Government Communications in the Magic City: Interview with Nannette Rodriguez

‘There is always breaking news on Friday after 3 o clock”’ said Nanette Rodriguez, half jokingly, half serious, during a Friday interview at her office in the City of Miami Beach where she has been leading communication efforts for almost two decades. As the now Director of Communications prepped for a day of possible issues ahead, she chatted enthusiastically with me, a Miami Beach resident, about the lessons she had learned to ensure the city can communicate effectively and its citizens and its employees, while earning the city several recognitions along the way: in 2011 the Miami Beach Twitter account was named by Code for America as one of the top three city accounts to follow just behind New York 311 and Minneapolis Snow Emergency. The City of Miami Beach products include MB magazine, MBTV (including online channel), and use of existing platforms with their YouTube channel, Flickr and Facebook page.

The passion of this native Floridian for her job is contagious as well as her interest for learning the latest trends in social media and ways to communicate.
Note: Interview has been edited for space.

How did you started in communications?
Let me go back in my childhood: when I was very young I used to write stories, and illustrate books. I was also very in tune with the news, current events and my favorite show was 60 Minutes. Here I was this child in second, third grade, watching 60 Minutes and writing fictitious stories and illustrating. I’ve always had a knack for the written word… Historically in our family, my father, my grandmother, my great grandfather, they were all photographers… All of those interests kind of intertwined in my interests, so when I went to college I first studied Art… I was an Art and Business major.

So you thought about that early on, to make money from your art? 
(Laughs) Early on I thought ‘you have to make money on what you like.’ I did go into Communications and graduated from the University of Miami and did a degree of Communications and Marketing. From there, while I was still in school, I was working for a cable company, working for the family business in the photos industry, then finally got a job on TV. I worked on WPBT, public television, for 10 years and got to get my hand on many different very creative jobs, did advertising campaigns, we did publicity with other media, doing national campaigns across the country on new programs, also working with the local news at the station… (That experience) actually became the perfect fit when I was asked to work in the city of Miami Beach.

So you’ve been with the City for about 20 years?
It will be 20 years in November.

What was your plan or vision then and how has it changed throughout the years?
Miami Beach was in the Madonna phase of Miami Beach, I guess you can say. The international film stars were here, Bird Cage had just premiered, it was the post Miami Vice (era), star studded, the clubs were coming of age, it was that type of Miami Beach. Government wise things were changing, things were moving forward… In my career in communications we started with the type writer (laughs)… Actually when I came to the city of Miami Beach I was used to using higher level tools (in my previous job)… When I got here we got a computer, but we did not have email! I was used to having email prior to that, I was like ‘oh my gosh, we are going back to the dark ages, but its ok, I’ve been there’ (laughs)… One of the first initiatives that I brought to the city was develop a website. Of course that took a couple of years in the coming, there were not a lot of people that actually knew how to develop websites at the time.
(…) We were actually one of the first few government stations that were doing original programming… We were also the first station to go live on the web via live web streaming. We were also the first station to do close captioning and do close captioning in Spanish.

Miami Beach has been a pioneer in many of these things. The city has also won awards such as the Savvy awards. Are there any other examples of awards the city has won?
As far of communications, there is a slew of awards that we have been awarded or recognized as top 10 of something: awards for our Florida Government Communicators Association, 3CMA which is the City-County Communications and Marketing Association awards, our magazine is finalist for an award again this year, some of our videos have won awards, we actually have submitted this year for the Emmys… It’s not just about the awards, it’s great to be recognized… If we are communicating the message effectively, if we have people talking about the result of that message… that to me is more of a result than someone giving you a gold star here, your trophy. No, I want to see results of our effort. To me, that is the award.

What is some advice you can share in terms of what governments may be doing wrong or share simple practices they can start doing?
I would not say they are doing it wrong. First of all they need to start using (social media); you need to be where the conversation is… How I explain it to many other government agencies is to remember the town square back in the 1700s when our pioneers would try to get information from town to town about American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, whatever important documentation needed to go out there. There was somebody on a horse that would ride from town to town and post something in the town square. Now everybody has a town square because everyone, well not everybody, but most people have a Facebook page. And your Facebook page has posts, it’s your bulletin board, it’s also your bulleting board where you can talk to other people and post on theirs but everybody sees it.
(…) Older generations, yeah, they still tune in to the 6 o’clock news because they know at 6 o clock they are going to receive that information. But even the older generation is now on social media. We see our demographics that are following us on social media. We had My Space before had Facebook, that’s how long we’ve been on social media (laughs)… Of course the followers on there were very young. But when we went to Facebook and more people were clinging on to that, our demographics pretty much evened out.
Anybody on social media will tell you the older generation is the largest growing group on social media and that that is a reason why any government agency needs to be on there. It’s not a thing for the young anymore, its cross generational, and cross cultural as well because you can speak in many different languages on social media. We’ll put Spanish messages up as well and electronic news list serve which we have been doing since 1999 doing e-blasts and emails… I want to know what the next means of communicating is because we need to be there.

