The Haberdasher, the General and the Imposter

Harry Truman, commenting about General Dwight Eisenhower succeeding him in the Oval Office, said, “He’s going to sit at this desk and say ‘Do this’ and ‘Do that’ — and nothing’s going to happen.”

As a general, Ike could order people to do things and they’d do them. As president, not so much.

Truman would be amused, but not surprised, watching Donald Trump struggle in the office the haberdasher once occupied. As a businessman, Trump could give orders to his minions and the orders would be followed. Dealing with people now who aren’t on his payroll and who aren’t afraid of him, he’s flopping around, mouth gaping, like a fish tossed on shore.

Giving Orders - WWI

It’s one more piece of evidence that the notion of running the government like a business is so very wrong. It’s wrong because it doesn’t work, and it’s wrong because, philosophically, it’s way off base. Business exists — especially in the grubby hands of bandits like Trump — for private enrichment. The government exists to advance and protect the common good.

It’s very clear that Trump and his family and his henchmen are blurring the line between running the government to serve others and running it to serve themselves. The ethical conflicts of interest Trump and his family have are so numerous and so glaring that there’s hardly a decision the president can make that doesn’t have a financial impact on him and his family. From pipelines to banks to hotels, Trump is using our tax money and mortgaging our national security to fill his Scrooge McDuck money bins. I think he can’t see any difference between his private pelf and the public good. That moral vacancy is frightening.

Business works to increase efficiency to grow shareholder value. And who are the largest shareholders? The white guys who run the company. The impact of business decisions that increase share prices or increase the sales and value of private companies is often damage to the community and the company’s employees. Government decisions have to take into consideration the impact on the public, on the economy, on the nation’s resources and the environment for decades and centuries to come, and on the nation’s security, values and reputation.

Whether it’s a toll road or a privately-built and -run prison or a school or retirement savings, the model of increasing shareholder value just does not cover all the bases. Even without Trump owning stock in two companies involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline, his coziness with big banks and big energy companies makes his approval of the pipeline  at the least raise questions about his motives — serve the public, protect the environment or backscratch his cronies? A spokesminion claims Trump has sold his stock in the pipeline partners — but with his history of lying and his refusal to release his tax returns, who can know?

Government is not a business. It has very different aims and responsibilities than a business has. Its moral purposes are completely different.

It’s actually refreshing to see Trump fail using his corporate pirate tricks. As a business bully he could get away with not knowing the details of the projects he was hustling. Underlings could marshall the facts and figures while figurehead Donald handled the bluster and the bullshit. When he didn’t know much of anything about the healthcare bill he was pushing, House members were shocked, and mocked him.

Trump said over and over during the campaign that he would make great deals. Snarking about President Obama playing golf, Trump said he would probably never play golf (!!!) as president because he’d just want to stay in the White House and make deals. But a president’s deal-making ability has to be in service of something, as LBJ’s was with Medicaid and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Trump just likes to make deals, and then skips town before his victims can heat up the tar and pluck the feathers. And deal-making is only part of what a president does. Other qualities — leadership, inspiration, fairness, judgment, steadiness in crises, compassion, empathy, vision, diplomacy — are just as important. And absent in the current Oval Office pretender.

Harry Truman must have been smiling wryly if he paid attention, from wherever dead presidents reside, as Trump’s odious consigliere, Steve Bannon, tried to carry The Boss’s orders to vote for the Frankenstein health care bill to the Freedom Caucus in the House. Bannon tried the strong arm, telling them “Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” Might have worked for LBJ, a master of carrots, sticks, pork and human nature. Didn’t work for the windbag who told us we’d be tired of winning by this time. One Freedom Caucus member — bless his pointed little head — replied to Bannon: “You know, the last time someone ordered me to do something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn’t listen to him, either.”

My friend Dave Kuhn, a fellow recovering journalist, taught me so much about helping senior executives deal effectively with the media. People from the military and business don’t like the press, Dave said, because it’s one of the few things they can’t control. So they’re not very good at handling the challenges journalists throw at them or at letting criticism slide off their backs.

Trump’s efforts at strong-arming the media aren’t any more successful than his orders to the House members of his own party have been. And thank god for that.

— Bruce Benidt

So You’re Sean Spicer …

It’s easy to lampoon Sean Spicer, Donald Trump’s press secretary. He does it himself every day.

But what would you do?

Your boss tells you that you need to go out and spank the media, be tough like he is, and tell them that the crowd at your inauguration was the biggest ever. Period. It’s your first day on the job. It’s a job you really like and want to keep. So you give the president your advice, that saying this about the crowd will make all of you look foolish. The president asks you “Whose side are you on?” If you won’t go out there and straighten the press out he’ll find someone who will. Trump’s decision is made, and you have your marching orders.

So what do you do? Easy to say, those of us who don’t have such cool apex-predator jobs, that we’d resign rather than say something we know is not true. But would we? Would you? You make your case, you lose, the boss tells you what to do. He’s the boss.

What about something not so black and white. The message to be delivered today as the House tinkers with the Trumpcare bill is that, by removing the requirements in Obamacare that 10 essential benefits be covered, consumers will have more choice and their coverage will cost less. The essential benefits are things like prenatal care, mental health and substance abuse care, therapy and devices to help recovery after injuries or for chronic conditions, prescription drug coverage and six more. An older man, say, could chose a plan that doesn’t cover prenatal care. Sounds good, right?

But by letting people pick and choose, costs will go up for the people who do need things like prenatal care. And, if the costs get too high and a mother doesn’t get prenatal care, guess who pays for the ensuing problems her child has once born? Everybody pays, especially when care is sought through emergency rooms by people who can’t afford the coverage after it’s been cherry-picked.

So, what you’re telling people — that choice is good for everybody — simply isn’t true. At least that’s a reasonable argument. But your job is not to present both sides of a case. It’s to support the case you’re advocating for. If you’re selling soda-pop, it’s not your job to point out that a 12-ounce can of soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar in it. But it’s probably also not your job to say that soda-pop is healthy.

Spicer today eagerly and strongly asserted that doing away with the requirement that health plans cover these 10 essential services is better for health-care consumers. If you were told to say that, what would you do?

My easy answer #2 is that I wouldn’t work for someone in the first place who has shown his entire career that he sides with the rich and doesn’t give a damn about the little guy, whom he has consistently stiffed. I wouldn’t work for someone in the first place whose values are based on selfishness — I’ve got mine and you’re on your own to get yours, even when mine is crowding out yours.

But Spicer wanted this job. He’s not just some guy who came out of Trump University with a bubble-gum-card diploma. He has a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College. He’s worked in communication for Congress and for the Republican Party. He’s not a rube or a dupe. I don’t think.

So … the president tells you to go out and say, for example, that Paul Manafort played “a limited role for a very limited time” in the Trump campaign. That’s nonsense, of course, for a man who was campaign chairman.

