Opinions about branding by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Screenshot via DailySeinfeld.com

So my husband and I had lunch in a great vegetarian place except for one thing: The couple on a Match.com type date.

The guy was so loud and obnoxious. First of all he kept interrupting the woman. Every time she started to say something he had to agree, disagree or amplify.

The other things he did that screamed "I'm a jerk" included:

1. Bragging about his "positivity," degrees, experience, books read (this was by far the worst)
2. Asking the waitress her name and then not using it
3. Taking forever to order as he deliberated out loud
4. Telling the woman he would have to get the soup if she wouldn't order dumplings, which apprarently he has never tasted
5. Interviewing the woman like a job candidate

My husband said - better to be more reserved. Humble. Ask how the other person thinks, feels, etc. and wait for a response. Listen!

Sometimes by observing quietly we learn a lot.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Officially I have 15 years I of professional experience but if you actually count all of it - from advanced education, fellowship, internships to temp jobs to entry-level administrative and database work -the amount goes up to 25+.

During that time, for whatever reason, I have worked mostly for strong female executives. Their demands were usually exacting and they did not spare your feelings when you made a mistake.

I think it's about proving yourself. Many of my friends tell me the same thing about these larger-than-life, legendary figures. Particularly bosses who earned their stripes in the '70s and early '80s. It's not just something you see in the movies - these women clearly have confronted lots of stereotypes about passivity and overcome them.

I was thinking about this today. I watched "In The Land of Blood and Honey," by Angelina Jolie, with my husband this weekend. Ostensibly it's about Serbs vs. Croats but from what I could tell it was very much about women's degradation as a class. Over and above any other kind of distinction.

It was a really upsetting movie. As much as "The Stoning of Soraya M." It left me sleepless for a night.

I was raised in a traditional religious family and we didn't use fancy words like sexism. But I saw it a lot - it was insidious and awful. Women worked to help out at home, not as the primary breadwinner. We were not the main focus of religious education. We were not supposed to know much about politics or the economy either.

We were supposed to look good, act nice, get decent grades and babysit.

Those who stepped outside the norm were seen as "achievers" but also odd or mannish. Mainly people wondered "what kind of boy would marry someone like that."

Things have changed quite a lot, and now "high achievement" is expected. Although you're still left to figure out on your own how you will handle your family responsibilities, especially mothering, on which the bar seems extraordinarily high. And it's up to you to figure out how to be "assertive but not pushy."

I just want to say that I am grateful to all the demanding people in my life. Of both genders. Not just my bosses but my family and friends too. The ones who have insisted that I follow through on my potential as a whole person, not just a human of the female gender.

I think it's important to say this out loud because there are still so many women who are caught up in all the stereotypes and feel lesser because of it. Even me, sometimes.

Anyway, you know who you are.

Thank you.







Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Permanent Spin" has an eye-catching headline but the Weekly Standard article makes a pretty routine claim: You can't trust the government.

This article in particular focused on political PR, criticizing the Administration for refusing to label several terrorist attacks for what they were. Jibes like this fly from both sides of the aisle and in popular culture; even Saturday Night Live joined the fray with a satirical skit mocking a candidate for secretly taped remarks at a fundraiser that undermined his carefully crafted public messaging.

Sometimes political PR goes off-the-cuff, and people can't decide whether it's a good thing or bad. The New York Times reported on the angst within the party that followed unscripted remarks at a national political convention. The New Republic had mixed reviews but admitted that it could be "accidental political genius." Others said flat out that it was in fact "genius," no miscalculation at all.

In the civil service there is PR too, but we call it "public affairs." People don't trust that either. A good example is the explosion of conspiracy theories surrounding a posting by the Social Security Administration of their intent to buy 174,000 hollow-point bullets. (Not just bullets mind you but "hollow-point," which sound extra-scary for an Agency you think of as primarily in the business of distributing elderly people the savings they worked for all those years.)

According to FBO.gov the solicitation was posted on August 7, 2012. A keyword search on Google of "social security" and "bullets" for the dates August 7-15 yielded more than 7,000 results. The article at Business Insider had a typical introductory paragraph with alarm bells:
"First the DHS needed 450 million rounds of ammunition, then the NOAA requested 46,000 rounds, now we've discovered an online request at FBO.gov calling for 174,000 rounds of ammunition for the Social Security Administration (SSA)."
Finally, a week after the original solicitation was posted, Social Security put an item in its blog (not on its homepage, nor Press Releases and News - explaining the the ammunition was for law enforcement and public safety purposes. (Note that there is no link that I can find from the Agency's website homepage to the blog.)

To put it mildly, the blog post did not exactly put out the flames of the conspiracy theory rumor mill, especially given the purchases of ammunition by other Federal agencies. Reported the Chicago Tribune:
Even late night talk show host Jay Leno joked, "What senior citizens are they worried about? I mean, who's going to storm the building?"
It was not untypical for the official response to be later rather than sooner. And it's not surprising that such a delayed reaction is ineffective.

What is hard to understand is this: If we know that people don't trust PR ("spinmeisters") in general, and they don't trust any representatives of government either, why do we continue to act as if the public hangs on our every word?

I would go so far as to say that the public is in a state of "permanent disbelief" at all official statements. Or perhaps "suspension of belief." Or "constant skepticism."

Call it what you want, it seems that it is time to match strategy with reality. If you know that you are abou to do something controversial or discordant with your audience's expectations of you (e.g., buy ammunition for an Agency that doesn't seem to be about law enforcement) then it makes sense to let people know ahead of time that you're about to do so.

But even that is not enough. If you know that your actions will be perceived skeptically, rather than defensively hide the explanation on a blog unlinked to your website, it makes sense to put a big and clear feature story on the homepage for a good week or two.

And when you put that feature story out there, it's probably also a good idea to add some facts, figures, historical examples, and other concrete data out that show you have a really good reason for doing what you did.

Plus make a senior official available for interviews to respond. Anything from mainstream media, to bloggers, to daytime talkshows and late night TV - wherever the audience goes. Yes, even to outlets that are critical of you - especially those!

