Sunday, June 30, 2013

Invested In The Mistake

Many have tried to teach me cooking over the years and many have failed.

It's not their fault; they give me good recipes. Which I then, being creative, fail to follow.

There have been times when I did try, really. Went online and printed actual what-to-dos. Ingredients. Measurements. Baking times.

But even then, I mess things up.

Like reasoning: You can substitute white sugar for brown sugar, right? Because "it's all sugar" so "they're both the same."

Or thinking: "I should be able to broil these muffins, right?" Because the igniter in the oven was broken, but the broiler worked, and I really, really wanted a batch.

But the biggest mistake I make with cooking is never admitting to failure.

Some people can salvage dry turkey, like my aunt. It is amazing how she revives a nearly-dead bird.

I cannot do what my aunt does. But neither can I just say so.

And so with the charred muffins, there I am, adding icing.

The scary-sweet chocolate chip cookies get stirred into ice cream.

And the dry Thanksgiving meal gets chopped up and sauteed into a huge stomachache.

It is sort of funny, scary and sad what my family has suffered through. But there's an important lesson for organizations, too.

When you mess up it's better to admit that a mistake is happening, and deal with it right away.

Not add new mistakes to old ones and try to pretend that everything is OK.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Your Brand Is No Good If It's Rotten Inside

Awhile back we were looking at real estate. At one place they had a batch of chocolate chip cookies on the counter.

Those cookies smelled so good. Steam rose out of them. They were warm to the touch. I took three.

The place was not otherwise appealing to me. It had narrow spindly stairs, it was too far from mass transit, and the area was sterile.

Staging the entry got me in the door. But the nuts and bolts were all wrong.

Often we visit Florida. I love the Sunshine State. But once there, some troubling observations.

--The lady working in the hotel gift shop can't recommend an activity because "I can't afford anything around here." 

--The guy scrubbing the stairwell on his hands and knees with a brush.

--The rich hotel guest berating the desk clerk. The clerk apologizes profusely. Then curses the guest when she walks away.

--The man in the touristy place who can't wait to be served till we take a photo. Who says to me, impatiently, "My money comes first."

--The multitudinous cabs with signs atop them advertising "clubs," each one with a different name and each one with another young woman's made-up face. Young but with old and troubled eyes.

--The stares at my husband's yarmulke and the occasional comment about us being Jewish, on the street or on the bus. 

--The little bitty takeout meals wrapped in huge Styrofoam trays and plastic bags. I imagine a river choking.

What is the real Florida, for a tourist, for me? It is the beaches and the sun and the sweet air, of course. But it is also poverty, exploitation, class and other divisions, and waste.

The brand of a place is only to a very small extent determined by advertising. Maybe that is what gets you in. But once you are there, you are continually making a shopping decision: Should  I stay here, live here, buy here, return? 

The answer to these questions has to do with management. Not ads and not leadership which is radically overemphasized.

The truth is that leaders have a very limited amount of personal political capital even in the best of times. One wrong gamble and they're like a car badly dented.

On the other hand management is a series of intertwined processes that form the basis of the organization's functioning. 

And when the brand - its promise and its values - is operationalized, it becomes a self regulating feature of the community. This is to say that we do not wait for leaders to constantly articulate and enforce it. We make rules that shore it up and we are accountable to them on our own.

The brand promise does not have to be sheer perfection. But it has to match inside and out. If you stage a homey home, the home should be cozy and its immediate community should not be built sterile.

Similarly if you promise an area of natural and human-made beauty, you should promote a beautiful experience for all who are there - respect for self, other and the environment.

Branding is a management function.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

We Need An Enemy

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was a Hasid, a mystic, who sought in the forest holiness.

His thinking could be considered existential psychology. He knew that humans are prone to despair. He offered   pragmatic self-help techniques like meditation, music, and direct personal dialogue with G-d.

Along the way Breslov left a body of insightful writings about human nature. 

He taught: Man (humanity) is perpetually at war. If not with an external enemy, then on the inside, with himself or herself.

Think about what this means, really.

We not only ARE at war against something all the time.

Rather, we NEED to have an enemy.

In politics it's well-known that the quickest way to galvanize people is to invent a crisis.

But the need is really deeper than that.

If you want to win a PR war, sell a product or change a culture (all of this is marketing) you have to understand the fighting nature of a person. Of the group. 

We are always and forever at war. We want to vanquish the enemy -- whoever they are and whatever they may be. We don't care; it's biological!

The smart leader recognizes that fighting spirit, validates it and unleashes it toward a worthy cause.

If you use that fighting energy for the wrong thing, in the short term you may win till people catch on to you. 

That is why marketers (of every stripe) find their products sell temporarily, but over time customers walk away in disdain, disloyalty, distrust. 

Why? Over and above the failure to deliver on a "brand promise" -- they haven't made it a war of good versus evil, truthfully. And if they do, it's a superficial, short-term sell at best, or worse hypocritical.

Marketing is a war that mirrors day-to-day existence and has a parallel in the human brain. 

It is up to the marketer to not only take sides, but to create them. 

Ideally in a way that truly results in weakening (if not killing altogether) some fundamental injustice.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, June 24, 2013

5 PR Lessons Inspired By War

"Game of Thrones" image via ShmoesKnow; Seasons 1-3 available at

We do not often talk about it this way, but PR is actually (postmodern) warfare. Here are some concepts to keep in mind:

1. The "spoils of war" are primarily credibility and only secondarily whatever tactical objective you seek. Always focus on gaining and keeping credibility. 

