Happiness is…Expectation Management

Public relations professionals continually hound their clients and employers about managing expectations. That is, we work to ensure that the expectations of a target audience don’t get so unrealistically optimistic that the audience becomes disappointed with the client/employer when an outcome inevitably doesn’t match unrealistic expectations.

For instance, if key stakeholders believe a company is certain to report that earnings have increased by 25 percent, the PR staffer may work overtime to convince the stakeholders that such an expectation is unrealistic, so the stakeholders don’t judge the company a failure if earnings have increased by “only” 10 percent.

The need to manage expectations effectively makes PR people into their organization’s Chief Wet-blanket Officer (CWO). We have to continually tell people, “let’s not state that quite so optimistically…”

Well, a recent CBS 60 Minutes story about Denmark indicates that expectation management is perhaps much more than just a tool for business and politics. Perhaps it is something much more profound — the elusive Key to Happiness.

Excerpts from the story:

Happiness is that quirky, elusive emotion that the Declaration of Independence maintains we have every right to pursue. And we do pursue it: we are suckers for an endless stream of self-help books that promise a carefree existence for a mere $24.95; and television hucksters of every kind claim they have the key to Nirvana. So the happiness business, at least, is one big smiley face.

As for the rest of us, the main scientific survey of international happiness carried out by Leicester University in England ranks the U.S. a distant 23rd, well behind Canada and Costa Rica. But you’ll be pleased to know we beat Iraq and Pakistan.

Over the past 30 years, in survey after survey, this nation (Denmark) of five and a half million people…consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes. It’s hard to figure: the weather is only so-so, they are heavy drinkers and smokers, their neighbors, the Norwegians, are richer, and their other neighbors, the Swedes, are healthier.

…after careful study, Christensen (Professor Kaare Christensen at the University of Southern Denmark) thinks he isolated the key to Danish anti-depression. “What we basically figured out that although the Danes were very happy with their life, when we looked at their expectations they were pretty modest,” he says.

By having low expectations, one is rarely disappointed.

Christensen’s study was called “Why Danes Are Smug,” and essentially his answer was it’s because they’re so glum and get happy when things turn out not quite as badly as they expected. “And I was thinking about, What if it was opposite? That Denmark made the worst, number 20, and another country was number one. I’m pretty sure the Danish television would have said, ‘Well, number 20’s not too bad. You know it’s still in the top 25, that’s not so bad,'” he says.

History may also play a role in the country’s culture of low expectations. If you go to the government’s own Web site, it proudly proclaims “the present configuration of the country is the result of 400 years of forced relinquishments of land, surrenders and lost battles.”

Could it be that the true secret of happiness is a swift kick in the pants, or a large dose of humiliation?

Just some food for thought. Have a non-catatstrophic day!

– Loveland

tax filing kind

Dumb Freakin’ Label (DFL)

Increasingly, the language of brand management is being adopted by political communicators. Well, if Minnesota’s left-leaning political hacks are serious about practicing good brand management, they should start by reconsidering the whole “Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) Party” thing.

Minnesotans’ insistence on applying the “farmer labor” appendage is odd. To begin with, if you are insecure, it causes you to wonder why your employment group isn’t precious enough to be represented in the name. “What, consultants are chopped liver?”

An affiliate should have a darn good reason for brand secession, and the DFL has no such reason. Are Minnesota Democrats really THAT different from the rest of the national party that they need their own sub-brand?

No. Minnesota doesn’t have more “farmers” and “laborers” than other states. In fact, only about 8% of Minnesotans work in agricultural production. Many large square states have a higher proportion of farmers than we do. Moreover, I believe that number is on the decline, and that farmers aren’t overwhelmingly devout Democratic supporters anymore.

As for “labor,” only about 16% of Minnesotans are members of labor unions. By my count, eight states have a higher proportion of union members than us.

I’m neither anti-labor nor anti-farmer, but there is no good reason why Minnesota should be the only state in the nation to specifically call out “labor” and “farmer” in its name, to the exclusion of the 84% Minnesotans who do not carry a union card and the 92% who don’t own a single seed cap.

Dedicated number cruncher that I am, I set out to add 8% (farmers) and 16% (laborererers). After applying quad-gonzo squared regression analysis, I determined that 24% of Minnesotans are specifically represented in the DFL brand name. Then I consulted historical election returns, and learned that, get this, 24% is not enough to win elections. For an organization whose mission is to win elections, this might just be relevant data.

Mr. Melendez, tear down those four syllables!

