The Culture of Internal Memos and Bad-Smelling Pleas for Help

A lesson we learn early in our careers is that what you write to your colleagues or verbally declare to them is rarely confidential.  Just because you stamp a “Confidential” note on the top of the memo does not make it confidential no matter how much you want to believe in the concept. And that email note to a few colleagues about a snarky customer or a bad first quarter or an employee gone bad? Consider it public.  You might as well, because there is always a chance of leakage.  The folks at women’s site Sheknows.com learned this the hard way when two editors encouraged at least 15 colleagues to essentially commit “click fraud” by just doing the favor of clicking on banner ads on the site, because: ”we can help everyone out a bit if we get in the habit of clicking on any ads you see alongside your articles…” The memo was leaked to Romenesko and shortly thereafter advertiser Panera Bread pulled its advertising.

So we have two problems here. One is the act of fraud.  Giving the editors the benefit of the doubt, let’s say they didn’t know this was unethical. I’d like to think editors have common sense, but they are people too.  Perhaps there is a corporate culture problem, not necessarily one in which this behavior is rampant. But one in which this behavior was not discussed at all. Upon getting wind of the situation, Sheknows top managers suspended the two editors and threatened further action if this happens again with any employee.  Should our internal communications plans include instruction of the business and ethics rules and reminders of what NOT to do? Short of “don’t punch a colleague in the face” or “don’t snort coke in the restrooms,” sometimes you just need to spell it out, like “do not commit click fraud.”

The second problem is with internal memos.  In this case, the editors felt they were supporting their company and keeping an eye on the bottom line.  Don’t know for sure, but my guess is they didn’t know they were doing anything too wrong.  But they had to have known it was not on the up and up. And just sharing the fact that their ads weren’t producing enough click-throughs puts them in a vulnerable position in and of itself if word leaked out.  At least one of the recipients of that email didn’t like the way it smelled and forwarded it to an independent, third party watchdog.  Should the employee who did that have been more loyal to his or her company and addressed this with management? Perhaps – that’s part of the culture you want to create.  Should the managers writing the memo had known better?  Absolutely. Will this happen again at another company? Absolutely.

- Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

Looking for the Next Trends in Communications? Watch the Obama & Romney Show

Want to know where to spot the next trends in communications? Look no further than the current presidential campaigns. Four years ago social media came of age when it helped pave the way to the White House for Barack Obama. Its power to form communities of like-minded people and inspire real-world action couldn’t be denied. This was not a fad.

I was speaking recently with Matt Anchin, SVP of global communications for Nielsen, and he suggested that PR pros should be watching the Obama and Romney campaigns closely in the coming months. “A lot of how-to’s are going to come out of this election,” he said. “It’s easy to forget how unsophisticated everyone was about social media before the 2008 campaign. That campaign changed everything.”

The New York Times reported on June 27 that the Obama campaign is reaching voters on the local level through a combination of knocking on doors, state-of-the-art technology for data mining and the campaign’s Dashboard social network, which enables neighborhood team leaders to share messages with team members, monitor phone bank activity and expand the network of volunteers. The Obama campaign is expecting Romney to dominate the airwaves with TV ads, so it’s using social media to organize and motivate staffers to register voters and convey Obama’s messages via on-site visits, phone calls and e-mails.

Innovative combinations of down-and-dirty grassroots outreach and digital technology is but one trend to track. As June rolls into July and the conventions near, gaffes and mistakes will be exploited; stump speeches will be parsed for waffling and inconsistencies; messages will be crafted and revised and sometimes tossed out altogether. News will break and the Obama and Romney campaigns will quickly recast the events to make them fit the language and core messages of their own campaigns.

Anchin says communications pros should be following these campaigns and asking themselves, “How would I prepare for and respond to the kinds of mistakes Romney and Obama are making?” They’re both going to make mistakes, and on the biggest stage imaginable. And the lessons learned will be there for the taking.

Like the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, presidential elections touch down periodically to speed the evolution of communications, if not of the human race itself.

—Steve Goldstein

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI 

Is the Print Media Upheaval a ‘Transition’ or the End?

The other day I caught an excellent blog post by Earl Wilkinson, executive director and CEO of INMA (International Newsmedia Marketing Association), which offered an informative take on the rapid change that is occurring in the newspaper industry—just in the past 30 days.

Wilkinson chronicles several developments: the wholesale departures of media companies like Media General and Freedom from the industry; new players coming onto the scene, like Warren Buffet arriving as a “savior”; print editions disappearing—the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and Advance Alabama reducing their editions from seven days to three days; and general upheaval in the newspaper industry, such as CEO churn at a record pace and rampant rumors of upcoming ownership changes.

