Thursday, October 31, 2013

'Black Swan' and the Fallacy of Neutrality

Ballerinas must be good or evil. Natalie Portman in Black Swan

The other day I was fascinated by Target's decision to carry (kosher) Meal Mart pastrami and corned beef in one of its stores. Just the sight of it brought back so many good memories. 

At the same time it was jarring to see the brand in Target. In my mind it belonged on the Upper West Side or in Monsey. I should have had to order it on the Internet and have it delivered in dry ice.

"That is fascinating," I said to my daughter. "Who would have thought that a Target out here would have this?" And I pointed to the meat.

"Why do you like marketing so much?" she said to me.

The question caught me aback. Why do I like marketing? What a crazy question!

Doesn't everybody?

I tried to explain it to her. What fascinates me about marketing is the play between truth and its representations. That is, I know that there is essential reality and I know that there are ways of describing it. 

The tension between the two, the need to be selective and intentional, the manipulations and omissions and subterranean "narrative wars" that influence public opinion to the point where we make war or decide to have peace - these are what keep me thinking and reading.

For example the current Washington meme, "We've had too much divisiveness." And how that is used to push an agenda across, not to actually bring people together.

Or the new "hold me accountable," when there is a lack of clear and meaningful action to support those appetizing and long-awaited words.

We learned a long time ago in sociology school that disinterested inquiry is a lie. That's a fancy way of saying - you've always got an opinion.

They had a lot of seminars and incomprehensible books about the subject as I recall. And they all started with the word "post." Postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial. "After."

The basic idea was - we used to be able to call a thing a thing. And now we know, that it is we who are doing the calling.

So when I view an object it is totally different from when you view it. In branding terms, I see pastrami and think of satisfaction, the Sabbath, childhood. Maybe you see it and don't even know what it is. You skipped it because it was the kosher section, just like I would not know what to do with many of the products arranged in the Goya aisle.

It gets even more interesting. The pastrami only becomes pastrami through the process of treating the meat. In an earlier phase it is a calf, then a cow. Then a dismembered corpse. Then a huge rack of raw meat. Much later on it gets shrinkwrapped and a label and we can relate to it as a certain "thing."

What about the fact that I am an object also to myself. In other words, I do not observe the pastrami like a microscope examines a cell. In fact, I observe myself observing. And the reflection changes the nature of that observation. You see this in interviews and focus groups: As soon as I know I am being watched, I change what I think - say - do.

That's why it's better to observe people in a natural shopping environment than to ask them about it. My students used to do this in Consumer Behavior. Throw your textbooks in the trash and watch people. Ask Procter & Gamble about professional anthropology - it is how they make a living.

Hook up people's brains to track their brain wave activity when exposed to a brand. Don't ask them directly - look.

Methodology. How do I know that what I know is true, when multiple perspectives are equally valid and when a single person's perspective will definitively change over time - perhaps even in a single day?

I don't. 

I only know myself, and the only defense against biased judgment is to question oneself and allow others in to do the questioning.

We keep on wishing for neutrality. We want our doctors, our judges, our Presidents to have it. But nobody does. The scientist in the lab coat has made a choice about what to study, has a limited set of tools and their frameworks are dated almost before they begin. 

Even G-d is not neutral - having a vested interest in our growth and evolution toward higher beings.

Neutrality can be made more possible of course. Discussion of limitations, the consistency of rules for investigation, the opening of work to peer review. Why do I think a ballerina must be "pure"?

In the end it is more interesting to be human. And to find out how other human beings think, what they want, and how they're trying to get there by influencing me.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Why Public Affairs Needs A "Brand Hijack" (Toward A Truly User-Driven Engagement Strategy)

Branding has evolved from an advertising-driven discipline to one that is led by social media. This is a scenario in which the user dictates the nature of the brand rather than the brand dictating an image to the user.

The idea that people would be "talking back" to, co-creating, and even overriding Big Brands was unheard of in the age of "Mad Men," but we are seeing this scenario come to pass.

The trend began with a move from solely externally focused branding to externally and internally focused communication in which the brand was said to have "values" that translated to all stakeholders. It is continuing as message senders recognize they must have more than the public's attention in order to be successful.

It's about having a pool of information or content that the user reaches into, pulls something out of, negotiates with in their mind, and returns in the form of an opinion, a creative piece of content, a mashup - a.k.a. "curation."

(A perfect example: The viral Saturday Night Live sendup of on October 26, 2013.)

In the future public engagement is going to mean a fundamental change in the nature of public engagement activities. This post describes what those are, in the form of a Q&A I posted to Quora.

The bottom line is, if public engagement is your goal, then you are in effect selling a message.

To sell that message effectively, you must be completely focused on the user - what they want to hear, how they want to hear it, and what methods make the transmission of information credible.