While it's impossible to completely defuse skepticism about the validity of government communication, it is absolutely possible, necessary and required to do a better job of talking with our audience rather than at them. The goal is never to make up stories or mislead, but rather to promote a positive working relationship unfettered by secret doubts about what's going on behind the scenes.

Good PR is ethical PR, and that includes being transparent as much as security concerns will allow. There's nothing wrong with engaging an Agency's critics. In fact, that is the very definition of citizen engagement - to go where the issues are, not just for the feel-good outreach campaign hurrahs.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Screenshots from around the Web demonstrating the pop culture equation of Jobs with Jesus

"Creative Genius or a Tyrant?" The two are not mutually exclusive, and though we worship creativity in America, it has nothing to do with goodness.

In fact, Steve Jobs was both: "the last great tyrant."

  • "Great," notes the New York Times, because "there was no one quite like him. He used his powers to make devices that are beloved by their owners in a way that very few American products manage to achieve."
  • "Tyrant," notes the Times, because he did not hesitate to be cruel in whiplashing staff when the product wasn't right - equating one engineer's work with "dog feces." Forbes notes that his business practices were equally ruthless.  

Yet everyone, it seems, forgave him, even apologized for him, because he gave the people what they wanted, with a triple acumen that most people lack:


  • Creative: He knew what customers wanted before they did.
  • Human capital: He knew how to get people to create those products. (Perhaps exploitively; he's been accused of stealing their ideas.)
  • Business: He was a slave to the brand and mercilessly demanded loyalty to it. (And raged at what he viewed as copycatting, as in the case of HTC Android.)
Americans believe in the separation of church and state, but oddly in the realm of business we seek to deify people who are all too human and prone to sins like greed and cruelty:
"The communicants of the Holy Church of Steve... mumble pardons and shrug their shoulders at all of his sinister doings....Who can justify the ways of Steve to mere mortals?"- Forbes, Sept. 8, 2011, criticizing Apple's business practices (emphasis added)
In a country where trust is at an all-time low, and where we demand that leaders meet an almost superhuman standard of corporate social responsibility, what is with the deification of brand tyrants like Job?

It would seem that grownup life is still a lot like high school. Trying to get into the clique of "mean girls" instead of hanging out with the nice kids who are a little less glamorous but more loyal by a lot. Woody Allen, quoting Groucho Marx in "Annie Hall: "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

If we're going to undo some of the damage that brands have done to society, by making us buy things we don't want or need, and can't afford, we're going to have to go further than changing one at a time. We need to look at the brand ecosystem - at the society that tells us, in many and unsubtle ways, that we're not good enough unless we're some kind of superstars. Brands are the secular way of affirming that.

G-d is all powerful, but would never promise us perfection, then treat people so badly as did Steve Jobs.







Friday, September 21, 2012

follow the leader
 Photo via Flickr
"I've been waiting for a girl like you to come into my life....been waiting for someone new to make me feel alive." - Foreigner
How much of your life have you spent waiting?

As a kid, I waited a lot. Waited for the school van. Waited for synagogue to be over. Waited for the commercials to end. Waited for the microwave, impatiently.

As a teenager I waited for high school to be over, then happily escaped New Jersey to Manhattan. 

In college there was the endless wait to graduate, then the lengthy trek through graduate school to dissertation.

Of course the kids go through stages and so you wait for them to grow out of those.

And when my early jobs were boring - as most entry-level, pay-the-bills type employment is - I waited for the day to be over.

So many people are waiting for retirement.

Are we so busy waiting, that we miss the opportunity to live?

Once somebody gave me a fairy tale book as a gift. Brother and sister find a skein of golden yarn in the forest. They tug on it and find themselves older. Curious, they keep tugging until they are old.

Election season feels a lot like that. It seems like everyone is caught in waiting mode. You can almost feel it hanging in the air: "When will X candidate utter those magic words?" "Maybe that already happened, and we missed it?"

In D.C., in fact, no sooner does Inauguration roll around than some people start their waiting all over again...thinking "Less than four years until the next one."

It is always surprising to me how many fully grown adults, seasoned professionals, with tons of experience and huge responsibilities at home and at work, turn themselves into virtual infants on the job. They are paralyzed with fear. They wait for a leader to say something, or put it in writing, so that they're never at risk of coloring outside today's momentary lines.

In any halfway decent organization the leaders will tell you they don't want you to act like this at all. What a waste of your brainpower!

Instead, truly good executives get their energy from the people. When they see frontline employees engaged in the job, they take direction from that place - a place of vitality, of life, what's working. 

Similarly, political candidates are lit up by the enthusiasm and achievements of those they serve. The energy is not in their dead words on a platform - but rather inherent to the public.

All this by way of saying, if you're finding yourself sitting around waiting for someone to magically "empower" you so you can achieve upward mobility - whether in your current job or somewhere else - just stop. 

The leader you've been waiting for all your life, is you. It's "The Wizard of Oz," and you're Dorothy, and you're wearing those red shoes. All you need to do is close your eyes, focus your mind, and say it: "There's no place like home."

Wherever you want to go, lead yourself there. Trust in the Universe to do the right thing. If you're on track with your life's mission, the rest will surely follow.

Live your life, pursue your career as you want, without waiting. The hallway monitor you remember from grade school is long gone. And the days of getting the principal's permission to exhale are long since over.







Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The other day I observed a group of seniors from the local retirement community hanging out at McDonald's - playing a bingo game. They stayed there for a long time. 

Another time I visited around three p.m. and saw the kids hanging out after school. They were boisterous but calm and having fun.

There is also a mini-playground in the McDonald's near me, and in the one I recall going to in New York City.

I told this to a friend and she told me that in California, the elderly men in the Vietnamese community hang out at a particular McDonald's near her home.

It occurred to me that the company should go back to "Food, Folks and Fun" as a theme for their advertising. Especially in tough economic times, people still want to go out but they want to go somewhere that a meal won't completely destroy their pocketbooks.

