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Spinning contest

RadelPolitico magazine ran a "spin this" contest, challenging readers to come up with a strategy to extract Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fl.) from the controversy following his arrest and subsequent guilty plea for buying cocaine from a DEA agent.

The "winner" had a four-point strategy:

"1) Get head nods: 'Alcohol and drug addiction is a disease that millions of families across American have to face.'

"2) Demonstrate your shared belief: 'Like many, I too have made a serious mistake based on this disease and my own weakness. And being a member of Congress is no excuse, and I don't expect special treatment.'

"3) Highlight your own efforts: 'I have pleaded guilty to the charges. I have begged forgiveness of my wife, and am devastated about what this means for my young son. And I am of course seeking medical treatment.'

"4) Make the ask: 'I will be taking a leave of absence, and ask for privacy for me and my family during this period. When I complete my treatment, if -- and only if -- my doctors deem me fit, I will return to Congress to do the job the voters have sent me to do'." 

That's better advice than the expert who suggested Radel claim, "Bitch set me up!"

But I'm only on board until the "ask." Elections have consequences -- and so does an elected official's behavior.

At some point, a PR person's job is not to help a client evade those consequences, but to accept them. That's not always easy -- sometimes, it's even impossible -- but it's ultimately in the client's best long-term interests.

Rep. Radel may not have difficulty finding a doctor who will pronouce him fit to return to Congress, but convincing voters of that is a higher hurdle. Accepting the consequences of unlawful behavior is the only way he can demonstrate true contrition.  

PR's job is not to "spin" the facts, but to help a client make the right decision and, only then, to explain it.  In this case, that means resigning in a way that retains the possibility of eventually winning forgiveness and redemption.



OtherWise Follow-up

Moral tribes

For your weekend reading: more on being "OtherWise."

From the Wall Street Journal, a review of Moral Tribes by psychologist Joshua Greene explains how we use different parts of our brain when dealing with people  like ourselves than with strangers. As the reviewer points out, "Our modern world is full of 'thems'—some passing us on the street, others on the far side of a negotiating table, shouting about their rights and sacred values. In that case, beware the rapid gut intuition: 'I can't quite say why, but it's plain wrong that they do that.' Instead, as Dr. Greene emphasizes, breathe slowly. And think slowly, too.

From the "Huffington Post," a posting about recent research about the role emotional intelligence plays in decision-making. The gist of the studies: emotions influence decision-making even if they're totally unrelated to the matter at hand. People with high emotional intelligence can block the influence of unrelated emotions and make better decisions.

Also a posting by Linda Tirado that graphically explains why poor people's seemingly bad decisions actually make sense when you understand their day-to-day lives. Tirado describes herself as "kind of poor" and holds down two full-time jobs to help support her kids. If you find this posting insightful, you may be interested in her blog, "Killer Martinis."



TrustEveryone knows that relationships are built on trust. And trust has never been lower for businesses, government, and most institutions.

But there are a lot of different theories about the nature of trust -- what it is exactly, what it's based on, how it's lost, and how to win it back.

Based on the reading and research I've been doing over the last few years, I've begun sketching out a model of the drivers of trust. It's in the typical 2 by 2 matrix that consultants seem to love, but I think it captures some important concepts.

Basically, I start from the not terribly original idea that trust has both rational and emotional components.

Let's call the emotional component "affinity" for now. What I mean by affinity is someone's feeling that they like a brand, have something in common with it, feel warmly towards it.

I call the rational component "competency" and it is someone's assessment of a brand's capabilities along dimensions that are important to them.

Since it's a 2 by 2 matrix, we can speculate about the typical response to different combinations of affinity and competence, as illustrated in this chart.

Drivers of Trust.011

If a brand is thought to be highly competent but to have low affinity, the typical response is likely to be "wary respect." That's probably how a lot of people feel about many investment banks these days.

