islander… initially living on West 30th between Mermaid and Neptune Ave. in a three-story walk-up. Then, as my family “moved up,” we were able to afford an apartment in the fairly new Coney Island Houses. I attended P.S. 188 and then was part of the first class at P.S. 288… followed by Mark Twain in the SPE…. and later Lincoln H.S. and Brooklyn College.

My folks were holocaust survivors; they migrated to America in 1950 with my brother Steven. My father, David, owned “Dave’s Barber Shop” at 2516 Mermaid Ave. across from Gittler’s deli. It was the era when Sam Horwitz owned the Mermaid Movie Theatre and Jay and Aaron Turoff owned a local hardware store nearby; Yankel had a live poultry store; Frank Giordano owned Frisica Pharmacy; and Al Sinrod and Morty Pearl owned competing men’s stores.  Sam Horwitz, by the way, later went on to become a beloved Democratic district leader and city councilman representing Coney Island; Jay became NYC’s taxi commissioner and later resigned in disgrace in a major scandal involving the TLC.

Coney Island was very diverse in the 50’s and 60’s…. before diverse was a buzzword.  Whites… black… Puerto Ricans… Italians… Christians… Jews…. In the 70s, Russian Jews and Vietnamese joined the mosaic here and in Brighton Beach.  Coney Island was a tough neighborhood… but we all got along.

Sidewalk plaque
It was against this backdrop in 1968 or 1969 that my late parents introduced me to Lou Powsner for a possible part-time job while I attended Lincoln. Lou hired me on the spot, and, because of that fateful happenstance, my young adulthood, career and values were forever shaped.

Working for Lou Powsner provided daily lessons in retail merchandising and salesmanship. If you came in for a pair of socks or Jockey shorts, you would be hard pressed to walk out without a sales pitch – often successful – for a shirt, tie and a three pack of t-shirts.  Life lesson #1:  clerks take orders; sales people sell.

And selling is what Lou did. Following in his father Simon’s footsteps, he sold Stetson hats to older Jewish clientele; Kangol hats and Devil Jeans to minority youngsters in the community; knit polos to Italian customers; and every other manner of clothing and accessory from suits and jackets to spats, suspenders and cufflinks to old, middle aged and young consumers alike.

Air Force honor guard at ceremony
If you walked into Lou’s store, you might have questioned the laws of physics and gravity with boxes stacked impossibly high from floor to ceiling. And yet, when someone came in for a double XL knit shirt that was in the right window 2 years ago, he knew that where it was located. Within a minute, he was up on an eight foot ladder juggling boxes and pulling out the garment in four colors. He was always right. And you wound up buying the shirt in two colors. Plus socks.  And underwear. And a handkerchief.

After a few years, I became Lou’s colleague and foil. We joked that we WERE running a father and son men’s store – where he wasn’t my father… and I wasn’t his son. But in many ways, we were nearly just that.

The OTHER things I learned working for Lou are likely the reason we’re all here today. He didn’t just run a “father and son” men’s clothing store – a sign on the building proclaimed “Welcome to Lou Powsner’s Little City Hall.” He held court six days a week as local residents, merchants, teachers, clergy, police, elected officials and others streamed in or called to discuss issues of the day and seek Lou’s help or guidance… or… simply to argue with him. Life lesson #2:  If you say you’re going to do it (or the sign says it), you’d better deliver.  Lou always did.

Dedication ceremony program
For many years, Lou was the president of the Coney Island Board of Trade. But trying to help the merchants of Coney Island to organize and improve Mermaid Ave. wasn’t enough for Lou. He wanted more clout and a greater voice. So he helped to form an organization of similar groups on Main Streets all over Brooklyn. Lou served as president of the new Joint Council of Kings County Boards of Trade. The calls came all day – answered by Lou in a jingle like voice that often boomed “Thank you for listening to the melodious tones of Louis Powsner.” The ring was so incessant one might of thought he was running a bookie joint. He wasn’t; he was following an internal calling to do good for others.