How does that translate to internal communications? Is there a similar approach to that?
On internal we do a lot of email plus internally we have our quarterly publication which actually we tried to do away with because we had our intranet, an internal website. Like we do with our community, we did an internal survey and it showed that the majority of our employees are not at a desk or an office. We have public works employees that are out on the street, we have parks and recreation employees that are out in our parks, we have firemen and firewomen and police officers that are all out on the streets. The majority of our work force, I would say only about 300, are on an office out of close to over 2500 employees. Although some of them were getting the printed version, we did away with it. (We thought) ‘now we have an internal website, we don’t need to print this anymore.’ Oh my goodness, everybody was like ‘what do you mean?’ We don’t have access to a computer and we love to see the pictures!
We had to totally reevaluate how we were doing things. Again, you can’t just depend on one type of communication because people not just receive but comprehend information in different ways.

I wanted to ask you about the branding of the city. It seems it has a pretty clear use and approach. Was it difficult to shape that branding?
Boy that was fun! We did that about 12, 13 years ago. After 99, we did the general obligation bond and with that bond we were going to be doing a lot of infrastructure work in our neighborhoods and public facilities. Between our Planning department and our City Manager’s office they thought ‘while we are doing that, maybe we should come up with a way finding, a signage branding for the city.’
(…) As part of that way finding signage identity, came our identity Miami Beach, the Beach being the book bold, the more emphasis on it and not separated, together, but the emphasis is on the Beach, not in Miami, because if you see them separate you may think ‘oh its Miami,’ ‘oh it’s the beach. ’ No, we are Miami BEACH. And on the celebration of our Art Deco and our MiMo (art style), the firm (we hired) came with a whole graphic identity package for the city.

Being a native Floridian, what do you think is the biggest misconception of the city?
We are not your typical beach city, although that’s the first thing a lot of people think of: South Beach, the nightclubs, the nightlife. But we are more than that…We are really a trendsetting community not just in the tourism industry and what you see in entertainment but in technology. A lot of the things that we do in our city as far as infrastructure, policing, fire; people from other communities, actually cities from around the world, come and visit us to see how we are starting to do things. It’s not just that glitz and glam that you see that everybody thinks of us as Miami Beach.

For professionals in communications, what do you think they should learn more about to further their careers?
Keep yourself relevant, don’t become a dinosaur. Communications is a constant learning profession, as many professions are. You always have to be on top of what the latest is and know it, learn it, become it, be in the know… If you don’t keep yourself relevant you are going to keep as old as a transistor radio.

Or a typewriter.
Or a typewriter (laughs).

Follow the City of Miami Beach on Twitter @MiamiBeachNews

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

Why Journalism Still Matters: Interview with Alsy Acevedo

If you ask journalists for recommendations on what career to choose, I bet not many would recommend their own: uncertain job security, new responsibilities added every week for smaller salaries. But many of them would also praise the lessons learned in their career: how to find and pitch an idea, searching beyond what is said, persistence.

Alsy Acevedo believes journalism is a discipline with lessons which can be applied anywhere. She started covering hard news at an early age producing a political radio show in Puerto Rico. She then became a staff writer for various newspapers in the US (El Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Ashville Citizen-Times). In 2012, she was named by Huffington Post as on of the Latino voices to follow on Twitter. Currently, she is a Senior Communications Strategist at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international humanitarian agency dedicated to disaster response, where she stills finds ways to uncover stories and bring the public’s attention to current issues.

How would you describe what you do?
I tell stories of people in distress, but I also tell ways of solving the issues that distress them.

When you talk about people in distress, what are some examples of that?
People in distress because of war, because of natural disaster or because academics. I’ve been following the violence issues in Central America very closely. I’ve also worked in emergencies such as the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines providing communications support for that and also epidemics like the Ebola outbreak last year … They are very tough circumstances.

