Recently, an Executive Director of a newly formed nonprofit asked me how to go about getting publicity for his new youth-empowerment program. I asked him where he was in the process, and he told me he was piloting the program in a few weeks. He wanted to start getting press now though to raise funding. This made no sense to me (except for the fear of running out of money, a pressure every ED faces). “I think before worrying about publicity, it's better to focus on piloting the program and making the program as strong as possible,” I suggested. "Right," he said, "but what about getting publicity?"
The next week, a filmmaker asked me how she could get her short video to go viral. I told her that no one can really predict what will go viral. What we can do is try to create something that is really good first. She smiled and wanted to talk more about going viral.
I understand intimately the feeling of urgency to get the spotlight on my work. I’ve lived and breathed the anxiety that comes from craving validation that my work is as good as I hope; a need for funding so I will be able to continue the work I love; and the race to get my idea out there before someone beats me to it. It doesn’t help that we live in a culture obsessed with buzz. Success is linked with being featured on media outlets, discussed on Twitter (better if you get your own hashtag), and being offered a TED talk.
All this anxiety creates a hunger for publicity before the project is even done (but it’s so close, right?!). If you feel this is happening to you, recognize it. Take some deep breaths, and let yourself know you’re where you are supposed to be. How will you know it’s truly time to go after publicity? Here are the questions I recommend asking yourself:
1. Are you done with the project?
It sounds practically old-fashioned but it's our job to focus on the work, first and foremost. Spend the time you need on it until you can say that you’ve given it your all (perfectionists, I see you, and you have to let go at some point). Then, share it with a small group of people whose opinion you respect. I’m not talking about family and friends who will say it’s great because they love you. Find a small focus group of people, ideally in your industry, who can speak knowledgably. If you have a personal advisory board, this is a good time to rely on them. Stay as open as possible as you listen to their feedback, even if it’s hard to hear. Wait until you can be objective, and then incorporate the changes you know will make the project better. This make take one round, or a few rounds. It may slow things down but you get one chance to launch.
Note: I've been told that it's important to generate a lot of buzz before my projects got released. This doesn't make sense to me unless you already have a large devoted audience following you already. If I am excited about someone’s project, I want to see or experience it right away. In this oh-so-noisy world, I don’t want to have to try to remember when it will be released. It’ll be gone from my brain by then. There should be some active step an audience can take.
2. Can you define your own version of success?
Before releasing your project into the world, ask yourself what success will look like for YOU. Many of us dream of awards, front-page news, glowing testimonials and bestseller lists. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high but ask yourself if there are other alternatives of success. I love making projects that inspire people to pursue their own paths rather than getting trapped into what society deems acceptable. Yes, it was always my aim to reach many thousands of people with each project but I also felt it would be worthwhile if I were to change the lives of many dozens of people in a substantial way. What do you need to happen in order to qualify your project as worthwhile? Write that down before you launch so you don't lose sight of it.
Have you celebrated completing your vision?
As Kerry David, my co-director on our documentary SEEKING HAPPILY EVER AFTER told me, you get only one chance to create something exactly as you intended it and have it belong to you. Once you release it into the world, it is no longer truly yours. People will have their own edit suggestions, interpretations and opinions, and it is no longer yours in the same way. Presumably you didn’t begin making your project for someday publicity. Whether you get excellent feedback from the outside world or not…celebrate the fact that you finished a project that was meaningful to you. Take a victory lap for being willing to see your creation through and put your ideas out there. Soak in the joy, toast yourself, buy yourself a swank takeout dinner.
If and when you can answer yes to all these questions, you’re likely ready to pursue publicity. Of course, you'll need a concrete publicity plan with a schedule, pre-written emails, and list of contacts with email addresses. It's not just a wing and a prayer. You'll need a good combination of high-octane coffee and daily yoga or meditation. This part of the journey can make even the most confident feel vulnerable and exposed.
Hopefully, you’ll get shout-outs galore. But do trust word of mouth. When a project is good, others want to see it. Don't you? If your topic is compelling and resonates with people, it will find its way. In the meantime, keep celebrating the hard and beautiful work you did in creating something meaningful.
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Also, if you have an AVERSION to self-promotion, I highly recommend this read by Amanda Hirsch of Mighty Forces.
This weekend I watched the documentary “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, which explores how dangerous and manipulative social media truly is. If you’re thinking, “I already know,” I promise you don’t. I’m not talking about issues like “Instagram makes my teen (or me) feel lonely and insecure," which is indeed happening, but rather that social media is actually destabilizing countries like ours in the name of corporate greed. I assumed I knew how Machiavellian social media is because I led a nonprofit focused on how apps like Instagram and Snapchat prey on our insecurities and keep us addicted.
I didn’t know the half of it.