What do you do? Chime in here, let us know your thoughts.

— Bruce Benidt

Melissa-McCarthy-Spicer-650x330

 

 

Hillary — Meet the Press, Dammit

Let’s just say it out loud: Hillary Clinton is wrong, selfish, stupid and irresponsible to not hold regular press conferences. Or at least one for goodness sake.

She is either a coward, or her ambition has crowded out her soul and what shreds of ethics she may still keep in a jar by the door.

If you read Carl Bernstein’s book A Woman in Charge, you’ll take this great journalist’s view that her ambition leads her to do whatever it takes to get to where she wants to go. Whatever it takes.

Including spurning much of the media. She hasn’t had a news conference in almost nine months. Yes she does some interviews one-on-one. Yes she calls in to some chosen news shows. Yes she sat down with Chris Wallace of Fox, one of the best, most fair and toughest interviewers out there. And she stuck her foot in her mouth.

But this is part of how you let America see you. You meet the press. This is part of what we voters deserve. To see how you handle tough inquiries from reporters in an uncontrollable scrum. Unruly? Sure. Unpredictable? Yes, thank god. And an important part of democracy. The media is not part of your marketing department, Madame Secretary. I’ve worked with a few public relations clients who felt that way. It’s wrong. It’s cynical.

Listening to Clinton answer journalists like Anderson Cooper’s questions on why she doesn’t hold a press conference is excruciating. If Clinton listens to herself she must shiver like someone tasting spoiled milk, or like John McCain every night when he realizes he’s gone another day without retracting his endorsement of Donald Trump. “Well Anderson I talk to lots of reporters, as I am right now with you, and I have done hundreds of interviews and…” blah blah blah. Answer the question. Answer them all.

Are you a less-skilled communicator than Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s VP nominee, who in 1984 took questions from 200 reporters for nearly two hours about shady financial dealings she and her husband were accused of? She stood there and took everything they could throw at her. And here’s Ragan’s PR Daily’s assessment of the outcome, from a 2011 piece on Ferraro’s death:

It helped reverse the narrative that she was not transparent;

It turned her into a more sympathetic figure;

It offered Ferraro a vital opportunity to show her mettle as a female candidate who could endure the intensity of the media’s scrutiny.

Don’t you have Ferraro’s guts, don’t you have what it takes, Madame Secretary? Is that why you’re hiding?

I’m a former daily newspaper reporter and a former college journalism teacher and I believe deeply in the role of the free press in helping us make crucial civic decisions. Those who avoid the press, who seek only to manipulate it and use it for their own ends, are putting their own interests before the best interests of the country. It’s wrong. It’s pathetic. Stop hiding, Hillary. Let us see how you handle tough times. Yes, we’ve seen you stand up to tough questioning before, as with the House Benghazi committee. Get out there again. Regularly.

Your failure to meet the press undermines any criticism you rightly make about Donald Trump’s despicable and willful refusal to release his tax returns. His failure is greater, but it’s on the same scale of cowardly hiding of what the public has a right and duty to know and understand.

Some people in your campaign are saying you’re playing a “run down the clock” campaign now, lying low to not blow your lead. If you are doing that, you risk my vote. I’m very liberal, I agree with you on most policy positions, but your actions are showing deep character flaws. I hope you thank god every night that the idiot Republicans have put up a barbarian to run against you. An actual human being would defeat you. And you’d deserve it.

— Bruce Benidt

Hillary’s Perfect “How Not To” Crisis Case Study

“Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself.” These are Lanny Davis’s guidelines for crisis communications.

Hillary Clinton has violated all of them. And that’s why the email albatross is still screeching around her neck, making the majority of Americans feel she’s not truthful. Clinton’s email mess and her increasing obfuscation and dodging is the quintessential example of a crisis so poorly handled that it is never allowed to die. She shot herself in the left foot by setting up a private email system, and she continues to shoot off toe after toe on her own right foot with increasingly obtuse loads of bullshit which are crippling her campaign and destroying her credibility.crisis-tales-9781451679298_hr

Lanny Davis helped Bill Clinton through Monica and impeachment, is a partner in a crisis communications firm, and has written a pretty darn good book about handling crises, Crisis Tales. Hillary has been acting for months not only as if she’s never met Davis, but as if she’s never heard the most basic advice a junior account executive in PR would give someone in a crisis — “get the thing over with, get everything out, deal with it and don’t let it drag on.”

Another crisis comm bromide: It you’re explaining, you’re losing. Clinton is still explaining, to Fox News, to the associations of Black and Hispanic Journalists, to anybody who can still stand to listen. Which is almost nobody.

And the final rule in handling crises — have somebody with a finely tuned bullshit detector on your team who will speak truth to power. Somebody needed to sit Clinton down and tell her last week — “No, Hillary, FBI director Comey did NOT say your FBI testimony was consistent with all your public statements. No, Hillary, you did NOT short-circuit your answer with Chris Wallace on Fox, you were NOT talking past each other. What you are saying, Hillary, is NOT TRUE. And people will know it, and they’ll recognize that you’re still spinning and dodging and dancing and they’ll rightly conclude you’re not trustworthy.” Tough stuff to say, but that’s what a smart person needs around her, someone who will tell her the truth. Has anyone? Does she not listen?

As hundreds of observers have said, this whole mess could have been dealt with honestly and openly when the email issue first surfaced and it would have caused much less harm than this dragged-out water torture has.

But what should Hillary do now? I watched Joe Scarborough struggle with this on Morning Joe today, trying to role play what Hillary might say now. It’s not easy. Scarborough stumbled through some straight talk and some obfuscation, went too far, said too much, and ended up promising a Clinton term would be the most ethical in history.

If I were advising Clinton, I’d have her say something like this: “I haven’t been as forthcoming and clear as I need to be about this email mistake I made, and I want to correct that. Having a private server was a mistake in judgment pure and simple, and I’m sorry for it. And how I’ve handled questions about it has caused many people to doubt my honesty, and I regret that. I ask people to judge my character and capability based on my whole record of public service, where my constituents and colleagues have trusted me.”

Something like this could help, even now. What she says has to be short, simple, and has to address head on the elephant in the room — people don’t trust Hillary.

By not stepping up and openly taking the hit, Clinton has caused herself months and months of debilitating atrophy of her reputation and — has increased the possibility that a crude, immature, ignorant huckster might become president. We’re all paying the price for Hillary Clinton’s refusal to deal honestly and forthrightly with a crisis.

— Bruce Benidt

 

 

 

 

Let It Bleed, Bud

Good PR move, Bud Selig. And bless the fans in Chicago.

Bud has flung out suspensions for a dozen players who cheated the game, but he leaves Alex Rodriguez on the field to represent the absolute worst in baseball for the rest of the season.

