Opinions about branding by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Like many Americans I've been spending time with family and friends
these holidays, shopping the Thanksgiving sales, seeing a movie,
watching some interesting TV. And though I try not to think about work
stuff too much, I am always in the end a marketer, and I often process
what I see through the lens of "what can this teach me?"

At the same time, I also tend to reflect on what I see through the
lens of right and wrong, or at least my personal beliefs about that.
And though I don't believe in being preachy, when I see what to me are
"bad" products being marketed extrarodinarily well, I tend to think
about how I'd love to launch my own marketing campaign to put them out of business, or at least minimize them to a small corner of the market.

A big example is fast food and the sugary beverages that go with them.
Now, let me be the first one to say that I am no purist when it comes
to food. (Try to take away my french fries and you will definitely
emerge with some battle scars.) But the extent to which they have
invaded our lives is just scary. I can imagine that many lives would
be saved or improved, and that our national healthcare bill would
decrease significantly, if most of us avoided [insert your addictive
fast food of choice here] and chose to consume natural, healthy foods
and drinks instead.

The very sad thing is that bad products have some great marketing
minds behind them. I tweeted a couple of days ago about Coca-Cola and
their addictive signature soda, full of unhealthy sugar and caffeine,
which is marketed with some of the smartest methods imaginable. It's
not just Coke, of course, but every other big brand in its space; and
I could complain about McDonald's but there are lots of McD's wannabes
that are doing the same thing as it is. The genius is not just one
thing but a combination of advertisements, memorable images, catchy
jingles, product placements, and numerous other tactics that
collectively put the item firmly into the "memory bank" (as a
Coca-Cola company spokesman noted in a CNBC interview this week) of
the American people.

The marketing genius behind fast food is reinforced by the physical
addiction it creates. As former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, the
author of The End of Overeating, noted in a recent interview, when
marketing is used to push some combination of sugar + fat + salt
(which is what fast food pushers generally offer), the person reacts
much like a lab rat, with their brain chemicals going off and their
memory centers stimulated. Suddenly you have a pretty much helpless
person who, unless they are well prepared for the situation, is going
to consume the bad food, even if they are obese or simply know better.

The fact that fast food is physically addictive makes the comments of
Coca-Cola (purveyor of sugar + caffeine) on CNBC a bit disingenuous.
The spokesperson said that foods like Coke are OK because people can
simply "consume it in moderation." But anyone who has been around
little kids for even 5 minutes knows what a lie that is. If your
palate is spoiled by sugary foods, and you're used to your daily sugar
high, you don't want to consume these things in moderation. You want
to consume them endlessly. And if Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and all the
other fast food purveyors had their way, that is exactly what you
would do, with or without their token "guides to good nutrition." And
you do have a choice - you can choose sugary orange juice, or sugary
"energy drink," or any of many other kinds of sugar-loaded beverages
aside from the token few low-calorie versions.

Despite all of the above, I can't really blame Coca-Cola or any other
company for trying to make a profit. Profit is the engine of the
American economy. Without profit our standard of living drops to zero.
And I don't even blame them so much for the spin they put on the truth
("just consume it in moderation"). America is a free society, and
ideas as well as products compete in the marketplace. It is really up
to the consumer to find out the truth for themselves. The problem,
however, is that – speaking broadly – institutions that could
challenge the marketers are just not as good as marketing their
messages with tactics that are equally as good as Coca-Cola’s or
McDonald’s. There is no icon of the federal government or any
independent think-tank that matches the red Coca-Cola brand. And even
if there were, there is no well-designed website or savvy social media
campaign that informs me about findings like Kessler’s. Instead, I
stumbled upon Kessler’s book completely by accident. Of course I
already knew that water is better than soda, and that baked potatoes
were better than french fries. But nobody has made it cool to be
healthy.

I say, either the current fast food kings and queens are going to
start their own healthy eating brands (cannibalizing their current
customer bases by turning them off to bad foods), or someone is start
a company that makes healthy eating cool, or someone can start a
campaign like the anti-smoking commercials that makes fast food and
sugar drinks seem really disgusting.

Until that happens, until the memory banks on fast food are filled
with unappealing images and consumers’ minds are saturated with
objective information about what different kinds of foods do to their
physical and emotional functioning, salad and water fans will be in
the minority.

There is an ancient debate among marketers as to whether our job is to
fulfill demand or create it. To me it doesn’t really matter. If you
are selling a product that you know will hurt people over the short or
the long term, it is your job to either fix it so it’s harmless or
sell something else that will actually provide a benefit. In the long
term, you win anyway, by becoming a name that people not only know but
really can trust.

Posted via email from Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Over the past several years, with the explosion of freely available social media tools and the corresponding increase in the public’s use of these, I’ve become more and more consumed with a central challenge that social media presents to branding. Specifically, with these two disciplines we have two seemingly opposing rules of communication at work. Let’s put them in Ten Commandments form, since they are so important:

1. “Thou shalt communicate consistently.”

2. “Thou shalt communicate authentically (and increasingly, support authentic and transparent feedback to you from your customers).”

In the “olden” days (for me the “olden” days are roughly 2007, before I started actively studying and engaging in social media myself) simply obeying rule #1 was enough, and even that was tough, for two reasons.

--First, companies didn’t have a handle on all the touchpoints between themselves and the public that had to be controlled in order to create a consistent image. They understood that the ads and the press releases had to look the same, but they didn’t necessarily understand that the customer service reps had to make a similar impression as the ads; that the community outreach flyers couldn’t seem homemade; that internal employee newsletters played a part in what external people thought of the company; and so on.

--Second, companies didn’t understand that just because they said something, didn’t make it true in the eyes, ears, and hearts of their constituents. So for example if a crisis were to occur and they said, “we are blameless,” that did not necessarily end the public’s concerns over their behavior. Or, in a variation on this theme, they might struggle to get “key messages” worded right, but what they didn’t necessarily understand was that if the public didn’t believe the key messages in the first place, then all the wording in the world didn’t make a difference.

Beginning roughly after that, companies faced an additional imperative, and that was to engage in a new and alien world, full of weird beings, broadly known as “social media.” A universe of virtual elves sprang up to confront us in this new world, speaking in the language of “Blogger” and “Twitter” and “Yammer” and “YouTube” and “Friendfeed” and “Facebook” and “MySpace” and “LinkedIn” and “Reddit” and “Digg,” and that’s just to name a few. Forget about strategy, suddenly everybody was out there, hanging out and doing business in the equivalent of the coolest nightclub in the city, and if you didn’t go there or at least know how to get past the bouncer, you were a total relic and could be easily bypassed by your savvier competitors.

So in the beginning it was just about broadening the brand to an expression space in the world of social media. All fine and good, if you’re still in the world of Commandment #1, consistency. But increasingly, with the growth of social media came a complete revolution in the relationship between the brand and its audience. Whereas in the past the audience was happy if the brand could just be consistent in terms of explaining what it did, and of course had to deliver on its promises, now there was a new demand: that brands be so authentic, so good at what they did, that they could handle virtually uncensored self-expression with respect to who they were and what they did.

In other words, in a social media environment, for a brand to succeed it has to allow its customers and its employees to say whatever they want about the brand, knowing that those groups will ultimately tell the same story that the brand is telling about itself. That is a very, very high bar of performance for a brand to achieve and I would argue, almost unattainable. Yet it is exactly what people demand today. Anything less, to go back to focusing on image and consistency alone, leaves the brand at risk of falling into “propaganda” mode, where brand representatives are expected to robotically spew whatever the message of the moment is, even though the reality underneath may not match at all.

Let me say it again: Today, we live in an environment where branding remains as important as ever and social media is only getting more important. Therefore, not only do brands have to present a consistent image themselves, but they have to deliver on their promises so well that their stakeholders, without prompting and of their own free will, say the exact same things about the brand as the brand says about itself.

This – marrying your professional image with the public’s spontaneous impression of you - is the essence and the crux of developing a social media strategy that supports the brand, and conversely a brand that incorporates social media. It’s not about pushing out yet more messages that say the same things as your brochures. Rather, it’s about engaging the public in a conversation, building a relationship with them, promoting mutual trust between the brand and the stakeholder so that by the time the stakeholder opens his or her mouth in a blog post or a message board or a chat room or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or any other place, they are telling the brand story and even advocating for the brand more passionately than the brand can advocate for itself.

