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Holy Week

Washing-feetMillions of Christians are celebrating Holy Week, remembering a man whose singular message was one of love. So it's a little disconcerting to see how some of his nominal followers are interpreting his message.

The Wall Street Journal today carried a lovely little story about Pope Francis' decision to wash the feet of 12 prison inmates in the traditional Holy Thursday ceremony. All of the inmates were young immigrants in an Italian detention center. Some were Muslim and a couple were women.

Traditionally, the pope washed the feet of retired priests in some Roman basillica. But Pope Francis has been going out of his way to show that he intends to focus the church on the poor and the downtrodden. I think he means it.

His plan to live a simpler life by moving into a Vatican guest house may be no more successful in reforming the people who report to him than Jimmy Carter's decision to carry his own luggage. But I think his heart's in the right place.

Sadly, the online comments to the Journal story suggest that it will be hard to get everyone on the same page.

The very first comment criticized the pope for washing the feet of a woman. "Many of us are shocked and appalled," Joe O'Leary tutted. "Many of us hope the pope sees the error of his un-biblical ways and issues an apology."

Another commenter wrote: "Thank God the Pope is not a Nazi anymore."

Still another accused the pope of naivete. "The obviously well-intentioned [and staged?] gesture of a pope washing the feet of a Muslim will backfire.... with very nasty and crude remarks from mainstream Muslims, who wouldn't ordinarily acknowledge an ecumenical outreach, and couldn't tell the difference from that and one of their scimitars."

To be sure, several readers took these folks to task.

But I've noticed the same pattern in the comments section of both the Journal and the New York Times -- a knee-jerk reaction to fill the slightest partisan opening. 

The same issue of the Journal carried a story that the Obama administration may include entitlement reform in its upcoming budget. That stimulated dozens of comments. The very first one was typical: "And Lucy is holding the football," wrote Jonathan Rourke, suggesting it's all a devious trick. To which one reader replied, "Bingo!"

If Obama walked across the waters of the Potomac River, some people would say it only shows he can't swim. To be fair, some people would say the same thing of George W. Bush in similar circumstances. 

We're all entitled to our opinions, of course. There's even such a thing as justifiable anger. But those opinions and anger shouldn't become the very lens through which we see the world or they become biases and bigotry. 

As Pope Francis put it in explaining why he washed the inmates feet, "So what does this mean? That we have to help each other…Sometimes I would get angry with someone. But we must let it go and if they ask a favor, do it."

Ethics in flight

BoeingLMy editor once told me that anything with "ethics" in the title was destined for the remainder pile.

So I write this with some trepidation.

But reading the newspaper these days reminds me that, despite the backlash in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, common ethics doesn't seem to be that common in many companies.

Instead of asking "is this right or wrong," some companies seem to be asking "will this work?"

Example: following highly publicized battery problems in its 787 Dreamliner, Boeing seems to have moved into a "limit the damage" phase of its crisis management plan.

When lithium batteries burst into flame on several flights, Boeing was quick to halt deliveries of the new airplanes, saying any fire on an aircraft is a serious issue.

The company cooperated with invesitigations into the causes of the battery malfunctions and ultimately won approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on a plan to test and certify improvements to the 787’s battery system.

Meanwhile, the planes remain grounded and the company is subtly changing its public stance.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, in two recent press briefings senior Boeing managers downplatyed the battery problems.

The 787's chief engineer told reporters that "in the last 10 years, there have been thousands upon thousands" of battery malfunctions on commercial planes, making such events a reality of airline operations, adding that "many of them have resulted in smoke and fire."

Another veteran 787 engineer said fallout from battery failures "happens on our airplanes week in and week out."

In other words, batteries bursting into flame are no big deal. Get over it.

Apparently, the new tack stems from company research into peoples' attitudes toward the Dreamliner following heavy coverage of the battery fires.

Some industry experts warn that the strategy is dangerous, especially if another fire breaks out. Others say that the public has a short memory and this too shall pass.

But the real question Boeing should be asking isn't whether or not this Redemption Startegy will work.  The real question is whether or not it's right.

Is it designed to give people the information they need to make an intelligent decision about flying on a Dreamliner?  Or is it designed to minimize the chance that they'll even ask the question?



Journalism's slow death

PR:Press.001The Pew Research Center's report on "The State of the News Media 2013" should be very troubling to PR practitioners.

The report portrays an industry that is "understaffed and unprepared to cover complex stories" or even to "question information put into its hands." 

"At the same time," the report says, "newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media."