2. Offense wins, defense loses, unless the defense is extremely sympathetic. Normally people identify with the winner. Attacking the defense is a show of weakness and should be avoided.

3. In a confrontation, accommodation is defeat. Physical and symbolic shows of strength are critical. 

4. Honor beats treachery, but skilled treachery frequently displays itself as honor. Be ready with documentation.

5. When you're dead, lie down and take the hit. Then take ownership of defeat by embracing and then coopting the other side. 

In the end, in PR, what matters is always control of the message. You must own your own story, guard and defend it. That narrative is the key to the castle.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On The Verge of A Major Breakthrough (New Slideshare Presentation - June 23, 2013)

Just posted this new presentation at SlideShare, but the gist of it is this.
A lot of us are stovepiped right now in functions that seem disparate: knowledge management, employee engagement, internal social networking, organizational development, human capital, knowledge management, project management, communication and branding. 
In the very near future, sometime between 1-3 years, I foresee that all of these disciplines will converge into one overarching function -- something like "enabling employees to drive maximum value for the organization, while enriching their knowledge and social networks, with minimum hassle." (We need a shorter title.)
We will need to put them together in order to adapt to an extremely rapidly-changing marketplace where the brand is the organizing principle for a very fluid group of people, geographically distributed yet tightly knit.
We will see that the neglected discipline of internal communication becomes the linchpin for all of these functions, not so much directing it as facilitating an efficient working relationship between them.
The key difference between this vision of the workplace and today's early models for social networking & collaboration: The architecting of community is intentional and brand-centric, and the brand radiates from the inside out. Productivity is the outcome, but a carefully developed and sustained corporate culture is the beginning.
Whether you're into branding or not, you might find the presentation useful.
Related reading: Employees First, Customers Second by Vineet Nayar and also see Prof. Gary Hamel's Also see this World Bank case study using Jive, one of a variety of products trying to capitalize on this new way of working (no endorsement expressed or implied).

Paranoia, Self Destroyer

People are scared that they can't speak freely anymore. Or as freely, which is just as bad but more subtle.

I have actually had people tell me on the phone, "I can't say what I am thinking out loud," i.e. because "they" are listening and you work for government. (I always say, "they know me already," i.e. that I am a free thinker, yes, but not a subversive.)

Colleagues have said, "Don't tell anyone, but my family likes Sarah Palin." (I like Sarah Palin and admire public servants from every side of the spectrum. One of my best friends is a super-liberal-progressive Democrat. And if you are curious, I am a libertarian.)

In discussions, there comments where people take the time to say," Don't accuse me of being unpatriotic." (I always apologize if I gave that impression.)

Of course they are scared.

Remember that remark about the "vast right-wing conspiracy?" (There are always remarks about conspiracies.)

There are daily scary headlines about the "surveillance state" and such.

Jokes on the Tonight Show.


The TV news the other day reported on how government employees are being encouraged to report on their colleagues.

And of course there is the issue of freedom of the press: The Associated Press. James Rosen, Sharyl Attkisson. Conspiracy theories about the deaths of Andrew Breitbart and Michael Hastings.

I am a simple person, I'll admit. But I know that in the absence of data, superstition and fear run wild. It is an evolutionary response.

I know that government gets embarrassed easily and communicating technical information is hard, especially when some key data can't be shared. 

But is it too simple to suggest that the government create a "Rumor Central" bulletin board? Where the public can submit their questions and get a response when the volume gets high enough?

The TSA has done a great job with their blog addressing public concerns when controversial security measures were implemented. Why can't the entire government do the same? (Why did DHS buy all that ammunition awhile back?) I would like to better understand and I am a sympathetic audience, having worked there for many years.

In fact every government agency I know of is full of very good and dedicated people who actually do care about doing a good job with integrity. This is the vast majority.

While it's true we should not legitimize purely hostile views by giving them a platform, I think most people (including government employees) are simple like me. They just want the facts, they request an explanation.

And the truth is, sometimes as they say, "mistakes were made." Even doozies. The more upfront you are the more people can handle it.

In the rush to get the work of government done, particularly in lean budgetary times, we are prone to forget the basics.  Including the fact that simply addressing people's concerns - building that trust and rapport - is one of our most important jobs of all.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Change Happens When? 10 Conditions

It is tempting to fall into that thought trap that says, "making change happen is difficult if not impossible."

This is not true at all. Change is possible, it can happen. It is only a question of knowing how.

Speaking as someone who tries to learn from success and failure (which stinks and is embarrassing by the way), some thoughts:

1. Approach as a friend not a challenger or G-d forbid a foe. Mentally this must be true and not an act.

2. Focus on severe pain points (and have a very clear vision of what no-pain looks and feels like). Severe pain is a process that hurts like a toothache, that is dreaded, that people truly suffer through.

3. Make the change yourself first. No preaching, no flashy launches, no cheesy or cutesy announcements. Just do it, seriously.

4. Situate yourself within a community of sympathetic people. They may or may not work with you but they should similarly appreciate the issues.

5. Help the people on the fence, whom you want to recruit. Usually they get the logic of the change but are not sure how to implement.

6. Follow the leader. People look to the top for direction. An executive with credibility must, must advocate or at least provide ground cover.

7. Do not be the first. First movers are very exposed. Do your homework and find others who have already beta tested the change and worked through kinks.

8. Use available tools first. Don't rush to import something new and strange. You may already have a workable solution under your nose.

9. Make change interactions pleasant. Most people dread having to learn something new. Present a happy face to it, nice and calm.

10. Package it simply, with the most basic functionality. Most change agents love to tinker and futz endlessly. Regular people shut down when you do this. Think chocolate, vanilla or strawberry.