How does all of this affect the PR professional? Obviously, who gets pitched and how are important factors as more print newspaper editions disappear. Print journalists will need more help than ever as they see their colleagues go out the door with pink slips.

But the newspaper industry’s remake hit home with the June 25 announcement that Cision has sold its print monitoring operations to BurrellesLuce. In Cision’s press release announcing the sale, CEO Peter Granat said, “The market for print monitoring and news clipping services has been steadily contracting and consolidating as newspaper and magazine circulation has declined and readers have moved en masse to the Web. The sale will enable us to continue stepping up our software and digital investments to meet growing customer demand for online monitoring, research and analysis through Cision’s integrated PR workflow application.”

Granat’s statement is a thinly-veiled announcement that print is just about over. INMA’s Wilkinson, however, thinks that the upheaval is a “transition” that will work itself out. Whatever it signifies, this news makes me wonder about the future of printed newspapers specifically, and printed publications in general.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

Adidas’ Lesson-Know Your Brand and Avoid Cluelessness

I often think that people are much too politically correct these days. But in the case of the sneaker snafu by Adidas, I’m drawing a line in the PC sand. News broke on June 19, 2012 that because of widespread social-media criticism after advertising a new sneaker on its Facebook page, the sports apparel maker shelved its plans to sell a sneaker featuring rubber shackles that attach to the ankles.

This is a prime example of a “what were they thinking?” brand moment. Reaction to the shoe ad was swift and predictable. The image of slavery that the shoe conjures was unmistakable. There was even talk of a boycott of the shoe and Adidas, led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, if the shoe went to market.

All of this is a roundhouse right to the Adidas brand. It’s obvious that the marketing team—sitting at the conference table looking at product shots of the shoe—was totally clueless as to the significance of the shackles. Or, were they determined to launch a shoe that had an edge to it? In response to the public outrage, Adidas pointed out the sneaker’s designer, Jeremy Scott, as having a “quirky” and “lighthearted” style. Is that the image Adidas wants to project?

The other day I had a conversation with Mike Herman, CEO of research firm Communication Sciences, about rebranding strategies. Herman told me that it’s important that companies remain true to their original brand attributes. But, you have know what those attributes are. It’s very possible that there’s some confusion inside Adidas as to what its brand stands for, and where it wants to go.

But even that shortcoming doesn’t excuse the company for just being clueless.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

Road to Redemption for the Rocket

Former Major League Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens was acquitted on June 18 of charges that he lied to Congress about using performance-enhancing drugs, and now the personal brand rehabilitation begins. The trial may be over for Clemens, but the association of his name with baseball’s steroid-soaked era will linger for a long while—unless he suits up and gets back on the mound.

Winning and success are the surest and fastest routes to redemption in the U.S., and though he is approaching 50, if he were to step on a pitching mound and throw heat, the drug associations would take a backseat to a new and exciting underdog narrative. Similarly, if Charlie Sheen’s new show on FX is a ratings hit and money flows freely from advertisers, the sordid stories from his recent past will fade from view, as they did for Robert Downey Jr.

But Roger Clemens will never take the mound again, unless he takes a mentoring role in spring training for one of his former teams. The Rocket will have to take a slower route to redemption. And he will seek it—to reestablish his professional legacy, protect his family name and secure his induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Technically, Clemens is not guilty of anything and has not admitted to knowingly taking performance-enhancing drugs. According to Sports Illustrated, he had said in a congressional deposition in 2008, “I never used steroids. Never performance-enhancing steroids.” He also told Congress, “No matter what we discuss here today, I’m never going to have my name restored.”

That may have appeared to be the case for Clemens in 2008, but there are steps he can take to advance on the road to redemption. For Clemens, seeking forgiveness is not an option, since he has proclaimed his innocence. But he can, first of all, give back to all the communities he’s played in: Boston, Toronto, Houston, New York. He can help bring baseball back to inner cities, work with youth leagues and reactivate and promote the existing Roger Clemens Foundation. He needs to focus on the good works he can do, and not on his own bitterness.

Why should we care so much about Roger Clemens? Because the story of the rise and fall and rise again of an individual—or of an organization—is an American story. We’ve seen it happen time and again—and in those stories there are lessons for all of us.

—Steve Goldstein

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI 

Why is this Man Smiling? How Not to Let Scandal Get in the Way of Good Media Coverage

His firm saddled with explaining the loss of at least $3 billion by his reckless investment unit on the other side of the pond, Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan  Chase,  seemed no worse for wear.  Testifying before the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, Dimon looked dapper.  Check out the photo on the cover of the New York Times (print version) and you see a happy man with the media at its knees to capture this moment.  This is the photo the New York Times editors chose to use and it says something important about his image among journalists.

