Archive for the ‘Corporate Governance’ Category

“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.

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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.

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.

Hack Hacks Shutter Rag

July 8, 2011

The New York Times barely concealed glee at the misfortunes of News Corp. shouldn’t distract us from this rare example of crisis over-reaction. The negative response to the decision to shut down The News of the World, which may well have had iron-clad operational logic, demonstrates that in every crisis there is an irreducible narrative arc that must not be violated. In the context of the ongoing uncertainties about whose cell phone was hacked by whom, shutting the newspaper was akin to knocking off the key government witness prior to the trial. The News Corp.’s explanation for the decision was also a textbook non-explanation explanation. The New York Times called James Murdoch’s statements “a striking example of self-critical apology” but if all the key players, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, among others, remain in place, this is an odd sort of self-criticism. Rather like the exquisite torture of business executives appearing before a Congressional committee in order to provide headlines for politicians, it is sometimes most effective simply to stand out in the withering fire until public interest begins to fade. By attempting to bring down the curtain prematurely, to mix metaphors, News Corp. has robbed the public and the politicos of their moment of hypocritical self-righteousness and it will assuredly not smooth things out for the BSkyB deal. The only effective brand recovery has to include publicly acknowledged learnings. Riding out of town in the dead of night makes this hard to do. There will be more twists and turns before the public has had its fill of this story.

First Stupid, now Evil

April 28, 2011

We were happy to see the board of Berkshire Hathaway reverse itself in the matter of David Sokol’s disclosure about his acquisition of shares in Lubrizol because it neatly illustrates one of our core crisis management precepts.  This is that in the fog of swirling facts, conjectures and opinions surrounding a crisis, it is often helpful for a company to ask itself — is our explanation going to be that we were stupid (mistakes were made) or evil (someone can be blamed)?  This can then lead to an unemotional discussion of whether procedures need to be changed (no more mistakes) or whether someone can be fired (noisely or quietly) or a business unit closed or sold.  What is compelling about the B-H decision is that its original explanation was a botched attempt at explanation #1 — everything was legally OK, but we probably would behave differently in the future.  This flew completely in the face of our baseline of expectations about Warren Buffett as a man of impeccable rectitude with an aversion to obfuscation.  The audit committee report outlines in excruciating detail a timeline and pattern of events that enables the firm to convincingly switch to explanation #2.  We offer no opinion on whether this version of events is correct, but this looks like a good save, and probably a bit of luck.  Most companies in crisis trying to make this switch simply make matters worse by destroying their credibility.  Note to Renault: it is usually easier to go from stupid to evil than evil to stupid.

Malus Domestica

April 22, 2011

Well, how fitting that we now know what kind of Apple Steve Jobs runs — Northern Spy.  It makes very good pies, but does it make good public relations?  We’re prompted to ask this question because once again Apple has stayed true to its practice of not commenting with regard to allegations about its retention of data about IPhone users’ locations.  This is consistent with its previous posture re Steve Job’s state of health and questions about stock options.  The almost universal admiration of the company (some might call it adulation) in spite of this habit occasionally causes corporate communications practitioners to ask — “opacity seems to work for Apple.  Why shouldn’t I try it?”  The answer is not as simple as it might seem.  Some might say this posture has worked well for Apple, causing  past critical storylines to wither for lack of the oxygen provided by a company response.  However, it seems to us, that it requires a level of intestinal fortitude, the willingness to put up with high levels of negative speculation, that is realistically only available to a company like Apple.  Steve Jobs is truly one of a kind and arguably even titans such as Jack Welch, Lou Gerstner and Bill Gates would have had trouble pulling off this consistent silence.  The  great Warren Buffett himself will be hard pressed to say nothing about the resignation of David Sokol at his upcoming annual meeting even though he is unlikely to go beyond what he has said previously. So the lesson here seems to be that, for most companies, consistent and reasonable transparency is the safest posture.  Once again, we will have to leave pregnant silence to the man in the black turtleneck.