Crisis management 101 — get everything out and get it behind you. Don’t let a wound slowly bleed.

A-Rod deserves to buried up to his nose in a vat of mustard for the rest of the season and the rest of his career — see how long his testosterone lasts treading mustard.

Baseball is busy congratulating itself for being tough on cheaters. Right. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who somehow missed that players like Bonds and Clemens and Sosa and McGwire were juicing and ruining the game’s grace and history and spirit, is trying to reclaim his reputation by being tough on the current crop of cheaters. Dozens of players have spoken out saying they’re tired of the cheaters winning pennants and MVP awards and lifetime records while honest players plug along. Fans are sick of it. Every exciting performance by a new home-run hitter or mow-em-down pitcher comes with the question — is he juicing?

Selig could have bounced A-Rod for life. Could have bounced him for the rest of this season and next, not letting him play while he appealed. But, apparently fearing a lawsuit or trouble with the union, Selig took the easiest way out and gave a suspension that allows the arrogant sniveling thief to still play, likely for the rest of the season, while a slow appeals process drips on.

You thought a lawsuit or union troubles would be bad for the game, Bud? How about the spectre of one of the most dishonest disgusting disingenuous hypocritical greedy bastards to ever pull on a jockstrap slouching into stadium after stadium modeling how well cheating works from now until October? How good is that for baseball?

Our only hope is that what the fans in Chicago started Monday, when they riotously booed every step Rodriguez took out of the dugout, will continue for every inning of every game the lying crook plays the rest of the season. Let’s take it upon ourselves to shame this creep under a rock.

Reach in your suit pants and find a pair, bud. Rid the game of this shameful imposter.

Or watch the great American game bleed to death. On your watch.

My brother David and I have watched Class A minor-league games the last two nights in gorgeous little ballparks in Iowa. Baseball remains a beautiful and amazingly difficult game to play. But when cheaters are chemically inflating their performances, there’s nothing on that field of dreams that we can trust. So we’ll turn away.

Unless you stop the bleeding.

— Bruce Benidt
(Image from epicurious.com)

The Silence of the NRA, The Voices of the Children

Only once in my crisis-counseling career have I advised a client to just stay quiet. Say nothing. Don’t return media calls. It was an organization accused of something, and they knew worse was likely to be disclosed. Nothing was going to help — not getting out in front of it, not giving a short, straight explanation, not an apology. They just had to keep their heads down and take a beating.

Usually the communications advice in a crisis is to say something, even if it’s just to say “We’re looking into this and will get back to you.” (I am not one of those who advises people to mouth that empty cliche, “We take this very seriously…” — Well, duh, what are you going to say, “Nah, we don’t really care”?) The advice is usually to get your point of view in the mix as soon as possible.

The National Rifle Association has kept its head down since the shootings in Connecticut. Not a word. Not a reply to reporters’ calls, according to The New York Times. No tweets, no website comment for several days after the shootings. Don’t even return reporters’ calls? That’s a no-no in our business. But, really, what could they say?

Newtown Connecticut shootingNow there is a post on NRA.org that says the organization was allowing time for mourning and that the four million NRA moms, dads, sons and daughters were “shocked, saddened and heartbroken” by the tragedy. Then: “The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again. The NRA is planning to hold a major news conference in the Washington, DC area on Friday, December 21.”

Stay tuned. In the week since the shootings, the weather has changed for the NRA. Politicians are starting to find their spines. Some reasonable forms of gun and bullet control, once passed and then rescinded, may return as public horror and anger grow. Brian Lambert’s take on leadership in his most recent post lays out the issues well. Leaders at many levels — city, state, federal — are stirring.

But follow the money. The NRA can stay silent in public but speak with their dollars in elections. That’s their MO. A story in Tuesday’s New York Times shows how they take out legislators who are insufficiently loyal to their view of the Second Amendment.

But money cuts both ways. Pressured by the California teacher’s pension fund, Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity fund that owns several gun companies, is selling them. “The move by Cerberus is a rare instance of a Wall Street firm bending to concerns about an investment’s societal impact rather than a profit-at-all-costs ethos,” the Times reported. Some public employees don’t want their pension money supporting 30-bullet magazines. Way to go.

The NRA has been speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Maybe, this time, at last, their voice, and their money, will be overwhelmed by the voices of little children, eloquent in death.

— Bruce Benidt

(Photo from guardian.co.uk)

The Power of a Summary

Hospitals generate reams of patient safety-related data.  But that alone doesn’t make them accountable.

There is power in that data– the power to arm patients and purchasers with the information they need to demand better.  But in the unorganized, unsummarized aggregate, the data are not so powerful. Not to patients anyway.  Obviously, individual patients don’t have the time, inclination or expertise to decipher, organize, summarize and promote the hospital data on their own.  Therefore,  the hospitals’ data are effectively invisible to them.

The hospital data only realizes its potential power in the marketplace when boiled down into something that can be understood by patients at-a-glance, because a glance is all that most of us are willing to give the subject.  Only when boiled down will the hospital data be accessible enough to drive purchasing decisions.

And that is what a national patient safety group called Leapfrog did this week when it summarized hospitals’ patient safety data into school-like grades.  Casting judgements about hospitals is perilous business, because hospitals are fiercely defensive institutions that understandably prefer to promote their miracles over their mistakes.  Though Minnesota hospital leaders were very courageous a few years back to begin publicly disclosing their medical errors, hospital advocates in Minnesota pooh-poohed Report Card Day:

“It’s really a repackaging of what’s publicly available,” (Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA) data expert Mark) Sonneborn said.

I really should have tried that one when I was a lad.  “Chill mom, that “D” in Social Studies is actually just a repackaging of information that has been available to you all semester.”

Yes, the data behind the grades is available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  So, if I understood which measures were most meaningful, and I don’t, it would have been technically possible for me to construct the spreadsheet that the Leapfroggers did, and make some kind of a comparison on my own.

But the practical reality is that I never did, and never would.  Life is just too busy to summarize all the data impacting my life.  And even if I was geeky enough to do my own little patient safety data research project, the effort would only benefit me, and not the rest of the country.

MHA is correct that Leapfrog’s methodology is just “repackaging.” But the grades will drive quality improvements much faster than the status quo way of managing the data.  Because whether a hospital got an “A” or a “F” grade, the minute hospital leaders know that easily understood grades are going to be regularly appearing in the hometown news media and competitors’ marketing materials is the moment they start investing more effort, thought and resources into patient safety improvements.    With the advent of publicized grades, they now know that consumers and purchasers will use their new found knowledge to vote with their feet, and their pocketbooks.

Markets work if consumers are informed, and the beauty of the grades is that they are simple enough to do that.  Lifesaving work is most often done by the miracle workers in hospitals wielding scalpels, microscopes, medications, lasers, gauze, latex, disinfectants and needles.  To be sure, these folks are heros.  But lifesaving work can also be done, indirectly, by data jockeys wielding spreadsheets and press releases.  Leapfrog, I give you an “A.”