When you are describing communications support, what is it that you provide to them? Are you bringing awareness of any issues?
It’s everything: from telling the stories of the beneficiaries I meet overseas to doing social media around the issue, to promoting legislation or supporting legislation on a bill, setting interviews with experts or sometimes giving interviews myself on the issue, (also) speaking engagements with different audiences like students or community leaders that are interested in this subject…Certainly, more diverse than what I used to do in the newsroom.

You describe your current job is more diverse of what you did in journalism…How would you describe the similarities of both?
The fact that you can listen to people and understand story lines and trends and communicate what others say in a way that someone who has no idea of that reality can understand, that’s definitely a skill that I’ve applied in both. In journalism I covered the school board or a particular election or some obscure city code, so I would need to explain that so the person who has no idea of those topics could understand it. With people in distress and emergencies and war and epidemics, it’s more of the same because people understand that these realities take place but usually you are so detached, or is overseas, or it is something that is not immediate to us. It takes some creativity and some understanding of both realities in order to make sense for the general audience.

Even though you are based on Maryland you are dealing with people in Latin America and other parts of the world as well, trying to communicate that message, understanding their concerns. Are there any particular strategies you take on to ensure that you have conveyed the message?
I think its having open dialogue with colleagues overseas and the people who implement projects outside of the Unites States. For example, when I went Mexico recently, we were covering the violence issues and also the farmworkers rights issues. I had to explain to the beneficiaries and my colleagues overseas what about these issues was relevant for the audience in the United States because there are different takes on the same issue. So for one of the audience that I work with, who are a Catholic audience, so the faith aspect is very important…I was able to bring everyone together on the same page. So it’s a matter of finding similarities of what people are interested in.

Being a reporter working for El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel, did people want to put you in a certain coverage area because you are a Hispanic? Was there good integration in your experience?
In El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel Hispanic issues were definitely my beat. In North Carolina I had the health bit and I brought in the Hispanic beat myself because I thought it was relevant and nobody was doing it. I just started reporting in those stories as well. I think that in North Carolina I was more integrated to the general newsroom and in Orlando I was mostly covering Hispanic issues. That is tough place to release yourself from. A trend that I am seeing is Hispanic reporters who will not do the Hispanic beat no matter what and others who would, but it is very difficult (for them) to get out of there. The good thing though is that if you are in the beat its not going anywhere, it will be growing. If you are an expert then you have leverage and its something you can run with eventually. I think specialization is definitely a trend within the Hispanic market.

In your experience working in North Carolina, what is an example of a story that was about a Hispanic issue or maybe had a Hispanic angle that you brought up to the health coverage?
There were many Hispanics in western North Carolina but they were not in the paper, nobody spoke to them. So that is a way to integrate their voices in any story. One of the first stories that I did was actually about law enforcement and I did it in conjunction with one of my colleagues. They were talking about secure communities and this program that was implemented under that gave law enforcement the ability to ask on immigration status. We were covering a town hall so there was the sheriff, there were community leaders and there were like three Hispanics from western North Carolina who were Hispanic leaders and nobody talked to them. My colleague did not talked to them and I did. So when we got back to the room and I provided my quotes he was like ‘well, the story is to long’ and ‘I don’t think is necessary’ and I was like ‘I feel very strongly that it is necessary that they appear in this story’. We brought it to the editor and the editor did choose some of my quotes. It’s just a matter of shedding light to the reality that is already there and others don’t see it or don’t have the ways or the intention of covering it.

Do you see journalism as a career that is evolving? Or do you believe is a hype when people think that journalism is in decline?
I am optimistic so I think journalism will live forever and ever and will prevail (laughs)… I think journalism is changing so rapidly and definitely it does not work as the business model that it used to be Papers are declining but other forms are evolving and sprouting so I think content is king. As long as you have very good content and you bring journalism ethic and integrity to your stories, you will be contributing to journalism even if you are not on a paper anymore.

What do you think makes a good journalist?
I think fairness makes a good journalist and objectivity. It is such a complex concept …I don’t think it necessarily exists as definition suggests but being fair and admit that you have you own biases… Also in that fairness is giving the voice and the credibility to the people that have the voice and the credibility.