Just a thought - the food and service have dramatically improved, and they deserve a great ad campaign to go along with them.
My response to a question on Quora:

Your brand is natural but it never comes about naturally. Basically it is the result of the interaction between the "I" (who you are without trying) and the "me" (who people think you are). 

  • On a marketing level the skill is to engineer things so that the "I" and the "Me" align. This is basic symbolic interactionism. Via Wikipedia: "The I is the impulsive tendency of the individual (similar to Freud's notion of the Id). The I is the spontaneous, unorganized aspect of human existence. The Me is the incorporated other (generalized other) within the individual."http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Soc...
  • On a practical level you must have a mission that makes sense. I like how Jim Collins explains a profitable one in "Good To Great" - it's the convergence of 1) what you have a passion for doing 2) what you're the BEST in the world at 3) what others will pay you for. Your mission can be an abstract idea or a functional deliverable but it has to be at the heart of your brand.

This is the third in a series of posts on internal communications and the "dark side" of the organization. (Click here for #1 and here for #2).
I have often wondered why organizations are slow to deal with difficult issues surrounding internal communication. Part of the answer, I think, has to do with generational leadership styles. My working hypothesis is that there is a generational miscommunication between Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, the two generations that now dominate the workplace.
  • Baby Boomers are idealistic and deeply team-focused - the members of the team create a unit that looks out for one another. They see any negativity as a threat to the team. They are good at intellectual analysis and love robust debate, but aret uncomfortable with the intangible emotional issues behind them. 
  • Generation Xers are also idealistic and get things done in teams. But not the way that Boomers do. Because we've seen teams fall apart due to denial and exploitation, we tend to trust individuals in alliance with one another to solve problems. 
How about other workplace groups?
  • Matures - very senior leaders - have a completely different attitude toward negativity. They are group-oriented like Boomers, but more honest and less defensive. Their attitude, probably because they've seen war, is military: Someone's breached the walls of morale, it's a problem, let's take it out and deal with it, now. They get it on a very deep level and are quietly effective. Like Boomers, they don't like to talk about it.
  • Generation Y employees dislike negativity much like Boomers do. There is an uncanny similarity between Generation Y and Boomers in their thinking. They're very positive and forward-thinking and cheerful. They don't shy away from problems, but they believe that simply taking action as a team is the way to fix them. They don't like all the dark sarcastic stuff.
  • Generation Z - this would be roughly teenagers and college-age kids - are very similar to Xers. This is the generation of "memes." They are very comfortable with negativity. They turn to their peers to talk about it though. They are also much more open than Generation X. These are the kids who write on their Facebook walls about just about every personal problem imaginable, and to them it's like asking "How's the Weather?" They are also like Generation X in that they are likely to take individual action to solve a pressing problem - regardless of what anybody thinks they can or can't do or what established institutions say.

The good news, looking at all this, is how much energy the different generations bring to the table in terms of getting things done. The potentially bad news is that there is room for miscommunication between them.
If we take a step back from the individual situations that we face in our organizations and look at things from a generational diversity perspective - rather than an interpersonal one - we might find that sometimes what looks like a stubborn issue is really not so bad. The key is to look at things from the perspective of the other person, the other group, and recognize how they are looking at you.

Monday, September 17, 2012


The communicator's most important duty is to find breaks in the organizational narrative, explore them and put them back together again. Inhabiting the breaks rather than denying them heals the dysfunction that causes poor communication in the first place.

It's a cycle, briefly:
  • Lack of unity ---> dysfunctional organization.
  • Dysfunctional organization ---> fractured communication
  • Fractured communication ---> lack of engagement, lack of credibility, mistrust
  • Mistrust ---> lack of unity
...and the cycle perpetuates itself.
If you step back and look at the big picture, it becomes clear that poor internal communication is a symptom, not the disease. That's why communicators depend on executive sponsorship to get the job done. Without the backing of leadership, effective internal communication cannot happen.

This was the entire premise of the popular TV shows “24” and “House.”

* On “24,” “Jack Bauer” got his hands dirty to get to the truth – and the President backed him when he had to take action.

* On “House,” the brilliant but drug-addicted and totally rude diagnostician “Dr. House” could see what was really wrong with the patient, no matter how politically incorrect – and “Dr. Cuddy” took the heat and covered his back, so that he could actually do the procedure the patient needed.

Here's another parallel: the concept of “possession.” The “devil” occupies the soul of an innocent and a religious figure is called into drive them away.

In every depiction I've seen of an “exorcism,” the victim roars hysterically as the priest banishes the devil from their soul. It's tempting to arrest the priest. But the family has to know, has to be confident that the priest is doing G-d's work and ignore those blood-curdling cries.

It's the same thing with the dysfunctional organization. Very poor communication is a sign of “possession” by a “devil” of some kind, that has led it astray from its “normal,” meaning functional state. A state in which the equivalent of diagnosis, surgery and excision (or exorcism) is required.

Leaders are often tempted to think that internal communication means executive messages, informational web copy, factsheets, things like that. All true. But if there is something else going on behind that – and we should take this as the norm – then any model of internal communication is incomplete unless it contains some element of organizational development.

Therefore, the communicator's role overlaps closely with the organizational development specialist, the business process specialist, the strategist, the project manager: This person must identify what is going wrong, what “devil” has taken hold of the organization. It should be noted that the communicator cannot in and of themselves exorcise the devil – but they should be sufficiently resourced and supported to get rid of one when they see it.

The process of healing involves looking at the devil agnostically, impartially, as part of an integrated project team. Just like in medicine, when there's a complex problem, you bring in a group of specialists. And they ask: What's going on, what kind of a devil is it, from where did it come? And then working across the organization to deal with it, disempower it, render it limp and useless and dead.

The above should make clear that brilliant leaders alone are no longer the heart of the organization. The maniacal dictator who can throw people around is no longer effective. Rather, organizations are led by healthy teams. It's critical that communication leaders look objectively at what is getting in the way of team functioning, and stare that devil down no matter how strong it may seem.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

In the days before the Internet, and particularly social media, it was hard to get a real clue about anything.