If a brand is low on both affinity and competency, the likely response is "distrust." That's probably how most conservative Republicans feel about President Obama.

If a brand is high on affinity but low on competency, the probable response is "disappointment." That's probably how most liberal Democrats feel about Obamacare right now.

And if a brand is high on both affinity and competency, the likely response is "trust." I hesitate to nominate any brand for that hallowed position, but that's probably the way most Catholics feel about Pope Francis at the moment, despite what they may think about the church he heads.

Looking at trust through this model suggests what steps a brand should take when it moves from one quadrant to another among a significant segment of publics. But I'd welcome reactions to this still-evolving model.

Better smart than right

Tesla-model-s-front-three-quarter-11Elon Musk is a smart guy.

He can do math. And by his count, despite the current brouhaha, his electric car is safer than the typical gasoline-engine car.

His math: a gasoline car goes up in flames for every 20 million miles driven.  But so far his Tesla Model S cars have had only one fire per 100 million miles. And one of those fires happened after a drunk driver jumped the curb, took out several feet of concrete wall, and then hit a tree. Any car would have burst into flame after that. (No one has been hurt in any of the fires.)

Nevertheless, after initially trying to defend his electric cars with data, Musk is taking a smarter approach:

  • He expanded the car's warranty to cover all fires (even those caused by drivers).
  • He rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension to give the car greater ground clearance at highway speeds, reducing the chances of underbody impact damage. A January update will give drivers even greater control over ground clearance.
  • And he's invited the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct a full investigation into the fires, pledging to make any changes they recommend to improve fire safety both in new cars and as a free retrofit to all existing cars.

As I said, he's a smart guy. He understands that his customers' trust is a product of both logic and emotion. He can address people's logical cognitive processes with data, but as Daniel Kahneman and others have noted, that part of our brain is slow, costly, and lazy. 

The faster, cheaper, and far more compelling part of our brain doesn't respond to facts and figures. It runs on memories, associations, and feelings. It's subject to all kinds of illusions and faulty rules of thumb. But it usually gets the job done while the more logical part of our brain is still trying to get in gear, espcially if there's any risk involved.

So Musk is almost certainly right -- based solely on their power source, electric cars are inherently safer than gasoline cars. But he'd be wrong to depend only on that fact to win his case.

It's always better to be smart than right.

The most powerful people in finance

Mystery peopleSanta isn't the only one keeping a list.

Fortune has its 500 most admired companies; Forbes has its 400 richest people in the world; and Worth magazine has its "power 100," i.e., the 100 most powerful people in finance.

I doubt any of these lists would survive a rigorous audit, but they're instructive nevertheless.

Consider, for example, that nearly half the people on Worth's “power list” are in government. In fact, the twelve most powerful start with Mary Jo White, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and extend to Ben Bernanke, retiring Chairman of the Federal Reserve. 

You have to go all the way to number 13 to find someone who actually works in financial services. That’s where Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, shows up – six ranks lower than the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara.

Of course, when Worth’s “power list” was being compiled, Dimon looked like the prettiest pig in the feedlot. Since then, he’s negotiated a total bill of nearly $20 billion to settle an array of mortgage-related lawsuits and investigations, demonstrating just how long a shadow regulators and policy makers cast in the world of finance. 

Will financial firms ever be able to demonstrate that they don't need fulltime  nannies?

There's a glimmer of hope on Worth's list. There, at position 98, is one Jake Siewert.  Siewert (who I don’t know) is Goldman Sachs’ top PR guy. 

He joined Goldman in March 2012, when customers, investors, and employees were voting with their feet and writing op eds on their way out the door. Prior jobs in the Clinton White House press office and as counselor to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner suggest his mandate is to deal with regulators and policy makers more than with the public. 

But in fact, Siewert reportedly got the job based not so much on his political connections as on his demonstrated ability to manage high profile, high-pressure situations – and personalities.  