The end of corruption is followership

I have told this story often.

When I was little we used to drive these long distance trips to see the family.

My dad did the drive all alone. Me and my sister in the backseat. Mom in front on the passenger side.

Sometimes when it was 2 or 3 a.m. I would wake up. I could see my dad's reflection in the windshield mirror. A few times I saw him nodding off.

And I would go, "Wake up, Daddy! Wake up!"

"Oh," he would startle awake and open his eyes. And pretend he had never been sleeping.

Followers must hold leaders to account. More than that we set the agenda. Often we think that the opposite is true, that we are helpless victims of whoever is in charge.

But the reality is quite different.

There was a woman protesting in Brazil. The policeman stood in front of her and sprayed her entire face with pepper spray. I saw the picture on CNN.

The "standing man" protest in Turkey was similarly televised.

In Israel the wife of a cult leader protested the treatment of infants and children, was beaten by a mob and her story made the media.

And in the U.S., many are questioning what exactly the safeguards are against unreasonable search and seizure, even in a heightened awareness of national security concerns.

These are all the actions of followers. These are not anarchists or subversives who want to overthrow the government. They are part and parcel of the system itself, and they are holding their leaders accountable.

The best defense against corruption is not sleeping while your dad drives over a cliff. It is waking up and tapping him on the shoulder.

*As always all opinions my own. And I very much love my dad.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Transparency & Secrecy Can Coexist

King Solomon said, "to everything there is a season" -- an appropriate place and time.

There are times when secrecy, aka privacy is good. During those times, transparency is not.

People need privacy -- solitude. To walk among the trees. To work out their feelings and thoughts.

Couples need privacy.

Families need privacy.

Religious communities need privacy.

Organizations need privacy.

Politicians need privacy.

There is no exception to this rule.

Privacy is not inherently suspicious. But it has become so. It is bad manners for example to refuse to be in a photo.

I was watching a crime show on TV. They were questioning a wide range of possible suspects. 

The policeman said, "Where were you on the night of the crime?" 

The suspect responded, "I was driving around in my car."

"And then what?" asked the policeman.

"I went to the diner," said the suspect.

"Do you have a receipt?"

"No!" and the suspect slammed his hand down on the table. Like, can't I even get a cup of coffee? (But we, the audience, were not supposed to be sure.)

Privacy is a "problem" nowadays. We as a society have ceased to respect it. In the most fundamental ways.

My kid won't go to the mall unless she is going with a friend. 

I am told that NOBODY does this. To be alone is to be weird.

We waaaaaayyyyy overvalue transparency. We know it is ridiculous the lengths to which this craze has gone. But we can't stop ourselves.

Imagine your computer were transparent to hackers - no firewall. Ridiculous right?

But we ask for all secrets, the secrets and the secret processes, that keep us safe to be revealed.

The issue is balance. Yes we need to know certain things. Yes we should hold people accountable to their promises and to the law.

No we do not need to know everything. Nor would we want to.

As George Orwell once said:

"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Communication: velvet glove or iron fist?

When it comes to judging someone's credibility I look for direct statements.

It is X it is not Y and here's the reason.

Often as we rise to positions of power our language becomes more indirect.

You can't say this - you shouldn't word it so - the press or our partners will take it the wrong way.

My mother used to say, I can stand anything but a liar and I can tell you this is true.

As soon as she hears those lying words her nostrils flare with rage. They do.

You may think you are being tactful but the impression is sometimes the opposite.

Say what you mean and mean what you say, and for goodness sake please keep it simple.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Personal Social Media Activities & The Federal Employee - 10 Practical Considerations*

What are federal employees allowed to do in a non-official capacity when using social media?

Over the years I've had the opportunity to read, write, talk and listen to a lot of experts and I still don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution. However, these are the general principles I follow.

Please note - it's not only about the letter of the law but the spirit -- and often it involves a judgment call. When I am not sure, I ask questions. 

All that said, here is some personal, informal advice.
  1. On the profile and in the blog, as warranted, note: "all opinions my own." That said, be real, be yourself, but avoid seeming too edgy or extreme.  
  2. You are allowed to be a human being. Human beings have lives, have experiences, move through the world, and experience things. We have opinions and we disagree. You do not have to be afraid to be human and also be online. You just have to be mindful of what you are doing, and who is watching, as any reasonable person would. 
  3. Generalize experiences and do not refer to specific instances or individuals. It's fine to say that meetings are boring for example. But do not refer to that specific gathering on that specific day at that specific time in that specific room with that specific department. Led by that specific person.
  4. When you say what you think or feel, it's fine to be honest, but it's important to be respectful too. You hold a position of public trust. Ask yourself, if someone took these words and printed them in the newspaper, would most people question my ability to serve?
  5. Do not imply that the agency endorses your views, or a particular product or service. Of course you can say what your opinions are. But you can't make it seem like they have the backing of Uncle Sam.
  6. Humor is great but something to be handled with kid gloves. You do not want to seem hateful, attacking, divisive, racist, sexist, and so on (hopefully you are not these things, either). It is the nature of a joke that it will often be politically incorrect. That's why jokes, especially politically incorrect jokes, are often a bad idea. This doesn't mean you have to be "heavy" all the time. It is OK to be yourself, to lighten up every now and then. Just understand the potential impact of your words. 
  7. Observe the Hatch Act carefully - here are some FAQ on the subject. While it's true that you can hold any views you want and express them on your personal time and in your personal space, it's important to be mindful of the impact of social media on those who know you and who work with you. I do not like to get into political discussions on Facebook.
  8. Focus on objectively advancing knowledge, best practice, community. Look for points of commonality. Try to reach across the boundaries of government, private sector, academia. There are many controversies, many issues to be hashed out, and you can contribute to all these discussions. Federal employees are generally extremely well-educated and articulate. This is where we shine.
  9. Don't discuss the specifics of your day-to-day work. I know it is possible for the agency to be comfortable with this. I personally do not think it's a good idea. To my mind, it interferes with operations. Similarly, don't try to explain the agency's policies, programs or procedures; don't take a position on what the agency does or does not do. Again, you run the risk of interfering with operations and you also might share information that is not already public. 
  10. It's fine to "like" Facebook announcement, retweet Tweets, or share public announcements, especially if encouraged to do so. Sometimes there are articles that cover the agency, and if they're very thoughtful or useful I think it's OK to share those too.
The following references may also be helpful:

