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Moving the ball on Social Media

Social_Media_Ball_0 Carl Bernstein, of "Deep Throat" fame, defined journalism as "the best available version of the truth." Allan Murray, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, defines a journalist as "someone who is paid to find the truth under a brand that people trust."  That expands the circle to include bloggers and social media, which makes sense to me. 

But judging by all the invitations I'm getting to seminars on "how to handle social media," I worry that PR people are obsessing about the mechanics of dealing with bloggers and such rather than on media relation's core task of telling the truth.

When I was in PR, my biggest problem wasn't telling the truth, it was figuring out what the truth is. Sometimes, the senior executives I worked with lied to my face (e.g., Dave Dorman, Leo Hindery). Often, even they didn't know the real truth. My job was often helping them find it in a complex organization with thousands of self-serving agendas. It helps if you share a working definition of the "truth." 

Philosophers have been debating the definition of "truth" for millennia, and I'm not going to resolve the issue in one posting. But this definition helped me: truth is what a company's stakeholders need to know to make intelligent, informed decisions. It's what employees need to know to do their jobs and flourish in their careers. What investors need to know to make intelligent investment decisions. What customers need to know to make informed purchasing decisions. And so forth. 

Social media add a new dynamic to the task, which I don't mean to minimize, but the goal is still the same. Tell the truth.

Tuning a Tin Ear

GoldmanSachs Someone is finally giving Goldman Sachs good advice. The Wall Street firm with a tin ear for public relations may be taking the first baby steps toward restoring its reputation.  (That may overstate things -- it's reputation on Main Street has never been very good. If it stood for anything, it was mindless devotion to the "greed is good" school of economics.) 

Ironically, the company has always required its senior executives to donate a portion of their  huge bonuses to charity, but to many of us, that smacked of John D. Rockefeller handing out dimes to street urchins.  

Now, Goldman appears to be re-tuning its tin ear. First, the company's CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, actually apologized for his firm's role in the financial crisis. "We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret," he said. "We apologize."  That's orders of magnitude better than his last word on the subject, that "we're doing God's work." 

Even better, someone convinced Goldman to back up its apology by giving something back to the people it wronged. But instead of throwing money off the roof of their Manhattan headquarters, Goldman is focusing its reputation-building efforts at the intersection of society's needs and its own core competencies.  

Yesterday, Goldman launched a $500 million dollar program to provide training, mentoring and loans for small businesses.  Skeptics are already pointing out that $500 million is a drop in the bucket when compared to the $16 billion Goldman has set aside for bonuses. And today's Wall Street Journal already has a story expressing mild dismay that a small manufacturer in Tennessee hasn't been able to get any help (or information on the program) yet. 

But it's a step in the right direction. We should all stay tuned.  



Macho PR

T vs V Every now and then, senior executives let their testosterone get the better of them. (Both men and women secrete testosterone by the way. Women are actually even more sensitive to it than men.)  

Anyway, when the testosterone flows, people do dumb things. Exhibit A is AT&T's suit against Verizon over the latter's claim that it has broader high-speed cellular coverage.  See the map to the left appears in the company's commercials, which one observer termed "a bitch slap" at AT&T

As a senior executive at the old, "new AT&T," I have been in many meetings where one business unit head or another got so exasperated with a competitor's actions (or advertising claims) that he or she pounded the table, fixed the General Counsel with an icy stare and shouted "let's sue the bastards!"  

In almost every case, the General Counsel let the senior team vent and then quietly did nothing.  In fact, at the height of the long distance wars, we set up a private arbitration process supervised by the Federal Trade Commission to resolve complaints about our respective advertising campaigns without going to court.  

One big lesson we learned in the telecom wars is that, when competitors throw mud at each other, customers give up on both of them.  We also learned that it seldom pays to draw attention to a competitor's claims (as AT&T's suit managed to do). They might as well have made million dollar deposits in Verizon's ad budget. 

Now Verizon has added a new lesson in its response to AT&T's suit -- match your competitor's phony outrage with a big dose of sarcasm and ridicule.  

Verizon's 53-page response to AT&T's suit begins "AT&T did not file this lawsuit because Verizon's 'There's A Map For That' advertisements are untrue; AT&T sued because Verizon's ads are true and the truth hurts." 

The rest of the filing is just as brutal and written in eminently quotable language. The jury may still be out on the comparable breadth of the two companies' networks, but Verizon is the clear winner in the PR battle. 

As Saul Alinsky noted in Rules for Radicals, more than thirty years ago, ridicule is one of the most potent weapons in responding to an attack. It's almost impossible to contradict and it infuriates your opponent, which gets that testosterone flowing all over again.  

Land of Opportunity?

Child_flag002_rc I have always thought of myself as living evidence that America is a land of opportunity.  I was born into poverty. I was not only the first member of my family to graduate from college, but from high school. And when I left grad school, my financial statement showed no real assets except for a student loan that was coming due.  

But now an op ed in the Washington Post by two researchers at the Brookings Institution suggests that my experience may be more of an exception than a general rule.  In "Five Myths About Our Land Of Opportunity," Isabel Sawhill and Ron Hawkins demonstrate that the reality of social and economic mobility in the U.S. is much more complex than the myths might suggest. 

For example, recent research demonstrates that people born into poverty in the Nordic countries and in the United Kingdom have a greater chance of forming a higher income family by the time they're adults than people born poor in the U.S. Furthermore, it is no longer certain that each generation does better than the last.  In the U.S. today, men in their 30s earn 12 percent less than their fathers did at the same age. 

Those are just two of examples of the myths Sawhill and Hawkins debunk.  But they are not just myth-busters.  They also suggest ways to bring the reality of American economic life into line with our ideals of equal opportunity. And perhaps surprisingly for two research fellows at a left-leaning think tank, it is less about income redistribution than about restoring the vitality of American families.  It's a "family values" proposition that every American can embrace. Thanks to my friend Morry Tanenbaum for drawing it to my attention.

Did You Know?

Did-you-know Sony played the video below at their annual meeting.

I recognize some of these facts because I've used them in various speeches to demonstrate how fast the world is changing.  

After all, when I started my career at AT&T, there were no cell phones, no personal computers, and no email. Fax machines were smelly devices off in a room with the photocopiers, which were about as big as Volkswagens but not nearly as reliable. 

As this video demonstrates, things are changing even faster today and more dramatically today.


Brand Lobes

Mindfield Here's a book that will definitely be on my wishlist for Christmas: Mindfield by science writer Lone Frank.  It purports to explain "how brain science is changing our world."  I don't know about that, but based on the excerpt in the Scientific American Mind blog, she certainly does a good job of explaining how brain science should influence marketing. 

Frank (what's the story behind her first name "Lone"?) retells the now familiar story of Baylor University's "Pepsi Challenge" fMRI studies, but her background as a neuroscientist allows her to explain its full significance.  Something I wish I had done better in my last two books.  "The medial prefrontal cortex," she explains, "is not just any old brain region."  It's where our very sense of identity resides.  If strong brands light it up, it's only because we identify with them, they fit into the picture we have of ourself. 

She didn't use the term, but I will -- what those fMRI scanners have discovered is our brand lobe.