Am I saying that there is no room left for image-building? Of course not. People will always want to buy into a fantasy that they hold and that perhaps others share. Great brand-builders still know how to create new images virtually from scratch, and to generate a thirst for those images that is unparalleled. The problem, however, is in sustaining that image. It’s like blowing up a shiny red balloon: There is a part of you that wants to gaze at it, and another part of you that wants to pop it just because it’s really just a container of hot air inside. This impulse, to get to the truth of the balloon if you will, is more and more prevalent today, as leaders and celebrities fail to live up to the image of perfection they present. It’s almost like we try to tear them down before they can have the opportunity to disappoint us.

So the trick, I think, is to anticipate both the public’s hunger for image and their desire to tear down that image, and find ways to play with the tension – to surprise, and delight, and always be one step ahead of the public imagination. And that is just on a conceptual level. On a practical level, the task is to build an extremely savvy and sophisticated, fully integrated, branding and social media machine, one in which every single method of interaction both externally and internally, and every single decision, is subject to the demands of the brand. In an organization like this, the brand is based on a very simple, compelling, and broad essence that its people can support and that the public will grasp onto and buy into.

To get down to earth a bit, a perfect example of this approach at work is now-President Obama’s election campaign. The word “Change” was its brand, and it was completely effective, to the point where people still repeat it, over and over again, whether or not they agree with the President now. From a branding perspective, “Change” was simple, compelling, broadly applicable, and the public grasped onto it and bought into it completely – the right message at the right time. From a social media perspective, the communication that was coming out of the campaign was the same as the communication taking place among the public and flowing back to it. On the flowing-out side, not only did the candidate call for change, he had a history of trying to create change, and he personally, by virtue of his diverse background, represented the change the country sought. On the flowing-around and –in side, there was extensive peer-to-peer social networking, as well as YouTube and other social media expressions from the public to the candidate indicating that they understood the promise, believed the promise, and supported Mr. Obama’s ability to deliver on it. The Republican competition, with John McCain and “newcomer “political brand Sarah Palin, had plenty going for it as well, and Sarah Palin is clearly a strong brand in her own right, but they were up against such a powerful mix of branding and social media that they didn’t really stand a chance.

Some may claim that in today’s “age of transparency,” social media has superseded branding and the drive to present a unified, consistent image to the public. I totally disagree. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: The public, bombarded both by choice and crooks, wants to deal with organizations that have a good reputation and that will treat them well as a customer. (Can anybody say “Amazon.com?”) So when you build and maintain a strong brand, one that tells its story and makes its promise consistently, over and over again, to the point where the public knows you and knows what to expect from you, you are positioning yourself effectively for success. The challenge, though, which has always existed but which is heightened in a social media environment, is that the story has to be absolutely true and the promise has to mean what it says. And when something happens to mess up the narrative, you decide to change the ending, or you can’t keep a promise, you have to communicate about it – a lot – and even be open to inviting the public in to co-create the reality of the brand with you.

This, I think, is the new reality of successfully integrated branding and social media: It’s a world where you do take the time to craft an image, but you ground that image in the facts on the ground, and where the interplay and feedback between the two is frequent, fast and furious as marketing needs and reality both shift continually. There is no longer a monolithic image, but rather a dynamic reality that is constantly in play. It’s a world, in short, where Google – which exemplifies these qualities - is consistently a top brand for a reason.

In the end, with a great brand like that, you can’t really tell where the image ends and the truth begins—and you don’t even want to.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I wrote this comment in response to an article written by Marian Salzman, President, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, North America. (Transparency note: I worked for Marian a decade ago as VP and Editorial Director of the Intelligence Factory, she introduced me to branding, and I consider her a genius.)

It's called "How Should Marketers Use Social Media Now?", and it is aimed at marketers, not government folks implementing social media, of which I am one.

Nevertheless, I think the article is still of interest to us in the government community, not just to private sector marketing firms, because it provides some research-based insight into how people actually use social media. If the government is going to use social media to reach the public, then it is better to develop fact-based strategies for doing so rather than a shotgun, based-on-a-whim approach that may win big or fail miserably depending on mostly pure luck.

As far as my comments go, they are really aimed at anyone who is trying to represent a customer who has a message that needs to be transmitted through social media. In the private sector, that usually means a marketing company or consultant. But in government public affairs, the marketer is often inside the agency itself, since we often don't have money to spend on what is sometimes referred to as "Madison Avenue."

So, if your agency tasks you with creating a social media strategy, these are my personal thoughts on how you might do that effectively given an issue that I have identified - which is that when it comes to users of social media networks, there is an emotional conflict between wanting sponsored content to seem like "just part of our community," vs. wanting it to seem glitzy, over-the-top, branded, fancy, etc.

________________

Here is the comment:

I think the problem for marketers is that consumers want brands to deliver both "authenticity" and "big brand glitz" at the same time. We already know that no marketer or marketing strategy can be all things to all people, as Seth Godin and Al Ries explain really well. But what we don't know is how to reach people most effectively when they are acting based on contradictory drives, ambivalence, or even unconscious needs that they can't express out loud.

The CEO of Gallup, Jim Clifton, made this point well on 11/16 when he noted in a talk (introducing the findings of a Summer 2009 survey on citizen satisfaction with their interactions with the federal government) that 70% of pre-purchase behavior is emotional, not rational, and so agencies have to look for the emotional drivers behind satisfaction if they want to get their ratings to go up.

I was reminded yesterday that you should never raise a problem without at least trying to offer a solution, so here are some thoughts on what marketers can do about this.

1. Slow down

Marketers are always in a rush to get the work done, get their money, and get out. But despite its reputation for immediacy, social media is a "slow environment" where it takes time to get to know the culture, the characters, the etiquette, and so on. (This is sort of like the "slow food" movement, which opposes the McDonaldization of our eating habits and urges people to get back to family meals, home cooking, etc.)

2. Do your homework

In my view, what marketers don't understand when they try to sell social media is that it's not only about proving that they know all the new and ever-weirder names out there for social media applications (although they do need to do that). It's also about showing a depth of understanding as to who is on those sites and what they are getting out of them. If you know your social media community, you are better able to judge whether authenticity or glitz will be most effective. A great example is the Army recruiting page on MySpace. They obviously totally understand their target audience - every single item on that page, from the videos to the wallpaper, seems carefully chosen to appeal to young people who might be swayed to consider a military career.

3. Be upfront

We are living in the age of mistrust, there is no doubt about it. That is exactly why people turn to social media, because they trust their peers and unofficial sources of information more than they trust authority and official hierarchies and corporate-approved language. So when a marketer opens up a social media channel on behalf of a client, there should be clear disclaimers everywhere making clear that the source of the information is paid-for and professional. This is why I personally have a lot of trouble figuring out the best way to use Facebook, because it is inherently a personal networking site, and yet increasingly it is being coopted for marketing purposes. It's almost like there are no safe spaces from marketing anymore, which as a consumer I actually sort of resent.

4. Be humble

Traditionally, marketers have gained the confidence of their clients by acting like they know all the answers. After all, if you are not a marketer yourself, having a business objective assigned to you that involves selling a specific amount of X, to generate a specific amount of $ by a specific date, can be as scary as hell.

But we are living in different times now and marketers have to adjust.

First of all, the Internet, and more specifically Google, has made us all experts in everything. Any idiot can do a five second search on any subject and wind up at least a little bit literate so that they can walk into a meeting and talk about it effectively.

Second, with respect to social media, it is a pretty good likelihood that the prospective client has done some preliminary research on the marketer before any meetings with them even take place. So they will know if the company has a reputation for being good at social media or not.

Third, I specialize in social media on what a marketing company would call "the client side," (I work in public affairs, but inside a federal agency), and even I can't keep up with all the new tools out there. So I know that there are very few marketers who can plausibly present themselves as knowing everything. Based on my own reactions, I think clients are more inclined to trust someone who admits they don't know everything, but demonstrates that they learn quickly and can adapt to new technologies on the fly.

5. Do your research really well - get to know your customer!!!!

This has nothing to do with social media per se but is something that marketers tend to forget. It's all about knowing your customer, really knowing your customer, and your customer is not only the person who will buy the client's product but also the client themselves. Both the client and the end customer are driven by contradictory needs, but if you know each of them well - so what? Generally speaking, when you know somebody well, you are able to understand what drives their behavior, even when a stranger would say that it makes no sense. So you can't skip the step of getting to know not only the end purchaser, but also the client, with the brains and intuition of a human being and not in a superficial, let's-get-it-over-with way. (Again, the slow factor). This may mean charging more money for your time, but if you're worth it, the client will pay, because the alternative is a crappy job that gets them in trouble when it's time to show return on the marketing investment. (Of course, the marketer has to explain this well and be able to prove their worth, which might mean taking some losses initially until they can build a track record.)

