Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Declaration for Independence

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

Focus, guts, and great communication

“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

Unscripted

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

Why people don’t trust public affairs (and what we can do about it)

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

When It's Good To Be “Undignified”

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

Shopping for the Truth

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.

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