Archive for the ‘News Analysis’ Category

Communication and politics: What a drag

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Aside from being heartily amused by the rhetoric of what passes for political discourse in 2015, I’m also rather concerned about what it says about the power — or lack of power — of communication in the political realm.

Let’s start with the amused portion: We have an avowed socialist who doesn’t believe in the replacement of private property with state ownership. That make him more of a social democrat rather than an actual socialist. Socialism is the public ownership of property, goods and the means of production. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/socialism). It is an economic term, not a political one.

We have an avowed Democrat whose track record is moderate by Democratic Party history, and whose husband declared, “the era of big government is over,’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1996_State_of_the_Union_Address ) but who has spent the entirety of her presidential run so far tacking left to appeal to the wing of her party that wants the U.S. to become a European Social Democracy.

We have a bloviating egomaniac with no filter representing the fever swamp id of the most afraid constituency, railing against not the dying of the light, but the continued ceaseless change of the United States itself.

There are several highly capable people running alongside the loudmouthed lout — a couple of U.S. senators, two sitting governors, a neurosurgeon, a former CEO and several others (regardless of what one thinks of their political perspectives, they are accomplished people.)  And yet, polls show the moron leading the race.

It’s either laugh or cry, and I refuse to cry. You can’t make this stuff up — it’s quite entertaining to read the news stories that emerge…

Now for the “concerned” portion:

The Twitter age has demanded we communicate with brevity, but at the cost of probity, wisdom, depth and breadth. Politics should not be ephemeral. Politics should be an exercise in intellectual discourse. The news media no longer serve as skeptical third parties striving to attain fairness (quote from my journalism professor: “We’re human and cannot truly be unbiased, but we can be fair.”)  Instead, readers/viewers/ listeners need to fend for themselves in sorting through increasingly biased coverage. Watching broadcast news is worse than a root canal.

Other media are similarly challenging — read the NY Times, the WSJ, National Review and The Nation. You hardly know they’re talking about the same country, let alone the same people and events.

The language candidates and their handlers use make things worse, not better. Even my words above largely are attacks based on something other than mere perspective – calling someone an egomaniac (regardless of its truth) is not helpful.

What would be helpful is analysis that puts this race in context — what are the competing visions and what are the pros and cons of each?  What are the unintended consequences of these perspectives? How will those consequences be mitigated or at least addressed?

A few more thoughts:

  • Mr. Trump is not a conservative, nor a Republican. He is a Trumpian.
  • Secretary Clinton should be held to account over the email situation, and the Benghazi explanation (video versus terror attack.)  Democrats should be careful what they wish for.
  • Republican candidates should stop treating Trump as a serious candidate. But they should listen to people who are afraid and angry and convince them that those emotions are unsuitable as a platform for governing.  Most of the candidates have articulated specific platforms and proposals that are worthy of discussion and coverage (again, regardless of political orientation, there is serious information available for debate.)
  • Mr. Sanders should be asked to describe the impact of a large tax increase (for free college? How will making more graduates result in greater economic activity instead of merely devaluing the bachelor’s degree?) What about keeping the corporate rate where it is versus making it higher versus raising the individual rate. What does history tell us? How might that record apply to that decision?
  •  Candidates should not be included in TV debates based on polls. Devote as much time as required to hear from all of them — carry on CSPAN, and air without advertising. Have a conservative and a liberal interview each candidate together (Rachel Maddow and Megyn Kelly; George Will and Chris Matthews) — post the live feed and raw footage to YouTube.

 

 

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HBR covers employee complaints about managers

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

It’s almost a cliche, so much so that some don’t even believe it.  Employees have certain expectations about their managers, and too many managers totally #fail at meeting them.  In the Harvard Business Review, Lou Solomon hits the high (or low) points.  Read the article, then see http://bit.ly/CommAMMOF2F.

 

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Major imbroglio from Forbes piece on PR and ROI

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

186140619I’m not including a link, because generally speaking, this is a case of not wanting to feed the trolls.  Over at Forbes, some guy wrote a post saying that nobody should pay for PR if they aren’t in a major organization. This brought the PR defense out onto the field, including Stephanie C from PRSA. Next thing you know, it’s a party.

