Monday, June 28, 2010

Social Media Is Not A PR Suicide Mission

“The dream is always the same,” as Tom Cruise said in Risky Business.


I’m sitting in my boss’s office nervously. She is waving some papers around as I squirm. She looks me right in the eyes and says:


“You’ve been on Twitter and Facebook and the message boards and blogs. You’ve seen the crazy things people post there.”


Yes, I nod.


“And you’re saying that we should get involved? Without moderating the comments or controlling the message in any way?”


Again, yes. I gulp.
(My boss is nothing like this, by the way. And I have never gulped about anything. I never even say "gulp." I promise.)


“My G-d, you must be crazy. You are going to take us all down. You’re fired.”


This nightmare is a composite of everything I have absorbed about organizations and their decision-making processes about engaging in social media. And I mean a LOT of organizations over the course of the past 7 years, both anecdotally and as viewed through the filters of traditional and social media.


I am by nature a risk-averse person when it comes to work. I’m not a trust fund baby; just like everyone else I need to eat. But I also follow my mind and my gut when it comes to suggesting what will work. Not just because it seems to me the right thing to do, but because long-term you can’t produce effective PR and be a liar, or out of touch, or inefficient.


So I find myself caught in this really weird situation, where I’m advocating for the adoption of something that is – absolutely no doubt about it – going to cause people’s heads to roll. Because if in the past you could make mistakes and cover them up, social media deliberately lays them bare, so as to make people trust you before they find out and decide that you’re a snake. But using social media, like investing in the stock market, brings risk along with potential return: Sometimes those who screw up, or who simply decide to speak their minds without a filter, can and do get canned.


Let me say it flat out, in case you're missing my message: Social media is NOT about specific tools, like Twitter or Facebook or YouTube. Any of those can be co-opted to subvert the essential idea, which is to open up the organization to feedback by creating a space for public comment and by bringing the discourse to the town square.
Social media is about building a positive relationship with your stakeholders, by not only telling them the truth (that is PR 1.0) but letting them in to the building to do their own inspection (PR 2.0).


The result, if you do it with commitment and integrity, is increased credibility; a demonstration of real, ongoing accountability; and greater responsiveness to customer needs.


Now in the future this will not be an issue. Everybody will do it. But in the meantime we are transitioning from 1.0 to 2.0, and heads are spinning. People are understanding that investing in social media is NOT about happy Facebook pages and press releases cut into blog posts. It IS about completely overturning the balance of power between formerly inaccessible senior leaders and their customers. The strategy is to make that relationship better voluntarily, now, before the customers who already own social media tools, and use them,  throw the executives over the side of the boat and start steering it themselves.


I am not the first person to explain social media this way. There are tons of us out there, all spreading the word. Including many seemingly "old-fashioned" executives. But since the proof is in the pudding, if you look around you at what passes for official corporate social media, you will find very little in the way of filter-free independent speech and very much in the way of glorified marketing brochures.


I know that a lot of people really do "get it," even if they can't implement everything they know to be right. And I know that the future will be better than today. We will all look back on the day when social networking was viewed as suspicious time-wasting dillydallying and be really, really surprised. Sort of like looking back on 8-track cassettes. With a mindset that says, "How did we ever exist without that?" Social media is a completely different approach to life. It truly, truly is.


We are now in an age when information is shared so quickly that if you respond an hour after a Tweet spreads, you are literally behind the curve. The technology is moving so fast that people don’t need to access Facebook from their desktop computers anymore – they can simply reach out via their smartphones.


Most importantly, we are already in a time when an informal culture of etiquette has sprung up where most of the time, people are normal and supportive of each other, and productive, online – not evil malcontents who are trying to spread the equivalent of nuclear doom. (Not that there aren’t creeps out there – but they’re not the ruling class when it comes to the social networking kingdom.)
In the world we live in today, two prominent sisters can be lucky enough to have a glitzy reality show ("Kourtney and Khloe take Miami"), and yet one of them feels free enough to publicly call the other's boyfriend a "sociopath" because that is what her consciousness, and her conscience, tell her to say. It's not scripted and there is no evident worry that any of them will lose their celebrity status. The Kardashians and the possible-sociopath boyfriend get it; it's time for the rest of the world to catch up.


In my nightmare I am scared of my supervisor. That's not how it is in real life; I know she trusts me, and I know that full acceptance and use of social media is coming. But there are still people who are just not comfortable with it. They do not see an asteroid coming. That’s really their choice. But this attitude has its consequences.
One of the most prominent among those, one that the PR experts typically don't talk about, is a potential brain drain. Because the people who use social media personally, and specialize in it professionally, can't help but be excited about it. Their minds have been changed – their brains probably literally rewired – to suit an environment where information is fast, free, and comments are generously shared for the sake of growth. Where criticism is natural, change is constant, and unexpected glitches are crowdsourced for solutions without blaming people for being at the limits of their capacity.
Talented people like this can't wait forever to infuse their organizations with the new reality that so many people are already living. And they don't want to spin their wheels purveying a watered-down version of what social media can really do, or be always a few steps behind the curve. 


Ultimately, we will get there. Until then, I will be following new developments. On Twitter. On my smartphone. Or wherever new technologies might lead...

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Saturday, June 26, 2010

When Communication Betrays The Truth

(Gilad Shalit photo from Flickr titled "Day of Draft")

<<Date: Friday, June 11, 2010

Hello uncle Erwin,
This is Amir writing you after reading what you sent to my father. As you know, it was my unit and my friends who were on the ship. my commander was injured badly as a result of the "pacifists" violence. I want to tell you how he was injured so you could tell the story. it shows just how horrible and inhuman were the activists. my commander was the first soldier that rappelled down from the helicopter to the ship. when he touched ground, he got hit in the head with a pole and stabbed in the stomach with a knife. when he drew out his secondary weapon-a handgun (his primary weapon was a regular paintball gun- "tippman 98 custom") he was shot in the leg. he managed to fire a single shot before he was tossed from the balcony by 4 arab activists, to the lower deck (a 12 feet fall). he was then dragged by other activists to a room in the lower deck were he was stripped down by 2 activists. they took of his vest, helmet and shirt. leaving him with only his pants and shoes on. when they finished they took a knife and expanded the wound he already had in his stomach. they cut his ab muscles horizontally and by hand spilled his guts out. when they finished they raised him up and walked him on the deck outside. he was conscious the whole time. if you are asking your self why they did all that here comes the reason. they wanted to show the soldiers their commanders body so they will be demoralized and scared. luckily, when they walked him on the deck a soldier saw him and managed to shoot the activist that was walking him down the outside corridor. he shot him with a special non lethal bullet that didn't kill him. my commander managed to jump from the deck to the water and swim to an army rescue boat (his guts still out of his body and now in salty sea water). that was how he was saved. the activists that did this to him are alive and now in turkey treated as heroes. Im sorry if i described this with too many details, but I thought it was necessary for the credibility. please tell this story to anyone who will listen. i think that these days you are one of Israels best spokesman. my e-mail is (EMAIL ADRESS REMOVED.) Amir>>


Briefly - the so-called "peace activists" (a.k.a. terrorists) on the "Gaza flotilla humanitarian mission" literally ripped the guts right out of the first Israeli soldier onboard the ship and similarly mercilessly attacked the others. I write about this now because I just saw the above e-mail, and I thought it was worth sharing.

As a communicator I think about language a lot, obviously. And I don't know about you, but the term "peace activist" brings to my mind images of the "flower children" of the 1960s. You remember them: an entire generation in tie-dye, getting high, with "make love not war" bumper stickers, eating organic sprouts and hummus sandwiches, driving across country in minivans. Sometimes they staged protests, like sit-ins at Columbia. And sometimes those protests turned violent. But the Woodstock era is not remembered as a generation of hate.

In contrast, today's Gaza flotilla "peace activists" are all about metal clubs and knives and disembowelment and more. They in fact share the same objectives as the terrorist gang Hamas. And when Hamas is not busy planning suicide missions (i.e., blowing up buses and pizzerias) and shooting missles indiscriminately against civilian populations in Israel, they attack innocent Palestinians as collaborators. That is the polar opposite of "peace activism" -- it is barbarism and sadism.

Not to connect this with an experience that is trivial in comparison, but I cannot help but relate to this in my own way. A long time ago I worked as a counselor in summer camp. There was another kid there who hated me. I know this because he literally said: "I hate you." In response I said, "Why?" No answer to that except eight weeks of bullying, sometimes subtle and individual and other times overt and with his friends as laughing accomplices.

Some people are just not happy unless they're hurting somebody else. But they never admit that they're sadistic. Usually they blame the victim. As Hamas, and its fellow terrorists and anti-Semites, do to Israel every day, saying every step of the way that the Jewish state is responsible for the terrorists' own murderous aggression.

I hate that this conflict - this war - exists. I hate to see anybody suffer. I feel terrible for the plight of any innocent person (Israeli or Palestinian or otherwise) who is caught in the middle of this terrible conflict. But I know that as much as I wish the problem could be solved amicably, the Palestinians are hostage to terrorists now. Generations of them have been taught to hate Israel, and the Jewish people, wholly and irrationally. And they will therefore not be satisfied with anything other than "pushing the Zionists into the sea."

This past week the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren about the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit four years ago, in 2006. If you are not familiar with Shalit's plight, he was taken using a tunnel secretly and illegally created during a ceasfire between Hamas and Israel. Using something created during a time when Israel tried once again to make peace with terrorists.

Shalit has since been tortured and kept in solitary confinement, and his kidnapping reenacted with great joy by his takers.

Even if he does come back, Shalit will never be the same person he was when he left. Hamas, allies of the "peace activists," has used him to symbolically rape and torture Israel for the past four years, as they have with other victims that have been caught in their clutches.

May G-d have mercy on Shalit and all the innocent victims held hostage by terrorists.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I Hate Meetings And They Stink

I have had this happen to me SO many times.

I’m sitting in a meeting, and something is going on. Not something like an actual thing, but a tense, negative, or unproductive social dynamic between two people or within the group. I must be like the Terminator of sociology because I can actually sense these situations, like in the movie where the heat-seeking goggles glowed red when there were humans around.

Bad vibes like this are why I usually hate meetings. Particularly because people are generally averse to working out conflict openly, so I have to watch it and not talk while it’s actually going on. Just sit there and have to wait it out till it’s over and I can be real again.

Here are some examples beyond the usual Blackberry/smartphone/cell phone abuse—

1. Asserting, without explanation, that an idea will definitely not work
2. Completely ignoring a suggestion and going on to the next person
3. Making the “are you crazy?” face
4. Rolling eyeballs behind someone’s back
5. Responding to idea with blank stare/silence
6. Ganging up on someone (meeting their suggestion with two “no’s”)
7. Laughing at someone’s ideas
8. Standing up and leaving the meeting without explanation
9. Going into “deep chair slouch”
10. Closing eyes

True, sometimes I find myself entertained by the goings on. Sometimes I hear things that are funny, or the group gets along and there are decent jokes. Always there is some gossip, that’s not too bad. Meetings can be educational as well, seriously. But more often than not, as soon as they get into full swing I feel like I am nine years old again and watching a big family dinner degenerate.

Please don’t start writing comments about how YOUR place of work has fantastic meetings and how you feel bad for me, OK? It’s not about any particular agency; I’ve been around for more than a dozen years, both in government and outside it, and they all generally stink. As soon as you call it a “meeting” and whip out the leather portfolios and play business card roulette, group dynamics start going into motion and the pain begins.

I actually did have a good meeting recently. I had to participate in a phone call to plan for another meeting (yes, this is Washington, land of meetings) and to be honest I had dreaded the phone call all morning. Not because of the participants, but just because I get nervous about planned social interactions. Surprise surprise. My skin is about as thick as wax paper.

Then, mercifully, the whole thing lasted maybe 15 minutes. Fortunately for me most of the other participants did not remember to get on the call! And those of us that remained agreed: We were so relieved not to have to continue the meeting and everything would work out just fine and we would immediately get back to our cubes, or Starbucks or whatever place we could go to with our notebooks and hide from the rest of humanity to recover.

Actually, wait. I have to admit that I had another good meeting today. And that is because the vendor forgot to show up. We all sat around waiting for awhile until it was clear that we had been stood up, and it couldn’t properly be called a meeting anymore. That was when the dynamics stopped and we started to just be ourselves.

Maybe the problem with meetings is that we associate them with the pressure to seem like a grownup, when inside we’re all just little kids. We think that grownups at meetings have to show up and seem to know some amazing, mystical important thing. Like the meeting room is a gladiator ring, and our brains and smart mouths are our weapons. And if we don’t show up and fight, we’re dead.

And then there’s all this talk about being collaborative! And we’re surprised when people are not!

I wonder what life would be like at meetings if we forgot that we were at work. We could imagine that work is over, that it’s happy hour or back in college or even back to the days of our childhood, when we sat outside and waited on the porch for the ice cream truck.

My mother told me yesterday that some rabbits gave birth on her front lawn and the neighborhood girls hung around to watch as my mom figured out how to deal with it. I’m sure they gave her advice too. Maybe it was kind of a – meeting – because surely my mom called the neighbors and they all weighed in.

I know this sounds totally disgusting, the whole rabbits giving birth part, but I have a feeling that the rabbit meeting was sort of cool. Because the getting together was not about a fight to the death but rather about actually hanging out together and solving a problem too. Which is really what meetings should be about.

Elderly people know how to have meetings too. I see them sometimes hanging around in packs. Comparing notes, complaining, yakking away the time.

Funny how kids and the elderly seem to understand a paradox of time: how it can at once seem to stretch out endlessly and be just about gone. It’s not that they aren’t ever hostile to each other, just that they either haven’t learned or have gotten past the need to aggressively prove themselves by excluding or being hostile to others.

I say we get rid of meetings altogether and replace them with potluck lunches, vegan. Or make your own ice cream sundae parties. Or heck, we could just go out on the National Mall and ride bikes. Wait there for the ice cream truck.

Anything but try to act like grownups.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fear and Communication Don't Go Together

I saw a woman in the elevator yesterday. She was a Holocaust survivor
who once gave a short talk in synagogue about her experience in the
war. The talk made more than a few people cry, including me. She was
so brave. I can’t imagine how anyone could go through what she went
through and come out the other side. It hurt to hear the story but I
was grateful that she had shared it.

The woman in the elevator was with a friend who had also decided to
speak out. In fact she was on the way to the Holocaust Museum to sign
copies of her own book about the war. And I know of another person in
the community who published an account of his own at the age of 90.

There is a reason that people are publishing their stories in the
latter part of their lives. There is a reason they didn’t write about
it right away.

In my own family, when I was growing up, we never talked about the
war, though everyone was touched by it. Some were in the concentration
camps, some in labor camps. Others had to run, were detained,
separated from the family and all their belongings taken away. What
they knew of as home was destroyed. Those who weren’t physically
there, the children of the survivors and their relatives, were hurt by
the trauma felt by those that were.

Like a sponge I have soaked up this idea that I too should keep quiet.
But I was jarred when the journalist Helen Thomas unleashed an
anti-Semitic diatribe recently, and a lot of people, if not supporting
her, indicated that she was entitled to “free speech.” I realized that
I am entitled to the same free speech that she is, and that I have
never used it to speak out about the Jewish experience, of the
Holocaust or anything else. Her hatred had a voice, but the reality of
my people, suppressed, had none through me.

My “Zayde” (grandfather, on my father’s side) was in a labor camp
during the Holocaust. He didn’t talk about it and he didn’t let my
“Bubbie” (grandmother), my father or my aunt do so either. Zayde
married Bubbie after she had been liberated from Auschwitz. Not only
did they never talk about it, but according to my father, Zayde
survived the war by learning to lie, all the time, about anything and
everything. The capacity to lie meant the capacity to evade death,
because you never knew what a question really meant or how it would be
used against you.

Secrecy. No truth. No ability to talk.

My Zayde, whose job it was to tend the horses in the camp, didn’t let
the duplicity imperative keep him down. My father told me that he
instead chose to hide fellow inmates, shivering from the cold, under
the straw where the horses slept. Undoubtedly the guards would have
been murderous had they found out about that “exercise of agency,” as
the sociologists call it. In plain and simple terms, Zayde risked his
own life to lie even more than he had to, in an environment where even
obedience was suspect.

I would have liked to hear his story directly from him, while he was
alive. My dad says he and my grandmother told their stories to a
Holocaust documentarian once, but I am reluctant to press anyone to
see the video—I get the feeling that they talked out of a sense of
duty, and I am not supposed to see it.

Still, I am sad that my Holocaust stories come from the stories of
others, from the documentaries of others’ lives, and from depictions
in popular culture. My own Bubbie and Zayde, who were there, I still
don’t know even after they are gone.

I know they thought they were protecting me. That it was better for me
to focus on the future, on building a better life than the one they
had escaped. But no matter how hard they tried, I could see that my
grandmother’s eyes were vacant and sad. She spoke to me like you would
speak politely to a stranger. I didn’t understand that it had nothing
to do with me but with what had been taken from her. I wish that
someone would have explained. That she would have had the ability to
explain. That someone had not stolen from her the fundamental right to

My mother’s parents are gone, too. I know more about them than I do
about my father’s parents. They weren’t in the war. But they didn’t
talk to me about the difficult things in their lives. And I am missing
something I can never get back because of it.

When I look back I realize that I grew up in a culture of silence. Why
it is, we could debate. It’s probably a lot of things—stemming from
Jewish culture, post-traumatic syndrome, even generational differences
in what is considered socially appropriate. But whatever the reason, I
soaked in a set of values that told me that being silent was the
default, and that even feelings themselves could be dangerous. And my
parents shared these values even though the kinds of Jewish families
they came from could not have been more culturally different—one
Eastern European Hasidic, the other thoroughly Americanized.

Thinking about this I realize that when you learn not to talk, or to
speak falsely, or to avoid honest but difficult feelings, you
basically become disconnected from yourself. And when that happens,
you can’t connect with other people—you lose your ability to

No matter how many cool communication techniques you know, no matter
how many social media tools you master, to communicate effectively you
have to go back to basics and allow yourself to feel without filters.
You have to perceive things like a child, like a blank slate, even
though as an adult you know that you might feel the sting of a
negative reaction if you are perceived as violating the status quo.

You might think that you can skip the difficult part of introspection
and cut straight to the part where you memorize the script and dress
the part. But the truth is, if you choose this path you will be worse
off than the kid who’s getting their hand slapped for questioning the
teacher – you’ll be the one who can’t follow the lecture in the first

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Monday, June 21, 2010

The PR War Nobody Talks About

The real star of the new Karate Kid isn't Jaden Smith, although it's
clear that he is a natural. It is Jackie Chan, who, in a departure
from his usual comedic roles, shows a much more serious side. In fact
to me it seemed that he wasn't even acting.

In the movie, Chan very believably teaches Smith that the way to win a
war, paradoxically, is to put your mind at peace. Banish anger and
hatred, and replace it with stillness.

It's a paradox because one instinctively thinks that anger at the
enemy breeds the ability to destroy them. Dehumanize them and you can
take them down.

But that's not true - the emotional instability creates vulnerability
to attack from someone who is calm and focused.

The same thing holds true for PR.

We may instinctively think that to make the client look good, we have
to tell ourselves that the client is good, has done good, can do no

That's not always true, and the public knows it. If you go along with
the sham, the public won't trust your client and they won't trust you

Does that mean you are supposed to fling your mouth open and sing like
a canary about the client's every bugaboo? Of course not. That's just
silly, and extreme.

But it does mean that the very best PR specialists face the
uncomfortable truths first, fast, and quickly, not because they're
"mean" or "harsh" but because they want to help their clients. We are
like surgeons - and a damaged reputation is like cancer. The best
medicine is preventive, but once the cancer has taken root and spread,
it has to be cut out completely, or the client's reputation will die.

It is sad that the BP story has become an excuse to blame PR
specialists for all of the company's woes. The reality is, we do what
our clients tell us to do. The key (besides having a commitment to
being ethical) is for the PR specialist to

1) trust in and advocate for the truth

2) convince the client to tell the truth as best they can (and
withdraw if the client refuses for no good reason) and

3) engage with those who are critical of the client in a fair, open,
but strong way.

Things don't always play out the way you want, it's true, but you can
still do your best and trust the universe (the public) to be your net
if you are still attacked.

Example - a story about Verizon the other day by NY Times columnist
David Pogue. I was alerted to it by a negative Tweet (against Verizon)
by Tim O'Reilly. Don't have the link anymore, but the story focused on
an accusation against the company by an unnamed internal source.
Source said that Verizon was telling employees not to proactively
sugest the data blocks that could help customers avoid inadvertent
charges caused by clicking the "connect to Web" button.

The Verizon rep's response to this accusation was great. I don't know
if it is true, but it sounded credible to me because she confronted
the charge directly and comprehensively, and then denied it flatly in
language that was clear, simple, and for which the company could be
held accountable.

I read the story and thought that perhaps the accusation was wrong,
though I couldn't be sure. Definitely it seemed unfair for O'Reilly to
assume guilt. So I replied to his Tweet saying that it seemed

I don't represent Verizon. But as a member of the public I offered a
comment based on their PR specialists' response to an accusation. The
response was based on respect for the truth and the public's ability
to discern and distrust a liar.

Bottom line - you can't hide from reality, and in the end, the public
decides everything - not the client and not the PR rep and not anybody
else. Your job, if you are in PR, is to be a facilitator for the
truth. Don't let your client, your employer's organizational culture,
or your own psychology get in the way of confronting it.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Friday, June 18, 2010

When nobody is driving - thoughts on being a Gen Xer today

My kids think it's funny that I watch 90210 reruns on The Soap Network every time they're on. That I search for music on iTunes with the keyword "80s." (And won't let them change the local 80s station in the car when we are doing the shopping.)

They can't understand just why it is that I laughed so hard, and cried, when I saw A Serious Man. Why Ben Stiller's characters in the movies are worth discussing to me on an academic level. Why I love Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Say Anything, St. Elmo's Fire, Less Than Zero.

They think it is funny that I like things that "old fashioned." What they don't understand is that for me those shows and that music are not about being stuck in the past. They are about helping me to deal with the present, and to think about the future.

I remember when I was a kid and we used to take these long car rides to visit my grandparents. We usually drove about 10-12 hours, a lot of it overnight. My dad would get coffee at rest stops to keep him awake, and I would try to sleep in the back seat of the car, sitting up.

Most of the time I succeeded. But sometimes I would wake up. And I would see my dad's eyes in the rearview mirror, closed. Or he would be snoring. And then I would get really scared, and yell "Daddy!" to wake him up.

It's been 30 years since those car rides. In the interim my dad has cared for his parents through old age, illness and death, and still now oversees their buried remains. He is somebody who in many ways remains a mystery to me, but I know for sure he's a devoted son.

Nevertheless at that young age I grasped a terrifying fact on those car rides - grownups, no matter how good their intentions, are sometimes asleep at the wheel of a car I'm riding in.

As a teen and young adult I saw that theme reflected over and over in popular culture. It was my experience and it was there on the screen. And now, as an adult in midlife, it is terrifying to me to realize that what I saw 30 years ago remains true in many ways, and in many seemingly organized societies and institutions.

So I am going through this phase where it is dawning on me that I must drive the car. I must take the wheel. I am responsible. And I am not 100% sure of where the car should go, only that the road has potholes and that there's no way I can see all of them.

I am fortified by the knowledge that there are others out there who see the same thing and who have shared what they know in that collective database known as the Internet. Like on the pop culture shows I grew up with, and that are made by those in my own generation, I have faith that even if our well meaning parents can't always save the day, there are good people, friends and neighbors, who will help to see things through.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Social media is not about me

I am learning something I didn't fully understand before: Social media is about interaction much more than self-expression.

The whole way it is set up makes you think the former. After all you start with an "account" where you proceed to "update" the world on your thoughts, comings and goings.

If you are lucky you figure out a way to "monetize" the "followers" you have made online and turn yourself into a product, or "brand."

Me, me, me, it's all about me - yecch.

The people I follow online understand the difference between self expression and social media and they don't mix the two. For example Penelope Trunk has her blog, Brazen Careerist, and a social network that is affiliated but separate.

Give your shpiel (speech, routine in Yiddish) in one room, socialize in another.

Another good example is Seth Godin but in a different way. Where Penelope has two spheres of expression, Godin melds them both into the blog, providing advice of significant value to the reader and keeping himself out of the discourse to such an extent that it really is "all about you" as opposed to himself.

Both approaches lend themselves to monetizing. Both are social, indirectly or directly. And most importantly, both are compelling, credible, clear and consistent (thank you Karen Hughes).

I wonder what will happen with Facebook and Twitter. Personally I dislike online ads, have a deep-seated belief that the Internet and its social connectivity services should be free, and get offended when people pretend to be interacting when they are really pushing a product.

I am still learning. There are so many people who seem to be whizzes at this. The technology alone is moving so fast, it's amazing.

One thing I am getting pretty sure of. The main draw online is usually not the content. The comments are where the action is. Kind of a new way of thinking about things.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Non-transparency is better than pseudo-transparency

My mother always told me that the one thing she hated was a liar. She
isn't always comfortable with bluntness, because she doesn't like to
hurt anybody's feelings. But lying for her is a cardinal sin. (As is

As an adult I have internalized my mother's values. They are mirrored
by my larger family on all sides, and I am drawn to friends and
colleagues who simply "tell it like it is," even if it hurts and even
if I disagree.

So I naturally embrace the modern buzzword of "transparency." But with
experience I have learned that just because you use the word, that
doesn't mean you actually live in a glass house. Rather, you choose
wisely what to share and set boundaries around the rest. In today's
social media environment however, the difference from the past is that
you share by default and restrict as needed, rather than the other way
around. (Heard that from social media expert Shel Holtz.)

Yet I have the disturbing sense that a lot of what is passing as
transparency, in whatever sector of discourse, is really
pseudo-transparency. Misleading. And the tipoff for me is when I can't
understand in simple terms what is being explained to me.

Good example is the half an hour of torture I experienced yesterday
going over my "transparent" cellphone bill with my service provider.

Another is the incredible obscurantism around the state of the oil spill.

We can all think of examples.

Bottom line is, if you can't tell me the truth, I would rather be told
the following:

1. I can't tell you. Here is why (followed by logical answer.)

2. I will tell you later on, but not now (followed by timeframe and
follow through.)

3. Here is what I can tell you.

4. If you don't believe me that I can't tell you, here is your
recourse including a link to an objective third party that oversees
me, rates me, etc.

5. Here are some information resources that can help (meaningful please.)

In general my view is that non-transparency is better than
pseudo-transparency, because at least it avoids the lying factor that
destroys stakeholders' trust.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Customer service is the brand - for worse and sometimes better

Oh the examples of bad customer service I have seen lately. I suspect
these are generally due to companies' myopia about where the brand
really lives - the customer's point of purchase interaction either
with a person, a website, a machine, whatever. How else would one
explain paying frontline retail reps minimum wage or close to it? Or
designing websites that annoy the customer, don't work on all
operating systems, etc.?

Here are just a few things I personally experienced the past few days.

--Cell phone carrier took 20 minutes of cellphone time to explain
overbill and correct error

--Retail store employee hovered over me while I browsed then quickly
folded up the one item of clothing I picked up, the second I put it
down (disapprovingly)

--Fast food cashier argued with me when I gave back burnt coffee

--Website where I sought to buy something took me to last step then
said it didn't work on a Mac

--Online vendor refused to accept return of defective item till I
called customer service to "troubleshoot," where I was placed on
endless hold.

A few bright lights in contrast:

--Starbucks frontline employees have great attitude all the time, no
need to elaborate

--Same goes for Borders Books

--Comfort One shoes is near heroic

And a little story. Bought rotisserie chicken from local deli, called
them to report stomachache, full refund over the phone. Koshermart in
Rockville - thank you for your no questions asked, customer driven

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Friday, June 11, 2010

10 Signs of Dysfunctional Communication

Every day I see examples of bad communication. Lately I’ve been
thinking about some of the things they have in common and what you can
do about them. Here’s a “top 10” list, though I’m sure you can add
more to it. Please do, and share.

#1 – Groupthink

With all the disasters that have resulted from bad group decisions,
you’d think we would have learned that free speech is worth more than
conflict avoidance. However, it is the rare organization where most
people can truly speak freely.

To deal with this you have to use a good deal of emotional radar to
scope out when to speak and when to shut up. My personality tends
toward bluntness so I lean that way, but I also recognize that not
everyone appreciates that or can deal with it. I also get scared like
everyone else. So I usually give myself a pep talk in my own head
before I open my mouth to speak (yes, all of these things go through
my head pretty much at once):

• It can be scary to be honest but it’s more important to do things right
• The customer will be better served if I’m honest, even if it’s
uncomfortable to disagree with other people
• It’s OK to think different, even if my opinion is unpopular
• Other people are not automatically “wrong” because they don’t see
things my way
• Stay logical as much as possible…things tend to get heated when
people disagree and if the focus is on rationality it’s easier to get
to a sensible consensus
• It’s OK to try a pilot test, fail, and then try something else
• Try to appreciate the perspectives of the other people in the room
• Set the expectation before I talk that I will be direct (e.g.,
“Forgive me, I’m from New York” usually does it)

#2 – Invincibility mindset

I think it must be a survival mechanism to say that “nothing can touch
us,” because if we really thought about how many bad things could
happen at any one time, we probably wouldn’t have the strength to go

Nevertheless, this kind of thinking is actually toxic to communication
excellence. What you want to be saying to yourself is, we are
completely and totally vulnerable all the time, any time and so must
always be playing both offense and defense on the playing field.

Especially today with social media, a vulnerability mindset is critical.

There actually is no way, to my mind, that you can make people feel
vulnerable when they want to think they are invincible. Generally
there has to be the experience of falling on one’s face in order to
wake up. It hurts, but that’s the reality.

#3 – Resistance to learning

I have this failing myself, but it’s bad. There are so many books,
articles, magazines, Internet resources, classes, etc. out there that
it’s simply a time-waster to reinvent the wheel by trying to figure
things out for yourself every time. Yet that is what some
organizations do—they want to think that their situation is so unique
and demands such a specialized solution that they can’t go with
something that’s tried, tested and off the shelf. But 90 times out of
100, you really can.

The answer to this one is to pursue learning yourself, and share it in
very little bits with others, at just the right time, without doing it
in a way that makes the recipient feel overwhelmed or antagonistic
(i.e. that you’re a know-it-all).

Resistance to learning takes many different forms and has many
different reasons behind it (fear of change, fear of being stupid,
fear of being unable to compete against someone else who already knows
what you’re trying to learn), but in a tough economy, organizations
soon won’t have a choice but to get smarter about how they

The best example I can think of right now has to do with social media.
It’s truly a strange situation that we have this communication tool
that’s absolutely free and yet organizations totally underuse it. But
most of that is due to a complicated mix of fear and inability to see
the business case. Soon we’ll hit a tipping point where the business
case will be obvious, the fear factors will be resolved, and everybody
will start using it routinely.

#4 – Fear of feedback

This isn’t the communicators’ fear of feedback, although that is a
factor—sometimes we can’t admit to ourselves that we haven’t done our
best work (though most of the time, I think communicators are
overcritical of themselves and others). This is the customer’s fear of
feedback, and our resulting tendency to give them what they think they
want, meaning stuff that makes them feel comfortable but that
ultimately doesn’t serve their cause.

I don’t know how to get around this one. Either they want your counsel
or they don’t; either they respond to the metrics or they refuse to.
It’s sort of like the invincibility factor—often we don’t wake up
until disaster hits. But as a communicator you really have a
responsibility to give the customer your best counsel. You can have
the discerning mind to know when they will listen and when they won’t,
and bide your time till you have an opportunity to gain their trust
and confidence. But you can’t just go on forever holding their hand.

#5 – Narcissism

In a nutshell, the goal of communicating is to influence somebody
else’s behavior. You already know what you think and what you what to
do—the point is to get them to think and do the same thing. In order
to do that, you have to be very tuned in to how they perceive things,
process information, look at the world, what media they use and trust,
and so on. In other words, it’s about them, not just about you. Yet a
lot of communicators are very focused on themselves more than the
audience. Their primary filter is, “What do I want to say and how do I
want to say it?” not “What does my audience want to hear and how do
they want to hear it?” (And thus was born many a bad website.)

Of course I’m a total hypocrite because I basically focus on what I
want to say and how I want to say it, but then again I’m not selling
anything and this is a blog. If you’re in any kind of business, you
really have to be thinking about the customer first when you
communicate with them.

#6 – Fear of subject matter experts

I am the first one to admit that I don’t know most things. I don’t
know how the human body works. I don’t know how to change a flat tire.
I don’t know how airplanes stay in the air. And I don’t know how to
cook at all. But one thing I do know is how to help other people
communicate. And it is extremely difficult, at times, when these
people are subject matter experts who resist all attempts to help them
with the defense that “I’m the expert and I know what my audience
wants to hear.”

The truth of the matter is, you do have to find a middle ground
between pure communication and pure subject matter communication. Not
only because the subject matter expert will fire you if you don’t
listen, but also because they really do know the audience well. At the
same time, dysfunctionality can creep in if they’re really just scared
or bad at communicating, and they don’t want you to force them to
change, and you are tempted to let them intimidate you into softening
your stance about what good communication is. (Because then they can
say that “my PR expert said this was OK to release” and mentally get
themselves off the hook should the communication fail.)

All I can say on this one is, you’re never going to stop being afraid
of the subject matter expert, because there is this idea flying around
that technical stuff is important and communication is unimportant and
easy and that communicators are stupid. Fight on nevertheless. Stand
your ground unless speaking up will really have no impact.

#7 – Lying to the customer

I have never actually seen a communicator do this. What I have seen is
the communicator tell the truth, and then get punished for being
honest. But since the customer pays the bills, I’m just saying…don’t
be swayed for any reason. Tell the customer what you honestly think,
what you honestly see. You don’t have any guarantee of being rewarded
for this no matter how diplomatic you are. But at least you’ll be able
to look yourself in the mirror.

#8 – Metrics madness

Oh please, stop measuring quantity of press releases!!! The only thing
that matters is a business result. If you can’t show anything
resembling a result, then show something that gets close. If you don’t
figure out a way to do this, and set aside some time to do it,
somebody in management will force your hand eventually, and the
metrics system will not be to your liking.

#9 – Stovepiping

It’s true that everybody’s got their own headaches to think about, but
in this day and age you can’t afford to keep your head in the sand
like an ostrich. (OK, I don’t know if ostriches really do that…do
they?) If you see a problem speak up. Nicely.

#10 – Defeatism

I. Hate. Negativity. How can you succeed if you predict that you will
fail? Shoot for the stars and you may hit Mount Everest. That isn’t so
bad, is it?

Great example: The 16-year-old girl who decided to sail around the
world. Is she crazy? Maybe. Are her parents nuts for letting her go?
Possibly. Did she get lost in the middle of her trip because of
storms? Of course. But is she a dreamer who’s also a doer, who if she
survives will learn a valuable lesson about how to aim for something
really big in life? You bet. And she will probably run a very
profitable company of her own one day, and maybe even become

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When Leadership Flaws Become Brand Killers

I saw the BP ad featuring BP CEO Tony Hayward on TV Monday. I felt
angry after watching it, of course, how could I not given the scale of
the disaster and the discrepancy between the image being portrayed and
reality. On TV I saw images of blue water, white sand, and lots of
workers. On CNN I see endless murky waves of brown and tough questions
about cleanup crews who only seem to be hired for the TV cameras.

There was other stuff that bothered me too, and from a general-public
perspective I can understand why, as the Wall Street Journal reported
June 6, “the ad isn’t hitting the mark with consumers and crisis
experts.” But from the perspective of having someone personify the BP
brand, I thought Hayward did a pretty good job.

--He seemed honestly to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened.

--He seemed sorry.

--He seemed to take responsibility for paying for the cleanup.

--And though I wished for more of a sense of urgency in the message –
more emotion – I could also see that he might just be tired and worn
out from all of this.

In other words, I forgave him the “sin” of being a highly paid CEO who
is also human.

Notre Dame Professor James O’Rourke took the opposite view. He told
the Journal, “It’s very unfortunate that Tony Hayward is the face of
this crisis,” because he has publicly admitted that he “wanted his
life back.”

This is where things get interesting. To the professor, such
admissions undermine Hayward’s ability to lead, probably because they
make him seem insensitive. To me, they show transparency.

This isn’t really a blog about BP itself and what Hayward does or
doesn’t know, because the facts are still emerging. The question is,
assuming that Hayward did make those comments and is tired and even
possibly insensitive, does that make him too publicly flawed to lead?

We saw another example this week with former White House press
correspondent Helen Thomas. She was not an elected or appointed
leader, but she was a leader nonetheless because her audience (her
readers and the American public at large) saw her that way.

Certainly I looked up to her. For better or for worse, she represented
America, and equality for women in the workforce, when she talked. Who
hasn’t seen and admired her on TV, sitting in the front row of the
White House press corps, peppering Presidents with tough questions?
She was a feminist icon.

And with the image of the White House on her Facebook profile photo,
she clearly identified herself with the institution of the American

So it was tremendously painful, and shocking, when I saw the vicious
video on Sunday (taken by a rabbi outside a Jewish cultural event, no
less) where she, with deep hatred in her voice, told the rabbi that
Jews should “get the hell out” of Israel and go back to “Poland and
Germany,” which are obviously not our homelands but the countries
where 6 million of us were brutalized, tortured, and killed in the

True, she is 89 and her advanced age probably led her to speak that
way. True, no matter how old she is she is entitled to her opinion,
even if it means that she hates me and my people. But the issue was
not Helen Thomas as a person. It was Helen Thomas as a brand
representative of the United States. That expression of personal
bigotry was inconsistent with our American values of tolerance,
diversity, and love of all people in this great melting pot. No matter
what religious, ethnic, cultural, racial, or other group she would
have spoken about that way, the impact was the same: people asking,
“Is this what the White House, however indirectly, stands for? Is this
what we put in the front row of the White House press corps? On the TV

And so although I forgive her in my heart and admire her for her
accomplishments, I felt it was my responsibility as a human being
(personal, not professional, as a citizen and as a Jew) to stand up
against what she had done, how she had sullied this country’s good

And the White House press spokesperson called her comments “offensive
and reprehensible.”

She did retire, the next day.

All leaders are flawed, that much we know. And in the age of the
Internet and Twitter and Facebook, that is only going to become
clearer as the veil of privacy between personal and professional is
constantly pulled further back. I read yesterday in a review of a book
about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (also in the Wall Street
Journal) that he doesn’t even believe in that line.

So going forward the question for PR specialists is not going to be,
“How do we hide our leader’s flaws?”

Rather, it will be, “Are our leader’s flaws such brand killers that he
or she can’t lead us in the first place?”

Always assume that the truth, the real honest to G-d truth, will
always, always eventually come out. And so always ask, does that truth
support your brand, have a neutral impact on it, or kill it?

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Effective PR vs. Modern Terrorism

Effective PR Versus Modern Terrorism
Copyright 2010 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.
(Feel free to repost with author attribution. All views my own.)

If it is true that people are “basically good” (as former eBay CEO Meg
Whitman once famously said), then they seek to find good in others as

This may explain why, despite all the news we hear every day about bad
people doing bad things, people still react with disbelief when they
hear about them.

The reality is that some people are, to reverse Whitman’s quote,
“basically bad”—hateful and destructive. It doesn’t matter why, but
they are. But most people, who are good (I agree with Whitman), and
who want to believe in good, can find this hard to believe.

Psychological resistance to the reality of terrorism can be a problem
for the PR specialist who has to combat their propaganda.

If you are a fan of the TV show “24,” as I am, you know what I’m
talking about. To sum up the premise, there is only one man in the
U.S. government – “Jack Bauer” – who has three things: 1) the wisdom
to figure out who the bad people truly are 2) the technical skill to
track them down and “take them out” and most importantly 3) dedication
to doing the right thing regardless of whether it is popular.

From a branding perspective, one of the recurring themes of the show
that I find most interesting is the impact on Jack of his own image.
It is constantly being debated among the characters of the show—is he
a hero or a dangerous, self-interested rogue?

Usually, throughout the season, he suffers from being branded a rogue,
and is punished for doing the right thing—though in the end he is
recognized for the heroism.

To me, the show is compelling because it mirrors what I see from other
sources—news, books, and other fictional media.

First, real heroes generally don’t rely on PR and usually aren’t even
comfortable with it, because to them it smacks of lying when they
would rather believe in “the truth” (as in, “the truth speaks for
itself.”) This approach is exemplified by Clint Eastwood in the movie,
“In the Line of Fire.”

Yet despite this reliance on the truth, they actually they don’t talk
very much about what they do, if at all – because they know it
compromises operational security.

So they are double-bound by their own very logical thinking—and
ultimately ineffective at managing their image—just like a garden hose
doesn’t keep the lawn green if you don’t turn the water on.

Second, we are living in a world where truth is something you create
rather than something that essentially exists. You shape and tell your
own story, and if you don’t other people will tell it for you – a
cardinal rule of PR.

Terrorists understand this very well. They know what it means to tell
a story, and they do not hesitate to manipulate, mislead, or outright
lie if it helps them to portray themselves in a sympathetic way. (This
is not to engage in a political debate over any particular group, only
to describe the tactic.)

A typical example is the well-known tactic of hiding in a civilian
area, or mingling among civilians, and then provoking a bloody
confrontation. Terrorists know that the resulting footage will be
bloody, and that the one who “caused” the blood to be shed will be
seen as the “bad guy,” which gives them an advantage, at least

Further, because terrorists present themselves as sympathetic, they
tend to gain uninformed allies who want to be good and to help the
“victimized.” This kind of alliance makes the terrorists seem
legitimate, because they are “endorsed” by a credible third party –
basic, classic PR.

Not only that, but terrorists use social media freely, and they speak
in the language of their audience – a powerful combination.

Plus they are extremely focused, well-motivated and fast-moving,
whereas non-terrorists tend to lack the same unity and urgency, and to
underestimate the enemy.

If you find the above frightening, you’re not alone—it frightens me, too.

Here are some ideas on combating terrorist propaganda:

1. First and foremost, name them. You can’t fight an enemy you refuse to name.

2. Be even more determined than they are. It’s about survival, not
just communication.

3. Don’t be fooled into thinking you will automatically win just
because you’re “right.”

4. Hit first, and hit hard—don’t play defense.

5. Experiment with social media, even if you flop—course-correct as
needed but never stop talking.

6. Don’t let team egos get in the way – they’re not.

7. Determine in advance how to get the message out without
compromising any secrets—this is truly key.

8. Don’t think that because they’ve won the battle, they’ve won the
war. It’s about persistence over the long term, not a single

9. Don’t let them manipulate you so that you lose your resolve.

10. Work hand in hand with operations so that you are credible to them
as well as to the public. If you don’t understand operational
security, situational needs, and the subject matter, you can’t be
effective in any capacity.

No matter what you do, however, the one basic tenet of PR that always
applies is to tell the truth. It is a misnomer that PR stands for
propaganda—nothing could be further from the truth, because
credibility is the stock in trade of a PR professional, and
credibility rests on telling it.

Ultimately, your job as the PR specialist is to put the focus where it
belongs—on the enemy—to disarm them by exposing their lies, and at the
same time to show the public that your client is doing ethical,
effective work, at maximum capacity, to block terrorists from
achieving their destructive aims.

Posted via email from Think Brand First

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

BP as a communication failure

I've been watching the people at BP say and appear to do all the right
things about the oil spill and it still doesn't feel right.

A good example occurred the other day on CNN. There was video of the
oil workers charged with the cleanup, sitting around outside looking
kind of disengaged and gesturing to the cameras not to film them.
Meanwhile, local business owners were saying bad things about BP and
its workers. And the BP spokesperson responded earnestly, saying that
if those bad things were happening, the company would look into it and
fix them.

Perfect, perfect PR. That is exactly what I would have told any
company to do when it is accused of wrongdoing.

But when I think about it, something is lacking here. Urgency. The
sense of urgency you get when you know that you did something wrong,
and you really, really have to fix it fast.

Here is a completely minor example in comparison.

One time I was carrying a glass mug full of juice from one room to
another as I tend to do, rather than just sitting down in the kitchen
and drinking it.

Somehow as I was walking I dropped the glass. I saw it go down, hit
the hard marble tile floor, and shatter in a million pieces. Glass

I ran for the paper towels. I wiped it as best I could. I vaccumed up
what was left (that didn't work very well). All the while, I
f-r-e-a-k-e-d out. Because there was glass everywhere, in my home, and
I imagined that someone would step on a piece of the glass and G-d
forbid hurt themselves.

Cleaning up that glass, for me, involved a serious sense of urgency. I
felt it and the people around me felt it. But that sense of urgency is
just not coming from BP.

An odd thing about this whole situation is that I used to really like
BP the brand. I guess this is a year for some of my favorites to fall
apart on the credibility side. Because Toyota was another one I used
to admire.

BP stood for the ability of an organization to take something
seemingly industrial, gross, unlikeable and un-evironmentally friendly
and transform that into a human, friendly face. It was a success story
to me. And I'm not saying their efforts right now are a total failure.
But tack they're currently taking - show calm, seem honest, seem
transparent - is not working.

Perhaps there is still time to turn things around. But what I would
say to BP is, step up the urgency on your communication efforts.
Create a "war room" with glass doors right at the site of the oil
spill. Night and day, let reporters watch what you are doing to fix it
- embed them the way they were embedded with the U.S. troops at war.
Invite the public to provide help in fixing the problem. For G-d's
sake, sponsor a contest or a scholarship!

Do whatever you have to do to communicate (and to act with) the
urgency that this situation demands.

(Please note that all views stated are mine alone and do not represent
those of any agency or organization.)

Posted via email from Think Brand First