  • If "they" told you something was true - parents, school, job, media, religion, government, university, etc. - you generally believed it. Especially if it was in a book. If you didn't, it was your fault for doubting or not being smart enough to follow.
  • Alternative versions - the grapevine, etc. - had their place too. But that was always "the grapevine," and most of the time the official version trumped "gossip."

In short, before there was cyberspace, there was certainty. And even within a debate, the outer boundaries of that discussion - its framework - was more or less clear to most people, even if they inhabited different cultural realities.

All of this has fallen apart. Narratives still appear on television, in the paper, on the Internet, wherever. But instead of reading them uncritically, people now see them as only an opening gambit. No longer do they ask "What is the story?" but instead "What is the story behind that?"

In addition to social media these kinds of questions are the result of:

  • The success of civil rights, feminism, and other identity movements. People who were once silenced, then became marginalized, then became alternative voices, and now are part of the mainstream. So there is no "one way to think" or believe or do things.
  • The various "post" movements in academia - post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism - which all relate to the first bullet here. Basically these mean that there is no longer "truth" but only "how truth is represented."
  • Broad exposure to other cultures nationally and internally as a result of the ready availability of global travel.
  • The growth of humanitarian, environmental, and social responsibility movements, which have led people to question whether institutional authorities are acting responsibly.
  • The growth of the self-made family and the breakdown of the nuclear one.
  • Broad revelations of systematic child abuse by religious figures, across faiths.
  • The combination of a highly educated young workforce and the lack of opportunities commensurate with their skills - there is a lot of energy out there needing to be harnessed productively. 
  • Generally, the gap between the very rich and the very poor and the decline of the middle class, which might otherwise have been absorbed into a mainstream narrative with less angst.

To manage communication effectively in such a chaotic environment - in an environment where people seem to await the communication only so they can question it - one has to think in a more complex way about success.

The most important thing to know, in my view, is that it is no longer possible to communicate superficially and externally and ignore what's going on inside the organization.

In fact, you actually have to flip the traditional priorities on their head:

  • First - organizational cohesion - meaning leadership, management, and teamwork.
  • Second - consistent and coordinated internal communication to frontline staff.
  • Third - communication to the outside world, with a particular focus on being responsive to inquiries rather than simply "deciding" what you want to say.

To make this transition, the act of transmitting information that we think of as "communication" has to also turn on its head. This is done by getting to Stage 5 in the below scheme as fast as possible:

  • Stage One: Say whatever you want to say.
  • Stage Two: React to questions.
  • Stage Three: Offer information in advance.
  • Stage Four: Communicate with feedback in mind.
  • Stage Five: Make operational changes that will reduce negative feedback in advance of communication.

The difficult thing that communicators need to do, as they navigate this information environment, is basically to ignore the official rules and old ways that didn't work - and be calm and strong about adopting methods that do.

The rule of thumb that I go by is - try something; get feedback; modify; try again. If I know in my heart and my gut that a course of action is the right one - then go for it.

Of course humans being human, this path can be perilous because nobody is perfect, you can never have enough feedback, and you don't know what you don't know.

At the same time communicators should have more confidence. When I get scared I sometimes think about the 1971 poem by Philip Larkin, "This Be The Verse." What he is saying here is - your parents (on a broader level, "management") are inherently biased and flawed:

They (mess) you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do. 
They fill you with the faults they had 
  And add some extra, just for you. 

But they were (messed) up in their turn 
  By fools in old-style hats and coats, 
Who half the time were soppy-stern 
  And half at one another's throats. 

Man hands on misery to man. 
  It deepens like a coastal shelf. 
Get out as early as you can, 
 And don't have any kids yourself.

Larkin offers a pessimistic conclusion - "you won't do better than them, don't bother." I don't agree with that. The whole of human existence is only the story of trying.

Although the fractured narrative - and perhaps the frailties of the organization - are challenging for communicators, that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Hell no!

Instead what we need to do - that is different from traditional management of the past - is to move TOWARD the fractures, not away from them. This is the secret of successful communication today.

The breaks in the narrative are the breaks in the organization. By non-judgmentally inhabiting, exploring, examining, and living in the alternative realities that threaten to break things apart, you can start to experience the possibility of bringing them together.

For me, when communication unifies seemingly disparate groups - actually making a real difference on the ground, not just on paper - that is the greatest feeling of all.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My job consists of three things: build relationships, respond to questions, and have information ready for people before they ever need it.

In the abstract I have a lot of experience at this.

But in the particular it's a daily challenge.

Having started work in a new organization, I am immersed in a completely new and unique organizational culture, as well as working with technical specialists across multiple lines of business.

In order to be helpful I've got to understand the unique cultural language of each office as well as the bigger picture, plus become literate in the subject matter.

It is hard to tolerate my own ignorance. I know that no matter how much I read or observe, or how quickly, there are decades of history to absorb.

I am getting a little bit better at handling it though. It's even becoming like a growing experience: embracing ignorant me. Here are some ideas for others in a similar situation.

1. "Let go and let G-d." Ignorance makes you realize how small you are and how little you control. There is something freeing about that.

2. Enjoy the sheer fun of learning. Talk to people. Interview them. Go to their meetings. Observe and good heartedly participate. Laugh at yourself. It's OK.

3. Commit to running the marathon. Give it your all. It's not about winning or losing. It's about trying your absolute best. It feels great when the wind is at your back as you're on the bike, flying.

4. Take calculated risks. The thrill of the game is why you take on unfamiliar challenges. You are there to solve problems not just do a job. You have to get out of your comfort zone to do that. Meaning they can't give you full direction in advance. I started an internal blog to share what I'm learning. It was scary to do, but the climate feels right for this.

5. Enjoy learning your value - how your skills can help people. Normally most people want to get through the day with low stress and achieve solid results. Find ways that you can help them overcome obstacles, achieve real progress, and look good.