6. Build your brand

I think it is easier for people to deal with a marketer in a social media space if the marketer is clearly identified as such and also has an established reputation for doing high-quality, respectful social media work on behalf of clients (read: brand). For example, Shel Holtz is known to be a total guru when it comes to all things relating to communication technology and social media. If I were to visit a Facebook page for, let's say, Kraft, and that page had a box on it that said, "this Facebook page was built and is maintained on behalf of Kraft by social media consultant Shel Holtz," I would be much more likely to a) trust the content on that page and b) be receptive to the fact that a third party marketer had built the page on behalf of the company, rather than, let's say, employees of the company building the page themselves (which to me is not a bad idea either, if they're not PR type employees, but that's besides the current point).


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

According to a new study (the "2009 National Leadership Index") released by Harvard's Kennedy School, 52% of Americans mistrust what leaders in the federal government say.

This suggests a serious problem, no?

For in order to lead effectively, you have to have the trust of the people you serve.

At the very least, when you say something they should believe you.

Maybe it's time for government leaders to start listening more, rather than focusing so much on what it is that they want to say.

Something to keep in mind when developing social media tools...ask the question of how the tool will facilitate citizen engagement, or at least a conversation, rather than just providing a new and shiny kind of microphone.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Federal Times covers today’s Gallup event announcing the results of a survey they did this summer on citizens’ perceptions of the federal government.

I was fortunate to be there today when Gallup released the important findings and hosted an equally vital discussion about them. It was a rare opportunity to hear directly from an impressive panel of thought leaders, including Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup; the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, Frank Newport (who was instantly recognizable from his presence on CNN), the president of the Partnership for Public Service, Max Stier; and Patricia McGinnis, a Georgetown professor who is also a White House advisor. The head of the Gallup Government Practice, Bernadine Karunaratne, led and moderated the event and was also very well-spoken.

It was also nice to be among other dedicated federal employees at this event. Their questions showed a great deal of genuine commitment and an obvious desire to improve how their agencies work. Americans should be proud that people like this are serving them every day.

Now, I’m going to complain just a little. Then I’ll offer some key takeaways and possible next steps for agencies who want to improve their standing with the public.

I. More transparency would have been nice

I was a bit disappointed by the lack of full transparency on the survey results that were publicly released. True, aggregate information was provided that allowed some comparison between one major agency and another. But in the current political climate, with a presidential directive telling federal agencies to become more transparent and right away, I would have expected more in terms of subcomponent agency data, even if it were only provided on a very general question. And I would have liked to see that data released on the Gallup website.

It’s not that Gallup is holding back the information – they offered to talk to subcomponents privately and for free about how survey respondents rated them in particular – but it was disappointing that we didn’t see more data at a “granular” level.

It’s not clear to me whether this is a marketing strategy to draw agencies into a potential client engagement through the use of a “teaser,” or whether there was some reluctance about releasing more from the survey due to the fear of potentially embarrassing (and thus losing) potential federal agency clients.

Maybe it’s asking too much for full transparency, especially since Gallup is not a government agency, but wouldn’t it be amazing if the public had access to a database of statistically rich survey information – from 42,000 citizens across the United States – comparing satisfaction with the federal government in many different ways? That would be an excellent reference point to stimulate public dialogue, to enrich academic products, to promote genuinely useful mashups and crowdsourcing about ways to improve government functioning, and overall to give the American taxpayer a sense of where people feel the public’s money is best being spent.

Perhaps the federal government could undertake this kind of transparency on its own, initiating a public satisfaction dashboard similar to the federal IT project spending dashboard, with both of these initiatives including information at the subcomponent level as well as the overall agency level. (Right now as far as I can see, the IT spending website is confined to the overall agency level.)

II. Well-meaning advice – but a little theoretical

I also would have liked to see more familiarity with government from the experts. It’s easy to preach from the outside, and everybody knows that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” but after that, nobody seemed to articulate exactly, specifically, what federal employees could do to improve their agencies’ standing with the public. Again, it’s not that the experts weren’t smart – they were, and their advice was sensible – but they didn’t seem to be informed enough about agency culture, and even the law, to provide truly actionable recommendations.

The most prominent example of this was when federal agencies were advised to market themselves better. While actually improving the quality of customer interactions was the primary recommendation, this one was also strongly emphasized.

Now, I have said repeatedly that I am a marketer by nature and by trade, and I know that there are serious operational reasons for marketing an agency’s mission and key initiatives. For example, if you are instituting a new regulation, and nobody knows about it, the compliance rate will be unduly low, causing the agency to pay more to ensure that people follow the rule.

However, the experts were not really talking from an operational perspective. Rather, they seemed to be operating from a private-sector model in which the public is the customer and it is the agency’s job to “sell” them on the merits of the “brand.” The one exception, and it’s a good point, was Pat McGinnis’s argument that public confidence in agencies (a.k.a. a strong brand) provides the “political capital” that government needs to make tough but necessary decisions.

Whatever, but if the experts were pushing marketing, they should have talked about the fact that there are real and also perceived legal issues surrounding “propagandizing” that can easily get in the way of agencies making their missions clearer to the public. (The one exception, of course, being recruiting, which everyone acknowledges is a legitimate reason for marketing one’s agency.)

For those who are not familiar with the “domestic propaganda” issue, a Congressional Research Service report from 2005 explains the issue well and is worth skimming through if you have the time. Basically, what it says is that agencies aren’t supposed to use taxpayer money to promote themselves, but that nobody has really enforced that prohibition except in extreme cases.

Specifically, the report notes that that although “‘appropriations law ‘publicity and propaganda’ clauses restrict the use of funds for puffery of an agency, purely partisan communications, and covert propaganda,’” it is also true that “no federal entity is required to monitor agency compliance with the publicity and propaganda statutes” and “the terms “publicity,” “propaganda,” and “publicity expert” have been interpreted to forbid a very limited number of activities.”

III. Key takeaways

Overall, despite whatever flaws there were in the presentation of the research, the Gallup survey is extremely important. This is primarily because it demonstrates a shift in terms of how government is viewing the public. The old-fashioned way, and I know this is an extreme characterization, is to see citizens as sort of hapless victims, who sort of have to take whatever the government dishes out, because the government is a monopoly and they have no alternative provider to its services. The new paradigm is to see the public as a set of customers who have the power to get rid of you if you do a bad job. The fact that they even did this survey means that they see a potential market in agencies whose way of thinking is changing, and that is great.

Secondly, the survey demonstrates the power of measurement to wake organizations up and generate significant behavioral change. To that end, Gallup’s Karunaratne talked about asking “smart questions,” the kind you need to drive change, not things that are just “nice to ask.” And Newport talked about using a number, any number (even one that generates “pushback”) as a yardstick to get a discussion going about what measures of performance matter and how well or badly the agency is doing on those. I think that as time goes on and as transparency becomes more and more the norm, we are going to see reams of data made public on government performance, on every imaginable measure, and that data is going to be used to drive tangible improvement. So it is all about the numbers, and transparency combined with numbers is probably the way to go if you’re looking at a way to start the change process.

Finally, when it comes to marketing, I go back again to Pat McGinnis’s comments, when she talked about sharing information about agencies’ performance on the things they are measuring. In today’s environment, where people don’t trust “spin” of any kind, that is the very best kind of marketing – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is what people want to hear, it is news, and the more agencies share it, the more the public trusts them and wants to hear from and interact with them.

From my perspective, I think the real issue here is transparency and the inevitable pain that goes along with it, at least at the beginning. As somebody pointed out to me today, it’s like that TV show “The Biggest Loser.” One wonders who has the courage to get up in front of so many people and actually weigh themselves every week. And yet they do, and that’s what people find fascinating, and it’s also what engenders change and growth. Once an agency or any organization gets used to the fact that they have to get up on the scale and get measured, in front of their constituents, they are well on the way to realizing the vision that the President has for all of government to be fully accountable for the way it stewards the public trust – and the funds that go along with them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Writing for the Social Computing Journal, Steve Radick, offers "Twenty Theses for Government 2.0, Cluetrain Style"

Here are my favorites:

1. Every agency can use social media - no exception."Your Government agency/organization/group/branch/division is not unique. You do not work in a place that just can't just use social media because your data is too sensitive. You do not work in an environment where social media will never work. Your challenges, while unique to you, are not unique to the government."

