Self-Criticism: Friend, Not Foe

Photo of a mock trial by Penn State Law Via Flickr

I may not have lived in New York for a decade, but I continue to follow the goings-on there with interest, particularly those of the religious Jewish community and the developing stories about its harsher realities and painful personal stories. I know firsthand how closed they are, and that the transparency is not voluntary. 

There are many reasons why religious organizations and other social institutions avoid public admission of guilt. As Boston University history professor Richard Landes writes:

"Public admission of fault can provoke a powerful sense of humiliation, and involves an obligation to cease the erroneous behavior and attitudes. Most people actively dislike admitting error, fault, or failure, and will go to great lengths to avoid public concessions." 

But it does make me more engaged, intentional or not.

In the realm of public relations we know the critical importance of self-criticism to a company's balance sheet.  Early and substantive accountability, especially during a crisis, builds that intangible factor called "goodwill" or "reputation" and turns negative situations into positive ones.

A recent report from UK's Chartered Institute of Management Accountants puts it this way (note that these are accountants and not "spinmeisters"):

"To manage the quality of their reputation, organisations must...ensure that they look for opportunities for positive news especially in the face of bad."

Some companies get it right. The classic case is Tylenol's immediate and costly $100 million recall in response to cyanide-laced capsules in 1982. 

But it's not always about spending money. Sometimes it's about proactively jumping into a controversy where you could easily be painted as part of the problem. Consider that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg weighed in publicly, to a foreign publication, with a response to concerns raised over revelations about U.S. government surveillance activities.

"The (US) government response was, 'Oh don't worry, we're not spying on any Americans.' Oh, wonderful: that's really helpful to companies trying to serve people around the world, and that's really going to inspire confidence in American internet companies. I thought that was really bad. We are not at the end of this. I wish that the government would be more proactive about communicating. We are not psyched that we had to sue in order to get this and we take it very seriously."

Consider that Zuckerberg is famous for saying that "the age of privacy is over" and his company has been the target of repeated privacy concerns. Yet by speaking up before others can target him, asserting vague action and criticizing his own government, he protects himself in the eyes of his core audience -- millennials -- who "trust people over brands."

And yet, despite all that we know about "good PR practice," companies and people routinely run, hide, lie, manipulate, obfuscate, delay and even attack the victim to deflect blame. 
  • Despite dangerous acceleration problems that put customers' lives at risk, Toyota "effectively slept at the wheel" until the CEO was forced to apologize. At the time one analyst said, "Not taking ownership of the problems or not even acknowledging the problems...clearly made matters much worse for them now."
  • In the case of the BP oil spill, executives offered impossible, non-credible feel-good statements and narcissistic complaints like the CEO saying "I'd like my life back."
  • We saw this in the case of Penn State, as a pedophile spent decades recruiting at-risk children and the university kept him employed, on premises and around young people. 
Professor Landes notes that in an effort to escape blame, guilty parties scapegoat the innocent:

"We all develop elaborate means to protect ourselves from such public shame and obligation, by rationalizing or finger-pointing at some other party....The extreme expressions of such efforts to avoid responsibility involve scape-goating and demonizing, in which the sacrifice of the assigned 'guilty party' is necessary to cover our own refusal to admit any fault."

What this means in practice, unfortunately, is that whistleblowers and victims alike get mowed under if it keeps the predator solvent. In a high-profile sex abuse scandal involving an influential member of the Hasidic Williamsburg community, the Grand Rabbi (who has since fled the country) vilified the young female victim rather than her convicted offender.

Wrongdoers also minimize the damage done. One commenter translated and shared a note about this common attitude among the ultra-Othodox Hasidic community: "All those who were abused are able to drink their coffee and eat their wonderful breakfasts; they are in good spirits."

Secrecy may work for some time, but over time there is inevitably a critical counter-reaction.

Elizabeth Warren is a well-known progressive Democratic Senator from the State of Massachusetts. She is ideologically aligned with President Obama in many ways. And yet in a recent speech, she opposed his political nominee for U.S. Trade Representative. The problem was not ideology but approach: The USTR is currently too secretive, and she wants to see someone appointed who will clearly address that. 

Warren notes that she has encountered disagreement from those who fear public debate of controversial policies and agreements will stop progress. Her response: That thinking is wrong, even "backwards":

"If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States."

Good communication is reflexive - that is, it questions its own assumptions without bias. It is also efficient, by sweeping away the lies and machinations that perpetuate inefficient and expensive bureaucratic machines. In the words of Professor Landes:
  • "Self-criticism stands at the heart of any experiment in civil society."
  • "Only when we can acknowledge errors and commit to avoiding making them again, can we have a learning curve. 
  • "Only when scholars can express their criticism of academic colleagues, and those criticized are able to acknowledge error, can scientific and social thinking develop.
  • "Only when religious believers can entertain the possibility that they may not have a monopoly on truth...can various religions live in peace and express their beliefs without fear of violence.
  • "Only when political elites are willing to accept negative feedback from people who do not have their power, only when the press can oppose those who control public decision-making...
...can a government reasonably claim to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

* All opinions my own.

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own.

For An Office of Federal Communications, OMB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own.

5 Elements of Stephanie Cutter's PR Genius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own.

Fair Trade In A Bad Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own. Photos by me.

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