Archive for the ‘Issues Management’ 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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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.”

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.

Men in Crisp Suits

April 1, 2011

For many people, the day hasn’t really started until they’ve read The New York Times and this writer in particular owes most of his knowledge to reading the newspaper every day for 35 years.  The paper’s coverage is so uniformly credible and balanced that its intimate readers instantly recognize when a reporter is reaching — anonymous quotes, unsourced opinions and in portraits of  insufficiently villainous bad guys, cruelty to animals, anecdotes about high school arrogance and references to unrelated lawsuits, long dismissed.  This past Sunday’s paper carries variant number two of this technique used when it is deemed appropriate to paint a corporation in a poor light without any evidence for bad behavior.  In Walmart Tries a Refined Path into New York, reporter Elizabeth Harris delivers a gem of this particular genre.  The way to recognize this particular type of story is that there is always a reference to the PR people, inevitably wearing crisp suits.  Then there’s the obligatory Dr. Evil analogy (Walmart henchmen “furiously” tap Blackberry messages to company exec watching remotely).  We are also treated in these stories to power words that add little information —   “all out push,” “overwhelm,” “out manoeuver,” “aggressive” (and “aggressiveness”).  Note the sheepish dissonance between the headline descriptor (refined) and what the reporter appears to want to characterize as a brute force campaign to (OMG) influence public opinion in open forums.  The reporter is keeping all options open here, accusing the company of simultaneously saying too little (“would not speak to a reporter for this article”) and too much (“the e-mails kept popping up for nearly four hours”).  What exactly does one need to add to a campaign (“aggressive media strategy”) conducted so stridently in the open?

This is not to argue for a moment the merits of the issue.  For all we know Walmart does destroy small businesses and replace good jobs with bad ones.  We’d just like to “out” these veiled editorials, although we have little expectation that even “in your face aggressiveness” will cure the Times of this occasional vice.  In the mean time, we have a few recommendations for the good people of Walmart — ditch the “emblazoned” (Scarlet Letter) folders and hand out information on coffee stained napkins.  And we have two more words for the PR people: cargo pants.

Smoking Tweets

March 2, 2011

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the AT&T case ends for the moment the idea that corporations have any personal privacy protection of material provided to government agencies.  This has particular relevance in the burgeoning world of social media as practiced by companies, in which more and more internal and external traffic will not only be FOIA-ble but searchable.  In this environment, legal agreements in which companies pay fines without admitting to wrongdoing will provide little protection against out of context citation of awkward statements.  This is, of course, merely another reminder that the utmost care should be exercised in all forms of business communications, underlined by the ancient psychological truth that anything that can be misconstrued will be misconstrued.  We can understand why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would  stand with AT&T on this.  Their statement cited in the Wall Street Journal that the ruling could have a chilling effect on corporations’ willingness to cooperate with law enforcement authorities somehow didn’t sound quite right, however.

Regardless of how the issue evolves, lawyers and communicators will now have to bid farewell to a tried and test cliché: “this statement has been taken out of context.”  How much context can there be in 140 characters?

Pass me the lexical Novocain

December 17, 2010

Politicians, bureaucrats, attorneys, generals and corporate spokespeople cherish the bland turn of phrase, the reassuring clichés that are the equivalent of the beat cop’s refrain: “move along, folks, nothing to see here.”  Indeed we would argue that there is a place for anodyne in reducing the heat when things have gone awry.  However, a cliché over-used becomes a caricature and focuses attention on itself in precisely the wrong way.  We’ll get in a moment to a recent example from Ohio State University that brings this subject to mind, but in the spirit of year-end resolutions, this is a plea for some new language in the corporate lexicon.

Some of the hoariest clichés have already been thoroughly disassembled and, to be fair, companies have largely abandoned the cloying warmth of sending fired executives to “explore new career opportunities” or “spend more time with their families.”  In these traumatic and litigious times, we have seen so many settlements that there are a couple of phrases which are now past their sell-by date.  Companies who settle with the government because they know or suspect that a full-blown trial could be even worse now need to stop saying the settlement is  designed to “eliminate the expense and distraction of protracted litigation.”  Surely, a shriveled fig leaf that covers less and less.  The opposite strategy, of course, is to “vigorously defend ourselves against these baseless allegations” which now means only that we are so guilty we’ll have to throw everything at this one to see if something sticks.

Which brings me to Ohio State, which has apparently been the victim of a security breach exposing 760,000 personal records to potential criminals.  As The New York Times reports today, the university is offering a year’s free credit protection to anyone whose name was on the affected server.  It is doing so, not because it believes anyone is at risk but “out of an abundance of caution.”  Not so they don’t get sued, mind you, but “out of an abundance of caution.”  It is as if corporate spokesmanship was a kind of kabuki theatre in which ritual gesture and phrasing has healing power.  How else can we explain that this odd, awkward, bumbling phrase elicits 1.41 million hits on Google?  What’s wrong with “just in case” or “to reassure people.”  We would argue that this and similar clichés have crossed over into caricature and now focus more not less attention on the problems under discussion.

We’re reminded of an analogous process from the history of Britain’s satirical magazine, Private Eye, which was routinely sued for libel in the 1970s by politicians and businessmen whom it alleged on little evidence were engaged in illicit affairs or observed drunk in public.  They cannily invented two clichés to signal this to its readers without getting sued.  Politicians were henceforth “seen discussing Ugandan affairs” when with their mistresses and “tired and emotional” when slurring their words.

So in this season of so many clichés, mostly good ones, let’s re-dedicate ourselves to inventing some new ones.  It is time to restore our lexical Novocain to its full strength.