As the public grows more and more comfortable talking to each other and talking back, the traditional "shove a message down their throat with a press release" is going to be worse than irrelevant. While government will always need to be concerned with providing validated information, its job is not to decide what information the public "should" want to hear but rather to give them the information they demand.

Consequently, the job of the outreach specialist is to find interested parties where they congregate, offer consumable information there, and participate in the conversation that ensues.

The definition of success, in this environment, is a robust conversation - one in which disagreement is not only tolerated but celebrated - one in which all are invited to participate.

Here is the Q&A.

Who originally came up with things like 'brand values', 'missions', 'visions' and models like the 'brand pyramid'? I'm interested in the history of brand strategy. I've read lots of books on brand strategy, and none of them talk about where these ways of doing things came from. Did they come from *someone*? From P&G? Or elsewhere? -  From the Brand Strategy topic page, Quora

(originally posted by me to

  • Concepts tying the brand to a personality, or a set of values or a kind of mission, did not go mainstream until the late 2000s and probably coincide with the popularization of Facebook. 
  • It was only then that - due to social media - the wall between the personal and the professional crumbled to the point that one had to espouse certain personal values in order for those to be taken seriously as part of one's external image.
  • As far as models, they became popular around the mid-2000s as the term "branding" gained currency and everyone wanted to claim a piece of the pie with their own 'methodology'. This especially true around brand equity models.
  • This is my perspective as someone who has worked in branding since 2000. I was hired as VP & Editorial Director for the Brand Futures Group that year; it's a small trendspotting think-tank that was part of Young & Rubicam. (Later they were renamed The Intelligence Factory). 
  • The focus back then was strictly on branding as an offshoot of advertising. That was it: Ads came first, ads built brands, brands added value, and we predicted the trends that would make ads meaningful.
  • When we did research on branding we focused on consumer behavior - not on the relationship between the organization and the employee. It would have been unheard of to call that "branding."
  • In 2001 I was hired by a small company in Washington, DC called The Brand Consultancy which focused on something called "internal branding." This is where you get the whole language of vision, mission, brand values, and so on. 
  • This was completely fascinating to me as a native sociologist and latent organizational development specialist. In the year that I spent working for Y&R I thought that branding was about predicting social behavior. I wrote things like "one day we'll show allegiance to our favorite brands with tattoos" and "we'll be seeing the emergence of single-on-purpose women as a target audience". 
  • But TBC did something completely different. They talked about the brand on the inside, with "Brand Bibles" and training books and concepts like "operationalizing the brand." 
  • The company actually represented a merger between two smaller consultancies, and I had the opportunity to learn directly from the principals regarding how they coached, poked and prodded CEOs into branding not the products but the workforce.
  • As I recall the business was divided between advertising-type services (e.g. logo); brand-type services (e.g. assessment; strategy); and hybrids (e.g. a well designed Brand Bible).
Key Concepts

It was also around this time that I learned about concepts like brand transparency and corporate social responsibility. It became clear to me that every company would have to embrace these as part of their strategic communication plans.

I also led an early social network on Yahoo! Groups where we discussed these topics internationally; wrote articles for a website called Page on AllAboutBranding; and continued researching and writing even after taking a job with the Federal government. 

Brand Values Over The Years
  • The Federal position I received in 2003 was with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency as a writer-editor in Internal Communications. While there, I obtained a graduate certificate in Organization Development and set about creating "advertorials" aimed at internal audiences to "brand" the agency to them. I also became involved in best practices groups that espoused early forms of what was soon to go mainstream - "employee first" brand thinking. I even produced an internal rating system for newsletter articles to promote transparency and engagement, but it was rapidly shot down a few years ahead of its time.
  • Around 2005 I was hired to work in the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, but neither there nor in my first federal job were the words "internal branding" ever uttered. They literally thought of the brand as the name and logo - nothing else. I even did a mission integration project - but it was never called "internal branding."
  • Around 2009 "employer branding" became important as a tool for recruitment and to that end "internal branding" involved a discussion of mission, vision and values.
  • Also around this time social media began to go really mainstream, although initial use was as a means to "spam" the community with one-way messaging.
  • By 2012 things had definitively shifted. I worked for USAID, and it became incredibly important to senior leadership that employees believe in the brand just as much as external parties did. While there, I personally helped lead a mission and values initiative aimed at rediscovering who we were - and in the process raising productivity and morale.
  • Similarly, in my current position at The National Archives, that concept of embodying a set of values is critical. We have an entire internal social network where discussions frequently take place about living up to our mission and core values.
Looking Ahead

In the future I think things are going to go even further, as people demand to look behind the curtain at the brand and mistrust the "official word" in all its forms.

It's really about fostering a conversation between social media and branding, understanding that you cannot be fully authentic all the time nor would you want to be projecting an artificial image.