OK, maybe not a party. Instead, it was a comment Battle Royale, with wounded PRs insisting that PR had value, and the writer asking for ROI figures as proof. Not awareness, not reputation, real money. Katie Paine ran in and offered her 30 examples of PR driving sales, and many others (including a great post from Gerry Corbett) supporting the bloodied public relations profession.  The writer, meanwhile, agreed that PR had value, but not for smaller enterprises who really need to convert prospects to dollars.

I thought about commenting myself, but in the end, it’s just a post with a link-bait headline and a pretty half-assed set of complaints about high retainers and lack of sales as a result. Yawn.  What’s interesting to me is the reaction from the industry. I mean, look, I say all the time that ROI is just one useful measurement of public relations — there are all kinds of things that organizations need we PRs to do other then sell. We certainly can, and do, do that, and often at much lower cost than our pals in marketing.

All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.

As I’ve said about 20,000 times, attempting to reduce all value to the monetary leads to all kinds of mischief.  If it’s just about revenue, get rid of your overhead departments entirely. Let managers take care of HR matters, use outsourced legal, stop internal communications, forget branding, make business units manage their own financials, and don’t bother with community relations or government relations… Yeah, right.

The biggest error in that guy’s thinking is that PR can be done by amateurs. Hey, if it’s only about getting your local media to cover you, just reach out to them, it’s easy, he says. Send a letter or email, do a list of media influencers on Twitter and tweet to them. Of course, unless what you have is newsworthy, you’re going to fail. Part of what we PR people do is counsel our internal or external clients on what constitutes news. We do all kinds of stuff that has value, but no direct contribution to sales. It’s not required. We help make a field more fertile for sales, we don’t plant the seeds, pull weeds (well, maybe we do that…) or spread fertilizer (except in political PR. Just kidding. )

In the end, if we add value, organizations invest in us. If we don’t we’re out. Some of that will be ROI. Some of it will be common sense.  We want to help our organizations win in the marketplace. How we do that is STRATEGY. And no matter how smart a business owner may be, chances are a professional public relations person can do a better job of creating comms strategy than he or she can.

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Is it energy, will power or caffeine?

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

WorldHQI just ran across this list: 61 best social media tools for small business. Good gravy. I know of or have used five (5). This kind of discovery gets repeated frequently at the beautiful World Headquarters of Communication AMMO.  What I’m wondering is how in the world anyone keeps track of this stuff.

Yes, I’m aware of outstanding tools like a pen and paper for such matters, but really. Is my deficit attributable to a lack of high-test coffee? I gave up caffeine some time ago, relegating myself to the wilds of what’s the point Coke and Decaf (Letterman: “It’s what they’re drinking in Hell.”)

Or is it a question of not caring enough to take the time? Maybe my cynicism about social media overcomes my professional desire to be The One Who Knows Everything.  It could be a suffering from comparisons — I’m not as smart as the cool kids who drop these names like elderly debutantes (True story: She: “You’re from Seattle! You must know the Weyerhaeusers!” Me: “We ran in somewhat different circles.”)

It could also be a deficit of energy — I’m busy with clients and now with research for my thesis and shortly with writing the darn thing and defending it. I also have friends, family, home, cats and books to read, movies to watch and music to play and listen to. I don’t have the energy to “live social,” darn it. I like to sleep and do offline things (see above.)

So Mr. Google (and Mrs.Twitter, Ms. Facebook, Monsieur LinkedIn and the occasional Herr Pinterest) will have to do.  I just have to wean myself off the idea that I can be the font of all wisdom in that space. Instead, I’ll keep pushing for quality over quantity, for probity and wisdom over transience and faddism, for support and positivity instead of snark and self-aggrandizement.

How about you?

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Summing up: IABC Heritage Conference a Winner

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Conf_BrochureI’ve given serious thought in recent months to letting my IABC membership lapse. With all the drama earlier this year, it crossed my mind more than once. But then, I attended the Heritage Region Conference, Oct. 13-15 in Indianapolis.