The media have a tendency to anthropomorphize big, complex companies in the likeness and personality of their CEOs. Siewert made the “power list” largely on his success “humanizing” a CEO who had infamously called his job “God’s work” and couldn’t understand why there was such a fuss it had recommended its customers buy securities it was simultaneously betting would decline in value. 

Still, Siewert has a long way to go. The Reputation Institute, which measures these things, ranks Goldman 145th out of 150 companies it tracks. It’s in familiar company; its peers are all in the lowest two categories.

For its part, Goldman has not repudiated the Wall Street mantra that “greed is good.” But it appear to be trying to get closer to the ideal of being “long-term greedy,” meaning it will pass up short-term profits if they come at the cost of long-term relationships.

If Siewert's job includes helping the firm convince its managers and leaders that it's serious about this, he may be able to make a difference. Otherwise, don't look for him on next year's list.

Dangerous hats

Dukakistank2Anyone considering a public relations career should read two books: Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann and The Image by Daniel Boorstin.

Writing in the 1920s, Lippmann explains how "the pictures in our head" define reality for us. Picking the story up in the 1960s, Boorstin shows how easily those pictures can be manipulated to serve someone else's purpose.

Communications strategists have been drawing lessons from those two books for decades. One of the most basic, enshrined in "Politics 101" since the days of Cal Coolidge, is: "Never put your candidate in a hat."

For the story on how a presidential candidate violated and reconfirmed the wisdom of that fundamental rule, see the current issue of Politico magazine. 

The next frontier

Victoria's SecretGay marriage has won acceptance by the majority of Americans and is a reality in a growing number of states.

Now it's time to pay more attention to  a segment of the population that still lives in the shadows: people whose personal gender identity doesn't match their assigned sex.

These people are known as "transgender." They are not necessarily homosexual. In fact, they can be gay, lesbian, straight, bi-sexual, or a-sexual. And not all transgender people undergo -- or even want -- sex reassignment surgery. 

And that's just the beginning of  complications, as the Wikipedia entry under "transgender" demonstrates. But two things are certain: (1) most transgender people lead difficult lives and (2) most non-transgender people are uncomfortable around them.

Society needs to resolve a host of issues complicating the lives of transgender people, ranging from pronoun designations (e.g., whether to refer to a transgender man as he, she, them, or some other term) to overt discrimination and hate crimes. But we each have a responsibility to educate ourselves. You can learn the basics here

As I discuss in OtherWise, the rights of transgender people are the new frontier in gender politics. They are our era's "Other." 

And as was the case for gay rights, popular media will be the battle front. Just as "Will and Grace" helped Middle America accept gay men, "Orange Is The New Black" is helping increase understanding of transgender people.  

Next up? It could be Victoria's Secret. The model strutting her stuff above is Carmen Carrera. More than 35,000 people have signed a petition to win her a spot as the first transgender "Angel" on the label's next runway show. 


It's always something

Roseanne roseannadannaRemember Roseanne Roseannadanna?

Apparently, she's back on the air.

On Oct. 27, Lara Logan of CBS News did a "60 Minutes" story featuring a British security consultant who claimed he was in the compound the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

His story differed significantly from the official account and added fuel to the political controversy about an alleged coverup. 

It was such a hot "get," the network teased it on its evening news program earlier in the week.

It was also almost certainly a fabrication. When the Washington Post reported his account was wildly different from the account he reported to the FBI, the network retracted the story.

Ms. Logan apologized on the network's morning news show, then again on "60 Minutes" itself. Kind of.

She said she was sorry for "including (the British security consultant) in our report." Left unsaid: without him, there would have been no report because everyone else interviewed had said their pice many times before.

Of course, none of this matters. Research shows that retractions don't change nearly as many minds as the story being retracted. Indeed, facts contradicting previously held beliefs actually cause people to hold onto those beliefs even more vehemently. 

As Roseann Roseannadanna would say, "It's always something."