The Market State

November 17, 2010

Last year, corporate executives spent a lot of time talking about the problem of headwinds in a difficult economy.  They never talk about tailwinds in a good economy but that’s another story.  What they have talked about this year is “uncertainty” by which they apparently mean excessive government regulation brought on by the global fiscal crisis. A McKinsey white paper published earlier this year suggests that companies would be better off preparing for much more activist national governments and the challenges they will present than whining about uncertainty.  The authors of the study suggest that the challenge for sovereign states in dealing with slower economic growth while still providing affordable safety nets will entangle the private and public sectors in the future in ways that are unthinkable in today’s developed economies.

While there are clearly financial and operational implications of this shift, there are also reputational dangers and opportunities.  If McKinsey’s predictions are correct, the term corporate social responsibility may take on entirely new meanings.  U.S. companies have long bemoaned the emergence in the 1950s of employer-supported health benefits.  If the market state is truly the wave of the future, they may have seen nothing yet.

Finagle’s Law and the Gulf Oil Crisis

November 3, 2010

Yesterday’s admirable piece by Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times about BP’s crisis in the Gulf got us to thinking about what really good reputation risk management looks like.  Skapinker rightly recommends that boards of directors pay careful heed to what Bob Dudley, the new CEO of BP had to say about the Gulf disaster at a Confederation of British Industry conference this week.  Perhaps, but they will need to re-read carefully the passage in which he talks about “a series of interlinked failures” as the cause of the spill.  If they do so, they might begin to apply “Finagle’s Law,” the gold standard of disaster prevention.

Finagle’s Law, an elaboration of Murphy’s or Sod’s Law states that “if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, at the worst possible moment.”  It is hard to reconcile a complete understanding of this principle with the way most companies practice crisis prevention today, with their reliance on fail safes not themselves failing.  In fact, Murphy himself or rather Air Force Colonel Stapp who coined the phrase in the 1940s, understood that Murphy and Finagle were not simply articulating a fatalistic point of view but recommending a critical series of thought experiments — imagining the worst case scenario for every sequence in a chain of events and the failure of its back-up, in order to engineer effective safeguards.

With apologies to Mr. Dudley, “low probability event” and “unimaginably devastating” are not quite the same thing.  We’ll talk tomorrow about how companies can stress test their entire value chain in order to uncover hidden risks.

Wanted: Social Capitalists

November 1, 2010

Social Network consultant Valdis Krebs plays along with Brian Lehrer on NPR today to create a “Six Degrees of Separation” game for Andrew Cuomo and Carl Paladino, each striving to win New York’s gubernatorial race.  It features the usual political figures, both foreground and background, lobbyists and campaign consultants.  This kind of social network analysis has been used in  numerous ways, such as mapping the relationships between senators, lobbyists and corporations with respect to health reform.

Digging a little into the social capital theories of Ron Burt at the University of Chicago we find useful measures of power relationships in social networks such as “betweenness” and “closeness.”  We also learn that most networks, left to their own devices, develop a high degree of homogeneity — more connections between more of the same kind of people.  Undiversified networks such as these offer none of the supposed benefits of social networks, such as innovation and cross-fertilization of ideas that come from unanticipated inputs.  In order to create these benefits, social networks need to be actively managed and nourished.

It strikes us that fostering these networks is one of  the critical contributions of the corporate communications function in the 21st century.  In an environment of intense flux and the disappearance of boundaries between industry sectors and functions, having a strategy to build your company’s social capital is no longer a luxury.  Wherever new threats emerge, we need fresh and diverse connections to understand and manage them.  New opportunities can only be seized when the diversity of our corporate networks alerts us to them.

The good news is that social media make the work of measuring your social capital and finding new potential connections easier than ever before.  The bad news is that building social capital is time and resource intensive.  Since some things don’t change, though, we will need new titles to describe our social network experts.  We think Senior Vice President for Social Capitalism has a nice ring to it.