– Loveland

Of Big Gulps, PR Ethics, Courage and Hidden Identity

Is it ethical for a company to hide its identity when it enters into robust public discussion of important social issues? Is it decent?

Is it ethical for PR people to be part of this charade?

Some big businesses apparently have the backbone of a Hostess Twinkie. If news and blog reports are accurate, Philip Morris, Wendy’s and Coca-Cola are some of the companies that are behind a clever and arresting ad campaign against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to fight obesity by banning restaurant sales of sugary drinks in bottles and cups larger than 16 ounces.

The ads are put up by ConsumerFreedom.com. At its website, the “consumer” group, The Center for Consumer Freedom, says:

Many of the companies and individuals who support the Center financially have indicated that they want anonymity as contributors. They are reasonably apprehensive about privacy and safety in light of the violence and other forms of aggression some activists have adopted as a “game plan” to impose their views, so we respect their wishes.

Images of hordes of crazed tofu eaters and green tea drinkers with pitchforks and torches storming corporate headquarters to extract vengeance.

Really?

Obesity is epidemic. We all pay the price, through our health insurance premiums and taxes, for the health damage obesity causes. So — as is true with stemming the health costs of smoking through anti-smoking campaigns — this is a fair issue for public debate. Should government protect public health through laws? We ban asbestos in insulation because it causes cancer. We ban drinking while driving because it kills and maims people. We ban cigarette advertising on TV because it can lure young people into starting smoking. It’s no coincidence that obesity in America has risen while beverage companies have moved from 12-ounce serving sizes to 16, 24 and more.

Should the foods and drinks that cause health-destroying obesity be regulated? And, if so, how? Fair questions, and all sides should be heard in a spirited public debate.

But many on one side lack the courage to put their names behind their messages.

Yes, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (and I’m sure others) have come out publicly against Bloomberg’s ban, so they have the courage to oppose this issue in daylight. But there is something pernicious about advertising that hides its funders. That’s one of the issues in Citizens United. There is a big difference between a consumer reading that Coca-Cola opposes the ban and a consumer seeing a clever full-page ad that stirs the consumer’s emotions without disclosing who’s behind the ad.

The Center for Consumer Freedom was apparently founded by Philip Morris to fight smoking restrictions. Their purpose? To help consumers or to sell more products?

Over and over, in the PR business, we form corporate-created and corporate-funded “consumer groups” to push a business message. Is that ethical? Are we okay with that? Is it ethical to form front groups and not disclose who’s behind them?

When I was an impressionable new PR person, our client, Northwest Airlines, asked the PR firm I worked for to get people to call into a radio debate on public financing for airline maintenance and service centers. The question of whether it was good for Minnesota to spend tax dollars to create jobs in Minnesota and keep an important business in the state was a fair one to debate. I was uncomfortable, though, with the request to salt the mine, to get paid to prompt people to call in and support the airline’s position. Astroturf.

Should PR people be part of these kinds of lurking-behind-the-scenes campaigns? What do you think, gentle readers?

— Bruce Benidt

Online Brainstorms Overcome Many Problems of Traditional Brainstorms

The other day, I highlighted research showing that face-to-face brainstorming meetings are not as effective at generating ideas as quiet contemplation. It’s important to note one partial exception to that rule: online brainstorming.

E-brainstorming.
The research is very supportive of online brainstorming. With face-to-face brainstorming, the larger the group, the worse the performance, both in terms of quantity and quality. With online brainstorming, however, the bigger the group, the better the performance, according to the research.

Why? I’d say it is because online brainstorming fosters what introverts particularly need to excel, time for quiet contemplation and self-vetting. Online brainstorming – a prolonged email-based discussion, for instance – removes many of the problems associated with the ubiquitous face-to-face brainstorming sessions so many organizations adore.

First, online brainstorms remove many of the distractions inherent in face-to-face brainstorm sessions. In face-to-face brainstorming sessions, our minds are racing from irrelevant subject to irrelevant subject: “The facilitator is not as funny as he thinks he is…do people think I’m talking too little, or too much…why Snickers…bad hair day, dude…why does she always work the word “synergy” into every monologue…if I had pointy shoes like that guy, would people conclude that I’m creative…wouldn’t white boards be more environmentally sustainable than giant Post-it notes…is the facilitator on happy pills?”

When you’re back at your keyboard, those environmental distractions are removed, so you can focus on the task at hand. Sure, distractions still exist in your office, but nothing like the wild sideshows happening in Cirque du Brainstormsession.

Second, the problem of “evaluation apprehension” – the fear of looking moronic in front of colleaugues — is mitigated online. After all, with online brainstorms, you have ample time to self-scrutinize and research your argument before expressing it, which builds confidence in the value of the contribution. When allowed sufficient time to develop the idea, you are much more likely to share it, and it is likely to be a better developed idea. Not so with the spontaneous blurting required in face-to-face brainstorming.

Third, the problem of “production blocking” – where thoughts are lost as you’re waiting for others to express their ideas — is nearly eliminated during online brainstorms. With online brainstorms, thoughts can be written down, and fully developed, as you have them.

In short, online brainstorms allow for uninterrupted contemplation, while still taking advantages of the “wisdom of crowds” phenomena.

In the book Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki sings the praises of the decisions crowds jointly make. But Surowiecki also stresses that crowds are capable of making very bad decisions. He says that a primary factor that leads to poor crowd decision making is when members of the crowd are so conscious of the opinions of others that they start to emulate each other and conform, rather than thinking as individuals.

Face-to-face meetings are much more apt to generate this kind of blind following of vocal group leaders than large groups of people sitting at their keyboards thinking independently.

Granted, online brainstorms are far from perfect. For instance, the problem of social loafing – sitting back and letting others do the work – arguably could be aggravated with large online groups. And tragically, there is no junk food supplied at e-brainstorms. But online brainstorms do avoid many of the problems associated with face-to-face brainstorms, and research indicates that they produce better results.

– Loveland

Brainstorm or Braindrain?

All wet?
Those of you in the PR, advertising and marketing business are probably very familiar with the brainstorm model of idea generation, but I know it is also used in many other industries.

For those of you who have been left out of the brain rain, here is a crash course: During brainstorms, a group of colleagues closes themselves into a room and spontaneously blurts out ideas on the given topic. The ideas are excitedly written on giant Post-it notes adhered to the walls by a perky brain storm facilitator.

“There is no such thing as a bad idea,” the facilitator, pacing around the room frenetically, continually reminds us, usually after someone offers a particularly bad idea. “The wilder the idea, the better!”

