Julie Lellis, associate professor and associate department chair in the School of Communications, has co-authored a new book that utilizes a zombie analogy to correct poor communication behaviors.
Despite evidence to the contrary, zombies are very real.
More accurately, but a little less sensationalized, there are real businesses that do exhibit zombie-like tendencies.
These companies – from Fortune 500 corporations to small businesses – offer empty communications that can often alienate their customers, supporters and partners. These businesses are easily identifiably by their lifeless messages, website content and social media posts lacking a personal touch.
So, what’s the antidote? Acting more human, of course, a skill examined in Associate Professor Julie Lellis’ new book, “The Zombie Business Cure: How to Refocus your Company’s Identity for More Authentic Communication,” published by Career Press.
With co-author Melissa Eggleston, a content strategist and user experience specialist, Lellis maps out common communication mistakes, tackling the five most prevalent and damaging zombie traits that businesses demonstrate. The text relies heavily on case studies and personal interviews, citing examples from Charles Schwab, Ritz Carlton, 1-800-GOT-JUNK, KIND Snacks and Chick-fil-A, as well as many small businesses and nonprofits.
“Identity, specifically organizational identity, has been a big area of interest of mine,” said Lellis. “We know that organizations communicate best and function best when they are fully embodied – when they are truly, authentically themselves. The obvious analogy that came to mind was zombies. Zombies are the opposite of that.”
As a result, a communications book featuring zombie metaphors came to life.
There’s a great irony in Lellis and Eggleston penning a book referencing the traits of the undead: “We are actually not huge zombie fans, so there was a learning curve,” Lellis said with a laugh.
Yet the premise fit so perfectly, the authors went for it – even when some literary agents weren’t completely enthralled by the metaphor.
The more thought the authors gave to the idea, the more they realized that businesses that don’t have clear identities act like zombies, and zombies make for dreadful communicators. On the other hand, humans realize – or should realize – the importance of having a strong sense of self, maintaining a consistent message, and communicating effectively to build relationships.
“The Zombie Business Cure” attempts to get to the heart of many communication problems: a lack of an organizational identity. This oversight can negatively affect a company’s bottom line and severely damage its reputation.
To build upon their premise and strengthen their zombie analogy, the authors confirmed zombie traits with fans of the genre, and leaned heavily on “The Zombie Survival Guide,” written by author Max Brooks.
Lellis and Eggleston settled on five zombie traits and their text contrasts those with five human traits. The duo created a spectrum of “zombieness” for the book, ranging from “fully embodied” to “totally rotten.” They even provide zombie remedies for poor behavior, such as how to apologize for a communications mistake on Twitter.
While the book is new, Lellis’ interest in studying organizational identity dates back to her dissertation as a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She said she enjoyed exploring the core values of nonprofit organizations, then examining how those values are reflected in their communication materials, including press releases, website copy and marketing items they use to sell their services.
The authors also received support from several current and former Elon students who examined related case studies. Christina Daniels-Freeman ’16, Nicole Appleby ’16, Emma Warman ’17 and Seth Stroud ’16 all received acknowledgement for their efforts in the beginning of the text.
Lellis sees the book’s target audience as communications professionals and business owners, but noted that the subject matter can easily serve as a supplement to communications and business courses. Instructor Michele Lashley has charged her “Strategic Campaigns” students to develop innovative ideas for selling Lellis’ book to professors teaching communications or business strategy at other schools. The authors feel confident the zombie comparisons make the content easily digestible for all readers.
“When it started out, our goal was to write an interesting book that would be easy to read and say something new,” said Lellis. “As we went along, the book turned out to be more humorous than we initially expected, and it is playful in how it approaches some concepts. Overall, I’m happy with it because I got to interview professionals and academics and also do secondary research to tell good stories. I got to write creatively, but I think it has the potential to really impact communications professionals, business owners, students and faculty.”
Not famous enough
Since the book’s release and subsequent launch party on March 2 at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop, Lellis has been busy promoting her book and sharing concepts from her research.
During the past month, Lellis has published a co-authored piece in Chief Content Officer magazine detailing identity, complete with a book excerpt. She’s also participated in interviews with local and national media, including NPR’s “Money Matters” program and WPHM-AM 1380 in Michigan. And she’s hosted a session at the High Five marketing conference in Raleigh, guest lectured at the University of Colorado Boulder and spoke to members of the North Carolina chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.
It’s been a busy slate for the author who was originally dismissed by some literary agents and publishers.
“Well-known agents basically said I wasn’t famous enough,” said Lellis, recalling her rocky start to getting her book published. “I was told I didn’t have enough social media followers. That I didn’t have a talk show. That I didn’t have a strong author platform. They didn’t know how I was going to sell a book.”
But a month after a fruitless set of pitches at an Oregon writers conference, one of agents followed up. Chip MacGregor, who Lellis called “one of the top literary agents in the country,” took on the book because, upon reflection, the writing was strong, the topic appealed to him, and he thought others might feel the same.
The authors and MacGregor eventually reached a contract with Career Press, a niche publisher for business books, in spring 2016. Thanks to tight deadlines and an ambitious writing schedule, the book was wrapped up by Christmas time, just eight months later.
A dear friend’s influence
While the writing process was tedious and sometimes stressful, the illness of a close friend kept life in perspective for Lellis. The professor spent much of her free time last summer visiting an ailing friend, Kimberly Buff, who was battling cancer. Ultimately, the disease won out in early August.
Lellis routinely penned sections of her book sitting in Duke University Hospital at Buff’s bedside. Despite her physical condition, Buff talked through cases with Lellis when she could and always inquired about the progress of Lellis’ book.
“She helped me write this book and was a big part of helping me get it done,” said Lellis. “For some reason, there was something motivating about being there and being with her. She was an extremely career-driven woman, and she thought the book was important. She kept me writing.”
The book is dedicated to Buff.