In the photo, Dimon stands proud, confident and chipper. You know he knows what he’s going to say and how he’s going to say it. He apologizes. He acknowledges the facts of the case and promises to put better internal processes in place to avoid rogue trading.  He defends his company and most of his employees, minus the few vogue traders. He calls out other big banks for “greed, arrogance, hubris.”  And he looks so upright and speaks so well as he says this that you separate his company from the “too big to fail” banks. Did I mention his bank lost at least $3 billion?  Perhaps I digress…

JPMorgan has been a darling of the banking world, and Dimon the golden boy.  And so he was praised by the lawmakers who cut him a tremendous amount of slack not because of the $3 billion losses (and mounting) but in part because Dimon – whatever your opinion of Wall Street may be – knows a thing or two about communications.  He knows how to apologize. How to stand in a room full of reporters and lawmakers. How to talk to the media and bridge the message so it veers his way and the halo over his head only tilts ever so slightly for a minute.  He developed strong relationships on the Hill and apparently with the media and he is reaping the rewards.

Speaking at a graduating class of Harvard MBAs in 2009, Dimon spoke of leadership: “The job of a leader is not to make a decision; it’s to make sure the best decision is made. To do that, you need to get the right people in the room.”

Clearly, during his testimony on the Hill, Dimon had the right people in the room.

– Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

Flirting App Skout Backtracks in Rape Crisis

Commonly known as “the flirting app” amongst the digerati, the social networking platform Skout—which lets users message and chat with nearby strangers—is now flirting with disaster.

After a Tuesday, June 12 story in The New York Times Bits blog reporting that three men are accused of raping children under the age of 15—and used the Skout app to meet them—the company is reeling, as well it should.

Started in 2007 as a location check-in service like Foursquare, the Times reports that Skout floundered at first, then adjusted its business model to a flirting app and began attracting millions of users per month to the service. Then, in 2011 Skout started a separate service for 13- to 17-year-olds after noticing minors were gaining access through Facebook (you need a Facebook account to use Skout, which is, ironically, one of their safeguards).

This turned out to be the big business blunder. The same day as the Times blog post, Skout founder Christian Wiklund announced that people under 18 would not be able to access the site, for now. He said in a blog post: “Today Skout has decided to temporarily suspend access to our teen community. This is not a decision we made lightly, so let me explain in my own words why we chose this path. The safety of our community is our #1 concern.  About a year ago, we noticed that a number of underage users were entering the 18+ community.  So, we thought long and hard about how to set up a safe network for teens and decided to broaden our reach to be more than just a dating app…With more than a quarter of our staff dedicated to community management, we actively monitor and screen to ensure that the two separate communities for users 18+ and for teen users are kept distinct and that behavior is age-appropriate.”

On Wednesday, June 13, Mashable pointed out that one-quarter of Skout’s staff is 18 people, in charge of policing some 3 million users of the app. To be fair, the company also uses software to help monitor inappropriate behavior.

Now, says Mashable, Skout is hiring a risk management advisory firm and consulting with law enforcement in charge of the local sexual assault cases. “During this temporary closure we will be testing and updating safeguards to protect teen users,” wrote a Skout spokesperson in an e-mail to Mashable.

Realistically, will these safeguards be foolproof? Instead of working on safeguards to protect teen users, how about admitting that providing an online platform for sexual predators to reach teens wasn’t a great idea in the first place? And what is to prevent these predators from targeting users over the age of 18?

We’re all aware of the line, “There’s an app for that.” In the case of Skout, perhaps there shouldn’t be an app for that.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

A Magic Word That Can Defuse the Most Irate Customer

Attention Apple MobileMe subscribers: Your service is getting shut down on June 30, so you’d better make the transition to iCloud right away.

Oh, you never heard of MobileMe? Or, if you had, you never saw the value in paying for Apple’s early cloud, syncing and Web hosting service? Or, you were a MobileMe member, but you made the transition to iCloud months ago? Well, then, you never had to share in the experience of a special circle of hell I got caught up in the other day.

To run iCloud, you need the Lion operating system. If you need to update your operating system to Lion, you have to already be using the previous OS, Snow Leopard.

I still had the Leopard operating system, one step down from Snow Leopard. Apple says you need to buy Snow Leopard first, and then buy Lion, if you’re running Leopard—which seems nuts. I did some research and found that Apple was offering MobileMe subscribers like myself a free copy of Snow Leopard. They had sent out an email to MobileMe subscribers in April announcing this offer.

I never got that email.