2. Expect to confront skeptics, careerists, and other difficult people."You will work with skeptics and other people who want to see social media fail because the transparency and authenticity will expose their weaknesses (and) you will work with people who want to get involved with social media for all the wrong reasons...These people will be more dangerous to your efforts than the biggest skeptic."

3. Look inside the organization for expertise first."Before going out and hiring any social media "consultants," assume that there is already someone within your organization who is actively using social media and who is very passionate about it. Find them, use them, engage them."

4. Expect to make mistakes and shift the focus toward managing them. "Stop trying to create safeguards to eliminate the possibility of mistakes and instead concentrate on how to deal with them when they are made."

5. Stop glossing over concerns about information security. "Information security is a very real and valid concern. Do NOT take this lightly."

6. Fight the impulse to be territorial about it or to make it "somebody else's problem.""Stop trying to pidgeon-hole (social media) into one team or department."

7. Don't let social media policy be framed by those who would put employees down. "Today's employees will probably spend five minutes during the workday talking to their friends on Facebook or watching the latest YouTube video. Today's employees will also probably spend an hour at 10:00 at night answering emails or responding to a work-related blog post. Assume that your employees are good people who want to do the right thing and who take pride in their work."

8. Give people the tools to communicate, then get out of the way."Agency Secretaries and Department Heads are big boys and girls. They should be able to have direct conversations with their workforce without having to jump through hoops to do so."

9. Don't fall into groupthink when it comes to social media - encourage productive debate. "It's ok to have debates, arguments, and disagreements about the best way to go about achieving "Government 2.0." Diverse perspectives, opinions, and beliefs should be embraced and talked about openly."

10. Don't think that simply tolerating negative feedback is enough."It's not enough to just allow negative feedback on your blog or website, you also have to do something about it. This might mean engaging in a conversation about why person X feels this way or (gasp!) making a change to an outdated policy. Don't just listen to what the public has to say, you have to also care about it too."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I am a huge fan of Starbucks. Good Starbucks, bad Starbucks, Starbucks from the grocery store, Starbucks mugs, Starbucks ice cream. Even the New York Times reads better at Starbucks. It’s not just that I like the coffee – honestly, Panera’s is better and Trader Joe’s tastes about the same – but the fact that the company is in many ways synonymous with the term “branding.” In fact, I can’t even think of the term without thinking of that company.

(What the heck does this post have to do with government? Nothing, except that a lot of us stand in line every day first thing for about ten minutes, just so we can tote a hot steaming “Venti” cup of this distinctively branded brew to the office, just so we can start our high-pressure days incredibly hyped on caffeine.)

It is because I am such a fan of this brand that I am going to take them to task for what is a very stupid, I believe brand-destroying mistake. And that is the introduction of the very opposite of what their brand stands for – instant coffee, which they call Via.

This isn’t the first time I’ve given Starbucks brand advice from the perspective of an interested outsider who happens to also be a branding fiend. Two years ago, after Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz rightly wrote that the brand was in danger of becoming a commodity, I suggested they take the bold step of reinventing themselves under a new name. This would have represented an incredible risk – investing enormous goodwill (read money, brand equity) from a known brand at its peak to an unknown entity with no track record. But I believed strongly that the new brand would be just as popular and would benefit infinitely from the association with its popular but tragically deceased predecessor. Not to mention that by killing the brand while it was still alive, there would have been tons of money to make from the memorabilia.

At the time, my idea sounded all-out crazy to some. Blogger John Moore called it “ill-advised, absurd, inconceivable, and just too audacious to do.”

Well, you know what? The jury is still out on this instant coffee idea, but I am betting that it’s a bit fat belly flop into the Olympic pool, meant to milk every last bit out of the brand before it goes kaput.

After all, who on earth, after inventing the sacred space of a retail cathedral dedicated to an amazing experience drinking a cup of fresh-brewed, specially crafted coffee, would reduce all of it to a tiny $1 flavoring packet that anyone can dump into a Styrofoam cup of hot water?

I don’t care what they call that packet or how great the packaging or the name is. I literally feel like I am watching the brand self-destruct.

And no, it doesn’t matter if the taste is just as good as regular, despite the TV commercials promoting the taste test. Does it matter if Pepsi tastes better than Coke? Piece by piece, Starbucks has broken every single one of its brand promises. And you wait and see - McDonald’s with its “Premium Roast,” going for the same $1, is going to clobber them in the end.

You see, what Starbucks doesn’t seem to get is that you can’t extend the brand promise infinitely. At some point, the rubber brand will break. The promise is an experience that is ultimately in the consumer’s mind. And when you keep on stretching the illusion, at some point the consumer just doesn’t care anymore.

Further, what they also don’t seem to understand is that instant coffee is itself a kind of brand. It represents dusty, bad-quality, last-resort, cheap junk. The kind you find with sugar packets, a big jug of powdered creamer, and a bad coffeemaker in the back of an office “kitchen” area. It is not at all the kind of thing that Starbucks should ever be associated with.

Customers have forgiven Starbucks for quite a bit when it comes to stretching the brand, if you ask me. I don’t know the chronology, but some of the primary milestones were

--Selling the coffee packaged in grocery stores
--Setting up stands (or letting others do so) in airports, hotels, and now grocery stores too – sometimes with only a sign stating “We proudly brew Starbucks” to substitute for an actual retail environment
--Branching out into innumerable products aside from coffee and coffee-related items -- ice cream, chocolate, breath mints, etc.
--Print advertising and TV commercials, which detracted from its “buzz”quality

You can tell that someone is trying to milk the brand with Via because they can’t even get the story straight. For at first Schultz said it was about increasing “affordability” (Huh? The brand is supposed to be a bit pricey) and now the ads in the stores say it’s about portability – e.g., “you can take it with you wherever you go.” (Technically the product was launched in February but it didn’t go national until last week.)

I know that I work in government, and private sector is all about the bottom line, and that Starbucks is just another business. But I do believe, unlike some others who have written negatively about branding as a capitalist tool (e.g. Naomi Klein’s book and Obsessive Branding Disorder), that branding can be a force for something higher, something that has little to do with money in the end. Starbucks is supposed to be that kind of brand, in a class with Amazon, Apple, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, and to a lesser extent Nike and Coca-Cola. The people who start and maintain these brands have a responsibility to the community that supports them, a duty not to tear the illusion down without some kind of fair warning. And Starbucks has crossed the line with the introduction of instant coffee.

If anybody from Starbucks is listening -- it’s not too late. Admit that Via was a mistake, a greedy mistake, bury Starbucks respectfully now, and launch a new replacement brand while there is still time. If you need a name quickly, I have two suggestions. One is “Schultz,” after the founder of the company, and the other is “1971,” the year the original company was founded. Both represent the spirit of purity, back to basics, the heart that made the original Starbucks special.

Good luck.

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All views my own. Please feel free to repost.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I was in the airport, coming down the escalator, when I heard a loud THWACK.

Even if it was nothing, I couldn’t just ignore the sound. I am one of those people for whom the prospect of another 9/11 is more likelihood than remote possibility. So I scanned the area, slightly worried.

Fortunately, it didn’t indicate anything dangerous – no terrorist attack here. But the scene was still disturbing: A family meltdown, loud and carried on right in front of an entire Transportation Security Administration security line.

There, just beyond the escalator, on the right, was the mother. She was pulling the handles of a shopping bag apart and peering inside, her face gnarled in fury. In front of her was the daughter, looking up at mom with a combination of shock and fear on her face. I could see the child’s mouth forming a little O, and hear her piercing screams: “Mommy, Mommy, why did you do that?”

What I (and the rest of the TSA line apparently, judging from the stares and the disapproving comments) had heard was the daughter getting smacked for breaking something valuable.

I tried not to be obvious, but was transfixed by the emotional train wreck. For about a minute, the mother seemed not to hear or even for that matter see her child at all. And then, seemingly out of the blue, she yelled, “Shut up. And be QUIET!!!” Not noticing that she had said the same thing twice. Oblivious to what her child was feeling.

