Ebay and Google look set to square off

My guess is ebay is going to fold on this one soon. According to this story in auctionbytes.com, ebay won’t allow its users to use Google’s new pay system Google Checkout.

Well of course not, since Google Checkout seems pretty well aimed at ebay’s Paypal. But here is a clear example of where business strategy conflicts with internet culture and values. We are still in a time where openness will win the day almost every time in my view. So ebay is between a rock and a hard place and something is going to get squeezed.

What will be interesting to me is to see how they try to defend this position and the impact it will have on their reputation.

Proactive or reactive–is this the toughest question?

I’m involved in helping manage a crisis right now, that like many others, highlights the question of being proactive or reactive. In this case it involved making a business decision that would be received very negatively by the community where the business is located. Knowing that there would those who felt strongly about the issue and would perhaps even take actions to harm the company, I recommended and the client agreed to conduct a proactive communication effort. When the word went out to the community through the press about the decision the company made, the reaction was much greater than anticipated. We provided a feedback mechanism on the company website which allowed people to express their opinion or vent. And vent some of them did! There were a number of positive and supportive comments but a larger number of negative and some of the negative ones were threatening, ugly, and disturbing.

I’ve now talked to some in the community who say letting the whole community know about this through the newspaper was a bad idea. Many would not have known and we brought it to their attention.

A crisis communications counselor never wants to elevate a situation or create a controversy where none exists. It is one of the hardest decisions to make is to bring something to someones attention when you know they are not going to like it. Maybe, you think, you can just quietly go about your business and only a few will notice and not make a stink about it.

I continue to believe the client did the right thing. It is based on the principle first of all that if you have some bad news, it is best coming from you than from someone else. If you think your issue will be discussed in a negative light by many people who may not understand all the circumstances, it is best to bring it forward. If you think it will erupt into a serious issue and that you will likely have to explain yourself when it does, then talk about it first because when you respond after it erupts opinions have been formed, misinformation may be rampant, and you will almost always look defensive.

In this case we had genuine reason to feel that the passions of some of those who took an extreme position could prove damaging to the company. If anything, we underestimated some of those passions and the length to which people will go when they think they are right. It was right to be proactive. But it also right to keep asking the question.

The meat industry and Eric Schlosser get bloody

For those interested in reputation wars and the new battlefronts of such wars, looking at the war between Eric Schlosser and the meat industry is very interesting and instructive. Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, a very popular and highly critical book about how we produce and sell food and how we consume it. Now he is the co-author of a children’s book called Chew On This, published by Houghton Mifflin.

Now I have not read either Schlosser book so I won’t comment on whether he is right or wrong, factual or not. But it is clear that the 18 associations representing most in the meat and restaurant industries don’t think too much of what he has to say. They are obviously concerned about his impact on children which seems to have prompted much of their counter-propaganda efforts. They have launched www.bestfoodnation.com as a coordinated means of dealing with the “misinformation” they believe is being promoted.

I read the site and like the straightahead approach to what the critics say. I think they could have done a much better job in many of their answers and they lose some credibility by not expressing some recognition of validity for some criticism. It looks like they think everybody in the industry has only done perfectly right in all circumstances.

But what I find particularly interesting is Houghton Mifflin’s response to this “public relations attack.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. The company through its VP says that the industry (or rather its PR advisers) are launching personal attacks against the message and the messenger. But I didn’t see any of that, except in the publisher’s broadside. They do exactly what they accuse the industry of doing. It is a diatribe of name calling, guilt by association and politicizing that does nothing helpful in a very important debate.

What I find especially curious and interesting is their interest in politicizing this. Clearly the publisher wants to make this a red vs. blue issue. Why does everything need to be politicized, partisanized and polarized?

My advice:

To the meat industry–you are showing you are out of touch with the changing values of consumers here. Show that you recognize that not all that has been done in the name of making a safe, affordable food supply has always been right or doesn’t need re-evaluating. Don’t just defend. Give some credence to your critics–it is through them that the industry can improve.

To the defenders of Schlosser– don’t be so ridiculously defensive. Your hero is apparently making strong accusations and goring a few sacred cows. Don’t be so surprised and stunned that someone would want to defend themselves. Stick to the issues about the important topic at hand. Do as you say your opponents should do, and don’t do what you seem to be falsely accusing your opponents of doing. And stop politicizing, for goodness sake. Don’t you think Republicans read books too?

A sidenote–Wikipedia continues to damage its credibility by overt bias as well. They join in the Houghton Mifflin pity-party by complaining about the public relations “attack” contained in bestfoodnation. Sorry guys. Didn’t know it was against the new rules of the blog world to attempt to defend yourself and try to set the record straight. Apparently it is.

Utility Communicators

Just returned from speaking at the Utility Communicators International conference held in San Francisco. I’d heard of the old Mark Twain quote before, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” but I never knew what it meant. While it was in the 80s back home in Bellingham we just about froze in Fog City.

Interacting with some of the professional communicators at this conference brought home some of the key issues that are continually being raised here. There was incredulity about the idea of corporate blogging, and only about 1/4 had heard of wikipedia. More surprising to me was the fact that almost no one had any familiarity with the Incident Command System and its communication element, the Joint Information Center. More about that in future posts, but it is my strong opinion that everyone in crisis management and communication needs to have strong familiarity with these–and particularly if there is any chance of having to work with any local or state first responder agency such as police, fire or emergency response. Everyone will be playing a game and you will be asked to play, but you won’t have a clue as to what the rules are. That sucks.

We had a good discussion at lunch about blogging and the role of the internet in crisis management. I am more and more convinced as I talk to communicators out there that the coming culture conflict between audiences and communicators will be more challenging and disruptive than anything we can imagine. Corporate speak doesn’t work in a time of when authenticity is prized above all. But I like the question of one gentleman sitting at the front: “Did corporate speak ever work?”