By the way, such de-branding would not be unprecedented. A few years back the Minnesota party formerly known as the Independent Republican (IR) Party was wise enough to drop its first four syllables. Perhaps the party’s increased fealty to special interest litmus tests subjected it to truth-in-labeling legal exposure if it continued to use “independent?”

Yes, I am fully aware of the glorious history behind the DFL name. Well, kind of aware anyway. As I understand it, once upon a time — over six decades ago actually – Hubert Horatio Humphrey The First and his merry band of party founders struck a sweet deal to merge two competing parties, the Minnesota Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party. To seal the deal, Hubert Horatio apparently gave both parties naming rights, and presumably lots of awesome pork barrel and patronage jobs.

You heard me right. I said “six decades ago.” In America, we never feel bound to keep agreements that are six years old, much less six decades! I’m sure the three remaining Farmer-Labor Party groupies will get over it when we de-brand.

Let’s do this thing, people. Let’s eradicate those oppressive four syllables!

And if you don’t, I swear I’m not voting for your candidates until you amend “consultant” onto the name.

— Loveland

standby letter of credit kind

“Sometimes You Just Have to Stand Up There and Lie”

A post on Gawker left me speechless for a few minutes today. If this is an accurate representation of what was actually said at a media training session, it violates everything I know about the practice of communications:

“I’m a high-level advertising and marketing executive who’s hired – and used- some of the top PR firms in the nation.

As part of their ‘media training’ they commonly tell you lying is fine.

From a direct quote within an Edelman (the nation’s largest independent PR firm) session, training our entire senior management team:

‘Sometimes, you just have to stand up there and lie. Make the audience or the reporter believe that everything is OK. How many times have you heard a CEO stand up and say, ‘No, I’m not leaving the company’ and then – days later – he’s gone. Reporters understand that you ‘had’ to do it and they won’t hold it against you in your next job when you deal with them again.'”

Utter bullshit IMHO.

If other PR practitioners have a different point of view, let’s hear it, but from my perspective we’re only as good as our personal reputation for candor and truthfulness. Lose those and you may as well look for a shepherding gig.

And, in truth, it’s a pretty underwhelming PR person who thinks the only way to answer a question is with a lie. There are an infinite number of ways to answer a question that go back to what is at the core of most media training: blocking and bridging?

To use the example cited herein:

“Jon, what do you have to say about the rumors we’re hearing about the CEO’s imminent departure?”
“What I always say, Michael: ‘We don’t comment on rumors and speculation; when there’s something to announce, regardless of the topic, we’ll get the word out.'”
“So, are you denying that your CEO plans to leave?”
“I’m saying that we don’t comment on rumors and speculation.”
“Is it possible that he’s contemplating leaving?”
“Hypothetical questions are just like rumors and speculation; I’m not going to get into a game of what-if.”

And on and on…

Now, it is possible to have an honest disagreement about whether blocking and bridging is a valid technique; I absolutely think it is but reporters, I suspect, would like all PR people to be compelled to answer in ways that make their job easier:

“Jon, what do you have to say about the rumors we’re hearing about the CEO’s imminent departure?”
“Those rumor have a basis in fact, Michael; our CEO is currently interviewing for a new position.”
“What are the details of this situation?”
“Our CEO is being offered a substantial financial incentive to go to work for Amalgamated Schmeer and is interested in the opportunity because of the size of the financial incentive and also because he feels somewhat burnt out by his current job.”
“Is anything else I should know about?”
“Why yes, Michael. You probably would be interested in knowing that two other senior managers are currently contemplating leaving, that the board has offered the CEO additional financial incentives to stay and that the legal department is currently conducting a routine internal audit of the CEO’s expense account. Also, last week we experienced a non-reportable spill of 75 gallons of propylene in our Tulsa facility that in all likelihood entered the watershed.”

That approach would certainly make reporters’ jobs a lot easier but it would be unfaithful to our other obligations as advocates for our clients or companies. I make a big distinction between being an advocate and being a public information officer. Advocates have a point of view, we promote an agenda, we work toward a specific outcome. What makes our jobs hard – and interesting – is advocating while also upholding our obligation to be truthful and honest (which again, I don’t equate with “making a reporter happy”).

Again, if others have a different point of view on the validity of blocking and bridging, belly up to the bar and let’s hear ’em.

Here’s a challenge to you all: come up with a question where the only possible choices are admitting to an inconvenient truth or lying and post it here. I bet all comers that such a question doesn’t exist. Beat me at my game and I’ll award the winner a genuine “think BLUE” wristband suitable for all Democratically inclined wrists.