Three basic changes will go mainstream:
  1. People will want to hear from ordinary members of the organization - NOT "flacks," e.g. public relations representatives. This "brand authenticity" will be demanded. Those who do not comply will be mercilessly made fun of, discredited or ignored. Eventually, for the most part, ordinary staff will be encouraged to speak freely about the company rather than  having the company speak for them.
  2. Disagreements by staff that are expressed in public will not be cause for alarm. It will be acknowledged that having your own ideas is a sign of credibility and will actually make the organization more engaging.
  3. Social media strategy will assume prime importance to brand strategy. It will consist of finding where the conversation is taking place, responding to the questions that users have, and accepting their criticism respectfully. This is the complete opposite of "projecting" a false brand image which has been the traditional cornerstone of branding and is rapidly falling away.
Landmark Publications Around Y2K
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto - which told me it would not be long before people started to talk back to the image makers.
  • "Are The Strategic Stars Aligned For Your Brand?" in Harvard Business Review, by Majken and Schultz - I learned that branding is a holistic exercise connecting internal and external audiences.
  • "The Brand Called You" in Fast Company, by Tom Peters - I learned that you personally would become the product - just as much as the product you sell - and how to optimize my "personal brand" accordingly. 
  • An article I got to later on was Gallup's "The Fifth P" or how people are the un-discussed essential factor in marketing.
* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tim Ferriss Was Right, After All

Graphic by me. Balloon via and Woman With Juice via Freestockphotos.

It is hard to believe that you can actually work less and have more. But Tim Ferris was right, at least in concept. The "4-Hour Workweek" is an achievable ideal -- not a pipe dream.

Being calm, cool and collected frees your mind. It creates the space within which you create, innovate and learn. To achieve this state of mind, you have to "work" less.

(True creativity is a different kind of work -- it's the "zone" or the "flow" within which you achieve exponential gains.)

The free and sharp mind solves problems innately. Avoiding unnecessary work. Saving money.

Too often we look at busy people and think, "Wow, they must be so productive." But that is so not true. Crazy busy is a sign things are out of control, or that the person is unable to stop working - not healthy or balanced at all.

Other people make a living out of doing very little with the appearance of business. It is almost an art form to be typing away, shooing people off, looking very purposeful and yet having nothing to do and nowhere to go. It's actually an amazing skill.

Finally there are those who make no pretense of the matter. They simply don't do very much, they don't care who knows it, and they're glad to be left alone as much as possible.

The truth is we always need a balance of people to make the workplace hum. Some people do well at a busy pace, and that's fine. Others like to take it slow, and they're happy to do things that others don't have patience for. 

But we shouldn't mistake a mix of personalities for an acceptable level of drag. Unhelpful people, useless projects, initiatives that cost more than they benefit -- we should not be afraid to ruthlessly cut. 

Initially this approach feels painful. But in the end it benefits the person, the team and the whole organization.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, October 21, 2013

10 Things Your Employees Can't Tell You (But Wish You Would Figure Out Already)

Photo by Ianus via Flickr

1. You're overloading us without making priorities clear.

2. You're not holding the slackers on our team to account.

3. We can't get the approvals you insist on in a timely fashion.

4. You are inconsistent about rules.

5. We can't find you when we have questions.

6. Stop acting like a "friend" and start listening to our feedback.

7. We have no idea what's going on around here.

8. That thing that happened...what's the real story?

9. Everything's changing and I can't keep up. (Or you refuse to change anything.)

10. I'm giving this job my best, and you don't seem to notice.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sandra Bullock, 'Gravity' & America's Comeback

Revolutionary War - The Capture Of Yorktown. Lithograph by Turgis. 148-GW-565. Image via the National Archives.

In 'Gravity' Sandra Bullock plays a mother who lost her child "stupidly." And she walks around in a stupor of grief.

When we first see her in the movie she is battling a cold and her grief to complete a NASA mission with two colleagues.

Almost immediately "Houston" announces a problem - serious debris is headed their way, so bad it's knocked out "everybody's Facebook" on Earth. 

It shouldn't stop the mission. But of course it does. And Sandra Bullock isn't safe in her little cocoon anymore. Not the cocoon of her family. Not the cocoon of her ship.

There are many ways to look at this movie. At the end of it I was thinking of America.

We are looking at problems too numerous to mention. We do not want to think they will hit us like space debris, and knock out the life we currently know. In a serious way. The kind that will leave us gasping for oxygen -- dead or enslaved to poverty, disease, terrorists.

But those problems can hit us. And it will be worse if we hide from the possibility.

In the movie Bullock's problem is not the inability to survive. She has the tools.

The problem is lack of will. She is so grief-stricken she no longer wants to live.

It is only when she decides to fight back or die that she achieves her own kind of victory.

America can learn from Bullock's character in the movie. 

We can overcome all the troubles that we face.

But first we have to break the cocoon of denial.

Decide we won't accept less than abundant success.