For people who are in college right now, will you recommend them to go into the field?
Well, I should know better and tell people not to study journalism because it’s hard to find a job and make a living out of it. But that is not what I believe. I believe is a great career and it gives you the skills and provides you the openness and the courage and the curiosity to question the world… I have a lot of friends who are former journalists that are in classrooms or in communications with different organizations like I am or who are doing a completely different thing like running a business and knowing how to market it to the general public.

I think (journalism) is a tremendous opportunity to learn about the world and get out of your comfort zone and really put yourself out there. I think that is a real skill to have when you go to the real world. And maybe the real world is that there is no newsroom that will hire you because its shrinking, but the fact is that you will have skills to enrich other working in environments juts because you went into journalism school and know how to listen to people and ask really good questions.

Follow Alsy Acevedo on Twitter at @alsyacevedo

Marketing Puerto Rico: Interview with Alan Taveras

In recent weeks, news about Puerto Rico and its deepening economic crisis have occupied the attention of major U.S. publications: in sum, things are so bad everyone seems to be leaving the Island. I am one those Puerto Ricans who left (over a decade ago) but am also striving to find the silver lining. This is why when I heard the interview of Alan Taveras on the local podcast Empresarios I had to find out more about his initiative to promote Puerto Rican businesses.

Instead of planning their escape from the Puerto Rico, Alan and his brother Nestor Guarien Taveras not only stayed but also saw an opportunity to target the disapora while promoting local products through Brands of Puerto Rico. This virtual marketplace or as Alan calls it “the Amazon of Puerto Rican products” started a year ago.

The Taveras brothers, who have MBAs and attended the Founder Institute, were already building success with their Très Epic agency, a programming firm which provides services to advertising agencies in Puerto Rico. These agencies though, were big international brands.

Based on their own experience abroad (Guarien studied at Boston University while Alan went to Argentina’s University of Palermo), they saw there were consumers eager to get products from home and decided to launch the start up which has gained traction through the combination of traditional and digital marketing.

During a visit to their offices in Puerto Rico, I spoke with Alan about the importance of branding and advertising. We started the conversation talking about the origins of Brands of Puerto Rico.

Note: The interview has been edited for space.

… It was early March or the last days of February of 2014, it was the first time the bonds of Puerto Rico were downgraded to junk and the diaspora groups and every newspaper were talking about how (messed up) we were or how many people left Puerto Rico… (My brother and I) used to take one Friday each month to just throw ideas on the board like what type of startup we can do, because Très Epic was made for us to have capital to live and to invest in our ideas. That was the mission from the start… (One day) My brother was reading out loud an article… It said like monthly roughly 3,000 Puerto Ricans were leaving on those days to the states, mainly Florida as always. A lot of people were alarmed on this, it was like a crisis, my Facebook newsfeed was depressing to say the least.

(…) We started to look at that as an opportunity because since we were little, everyone would tell us Puerto Rico is a small market, entrepreneurs will never make it here and that’s why the big companies here are the distributors, because there is no space to create something new. So we started looking at that, (and also) we came across the fact that almost 5 million of people from Puerto Rico were living in the states. Suddenly it is an appealing market that nobody was thinking about. Everyone was focusing on how bad it was, but for us it was a good sign.

We started to research on local brands. There are a lot of people doing cool things in Puerto Rico, no one knows about them and they don’t have online presence. It was like connecting the dots… (We decided to) make a marketplace for local entrepreneurs to sell to that diaspora.

In terms of your marketing mindset, did you acquire that thanks to the Founder institute?

Founder Institute is really really tough on first, build the market. For example, with Brands of Puerto Rico we did not write a line of code until we had like a thousand followers on Facebook. So first, build that market and if it gets traction, build the product. That helped us create this fast and at really low cost.

How did you reach out to the people in the diaspora?

I don’t know if its something that is happening right now or if our idea had the prefect timing but suddenly the idea got a great response. (Local TV channel) WAPA featured us, we got an interview with CNN en español… It’s mostly organic, we have not an invested in marketing, I have to be honest on that… We have a saying here ‘try until you get it’ so every day we called the newspapers, every TV channel, ‘interview us, interview us’ until they said yes. Now what we do is invest a little bit and it is really targeted; we do digital marketing which is our forte, our knowledge. For example, I target campaigns to people in Orlando, I target campaigns to people in Brooklyn, New York and I can maximize the performance of my dollar to get to those people.

Also our biggest, biggest, biggest marketing weapon is word of mouth. If your cousin bought it in New York and he told all of his friends, it spreads.

In term of the overall idea, during the interview with the podcast you were wondering why it did not occurred to anyone before.