*Note: This blog represents an informal collection of personal practices and is not a substitute for professional advice. All opinions, as always are my own. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Preserving Your Personal Brand When The Organization Is In Crisis

The other day I was in the elevator with a couple and their teenage son. We all got out on the first floor.

"Excuse me," she said, in accented English that wasn't like any accent I usually hear. "The conference room, where can I find it?" When she took out a pamphlet and pointed at it, it confirmed my thought - they were foreign tourists.

"I don't know," I said. "I'm sorry." Her husband and son looked at me and shrugged. Their expressions were blank, as if to say, "Whatever - we didn't expect any help from you."

Just at that moment I turned to her, without thinking. "Are you from another country, visiting this country?"

"Yes," she said. "We're from Italy."

And again, without thinking I said: "Well, welcome to the USA. I hope that you enjoy your trip."

Just at that moment, the three of them looked at me. They were startled. It was a nice kind of startled, though. The most genuine expression.

In my mind what was I doing, when I reached out in this way? You can say perhaps just being polite and that's true. But it was something more and something else I think.

Working for the U.S. government, and working for two agencies now that deal with foreign populations, I understand that our country brand is built on interactions. Not only the formal ones. The everyday, hello-how-are-you kind of talking.

I love being here, love what this country means, and am grateful to formally and informally serve the government. We are the great experiment, largely successful, in freedom, equality, human rights, and opportunity -- regardless of our flaws.

I also understand that my brand and the brand of my agency, and the larger brand called "government" are inextricably aligned. No matter what others say about us, no matter what the headlines, I can only focus on what I do. As Tom Peters famously said more than 15 years ago:

"We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. (and) our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You." - Fast Company

This is something that any one of us can accomplish, and particularly in times of crisis. When the institutional brand is under attack, the individuals within that institution can represent the best of the organization.

That power is in our own hands.

At the first agency where I worked, one thing they did very well was Years of Service recognition. This is something that career public servants recognize and appreciate. Five years, 10 years, 15 years, 25, and 30 or more. A lifetime of labor, mostly quiet and unrecognized -- those gold stars in the newsletter meant that occasionally you were held up to the world and valued.

Those gold stars are very much in my head still. They are what I see, not the negative headlines. I see the real work of my colleagues, I see that they are up at night thinking about how they can make a difference. Whether it's protecting the public from credit card sharks. Stopping terrorists from smuggling in weapons of mass destruction. Literally delivering lifesaving aid.

It doesn't matter who you work for. Your brand is always tied to theirs. Assuming that you believe in the mission (which is not always the case, let's face it -- sometimes a job is just a job) -- you only control yourself, but you do control yourself.

At the end of the day, we each have many, many opportunities to preserve and sustain our personal brand and the brand of the organizations we work for. It is important to think about this for a lot of reasons. But the most important among them is ourselves. Because our deepest need, the moment at which we feel most connected to the Universe, is to do the right thing. And preserving a positive reputation through integrity, caring and technical excellence is how each of us can do that. In every interaction. Every single day.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Applying the "7 Truths" To Communicating Re: Sexual Harassment In The Military

The below was in response to a question posed to me on GovLoop, based on my blog "7 Truths Re: Communicating Controversy."

Before I say anything let me say that I am truly grateful to the military community for their service. I do not know what they go through. Their sacrifices, the sacrifices of their families. They see unimaginable horror. They give their lives and their limbs. I know that I am not them and am speaking from the outside.

The issue of sexual harassment of women, and men, in the military and in combat is one of the most difficult issues I can imagine communicating about because the very model of traditional militarism involves dominance as a model - physical, mental, etc.

Also, I think this issue could be extended to cover discrimination around gender more broadly, including gays and lesbians who serve.

All of that said - some thoughts. Again, as always all opinions my own and with the deepest respect.

#1 - "Stand Your Ground." Is there that 100% commitment to eliminating harassment in the first place? It has to exist in the culture at every level.

#2 - the fact is there will be people who disagree vehemently, as odd as it may sound to us. Because in every culture where wrong things happen there are those who see that as the norm. Even if they say they don't, it can be unspoken.

#3 - explain yourself early. I do think women and men should be warned about the risks of signing up. I think they should be told that it's a problem, we're working on it, there are resources available, but it's not perfect yet by any measure.

#4 - repeat the message often. It goes without saying that if leadership is in favor of change but drill sergeants aren't then what is the real message? Or when an incident occurs, how the victim is treated - if at any point there is inconsistency or inattention - then the message does not sink in.

#5 - make it personal - the unimaginable trauma that happens all too often, has happened to too many people. The human impact is devastating and it should be shared at all levels for the anti-harassment message to be effective.