And fight our way back to realize our true potential as a nation.

'Gravity' shows it is never a negative situation that defines us. Rather, we are successful when we face trouble directly and decide that we will fight to overcome it or die trying.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

5 Types Of People On Every Manager's "A" Team

If confronted with a random crowd, who would you pick to work for you, and why?

It's an important question because it enables you to take the perspective of the boss. 

Lacking that perspective, people at work tend to waste a lot of time on irrelevant stuff while ignoring the things they really need to be doing.

They want to do well but do not realize what their manager actually cares about. Yes doing your job matters, but there is more.

What follows are five "ideal types" of employees every manager wants on their team. 

1) The "All-Around"

Consistent, reliable, skilled. Knows a little bit about how every aspect of the operation works. Works within the system to achieve real results. Performs the work then looks for ways to work smarter. 

2) "Special Forces"

Innovative and technically capable. Independently keeps up with the latest developments in their field. Especially good in a crisis.

3) "The Volunteer"

Willing to jump in and help, no questions asked. Does grunt work without complaining. Supports team initiatives even if they don't totally understand why they matter, or if they might not work.

4) "The Voice of Conscience"

Uses their critical thinking to provide constructive feedback. They may say negative things, but their goal is to help the group succeed. If they are really good they bring solutions.

5) "The Caregiver"

Reaches out to other team members to help them through challenging times. Tracks special days. Points out overlooked sensitivities. Makes the overall environment more pleasant.

All of these types are valuable and the qualities are not mutually exclusive. What they share is an ability to contribute to a group effort above and beyond one's own self-promotional interests. 

When your success aligns with your manager's interests you have the basis for a long-term, meaningful and win-win business partnership.

*All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

5 Things Apple Can Learn From Xiaomi

Speaker phone

For its October 8 edition, The Wall Street Journal interviewed Lei Jun, founder of Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. I saved the article because Jun made a number of important points for Internet companies generally:

1. Selling things for free

Lei alluded to the concept of an "Internet thought process," in which users see the Web as inherently free. Therefore, sell products "as close to the cost of materials as possible" and make money from selling add-on services, such as apps, movies and accessories.

2. Have a mascot for your brand

Xiaomi has a rabbit. You can pick your own mascot. But you should have a physical, visual symbol that is accessible to fans. Another company, Sweet Frog (yogurt), does something similar through selling their distinctive frogs.

3. Include users in the design

Users are in the best position to know how well the product is working and they feel a sense of engagement when you let them into the design process, says Lei. This is not exactly a new idea conceptually, but letting people into the operating system of a smartphone takes things to another level. Lei also makes the point that allowing users to participate in the design means they will serve as brand ambassadors.

4. Don't be afraid to copy what works

Lei emulates the late Steve Jobs by wearing distinctive clothing (dark shirts) and making visible appearances at "high-profile product releases."

5. Be honest, but not overly so

Asked to compare his company with Apple and Samsung, Lei says, "We have some parts that are weaker than them, some parts that are better." He does not tell the whole story, nor does he feel compelled to.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Healthcare For All: Let's Make The Shot

We have all been to the emergency room at some point in our lives. And we have all seen poor families holding their sick children and elderly parents and praying that someone will help them.

It is a basic social need and duty to help those who can't help themselves. But we've gotten so busy fighting each other that we can't see our way clear to do that. Here is a suggested approach.

1. Forget the past and focus on moving forward. Not just politicians, all of us. The reality is that universal healthcare is a universal goal. The current version has its roots in the Clinton administration and integrates Republican input, such as the belief that people should buy their own coverage (the "individual mandate") rather than being automatically covered as under a socialized medicine system. As Ezra Klein notes,
"Members of the Republican Party didn’t express concerns that the individual mandate might be an unconstitutional assault on liberty when they devised the idea in the late 1980s, or when they wielded it against the Clinton White House in the 1990s, or when it was passed into law in Massachusetts in the mid-2000s."
Yes, the website is messed up - we can't pay the bills - we haven't got the details right. Now tell me something I don't know.

2. Take meaningful corrective action. Let's be blunt: The situation right now is bad for Democrats even if they think they are winning in the  polls. Even former presidential aide Robert Gibbs called the rollout an "excruciatingly embarrassing" disaster. Late-night comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart painfully said to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on national TV: 
“I’m going to attempt to download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first.”
From a communication and a policy point of view, the President as our top leader has got to own the problem by saying:
  • Yes we screwed up the launch, for reasons to be understood and shared down the road. But the concept of healthcare reform is right. 
  • I need everyone's help in fixing this. Social responsibility and fiscal discipline go together.
  • Here's what we are going to do.
And then outline something like the following - the action plan:
  • Remove from the website project those who did not deliver or who cannot meaningfully contribute to its repair. 
  • Take legal action to recover as much money as possible from the nonperforming vendors. 
  • Review the agency process for managing this contracting process.
  • Release the list of companies who worked on the site, how much they were paid, and for what. The Sunlight Foundation has tried to piece together the list of contractors, but this is not a substitute. (Update October 16: The main contractor was CGI Federal and it's not clear whether they actually had to compete for the job, which is strange given its massive scope and importance. It's also not clear that they were the best company to carry out the work. See GAO denial of CGI bid protest against the HHS' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2010.)
The contracting piece is essential to the public's trust particularly in light of the charge being thrown around about favoritism.