Being new is frightening and risky, but we all go through it again and again. By walking into the fear instead of trying to pretend you know it all, you become better on the job. You also turn the experience into something meaningful for your personal growth.

Good luck!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Compared with the private sector, career civil service is known for its job stability. From an internal, employee recruitment and retention perspective this makes government work appealing. On the other hand, from the outside (and sometimes from the inside) the fact that the system is set up for stability can make it seem like we don't manage poor performers appropriately.
The private sector version of what to do is efficient, but also extreme. (Donald Trump's famous line "You're Fired!"?) Is this what has to happen to improve performance in government?
Having worked in the private sector both for a large company and for a small business I think the answer is no. We should not just be able to "fire at will." Not because government workers deserve a form of welfare, but because it's poor leadership and management to dispose of people at whim.
Consider the parallel of family. When you start a family - whether it's marriage or partnership, or whether you have children or adopt them, or even when you are with a group of friends so much that they become your family - you don't just walk away when things get tough. That's what makes a family a family instead of just a group of random acquaintances. 
The effort that goes into building family relationships is not just a mushy nice thing to do. It's a socially and economically productive activity that promotes self-sufficiency, empowerment and responsibility. People from safe, stable families are able to work, raise children, and lead productive lives. They are less likely as a group to engage in violent crime, drug abuse, and other social problems that then become the responsibility of the larger family - e.g. society.
Similarly, work environments that promote stability facilitate a sense of safety and trust among employees. While nobody should ever get so comfortable that they slack off, if you're constantly looking over your shoulder in fear, you can't exactly be productive either.
In government and in the private sector, the key is to do the difficult work of recruitment upfront, then invest in keeping the new employee engaged over the long term. The higher you go in the organization the more time you should be spending on leading and managing people as opposed to carrying out technical work. In government, in practice that means that SESers, GS15s and even GS14s should be engaged deeply in relationship building and mentoring at the very least. This is a job that cannot be delegated or outsourced.
Once there is a sufficient level of trust and commitment in the organization, dealing with performance issues becomes less of an issue because nobody wants to stay in a job where they're not a good fit. When the organization is invested in the wellbeing of the employee they can help the poor performer better understand what's going on - and may even find out the issue is not organic to them at all: a bullying boss, a dysfunctional team culture, or perhaps it's illness or a family situation.
Either way, promoting a high-performance culture does not mean treating people like they're disposable. It's really about investing in managing them (us) like the assets they (we) are. That takes time, and caring, and skill. And no it's not "operational." But I'm willing to be you, dollars to donuts, that for every stubborn "operational" or "technical" problem there is a "people" problem lurking not so far beneath the surface. And once you understand what it is, you can chip away bit by bit at the corrosion and set the true productivity inherent in each individual free.
Like Freud said, health is the ability to love and to work. No matter where the workplace is, if we take care of our people then they (we) will take care of the work part.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

1. Drawing on change agents in a local environment to solve a local problem innovatively. Example: CBP's Small Vessel Reporting System, which started as a pilot in Florida. I worked on the outreach for the project, which is critical when you consider the potential threat a terrorist can do with hidden WMD in a small boat, where they might leave the U.S., pick up a weapon, then try to come back in "under the radar."

2. Appointing change agents as leaders. Leaders, for all their human frailties, are normally extraordinarily driven workaholics who are literally unable to fail. There is something inside them that motivates them to persist no matter what. The problem comes when they get scared. But when they are confident and charging toward a noble goal, people are drawn to that and they will follow. 
3. Putting change agents in charge of social media, especially YouTube because this is a medium most people can follow and comment on. Government words are usually too complicated and too negotiated for the average person to understand.
4. Letting change agents find ways to engage the average citizen - through media they can easily use, like texting or telephoning. Example: See Something, Say Something (also coordinated between public sector, private sector, local, etc.)
5. Putting change agents in charge of cross-functional initiatives like cooperation between the public sector, private sector, academia and NGOs - nationally and internationally. Example: human trafficking, anti-counterfeiting.
6. Establishing a real and transparent process for change agents to submit and then follow up on ideas.
7. Instituting training for people in change management - how to initiate then maintain change. This could take the form of coaching. You would be surprised how often the stupidest things get in the way of the most significant game-changers. If you know ahead of time what works and what doesn't you can eliminate years of frustration. Example: Sharepoint is incredibly good for workflow, but the word "workflow" scared me. So I asked someone at work to show me. I told her about my word block and she said to call it "playflow." Now I can deal with Sharepoint.
8. Supporting change agents with a team of people who can support them in action. Normally there are people who are good at building and people who are good at maintaining, people who are technical and people who are social, and all of them are needed to make change stick.