– Austin

First Choice for Third Parties?

He said. She said. Expert said.

That’s the formula most news reporters seem to use these days. Two opposing groups or individuals express their viewpoints, and the expert effectively breaks the tie with their “independent” opinion. In this formula, the expert witness wields a lot of influence with readers/viewers/listeners.

Which raises the stakes on this question: what type of expert should reporters be using? Consider the pros and cons of their options:

Continue reading “First Choice for Third Parties?”

Going to war…on spam

Most of this post is a little off topic from our general “communications” theme. Tough. But, for those of you who might feel shortchanged, I promise to close it with a legitimate communications question.

Last week I declared war on spam. The early results are encouraging.

My attack was not a rash decision and no one can say I wasn’t provoked. I think what did it was the 17th message of the day promising penis enhancement (or in the language of spammers, “Make ur D’ ick 3 INches Lnger and ur LoVeR 3X happy”). Of course, it could have been the 9th message telling me that my Target/Wal-Mart/JCPenney/Dell/Amazon gift card was ready for pick up or maybe one of the endless succession of offers to send me an entire drug store through the mail. All I really remember is saying, “I’m not going to take this any more.”

Chances are you feel the same way. Chances are everyone feels the same way. According to the Radacti Group (which purports to study e-mail usage and trends), there are about 1.2 billion of us sending and receiving e-mails. And, according to another research firm called Ipswitch, those boxes fill up with as many as 180 billion e-mails every day and about 95 percent of it spam.

For those of us who work for large organizations with IT departments, this issue may not be as much in your face as it is for me. Your corporate nerds are probably doing a pretty good job in filtering spam out of your in-box like the nice folks at Fleishman Hillard (with which I still work on various projects and thus still have an e-mail address there). About the only thing that gets through their filters, for some reason, is spam from the Falun Gong.

If, on the other hand, you’re an independent or use your home computer for e-mail (which I do for my JAA work and have a third address that’s purely for personal stuff), you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re like me, you’re probably spending an hour or so every day managing your e-mail inbox (there’s a productivity boost!). Do the math and that means we’re spending weeks out of every year doing nothing but dealing with spam.

Screw that.

Like any good military strategist, having resolved to fight back, I started by gathering intelligence on the enemy, in this case by really looking at the crap in my in-box. What I quickly realized is that I’d created a fair chunk of the problem myself in the form of e-mail lists I’d signed up for and no longer needed or wanted (or ever wanted). After spending about four days clicking on the “Unsubscribe” links, I noticed a significant decrease in traffic of this sort.

One word of warning on this point: Make sure the lists you’re unsubscribing from are legitimate ones; some spammers include fake “unsubscribe” links as a way to verify a legitimate e-mail address. This can actually lead to more spam.

But…what about all the other penis ads I didn’t sign up for?

For those, I went looking for an easy-to-use, low-cost version of the corporate spam blockers. There are several out there to look at – including some integrated into applications that provide other security services like virus protection – but I settled on a solution called Cloudmark that interfaces smoothly with Outlook and uses a database – compiled by the experiences of users everywhere – to detect and block spam (today’s stats claim that have blocked over a billion pieces of spam). This process happens invisibly and has proven to be extremely effective on cutting my daily e-mail traffic by about 90 percent. Cloudmark is a subscription service that goes for $40 a year and appears to be some of the best money I’ve spent recently.

Short of tearing up the Internet and starting over, there doesn’t seem to be a systemic way to rid the world of spam. I did read, though, that about 80 percent of spam is generated by 200 people so getting our hands – virtually, of course – around their throats would be a good start. Which brings me to the communications closer: If a spammer needed PR representation for what is a legal but highly annoying activity, should they get it? Would you do it? Why or why not?

– Austin

PS – Along the lines of this rant about spam, I also plan to write another screed on “cords…I hate ’em.” Prepare yourself. hr outsourcing kind

Jockey Journalism

The complaint about journalism covering elections has been that it’s all about covering the horserace — who’s ahead, who’s coming up fast around the second turn — rather than covering issues or character or records.

Given the monster role spin is playing in the current election — “We thought we were going to lose,” “We’re the underdog,” “My dog ate my ballots” — and how much time journalists give to each campaign’s spinners, election journalism has now sunk one step lower, interviewing the jockeys about the race.

Next we’ll be interviewing the people cleaning out the Augean Stables — but at least then it might be more clear what’s being scooped.

— Benidt business expense spreadsheet kind