(It may actually be a blessing that people can't enroll right now, because cybersecurity experts have pointed out specific significant ways the initial version of the site puts users at risk of identity theft, such as "login fraud," "cookie theft," clickjacking," and "request forgery.") 

3. Assume a united front. Every single word out of leaders' mouths should be inclusive from here on out. This means the negative rhetoric and name-calling finally comes to an end. 

For example, Presidential media adviser Dan Pfeiffer compared opponents of Obamacare to suicide bombers, telling CNN, “What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest." Meanwhile, the Republicans repeatedly used the line, that "the White House will negotiation with the atomic ayatollahs but not with House Republicans." 

Another positive move would be to stop calling the Affordable Care Act "Obamacare." Republicans and Democrats agree on the need for a solution to the healthcare crisis, so it is counterproductive to make it a political win for one side. I remember when the President Clinton's healthcare reform was doomed at least in part by the negative moniker people gave it, "Hillarycare."

4. Crowdsource via the public. Government crowdsourcing is nothing new - nearly 10 agencies already use it - and there are untold numbers of people with time on their hands and a passion for helping government work better. How about the Code for America folks? Set up a space, virtual and/or in-person, where the public can get together to set up a website that actually works. Understanding that bad actors can try to infiltrate the process, establish government-managed protocols for keeping cybersecurity a #1 priority.

5. Recall additional furloughed government employees to assist. While it is not my call to say who is essential, the website is reliant on contractor execution, and it will take more than a few days to fix, it still seems to me that we should find a way to leverage federal web management expertise across the board. While, as the Office of Personnel Management states, "an affected agency would have to shut down any activities funded by annual appropriations that are not excepted by law," the Washington Post reports that agencies are bringing some employees back with various justifications. President Obama himself has said that restoring the functionality of is critical and people are working "around the clock" at the Department of Health and Human Services to fix it. We should bring additional HHS staff back as essential, and explore finding ways to put the government's top web specialists on the project as part of a temporary detail.

* All opinions my own. Thanks to Andy Blumenthal for the feedback.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Shut Down, But Not Shut Out: Achieving Productivity During Difficult Times

One of the most demoralizing things about the shutdown is that feeling of losing control over your life.

But the fact that you are powerless over one thing, does not make you powerless over everything. 

The news had a story about federal employees who volunteered at Martha's Kitchen in D.C. I thought it was awesome that they were giving to others at a time when they could easily have sat around feeling sorry for themselves.

I'm not as noble as them, unfortunately. But I do feel kind of good about how I'm spending my time. In addition to looking for freelance work that doesn't conflict with my job (hard to do when I can be called back any time, any day now), here's what I've been doing:
  1. Blogging more about things that are practical, and starting a larger writing project that is meaningful to me.
  2. Spending more time with my family.
  3. Self-training on computer programming.
  4. Implementing the techniques for healthy eating I've been reading about: blend veggies in a smoothie, pre-make salads once a week, 100% seaweed that tastes like a potato chip. Tea.
  5. Reading the actual newspaper in print.
  6. Walking a little bit more each day.
  7. Reading about do-it-yourself projects, like making a server or computer-charging backpack at home.
  8. Adding to the music collection.
  9. Fixing up the home, throwing out junk, cleaning, etc.
  10. Giving myself permission to relax, and spend time reflecting on what really matters to me in life. 
Before we know it we will be back at work again. We will remember what we did during this time. However we spent our time, let's make the memories something worth reflecting on with pride.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

For An Office of Federal Communications, OMB

Imagine if the federal government employed pilots who couldn't fly. Doctors that couldn't do surgery. Lawyers who couldn't analyze a case. Budget analysts who couldn't add. Computer scientists who couldn't read code. Criminal investigators who could not track a suspect. And so on.

What would happen to the troops overseas absent intelligence analysts at home?