This is in response to the question of "Why do people mistrust government?" A comprehensive answer would get into politics, history, sociology, economics, philosophy, etc. I can talk about it from a branding perspective.
Definitions
  • Here the noun "brand" means "your image" and the verb "branding" means "positioning" or the act of distinguishing yourself so that you have an image.
  • Branding is basically long-term, holistic marketing.
  • Branding is a business (government here is conceived of as a business) activity not solely a communications activity. It incorporates frontline operational decisions (mission), human capital decisions, technology decisions, etc. because all of these have an impact on your image.
  • Therefore "positioning" means setting up the organization in such a way that you actually can fulfill your promise (or in branding terms, the "brand promise.)
  • You can fail to live up to the brand promise through real activity or perceived activity where the perception is not credibly corrected.
Mistrust of government agencies is due to their failure to live up to the "brand promise"
  • The essential promise of government is that it will be there to provide society with the basic services necessary for functioning in a secure and orderly manner; that it will provide the most basic human care to individuals in desperate need; and that it will administer its services justly.
  • The "bonus promise" is transparency, something that was emphasized in recent years.
  • Mistrust of the government is due to a performance gap on the part of the government between the brand promise and the reality as it is experienced or perceived by the customer (taxpayer, stakeholder, constituent).
Actual Performance Failure
  • Insanity as we know is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
  • If you are in the government you know that there are things that are not working. 
  • On an individual level you can orient your mindset to the customer - that person being the person who receives services from  your agency. When you do your job you do it with excellence. You also do outside reading and studying of your agency so that you understand the bigger picture around requests, initiatives, etc. and can respond with more understanding of what the real issues are. Sometimes you challenge them.
  • On a team level you can find other people inside or outside your office who share a passion for service and don't care about ego and titles. You can work with them to solve problems. In your formal work teams you can deliver excellent customer service to others and establish a higher standard for working together. You can also call out instances where process is failing or someone is subverting it.
  • On an Agency leadership level the role of political appointees should be considered and clarified. (See the 2006 study "Political Appointees and the Competence of Federal Program Management.") 
  • Same for the role of contractors - clarify what is inherently governmental. Broadly institutionalize procurement training. 
  • Again on a leadership level there should be real (not just lip service) emphasize on coaching to lead, supporting leadership, human capital development, etc. as an activity that is AS IMPORTANT as operational implementation activities.
  • On a Federal level there ought to be consideration of broadly consolidating cross-cutting functions that provide service to employees (e.g. IT, HR) and having local agency representatives report to chains of command in those broad centers. This would reduce insularity of any agency in particular.
  • On a Federal level we ought to reorganize agencies in a way that makes sense to the customer - i.e. by service provided. If there are agencies whose services overlap, consolidate them. If there are agencies that are too big and providing too many disparate services that don't go together, separate them out. (This is brand architecture.)
  • On a Federal level we should finally accept the concept of pay for performance while at the same time finally put some backbone behind protecting employees from the wrath of irrational poor managers and/or whistleblower retaliation.
Perceived Performance Failure
  • Stop being snotty about social media. GovLoop is social media. It's not going away. People read it. They forward chain mails about how Wal-Mart is run better than the government. They make fun of us. Then they read our own pompous stuff and they make fun of us some more. Time to get over it and join the conversation in a plainspoken way rather than ignoring, denying, minimizing, marginalizing, or  punishing those who exercise their right to free speech.
  • Tell the truth about potentially controversial decisions early on rather than waiting for someone to say something, or posting something in some obscure place and hoping people don't find it, then reacting when they do. First movers have the advantage; defense in communication always loses.
  • Admit when we are wrong early on rather than defending ourselves.
  • Establish a coordinated mechanism for Federal communication rather than devolving it to every agency to act on its own. Think from the customer's perspective - they want simple and unified not to have to hunt down your special 1-800 number. 
  • Create an independent clearinghouse for public complaints about the government (don't leave it to each agency) and release scores quarterly. Require agencies to investigate and respond. 
  • Clarify the role of public affairs so that we distinguish between the provision of information (this is the job of the CIO) and the provision of media/outreach materials. These include basic factsheets that answer questions people have. The public affairs role should also include intake of public questions in combination or liaison with the Office of Federal Communications. 
  • The CIO function in each agency should include Federal records management and the response to FOIA requests, the development and posting of high-quality data sets (Open Government).
  • The Federal Government should cross-cuttingly take the data sets and proactively consolidate them into something more proactive - housed in the Office of Information Sharing. Instead of multiple portals, choose one and  and park as many raw spreadsheets into that space as possible. Explain how to use the data sets then let the public mash them up. The point is not to spin a story, but to let the public find and write its own - engaging with the government that is in the end theirs not the property of those who work for the Agency.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Image source: Movie news/review site Collider

As a younger person I used to watch the original Melrose Place series on TV (not the CW version which I sneer at...wasn't everything better in the "good old days" :-)?

It was an ensemble cast but the central character was really "Amanda Woodward" (Heather Locklear). Amanda was one of the first female characters on TV to boldly assert her right to be ruthless - not for any larger goal, but purely because "I want it." To that end she had these characteristics:

  • Used her intelligence to manipulate people rather than solve problems
  • Used her good looks to charm and flirt to get her way
  • Preyed on the morality of other people as she broke the rules to get what she wanted
The counterpart to Amanda's character was "Alison Parker" (Courtney Thorne-Smith) who was the polar opposite. Alison was smart, but not manipulative; pretty, but didn't "work it"; and above all moral and kind.

Amanda and Alison battled it out at work and in the apartment complex, each trying to win "Billy Campbell's" heart. But it was never about them in particular. The larger question was whether good will triumph over evil, even if evil is smarter and more ruthless.

The feminist question was whether Amanda should be given a special pass for her ruthlessness because women are historically disadvantaged, or on the other side, judged more harshly because women are somehow supposed to be "better than that."

The reason Melrose Place was brilliant is that the question was never answered. Instead we got only more questions, and saw more scenarios where these dynamics of good and evil, and so-called power feminism versus plain-Jane non-feminism, played out.

In real life, acting like an "Amanda" - i.e. immoral, and somehow weaving that into a "feminist" narrative - hurts oneself and other women as well. People can tell who the Machiavellian game-players are, and when they're women the negative reaction is exaggerated.

Meaning more discrimination against women by men.

Meaning more distrust of women by other women.

When the oppressed group uses the tools of the oppressor, it's disheartening. When they use their own own tools of survival during bleaker times as a way of achieving domination, it's downright scary.

Women can do a lot better than aspire to be an Amanda. We're smart, and capable, and we've earned it. Let's encourage ourselves and our daughters to achieve something based on what we objectively contribute as people - rather than how well we work a system where subtle but powerful sexism (and ageism, and more) still remain.

Monday, September 3, 2012



Maybe “branding” is a relatively new word for the mainstream, but the use of it in politics is old. They called it other things, probably – I couldn't tell you. But there's no doubt that the great political consultants are the equivalent of great brand strategists. Some examples: Roger Ailes, Dick Morris, Frank Luntz.

I still remember watching The McLaughlin Group as a kid, especially Eleanor Clift and Pat Buchanan as they battled it out in “Round 1” and “Round 2,” the tiny speck of time allotted to every issue on Sunday mornings.