The group is urged to generate a large quantity of ideas, and rapidly build off ideas with supplements or variations. Toys and treats are often offered, to foster creativity. A few people usually sit quietly looking at their watches, and looking idealess, while a relative few dominate the airwaves. The session ends with the chirpy facilitator congratulating the participants, pointing to all of the giant Post-it Notes on the walls as evidence of the world changing ideas that the brainstorm precipitated.

Brainstorming, which was particularly promoted by legendary BBDO ad man Alex Osborn, is the operational and cultural building block of many creatively oriented businesses. The brainstorm session is to PR and agencies as the assembly line is to a manufacturer. It’s the place where the company’s talent synergistically comes together to create MAGIC.

Or does it?

In the book “Quiet: The Power of Intoverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain examines the heavy workplace emphasis on consensus and teamwork generally, and the brainstorming work model specifically. Cain cites research done by University of Minnesota psychology professor Marvin Dunnette in 1963. Dunnette asked ad executives and 3M executives to do a set of tasks. Some worked alone, and some in groups. Cain writes:

The results were unambiguous. The men in 23 of the 24 groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumably introverted research scientists.

Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusions. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases…

‘The “evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups,’ writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. ‘If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’

…Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming. The first is social loafing: in a group some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only person can talk or produce an idea at once while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehehsion: meaning the fear of looking studid in front of one’s peers.”

So, why is brainstorming still such a big part of business operations?

Because we’re all afraid to protest, for fear we will look like killjoys who can’t appreciate all the giddy merriment and free Snickers bars?

Because all of those Post-it notes on the wall feel more like tangible evidence of productivity than the evidence offered by peer reviewed scientific research?

Because the extraverted leaders that tend to lead organizations personally are attracted to the energy such sessions gives them?

Quick, someone get some giant Post-it Notes, colored markers, beanbag chairs and Cheetos. We’ll get to the bottom of this in no time!

– Loveland

Ask Newt If Ads Matter

In age of 24/7 cable news coverage and social media, in an age when the public is sick to death of political advertising, in an age of nifty ad-dodging tools like Hulu, YouTube and TiVO, political ads are now increasingly irrelevant. An anachronism.

Right? We’ve been hearing that for years now. For instance, a 2008 column in the Star Tribune by John Rash carried the provocative headline, “Ads’ influence falls away in a ‘message election,’” and carried a number of quotes from influential local and national experts supporting the headline’s assertion.

It’s not the first time you’ve heard the claim, and it’s not the last time you’ll hear it. But reports of the demise of the political ad have been greatly exaggerated.

Consider, for instance, Newt Gingrich’s freefall in Iowa.

Both Iowans and non-Iowans have been watching the same presidential debate coverage of Newt. Both Iowans and non-Iowans have been watching the same national news coverage of Newt. Both Iowans and non-Iowans have been listening to Limbaugh, Hannity and other nationally syndicated talk radio hosts opining about Newt and his rivals.

But a huge difference for Newt in Iowa versus the rest of the country is the anti-Newt advertising pouring into Iowa. Newt reportedly is getting hammered by negative direct mail ads, radio ads, TV ads, outdoor ads, and online ads. Iowans are seeing the ads repeatedly, but Americans as a whole are not.

It therefore is probably not a coincidence that Newt is polling at about 27.4% nationally, but half that (13.7%) in Iowa. Nationally, he is still in first place, but in Iowa he has fallen to fourth place. His trend line isn’t great in either Iowa or the nation as a whole, but in Iowa Gingrich has fallen faster and further.
Continue reading “Ask Newt If Ads Matter”

Ham(line) Handed PR

Kudos to Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin for by far the best coverage of last week’s dispute about former GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer’s bid to become a professor at Hamline University.

In last week’s coverage, Emmer was claiming he had an informal handshake agreement, though not a contractual agreement, to teach at Hamline. Emmer maintained that Hamline later reneged under pressure from liberal faculty members.

From last week’s coverage, I couldn’t tell if Emmer was exagerating the firmness of the handshake agreement he and Hamline had actually reached. But in his Sunday column, Tevlin uncovered several Emmer emails that show the claimed Emmer-Hamline handshake was bonecrunchingly firm. There are unambiguous statements from Hamline leaders in those emails, such as “Tom Emmer is going to teach it.”

Tevlin did the by far best reporting on this issue, and he also did the best opining:

I have no idea if Emmer would be a good teacher. He’s certainly not known as an intellectual or deep thinker, but a lot of colleges are convalescent homes for retired or failed Democrats, so he’s certainly not a stretch. I’m guessing he’d give a lot of students the opportunity to hone their arguments, and there’s value in that. My two best professors in political science were a socialist and the then-head of the GOP. They both made me think, and that’s what education is about. Hamline could have handled this worse, but I’m not sure how.

Hamline didn’t break a contract, but it did reveal itself to be narrow minded. They should have let Emmer teach.

– Loveland

Signs That Vikings’ Poor Play May Be Impacting Stadium Push At Capitol

For a long time, I’ve maintained that the quality of the Vikings’ play has almost no impact on the team’s push for a state subsidy to finance a new stadium. But recent developments at the State Capitol are causing me to reconsider that opinion:

• Following yesterday’s twelfth loss of the season, Vikings stadium bill is now being considered as part the Omnibus Homeless Assistance Act.

• During a recent heated exchange on the House floor, a legislator was heard to be bitterly calling his opponent a “Loadholt.”

• During this morning’s opening prayer in the House, firebrand preacher Bradlee Dean referenced Vikings’ quarterback “Muslim Ponder.”

• A member of the Capitol press corps asked the staffer allegedly in an “inapporpriate relationship” with Senator Amy Koch, “who taught you pass defense, Leslie Frazier?”

• The Wisconsin Legislature reportedly has offered to pay for 100% of the new Vikings stadium, to keep the Vikings in the Packers’ division.

• To finance their stadium push, Ramsey County is now suggesting a tax on surging local sales of Prozac and Wellbutrin.

I’m not a lobbyist, but these do not strike me as good signs for the Vikings.

– Loveland

The Creator and Me

Frank Luntz: Privilege Creator.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz is the genius who helped shift Republicanspeak from “inheritance taxes” to “death taxes,” and dramatically change public support as a result. You see, “inheritance” sounds unearned and aristocratic to the masses, while taxing death sounds outrageously insensitive and unfair. Score!

Similarly, at the behest of his wealthy clients Luntz changed Republicanspeak from “oil drilling” to “energy exploration,” “global warming” to “climate change,” and “health care reform” to “government takeover of health care.”

Is Luntzian linguistics Orwellian? In a 2007 interview with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, Luntz embraces his inner Big Brother:

“To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.”

Now Luntz is urging his Republican clients to repeatedly use the term “Job Creators” whenever referring to the wealthiest Americans. Mr. Luntz seeks to focus Americans’ attention on the 1%’s trickledownedness, rather than it’s gawdy and growing wealth.