Yet we have no problem with obvious communication blunders on the part of the Federal government. The reason of course is that we do not see the financial cost of poor communication right away, or in a tangible way. But of course they are there. For example:
  • Waste, fraud and abuse: Due to duplicative outreach by multiple agencies, i.e. human trafficking campaigns. Due to allowing agencies to buy unnecessary outreach services. Due to excessive reliance on vendors for web design and failure to manage their implementation, as occurred with the launch of the Obamacare system. Of course poorly conceived outreach campaigns and badly designed websites create a situation where thieves can lure the public into paying for what is already free, or giving away information on a copycat website.
  • Unmotivated employees, retraining costs, loss of institutional knowledge, and high recruitment costs: Due to a ignoring federal employees as an audience - not only an audience of each individual agency. Due to a systemic lack of upward feedback channels and the threat of retaliation for whistleblowing. Due to a fundamental lack of understanding about what promotes good morale and what doesn't - for example the ATF's recent decision blocking a manuscript on "Fast and Furious." The opposition itself is going to generate a lot of press, which is going to make them look bad, and cause the media to re-visit a scandal dealt with years ago.
  • Anti-government sentiment and possibly failure to comply with the law: Due to the failure of government communicators to proactively or defensively respond in crisis situations. Consider the bumbling responses to Edward Snowden's theft of information from NSA, the "incompetence, not malice" Benghazi defense; Kathleen Sebelius' poor performance on the Jon Stewart show regarding Obamacare, leading his calling her a liar. Lack of a plausible explanation for the Department of Justice Associated Press investigation led Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein to excoriate this. Recently, New York Times reporter David Sanger called the current Administration "the most closed, closed, control-freak I've ever encountered."
The preacher Joel Osteen says "don't bring a problem to your boss without also bringing a solution." I work for the federal government, so here is a suggestion. 

McKinsey veteran Beth Cobert has been nominated Chief Performance Officer at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a choice that both sides of the aisle appear to welcome.

Respectfully, I suggest setting up an Office of Federal Communications within her purview. It would be situated alongside the Offices of Federal Financial Management; Federal Procurement Policy; E-Government and Information Technology; Performance and Personnel Management; and Information and Regulatory Affairs. 

This Office would save money by eliminating duplicate work by individual agencies and it would be funded by the agencies where the money was saved. It would:
  1. Serve as a liaison between the White House and federal agencies, coordinating official communications internally and externally. 
  2. Establish a governmentwide brand council overseeing communications from visual coordination to standardized content. This would include standard templates and elements for government communication to ensure consistency and comprehensiveness.
  3. Establish governmentwide structures, guidelines, and ethics rules for federal agency communication including public affairs, information dissemination, websites, social media, mobile and other forms of new media. 
  4. Establish a government speakers' council where any subject matter expert in any agency can sign up to learn how to communicate effectively in the media, and can then be free to explain agency activities within the bounds specified by governmentwide rules.
  5. Establish a mechanism to review outreach contracts per agency above a certain threshold for signs of waste, fraud and abuse and to discover possible means of consolidation with other agencies.
  6. Stand up a governmentwide customer service center to include service by email, chat, and telephone staffed by representatives from individual agencies but managed by a single source.
  7. Centralize and manage open data posting and accessibility via the Web.
  8. Establish the Federal Communication Training Institute, dedicated to enhancing employee skills and ensuring that people representing the government meet qualifying standards.
  9. Establish a governmentwide Internal Communications Network within which employees can form a broad social network, communicate and collaborate simply and effectively.
  10. Formalize the Federal Communicators Network as a network of Agency communicators represented in the Office so that decisions can be coordinated at the Agency level and customized in a way that makes sense for each particular mission.
Communication is a fundamental management activity. And yet communication is ignored in a fundamental, systemic, proactive way. A recent poll stated that less than half of Americans, 49% (an "all time low") think the government is capable of handling problems. 

If we really want to serve the public well, prepare for unforeseen crises, and reduce unnecessary spending at the same time, we should stop ignoring the hidden costs of communication incompetence by the government. And set a goal of increasing public confidence in our reliability to at least 75%. 

* All opinions my own.

Monday, October 7, 2013

5 Elements of Stephanie Cutter's PR Genius

I don't agree with Stephanie Cutter's politics. But every time I see her on TV, I find myself taking notes. In a cluttered field of talking heads she comes across as committed, credible, consistent and extraordinarily skilled at what she does.

Here she is in an interview on CNN discussing the current government shutdown.

Watching closely, there are at least 5 tactics she employed that translate into any situation:

1. Acknowledgment: Cutter is in touch with the popular consciousness. She begins by acknowledging what the audience is thinking, even if it may technically hurt her side: In a shutdown, "nobody wins."

2. Attack: Cutter is direct, not tentative or mealymouthed. She goes after the opposition head-on, claiming that the shutdown is a crisis that the Republicans "manufactured." She also calls the Republicans arsonists.

3. Think High-Contrast: She tells a very simple, black-and-white story in which her client is good and the opposition is bad. I can easily imagine myself nodding my head as she explains how a faction of the Republican party ran a campaign to derail Obamacare by holding the government hostage, how this is bad, and how the American people should blame them.

4. Narrow It Down: Cutter pins the blame on a single person or small group rather than an abstract entity: The shutdown is "a crisis that your guest (Ted Cruz) manufactured."