Hats off to the top tech experts who speak up in this alarming doc, yanking open the curtain to reveal how social media truly works. (Yes, I realize for some it’s probably about wiping away bad karma points they racked up from engineering these systems in the first place.) The most shocking thing I learned is that when you Google search for something like “What is climate change,” you get entirely different answers depending on where you live in our country. In more liberal states, you get an explanation of climate change that includes scientific research and the dire problems we’re facing. If you live in a conservative state, you'll see articles on why climate change is a “hoax.”
It’s not LIKE we’re living in different realities in this country. We ARE.
Tristan Harris, who spent three years as a Google Design Ethicist, states towards the end of the documentary that there is simply no longer one truth. How do we create any kind of united states—which we so desperately need—if we don’t accept that there is even a foundation of truth? At no other time in history could large groups of people share totally different realities. The implications are terrifying; I don’t have to list them because they are happening.
How do we break through this? After all, people like living in their own “bubbles” with a neatly spelled-out "truth" that our tribe shares. Why engage with critical thinking and challenging questioning when we can wrap ourselves in a self-righteous security blanket? It is clear that we need to wake up and trash these security blankets or life is only going to get worse.
So how do we do this? We stop feeding the beast.
The tech experts featured in this doc do not allow their kids to use social media. They make a point of saying that none of the Silicon Valley execs do because they KNOW how evil it is. At the very least, we could stall the age in which kids get social media. I have told parents for years that middle-school is the single worst time to give kids access. My own 16-year-old shared with me that she and her friends have lamented the existence of Smartphones since they got them. They can feel the brutal effects but can’t seem to break the habit. Of course they can't. The most brilliant minds in the country created manipulative breadcrumbs to keep kids sharing personal data to make sure they stay addicted. We, parents, could collectively do our kids a solid and set hardcore limits. At the very least, we could stop handing over Smartphones to our kids until they're in high school. They only want it because their friends have it.
We ourselves must get control of our lives back. For some, it will mean quitting social media altogether. I'm starting to see more friends doing this. For others, like me, it means making some drastic changes. This weekend, I deleted all the news notifications and alerts on my phone that were installed automatically. I thought about which social media apps I enjoy and permanently deleted the rest. I aim to check the apps l like once or twice a day, and shut off all notifications for them to remove feelings of urgency to check more.
It is also important to point out what was missing from the documentary: the positive aspects of social media. Social media can bring out the best in us: waking us up to racism in new ways; mobilizing us to march and protest; impacting our attitudes on sexual harassment because of the #metoo movement; giving young people a powerful voice to become leaders for change. Social media is a tool, and it can be empowering, positive, and inspiring. We can opt out of using it to divide us and use if for social good. It will take intention to stop allowing the tool to use us. I like what Harris is aspiring to: "The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that's on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely."
AI is only going to get faster at learning our habits and better at manipulating us to turn on each other. The doc suggests that we need legislators to come up with regulations to make social media safer. I agree. But I refuse to wait for that. Let's wake up and take matters into our own hands right now.
What will YOU do?
When founders are asked whether they have an “advisory board,” they often cringe because it’s one more thing to set up and manage on an overflowing to-do list. When it was brought to my attention, I pictured weeks, maybe months, of tracking down the “right” roles: lawyer, marketing expert, finance person, etc. But what I found when starting my nonprofit was that there was a different kind of advisory board that I needed first, a dream team of people who could support me when I was feeling isolated and doubtful (which was often). For any of you in the start-up trenches, here are the roles I found the most necessary, and I'd be curious to hear yours.
My advisory-role suggestions include the person who:
So how do you recruit your picks?
Do you know who you'd pick for you dream team? Start taking down some notes. Play around with the role, and when you're ready...ask them. Be candid about what you’re looking for, why you chose them and what exactly it will mean for them in terms of responsibility. It might sound something like this:
“Hey, Aunt Megan, I’m realizing that being a founder can be pretty lonely, and I could use someone to cheer me on when I meet big goals. I’m assembling my dream team time of advisors, and you’re the best cheerleader I know. Would you be willing to be this person for me? It would mean that when I have a victory, I can call or email you so we can celebrate together?" If she is confused, you can add, "It may sound weird to formalize this process, but I think having this advisory board in place will give me the confidence I need to keep going.”
Hopefully Aunt Megan says yes. If she says no, she wasn’t the right person so go ahead and rethink this one. It doesn't mean she doesn't believe in you. It just means she isn't right for the role. Note: Some people may be worried about how much time they can commit, so be clear on the ask. They need to know you’re not going to be calling round the clock (also, don't call them round the clock).
It's okay if it takes you time to get your advisory board in place. Don’t wait until you have all six to launch. You can move forward with two or three, and keep your eyes open for new team members to add on. If someone committed but isn't the right fit, ask someone else. You may find there are other roles you need, or that you only need a few. This is YOUR board so the most important thing is to make it work for you.
