“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”

June 6, 2013

In the great hall of mirrors that is corporate communications, addressing issues raised by government court orders whose contents you can’t disclose and whose existence you can’t acknowledge represents a high degree of difficulty.  Imagine you are in receipt of such a court order which has become the subject of widespread public controversy and you wish to be heard on the subject without violating the law.  What would you do?  In this age of social media, you have some interesting options, including the one chosen by a company we will not name which tweeted out to the world an internal memorandum addressed to employees which said in part: “The alleged court order that [Newspaper Y] published on its website contains language that:

  • Compels [Company X] to respond
  • Forbids [Company X] from revealing the order’s existence
  • Excludes from production the “content of any communication…..or the name, address, or financial information of any subscriber or customer.”

…if [Company X] were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply.”

A good effort in which every word has been scrubbed within an inch of its life.  We could quibble with “alleged court order.”  Unless the company is suggesting the document published by the newspaper is a forgery this should surely read “the court order, whose existence we can neither confirm nor deny…”  In the last sentence we would also prefer “if [Company X] had received such an order…” but this is a mere bag of shells.  We can continue this discussion on April 12, 2038 when the alleged court order may be made public.


Jackboots on the Forklifts

February 19, 2013

Let us spare a thought today for poor Amazon as it lurches forward from perhaps the most out-of-left-field crisis of the decade. According to The New York Times, the company has now severed its ties to the security firm it had hired to protect its warehouses in Germany who, it was disclosed, had, at the very least, a predilection for Neo Nazi outerwear. One could raise the question whether anyone at Amazon thought it odd that the security firm’s name in acronym spells out H.E.S.S., the name of Hitler’s deputy, but to us, this crisis is an object lesson in the futility of crisis “playbooks.” We award a golden pompom to anyone who could have predicted that such an event might befall Amazon which is precisely why lengthy crisis playbooks that purport to spell out what to do in any eventuality are relatively useless. By all means, have prepared language for the most likely problems but the best practitioners focus on the process more than the content. If you can get the right team on the line quickly and effectively you will have accomplished more than will be found in any playbook no matter how extensive.

The Uncertainty Principle

August 6, 2012

Heisenberg famously calculated the limits to our ability to measure the position and momentum of sub-atomic particles at the same time.  Perhaps that is why it is hard to pinpoint the exact level of collusion between business leaders asserting that uncertainty is holding them back from investment and hiring.  Obeisance to the great god, uncertainty, became a cliché of business rhetoric two years ago after the worst of the depression had passed.  Today’s New York Times’ piece by Nelson Schwartz takes the lamentations to a new level.  “We’d love to hire more people, but we’re saying no,” Schwartz quotes Legrand’s CEO as saying.  Timothy Powers, Hubbell, Inc.’s chief executive told Schwartz that he is not filling 100 positions that are open.  The political impasse driving these concerns is the failure of opponents in Congress to find consensus on Bush-era tax cut extensions, but the sub-text in a presidential election year has a frisson to it that should give business leaders pause.  At some point, complaints about uncertainty due to partisan rancor run the risk of looking like the American business community is sitting on its hands because a brisker recovery might aid an Obama victory in November.  There is no evidence of this, but if this narrative takes hold it could generate an anti-business momentum that will be damaging for everyone.  This is a Pandora’s Box that it is in no one’s best interests to kick open accidentally.

Data Exhaust

May 21, 2012

The initial public offering of Facebook last week has prompted discussion of how the company will  justify its behemoth stock market valuation over the long term.  In a canny, but apparently unrelated move, GM announced that it no longer considered the cost of advertising on Facebook justifiable.  The piquancy of this announcement was muted somewhat when the auto manufacturer also disclosed that it would not be advertising on the 20123 Superbowl but the question nonetheless remains: why would hundreds of millions of people voluntarily surrender their right of ownership in their own data production to Mark Zuckerberg?  Daily, exabytes of so-called data exhaust stream out of the tailpipe of human interaction to be sold to advertisers in a bizarre form of metaphysical carbon capture.  Is it conceivable that individuals will some day be able to extract  a fee from Facebook for the right to monetize their emotional waste?  Or will we see the establishment of a Facebook-type utility in which users agree to mutually pool their data exhaust and sell it directly to advertisers, effectively dis-intermediating MZ?  Arguably, managing their data exhaust is something people are willing to job out to Facebook for now, but it  might take only a few highly visible data outrages for them to change their minds.  Facebook and its advertisers will need to be more vigilant than they have been so far to ensure that this data exhaust doesn’t create a smog of privacy violations that people refuse to tolerate.  Perhaps, even today, someone somewhere is writing the data equivalent of “Silent Spring.”

Working Men of all Countries, Unite!

April 10, 2012

These words, the concluding salvo of the Communist Manifesto were published in February 1848 at the beginning of that great year of revolutions across Europe.  2012 began with the decision by Apple to monitor labor conditions at its Chinese suppliers more transparently.  Today’s New York Times carries the story of the murder of a labor organizer in Bangladesh.  Tommy Hilfiger and Walmart have pledged their commitment to improving labor conditions in that country.  H&M did not respond to a request for comment.