The IABC International is huge — 1,500 isn’t out of the question — and its venues, large hotels in big cities (New York, Toronto, etc.) makes for a spendy trip for the likes of a sole proprietor. But the regional conferences are more compact, are in smaller cities, and yet offer terrific programming.

This year was no exception.

I’m a little biased, as I had the chance to speak once again, but the quality was wonderful — Jim Lukaszewski held court for three hours, evangelizing on the concept that communicators need to be much more business-centric than communication-centric, particularly in times of crisis.  We know that we get more popular when it’s time to sweep up after some sort of conflagration, but too often, Jim averred, we see communication as the solution to every problem.

Case in point at my own expense:  Jim asked why the CEO of BP — Tony Hayward, of “I’d like my life back” fame — lost his job in the wake of the oil platform explosion that killed people and brought the US gulf coast to its economic knees.  I piped up instantly — blame-shifting, insensitivities, cluelessness

Jim said I was wrong – it’s just how things are done. The disaster happened on his watch, and so he paid the price. He’ll be OK, Jim added, because these guys get paid no matter what. But he’ll never lead as large or important a company as BP.  Jim’s point: we communicators need to better understand how business operates, not just the role that communicators play in it. There’s more, of course, including Jim’s gentle good humor, phenomenal stories and exceptional insight that comes from doing this work for 40-odd years.

Tim McCleary of The Involvement Practice keynoted Monday morning, offering not only a valuable speech, but a couple of fun exercises demonstrating how we can move from informing to involving people.  Establishing the central objective, then helping people understand it through real dialogue, then immersing them in the world of the new so that they own that objective and finally activating the power of the internal network (the What, Why and How of communicating change), was clear, intuitive and actionable.

Kent Lewis of Anvil Media, and serial entrepreneur, talked social media analytics — but not in a dry, statistical way. He shared stories of how to measure effectively — key performance indicators, metrics and goals for each platform, content strategies, etc. — that resonated well with attendees. Two big reminders for me — YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine, so having content on that platform is critical; and that SlideShare adds immeasurably to both search performance and sharing content effectively. One more from Kent — LinkedIn is essential in B2B, and one’s company page needs to be robust, clear and urgent.  I need to get on that right away!

That’s just a couple of examples.

The point is that about 150 attendees really got the chance to network. I met at least five people I’d not met before, and I reacquainted myself with dozens more.  The seven-person dinner Monday night at the Dine-Around was terrific, even if Harry and Izzy’s shrimp cocktail blasted my head (and everyone else’s) into a tear-streaked paroxysm of anguish and bliss.

IABC might be struggling to right itself, but they might have kept me in the fold thanks the Heritage Region team’s great work.  Check out the Twitter stream at #iabchrconf.

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The simple pleasure of ‘Attenzi’

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

http://www.attenzi.com/If Philip Sheldrake‘s eBook, Attenzi — A Social Business Story, were a paperback novel, it would be a slender tome, perhaps similar to Who Moved My Cheese.  Like the legendary Spencer Johnson fable on change, Attenzi uses a fictional story to make a factual point. In this case, that social business (not just social media) is a revolution that should change how businesses sell, operate and succeed.

Sheldrake constructs the book almost as a diary, with Attenzi CEO Eli Appel as the narrator. Appel talks about taking the reins as leader, about the team and its strengths and weaknesses, and about his own fears and misgivings as he embraces social business. Attenzi is a kitchen appliance maker, a brand once dominant in the high-end sector that had started to slip.  Social represents an opportunity not to merely sell through a new channel, but to recast the relationships between Attenzi and its customers and other constituents.

In the process, Appel and his team learn what’s right and wrong with the company, how it stayed on its path in the face of a changing marketplace, and how a lack of innovation was threatening the firm.  Readers follow a set of appealing characters through the story, and arrive at a happy ending (albeit predictably) .