Brilliant! After all, in the midst of a sluggish recovery no one wants to stand in the way of “job creation,” so this turn of phrase is getting Luntz’s wealthy clients exempted from debt reduction sacrifice. (“Sacrifice,” incidentally, is a bad bad word Luntz is urging Republicans to ban. If only Churchill and FDR had been so clever.)

This whole business got me to thinking, “if I could afford to hire old Frank Luntz, what could the wunderkind wordsmith do to get ME exempted from sacrifice?
Continue reading “The Creator and Me”

A Little Too Rowdy Of A Crowd

Political communicators work day and night to control everything about political events. The stagecraft. The music. The tempo. The supporting cast. The wardrobe. The make-up. The messaging. The media coverage.

But there is one thing that seems to be increasingly difficult for political handlers to control. The audience.

At this phase of the campaign cycle, the Republican frontrunners’ campaigns are doing their best to win partisan primary and caucus voters without spooking less partisan and zealous General Election voters watching TV coverage of events. It’s a tricky balancing act under any circumstances, and the audiences at Republicans events are making it much more difficult.

The boisterous zealots bellowing forth at nationally televised Republican events are diverting attention from the front-runners’ carefully focus group tested messaging, and instead making the candidates look bloodthirsty…

intolerant…

and heartless…

These candidates look extreme by association. These are not the warm and fuzzy images that the political handlers strive to create. Long after background flags are returned to the rental company, these Gladiator-esque reactions of the Republican crowd are what many of us remember about the moment.

A winning Republican formula in the past has been to run candidates with warm-feeling personalities to mask the harsh impact of the conservative policies they support. Reagan, Pawlenty, McCain and Romney are among those who played that game especially well. But the discordant chorus at Republican events is taking the sheen off the frontrunners’ carefully managed nice guy images.

This is not an insignificant issue for political communicators in the age of extreme political polarization. If I were a Republican spin savant, I’d be spending less time obsessing about the size of the candidates’ flag pin decal, and more time on crowd control.

Loveland

Kill-er PR Strategy: Low Expectations

Former Gopher football coach Tim Brewster promised “Gopher Nation” an immediate and dramatic turnaround! The most tremendous players in the nation!! Euphoric student body parades into the best stadium in America!!! A Rose Bowl!!!! And a tremendous pony for the first 10,000 fans through the gate!!!!!

New Gopher football coach Jerry Kill promises little. Underwhelming players. An okay marching band. No beer. Maybe, maybe, a win here and there. Hey, what do you expect, you’re the Gophers.

And Minnesotans are LOVING Jerry Kill.

Tremendous.
We Minnesotans have grown weary of sales people. Before Coach Brew, we went gaga for Les Steckel, Red McCombs, Jesse Ventura, Jim Wacker, and many other hucksters who, it turns out, could politic better than they could perform. And they broke our little hearts.

As I’ve said before, expectations management is much more than just smart PR strategy. I believe expectations management is the key to a happy life. And Coach Kill’s anti-pep talks are a model of expectations management, though he would surely caution us about using a strong word like “model.”

Of course, we’ll turn on Coach Kill too when he inevitably – we are the Gophers, after all — underperforms even his low expectations. But at least when Gopher Nation’s next fall happens, it will be, thanks to Kill, from a much lower height.

– Loveland

“Neutrality” Declaration Off Target

Yesterday at Target’s annual meeting in Pittsburgh, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel was peppered with questions about the divisive gay marriage measure that Target-funded legislators put on the 2012 Minnesota ballot.

Mr. Steinhafel couldn’t move the conversation back to corporate business, because the questions about Target’s politics kept coming and coming. This was frustrating for Steinhafel, because he was armed with a well-rehearsed talking point:

“We’re neutral.” It seems Target fancies itself as a veritable Switzerland. Steinhafel repeatedly declared that Target’s position on the gay marriage issue is neutral, neutral, neutral.

But here’s why that message isn’t working. When Switzerland is neutral in a war, they don’t fund either side. But Target is funding a group of candidates obsessed with banning gay marriage. The citizens/customers caught in the crossfire of the Target-financed culture war do not view Target’s funding decisions as an act of neutrality.

From a brand stewardship standpoint, corporations should keep their multi-billion brands out of the destructive crossfire of the most divisive issues of our times. As long as they continue to fund political combatants, repeating the word “neutral” is not going to stop them from suffering the collateral damage inherent in any war.

– Loveland

“$110M Closer?” Dayton Loses Headline War of the Day

Your move, Mr. Dayton.
Today’s Star Tribune has headlines on the front page and after the jump declaring that Governor Dayton and Republican Legislature are “$110M Closer,” due to a compromise offer from the GOP yesterday.

Winning this headline is a big PR win for Republicans. For months, they’ve struggled to find a way to look like they’re compromising without actually, well, you know, compromising. Amazingly, they talked yesterday’s headline writers into it.

But does the headline carry the truth to newspaper scanners? The Republicans offer yesterday was that they would increase spending in part of the budget – education and courts – and decrease spending in yet-to-be-determined other areas of the budget. Now, that’s movement. But it’s movement on the budget recipe rather than the budget overall. What the Republicans did yesterday is like increasing the amount of chocolate chips in a cookie recipe and decreasing an equal amount of sugar, and then claiming they’ve made more cookies.

This headline would be accurate if the months-long debate at the State Capitol had been about the size of the education and courts budgets (i.e. more sugar or more chocolate chips?). But that obviously hasn’t been the source of the stalemate. The lengthy debate has been about the size of the overall budget (i.e. How many cookies?). For months, Dayton has said there needs to be bicameral agreement on an overall budget target, and that the compromise needs to be between his preferred target and the Republicans’ preferred target. There was absolutely no new movement on that sticking point yesterday, making it truly remarkable that the Zellers won the headline.

Think of it this way: If Governor Dayton holds a news conference today and offers to cut his income tax increase by $110M, while increasing a different tax on the wealthy by $110M, would this new “compromise” have brought the two sides “$110M Closer”?

I’m floored that they pulled this off. PR wizardry.

– Loveland

Dayton’s Mediation Maneuver: Deft PR, But…

Your move, Mr. Zellers.
Nifty PR chess move, but substantively silly. That’s how I’d grade out Governor Dayton’s suggestion yesterday that a mediator be brought in to help facilitate a solution to the state’s budget crisis.

PR-wise, the move is another brilliant move from a fellow who long seemed to have a bit of a tin ear when it came to public relations. A new public opinion poll this week is confirming what a Star Tribune poll recently found — that Dayton is fairing much better than Republican legislators in the Capitol cage match. His tax increase is polling 31 percentage points ahead of the Republican Legislature’s cuts only approach, and Dayton’s job approval rating is 32 points ahead of the Legislature’s. Who woulda thunk it, but the Tax Increaser In Chief is kicking ass just a few months after the Tea Party’s Great Shellacking of 2010.