I did get an email showing me how to move my account from MobileMe to iCloud, which I clicked through and followed. So I now had an iCloud account, even though I couldn’t really run iCloud properly.

I tried linking through to the page where MobileMe subscribers can order a free copy of Snow Leopard, but I kept getting pushed to an iCloud page.

This all led to three conversations with Apple people on the phone, and then to a two-hour hold music concerto. Finally I hung up in bitterness and frustration. Then I tried Apple’s online Express Lane and was instantly connected to a live chat with an Apple representative. We went back and forth for a while, and she explained to me that once I moved my account to iCloud, I was no longer a MobileMe subscriber and was unable to access the page where I could order my free disk. She said I could try calling AppleCare again and plead my case, which I just didn’t have the heart to do.

“Believe me if there was more I could do I would but since you have moved the account and can no longer log into me.com you are at a standstill,” she wrote.

Standstill—that word captured it perfectly. That word was like a balm, like a cool lemonade on a muggy day. That note of empathy was all I needed. Within minutes I plunked down the bucks online and bought the stupid disk.

That’s the key ingredient in all customer service, in all communications, actually—empathy. It’s a beautiful word on which to base a business model—and a way of life.

—Steve Goldstein

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI 

New Video Chat Platform Airtime Brings Up Bad Madge Memory

A new social venture, Airtime, attracted plenty of attention at its launch event on Tuesday, June 5 in New York, mainly because of founders Sean Parker and Sean Fanning, famous for Napster and ties to the Facebook.

Airtime is a live video chat platform with a twist. While services like Skype connect you with people you already know, Airtime allows you to find new video chat partners based on interests, shared social connections and location. In other words, it hooks you up with not only your friends, but with people you’ve never met—or seen on a screen.

At the launch, Parker noted that Facebook wasn’t great at allowing people to make new friends, and told The New York Times that current social experiences were “boring.” This is from a guy who was instrumental in building Facebook, mind you.

Fanning and Parker said Airtime will be a safe place to spark interaction between strangers. There are the skeptics. Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, told the Times that many people are wary of the video chat experience, and worry about such things as what they’re wearing and whether their hair looks good.

This brings up a real—and very disturbing—experience I had on Skype a few months ago. It was midnight, and I wanted to surf the Web while watching TV in our basement. As I settled into the lounge chair and opened up the sleeping MacBook Pro, my sister-in-law (we’ll call her Madge) suddenly appeared onscreen in the Skype window. I nearly threw the Mac across the room as I struggled to duck the webcam so she wouldn’t see my less-than-presentable attire. But if I didn’t acknowledge Aunt Madge, I’d be in trouble.

Ultimately, after an uncomfortable conversation I was able to sign off. But permanent psychological damage was done—to me—although Aunt Madge too has acted strangely since the incident. So, I think Gartenberg is on the right track with his view of Airtime. There’s too much of an element of surprise. If I felt weird about Aunt Madge, imagine how I’d feel chatting it up with strangers who might in fact turn out to be business associates.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

The Tweet You Wish You Could Take Back

I’ve read countless interviews in which a notable politician, businessperson, musician, actor, writer or artist claims he or she has no regrets. They wouldn’t change a thing if they could.

I don’t buy it. I regret what I had for lunch, for instance; I should have had a salad. I shouldn’t have stayed up last night to watch that depressing episode of Mad Men. That was definitely a mistake.

If there are some self-deluded types out there who truly have no regrets, well, they must not be on Twitter. If you have a Twitter account, you have regrets.

We’ve all had that experience of firing off an e-mail we wish we could take back or, at the very least, of choosing “reply all” by mistake. But a stray e-mail is nothing compared to the tweet that got away.

Every day, it seems, there are reports about a person or company that tweeted something idiotic or downright hateful. Today, a tech company named ASUS sent out a tweet with an image of a woman working at a tech convention, paired with a juvenile comment about the woman’s appearance. You can bet that ASUS regrets that tweet.

You’ve probably already tweeted something that doesn’t reflect well on you and/or your organization. It was late, you felt that overwhelming urge to share and out it went. But it was probably a small thing. We’ve all been there. What you need to watch out for is the emotional tweet, or the tweet you think is utterly hilarious. This kind of tweet—the tweet you wish you could take back—can derail your career, embarrass your co-workers, provide ammunition to your competitors, affect a stock price.

You need to develop your own kind of inner alert that will go off when you’re typing out a tweet that may offend people you don’t want to offend. You don’t want that alert to go off after you’ve sent the tweet—that’s where painful regret begins. And until you’ve figured out what your inner alert sounds like, type slowly.

—Steve Goldstein

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI 

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