Aside from a couple of preachy, awkward discussions as the shades fall from the characters’ eyes, it’s a solid work that has a lot to say about perception of change, resistance to it, and the experimental nature of  innovation when it embraces the transparent, social, customer-up style of modern business.

It’s really hard to write dialogue for a business context. I’ve written two short plays for a client, and it’s a real challenge to include the insider language (whilst avoiding jargon where possible) and drive toward the points you’re trying to make. Sheldrake succeeds substantially; as I say, there are a couple of times where the two-person dialogue stretches credibility as natural speech, but that’s a miniature cavil for certain.

Appel (the Attenzi CEO) strikes a good balance between pushing for change and evaluating what has and hasn’t worked.  The leadership team doesn’t reflexively dismiss him (apparently not even privately; that would make for a good subplot in an expanded edition of the book).  Attenzi doesn’t have to deal with a crippling crisis in the midst of the renaissance.

I enjoyed the book because of its simple and even idealistic view that business can change by being less closed, less secretive. I liked that social wasn’t just media, just another extension of the marketing mix, beholden to the world of increasing impressions and required conversion.  Social for me is broader than that, the embodiment of what’s become my axiom and watchcry: “All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.”

Attenzi makes that point, creatively, succinctly.  Kudos, Mr. Sheldrake.

Now, go read the book and tell me what you think.

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What’s the matter with IABC?

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

It’s happened to a lot of organizations.  Business shifting under their feet, departure of key exec, search for new leader, struggle to change without losing customer base, new leader leaves sooner than expected after difficult tenure.

It shouldn’t, however, happen to a membership organization comprised of professional communicators.

The drama over Chris Sorek’s departure after less than a year at the helm of the International Association of Business Communicators has to have been avoidable.  We counsel our execs and clients about this. Books are written, conference presentations, academic papers all say the same thing: “Tell the truth, tell it first and tell it all,” according to Bruce Hennes of Hennes/Paynter, the crisis management firm based in Cleveland.

The tragicomic saga opens when Sorek takes over, succeeding Julie Freeman.  Julie, who held the post for 10 years, communicated quite effectively, in my book. She was visible, involved, supportive. Sorek was a little invisible, a little remote, seemingly more comfortable out of the spotlight in his 11 months. That’s fine; not every leader is an ENFP.

But as the changes began, including massive staff layoffs and restructuring, I believe the numbers were 15 of the 32 employees, Sorek still hung in the background. The always excellent David Murray had a good summary and analysis, as did Ragan.com, all without a word from the executive director.  In corporate life, we often call that, “insulating the CEO” from delivering bad news. But hey, this ain’t a corporation, its our bloody (and bloodied) association.

On IABC’s web feature, “IABC in the news” Sorek hasn’t been present since an interview in August 2012.  Freeman often took to the IABC Cafe, the blog platform. Sorek never did.

Who was that masked man?

Meanwhile, IABC’s LinkedIn group is full of members and nonmembers asking about what was happening at our association (I’ve been a member near continuously since, well, a long time ago). The International Executive Board (IEB), a volunteer leadership group, did its best to fill the void, but the paid head of our association was strangely reticent, leaving the spokes duties to our IEB chair.

I am wondering whether I need IABC anymore. I’m active in other groups — PRSA’s Employee Communication Section for one, the Institute for PR Commission on Research, Measurement and Evaluation, for another, and have a strong community of outreach via social media.  Add to that the desire to speak and write less for my communication family and more for senior execs in industries that might need my professional help, and we’re coming to an inflection point.

In the end, I’ve opted to stay in IABC, at least for 2013. I have a few personal frustrations — despite a long history of chapter leadership and good experiences with the Heritage Region Conference, the International has been a tough speaking nut to crack. As a small business guy, I need to make good decisions about how I spend my time and money.

This latest imbroglio, including a request from our IEB chair to “stick to the speaking points” was a real tale of the cobbler’s children. Seriously?  IABC tried to tell it first, but the technology didn’t cooperate. It didn’t tell it all because of privacy concerns (and a desire to avoid feeding voyeurism, according to one comment).  That made it seem like IABC wasn’t telling the truth — the failure to explain reasons behind decisions makes people believe they’re being deceived, as Joe Williams teaches.