And this move probably won’t hurt those numbers. Suggesting a mediator is so reflective of Minnesota Nice values. It plays into Minnesotans’ conflict adverse, middle-of-the-road instincts: “Oh geez, Ole, why can’t dem guys up der just get someone to help them figure it out then?”

Anyway, the maneuver seemed to work. The Republicans’ rejection of the mediator offer further cemented the public perception that Republican legislative leaders are refusing to compromise.

But beyond PR, come on Governor. I suspect Dayton knows this, but he, Zellers and the gang are the mediators we hired for this job. The Founding Dads designed a representative democracy, rather than a pure democracy, which means voters hire people, through elections, to mediate public disputes, rather than 5.3 million of us trying to resolve disputes mediator-less. Given that, it’s silly for our appointed mediators to appoint mediators who aren’t electorally accoutable to the citizenry.

So, Dayton’s mediation maneuver was a deft PR chess move, but the Republicans did Minnesotans a favor by quickly shutting that idea down.

– Loveland

Mitta Culpa

As a crisis communications counselor, I’ve seen that the public is generally remarkably forgiving if, and only if, the wrong-doer: a) admits the wrong without lapsing into fudging language; b) apologizes in a way that actually is perceived to be sincere; c) exhibits humanity, not robotics; and d) explains specifically how they are righting the wrong, and taking steps to ensure it will never happen again. Absent those things, I’ve also seen how brually unforgiving the public can be.

Therefore, allow me to give some pro bono advice to poor Mitt Romney, who has been accused of a very, very serious crime. I’d recommend former Governor Mitt issue a heartfelt mea culpa statement that goes something like this:

My fellow Americans, I made a mistake. And it was a doozey. For reasons I can’t explain, I helped 401,000 people in my state get health coverage for their families.

I know, I know. It was heinous. Immunizations. Cancer screenings. No medical bankruptcies. I pray that God and the American people can somehow find it in their hearts to forgive me.

I don’t have a good explanation. I guess I just lost my way by spending too much time listening to sob stories from those 401,000 uninsured whiners.

To my credit, I did leave 2% uninsured. But I realize, that’s no excuse. A 98% coverage rate – the lowest in the nation – is a disgrace to me, and my family’s good name.

For that, I am deeply, deeply, DEEPLY sorry. I want you to know that I am dedicated to ignoring the two-thirds of Massachusets citizens who support my reforms. To the one-third who oppose the reforms, and are active in Republican politics, I want you to know that I hear YOU loud and clear.

I therefore, hereby denounce the 88% of physicians practicing medicine under the wretched reforms, who claim they have improved health care quality and access for my neighbors.

But that’s not all. I promise to build a statutory lock box to prevent those reforms from ever helping 98% of the American people get medical care for their families. We can’t have that.

And if you’re still pissed at me, I’ll also throw in a bonus promise to dismantle the most effective and popular health coverage initiative in America, Medicaid. Will that do it?

While I can’t undo my past wrongs, I want to ensure the American people that I get it. I won’t ever again stoop so low as to double the health coverage rate for vulnerable children.”

He attempted to put this nightmare behind him yesterday, but it was insufficient. If His Mittness will just do the right thing, I think he will be surprised to see how forgiving the American people can be.

– Loveland

Fox News Fakes News

Just about four years ago to the day, I criticized my industry, the public relations industry, for its use of video news releases (VNRs). VNRs are video segments designed to look exactly like a TV news story. But they are produced by PR pros, not reporters, often with PR people acting out the role of faux reporters. Just as PR people and their clients hope, VNRs often get run unedited or lightly edited on actual newscasts, which has caused watchdog groups like PR Watch to label this crowning achievement of the PR industry “fake news.” This brand of fake news has been shamelessly used over the years to sell everything from widgets to wars.

Ever the killjoy, I argued back in the day that VNRs are qualitatively different than written news releases: “The use of PR people mimicking the dress and conventions of news reporters without real time disclosures of their mimicry crosses the line from briefing reporters to impersonating reporters.”

VNR’s just do not pass a reasonable person’s smell test.

My quixotic propsoal was for PR pros to be proactively ethical, and disclose the funder of the VNR, via a continuously on-screen chyron, to make it impossible for a TV news producer to use any VNR footage without proper attiribution.

This proposal did not catch fire in PR salons.

But the issue hasn’t gone away. In fact, last week the FCC penalized the local Fox affilate, KMSP-TV, for airing a story about the automobile industry that was, it turns out, exactly how General Motors would tell the story, if it were telling the story itself. Because it was. Because the KMSP-TV news team borrowed heavily from a GM-funded VNR advertisement.

Continue reading “Fox News Fakes News”

Ten Years After — The View Out My Screen Porch

“The longer I do this the less I know.”

small business help That was my wife, Lisa’s, former career-counseling partner, Colleen Convey, talking to people at a large Minneapolis company years ago about finding work that fits you, not fitting into work. Then Colleen gave them, humbly, what she’d learned in her decades of counseling, which her years and wisdom had shaped into something simple, clear and deep.

One of Colleen’s and Lisa’s measures of job fit is — when was the last occasion where you lost track of time because you were so engaged by what you were doing? If you can find work that connects with one of those experiences (no, Austin, you can’t make a living doing that) you’ll have work that fits and fulfills.

Ten years ago Colleen’s and Lisa’s advice and support helped me leave, with manageable fear and trembling, a global PR firm to start my own little business. April 1, 2001 I went on my own, an April fool. Ten years later, I still haven’t had to get a real job and I’m still losing track of time when engaged face-to-face with my clients. The longer I do this the less I know — but I’ve become pretty clear about what I do know.

Life is short, meetings are long, presentations are mostly dreadful, most interview subjects can’t spit out in plain English why anybody might care about or benefit from what they do — so anyone who can talk with clarity and passion and examples about stuff that matters to real people is an extraordinary and compelling communicator. After a dozen years as a journalist and a dozen in PR and decades of college teaching, I have focused on training people to be clear and compelling communicators. Not by giving them a formula, but by listening to them and watching them and dragging out, through all the layers of organizational and educational and professional detritus, their own personality and passion. I help people talk about stuff that excites them or moves them — and I get paid for it. For ten years now. Good gig

It’s scary, a little, being out on your own. Most independents I know, like me, worry that the phone will stop ringing. Colleen told me that the first year on your own you worry all the time about not getting work, the second year you think the first year was a fluke, and by the third year you think this might actually work. Ten years in, I’ve embraced worry as an old friend who just croaks in the corner. I miss a good health-care plan, I miss colleagues from the newspapers and colleges and Shandwick, but god I love making an independent living from something I’m good at, saying yes or no when I want to, and now in my dotage not pretending I know more than I do.