Department of radical ideas

SnailmailYou may have heard: the web site isn't working very well. The Obama administration will throw legions of techs at the issue, and someday -- maybe in our lifetimes -- it will stop crashing.

Meanwhile, here's a radical idea: why not prepare printed summaries of the health insurance plans available in each county and mail them to every home in America?

This is one case where snail mail might actually be quicker than a so-called "electronic marketplace."

The Post Office could use the revenue, but if that isn't practical, at least put copies on the web in a "brochures shoveled onto the Internet fashion." That might be out of date, but it's better than being out to lunch.

At least people would then know what is available. They wouldn't get the specific cost of their plan, but at least they'd have a ballpark idea.

It would reduce the anxiety of all the people who are getting cancellation notices from their insurance companies. And it would counter the imaginary horror stories being spread by opponents of the health care law.

It should even be possible to give people a ballpark calculation of the subsidies they are entitled to based on their income.

It won't solve the problem -- signing up for a plan will still require more personalized attention -- but it could help.

Climbing the ladder in PR

Corporate-Ladder1Cleaning up my Word files, I came across a piece I wrote for the PRSA about 10 years ago, before I (and everyone else) had a blog. It still strikes me as sound advice. So I'm reprinting it here for any early-career PR people who might stumble onto this blog.

When I joined Western Electric as an audio-visual specialist straight out of graduate school in 1970, no one would have predicted I would one day sit behind Arthur Page’s desk.  

Page was AT&T's first vice president of PR. Western was AT&T’s manufacturing subsidiary and, although the mother company had occasionally drawn CEOs from its ranks, for some reason it was considered a particularly brackish backwater in the 4000-person AT&T public relations department.

Worse, the guy who hired me was on his way out and no one knew what to do with me for the first six months.  So I went from office to office pitching projects I could take on and I ended up working with a cross-section of the department’s best people.  Along the way, observing them, I discovered the entry-level requirements for moving up the ladder – industrial-strength writing skills, wit and energy.

Industrial-strength writing is not fancy.  It won’t impress anyone in a creative writing seminar.  But it’s accomplished under the pressures of too little time and too much complexity.  It’s muscular enough to withstand a gauntlet of reviews, nit-picking and second-guessing.  It’s clear, compelling and engaging.  As you climb the ladder, it’s assumed you can produce it on demand.

Wit is more than a sense of humor (although that can also come in handy).  It’s a sharp intellect that can carve understanding out of ambiguity and complexity.  It’s an ability to find connections among disparate elements, to see several steps ahead and to set priorities accordingly – and to do all this faster than the average person.  On the upper rungs of the ladder, it may be all you have to keep your balance. 

 Energy is not the same as restlessness or hyperactivity.  It’s more focused and it doesn’t dissipate so easily.  It’s a sense or urgency, an impatience to get results.  Sometimes it’s confused with ambition, but it’s less self-centered.  It’s not about you; it’s all about the project.  It feeds you and the people around you when others are struggling to get their second wind.  At the top of the ladder, just hanging on to your rung takes more and more of it.      

I was blessed in a 32-year career to have models of all three qualities, both in people I worked for and in people who worked for me.  Looking back, I can extrapolate from their careers a short list of practical advice for climbing that ladder.  

  1. Never pass up an assignment, especially if it’s something no one else wants to do.  Occasionally, someone will take advantage of you, but you’ll also develop a reputation as someone who gets things done.
  2. Get in a little earlier than most other people; leave a little later.
  3. Always try to make your boss look good.
  4. Stay away from office politicians and office gossips.  They’re time wasters and will sap your energy.
  5. Learn as much about the company’s industry as the best trade reporter covering it.
  6. Read the Wall Street Journal every day so you know a little about a lot, especially about the issues your company’s leaders follow.
  7. Hang out with people in other departments outside PR, especially line managers.  Get to know them and their challenges.
  8. Learn to keep your cool and project self-confidence.   In crises, people look for an anchor. 
  9. Don’t let your in-box drive your schedule.  Know what you want to accomplish every day and don’t leave until you’ve at least made a dent in it.
  10. Think big.  Plenty of careers were built on a single Big Idea.  