Clearly, public disagreements and embarrassing scenes happen all the time in our society. So what is it that so affected me about this one? On reflection, it’s the child’s utter helplessness, and silencing, in the face of her legitimate need to be heard. It’s the staple of the daytime talkshows: children who seem to be acting “badly,” until we learn that there is some legitimate cause for their pain that would not have been discovered otherwise.

Another story now – but the same theme: The inability of an individual to speak a negative reality – with devastatingly costly consequences. Summary reposted below from Tom Peters’ blog; original article from The New York Times:

“Quote from an ex-Senior Vice President, Ken Linton, who evaluated mortgage quality as a prelude to securitization, and smelled a rat early—or at least a rotting mouse: ‘You are not paid to rock the boat.”

If you have a moment, read the story in full. The worst thing about this, to my mind, wasn’t that Linton was obstructed from speaking. Rather, reports The Times, he had internalized a culture of strict compliance with the status quo:

“He recalls vividly the days in early 2007 at Lehman when his financial models began to throw up more warnings showing delinquencies and defaults, and he remembers colleagues on his desk raising questions about loan quality. But he said the firm’s ranking as the top loan originator on Wall Street, not to mention the pressures put on the desk by Lehman’s growth-obsessed leadership, made it difficult for even the most senior executives to raise questions, even a senior vice president like Mr. Linton.”

Think about that. Linton saw it coming and could even have stopped it before it hit – or perhaps might have minimized some of the damage. But he was so well-indoctrinated as to the value of compliance that he kept his mouth shut. And as a result, our financial losses have now run into the trillions. (Too many sources, with varying numbers, to cite, but there seems to be general consensus on the “trillions” part.)

Going back to present day now, to the experience of children—what do they really learn at school? Let’s not even count daycare or graduate education, just the standard first through twelfth grade. What is the subliminal message of a dozen formative years spent mostly sitting, listening, memorizing, and “spitting back,” all aimed at winning a series of numerical scores?

Sure, some individuality is thrown in. After all, they have to write essays, right? Well, yes, providing that their grammar is good enough, the margins are correct, they follow the style guide for footnotes and the bibliography, and that they write enough words (a requirement I’ve never understood given the tendency of writers to say much too much without ever really saying anything at all).

And it is true that good colleges prefer applicants who have done something besides achieve top grades—although mostly that’s because so many kids get top grades that it’s hard to tell them apart unless you use extracurricular activities as a yardstick.

Anyway, by and large, it is the obedient child, the child who embraces the status quo, who is considered baseline “good enough.”

You don’t have to be Dr. Phil to look at all this and see that no matter how pluralistic the United States is today – and we are blessed with an amazingly diverse society, no question – we still have a long way to go in terms of embracing nonconformists – people whose thoughts or feelings challenge the status quo.

I’m not talking about uncritically accepting illness or criminal deviance as normal, nor am I suggesting that anarchy reign. Rather, I am suggesting that we can do much more to foster a society whose major institutions proactively reward individuality, creativity, and innovation. In this kind of society, children and adults are empowered at every level and in every setting to speak up, get engaged, and contribute their thoughts and ideas to the goings on around them.

Isn’t this kind of independence the spirit on which the United States itself was founded?

Many people dream of a perfect world – one without war, disease, hunger, or any other kind of human suffering. I know I do. With the help of G-d, and fueled by determination and the courage to tolerate risk and change, I believe that we can empower ourselves, and our national community, to create it. The only thing standing in the way is our will. Let us encourage – not just tolerate – diversity, creativity, and out-of-the box thinking. Not for their own sake, but for the sake of promoting maximum health in ourselves, our relationships, our social institutions, and our planet.

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All opinions my own. Please feel free to repost.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,” said Dr. Seuss, “nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

I agree with that. But as we all know, caring is not enough. You need discipline, dedication, and relentless focus too. And unfortunately, few organizations seem to have these qualities—especially the last one.

The link between focus and success is so obvious and well-established that it seems silly to get up on a soapbox about it. It’s as plain as the nose on your face - if you don’t define success, and you don’t do everything you can to achieve it, then you will by definition fail. Or more accurately, flail. Like a duck, flapping its wings and quacking, and going nowhere.

In an organizational context, a lack of focus goes together with a lack of shared performance measures that define success. In fact, there is a de-emphasis on metrics altogether; nobody likes to talk about that.

In the place of measures is anecdotal evidence, informal feedback, and an inward focus. You hear a lot of feel-good stories and not so much in the way of painful self-examination. Personality cults, power plays, and cultural dysfunction become the norm, and there is no officially sanctioned way to air and clear the tough issues.

In short, in the unfocused organization, the definition of reality is “so-and-so said so,” rather than something objective, externally measurable, that the average person can understand.

Why do so many organizations tend to be unfocused? Isn’t that what leaders get paid to take care of?

Never having been a CEO or the head of an agency, I can’t speak from a view of the executive suite. But I can speak from the perspective of a marketer and public affairs specialist who is accustomed to watching the headlines play out. And what I see is that leaders are frequently caught between the demands of their diverse stakeholder groups, each with their own priorities and goals, and sometimes even demanding completely opposite things of the organization as a result. It is impossible to satisfy everyone — no sooner do you make a move in one direction than the people on the opposite side start screaming.

Consequently, it almost becomes logical to refuse to focus at all. Instead, the leader might choose to maintain a stance in which the organization does just enough of everything it is supposed to do, but not so much that anyone will protest. It’s the choice to be mediocre, a choice that virtually guarantees that no one constituency is ever alienated too much.

This may not even be a conscious choice – just a pattern that organizations fall into, and that trickles painfully down until being average becomes a standard of good performance.

In my opinion, this is particularly an issue in government as versus the private sector. In a corporation, earning more than you spend, generally speaking, equals success (I know I am oversimplifying things for the sake of making a point). In government it is not about the money. Rather it is about performing the mission, albeit efficiently in terms of how the money is used, to serve the public. But often, there are many different voices that go into defining what “performing the mission” means.

So how does government, and in particular how do government leaders, overcome the curse of mediocrity and achieve the kind of focus which can exponentially enhance productivity toward a defined set of goals? That’s the million, billion, trillion-dollar question.

I have the answer in four letters.

G – U – T – S.

That’s right, guts.

It takes guts to be a real leader. Not just a leader in name only, but a leader who fulfills a mandate for action. Rule #1 of marketing is that you cannot sell all things to all people – no matter how good your product is. So if you are a leader, somebody is going to take issue with your programs, your priorities, and even with you. And they will oppose you – subtly or obviously, nicely or threateningly, with crowds or in one on one meetings - in an effort to bring you down.

Assuming you can handle the opposition, you also have your own inner fears, your demons, to deal with. Those will also try to bring you down.

Gutsy leaders can handle them too.

When you have a gutsy leader, you know it right away from the quality of their communication. They hire or train writers to issue statements that are clear, simple, to the point, that have a meaning. Statements that are not at all vague or complex or full of acronyms and jargon. Statements whose sentences are not a paragraph long. Statements that the reader reads and walks away from having actually understood what was said, whether they like it or not.

Gutsy leaders say, here’s what I’m going to do about things. Take it or leave it. And they keep that focus even at the cost of risking their own livelihoods, because they know that leadership is not a popularity contest but an effort aimed at achieving real results. They communicate so strongly not because they are slick Madison Avenue types who want to sell a piece of propaganda, and not because they are egotistical about how great they are for coming up with a particular plan, but because they are passionately dedicated to what they are doing. Even if they are wrong in the end – and it is human to be wrong - they are as committed as warriors to what they are doing.

And that is why, when a gutsy leader speaks, people listen. Even if they’ve never taken a writing class in their life.

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Notes: All views my own and not those of my agency. Please feel free to repost.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A lot of things went through my mind this week when I learned that the President had been taped calling singer Kanye West what kids would call “a bad name.”

The first thing I thought was – this seems like just another Internet hoax.

Then I thought, well maybe he said it, but maybe he said it in private and somebody leaked the comment to the press.

After that I found myself very curious about what exactly had happened. So I went to the website where the audio was posted and listened for myself. Sure enough, there it was, the President on tape, saying that Mr. West was out of line for praising the singer Beyonce, who did not win a video music award, while simultaneously presenting it to the winner, Taylor Swift. And then I heard him actually use the “J” word. (You can look it up if you don’t know what that is.)