5. Clothes To Keep Yourself Out Of It: Cutter dresses in a way that does not distract from her message: black blazer and thin gold necklace, conservative hairstyle and minimal makeup.

Cutter is frequently on CNN and there are videos of her talking on YouTube. Any PR professional would do well to reach into their desk drawer and pull out a sheaf of notes from Cutter's playbook.

* All opinions my own.

Fair Trade In A Bad Economy

On October 6 the Associated Press shared its analysis of global spending. The bottom line is that people are hoarding cash - avoiding debt, avoiding the stock market:

"A flight to safety on such a global scale is unprecedented since the end of World War II."

According to the article, the consumer is holding fast to their money because they are nervous about putting it in the hands of Wall Street or Main Street: The watchword is "safety."

At the same time people are showing an increasing willingness to pay more for products that are marked "fair trade." According to one report the market was up 19% in 2012 to £1.57 billion.

Clearly the fair trade customer is not holding fast to cash, but they are socially conscious. How do you get them to spend more, when they see that others have less? And if perhaps they're worried about a downturn themselves?

On a bright sunny day we visited Tenfold, a store in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia that may provide some answers. It had the elements of a fair trade retail brand with mass appeal in uncertain times.

First, the facade and exterior were charming and small-town - not in-your-face and overwhelming.

Second, the store was literally covered in Fair Trade messaging.

The merchandise was also beautiful. I am a handbag freak and was immediately drawn to the beautiful handmade items on display, with accompanying signs reassuring me that they actually were authentic.

Not only that but a lot of the material was imaginatively recycled too - to the socially conscious type and the customer who appreciates innovation. These handbags were made from recycled tires.

We appreciated the wide array of merchandise too. It was hard to believe you could put so many different kinds of things in such a small space.

It was also enthralling to see all the labels showing us the actual people who seemed to have made these products.

She is not pictured here, but the saleswoman also embodied the brand. Calm, friendly, helpful and very "chill." 

And when we paid, I felt like we were paying our fair share, not like we were being extravagant.

Here's the business card they had at the front desk. Check it out if you're ever in town. It was an immersive brand experience that guaranteed we would return again.

While I'm not sure that Tenfold will ever be a great brand - don't know if that's their ambition, and I'm not a huge fan of the name - it seems to have a lot of the ingredients.

* All opinions my own. Photos by me.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Is Your Mind Too Closed To See These 3 Brands Objectively?

Today we visited a park nearby. The trip just wasn't worth it.

"It's a great park don't you think?" I said bravely, wanting to make the best of it.

"No," responded my husband. "It's humid today, the park is crowded, and there are dogs everywhere. Plus I can hear the traffic."

"Well I had fun," I scowled. "Some date you are."

"Why can't you ever admit it when something is not right?"

He has a good point there. Because I am not emotionally invested in any brands per se, I can be objective about them.

Along these lines, here is some contrarian thinking on 3 frequently discussed brands:

1. Twitter - negative: Like Facebook it enjoys ubiquity and familiarity. But unlike Facebook there is no higher-level purpose. Not a good long-term investment plus we won't want to see ads or sponsored content on it.

2. Miley Cyrus - positive: Miley's songs are good and she has a relevant, appealing message for parents of Gen Yers: Leave us alone and let us work it out. She also is working her publicity angle well, outsmarting and outshining other attention-grabbing superstars.

3. The Democratic Party - negative: This is a party that enjoys a natural advantage with its promise of protecting the poor, elderly, weak and vulnerable and ensuring a level playing field. Yet seemingly everything they do looks bumbling, foolish, ill-conceived, like amateur hour. They have become complacent and worse, demonize those who offer legitimate criticism and opposition (which only bolsters its opposition).

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What If There Was A Shutdown & Nobody Cared?

Photo by Rebecca Wilson via Flickr

It's an unfortunate fact of life: "Man plans and G-d laughs."

From a communication perspective it was clear as Windex: The shutdown was a bargaining chip. The equivalent of: "You see? You see? We're gonna shut down the government, and then everyone will be mad at you."

Reminds me of those years when I tried, really tried to make a homemade dinner. What a good wife and mother I am, I told myself. How much appreciation I am entitled to.

Unfortunately I was allergic to that thing they call a "recipe."

So my kids ate anything but those dinners. Regularly they Tupperware-rotted in the fridge.

They didn't care.

Much like nobody seems to care about the government shutdown, other than those directly impacted in a negative way (note: I work for the government myself; all opinions my own).

For example, take these status updates, from a random Twitter search of "nobody cares" and "shutdown" done today, October 3, 2013:

Back to those dinners, and the psychology of threats and guilt, and how they backfire.

"One day you'll see how much you miss a homemade meal," I used to say. It was a power play of course. I was the mother, it was my kitchen, I decided what to make and how to make it, and they should simply "appreciate" me, i.e. let me mow them down.