Some corporate flacks will welcome this news. No more pesky reporters to gum up the works, they'll say. What's wrong with that?

Here's what's wrong with that: it doesn't mean someone isn't going to be writing about companies; it just means the people writing about them are going to be less qualified, have less time to do a thorough job, and be more prone to parroting what others say.

It's a bad omen for business journalism.

Just look how the same trends affected political journalism.  

The Pew Center's analysis revealed that in the last presidential campaign, "reporters were acting primarily as megaphones of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans." Instead of investigating what the candidates were saying about each other, or putting it in context, reporters simply repeated it. And the more outrageous, the more it got repeated.

So what, some will say. Companies now have a digital connection with their own customers. True, but so do their opponents. And companies have not proven particularly adept at blunting online attacks. 

Indeed, the candidates' experience in the last election may be informative on this score too. A separate Pew study showed that Facebook and Twitter comments about both Obama and Romney tended to be overwhelmingly negative (more than 60% for Obama and more than 70% for Romney). 

Meanwhile, an analysis of Census Bureau data by Robert McChesney and John Nichols found the ratio of public relations people to journalists grew from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 3.6 to 1 in 2008. It's probably even higher today, judging by the number of ex- and even current journalists taking PR courses in night school

None of this is good news for the practice of PR. It portends a world with fewer honest brokers to help people understand business. A world of conflicting claims and greater polarization. Just like the political world. 

No reasonable business leader should want that.


Balancing home and work

BalanceAs the father of two daughters, I'm glad Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, kicked off a healthy discussion about gender bias.

I passed up such a discussion in OtherWise to focus more on sexual orientation. Now I'm sorry I didn't cover both.

First, it's obvious we all suffer some degree of gender bias. Sandberg herself described the famous Heidi/Howard experiment in which students were asked to read the case study of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist. In half the cases, the VC was named Heidi; in the other half, Howard.

The students thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent. But they liked Howard more.  They thought Heidi was too "selfish" and said they wouldn't want to work with her.

Who knew having two X chromosones could be such a deadweight? 

 Nilofer Merchant, over at the Harvard Business Review, quantifies the resulting disparity in male and female achievement. "Women hold just ... 18% (of seats) in the US Congress," she points out. "Just 21 of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, a measly 4%. Women hold just 16% of board seats."

The same is true further down the executive food chain: although women hold more than half of professional and managerial positions in corporate America, they account for only 14% of C-suite executives. (More: here.)

Corporate executives have two principal excuses for the under-representation of women in top jobs.

The first is that there just aren't enough qualified women in the pipeline.

But when reminded that more than 50% of college graduates have been women since the early 1980's, they hasten to their second excuse: women aren't willing to put in the hours necessary to get the top jobs.

Being a top executive -- or partner in a law firm -- is a 24/7 proposition, they say. Women want to have kids, and then they want to spend time with them. Men's most enthusiastic involvement in chidcare centers on the period of conception and quickly cools thereafter. 

Ms. Sandberg's solution to this dilemma is to suggest that women "lean in," i.e., make their ambition known, take on tough assignments, etc. Then develop a strategy to split time between work and home.

Now, I've worked for women, and I've had women reporting directly to me. They all leaned in as far as I would let them.

Indeed, I promoted several of them because they were not only more intelligent, conscientious, and energetic than their peers (male and female), but because they were driven.

I knew that I could count on them to put in long hours and to take on big challenges. Apparently, others came to the same conclusion because eventually they all ended up in C-suite positions at other companies. 

Most of them had kids and a working spouse. I have no idea how they balanced work and family life. And I didn't care. Because I wasn't particularly concerned about the balance in my own life.

And that, friends, is the real problem.

The issue isn't how to carve out more space so women can fit in their kids. It's how to organize work so men and women can have a life outside the office. Jody Greenstone-Miller had some practical suggestions in last Saturday's Wall Street Journal.

The business model of most law and accounting firms is based on paying associates for 40 hours work a week and getting 60 to 80 hours of billable time out of them.

Corporations have adopted a similar approach. Since the 1970s, management ranks have been downsized to the point that the managers left are doing the work of one and a half to two people. 

It's time to recognize that having a fulfilling home and work life shouldn't only be a woman's goal, but everyone's. 

That's my hope for my two daughters and for my son, as well as for my four grandsons.

On Deadline

On DeadlineTwo friends and former AT&T colleagues -- Carole Howard and Wilma Mathews -- just published the fifth edition of their book on managing media relations.

On Deadline quickly became the standard college text on the subject when it first came out in 1985.