Dole out gratitude regularly to your board. People agree to advise because they want to make a difference in someone's life. You don't have to send extravagant gifts. Let them know how they were helpful to you, and propelled you forward. Lastly, take mental notes on everything you learn about this process, and be an advisor for someone else someday.
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Are You Celebrating the Tiny Wins with Your Family & Staff
Why Starting a Business is a Whole Lot Like Tubing
My 16-year-old daughter recently hit a quarantine roadblock. "I was doing pretty well with a daily schedule and making healthy food choices and stuff," she told me. "But now I'm staying up too late, procrastinating on my work, and eating too much because I'm bored." I congratulated her on the win.
She looked at me like I was a little crazy. “Um,” I just told you that things are falling apart over here.” I nodded and let her know that my week was similar – I was skipping showers, also stress-eating (hello, York Peppermint Patties, my old friend) and not checking in with people as much I had planned on. But instead of punishing ourselves, we should appreciate that we recognize things are off track because it means we can adjust and try again with new intentions and a realistic game plan, or just give ourselves some quiet breathing room.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom’s valuable lesson of learning to take stock of my wins on a daily basis. I’m not talking about clearing enormous hurdles, winning awards, and getting huge promotions. I’m talking about the little invisible wins that quietly propel us forward while building resilience.
It’s about momentum…
When I started the nonprofit MEDIAGIRLS, I was overwhelmed those first few months. My background was making media. What did I know about incorporating as a nonprofit, setting up payroll, establishing a board, etc.? Who did I think I was? Even thinking about all the things I didn’t know made me want to call my boss some days and quit. Except…I was my boss, and I’d started this whole thing. There was no way I could endure the wild ride of establishing a new business if I remained panicky in my uncertainty.
So I followed my mom’s advice and jotted down a few bullet points each day in a journal listing my accomplishments. Again, we’re talking small wins: I called the bank to figure out how to set up an account; I researched the phrase “fiscal sponsor”; I cried only once that day from frustration. These bullet points created a sense of momentum. Maybe I wasn’t “crushing it” as a business owner but I was trying, learning, risking, and being brave. Every few weeks I looked back at my journal and noted how far I’d come. Writing down the tiny wins made my progress undeniable and gave me the courage to keep going.
Parents of girls: We are a culture obsessed with comparing ourselves to others (Instagram, anyone?) and hyper-focusing on our flaws. This is perhaps most true of girls, whose confidence drops by 30% between the ages 8 and 14 (The Confidence Code, 2019). It is a vital act and service to teach our girls, and model for them, how to appreciate who we are and what we bring to the table. Taking stock of our tiny wins is the way to do this because it is internal, in our control, and requires no outside validation.
Making “weekly wins” a policy
As MEDIAGIRLS started to grow and I hired a small staff, I instituted a policy that every Friday we would celebrate our “weekly wins.” What did we get right? What did we learn? What moved us forward? The rule is that we can’t mention at this time what went wrong or how it could have been better. Being humble and learning from our mistakes is also essential but a separate discussion. Some days are much harder than others to find the wins but I promise there’s always at least one.
Back to my daughter…
We appreciated the small – yet pivotal – win of realizing she was struggling and needed to adjust some habits. We talked out a few realistic changes she could try this week, not more than two or three, with a plan to check back in a week later to see what went well. Then we’d celebrate those tiny wins and tweak some more. I’m hoping this way of approaching life will stay with her long after quarantine ends and become part of her daily practice.
On my list of wins today: In addition to writing this blog, I showered before 9 AM. I remembered how to spell “accommodate” (okay, I had to look it up on Google but I’ve now memorized it, I think). I put my reading glasses where they actually belong so I wouldn’t spend an hour hunting for them later. It’s unlikely anyone will hear this news and fling confetti at me or raise their glass in a toast. But I’ll quietly cheer on my small victories and let them move me forward.
Last month, I went tubing down the Deerfield River in Western Massachusetts with my family. It felt so good to be moving freely in nature without a mask on, and the experience was a little surreal after spending years using tubing as a metaphor for starting a business.
It’s like this...
You pick up your tube and step into the river clutching it awkwardly but ready for adventure. You stand there wondering when you should go…is it now? Should I go NOW? Do I just GO? There is no one to tell you when. This part is like announcing to the public you are opening for business. It’s so exciting but you keep thinking about reasons to postpone it (“I don’t have the right office supplies,” “the website could be more dynamic,” "I should announce it on a Monday," etc.).
Eventually you realize there’s no right time; you have to just plant your butt down in that tube and pick up your feet. For a while it’s usually joyful and easy, especially when you have good weather, the sun is out, and the birds are chirping. And then, BAM!, you either get stuck on a rock or end up in the weeds wondering how the hell that happened. It had been so fun just minutes ago when you were in the flow. Now you’re stuck, frustrated and demoralized. You start worrying you're not going to make it out of that river in one piece.