Now, that tape could have been doctored. But it was true. As it turns out, the President had indeed said the word, but that part of the interview was not supposed to be on the record. Yet a reporter Tweeted it anyway, and it was gone into the frantically buzzing world of social media and soon the mainstream news. An apology from the news organization that let the Tweet out quickly ensued.

I took this all in and reflected on what had happened and what it all meant from a communications point of view. Judging from the prominence of the headlines this got, it was a big deal to people. Undoubtedly reactions varied. I personally was taken aback. But you know what? I wasn’t offended. To be honest, it was a moment of candor. And moments of candor from our leaders, perhaps because they must always be so careful what they say, are refreshing.

I’m not insinuating here that the President is less than candid. Or that he, or anyone else should make it a habit to use that kind of language in an interview. What I am saying is that from where I sit, the “J” word was an appropriate reaction given that the nation was so shocked and offended by what Mr. West did. And Mr. West himself knew it – so much so that he felt compelled to apologize to Ms. Swift not only once but several times and in public.

In that moment, with that word, the President showed humanity, honesty, empathy for Ms. Swift, and his choice of words made him “one of us” rather than “one of them”. The President could have said, “I believe that Mr. West’s words were inappropriate,” but you know what? There really is no other word that so precisely covers such rude behavior.

As the President - more than anyone, I think - knows, we are living in a time of tremendous turmoil and often ugliness, and this awards show was a chance to escape from it for just a few minutes. A national community was taking part in that show. And the hurtful comment just tore down the veil of fantasy and put us right back into an ugly place. Not to mention inflicting embarrassment on Ms. Swift on what should have been one of the happiest moments of her life.

What does this mean for government communicators advising senior leadership? Should we tell them to use slang, or curse? Of course not; that idea is just plain silly. Is every issue that simple, that a leader can just spit out a simple reaction in a few words that really explains the issue, where he or she stands, and why? Also, far from realistic. But this incident does point to the constant need to come up with strategies for leaders that will help them achieve the objective of speaking to their constituents in a way that helps them genuinely achieve their communication goals.

No matter how complicated the subject at hand, no matter how complex and multifaceted the issues are, no matter how technical the content or how sensitive it is, there is no point in communicating unless the audience actually gets the point.

To do anything else – to obfuscate the content in any way – not only confuses the audience and leads them to go to other sources of information, but it detracts from the relationship of trust that the leader seeks to build with their audience.

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Please feel free to repost.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

As someone who has watched so many public figures and respected organizations fall and fail after years and years of lying, I don’t trust official statements anymore. It’s a pretty sad thing and from what I can see on the Internet, it’s also a pretty common one.

At the same time, I have to confess that I consider myself a marketer. More specifically, I am a public affairs specialist working for the government, and in that capacity I have always advocated reaching out to the public in a way that is exciting, engaging, and that generates understanding, awareness of, and support for the mission. If we don’t do these things, the public will not know what to do when they encounter us, they will believe the falsehoods that are spread about us, and they will turn to alternative, less reliable sources of information to find out what they need to know about what we do.

So, unless G-d likes to play cosmic jokes, why does such a cynical person walk around in a spokesperson’s shoes?

I do believe that all occurrences in life have a purpose, and that every person has a unique mission in life that they are put on earth to carry out. And right now, I think my particular one is to help the government understand and respond effectively to a public that is cynical and even angry. Whatever your political leanings, you need look no farther than the raging town halls over health care reform this summer to see it. People on all sides of the spectrum are feeling completely fed up and they are looking to their leaders in Washington to “fix it” or get out of the way.

This leaves the government public affairs specialist needing to understand a few important things.

First, we no longer control the conversation, if we ever did at all. It is the public that is in control, and they are mostly informed by the media, the alternative/social media, and each other. They were talking to each other long before there were blogs and Tweets and social networking pages. They are predisposed to distrust us. And so we have to stop, immediately, stop, assuming that they will seek out our words, believe what we have to say, and follow along without question. More likely, they will find out our important announcements from a news story or something posted in a place that they happen to visit online. If we are lucky they will follow a link back to our website and we will have ONE CHANCE to get the message right. And if we talk in wooden, bureaucratic, overly complex, off putting government speak we will turn them away and convince them yet again that we are not a good source of information.

Second, our customer is the public. It is not senior leadership within the agency, it is not the operational offices within the agency, and it is not anybody else. We are holding the public’s money and it is our job to tell them what we did with it, with no spin or editorializing, in plain English, just the facts. This doesn’t stop us from marketing our existence and mission – otherwise we couldn’t even reach our customer – but we have to make a commitment to respond to the public’s concerns in a timely, comprehensive way. And a good public affairs specialist will be able to explain this to senior leadership within the agency, because it is ultimately our leaders who set direction for the offices as well as public affairs to follow. The demand for information comes from the customer, but the message to provide the information comes from the top. Everybody else follows in line when that instruction comes down.

Third, as much as possible, the public does not want to hear from public affairs specialists. The public wants to hear from employees within the organization who are extremely close to the subject matter at hand. This does not mean that employees should simply be released to blab about everything without training, but it does mean that the “face” of an agency is its frontline staff. Anybody else is seen as a distraction and a front person, and that detracts from an agency’s credibility.

Fourth, and finally, the new reality of marketing and public affairs alike is that you must be willing to make yourself look bad in order to look good. You cannot possibly be perfect, but that doesn’t mean you’re awful either. Just tell it like it is, objectively, and rationally, and your customers will trust you and remain loyal even in times of crisis – which are inevitable even in the best run agencies.

So: Recognize that the agency is just another participant in a conversation about them, talk about what the public wants to hear, tell the truth to the maximum extent possible (without revealing confidential information), tell it through an employee if possible, and tell it in plain English. And get leadership to support all this. That’s the new order of public affairs for a cynical public. I think people really do want to believe in government again. We just have to give them a reason.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

If you are a federal government communicator, chances are you have either participated in or witnessed a conversation inside government walls that goes something like this:

Program Manager: OK everyone, we're here to talk about Initiative X. We really want to get the word out about it. Everyone needs to know how important Initiative X is.

Communicator: That sounds exciting! There are lots of things we can do to get your message out.

Program Manager: Can you give me some examples?

Communicator: We can create a brochure, a web story, an article in the employee newsletter, posters, things like that.

Program Manager: That's all fine, but what can we do to really stand out?

Communicator: Well if you really want to get “out there,” we can do a social media campaign, blogs, Tweets, maybe even a Facebook page if the lawyers will approve...we can go out on the message boards and talk to people, really get to citizens where they live.

Program Manager: Hmmm. I don't know. A blog? That sounds undignified.

Communicator: If you want to stand out from the crowd, it's a communication best practice nowadays.

Program Manager: Let me think about it. We are the government, after all. We are not supposed to communicate like that. Let's stick with something more traditional.

I wish I could say that this conversation is an aberration. But I would be less than truthful if I said that. Unfortunately, the belief that government communication ought to be “dignified” has led to a horrendous tendency to make it as complex, long-winded, self-serving, and full of jargon as possible.

I am tempted to give examples why bother highlighting any one agency? Plus if you are a communicator in government I don't think you need any anyway.

What would happen if government communications were routinely, consistently, and without fail conducted in simple, direct, plain English?

And even crossed the line into occasional humor, dry wit, sarcasm, or dare I say cuteness?

What if government communications acknowledged public criticism directly?

What if we even admitted that we make mistakes at times?

What if we could say things like:

“The rules are soon going to change and if you don't listen, you will be fined a penalty.”

“We had a lot of fun writing this regulation because it's going to make our job a heck of a lot easier.”

“We know people really dislike this policy, but we're not going to change it, because without it we can't do our job.”

“Nobody felt like taking a 2-hour drive to do the emergency planning exercise, but it was worth it because we learned a lot.”

“We admit that the supervisor did a stupid thing by telling the employee to do X, but it's not the most heinous crime in the world. Plus, although we can't tell you exactly what we do in cases like this, the supervisor is being disciplined for it.”

“We invite you to send us a video with suggestions about how to improve our agency. Suitable for family viewing please.”

In other words, what if government communications actually became real, fun, human? And we decided to speak in a way that the public can actually hear us?

Some people say that we'll lose our dignity.

I say that we'll finally overcome our reputation for being lesser folk than our counterparts in private industry. We'll stop looking like out-of-touch buffoons and gain the respect of the public which understands that speaking in real language is actually a lot more intelligent and dignified than trying to hide behind a wall of opacity. And right now that wall is so thick that the good efforts of our dedicated public servants are lost because the public perceives that they don't want to talk openly about what they are doing.