His causes were both local and far and wide – some popular; many less so: He fought against numerous sales tax hikes; tried to kill the Kings Plaza Mall before it put local main street merchants out of business; he lobbied for brighter street lights in Coney to protect residents and local merchants; he tried to bring casinos to Coney Island; he labored to revive the fading amusement section; he took on Fred Trump when Fred reneged on a deal to create set-aside low income units in Coney’s Trump Village; he took on big business and box stores; and city government giveaways to large merchants at the expense of mom and pop stores.
Marty Markowitz speaking

He called mayors and borough presidents and congressmen and assemblyman and councilman with a long list of needs and cries for help – never for himself but for fellow merchants and community residents. Despite the often unpleasant nature of the calls, government officials took his calls or called him back. This merchant of Coney knew how to shake things up.  Life lesson #3:  It’s not about size... it’s about speaking out consistently and strongly for something you believe in.

And Lou had another bully pulpit – he wrote a weekly column for the Kings Courier and Brooklyn Graphic and other local Brooklyn papers. Each week, he’d sit at a shirt counter and pound away for hours straight on an old manual typewriter. Sometimes he wrote sports columns; other times he wrote about a family vacation with his wife Irene and children, Farrell and Bonnie.  And then there were the columns that shook City Hall.
What Lou didn’t accomplish on the phone or during in-person meetings, he’d pursue by newspaper. He’d finish his column (typed in triplicate using carbon paper) and I would walk to the corner mailbox to send it on to the newspapers. When the columns hit, his irate subjects would call the store to rip him. All in a day’s work at Lou Powsner’s Little City Hall.   Life lesson #4:  Never underestimate the power of a strong writer and citizen journalist.

And I didn’t. By the time I went to Brooklyn College, my major had become television and radio… I became news director at Brooklyn College Radio and my career as a fledgling journalist was cast.

I continued working for Lou, part-time while at B.C., until one day he announced he was running for office.  Lou waged a Don Quixote-like uphill campaign, which he called the people’s campaign, for NYC councilman-at-large. He ran in the Democratic primary in a field of six candidates including the then Democratic boss Stanley Steingut’s son, Robert “Bobby Steingut.”  I took a leave of absence from school to help manage the campaign.

Lou's daughter, Bonnie Snow
Objectively, we had no chance of winning in a field of five better-known and better-funded candidates. For a half year, family, friends and merchants pounded the pavement, put campaign signs on our cars and pushed Lou’s view of the issues of the day out for all to see.  He came in fourth out of a field of six (Steingut won and would later be indicted and then cleared of campaign improprieties). Lou never regretted the campaign run but that ended his formal stint with politics. Life lesson #5:  Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams.

I finally graduated from Brooklyn College, and went to work on the air at WTTM Radio in Trenton and WMTR and WDHA-FM radio in Morristown, New Jersey. Lou was very proud. Then I landed a job at Channel 2 News in New York. Lou beamed again at my success. Between jobs, there was always roo

m for me at 1712 Mermaid Avenue where I could earn a few dollars to put gas in my car.

Then I finally settled down into a public relations career, now in my fourth decade. Lou and I always retained our love and respect for each other.

For me, the life lessons I learned in salesmanship, retail merchandising, civics, community activism, politics and ethics were all earned from the College of Louis W. Powsner. After all, here was a former soldier, husband, father and small town haberdasher who demonstrated the power that one man could have on his neighbors, community, city and beyond.
The sign in place and a community remembers

Family and guests proudly displaying new street sign

This stretch of Mermaid Avenue was always Lou Powsner’s Place to me. Now, it all comes full circle and we all get to share it together and keep his memory and spirit alive.

Thank you."

Monday, September 21, 2015

How PR and Marketing Writers in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai Differ from U.S. practitioners (and why their new mantra includes snackable text, big-picture meaning, headline dominance, and image enhanced) by Don Bates

Editor's note:  This article is written by Don Bates, APR, and Fellow PRSA. It  appeared first in O’ (Aug. 14, 2015) and O’Dwyer’s Newsletter.

Actually, practitioners from these cities, and the countries in which they’re located, don’t differ that much from their U.S. counterparts when it comes to PR and marketing writing essentials.

Yes, they generally have more difficulty writing English because it’s not their first language (or a parallel language as in Singapore). And, yes, they generally have more difficulty writing in America’s preferred, common-sense PR and marketing style because they haven’t grown up in our “Mad Men” culture.

But despite these challenges, Asian PR and marketing writers have the same professional interest in meeting the needs of employers and clients with simple, clear, direct messages that communicate as strategically and effectively as possible.