It’s a pretty simple concept. A lot of people tell me, ‘you are doing such innovative stuff’ but I don’t find that we are this breakthrough technology; its e-commerce. E-commerce has been here for decades. For me it’s a pretty simple idea to sell Puerto Rican brands to people from Puerto Rico outside of Puerto Rico.

Perhaps is the mentality that when it comes to producing something in the Island, people think just about the local market and they don’t really think in terms of outside markets.

Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the influence my brother and I had studying abroad that we see the world as a marketplace and not just Puerto Rico.

In term of finding the products locally and developing those relationships with local vendors, how do you do that?

In the first days it was almost impossible: imagine some kid coming to you telling that he is going to build a platform, it’s not even built, going to let you sell stuff for free and only charge you in transactions. We had a database of 300 brands and only 30 brands on our launch on July 11 (of 2014). Now because of the hype of the PR (public relations) people come to us, but in the first months we took a lot of nos: ‘Are you crazy?’, ‘You are going to sell on the Internet?.’

It’s been real fun because we have a lot of people that work on agriculture, that don’t have technology knowledge and we even sit down with them and open a Paypal account. I opened Paypal accounts for Antojitos de Mango, (the owner) is like 80 years old but for me he is the one of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever known. He has so much knowledge, always with a smile in his face… Not everyone has this opportunity to learn a lot from the people who have been doing this their whole lives.

In regards of what you are doing now, is there some sort of model that you look up to in other countries that’s doing this as well?

Right now it’s a cool moment for us as a company. Brands of Puerto Rico is one year old and thanks to everything that has happened and the trust that these brands have put in us, we are starting to grow, not only to grow on the amount of companies we have in Puerto Rico, but we as a company are starting to expand to other markets.

We are about to launch Brands of Argentina, and Brands of Nicaragua. From my connections in Argentina, we are in conversation with some venture capitalists who are interested in putting money on the company for us to start building franchises on every market…We are going to implement what we learned here in this whole year.

What are your particular goals for Brands of Puerto Rico?

For Brands of Puerto RIco and for Brands of -I am starting to think as the Brands of concept and not just Brands of Puerto Rico,- is to create the biggest quality oriented catalogs of brands and products of Latin America, and supply to that diaspora in the United States… Basically show the world that not everything is big brands in multinational companies, that good things are made by people who work in modest ways and they do deserve a chance. I think Brands of and our platform is a tool to give them the chance, that equal plane level field. For example, if you want a t-shirt you can buy Sotomayor which is local entrepreneur instead of going to Pac Sun in a mall.

How many brands do you have?

I have 80, I counted 2 weeks ago… but we have a pipeline. Let me tell you the process: you (as company) learn from us and we learn about you. We have a formal phone call or email and you come here to our offices with the product. We do the screening to see if it’s good quality, if it’s local brand, if that person is registered in the government, that is really important. We do a photo shoot free of cost for that brand and those photos, once they are properly edited, are uploaded to our e-commerce platform. We do a blog post, we do a social media post… Our business model is transaction based, we make 20% of each transaction.

If they are not registered, do you help them?

We help them with everything… We’ve done logos for people… A lot of people tell me ‘you are not supposed to that.’ If they don’t have a standard they are not going to sell, so it’s really important for me personally and for the company to make these entrepreneurs think and act upon their brand. A product is a product until you build a brand around it.

Is that something often people forget, to market their brand?

I’ve talked to so many entrepreneurs in the last year, I learned that different to how we think, people out there think the product is the star. For me, because I studied Advertising and then in Business I concentrated in Marketing, for me what is the star is the brand. You can sell this pen, anything, if you have a brand around it, if your communication is good, if your look is good. I think like that. But I learned most entrepreneurs here in Puerto Rico don’t give a (crap) about it… We are trying to teach people that the brand is really important and how you communicate, how you do advertising, is as important as a product.

Would you recommend people to study advertising?

I will recommend studying advertising not necessarily to work on advertising. It helps you communicate better. You can be an accountant, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything, but advertising helps you sell and communicate better and have a presence that is appealing to the market… If you are looking for a date, if you are trying to sell something, if you are trying to get out of trouble, if you communicate good, Is effective.

I think it’s important the way you communicate things.

Follow Brands of Puerto Rico on Twitter @brandsofpr or email Alan at info@brandsofpuertorico.com

Follow the author @yadicarocaro