Silence is not the answer. Jargon is not the answer. Long sentences and self promotion are not the answer. Let's stop talking to ourselves in a haze of groupthink and fear and start having real conversations about who the customer is (the public) what they want and need to hear (the truth) and how we need to say it so that they really get the message (any method of communication that works).

This isn't a social media issue. It's a fundamental communication issue. It's just that blogs and Tweets and Facebook and the like have ripped the lid off decades of complacency and even arrogance. We might get hit for making some mistakes, but we're going to get hit anyway because mistakes have a way of coming out regardless. The public will support us if we do our best for them. Nobody has patience for the old way of doing things anymore, and we're going to have to change anyway. Might as well do it now as later – all it takes is the guts to try.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Everybody is fearful of losing their good image. This includes government agencies, politicians, businesses large and small, religious leaders, educators, and even individuals who have nothing to to sell or to lose. It is simply human nature that we all want to look good before our family, friends, stakeholders, customers, and so on.

Not only are people concerned about their own reputations, but they spend a fair amount of time looking into the reputations of the people they know and work with, the businesses they buy from, and the candidates they choose.

I don't know about other people, but personally, when I want to find out more about someone or something, the first place I head to is Google. I Google the name on the web, in the news, on the blogs, basically everywhere. And if I find too many negative stories, actually if I even find one negative mention, I start to get suspicious.

In fact, gauging other people's reputations is standard practice both online and in the real world. Before you buy a book on Amazon, you read the reviews and ratings. Before the federal government will hire you for many jobs, they do a “background investigation.” Even before people start dating, very often they will ask other people who know their prospective partner about what type of person he or she is really like.

And yet here is a fact that is absolutely stunning to me. The very same people who won't spend $9.99 on a cheap coffeepot without checking Consumer Reports - who have to check 25 movie reviews before they'll shell anything out for a ticket - who ask their best friends if they've tried a particular dish in the restaurant before they'll order it – these very same people, who are habitual reputation checkers of others, cannot seem to understand that they are continually being checked on by other people.

And furthermore, they can't understand that these reputation-checkers do exactly what they themselves do – they go shopping for the truth.

In other words, to put this in a government context, the public is not taking their cue from our highly crafted press releases, which are part of a set of approved materials that also contain talking points vetted by a cast of thousands.

Moreover, they're not waiting until we're ready to talk, or to issue a statement or a press release, until they form an opinion about us.

Instead, the public is going online right now. They are looking at Google News and Yahoo and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and CNN and whatever other source of information they and their friends deem trust worthy, including Twitter and Facebook. And the places they are looking to make their money by being first to report, first to explain, and the best at creating a social networking space where people can set the record straight for one another.

The public is not just going to general-interest sites either. They're going to any one of about a zillion sites, be them news or blogs, or some combination of the two, that specialize in exactly the subject they are interested in. In fact they don't even have to go to the sites anymore – the news comes to them via RSS.

Plus there is the unending steady stream of Tweets when something of importance happens. And the videos that people drop into YouTube on a dime, even if it's just a homemade video of them speaking to the camera, when the spirit moves them to talk.

All of this is happening, swirling around the consumer of news and information, and that person is surrounded by more choices than they know what to do with. From the minute they know how to use a computer, when they try to find what they are looking for in terms of an answer, a decision, a choice, or a guideline, they are shopping for the truth from a variety of sources.
This is just common sense.

Yet inside the agency, the corporation, the small business, whatever, there is some kind of communication virus afoot. And it seems to infect almost everyone who sets foot in the door, not only the clients or customers or operational offices but the communicators themselves. Those who are infected never seem to know it, but you can tell who they are. They say things that sound like:

“Stay on message.”
“Nobody is reading that blog.”
“That story is dead.”
“If we don't talk about it, it will blow over.”
“Why should we tell others bad things about ourselves?”
“The lawyers will never approve that.”
“Nobody will respect us if we speak in such common language.”
“I want that employee who (started the blog, created the Facebook group, etc.) disciplined.”
And so on.

In the infected person's mind, the following things are true:

1. The public is waiting to hear from them before they make up their mind
2. The public is not concerned about anything until the organization says something in public
3. If the media says something on Tuesday, the public has forgotten by Wednesday
4. If something is in a blog that “nobody respects,” nobody is reading it
5. If the organization makes something understandable, then it must be distorted, because real information is always very complicated
6. People who criticize the organization are the organization's enemies
7. The public will wade through whatever information the organization provides, no matter how complicated, convoluted, complex, and just plain impossible to understand it is.

I've had many conversations about how to cure this syndrome. But invariably I find that people fall into one of two camps: either they get it or they don't.

From a federal agency point of view, in an administration that is promoting full transparency, I don't think we can rely on the “infected” curing themselves any more. It's not a problem that is going to be solved by giving them social media tools – blogs and Tweets can be just as lopsided and self-promotional as press releases. Tweets do not transparency make.

And it's not a problem that is going to be solved by “confronting” the infected person or group with what critics are saying (unless it's on the front page of a major newspaper): Once you're inside the organization, inside the walls, there are just too many forces working together to stop someone from seeing and communicating what's going on in a timely, clear, objective, readable, and user-friendly way – the way the public wants.

If the Administration wants to ensure that federal agencies are fully transparent, I suggest that the government begin with the premise that the public is extremely sophisticated about seeking out information and is doing nothing less than shopping for the truth. We need to get away from the paradigm that says, “we are a monopoly and they have no choice but to listen,” and move toward the paradigm that says, “we are in essence selling a product/service and they have the choice to either buy what we're selling or demand an alternative.”

The truth of the matter is, we can't afford the luxury of acting like a monopoly. In today's world everybody, including the government, is a marketer. And while in the past marketers may have succeeded by saying their products were perfect, today the public won't support anyone who gives them less than the absolute truth.

We need to change and change quickly, recognizing that the public is shopping around for information, that they won't trust us unless we give them the whole story in a way that they can understand and appreciate, and that we ultimately will find our operational effectiveness stymied if we have lost even a fraction of our credibility.

The President took a huge step in this direction with the Open Government Directive of January 2009. It is great. But now, I suggest, is the time to implement it – using technology and every other tool at our disposal to increase the effectiveness of communication offices in federal agencies.

It's a different world out there today than it was ten, twenty, thirty years ago or more. And it will be even more different tomorrow. We can't afford to walk around with a communication virus. Our savvy customers, wireless-equipped Netbooks and iPhones and other smart gadgets in hand, are shopping for the truth. And they should be able to get what they are looking for - from us.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

  1. We take for granted that people can make personal phone calls and send personal emails at work, so why is social media any different?
  2. If we try to block certain sites we're basically saying to our employees, "I don't trust you." A very disheartening and disengaging message - bad for morale.
  3. If employees are engaged in their work they won't abuse Facebook. If they're abusing Facebook then there is a problem outside of social media that needs to be addressed.
  4. Many people have devices they can use to access social media without needing to be on the company computer. So it just turns them off that they can't work more conveniently.
  5. For many people, social networking combines elements of personal and professional - their friends are also their colleagues. I had a conversation on Facebook among a professional network this week about the best way to boil an egg. And in truth, at work, people work better with people that they can shoot the breeze with - we're not robots. So it's probably not a good idea to paint everything that's called "social" as unproductive. (Isn't that sort of what GovLoop is, a place to share best practices in a collegial environment?)
  6. It's been said a zillion times but worth repeating, the next generation will not stand for being cut off from what they see as necessary tools. They have Facebook on all the time, behind their other applications. It will unnerve them and make them disloyal to take that away.
  7. And finally, there is no doubt that some people will abuse every privilege they are given. Isn't that why teachers in elementary school have to give kids "bathroom passes"? Unfortunately the workplace hasn't evolved all that much from elementary. But to my mind most people are mature enough to appreciate the privileges they're given and use them appropriately. (If they're not, they don't belong in the workplace.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Everyone is abuzz about the Marines’ order “banning” social media use at work, but it has truly been been mischaracterized. The reality is, the Marines always had that ban in place: "Even before this message, sites such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter could not be accessed by Marines using the Marine Corps Enterprise Network in accordance with Marine Corps and Department of the Navy policies."

The truth is quite the opposite of the headlines. The order was intended to promote the appropriate use of social media at work by institutionalizing a process to request a waiver for those who need access: “The point of the directive is to establish a formal waiver process for those who require access to social networking sites.”