What an arrogant attitude I had. But in fact it sounds a lot like traditional government. With its remoteness to what people actually want and need. Its insistence on crafting programs that are bloated, bureaucratic, and not financially workable in the long term.

In fact, the parallel is exact. Just like ordinary people want the government to get out of the business of pretend-business that runs nothing like a business, so too did my family want me out of the kitchen if I stubbornly refused to learn how to cook.

"I love you," my husband would say. "But please stop cooking. Please!"

It's tempting when you have power to make your wish into a threat. The famous red line. "Don't you dare!" "I'm warning you!"

But threats only work under certain circumstances:

  • You see your target as a person not a thing.
  • You clearly understand what motivates them.
  • You are ready, willing, and able to act.
  • The action you take is likely to work.
  • You are prepared to handle the consequences.

In short, you have to know what you're doing.

Here's what happens when you don't:

What will the government say after the shutdown, if the citizens write in with a petition, and calling for all "non-essential" agencies and/or offices to stay shuttered until the economy gets better?

Before you act, see things from the other person's perspective. Because you never, ever know what they are going to do.

And it isn't always nice.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Critics To The Gulag

Photo by Mouse via Flickr

Underneath my door was a piece of white paper, folded in three as if an old-fashioned letter. 

I told the staff to write me with feedback, questions and complaints and drop them in two plastic buckets on my desk. It never occurred to me they would not know when or how to step in to my office.

On leave for a couple of days, the note came in. I unfolded it and read.

My stomach gnawed a little in the negative parts. Need more clarity (ouch). Too much change (ouch again). But honestly I was happy too. Someone actually cared, and more than that felt empowered enough to speak up.

The branch chiefs and I talked about the letter. The staff got a point-by-point response by the end of the day.

Countless studies show that the more helpless you feel, the more anxious and depressed you get. Dr. Martin Seligmann's is head of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and their work is completely centered on counteracting the depression that results when you believe you've lost control over your life.

Employees must have control over their work in order to be productive.

Disempowerment leads directly to depression and disengagement. In a collaboration-based knowledge economy, your depression leads to my depression and that is why negativity is the worst cancer a group of people in any organization can get. 

This is why great leaders will do anything to get their employees feeling engaged again. Even if it means they have to take some hits. Because empowered, strong, engaged employees actually want to come to work in the morning and do come up with impossibly great results.

The important thing a leader can do is get out of employees' way.

Yet too many leaders fail at this fundamental task. 

Poor leaders thrive on the people's helplessness. 

They know that they are ineffective, so they employ a multitude of tactics aimed at avoiding accountability. These fall into four basic categories (the same four categories as positive leadership would):

1. Strategy
  • Engendering Crisis: They don't have a plan for readily anticipated crises in advance, and they don't seem to care. There always seems to be an out-of-control situation causing panic, fear, and insecurity. 
  • Hired Guns: They recruit credible third parties to represent their positions as brand ambassadors. Even though their positions may defy reality.
  • Trivial Pursuits: Using popular culture to sway public opinion, e.g. focusing excessively on interviews in the press or overemphasizing employee softball games or volunteer events
2. People
  • The Blame Game: It's always somebody else's fault. The leader is helpless in the clutches of whoever is the bad guy (or girl) of the day, or conversely when they exercise their power poorly and engender criticism, it's the other side's fault for opposing them.
  • Sniper Tactics: They carry out negative actions against other people, but avoiding being personally linked to them. 
  • Class Warfare: Defining some groups or people as "good" and others as "bad," "wrong," or "evil."
3. Process
  • Rules Don't Matter, But I Make the Rules: The leader insists that the situation is so dire, or that the rules are so inflexible, that they must simply act without waiting and yet they tend to make new rules that others must follow which support their priorities.
  • My Way Or The Highway: The leader impatiently insists on doing things their way, and threatens implicitly or explicitly that those who disagree or disobey will be sanctioned. 
4. Communication
  • Burying The Facts: Delay, obfuscation, complexity, confusion, jargon, lengthy reports, complication, distorted visual images, avoidance of documentation, and so on.
  • Propaganda: Rhetoric, manipulation, distortion, table-turning, outright lies; anyone who disagrees is crazy, ignorant, or evil. 
  • Silencing The Critics: Silencing, marginalizing, targeting, and retaliating against critics spontaneously and systemically. Establishing a system of institutional groupthink such that no opposition is legitimate.
All of us in leadership roles make a ton of mistakes. A ton of them. But that doesn't mean we are failures.

Rather the failure is in mowing over our employees' feedback. Refusing to give them a direction. Insisting that at every moment we know best. And acting like the skills they bring to the table are irrelevant.

We can move from negative to positive pretty quick. But first we have to read the letter.

* All opinions my own.

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