They, too, want to write better with the goal of strengthening their organizations’ brand, reputation, sales and influence. They, too, want to know what’s new and how to harness it as part of their PR and marketing skills, knowledge and leadership.

How do I know so much?

During almost three weeks this summer, I taught PR and marketing writing to groups of Asian practitioners as a consultant instructor for Singapore-based Clariden Global.

Clariden runs executive business education seminars and conferences at sites that include Singapore, London, Australia, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, South Africa, Shanghai and the UAE. Instructors hail from Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, Columbia, U. of Michigan, London Business School, and now New York University where I teach in the graduate PR and corporate communication program. 

           My particular workshops were in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. In two full days at each site, I covered the essentials of writing more productively in today’s increasingly social-media-dominated communication landscape. But I didn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. We also looked at traditional media, which is still a great source of high-profile media news, feature and editorial coverage that reaches high-level influencers in business, government and not-for-profit endeavors.

However, I focused mostly on what I refer to as the “New Writing Formulary” for PR and marketing scribes – a formulary that also works as well for business writing.  I encouraged participants to become “new era” writers, to throw off the constraints of self-absorbed content and long-form misdirection. In brief, I introduced the participants to a set of “New Rules” for writing more effectively in today’s global marketplace.

The rules begin with a clear understanding of key concepts. For example: form follows function; out of sight, out of mind; write from the outside in; take headlines more seriously than ever; and take charge of the writing function for your own survival. The “New Rules” build on traditional writing practice, but go further by isolating what counts most these days and drilling down to essentials, e.g., compressed text (as in squeezed to life), live quotes (as opposed to dead, the prevailing norm), and story enhancement (adding people to the picture). We also addressed the most prevalent grammar challenges such as adjectivitis, adverbialism, jargon, hyperbole, verbosity, pronoun confusion, and prepositional paralysis.

Following is a summary of the “New Rules” that all PR and marketing writers should follow when communicating with today’s audiences in both new and old media. The rules are intended to make writers think differently, more intently and more strategically about what and how they write. The rules borrow heavily from content marketing style and purposes. Meaningful brevity is the soul of what they entail.

  • Write “snackable” content (i.e., shorter and sweeter than in the past, and easier to read, understand and act upon).
  • Focus on the “big picture” meaning (what’s the all-important news for the audience, not for your employer or client?).
  • Create social-media style headlines (intriguing, enticing, engaging language). Take a look at and for examples.
  • Use super-condensed leads (incisive, sharply defined, credibly expressed).
  • Integrate outside content that enhances credibility (e.g., facts from a trusted third party that amplifies your message and mission).
  • Link to other content (e.g., advisories, commentaries and guidelines, but judiciously).
  • Aim for concrete action, FYA (for your action) not FYI alone.
  • Enhance with images (photos, logos, charts, illustrations, which have several times the draw of imageless text).
  • Disseminate via multiple media (both online and off and the many touch points in social media)
  • Develop templates to reflect and make the new rules easier to apply (I shared my 7-step pitch template as one example).
Bottom line, the “New Formulary” mirrors what social media pundits like Guy Kawasaki have been saying for a long while, but that I have defined more tangibly. During a New York Times interview, Kawasaki was asked, “What should business schools teach more of, or less of?” He replied, “They should teach students how to communicate in five-sentence e-mails and with 10-slide PowerPoint presentations. If they just taught every student that, American business would be much better off.” 

To the follow-up question – “Why?” – he added, “Because no one wants to read ‘War and Peace’ e-mails. Who has the time? Ditto with 60 Power Point slides for a one-hour meeting.”

Bob Dylan famously sang, “The times they are a changing.” They always are, of course, but never so much as now for PR and marketing writing. For one thing – especially since the Internet began to capture a huge chunk of our collective time and attention – short and sweet has never been as sweet as a rule for PR and marketing writers.  PR and marketing word-workers in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai understand this as well as U.S. practitioners. Most important, they are just as eager to put new approaches into action for their employers and clients, starting with the idea of making writing more powerful as a tool for informing, persuading and influencing target audiences. They know that snackable content, big picture meaning, and headline acuity are driving a more efficient and effective writing style.

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Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a writing instructor at New York University, and founding director of the Master’s degree program in strategic public relations at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Don also conducts writing workshops and works in PR agency management and M&A for Gould+Partners. Email: