Wednesday, June 27, 2012

CNN's Ratings Woes: A Brand Problem

I have been thinking about why CNN's ratings are down. Uneven genericism - like the half-and-half at Starbucks - that awkward space between taking a stand and having none.

It's that, unlike say MSNBC ("Lean Forward" - radical left) or FOX ("Fair and Balanced - steadfastly right) they resist owning their brand.

CNN refuses to take a clear position in the customer's mind, in the market.

When I watch a news channel I am looking at three things simultaneously:

1. The story itself - the what

2. The choice of story - the why

3. The mode of delivery - the how

Except for CBS's 60 Minutes, the old days of journalistic objectivity - the attempt at it, the pretense of it - are gone.

That's not OK with me, but I understand they are there to sell papers (airtime) and bias is a fact of life.

Anyway, personality is interesting. I enjoy listening to all kinds of views.

But with CNN it's never clear what I'm getting. The brand is not consistent.

Whereas jn the past they seemed more like the Bible of centrist news coverage, now they seem sometimes center, sometimes left.

This is evident in the stories they cover, and the ones they don't - CBS and FOX picked up on Fast & Furious early on, while CNN, NBC, and ABC let it languish despite the explosive nature of the facts.

Now they cover it, but in an odd, reluctant way that seems to cut off a genuine interchange.

For example, whereas Rachel Maddow of MSNBC says flatly what she thinks of the whole thing (irrelevant, basically), CNN's Soledad O'Brien claims to be "keeping them honest" yet sympathizes with the Left.

Last night she had an oddly lengthy sympathetic interview with someone who wrote an article disputing the whistleblower's account. Then she attacked Rep. John Mica, who simply said that one magazine story should not impede an investigation by Congress. (Not that he wasn't condescending. He was.)

This points up the issue of brand personality. While one attribute CNN always owned was expertise, now their leads are uneven.

On the positive side, Anderson Cooper seems to be both informed and objective. Fareed Zakaria, an expert. Piers Morgan gets right to the point.

Others are less so.

Bottom line: If you are biased, fine - just be like MSNBC's Chris Matthews and say so. (Where is Christiane Amanpour? Still around at CNN but I miss her pervasive presence.)

The lesson for us is that in a branded world you've got to take a stand. Even if you are a journalist you take one. It's a way of acknowledging your blind spot: "OK, I bring these values to the table."

That way I, the viewer, can filter what you the journalist have to say.

Everybody has a bias. Everyone has interests. But the honest thing to do - and ultimately the best one for the brand - is to make them clear and be accountable for them.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Capital Punishment of a Different Kind

Yesterday I was talking to a friend on the phone.

"You know that bus monitor they are showing on TV?"

"Yeah," I said, knowing instantly she meant Karen Klein.

"You have no idea what I'm going through," she said, referring to work.

"They are treating me terribly."

My friend is not a glamour girl, and she doesn't have friend in high places. But she's great at what she does. And for whatever reason, "they" just don't "like" her.

The latest incident was benign enough. "They" got together and brought in coffee. 

There it sat, steamy and delicious and inviting.

Everyone gathered around the hot cardboard box. Pouring, chatting, and swirling those little half-and-half packets around with lots of sugar or Splenda.

Nobody talked to my friend.

There are lots of ways to kill people. In Bible class I learned about stoning. HBO had a show about it, "Six Feet Under." The Spike network had a stupid show, "1,000 Ways To Die."

But one really quiet way to do it, is simply not to talk to people. Shunning. It's the most painful thing you can do, and 100% legal.

"And her soul is cut off from her people." In the Bible, that's the worst punishment you can get -  perpetual excommunication:

When someone is kicked to the ground you can see the bullying.

When you hear the taunts, and see them spelled out in a caption at the bottom of the screen, you can feel that twinge as well.

But when hostility and aggression take the form of shunning - simply keeping people out of the loop - it is easy not to see it, or to pretend you don't. To avert your eyes.

It's death by a thousand stinging needles.

So maybe the real meaning of inclusion is to include shunned people. 

And earn a few karma points for the next go-round, when the person in the target sights  might be you.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Genius Of The Container Store

The best tagline ever: "Contain Yourself."

People like me - Generation Xers with obligations - lead a crazy life.

We juggle family time, "me" time, job time, volunteer time, writing time, housework time, appointment time, fun time, religion time, and even car time.

We lead chaotic lives.

The Container Store really gets that. You walk in the door and right away, it's all under control.

It's - yes - contained!

I bought a cord holder for my iPhone cord for $3.99. I can't get the cord out from the cord holder. Don't care. In my mind, life is under control.

Love it!

In The Container Store life is very orderly. The closet, the kitchen, the office - it's all taken care of.

I still think that mostly Moms take care of the family.

The Container Store specializes in taking care of Mom.

For half an hour and a minimal, negligible purchase, they make us feel like anyone can have it all!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Movie Review: "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World"

I really loved this movie.

I wasn't going to write about it, honestly, because for most of it I just sat there crying. It affected me on that level where you can't exactly put it into words.

Decided to try anyway. Won't give away any secrets.

The plot of the movie is evident in the name. What's different is the focus on feelings.

Whereas most end-of-the-world movies are big on action and special effects, here all of that is muted. We are left with a lot of lonely people trying to connect one last time before everything ends.

To see the trailer you would think that Steve Carell ("Dodge") is the star. He's not. Basically he plays his type - sort of wooden, awkward, solemn. He does it well, but it's one-dimensional. (My husband said that he basically continued the same character from "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and he was right.)

We've seen many movies where the man is sort of "normal" or traditional and falls for a kooky-type gal:

* Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston in "Along Came Polly"

* Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

* Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall" (and "Manhattan")

In this movie the female lead, Knightley ("Penny") takes the stage. Like Winslet and Keaton before her (not Aniston, who I like more as a personality than as an actress) she insists on making her character complex.
 Whereas Dodge can barely emerge from his shell, no matter what the situation - Knightley is always ALIVE. Alive.

Dodge sees people in simple terms - as objects - black and white, good or bad. "You are my favorite thing" he says at one point, as he comes to appreciate Penny.

But Penny is always complicated. Her mind operates on many levels at once. She is, as one former boyfriend points out, a survivor on the inside, but on the outside she seems very fragile. Like a little kid.

You have to see this movie to see what's beautiful about it. It's not like any other I have ever seen. The characters, the script, the subtlety, the humor. It was actually brilliant.

The movie made me think about the obvious things. Who matters to me, what I want to be spending my time on, priorities.

But it also set me thinking about some issues that are more subtle. These are things to be used not just as a communicator but as a person, too.

Basically what makes a communication satisfying is when two people connect - as thinking subject to thinking subject.

When it's not satisfying - what creates loneliness - is when the connection is superficial.

My kids can always tell when I am paying attention. They are satisfied with a short conversation that has real meaning.

But when I'm on the iPhone and I go "mm-hmm," they always catch me. They go, "Mom, get off your device and pay attention!"

If I walk away with anything from this movie it is to try and be more mindful of what people say. To listen more closely. Not to be distracted and thinking about "to-dos." Not tapping away on the smartphone. Not waiting for my turn to talk. Just listen.

It's a hard thing to do but I think the effort will be worth it.

P.S. By the way I'm trying out Disqus on my site for comments, let me know what you think. Another effort to move forward on the communication front...listening.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Op-Ed: On Fast & Furious, A Mike McQueary Moment

“You don’t want to be the outsider who betrays the institution; whistleblowers are always the weirdos.”

“And it’s really easy for us to overlook how our inaction to step up and do even the simplest thing leads to profoundly destructive consequences in our society.”

These are the words of Harvard Law School Professor and child sex abuse survivor Lawrence Lessig, victimized as a teenager in the 1970s.

Maureen Dowd cites this quote in her op-ed about the Sandusky trial, “Moral Dystopia.”

She notes that Lessig went on to sue the school on behalf of another victim in 2004, and won.

I have often heard it said that in the Watergate scandal, the worst thing wasn’t the burglary, but rather the cover-up. 

Because the cover-up, as David Goodloe writes,

“was mostly about continuing to conceal all the other, more serious things that had been going on in the Nixon White House.”

In the case of pedophile Jerry Sandusky, Mike McQueary walked in while the rapist was actually committing the crime. He testified:

What would a normal person have done? I can imagine a range of responses – yell “Stop!” (since he knew the attacker). Run and call the police. Freeze, in the moment maybe, then get the police right after.

Instead McQueary let the attack continue. In his own words, as Dowd reports, he was “shocked, flustered, frantic.” This although lthough he literally “met their eyes.”

So he waited overnight, then told Penn State football god Joe Paterno. A sports idol the players worshiped, who unfortunately was not as good at morality as he was at winning football games.

Paterno testified later that he waited too, to tell Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and campus police overseer, Gary Schultz of the accusations:

But then again why should we expect more of Penn State officials than Sandusky’s own wife, Dottie?

In her own words, Dottie’s hearing is

But then again, as one victim recalls, she may not have heard anything. Dottie

Maybe that’s why the sounds of her own foster son being assaulted didn’t register.

Now, after 15 years(probably more like 30 or 40, since Sandusky may have started Second Mile in 1977tofind and recruit victims), the monster has finally been convicted

But the people who covered up for Sandusky – the wife, university officials, athletes - did they not in a way conspire to enable a predator? If they knew, and did nothing, isn’t that a crime?

Sandusky essentially admitted what he did to Bob Costas on NBC:

“Every” young person?

Where is the accountability for the co-conspirators?

Consider a separate incident in Texas. A father catches an attacker in the act of molesting his 5-year-old daughter. The father immediately intervened to stop him physically, then called 911 to make sure the attacker received medical attention. (A grand jury decided not to indict the father for homicide.)

Commented a neighbor:

Upon learning that a French diplomat was accused of repeatedly raping his 3½  year old daughter. France refused to give him diplomatic immunity.

But not before the toddler had been raped for more than two years because his wife did not report it:

The mother was emotionally torn:

Every situation involving a scandal is emotionally charged, on both sides.

In the case of Penn State, students riotedwhen they learned that Joe Paterno had been fired for his failure to act. They loved “JoePa.” How could this happen?

We are in the throes of a parallel situation, in the case of “Fast & Furious.”

Something terrible has happened. A thing that has brought the integrity of our government into question. It is highly charged; it’s an election year; and there are charges of “witch hunt,” “gun nut delusions,” racism, conspiracy(on both sides), etc.

But Democrats and Republicans alike agree on one thing: the importance of the rule of law in a democratic society.

All parties agree: We want to know who knew what, and when, and how far back does it go?Especially now that executive privilege has been asserted.

The people who brought this issue into the forefront are not partisans on a witch hunt. They are government employees.

They were made to subvert their own duties. Their oath to the public trust. They were told, “If you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to scramble some eggs.”

Per the Congressional report (these citations have been quoted widely in the blogosphere):

Page 27: [Special Agent John Dodson, the original whistle blower]

“Well, every time we voiced concerns…But every day being out here watching a guy go into the same gun store buying another 15 or 20 AK-47s or variants or . . . five or ten Draco pistols or FN Five-seveNs . . . guys that don’t have a job, and he is walking in here spending $27,000 for three Barrett .50 calibers …and you are sitting there every day and you can’t do anything…”

Page 38: [Dodson, speaking about ATF supervisors in Phoenix and their disregard for lives lost due to Fast & Furious]

“[T]here was a prevailing attitude amongst the group and outside of the group in the ATF chain of command… I was having a conversation with Special Agent [L] about the case in which the conversation ended with me asking her are you prepared to go to a border agent’s funeral over this… because that’s going to happen. And the sentiment that was given back to me by both her, the group supervisor, was that…if you are going to make an omelette [sic], you need to scramble some eggs.”

Whoever is behind this thing, the public needs to know.

The quest for transparency is not a conspiracy of any political persuasion. It is fundamental to our society. It makes us who we are.

Wherever this trail leads, it is time to release the documents.

(Note: as always, all views are my own.)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Leadership Is NOT A Conversation - Yet

nick showing off at his parent-teacher-student conference - DSC02539
Photo by Sean Dreilinger via Flickr

Father to son: “Why are you banging your head against the wall?”

Son: “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

The joke is old but the problem is fully contemporary.

Employees have trouble getting, understanding, and sharing the information they need.

They don’t know where to look.

They don’t know who to call.

They are afraid to ask any questions, or complain.

And so it is not surprising that people spend hours of time completing a task that could have taken five minutes. Or none at all, actually – had they known that someone else, in some other department very close or far away, had already resolved the issue.

Why do we continue to accept poor corporate communication? We’re in the workplace ourselves, right? We suffer from the effects every day.

And yet we refuse the medicine that could cure the throbbing migraine.

Why is this?

Even if we don’t instinctively know what to do, there is no excuse for ignorance. Leadership after leadership book, article, blog exhorts us to improve the quality of our communication.

A new article in Harvard Business Review,Leadership Is A Conversation,” is a perfect example.

It lays out in painstaking detail the meaning of “old-style” (top-down) vs. “new-style” (interactive) communication at work, the multitude of reasons why, the step-by-step as to how to do it.

It isn’t going to make a dent, at least not yet: Leaders will still want to communicate primarily in a monologue. And employees will continue to accept this.

Here are three major reasons for this:

1.   Power: Leaders gain it by gaining scarce information from an elite circle of contacts. They maintain it by choosing which information to share, with whom, and when. Opening up that circle exposes them to enemies inside and outside the organization. The risk of losing the loyalty of lower-level staff, who can after all be replaced in a competitive market, is lower than the risk of being supplanted by a powerful competitor.
2.   Culture: The expectation persists that someone in a leadership position will speak in a monologue, from on high. Watch the movie “Elizabeth” and see how an ordinary girl is transformed into a leader of the people – traditionally a man’s job - by virtue of accepting the cultural expectations that surround leadership.
3.   Psychology - The Unconscious: The theory of “repetition compulsion” states that we will continue to recreate familiar situations PRECISELY BECAUSE the dynamics they contain are painful to us. Notoriously, children of abusive parents become abusive themselves. It is our way of trying to repair the damage, first by making the crisis occur and then trying to resolve it. Thus a workplace where communication flowed freely and openly would not feel like “real work” either to boss or employee.

What will it take to turn things around? To transform corporate communication to a default setting where information is shared rather than withheld? A reversal of the factors above, specifically:

1.   Replace “power” with “influence”: Bosses tend to underestimate the extent to which employees operate as “free agents” and seek to leave unfulfilling work situations. Even in a bad economy, they are mobile. Second, they underestimate the inventive capacity of people to get things done through their own channels of communication. Both of these tendencies are magnified exponentially with the proliferation of social media and mobile “smart” (connected to the Internet ubiquitously) devices. What this means is that if you restrict yourself to “elite conversations” you are out of touch with what’s going on. Therefore it pays to engage multiple audiences as a participant, not just as a dominating force, in order to gain social capital – connectedness, credibility and trust – and find out what’s really going on.
2.   Replace the traditional hierarchical single culture with deliberately collaborative and sometimes competing multiple cultures: The goal in an army is to move like a family of ducks crossing the street, one following the other. The goal in a knowledge- and collaboration-based workplace is to move like a colony of ants, coordinated but not always in precisely the same direction. The goal is shared but the method of achieving it is always internally contested, and leads to competition to improve.
3.   Engage people emotionally in undoing the ways of the past:It is Darwinian survival logic that people will prefer to be treated well and not badly. Accepting mistreatment is not something they do voluntarily, but rather something they have come to accept as “just the way it is.” If you can model a better, healthier way – no, better yet if you can show that you are committed to struggling for that better way – commitment, productivity and the retention of good people will follow.

In the end it’s not ivory-tower platitudes that will take us from where we are now to a better place of communication. 

It is going back to "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten."

It is going back to before we learned about bullying in the playground.

Remembering when every little thing we learned was exciting, and fresh, and new, and we couldn't wait to share it with our loved ones.

In the end real communication is about joy - the joy of connecting with other people. Together coming up with more than what you could ever dream up in your own head.
Have a good Friday and a good weekend everyone, and good luck!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I'd Rather Be Immature

Immature people are dreamers. Naive enough to believe.

Immature people laugh out loud.

Immature people don't lie well. They tell it like they see it.

Immature people hate being bored and so they work fast, to get it over with.

They also make work exciting so as to pass the time well.

Immature people waste time to get back their energy.

Immature people are creative.

They readily toss traditions that make no sense.

Immature people feel things. They cry without feeling like a crybaby.

Immature people cling to their loved ones like glue.

They also fight for what they believe is right.

Immature people never get old.

All things considered, I'd rather be immature.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

"No Talent" Is A Brand In Itself: The Kardashians

"The show is our platform. The show is our best commercial." - Kim Kardashian to the Wall Street Journal

I continue to be fascinated by the Kardashians. I cannot figure out how people can simultaneously be so fake, and so real at the same time.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the sisters insist that that their brand is really about fashion.

But I don't see anything all that special about the way they dress.

What I do see is that they use a TV show to offer a window into what seems like family life, but is professionally produced and scripted. 

Nothing in these womens' lives seems off-limits to the cameras. Not even - especially not - their personal relationships.

The Wall Street Journal recently posted a blog dissecting the relationship between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. It had this comment attributed to Russell Simmons:
"I know Kim and Kanye. They are both hopeful people, but cautious....Every public move they make is dissected."
Today amid all the talk about authenticity, one axiom remains: Branding is in the end an illusion.

An illusion we are willing to pay for.

And that is why this relatively untalented family is able to pull of a $40 million contract with E!.

Because one thing they can do well is fool us, even as we know we are being fooled. And for a few minutes entertain us away from real life.

I'd say that's worth the price of admission, and it teaches me a lesson or two about marketing as well.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Whistleblower's Brand Paradox

Martha Payne's lousy school lunch, via her blog, Neverseconds.

Conventional communications advice is to "stay on message."
It is as if leaders have a script (wait, they do - it's called "talking points") and they're supposed to read from it. Like an actor in a play.

In real life things are not that simple. People don't believe uncritically anymore, if they ever did.

Today a leader's pronouncements are viewed as just another text to "deconstruct."

Resistance to and subversion of formal "messaging" takes place on a continuum from active to passive, for example:

* Investigative blogging
* Commentator blogging
* Tweeting or retweeting
* Posting on Facebook
* Recording a YouTube-type video of oneself voicing an opinion
* Taking a photograph
* Sharing a link directly from the Internet
* Forwarding an email containing a link

Not everybody in America is wealthy. But it doesn't take money to follow your conscience. Only a thinking mind, the ability to communicate, and access to a means of distributing one's sentiments.

Because Americans respect honest people, we connect with them, we tend to appreciate the fact that they speak out. Even when we disagree.

Therefore, promoting honest speech enhances the brand. Yet organizations continue not only to script leadership talk, but to punish the very whistleblowers whose honesty can build the organization's reputation if allegations are addressed.

Examples of such punishment are everywhere, including the front page of today's New York Times (June 18, 2012), an expose on the Albert M. "Bo" Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center in Trenton.

The worst thing about this halfway house isn't the poor conditions there.

It is the allegation that workers knew about those poor conditions and reported them over and over again, only to be rebuffed - pressured to change their reports.
"Bronislaw Szulc, a former senior state official in charge of investigating conditions at halfway houses, said he had filed reams of reports....(he) said top officials in Trenton had often ignored his reports, rarely held the halfway houses’ operators responsible and demanded that he soften his critical findings."
Sometimes whistleblowers were even dismissed:
"Community Education soon fired several senior staff members at Bo Robinson, including Mr. Brumbaugh, the deputy security director and former correction officer, who had earned a reputation as a whistle-blower because he had highlighted problems there."
I read a similar article in The Miami Herald just last week, "DJJ Watchdog Ousted After Criticizing Boss' Friend":

"Last week, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters informed Gov. Rick Scott that she intends to fire her agency’s top watchdog. Inspector General Mary Roe Eubanks had held the job since 2004, and was a nearly 25-year state employee, with 10 years in state agency investigations. Eubanks was placed on administrative leave, with pay, while the termination was being approved."

In the federal government as well, there is no shortage of employees speaking out about problems in the workplace, ranging from minor to major (GovLoopFederal SoupCleanup ATF). It defies logic that people would place their livelihoods in jeopardy simply to report wrongdoing, especially when they haven't done anything wrong. They could look the other way and nobody would judge them badly.

But it's just the opposite. Over and over again, one runs into examples of people who put their careers and reputations on the line, only to do the right thing.

Sadly, when they do, it is often not the organization that gets questioned, but the whistleblower. In fact, if persecuted, the whistleblower rapidly develops a personal brand - spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e.

...Hold on a minute. If it's true that whistleblowers are immediately branded as "trouble," "muckrackers," "crazy," and so on, how can they be good for the organization's brand?

The answer has to do with contradictory survival instincts inside and outside the group.

  • Inside: A critically thinking individual is disruptive because they resist the flow of "groupthink." Unless the organization is unusually self-reflective or under intense pressure to reform, it will favor those who "won't get in the way." Because most groups are dysfunctional. And indeed, as the famous Milgram study showed, they can find plenty of people who will go along with "whatever" when authority says "just do it" - even when it means they have to inflict incredible pain.
  • Outside: Organizational stakeholders rely on the group or organization to be highly functional. They expect excellence and are inconvenienced by dysfunction. No kindergarten teacher can afford to make up for a parent's neglect; a community can't channel its faith through people who abuse the parishioners; citizens can't sit up at night worrying that police are in cahoots with organized criminals; we can't afford doctors who see elderly patients for five seconds then charge Medicare $250 for a full-fledged visit; and so on.

From a communications standpoint, the intractable problem is that what looks like "trouble" from inside the group - a whistleblower - is completely the opposite from an outside perspective.

Indeed, when whistleblowers step forward to tell the public what is going on - such as the brave girl in Scotland who photographed her lousy school lunch in an effort to get healthier food - the public applauds.

And they wait to see what the organization will do.
From a communication perspective the answer to this riddle is pretty simple. Organizations ought to build in robust reporting mechanisms for fraud, waste and abuse. Those mechanisms should be easy to access and easy to use. And they should provide for no reprisal (just the opposite, some kind of reward) for the whistleblower (assuming that person is not just engaging in malicious slander).
If wrongdoing is discovered internally first, the organization has an opportunity to investigate and fix it, then report transparently about these activities. It's a chance to prove that whatever trust it has, is warranted.

If wrongdoing leaks externally, the organization can claim the problem and again, investigate it, fix it, and report on it quickly, without undue delay. In a way that is just for all concerned.
A balanced reputation management like this - really, a form of brand management - allows the organization to put equivalent of money in the reputational bank. Capital that can be drawn on later, in the event of a crisis. Capital that can prevent good employees from leaving, and that can encourage them to turn in "bad apples" who sour a basically good organization to all.

It is unfortunate that this prescription - which I know I have seen in various forms before - has until now largely gone unheeded.

How many times will we have to see a "scandal" break in the news, when the simplest and most basic of reputation management programs would have prevented it in the first place. And would have kept incredibly valuable people engaged with, and passionate about, the organizations where they spend much of their waking time.

Think about it - have a good day everyone - and good luck!

Misunderstanding Our Dads

My actual Dad

"It is easier to be a dad than to become one."

Or something like that was a quote I ran across on Twitter yesterday.

It occurred to me, as it has many times in the past, that my dad became "dad-like" only as he neared retirement. 

Growing up, I actually did not know him very well at all. Most of the time he was out, working or traveling for work. Or - well where was he? I can't say that I know.

My dad dresses funny to us American folks. He wears a business suit, minus the tie on Sundays, at all times. 

He talks in a very formal way, like someone who isn't comfortable with English. (He's not - my dad was raised with Yiddish.)

Who is my dad? My favorite memory is of going with him to the Hess truck stop on our trips to visit his parents in Canada. He delighted in the model trucks they had for sale, all lit up. He bought me one.

My dad has a mug collection.

I know my dad through his things. I know he likes to take photos, pretty badly actually much like myself. (Instagram is our mutual friend.) He takes a ton of them.

When you get to know my dad you realize he's basically a good guy with a big heart. He is from Eastern Europe - Cluj, specifically - a town on the boundary between Hungary and Romania (which we pronounce "Rumania.")

Yesterday I met a lady from there, out of the blue. She spoke, acted, dressed exactly like him! It was almost unbelievable. 

This woman was effusively warmhearted and friendly to me, a complete stranger - to an American it comes across as a little fake. But I think she meant it.

She was dressed very simply, but expensively, a bit overly formal for the occasion. No prints, no colors, no fussy accessories. She could have been in New York, or DC, or Europe, or anywhere.

The warm, generous, outgoing talk versus the stark, subtle dress.

Just like my dad! I wanted to hug her.

Sometimes I talk to my dad. He seems to listen a lot more than he used to. He has said that he is sorry he wasn't as good a dad when I was growing up. He is ever the workaholic - a gene he passed on to me - I doubt that he could ever be the type to sit home and play cards. 

Though he does brag about making a mean omelet. And lately also about being "Mr. Mom" when my mom had a bit of a virus.

Point being, we misunderstand our dads. As an adult, I think that has a lot to do with how much effort we put into understanding them. 

Fatherhood, just like motherhood, doesn't happen biologically at all. It happens because two people try to connect across about a thousand bridges that could lead to permanent misunderstanding.

I'm glad to have met that random lady, because she reminded me of how important my dad is in my life. And how much I value his personality, even though most of it still remains a mystery to me.

A belated Happy Father's Day everyone...happy "back-to-work Monday," and good luck!

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Private Equity and Venture Capitalists: The New Brand Champions

Vulture in Tree
"Vulture in Tree" by Howard Ignatius via Flickr

Branding is a fascinating phenomenon because it's the ultimate social experiment. I see it as a sociologist and as a marketer so look at two angles at once:
  • An internal effort to create the ideal corporate culture for the desired kind of productivity
  • An external effort to create the ideal image for customer loyalty at a premium price

In the U.S. at least, modern branding - that is, branding that goes beyond the external image-building side - can be traced roughly back to four publications all released approximately at the turn of the 21st century:
Over the past decade or so people have gradually come to accept the incredible importance of branding to the value of the organization and an entire sub-industry has arisen around the attempt to quantify this.

The problem is that such attempts are still unsuccessful.

Although there is wide acceptance that brands are important to business success, misperceptions persist, such as:
  • Branding = marketing, advertising, logo, tagline
  • Brand = "What I say" and social media is "dangerous"
  • Brand = temporary campaign, instant gratification, something I can buy
I believe that yet another Fast Company article, recently published, may change all of this. It's called "The Next Phase of VC Strategy: Bringing Branding Into The Earliest  Phases."

It sets up the problem neatly:
"While few would dispute the value of branding, in a business dominated by the bottom line, off-balance-sheet considerations are often treated as afterthoughts--secondary undertakings undertaken only after the critical initial decision to invest is made." 
In a capitalist society, if you want to know what people value, follow the money.

A great illustration of this principle happens in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. The heroine and her boyfriend argue over her job, and how it has taken over her life. She interrupts the argument to take a call from her boss, at which point he says:
"In case you were wondering - the person whose calls you always take? That's the relationship you're in. I hope you two are very happy together."
Similarly, if branding is to happen from the inception of the business, in a comprehensive way, it has to be championed by those who control the purse strings - and often those people are venture capitalists.

The way to champion branding, suggests the article, is for VC firms to hire branding experts full-time -just like any other in-house expert - "from biochemists to tech specialists--to help them not only maximize their investment but also to identify potential targets."

If this hasn't happened yet, the article suggests, it's because:

  • Misconceptions of what branding is (see above) and therefore "bringing on agencies after the fact to address specific branding-related concerns" because "they think of branding as something to be attacked piecemeal."
  • Misconceptions that branding is not a real area of expertise, and therefore "branding is a discipline that everyone thinks him or herself an expert in."

From a practical point of view, these two misconceptions are incredibly costly. Companies leave untold billions on the table because they make these mistakes. Just over the past couple of years I've predicted things that any highly attuned brand expert could tell you:

Yesterday a career expert told my daughter, "The way to succeed is to be who YOU are, and move forward with YOUR unique talent." Similarly, the way for a brand to succeed is to be authentic, and to move forward with providing solutions within its area of expertise that customers want. 

The problem is that normally, people inside the organization can't see what its real competency is, and people outside the organization are either not skilled enough or engaged enough, or not engaged at the right time, to provide it with the right guidance.

In the end, branding is really nothing more than an extraordinary level of self-consciousness - the ability to know who you are, know what the market wants, and find a match between the two. Private equity and venture capital firms ought to take advantage of that, and so should the rest of us.

Good luck!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to Spot PR Flackery: Tips From a Professional Communicator

The public relations professional is ethically bound to tell the truth and to serve the public interest. Most PR folks and professional communicators I know struggle with ethics constantly because, frankly, honesty doesn’t always make the customer look good.

But not everybody really cares what the Public Relations Society of America has to say about ethics. That’s why we call them “flacks.”

(I don’t mind “PR dummies” so much. Those people are sort of funny, in a sad way.)

But the worst thing about watching liars cover for other liars is that they’re following the “best practices” I helped to write – but in a demented way. Like “transparency” that is really just pseudo.

In the hope that information is the best weapon, here are some ways to weed out truth from lies in professional discourse:

I. Get Smart About Slick PR Tricks

· Going on the attack to avoid being put on the defensive
· Making broad generalizations that divide people by class, gender, race, religion rather than speaking in unifying terms
· Saying the same things over and over again rather than being in the moment
· Dressing or grooming that is either overly slick or overly “casual”
· Using “pseudofacts” or “pseudostatistics” rather than real numbers, and being unable to provide a checkable source

II. Watch for Signs of Lying In An Interview

· Body language is a dead giveaway, especially eyes darting around, stiffness, and touching one’s own face
· Answering in a way that is technically true, but misleading (after all, it wouldn’t be perjury, right?)
· Not answering the question asked, and/or using canned “message” language
· Acting angry, raising one’s voice, or saying that a question is “offensive,” attacking the questioner, trying to make them seem “crazy”
· Not allowing questions in the first place

III. Don’t Settle for Superficial

· PR professionals are engaged with news professionals all the time. So watch news on different channels, including Internet websites, deliberately. Watch hearings directly and fully. Read headlines covering the U.S. from other countries. Always reflect on the larger context and issues and think about why these media channels make particular editorial choices. And of course, question whether “leaks” are really “leaks” or whether they were “dropped” on purpose.
· Locate bloggers and non-mainstream news sources who doggedly pursue a subject over time. Also consider their biases, their sources of funding, and whether they are trying to sell a product.
· Go to small-scale blogs, discussion boards, Twitter, and YouTube for unfiltered discussion of the issues. Don’t exaggerate the importance of, or discount, these sources just because they are non-professional.

At the end of the day, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s advice is pretty good: “Those who talk, don’t know.” But by learning the tricks of professional liars, at least you can avoid being taken for a fool.

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Battleship" and the War For Great Communication

Too many people have this magical belief about communication.

They believe that a "great campaign" (advertising, marketing, PR, digital, branding, internal) can overcome the limitations of the environment. Which include:
  • Organizational politics, culture and history
  • Technological comfort, or the lack thereof
  • External politics
  • Media reports
  • Blogger activity
  • Employee social media activity
  • ...and so on.
The reality is that communication is shaped by policy. The policy of the organization which it serves.

A "great communicator" does not act in swashbuckling isolation but rather is backed and supported by leadership and a team that "gets it."

Yesterday I saw the movie "Battleship," a great example of what can happen when people of different abilities unify around a common goal.

Suddenly, then, communication becomes crystal clear and the need for it imperative.

To do great communication, your organization must go to war - fighting for an important cause, and fighting off an enemy that could mean its very destruction.

Happy Friday everyone, and good luck!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why Brand Consultants Have To Charge A Lot

Photo by me.
Books are free if you go to the library. A framed picture of books costs more. Which one is more valuable?
Apples are healthy. They're twice as expensive at the convenience store as at the grocery store. More if you get the organic kind. Which one is most valuable?

I can buy a glass bowl for the apples at the thrift store for $3. Or pay $20 at Target. More if I go to Macy's, Bloomingdale's, or an out-of-the-way boutique in an expensive area destined for shoppers.

Which one, which one? How much would this photo, a photo I took myself, cost if you had to pay Getty Images for the privilege?

Someone paid $120 million for Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" just this May. You could make that same pose, photograph it and Photoshop it with a cheap mobile app. Would it not be comparable?

We value things the more they visibly cost us. Anyone can have a child, and parent's can't get fired, right? So it is common, sadly, for even "good" parents to ignore the kids for the Blackberry - because jobs outside the home pay money.

Like that famous song "The Cat's In The Cradle," we pay the price for that ignoring way down the road.

How much to charge, and how much should be charged, is a paradox for consultants, including brand brand consultants.
  • On the one hand there is pressure to charge very little - due to competition, the availability of free advice, and frankly (yes, it's true) the desire to help. 
  • On the other, obviously, nobody works for free and the consultant is there to make as much money as possible in the least amount of time. So they build up a brand name and then charge "what the market will bear," e.g. as much as possible.
Yet aside from the livelihood factor (the rational economic reason) there is a more fundamental issue with respect to price from the customer side: People only value things that cost them dearly.

Many people only drink water that's bottled. Follow diets they pay for. Exercise where they've bought a membership. And in just the same way they change behavior when the cost of the advice is $250 an hour or more.

Makes one wonder what kind of an economy we could have if we committed to sharing.

Think about it - have a good day - and good luck!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The 7 Intractable Dilemmas of Branding

Warhol Thinker by Macbook
Photo by Tamara Leaver via Flickr

1. Branding is free, yet unless the practitioner charges dearly, the organization will not commit.

2. Branding requires a Ph.D., but there is no curriculum that teaches it properly.

3. Branding is "moral" in the sense that it promotes keeping your promises consistently, but the promise itself can promote good or evil.

4. "Branding" is a poisoned word among those who must execute on it - the average employee will never allow themselves to be "branded" - and so a constant and imperfect substitute is usually required.

5. The very people most pivotal to branding - managers of front-line technical and support specialists - are normally least likely to commit to the organizational development needed to make it happen.

6. Academics - who don't deal with clients day to day - tend to understand branding better than brand practitioners, who do but who are biased by interaction with and need for customers who pay for it.

7. The brand itself is a predetermined outcome, but flourishes only when evolves organically.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why Brand Strategy (Any Strategy) Is Painful

Wandering Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna arcuata) 
Photo by Lip Kee via Flickr

"Most people only have faith when G-d answers their prayers."

 You have to believe even when the door slams shut in your face.

Joel Osteen's sermon this week (June 10, "The G-d Who Closes Doors") was all about believing, even when you don't get what you (think you) wanted.

The topic of faith is a difficult one for me.

How could G-d let the Holocaust and other atrocities happen? Everyone can think of something that's occurred that seems to make no sense. That seems to be G-d's fault.

Osteen's point was that we need to recognize a power larger than ourselves. A power that knows more. There's a bigger plan that our limited minds can't fully grasp.

Actually it's sort of silly when you think about it.

Here we are, little ants compared with the Omnipotent and we imagine that we are cognitively on the same playing field. No way.

Unable to accept a closed door, we sometimes struggle vainly to force ourselves through. And in the process bring tragedy upon ourselves.

I was watching a documentary about Hasidic Jews, "A Life Apart." In the documentary people talked about being grateful to the Rebbe (their rabbi) for helping them after World War II.

The Rebbe, they said, gave them marriage partners, jobs, places to live. His guidance helped educate their children. One woman explained that her family makes every decision according to what the Rebbe says. 

(Probably not coincidentally, a woman from a completely different Hasidic sect said that she constantly felt guilty for not agreeing with everything her parents said, or following their dictates.)

The only problem is that the same Rebbes told Eastern European Jews not to come to the United States before the war. They were worried that American culture would lead to assimilation, as was actually already happening in Europe. As had happened over and over throughout the centuries.

So the Hasidim stayed in Eastern Europe and according to the documentary, 80% were slaughtered by the Nazis.

I look back at that and it tears me up. It's bad enough to look around and ask, "How could the world turn its back?" (Which actually occurred)

It's worse to have to ask, "Why didn't the Jews pay attention to the closed door that was Eastern Europe at that time? Why didn't they leave?"

My father in law said to me, "You have to believe that G-d is there wherever you are."

But the people didn't believe that. Because they were told.

So the vast majority were killed, and then turned around and slavishly followed the very people who could have led them away from the concentration camps.

It's so easy isn't it, to point fingers at the other guy. But in real life it is so difficult. Every day you're confronted with a choice. If I had to choose between my faith and my life, I would choose my faith. I would die for it.

But then again, I would have to question whether the "doors" being presented to me as options really are that extreme.

It is very possible that Eastern European Jewry could have left and settled somewhere else, and that their ranks would not have shrunken any more than is to be expected when you impose a high standard of observance on the masses.

This is the trouble that average people have with strategy. It's more complicated than Osteen posits, but it starts the same way:

* Our attitude is generally, "I want what I want." It is not relevant to us whether our want makes sense or not. Mostly we are led by an inner drive that we cannot understand. (I would even argue that most people choose a religious path based on their personal psychology - without even knowing it - and then justify to themselves later why their personal choices are somehow "right.") Strategy means thinking rationally first, then deciding on a course of action - the exact opposite. It means saying "no" to your infantile self so that your adult self can achieve something. And accepting that there are times when G-d has made the decision for you.

* No matter how much we achieve, we want more and more all the time. In America, more = better. Output = metrics. And quantity = quality. The more money you make, the more products you sell, the more diversified your portfolio, the more successful you are. The more honors on your resume, the more social networks you've joined, the more Twitter followers you have, the higher your Klout score, the more you've arrived. Strategy means narrowing your focus to achieve excellence at a core competency. Some of the best businesses I know have never come near a social network, nor will they ever do so, and they're doing just fine.

* Americans strive to keep all possibilities open at all times. We are a 24/7/365 culture where we expect to be able to buy whatever we want, whenever we want it. Our children avoid marriage because they don't want to commit and then be sorry later - after all they can keep shopping for the perfect candidate at, right? We fall for diet scams that tell us we can eat whatever we want and still drop 50 pounds. We change jobs hoping that things will magically be different elsewhere, or we move 500 miles away - and nothing much is different. And then we cry a river later. The truth is that you can't have everything you want, every minute you want it, and still forge a path forward. Strategy means you have to choose, and be contented with your choice even though there are some bumps in the road.

Osteen often uses his sermons to reassure people that there is something better down the path, if only they will have faith. He says, in effect, "When one door closes, another opens."

But we all know that is not always true. There are many people out there who will never get over their disease or disability, who will never emerge from the criminals who have a hold over their lives.

Just like trying to have everything is not a strategy, believing blindly in a brighter future is not a strategy either.

Again, looking backward at the Holocaust or any avoidable tragedy - the question is, what could we have done to avoid it? The real test of strategy involves five things:

1. Did you understand the options correctly in the first place?

2. Did you make a reasoned choice from between those options, understanding that success is inevitably partial and never includes "everything?"

3. Did you commit to a course of action fully, in your mind?

4. Did you see that commitment through in action?

5. Finally, and most importantly, did you feel pain? Because all real strategies involve a certain amount of loss, grieving and letting go.

In the end it is true that G-d has a plan. But it's also true that we were put here for a reason - not to know that plan, and to try and figure things out anyway.

It's better to move forward with a strategy than to blindly spin your wheels - or worse yet, curse G-d for your own faulty reasoning.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!