This edition likely will be just as successful since it's been updated with new case studies and to reflect the implications of globalization, technology, and social media.

This is not a guide to dodging reporters' questions. On the contrary, it's point of view is that media relations people's primary job is to help reporters do theirs.

It's the most thoughtful, practical, and insightful book I've seen on the subject.

(Full disclosure: I was honored to be asked to contribute to the book and I'm quoted several times. Still, it's a good and useful read.)

Amazon doesn't seem to have the fifth edition in stock yet, but it's available directly from the publisher or from CourseSmart at a nice discount.

Time to go

Time Now What.005The older I get, the more I relearn the same lessons.

Luckily, these days, it's usually at someone else's expense.

Case in point: Time Warner's decision to spin off its publishing unit, the venerable Time, Inc.

It's not hard to understand why the TV and movie company would want to rid itself of a declining business like print magazines. It doesn't need the drag on earnings growth. Plus, spin-offs are a golden opportunity to beef up the balance sheet by extracting a special dividend and casting off debt.

The more interesting question is how Time, Inc. got itself into this position.

Some say it was inevitable -- much of the advertising that sustained magazines like Time, People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated were siphoned away by the likes of Google.

But I think Time, Inc.'s problem was more fundamental: the company never really understood what business it is in. It bought AOL because it saw a natural fit between its business (content) and AOL's (electronic delivery).

But in fact, AOL was in three businesses -- dial-up Internet access, communications services such as email and instant messaging, and a portal or home page from which unsophisticated users could begin their exploration of the Internet.  At the time of their merger, the first of those businesses was about to go the way of buggy whips, the second had no relevance to Time, Inc., and the third hid behind a "walled garden" that was easily -- and quickly -- displaced.

Time, Inc. didn't even understand its own business, which was more than raw "content" as defined by copyrights and trademarks. The company was actually in at least three businesses -- branded journalism, advertising sales, and magazine distribution.

When the Internet came along, the company shoveled all its branded journalism onto a single platform called "Pathfinder," as if it was the electronic equivalent of its print distribution network. Its storied titles wern't allowed to build their own presence on the 'net. And the audiences that trusted them went elsewhere. So did advertisers.

The spin-off of Time, Inc. represents an opportunity to correct those mistakes. But the company's success depends on two things. First, that the new management really understands what businesses it's in. And two, that it has the financial capability to invest in them.

I hope the company learned those expensive lessons from the likes of AOL and AT&T. 

Bring in the clown

WoodwardOne of America's most respected journalists looked like a hyper-sensitive clown this week.

Bob Woodward took offense when White House counselor Gene Sperling told him he would one day "regret" writing that Obama was "moving the goal posts" in the debate about budget cuts. 

Woodward was so incensed he breathlessly recounted the story to Politico and to his own paper, the Washington Post. Initially, the Beltway media huddled protectively around Woodward, suggesting he felt "threatened" by the remark.

But Woodward began to look a little foolish when the email containing the "threat" was released. It turned out to be a benign, friendly exchange.

So he took to the airwaves to declare he never said he felt "threatened." Only that he didn't think the White House should "operate" that way. Meaning, I guess, they should simply clam up when they think a reporter is getting something wrong.

I dealt with lots of reporters during my PR career. I even lost my temper with a few. But I can't remember anybody suggesting I "threatened" them. 

And it doesn't seem to me that Sperling did anything of the sort either.

As it turns out, Woodward should regret claiming that Obama "moved the goal posts" by insisting any deal to avoid today's budget cuts include new tax revenue. It's clear in remarks Obama made way back in the fall of 2011 that he always said closing the deficit would require both increased tax revenue and spending cuts.

Which gets me to the PR lessons in this sad episode.  

First, try to be measured when responding to a reporter's story, no matter how loony or off the wall it was. 

Stick to factual information, provide context, but don't question the reporter's competence. Ask for a correction if some of the story's facts were objectively wrong. But don't ask for an opportunity to rebut the story unless correcting the record is really critical. Even then, ask yourself if it's worth keeping the story alive, considering how few people will pay any attention to your rebuttal.

Second, focus your response not on the reporter, but on your customers, investors, and employees. 

They're the audience that really matters. The media is just one of many channels to reach them. 

Third, resist the temptation to to engage in what's been called Hard Ball PR, i.e., complaining to whoever the reporter works for, pulling advertising, denying the reporter further access, etc.

It won't work and could even give the story a longer life, besides inviting unwelcome scrutiny.

Just ask Bob Woodward.