#6 - overwhelm with information. It is critical to ensure that everyone not only understands that the military will not tolerate harassment and abuse, but knows what the resources are to deal with it. You can never give out too much information, you just have to make sure that it's the right information for the right audience at the right time.

#7 - engage many audiences - this is an issue from pre-recruitment to discharge, an issue for everyone in the military - it has to go mainstream. It must be discussed. The act of discussing it will change the culture, it will affect the power structure, it will affect our approach to military operations. And the key is that this is a conversation - not a one-way monologue. The purpose of that engagement is for all parties to walk away with a commitment that is not just renewed but that can result in implementable action on the ground.

Rhetoric Creates Reality and Other Laws of Communication That Government Ignores

As a general rule, government tends to make three key mistakes in the doing of communication:

  • When in doubt, say less - rooted in a vague, generalized fear of negative feedback that sends people into panic mode.
  • Choose technical accuracy over simple plain English - rooted in a belief that "hard skills" (e.g. the technical expertise associated with the mission) are more valuable to the mission than "soft skills" like communication.
  • Underestimating the audience - rooted in an overemphasis on the coordination that happens at the senior level and an underemphasis on communication that happens at the grassroots level, combined with a lack of clearly articulated goals and metrics.

The private sector, being primarily concerned with the earning of profit and not the balancing of multitudinous and contradictory stakeholder needs, has less trouble with this.

Brands know that trust is earned through talk, through simplicity, and through dialogue.

The government did get this right in its best-known social marketing campaigns, most notably the "Uncle Sam" ads - "I want you to join the U.S. Army." This communication was pervasive, simple, clear and could easily be measured in terms of its success: How many people joined up? Had a positive attitude about military service?

What people want from government communication is not just more words, though. They want meaning - substance - a sense of significance.

"Why are you doing this thing?" They want to know.
"What does it mean to my life?" They want you to tell them.
"Have you heard what I said in response to you?" They want to know the answer is yes.

Similar to brands, people want to interact with the government, not just to be hit over the head with its messages, policies, rules and programs.

In the absence of government aggressively telling its story, here is what happens: The public makes up the story instead. And it's going to be the story that makes the most sense to them.

People fear what they do not know. And for most people government is an "other" - an absolutely incomprehensible woolly mammoth tromping around.

When enough people tell the same or similar narrative over and over again, rhetoric creates reality. Fear fills any logical gaps, or gaps due to things that simply cannot be shared.

In the private sector they know that allowing the customer to own the narrative can be very dangerous to the brand. It's pretty simple: lose trust, lose customers, lose money. So as notes, the recent revelations about the NSA have sent them racing to get the facts out:

"To combat the bad press, Google and Facebook, and now Microsoft and Twitter, who was not originally among those named, have been taking active roles in their defense, with the brands requesting clearance from the NSA to disclose more details of the government agency’s inquiries into the brands’ data. By doing so, the brands hope to more clearly demonstrate how a users' data is used or not used." 

The fact that government lags behind the private sector in its valuation and use of communication principles is not a benign problem. It is a potentially cancerous tumor. Especially in times of economic, political and social turmoil, we must up our game and get in touch with the people. There's no need to let others tell our story when we have an amazing story to tell.

One other thing. The fact that government is imperfect at times, many times, and that its employees make mistakes does not in and of itself undermine the institution. In fact the drama and the conflict are potentially engaging yet more. But we have to own those stories and share them. Nobody expects perfection. But they do expect honesty and a full accounting, as much as that accounting can be shared.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Who government communicators compete with

We may not be private sector but we have plenty of competition.

--Those who want to do our jobs because communication is "not a real specialty" and "anyone can do it."

--Those who want to build an empire out of the communication function by spending as much as possible and in the flashiest way possible and of course with the most staff, under which system everything goes through them.

--Those who want to edit everything they see, just because they can, then have an agency and interagency cast of thousands review it, to "coordinate," and generally hem and haw and delay endlessly until nobody cares anymore

--Those who kill every creative idea as if by some reflex -- but make it sound like a reasonable and real excuse every time

-- Finally those who hold information that rightfully belongs to the public, as if it were their own personal treasure trove - and when you advocate to make that information easy to use and accessible, engaging and plain English (eg the law) tell you "that's not the way we do things around here".

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The 10 Stages Of Every PR Crisis & Some Thoughts On How To Handle Them

Looking broadly across the many crises that have unfolded over the years, they seem to all share roughly the same 10 stages in common. If I could make one overall point it is this:

"Pay now or pay later."

That is - right or wrong, if leadership takes responsibility early on, gets all the information out, and does something dramatic and real to fix it - people usually will prefer to keep the organization intact rather than make a major change.

1. Precipitating event 
Something happens. It can be one event, at one time or many events over a long period. It can be related events, or events that seem unrelated. Of course things happen all the time that are "not good," but not all of them rise to the level of a scandal or a crisis. A "not-good happening" becomes a "precipitating event" when the public defines it as a crisis. (The outrage happens in Stage 4, so crises are defined retroactively.)

2. Operational consequence 
The crisis has an impact on someone or something. Someone is injured or dies, their rights are violated, there is harm to the environment. Whatever it is, the effects are tangible and documented.

3. Denial 
People tend to think that "good organizations automatically acknowledge a problem." That may be true sometimes, but not all the time. In fact the default mode for every individual and organization is to resist recognizing a problem. This is not an active choice but a manifestation of survival mode, as well as change aversion. Nobody wants to interrupt their regular routine to admit a problem. That is why they invented the concept of an "intervention" to help addicted people get help. They will stubbornly deny everything.

It should be said that in the case of a crisis, the key words to remember are "the faster the better." Denial may work for a time but it tends to backfire in the end. The first mover generally has the advantage.