Is there a contagion of issues in today’s instantly connected world similar to, if more compressed than, 1848?  We believe that there is, that the Arab spring demonstrated this and that protest crackdowns in Western China suggest the Chinese government believes this, too.  We have no evidence that the Foxconn story inspired Bangladeshi labor activists or that there is a connection with the murders of six Guetemalan union organizers last year.  We do believe, however, that corporations need to be freshly alert not just to issues that affect their industry or only in the regions in which they operate.  They must be alive to what we’ll call “issues contiguity,” the ability of seemingly unrelated concerns to jump the firebreak.  We may see vast disparities between economic conditions in Bangladesh, Turkey or Chile but Karl Marx knew a meme when he saw one — “The price of a commodity, and therefore also of labor, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.” Is it so far fetched to think that we will soon, once again, be talking about the “ownership of the means of production?”  Who knows, but it is certainly not too soon to be paying attention to the way this global meme shapes issues, independently of industry, subject matter or country. 

The Best of Times, The Wurst of Times

March 2, 2012

Poor Otto.  Bismarck’s timeless quip that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” seems to have lost its bearings in current discourse.  Thus, Gerard Corbett, chairman of the Public Relations Society of America, discussing the search for a new definition of public relations in today’s New York Times — “it was basically an exercise in making sausage.”  Huh?  In any event, we can certainly celebrate this effort that resulted in the warm and only slightly moist sentence “Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”  Celebrate because, in the current first flush of social media’s youth, it has finally become obvious again that “PR” is about building and nourishing relationships not “communications consulting” or any of the other seventeen things it has been called since people started fretting that “public relations” was insufficiently dignified for such an august profession.  So, three cheers for the committee and may “a thousand flowers bloom.”  Well, actually, Mao Tse Tung’s campaign was the “Hundred Flowers Movement” but never mind.  Let’s get back to making sausage while the sun shines.

The Costa Concordia and Fact-based Crisis Response

January 20, 2012

The evolving story of the ill-fated Costa Concordia is an almost casebook illustration of the dangers in crisis response of rushing to place an interpretation on  a murky situation too quickly.  It may well be that the “hero/villain” narrative  elevating the Coastguard captain and demonizing Captain Schettino turns out to be correct.  However, the emergence of conflicting data about the pattern of Costa Cruise ships route deviations suggests that much has yet to be learned that may not reflect so well on the company, as FT.com suggests today (“Focus Shifts from Ship’s Captain to Company”).  It can be very stressful to withhold judgment in these circumstances but it is critical in order not to box oneself  into a corner.

By contrast, some steps in crisis response should be undertaken without delay even before all the facts are known.  In this spirit, it was much better news that  the parent company Carnival is launching a “stem to stern” audit of all its safety and emergency practices for every one of its cruise lines.  This makes emotional and psychological sense and represents a logical human response to the fear and pain people feel in response to such a crisis, irrespective of the cause ultimately determined.

My Boss is a Sadistic Cockroach

December 6, 2011

The National Labor Relations Board has recently begun warning employers that restrictions on employee use of social media may violate labor laws for both union and non-union employees.  This is because the 1935 Wagner Act generally protects the right of employees to talk to each other to discuss employer conduct, wages and working conditions, so-called “concerted activity.”  According to legal experts cited in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, name-calling plain and simple probably isn’t protected, but more than a 100 employers have recently been accused of improper application of social media policies as it relates to employee comments online.  The NRLB has so far left a number of areas unclear such as the relevance of an employee posting a rant from a workplace computer, but it seems clear to us that this is another case in which employers need to be very cautious about censoring or firing employees for anti-company or anti-supervisor statements.  The NLRB may yet deem that a posting on Facebook by someone with workplace colleagues as friends constitutes de facto “concerted activity.”  This is just another area in which social media has opened up a new avenue for potential reputational damage and a further reason why handling your “talent” well has become a critical brand strategy.

Good Morning, Data Subject #21984756

September 26, 2011

The Wall Street Journal has laudably made a big deal of data privacy over the past year, particularly with respect to super cookies and other tracking software.  Today’s edition carries Julia Angwin’s story about the rise of the chief privacy officer, citing GE and HP among the usual suspects leading in this new field.  Are IP addresses and device identifiers personal data?  The FTC isn’t sure yet but European governments have taken the lead in trying to protect citizens’ private data, forcing global companies to look closely at their practices in this area.

To our eyes, this is another area in which companies can create reputation-building power by embracing high standards for personal data use, transparency about their practices and easy to use problem/resolution pathways.  Appointing a chief privacy officer is not a bad place to start.  As Scott Taylor, HP’s CPO, puts it: “if you think about the delivery of this project, is there anything that might surprise the data subject?”  That’s a good place to start.

We Are the J Students! We Are Proud!

August 19, 2011

Yesterday’s news brings yet another tale of unanticipated reputational threat arising from the terminally outsourced world in which we currently live. We can, I think, confidently say that the Hershey chocolate company never in its wildest imaginings considered the possibility that employing international students through a government program would become a “sweatshop” flash point as reported in today’s New York Times 

This most recent example of the networked enterprise focuses our attention once more on the critical need for employers to have transparency in their supply chain.  Many years ago, energy companies tried to argue that because the tanker truck in the freeway pile up was operated by a contractor, they bore no responsibility.  That argument didn’t wash then and any suggestion that a long outsourced HR supply chain absolves Hershey of responsibility for work performed to get its own product to the end customer would be equally wrong.  The vigilence is all, and having ordinary managers who can spot an obvious disconnect when they see one.