A huge thanks is due to the people who helped me develop the skills I’ve traded on for ten years — Dennis McGrath, Scott Meyer, Mary Jeffries, Dave Mona, Sara Gavin, Dave Kuhn, Betsy Buckley, Kari Bjorhus, Steve Conway, Mary Milla, Walt Parker and so many more from the Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin Shandwick years. And to Lisa, who encouraged me to jump with no net. And to mein guter freund Jorg Pierach, with whom I jumped in 2001 and who, like me, has withstood two economic collapses and who, unlike me, has built a gorgeous and successful agency of lively cool professionals — FastHorse. Jorg supported and supports me, with drinks and an office and unquenchable good spirit. And to Daniel Pitlik, who’s been at this for years longer than I have and is an example and mensch and sweet human being from whom I have stolen endless ideas and approaches. And to Tony Carideo, a careful and caring businessman/journalist with a philosopher’s heart and degree who’s held my hand the whole way — and whose basement is promised as Lisa’s and my retirement home.

And to my clients — who make me feel part of their teams — huge huge thanks. These are my colleagues and friends — good humans at Medtronic, Best Buy,Thomson Reuters, UPS, Amway, Cargill, Doug Kelley, GCI Atlanta the most frequent, but all of you people I light up when I see as I drag in my camera bag for another gig. The biographer Charles Neider had a formula for whom he chose as a subject for a book — could he take a cross-country train trip with that person and not want to jump the tracks mid-journey? All of my clients I’d climb on a train with — at the bar-car end of course. Some of my clients are former Shandwick colleagues who’ve moved on and kept my number, some former Shandwick clients, some former students, and all have referred me to others, which keeps me out of the bread lines.

In ten years my little business has moved its global headquarters from Eden Prairie to South Minneapolis and now to north of Tampa, where my office is a screen porch looking out on the egret fishing in the oyster bar pictured above. Huge thanks to my Minneapolis clients who keep calling on me even though I’m no longer just a half-hour away. Here near the Gulf of Mexico I’ve learned to distinguish the sharp beak-splash of a kingfisher diving into the tidal pond in our backyard from the flop-splash of fish jumping, and to recognize the twee-twee call of an osprey before I see its speckled wings and striped tail. These are important work skills, I think.

Technology has changed in my ten years. I travel now with three video cameras (plans A, B & C — you can’t waste executives’ time and look like a fool because of equipment failures or lost luggage), the most recent a flipcam. I used to drag to sessions a bag of VHS tapes of interview and speech examples until Sue Busch at Best Buy suggested with good humor that this was one step above cave paintings, so then I switched to examples on DVD. Now it’s YouTube and Ted.com — when a client at UPS a week or so ago said he liked a local preacher’s and Tom Friedman’s speaking styles, we instantly pulled them up on YouTube on my iPhone and analyzed what made them compelling. (Even more important — I’m about to watch the Twins opener on my iPad out on the porch — is this a great country or what?)

Have I changed in ten years? I’m more willing to say no to work I’m not good at, don’t like or don’t know enough to do. Journalism training and natural arrogance have always made me comfortable challenging people, but now I’m even more willing to look at an executive and say, with I hope a blend of compassion and two-by-four, that people will rush for the exits if you talk like that. And I’m more sure I can help the person be more engaging and compelling — partly because the bar is so low in most organizations. I worry a little about not staying current, and I never pretend to be a social media guru, leaving that to Jorg and blogbuddies Mike Keliher and Jon Austin. But the core of communication, I think, is still clarity and passion and zip, no matter the medium.

Personally I remain a manic blend of daily childish optimism and long-term black-hole pessimism, but here in Florida surrounded by birdmusic and the breathing tides and clouds of the Gulf I wallow less in the daily examples of entropy. Once you know the principle that trains crash, Thoreau wrote, you don’t need to know every instance of a train crashing. So I put down the paper or the hand-held and watch a heron alight with delicate wingbeats on the cedar tree across the channel.

Enough. Thanks to all who’ve been part of this journey. And please keep calling — I need the work. And the time face-to-face with clients still flies by.

— Bruce Benidt

Talk With Us Like a Human, Mr. President

Just watched President Obama give a short talk about the tragedy in Japan.

He was awful. Flat. Dull. Unbelievable. As interesting and engaging and compassionate as a piece of typed paper.

Because he read his talk. Looking down every few seconds.

He said we’re all heartbroken about the tragedy. Reading “heartbroken” off his script. He said it reminds us we all share a common humanity, reading “common humanity” off the script.

This from a man who is one of the most riveting, compelling, commanding speakers in our recent history. It’s sad to see him tamed and broken like a wild stallion– whether by his advisors or his own sense of the weight of each word a president speaks. He’s not dancing with the one who brung him to the White House — himself, Barack Obama.

I tell my speech-coaching clients to speak at least the first few sentences of a talk without looking at any notes or slides or prompters. Know what you want to say at the beginning well enough that you can look at the audience and talk straight to them and — just talk. You engage an audience — or not — in the first few seconds of a speech. If you’re looking down — you’ve lost connection, you’ve lost the audience.

I’ve said before on this blog — lose the TelePrompTer, Mr. President. And lose the speechwriters. Now I add — lose the script. Sure, bring notes to the lectern, and nothing wrong with looking down now and then. But if you’re going to say your heart goes out to the victims in Japan, no heart is moved when you’re reading that flat statement off a script. If you’re trying to reassure us that nuclear power is safe, look us in the eyes and tell us that — don’t read it off a script.

Talk like a human, Mr. President. That’s how you lead. Words themselves are mostly flat. It’s the lift your face and voice and passion give them that lets them soar, that connects with us. Scripts and prompters and slides stifle the passion, drain the personality, kill the humanity. Leaders don’t read scripts, Mr. President, especially not in times of crisis and disaster.

Come on, you know this. What’s happened?

–Bruce Benidt

Target’s Lady Gaga Problem

Live by the Gaga, die by the Gaga.

The Target boycott situation has gotten fascinating this week. Pop diva Lady Gaga is now being widely credited for pressuring Target to back off of its policy of using its customers’ dollars to play politics. From numerous LGBT publications to the The Motley Foolto a Los Angeles Times editorial, the conventional wisdom has become this: Target has sworn off politics, and Gaga forced them to do it.

But when I look closely at what Target Executives are saying, that interpretation seems to be inaccurate, or at least premature. As near as I can tell, Target has not announced a change of policy, only a change in process (i.e. the formation of a committee that will decide down the line). If Target has actually “adopted new guidelines for donations to trade associations that prohibit the use of the company’s contributions in political campaigns,” as a Los Angeles Times editorial said, I sure haven’t heard it from Target yet.

For instance, here is what Target VP of Communications Dustee Jenkins told Billboard:

Continue reading “Target’s Lady Gaga Problem”