In deciding whether to "acknowledge a problem" the organization has to make a strategic decision as to whether they are creating a problem where there was none in the first place, or proactively dissipating a crisis that may arise later because the public reacts against something they had done previously.

My thinking is usually to act first and dissipate. There should never be a question, and if a question has arisen it is better to share the data and dispel gossip and rumor.

4. Public reaction 
Stakeholders get word and get mad. Whether it's the public, the media, Congress, an "iReporter," or what have you - they they resist and they resist vocally. They file suit, demonstrate, start social media campaigns, tell their friends, share documents legitimately or illegitimately. What makes this stage a stage is the decision to speak out.

5. Acknowledgement, narrative, and assignment of responsibility 
The public reaction leads to a decision within the organization that there is actually a crisis - otherwise there would not be an outcry. Upon this recognition, there is a statement of some kind. At this point the organization usually tells its side of the story and places accountability somewhere, even preliminarily.  

It should be noted taking responsibility for something tends to lead the organization to do better in the end, versus if they lay blame they tend to do worse. This is where lawyers and communicators tend to disagree as the lawyers will want to be more protective and say as little as possible, whereas the communicators will want to take the "blah, blah, blah" approach. Communicators know that even if your narrative is not perfect, the fact that you shared it openly makes you credible. Lawyers know that if you say things that are contradictory or that reflect incorrect actions, there are legal consequences. It's a difficult discussion to have which is why it is important that all sides of the team respect one another and work together, but then speak rather than staying silent.

6. Investigation 
In some form or fashion, there is a fact finding process aimed at unearthing evidence and sharing them with a judicial body, formal or informal. The more impartial and unbiased the investigation and the more transparent its findings, the more useful this stage in dissipating the crisis.

7. Suspension of operations 
There is a period of time, formally or informally, where nothing significant happens until the outcome of the investigation is determined. This stage is extremely important. Trying to "go on as usual" ultimately undermines operations. If there is a problem it is important to recognize it and stop, even temporarily, even if life could go on. This shows the organization's seriousness about dealing with it.

8. Report-out, punishment and action 
The findings of the investigation are made public in some way, the more transparently the better. The person or entity responsible for wrongdoing is formally censured and/or penalized. It is important that people see the findings and see the justice being meted out. This restores the lost faith in the system.

Part of this stage is a decision to do things differently - to take action. The organization must accept its "punishment" and do something physical, significant and substantial to address the crisis they tend to do better.

9. Grief and mourning 
Even after the issue is resolved, there is a period of time during which the public asks in a publicly what went wrong, how things could have gotten to this point, and also expresses pent-up emotion over the pain it has caused. It is important that there be a public conversation.

Usually during this stage there is a discussion of "who is really responsible" and it becomes clear that more people are involved, who facilitated or looked the other way when the wrongdoing occurred.

Again, it is not just about "letting it out" but also making improvements for the future. There is always going to be some interplay between #8 and #9. This is due to the ongoing logical versus emotional discussion about what overreaction vs. underreaction - striking the right balance.

In this phase it is important that the organization reach out to those who held it accountable. That some respect and reconciliation occur between the two parties.

10. Monument, commemoration and ritual
There is some public, physical display that reflects a commitment to do things differently in the future. A statue or permanent structure of some sort may be built. A ritual, a ceremony, a holiday -- something without functional value that purely commemorates our memory of what went wrong and our commitment not to repeat those same mistakes.

As I've said over and over again, all organizations suffer crises at one point or another. Rather than handle them as new and unfamiliar phenomena, it seems sensible to follow the playbook of institutions that have weathered crisis and survived.

* As always, all opinions are my own.

5 Observed Laws Of Pricing

1. Once a thing has been free you cannot charge for it without a significant brand or improvement (e.g. no-spy public wifi)

2. The more expensive a thing gets, the more expensive we expect it to get. Discounts are then counterproductive.

3. Brands and sales do not go together.

4. Charging for a thing makes it seem better. Often the less you charge, you find you cannot give it away.

5. The less you charge for a thing the more aggravated a customer gets over minor variations in price. So charge one price if possible (eg McDonald's coffee $1 for any size).

The Issue Is Accountability, Not Privacy

One of my favorite movies was on the other day -- "Enemy of the State" with Will Smith. In the end of course Will Smith the individual wins out. He is better than the bureaucratic machine and its All-Seeing Eye.

We are in the midst of a national and international freakout over privacy. But we long ago accepted that privacy was dead. We signed that agreement when we signed up for Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and all those other sites that collect our information and keep it in some mysterious place we’ve never heard of.

If we were worried about our privacy it seems that ship has long ago sailed. Do we not have health records in the doctor’s office and/or hospital? Do our employers keep files on us? Our schools?

What about those apps where you “check in” no matter where you are, like Foursquare. (I assume I am the Queen of the McDonald’s drive-through right now since my addiction to the egg-white and and white cheddar sandwich, hold the turkey bacon please, now reigns supreme.)

Forget Foursquare – how many times does your iPhone ask, “Can I use your location?” when you open an app, like a directions app that gets you from where you are to the meeting you are late for?

People check Facebook first thing in the morning before they brush their teeth.

The same people also take pictures of themselves and share them on FB, Instagram, Twitter. Some of those pictures are not suitable for work consumption and so for example even the Internet companies will warn you, please don’t post graphic profile pictures.

YouTube has made it way too easy to take a video of every imaginable thing and put it online.

So we don’t care about privacy. In fact many people don’t consider an event an event until they have posted a photo online.