Branded content invades the news

BestofBrandedContentMarketing.225x225-75My latest column in the Conference Board Review is on brand journalism, which is the new-fangled term for "sponsored content."

The idea is that advertisers can break through the clutter of print and electronic media by offering content that is useful and somehow connected to their core competency. It's the latest shiny new thing in marketing.

Of course, it's hard to believe branded content could ever invade the "real" media like the network evening news programs. Except it's happening. And the perpetrators are the news divisions themselves.

Last Thursday on the CBS evening news, for example, Scott Pelley devoted three minutes to excerpts from an upcoming "60 Minutes" story he did on Lanborgheni's 50th anniversary. It included just enough of his whitknuckled time on the company's test track to pique viewers' interest. 

This morning, NBC's "Meet the Press" ran part of a Matt Lauer interview with Bernard Kerick, New York City's disgraced Police Commissioner. Kerick actually had some interesting things to say about the way minimum sentencing guidelines are crowding prisons with people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. But the issue was given so little time on the program that the excerpt's real purpose was evident -- to promote the "Today" show on which it would run the next morning.

The network news divisions are entitled to run as many cross-program promotions as they like. But when this kind of "sponsored content" gets in the way of real news, it's no better than "human interest" stories featuring puppies and babies. 

Ironically, the news divisions are violating the cardinal rule of brand journalism -- be useful and, if you can't be useful, be interesting. Otherwise, don't.

Lessons of Obamacare

Obamacare-DelayObamacare is in crisis, both for reasons of its own making and for reasons beyond its control.

What do the rules of crisis management suggest the White House did wrong and how can it recover?

Caveat: one of the things I learned at AT&T is that the solution to problems like this always appear simpler from the outside than the inside. And hindsight is indeed 20/20. But having said that, here's what I think it did wrong:

1. It tried to hide the web site problems by claiming too many people were trying to get on at once. While that seemed plausible at first, the real reasons for the problems eventually surfaced and the administration lost credibility.

2. It tried to hide the low level of sign ups by saying it would start reporting monthly figures in November. That seemed defensive from the start, and the actual numbers eventually leaked making it look like the administration was trying to hide something (which it probably was).

3. This lack of information left a vacuum it's opponents were more than happy to fill. The GOP was given a golden opportunity to schedule attention-getting hearings where it could lecture the administration's leaders and suppliers (which it did).

4. It doesn't appear that it had an integrated communications plan in place to deal with any problems even thoughit should have been obvious its opponents would jump on the smallest issue. Opponents had already spent more than $500 million attacking the Affordable Care Act, 36 states refused to run their own exchanges, and the GOP was willing to shut down the government in an effort to postpone, if not cancel, its enactment.

What should the administration have done?

1. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, it should have made someone responsible for all communications related to its implementation. And it should have given that person the authority to cut through red tape, to secure whatever information he or she needed, and to speak with authority.

2. It should have communicated all through the development period of both the program and the web site, announcing what insurance companies had signed up state by state, what milestones had been reached in the web site's development, and how the testing was going.

3. At minimum, even if the web site worked flawlessly, someone should have anticipated what questions would be asked about the program and prepared honest, complete answers. For example, "The president said if we liked our insurance we could keep it, but some insurers are cancelling their plans. What gives?"  

4. When the first problems occured, it shouid have been more forthright, detailing what was known without finger-pointing and explaining what was being done to resolve the issues. 

5. In addition to apologizing, it should have given something back, such as giving the people who signed up during the period of difficulty a break on their first month's insurance bill.

6. Going forward, it should issue regular reports on milestones reached and problems solved. It should set very few goals and when it does, it should ensure that they are modest and achievable.