Now, the search for an executive director begins all over again. The question is, who wants that job?  It better be someone who knows how to connect with membership from the very start, who will do a good job of listening to membership and who can exude confidence about the plans for the future.

 

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Crisis demands understanding, says expert Hennes

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

IABC Cleveland is no stranger to Bruce Hennes. He’s the 2011 communicator of the year and his firm, Hennes/Paynter, is the local champion of effective crisis management through communication. At the 21 Feb. lunch, a small but lively crowd ate up his pithy prescriptions for communicating in very bad times.

I’ve seen Bruce speak many times, first at a luncheon for the Legal Marketing Association, then at an IABC lunch in 2011, and now today, and he always impresses me. As a speaker, he’s an unassuming guy, not given to theatrics, but his content is peerless and his delivery always excellent. Many speakers could learn from him how to hold an audience’s attention through sheer strength of story.

Hennes uses catchy terms — the 3 Tells, 3 V’s, F’up, Fess-up, Fix-up  —  and demonstrates through example what he means. The first of these is the command that supercedes all others — you have to tell the truth, tell it first and tell it all. The 3 V’s are the frame that the media places around stories. Everyone involved is one of these: Victim, Villain, or Vindicator. Care to guess where business (especially executives), education administrators and other “powerful” people find themselves?  The goal for most organizations in the midst of a crisis is to move from villain to vindicator, he says. When you, ahem, Mess up, you need to fess up and describe what you’re doing to make sure it never happens again.

The media brings its own filter to the proceedings, and they’re on the lookout for you to reinforce the role they want you to play. That’s why “no comment” or its usual cousins are so bad — what does “no comment” mean to you? Guilty!  Hennes insists that the media’s job isn’t to inform or educate, it’s to tell stories — the triumph of the Little Guy over the Establishment being a fairly common one — Victim, Villain, Vindicator.

The good thing is that when we know that, we can take action.  Hennes tells a story about an embezzlement scandal at a governmental organization. Hennes/Paynter brought the executive director straight to a reporter and gave them the story in exquisite detail, without violating privacy dicta, and when the very big story broke, its headline put the organization in very positive light, instead of the reverse. The reporter told Hennes later, that if the organization had not brought the story in, the paper would have socked it to the organization big time.

Entertaining, educational and excellent all the way around.

Note: I’m still having no luck uploading photos for the blog since it changed URLs. Help? 

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Why is telling the truth so hard?

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Creative Commons, by Brian Hillegas

The Institute for PR has published “Ethical standards and guidelines for public relations research and measurement“, which PRNewser’s Tonya Garcia summarized as “Basically, don’t be a horrible, self-serving liar.” The statement, By Dr. Shannon Bowen, John Gilfeather, & Dr. Brad Rawlins, is a stake in the ground, and on the surface might seem to be a statement of the obvious. But PR as a profession still seems ethically dubious — witness the latest in a long line of Walmart amazin’s stories.

Walmart hired Mercury Public Affairs to lobby LA city hall to approve construction of a store in Chinatown. No problem. But when Mercury employee Stephanie Harnett went to a meeting of Warehouse Workers United, which wants to unionize Walmart’s workers, she lied about who she was, claiming to be journalism student from the University of Southern California.

Both Walmart and Mercury declaimed any responsibility — Mercury saying that she was a junior member of their staff and that no one, neither Mercury nor Walmart, told her to do any such thing.  I’d be tempted to write this off as a sad commentary on PR education and the “anything goes” culture of the modern age, but Socrates did a better job of making that argument.

What seems likely is that both Mercury and Walmart tossed her under the bus. Media reports say that Harnett was shaking like a leaf during her ruse, so she has to know that what she was doing was wrong. Of course, apparently she got over it in short order. Her Twitter account is closed (good idea; it can’t have been much fun to read the tweets), and she’s keeping a low profile.