We care about national security. We are willing to give up privacy to have it. What is the alternative? Do we want to be invaded or cyberattacked first, and then have to fight to gain what we had? Of course not.

It is commonplace for movies and TV shows nowadays to demonstrate the Surveillance State. How it forms a virtual dragnet, an invisible web that we don’t want to talk about but that we rely upon every single day.

We are grateful to the military and the government for our security. I believe that.

Abuse of power is another matter. Accountability for that. We demand it. And we want to trust that everything is OK, but when it’s not OK and we can’t ignore it anymore, then we have to do something.

That’s where the national psyche is right now.

If I had to guess what people are feeling it is something like this:

We can’t tell exactly who is responsible or where it went wrong – but something is very wrong.

We don’t like the direction things are going in.

We don’t like the feeling that we’re not being told the truth.

We don’t like it that innocent Americans are being targeted, railroaded, surveilled apparently at whim.

We don’t like it that government is not accountable.

That magical promise of transparency – where is it?

We have seen abuse in every imaginable social institution, from religion to education to healthcare and yes, in government too. In the family.

We cannot tolerate it.

It is time to shift the communication focus away from privacy, where it does not belong and cannot rest, to accountability and abuse of power.

Who is watching? Are they truly independent? What are their findings, where is the accountability and where is the reward for doing right?

When an institution abuses its power and is called out – the right thing to do is to communicate accountability. It is accountability that engenders public trust. When trust is earned, then power can be exercised.

Communication is a critical tool for any organization, institution or individual. But it doesn’t help unless it hits the mark. The issue right now is not a fear of losing privacy. It is a bigger fear that we have lost control of our lives to the Machine.

* As always, all opinions my own.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

7 Truths Re: Communicating Controversy

Image via Dr. Wayne Dyer

1. Stand your ground. "Own it." Be loud and proud - do not shy away from your identity, beliefs or ideas. Flaunt it. "Let your freak flag fly." Do not apologize. Celebrate instead. The fact is that you can be legitimate and unpopular at the same time. Oh well. People will respect you in the end.

2. Honor others' right to disagree - intensely. Oddly, people who represent extreme or controversial beliefs often try to squash disagreement in ways ranging from the subtle to the obvious. It's almost as if they think they can force their views into the mainstream by doing so. Remember, you are mainly talking to your detractors! And you can't force them to agree or trick them into doing so, either. Generally if you want to win people over to your side, it's important to show respect for them and to lay off the proselytizing and pressuring.

3. Explain yourself early. Frequently communicators of controversial subjects wait until people ask questions -- by which time the audience is predisposed to think that you're wrong about whatever controversial thing it is you represent or do. Instead, put information out ahead of time in a very clear, again unapologetic way. Just say it. 

4. Repeat the message often. Frequently communicators get bored with the same old topic, so they switch to a new one. This actually detracts from their effectiveness because focus and repetition are what help messages stick. I personally have very strong views about branding efforts that run counter to most practitioners in the mainstream, e.g. that advertising is least important and internal communication is primary. I have been saying the same thing now for more than a decade, and only in recent years has the concept begun to catch on. Repetition is what it takes to make an idea become familiar, trusted and stick.

5. Make it personal. Controversy is one of those things where you win with logic, but also with appealing to emotion and common sense. Tell the story in terms that the audience will identify with, even if they will never agree with you. Connecting on that personal level makes it easier for the audience to listen to what you are saying and tolerate your right to say it, even if they disagree.

6. Overwhelm with information. When you represent something controversial, providing evidence accomplishes a few goals. First, it shows that you are confident enough in your views that you seek to justify them in open debate. Second, it provides an objective basis for discussion. Third, it helps the listener accept the emotional risk of opening up to your ideas. Each and every justification you provide serves as a cushion against their fear.

7. Engage many audiences. Do not just communicate with those who agree with you, those who have a direct interest in your work, and so on. Talk to everyone who might potentially interact with your organization now and in the future. Strength of message involves not only focused, coherent, and consistent messaging but also a network of relationships across a wide variety of stakeholders. And obviously, again, never insult your detractors - you can't win them all.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Marketing, Lies & The Culture Of Personal Truth

When I was eight and moved to Monsey, New York, I lived the lie that my family was ultra-Orthodox. But the other kids found out my mom wore pants and didn't cover her hair. And they made fun of me.

In sleep-away camp I lived the lie that I was as rich as the kids who paid o go there. But my mom was the camp nurse, my tuition was free, and my clothes gave away the secret. We weren't rich at all.

When I went to college I lived the lie that I at least kept the Sabbath. Then I spent a weekend at my friend Janima's house in Pennsylvania. Her dad drove us around town and it was fun. I returned to school on Sunday and when I spoke to my mother, she didn't like what she heard. I did not hear from her for awhile.

Lying to get by, to be accepted, to be loved. We suffer from the lies that were imposed on us. But we learn at the same time that masks are necessary.

In fact it is a social skill to lie. So why am I always amazed at how smoothly people do it? Why am I shocked by the pathological ease with which some people bend, stretch and snap the truth?

I know what it is that bothers me. Not the  fact that people lie to survive. What's disturbing is when a person stops realizing the difference between true and false.

That is the problem with marketing, isn't it? In the past, wherever you stood on that line between truth and falsehood, reality stood with certainty somewhere.

In marketing the truth is what you make of it. The integrity comes from achieving a different kind of truth - "it feels real to me." "It's authentic."

It's hard to say whether we are better off now than in the past. In a sense I think we are, because everyone has the recognized right to live their truth. But in another way we are truly messed up in our heads. Because when you legitimize "my truth" versus "your truth," "his" and "hers," what you end up with is a group that cannot have a real dialogue. 