This is the part in business when you launched but you’re not getting the publicity you anticipated; or you’re getting rejected for grants after all those excruciating hours of writing; or you’re realizing you don’t know the first thing about how to incorporate or form a board. Part of you will want to pick up your tube, and go home. You tried; it’s too hard.
Listen up, that’s par for the course.
But the key to running a business is staying calm, getting yourself unstuck and heading back to the center of the river. It’s okay to wait a few minutes, catch your breath, ask for help from a companion, and give yourself a pep talk. But you have to get back into the current and keep going. Take a moment to reflect on what you learned ("I should have lifted my rear end higher when I saw the big rock," "I should have faced forward when I heard the rapids coming"). Next time, you’ll have a model for how you got unstuck last time that you can draw upon. Knowing this will boost your confidence; the first time is the hardest.
The true trick of tubing and business...
The big win—on the river, in business, in life—is to keep applying what you've learned along the way while enjoying the peaceful or exhilarating parts. Don't waste your time worrying there are more hard parts down the bend. Spoiler alert: There are. Stay present and feel the cool water beneath you, the sun reflecting on the leaves, the fun of floating with people you love, and even silliness of getting whipped around a little. You will exit that river with a few scrapes, bruises and bug bites but that’s nothing compared to the wild joy of the overall ride.
Last week, I announced that I'd be stepping down as Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS. I know this was surprising to many of the people in my world. I get it. It's weird when founders leave because they almost always bring such an abundance of passion to the nonprofit they start (why else would you go through all that effort if you didn't feel strongly about the cause?). Many of you asked me what's next, and how I'm feeling about this transition. First, thank you for caring, and I figured I'd answer all of you who inquired at once.
As for what's next, I'm not sure yet. I'm in the process of interviewing for jobs in which I will NOT be the leader but rather a team player. I want to bring my love of storytelling and creating content to help heal this broken world while continuing to empower others. Here's my job wishlist if any of you are curious. Is it crazy to leave a job when you don't have another one lined up, especially in this economy? Probably. But I've always trusted my gut, and it's served me well (minus those cringey embarrassing moments, but those always make for the best stories).
As for how I'm feeling about the transition, I feel joyful. Keep in mind that I made the decision to step down last fall so I've had plenty of time to process the multitude of intense feels. I also believe that one of the best things a founder can do is know when it's time to go, and make sure that there's a strong plan in place for the hand-off. It's time.
Sidenote: If you ever create your own business, do not call it your "baby." You can't imagine how many times people labeled MEDIAGIRLS my baby, and I even came to believe it for several years. If you buy into this common notion, you will also believe that no one can really take care of your "baby" other than you. It's YOU that has to stay up at all hours feeding the crying baby and paying endless attention to it and not getting a break and feeling alone. Do yourself a favor and consider it a business that you care deeply about, and surround yourself with the right people to grow it.
That brings me to gratitude. I'm feeling full of it, for the wise, supportive, board who has always had my back, and for Amanda Mozea, our Education Outreach Manager, who brings so much attention to detail, challenges me in the best ways, and helped make our programming deeper and more substantial for the brown and black girls we serve. She brings the fire, and has an even softer heart than she knows. I'm thankful for the volunteers, mentors, donors, and cheerleaders who helped MEDIAGIRLS inspire thousands of girls along the way to use their voice to speak up and learn to advocate. I love this village so much, and am excited to watch the next leg of the journey.
I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to lead an organization based on the values I care most deeply about: empowering other people to do their best work rather than micromanaging; collaborating instead of competing; expressing gratitude for the gifts and kindnesses offered; being transparent even when you don't feel like it; asking for help; and building solid relationships. I made my fair share of humbling mistakes along the way, but I don't believe I lost sight of my values.
The universe did me a solid in bringing on Angela Scott as our Interim Executive Director. Angela has been such a pivotal part of the MEDIAGIRLS staff for several years, and taught me to be a more strategic and organized thinker. She shares my overall values, and brings her own set of unique talents to expand MEDIAGIRLS. She is warm and funny, and one of my favorite people.
So here's to being grateful for what we have, continuing to adjust and take risks, staying true to our own values and having faith in the magic of new beginnings. Please connect with me at LinkedIn if you'd like to stay in touch.
Michelle Cove is a journalist, filmmaker, author, and founder of the nonprofit MEDIAGIRLS. She uses storytelling and media to encourage, challenge, empower and inspire others and is seeking a job that allows her to put these skills to use; check out her resume if you may know the right fit. Michelle's favorite stories involve resilience, a blend of soft humility and sharp humor, and a belief that the universe is conspiring to help us all grow. Find her at LinkedIn.
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