Today, I don't watch the news primarily to find out what's happening – there is the Internet for that. I watch to see how the various political commentators, media veterans, and subject matter experts debate how the speech (or blooper) of the day will affect this person or that.

My absolute favorite, a rarity nowadays, is to see James Carville and Mary Matalin interviewed together, because Carville is a Democrat and Matalin is a Republican, and they're married.

Some people like to watch football games, or boxing. I like being a paraprofessional pundit, watching these TV “debates” as though they were boxing games, scoring them in my mind. Sometimes the family watches with me and then it's fun to compare notes.

In any case, I know that branding is mainstream today because my mother clipped a column from the local paper on “personal branding” and gave it to me. In the realm of politics, it definitely got a jump start with the Reagan years, but when I joined the government it still wasn't something people really “got” instinctively.

At that time (2003), for most people, I think the perception of government was closer to the massively popular TV show The West Wing – which portrayed the incredibly complicated nature of trying to do the “right thing” while still managing the many crises, including image crises, that could pull the Administration off track.

Another show that influenced my thinking was the TV show 24, whichfurther dramatized not only the tough calls a President has to make, but the impossibility of promising full transparency. The show depicted how, over and over again, the rules and procedures already in place could not match the evolving terrorist technologies and threats that sought to bring the country down.

The actual 2008 Presidential Campaign, with its expert use of branding, was so masterful that it actually became a case study in the marketing textbook I used at University of Maryland University College.

All of this is by way of saying that the traditional political campaign is dominated by branding, whether it's called by that name or not.

* Primary tactic: “Emotional” - i.e. to connect the candidate with the populace.

* Secondary tactic (usually): “Functional” - an effort to convey that the candidate has a better skill set.

Normally functional value is secondary for a few reasons, but primarily that the details are too “wonky” for most people to understand or care about, and secondarily if you're smart you can usually make a case either way.

What sets this election apart is that one side is focused on emotional branding as per tradition, while the other is zooming in on the functional branding tactic and making it primary. Can it work? This was the question asked on TV by Bill Kristol at the GOP convention.

From a political communication perspective, I am not sure. Assuming that the two parties are trying to split the baby in half – one “owning” style, one “owning” substance – does this really leave either of them responding effectively to the consumer demands (if we can put it that way) of the moment?

This “baby is split” ambivalence is visible in the following ideas, which to me represent the “mood of the moment,” still unresolved:

1) While it's true that the economy is bad, it's not worth sacrificing civil rights or promoting a culture where it's acceptable to abandon the poor and weak.

2) We're willing to work hard and sacrifice for the sake of progress, but we don't want to be taken advantage of by the ruling classes.

3) We want to help the needy and weak, but don't want to encourage a culture of dependency.

4) We are willing to trust political and business leaders, but we have seen a lot of scandals and are not fully ready to trust what they're saying.

5) We don't have enough information to tell who's telling the truth, since the mainstream media is biased, social media is unreliable, and it's hard to get information from the government you can really use.

The CEO of Panera, Ron Shaich, was on Fox the other day saying basically this. He called the problem “the political class” - he did not name one party or another – and voiced his doubt at their ability to actually solve problems. i.e., their jobs.

Shaich said in the end, he is accountable to the laws of profit and loss. Make money and keep going. Lose it and go out of business. Implication: Need to run the country the same way.

Note that Panera is an incredibly socially responsible company – not only giving back to the community but pioneering a cafe concept where you “give what you can, take what you need.”

While it's not clear how the election will shake out, one thing does seem clear to me. People are repeating over and over again that they are sick of divisiveness, that they feel it has now gotten in the way of actually moving forward to real solutions. This coincides with the trend toward hyper-customization – epitomized by the popularity of Pinterest - in which the person cherry-picks from this and from that to create a patchwork of brands that is truly “them.”

From a communication perspective, this election is like a graduate seminar in progress. 

On a personal note, I feel in my heart how very dangerous a time we are in, and pray that G-d has mercy on us as we move forward to the future.*

*Note – This blog is intended as a commentary on communication, and does not represent a political commentary, endorsement or non-endorsement of any candidate or party. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I like what Panera stands for:

1. They give back to the community through various programs

2. They are piloting a cafe where you pay what you can, take what you need

3. The CEO was on Fox News tge other day talking sense, about how we must forget political divisiveness and solve real economic problems

Their brand needs help though. A very brief suggestion - change the positioning.

Right now Panera doesn't own any unique mind space. They are competing with Starbucks instead. With better food but worse coffee.

Suggest changing the focus to one it already owns, judging from who goes there and its corporate values: family meals.

More specifically, build the brand around the concept of old-fashioned Sunday dinner. Sort of like Boston Market, but with a Midwestern feel.

My two cents. Good luck to them.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

In "What Marketers Can Learn From Obama's Campaign," "positioning" (branding) master Al Ries explained how effective marketing helped the President go from being a relative unknown to the most powerful person on the planet.

At this year's Republican convention, actor Clint Eastwood gave a speech that has provoked viral interest and much controversy in the blogosphere as to whether it worked or not, or was smart or not, or what it was. Some even called it "bizarre" while others said it was "genius."

Below are some comments Ries made about the 2008 Obama campaign's successful use of positioning, and how the Eastwood speech - of course, just one moment in time - matches up.

1. Own a simple, relevant, credible-for-the-brand idea in one word. In the Obama campaign, this was "change." No "ands," commas, subheads like his competitors. It was relevant because people thought the country was "headed in the wrong direction." It was credible because President Obama had always stood for the populist message he espoused.

In the Eastwood speech, the idea was also simple, relevant, and credible for him - "AWOL" - Because Eastwood has perfected the character in the movies who takes responsibility and takes care of business. Whether he was "right" or "wrong" is not the point. What matters is that Eastwood had the cultural capital to say what he said, and then he stepped up and "owned" it.