At some point there is conflict between what I believe and what you believe. The solution cannot always be retreating to our corners. Yet we should not fight it out until death or dominance either.

The third way, one that takes a lot of maturity, is to engage in the tough discussions. Maybe we can live and let live while also acknowledging some central truth or reality.

Without that agreement that fact does exist, we can never tell the truth really. Because what we say is always just a matter of opinion, or biased propaganda.

Validating The Other Person - A Key Communication Skill

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bronco Suzuki via Flickr. It shows U.S. Army Sgt. Dustin Mace, left, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, playing pattycakes with a child in the Furat area of Baghdad, Iraq, May 8, 2007. 

My daughter was frustrated with me the other night.

Tired and impatient, I rushed her through the edits needed for her English essay. She stomped out of the room.

Five minutes later she was back.

"I want to read you a letter."

She then read me about a page and a half of notes. About how my impatience made her feel. (Essentially like being run over by a truck.)

If she had merely said those words to me and not taken the time to write them, I would likely have dismissed her feedback. Emotion meets emotion and the net effect is zero.

But when I saw the words themselves I realized that the effect of my impatience was imprinted on her brain.

When we take the time to validate people it does not mean we agree with them. It does mean we acknowledge their right to feel, think, and perceive differently than we do.

Acknowledging the other person. It is not just listening or even hearing. It is repeating their words back to them. Saying in effect, "I understand."

Unless two people are doing that in conversation, there is no real conversation going on.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

To Make The Organization Transparent To Itself

                                                                                Image via free wallpapers

The ordinary person can't avoid germs. In just the same way the organization can't avoid potentially toxic environmental hazards.

This is because organizations are composed of people - plenty of psychological problems there. 

Those people interact in groups - which means power struggles and cultural conflict.

Groups are of many different kinds - some inherent to the organization and some not. For example there could be differences between one department and another. Between genders. Or both and many others.

Both individuals and groups compete for resources. So now we bolt on another layer of conflict, the economic struggle to survive.

And we still have not considered all the pressures from outside the organization. That is the many stakeholders who want to influence its direction.

If you stop to think about it...

Organizational health is achievable. It is.

But it has to be taken as seriously and as literally as the physical health of an individual.

In the case of a person, we know what factors promote or hinder disease. 

--If you don't sleep, don't move, smoke, abuse food, drink or do drugs, avoid friendship, and engage in overly stressful activity -- you will die too soon.

--We also know that if you invest in preventive self-care over many years rather than waiting until your body is diseased, you minimize the chance that you will have to do drastic things to recover from an illness. Because you have some health in reserve.

--Finally, if you care for your mind, body and spirit holistically, you will spend less time chasing symptom after symptom. Because health is a system in which the parts work together.

Yet none of the above will work if you fail to do one very important thing. And that is to acknowledge that you need your health in the first place. Or worse yet, deny the symptoms when something is going wrong.

In the case of the organization we routinely make all of these mistakes.

--We know what kind of leadership and management behaviors promote a good workplace, and which make it sink like a stone in the river. But we do not insist that they occur.

--We know that making little investments proactively over time build an emotional "bank account" that serve as a buffer in times of stress. But we wait for a crisis to do something.

--We know that a problem in one part of the organization usually means a problem somewhere else. But we continue to look at such issues in isolation.

But the worst thing we do, knowing all of the above, is to ignore or deny it when problems exist. Shooting the messengers  who bring us bad tidings.

This is not to say that we should run around being negative. "Oh yes, that's us, we're terrible," etc.

It does mean that we should be having ongoing safe conversations about our organizational health. Just like a regular doctor's checkup - what is going on? Are there early signs of problems? What can we do?

Investing in our physical health is an insurance policy. It protects not just us but the ones we love and have pledged to care for.

It is much the same thing with the organization. We are there for our own careers, true. But by joining we have made a pledge to the group, to take care of them not just in parts but as a whole.

Transparency is important for the outside. But it is fundamentally more important at home.  

* As always all opinions are my own.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Thoughts On The "Deviance" Of Employees Who Speak Up

Internally unfortunately caring and committed employees are often labeled as "rogue", in different words ("loose cannon," "troublemaker"). They get this label when they see and name the elephant in the room. Could be anything from a broken process to worse. They are not at all "outside" the team, they are "of" the team and the mission and they care that much that they put themselves at risk to speak.

This is not to say that there aren't actually troubled employees who act to destroy the organization - that is a completely different matter. Those employees must be separated from the group and held to account. (Leaders are responsible for seeing and acting.)

The point has been made that "rogue" can be used as a way of shifting blame even as blame is taken. It should be said that without a full and transparent investigation one does not know for sure, and using partial evidence (this person's words or that person's accusation) to tell a whole story is biased and misleading. The truth is usually about a thousand times more complicated than any headline.

Our advanced brains can get us in trouble. For in the animal kingdom or in a war or primitive survival situation, the ability to see danger gives you an advantage. But in social life (whether organized religion, bureaucracy, educational institutions or what have you) -- naming problems makes you the problem. "No good deed goes unpunished." And so the organization shoots the messenger and eventually crumples itself.

This is so common a phenomenon and so persistent that I am always surprised at the standard questions after the fact, e.g., "why didn't anyone do anything? why didn't anyone speak up?" Most people learn from school on up that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. You see this very prominently in cases of child molesters, who have gotten away with it for decades and decades, covered by the school, the family, the religious institution. Until the very moment that the molester is prosecuted and put in jail, people attack the victims and their advocates.