The level of the reporting was so out of tune with what the Marines was actually doing that they actually had to issue a statement endorsing social media use: “Marines are encouraged to tell their stories on social networking sites, using personal accounts, remembering the importance of operational security and that they are Marines at all times. “

What’s Really Going On?

It seems to me that there was a certain desire to characterize the Marines as being against social media because there was a wish to pander to the fear and ignorance of many who would just as soon bury it, and also to provoke those who take just the opposite point of view and are enraged that anyone would deny them access to the tools they use all the time.

If you read the news, that controversy is very real, and raging every day. Organizations in both the private and the public sector are up in arms about social media. They can’t deal with the fact that they no longer control the message, but rather they are subject at all times to commentary, both positive and negative, by people ranging from the credible to the ridiculous, both inside the workplace and out. More than that, there is a lot of consternation around the fact that you have to monitor even the tiniest blogs and the most remote YouTube videos to find out what people are saying about you, because you never know where the next reputation crisis might come from. It’s not just a few newspapers or trade magazines that make or break you.

Branding and Social Media

As a brand specialist for many years, I have to say that I saw this whole storm coming. It seemed to me pretty obvious that the wish organizations had to control the message and the brand was going to clash fairly strongly with the reality that transparency could undermine everything they were saying. This article from FederalTimes.com says it all: “More transparency could kill IT projects.” It’s more than just IT – these days with everybody watching you, and with everybody empowered to talk about what they see, your entire brand is subject to their perceptions.

And then one day I realized that with just a little strategic thinking, smart organizations could leverage the new world of social media to make their brands even stronger. As Coca Cola head of social media Adam Brown told The Wall Street Journal August 3, “We’re getting to a point if you’re not responding, you’re not being seen as an authentic type of brand.”

The savviest organizations don’t try to control the conversation, but rather simply to participate in it as a trusted and real friend.

Frightened Holdouts

Unfortunately, many organizations are not there yet. We see this in the Associated Press’ new rule that employees must remove from their Facebook accounts comments that are deemed offensive by the AP:

“It's a good idea to monitor your profile page to make sure material posted by others doesn't violate AP standards; any such material should be deleted.”

We also see it in the controversy over ESPN’s new social media rules regulating employees’ personal Tweets. Extremely interesting is the following directive, since presumably people who work for ESPN are sports fanatics:

“Personal websites and blogs that contain sports content are not permitted.”

Fear-Mongering as a Tactic

Here is my perspective.

Trying to stop the honest conversations that take place in social media, inside and outside the workplace, is like trying to stop an oncoming train - life-threatening and impossible. Yet there are people who, for whatever reason, stand in front of this train waving a “STOP” sign. They are used to horses and buggies, they don’t like how trains look, and they don’t want people who understand trains to take over the world and push them aside. So they issue anti-train directives like,

“TRAINS CARRY AN INHERENT RISK OF ACCIDENTS, MISUSE BY RIDERS, AND TECHNOLOGY FAILURE.”

Isn’t that what the Marines’ order sounds like?

“THESE INTERNET SITES IN GENERAL ARE A PROVEN HAVEN FOR MALICIOUS ACTORS AND CONTENT AND ARE PARTICULARLY HIGH RISK DUE TO INFORMATION EXPOSURE, USER GENERATED CONTENT AND TARGETING BY ADVERSARIES.”

Actually, this kind of negative language might be why the Marines order was misinterpreted.

A Typical Pseudo-Argument

One of the things I read recently was that social media is distinguished by its “active content.” I’m not a technical expert and would like to hear if I’m wrong, but I don’t see how the “active content” on a social media website is any different than that on a standard website you might visit that is actually poisoned. Do numerous sites not have

“Internet polls or opt-in features, or dynamic, such as animated GIFs, stock tickers, weather maps, JavaScript applications, embedded objects, streaming video and audio or ActiveX applications”?

Bottom line is, you don’t need a tracking report to tell you that employees will at times, whether innocently or deliberately, visit bad sites and end up on pages full of trouble. And they did so before social media ever came on the scene.

Moreover, I don’t see any great move afoot to deny people access to email at work, and people receive phony spam emails all the time with bad links. You have to train people not to fall for the typical scams, and also be ready in case they do.

If we tried to block every online danger, we’d have to disable the Internet entirely.

The Risks are Human, Not Technological

In my mind, the reasons given by the Marines for banning social media at work are not necessarily incorrect. It is true that people who use Facebook at work could reveal operational information that they shouldn’t on Facebook (“information exposure”); click on a bad link in a hijacked Tweet (“user generated content”); or befriend an enemy agent on LinkedIn, thus exposing a host of professional contacts who should be kept confidential (“targeting by adversaries.”)

However, unless I am understanding the Marines’ language incorrectly and the risks are other than these things, all of these risks are **human** and not inherently technological.

So here are the real reasons I think organizations ban social media:

1. Fear: They don’t want to understand the new technology in the first place (“What the heck is a train?”)

2. Ignorance: They don’t see the business need (“Horses get you around just fine”) nor do they understand the technology or its risks sufficiently to train people in how to use it appropriately

3. Mistrust: They don’t trust people to use it the right way (“They will just sit around playing cards on the train, but they’ll really have to work to get somewhere if they’re riding a horse!”)

4. They just don’t think much of their people (no other way to say this): They think people will just click on any link, say anything to anyone on any topic, or befriend people online indiscriminately (“You know how people are…they’ll stand too close to the train tracks and get hit.”)

5. Economics: Money is tight and they don’t want to waste it on building safeguards for social media, or on training people to use it

Clearing the Cobwebs

Even if the above reasons are semi-legitimate, they also mask deeper psycho-organizational blockages that disappear once you get them into the light and discuss them openly.

The fear and ignorance issues simply have to do with organizational culture and leadership. There needs to be someone in charge who understands the value that social media brings and who insists that it be used in productive ways.

Either that, or frontline employees themselves must initiate grassroots demand to the point where leaders can’t ignore the pressing need.

One has to get over the mistrust about productivity. While it is true that employees will probably spend time playing around on Facebook, they are already chatting in the hallways or on the phone, spending too much time at lunch and on breaks, and on and on. You have to monitor your people and also keep them engaged enough so that they don’t want or need to goof off.

Also, it is important to recognize the obvious fact that people are not machines and need some downtime. Anyway, there is sufficient technology out there to track employees’ online behavior to see if they’re being excessive.

One also has to get over the condescension about how easily people will misuse the technology and take an appropriate level of responsibility for helping them. The people who work for you are not stupid, or else you wouldn’t have hired them, right? People also have a certain level of protective mechanisms so that they are cautious about who they “friend” online, what they say, etc.

And if the company has a good understanding of the typical risks associated with social media, it can train employees to be even more sophisticated about what they do online.

The fact of the matter is, these same people are going home and using social media on their home computers, and probably talking about where they work as well. You may as well train them to do so responsibly than finding out later that they really did say something stupid.

A Word About Money

Honestly, I don’t have patience for the argument that there is no money for things associated with social media when it has so permeated our lives as a productivity tool – and is no longer a fringe thing or a kids’ toy. In fact, the most recent numbers on Twitter usage suggest that the greatest growth is not among teens at all but rather that it is exploding in use among adults age 25-64.

In the year 2009, just like it is taken for granted that we pay for antivirus and firewall software to protect our work computers, so too it should be taken for granted that we take appropriate steps to prepare and defend against misuse of social media, intentional or not.

In The End, It’s About Leadership, Culture – and Self-Empowerment

The bottom line is, organizations’ approach to social media says a lot more about their culture and leadership than it does about technology risk. Great organizations understand that change is a constant reality and that technology both enables this and is a driver of it. So they embrace innovation when it suits their business needs, and they have a logical approach toward evaluating and implementing it so as to reap maximum benefit. On the other hand, those companies who stand in front of the train, waving their arms, screaming “no, no, no” are the ones who will be flattened.

In the end, though, the power is in our hands, not anybody else’s. We as members of organizations can either be the change that we seek, or we can wait and wait for somebody to magically tell us that the future is here – a day that may never come.

Particularly in government, which we must never forget is a sacred stewardship of the public’s trust, it is nothing less than an obligation on our part to embrace every possible means to serve the public better, faster, and cheaper than anyone has ever thought possible.

I say, let’s all get on board, and take the public somewhere great.