Walmart’s not known as a Pantheon of ethics — the Astroturf campaign, the Mexico bribery issue. And many PR firms seem willing to do whatever will generate revenue, from selling war through deliberate falsehood to representing dictators.  PR ethics can seem like a contradiction in terms.

But I won’t give up, and neither should you. Thanks to Bowen, Gilfeather and Rawlins, we’ve got another arrow in our quiver.

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Blame the banks again

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Darn those Evil Bankers!

The latest imbroglio in the financial sector is JP Morgan Chase’s disclosure of a multi-billion dollar trading loss. Since the announcement, JPM’s stock is off more than 8 percent, has been downgraded by Fitch (one ratings agency) and is now exhibit A in the Obama administration’s drive for tougher bank regulations. Oh, how I miss working in banking!

When things get crazy, people want someone to blame — Heads on Pikes, as one National City colleague put it. The  narrative is that greedy bankers caused the recession with their complicated hedges, derivatives toxic mortgages, et.al. Aside from that being a gross oversimplification (got to spread the blame much more broadly), it’s not illegal for a business to lose money.  JPM is a financial company that has different types of businesses.

It’s a bank – Chase — in the consumer and commercial banking businesses. It takes deposits and makes loans. It makes money on the difference between what it pays for money (near zero for deposits, but a little more in other sources) and what it takes in (interest and fees).  When people think of banks, this is what they think of. By law, the only path of investments for excess funds is U.S. Treasury bills, bonds and notes, and making loans. There are a lot of different types of loans out there, such as commercial paper, repurchase agreements, interbank lending, etc., but for our purposes, that does it.

The JPMorgan unit offers services for corporations not covered (very much) by Chase. Most notably, it’s various varieties of selling and buying stock and helping companies and other entities manage their cash. This is the part that gets people all twiddle-pated. The work is similar to taking deposits and making loans, but not really the same.

In the course of doing this work for companies, investment banks like JPM can make income by trading on their own – no client required. At its best, it raises cash that can help the company’s balance sheet and income statement. At its worst, it costs them money.  The fear is that too many losses on the “equity” business side will destabilize the traditional bank side.

But back when these businesses were required by law to be separate, in relative terms borrowing was more expensive and rarer, and many businesses lacked the capital to grow. It’s like we are now in a nostalgia mode for the days of the 1970’s. Speaking as one who remembers soaring unemployment, skyrocketing interest rates and surging inflation all at once, that nostalgia is pretty darn silly. Oh, and banks were open 10-3, there were few or no ATMs and no online anything.

Now we take all of that for granted.  It’s not cheap to provide all of that, and then you get told you can’t charge what you want for it.  An opinion piece in the New York Times carped that JPM had lost $2 billion of “our” money.  Not so. It didn’t lose depositor money, or even client money. It didn’t even lose investor money, unless the investor sold in the couple of days following the disclosure. It also didn’t lose government money — it repaid its TARP loan (that it was forced by the government to take) in 2009.

For JPM, they insist they have plenty of cash and profits despite the $2 billion trading loss. CEO Jamie Dimon has been plugging away on the talk show circuit, chanting mea culpas in the “by the book” crisis mode, and has even “accepted the resignations of” three execs with accountability for the loss, but it hasn’t stopped the criticism.

Where the administration, the FDIC and others are correct, however, is in saying that banks that are “too big to fail” are a systemic risk to the economy. Scale is wonderful until it gets so wide that no one knows what everyone else is doing. Even Jamie Dimon would agree that stepping in so huge a cow pie emboldens those who want the biggest banks to be smaller and more tightly regulated. That’s why the broader financial sector got hammered in the market in the few days following the disclosure.

What could Dimon due differently? Nothing. There are times when business is a poop sandwich and everyone has to take a bite. JPM is still with little argument the best financial in the business. Dick Bove, an analyst, said as much this morning when he rated it a buy.

In the meanwhile, the FBI says it’s investigating JPM, the FDIC has sued it for $15 billion, and the media fans the flames of hatred.  In short, the mob gathers again, demanding blood.

What a business.

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