Also, says Ries, keep it as simple as the audience wants it. Hollywood elites, which tend to lean Democratic, joked about it; media elites called it "rambling."But he wasn't talking to them. Rather, Eastwood was targeting the average voter. As the Daily Caller points out:
"What media critics heard as unprepared, bumbling and rambling prattle, millions of Americans heard as an expression of their frustration with...lethargy and political divisiveness."
2. Claim to be different - not better. Ries points out that President Obama was not claiming to be the best at change, but only to identify himself with it. The benefit of claiming difference is that you automatically own the position you claim when someone tries to challenge it. (Everybody claims to be better so this is not memorable.) And when you are a "first-minder" (first to occupy the position in the mind), you are "almost always the winner," says Ries.

Side note: In a separate post Ries notes that when you own the point of difference you become the category leader, even as competition challenges you. (If the competition gets too hot you have to start a new brand in order to be different again.)

In the Eastwood speech, as the New York Times points out, the actor did not exactly brief out the Republican team before he pulled out the now-legendary chair. His "brand messaging" surprised everyone, including the candidate's staff - and that made him a first mover. However, it did not make him a "first minder" because the message was inherently an attack on somebody else's position rather than an assertion of a new one.

Recall that the Romney campaign slogan and GOP convention theme was "We Built It," which is a different, reactive statement - responding to a Democratic message. Similarly, the President sent a reactive Tweet in response to the Eastwood speech: "This chair is taken."

3. Stick to it and then repeat yourself. Do not deviate or change the basic idea. (Every time you do that, you fragment your message and lose uniqueness and attention.) Say that word you are faithful to, over and over again, until the idea is associated with you. The Obama campaign did that. And in his speech, Eastwood did it too, first with the visual theme of the empty chair, and then by speaking to it and for it, over and over again, as though the President were articulating statements typical of weak or absent leadership.

As one looks at these techniques from opposing sides of the aisle side-by-side, it is possible to get a glimpse from an agnostic point of view about what makes brand communication (of any kind, including political) work or not work*.

*Note: This blog is not a political endorsement of any party or candidate, but rather a commentary about communication technique. 

Veterans of the workplace know that there is "nothing new under the sun." Leadership and management initiatives, fads and buzzwords come and go. But the basics always hold true. Yet this does not stop leaders from regularly making the following mistakes, so often that one can think of them as "normal."

Unfortunately, the fact that dysfunctionality is normal means that brand-destructive behaviors are normal too. Breaking these rules means you can't build a good brand (image) either internally, among employees, or outside the organization. The good news is that if you're smart enough to do the right thing, you have a natural advantage compared with most of the pack.

Mistake #1: Putting PR Before Culture
Every morning leaders wake up and are confronted with a) the crisis of the day b) nagging operational problems and c) the potential or actual bad things someone is saying about them in the news - or some combination of the above. Cultural problems are below that radar, both because they're less "in your face" and because leaders tend to be surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. A better question for leaders to ask themselves when they wake up in the morning is, "How engaged are my workers today?" Let's call that a key performance indicator (KPI). The job of the communicator is to help them boost that answer to "Very high."

Mistake #2: Equating Speaking With Communicating
This may come as a shock to leaders, but for a variety of reasons, people don't really take their speech as the truth. Rather they evaluate leaders' words against a) their actions b) other information they have through the grapevine and elsewhere c) what external sources are saying. For leaders, therefore, the job of communication is not so much to say something, but to say what needs to be said, what is true, and what will provide the audience with information or guidance that only they can offer.


Mistake #3: Disconnecting Communication and Culture
Because leaders are uncomfortable with the difficult aspects of communication - i.e. that people don't listen to them as if they're godlike; that their words might be used against them; that people want them to listen as much as to talk - they tend to focus on the "slick" aspect of communication (e.g. flashy multimedia presentations) and avoid the organizational development aspect. This manifests in job descriptions that emphasize high-tech communication skills and a preference for people who are absolutely fascinated by social media. It also manifests in a preference for "enthusiasm" over "experience," because an experienced communicator can call b.s. on the underlying premise of the communication, while an "enthusiastic" one is focused on how to make letters fly off a page.


Mistake #4: Ego, Insecurity, Getting Defensive
If any leader is thin-skinned, they have good reason. No matter what anyone says and no matter how prepared one is, being a leader is a difficult and lonely job. People criticize you no matter what. There is ultimately nobody who can tell you for sure whether your decisions are good or bad. Your staff is biased, because they have a vested interest in keeping you happy. And you have enemies who want your job, or who want you to fail. Not to mention that the measure of success is not necessarily clear. Nevertheless, if the thing that drives a leader is "wanting to be liked," or "wanting people to agree with me" - consciously or unconsciously - that leader is going to communicate poorly, because people will see that he or she has shut down. In the absence of honest conversation - not just communication but listening, and interchange - the leader misses out on the important and organization-saving feedback that employees could provide them.

Mistake #5: Avoiding The Difficult Conversations
Most internal communications columns talk about the importance of executives reaching out to frontline staff, or alternatively about the relationship between employees and their supervisors as primary carriers of information. But as important are the conversations that need to happen at the highest levels, between leaders and the executives they direct. It is incumbent on the leader to set and enforce a direction for the organization fearlessly, to recognize conflict and insist that it be resolved. This is not a duty that can be outsourced to a professional, although professionals can and should be consulted to help. When leaders are aligned throughout the organization and there is "peace in the kingdom," it is much easier to filter the message down to the troops as to which way the wind is blowing.

At the end of the day, none of these behaviors are directly destructive. They're not like guns; you don't pull the trigger on one of them and destroy the brand. They are more like denying a person food and water. The person can go on for a time, subsisting on the nutrients they have stored in their bodies. But over a longer period they just can't. The prolonged lack of strategic information, opportunities for feedback, and plain and simple understanding of what's happening choke out their engagement and finally their goodwill. Until ultimately they're left to count the days till they can leave, transfer, or retire altogether.

Meanwhile the collective weight of this disengagement drags the organization down, and cracks start to occur, that ultimately can pull the organization apart.

Poor internal communication may be normal for leaders. But normal is no guarantee the organization will thrive, or even survive.