How do we judge qualifications for the presidency?

A couple of comments on my last post about the political campaign reminded me of another comment I wanted to make about the race and what it might mean for communicators. As one pointed out, neither McCain nor Obama have run any public agency–also not sure what H Clinton has run either–I suppose running the White House might count. How do we judge qualifications for the highest office in the land and possibly the highest office in the world?

Obama’s popularity certainly suggests that his lack of indepth experience in government is not a hindrance to those who are supporting him. We judged Bush in part, as I recall anyway, based on his track record of running a professional baseball team as well as Governor of Texas where he established a reputation as a uniter and not divider. We might say, so much for track records.

The truth it seems to me is that we run our candidates through one of the most rigorous and challenging gauntlets of leadership capability as part of the process of deciding. It is called the campaign. A campaign has almost all the key tests inherent in it to help us determine leadership. First, how do they communicate? Can they avoid the gaffes and miscues that have buried countless candidates before? Can their spouses avoid them as well? Second, who do they choose as their key managers and how effective are those in managing and leadership? This is critical because one of the biggest jobs of the office is putting the right people “on the bus” to use Jim Collins’ phrase. Then, how does the candidate work the team he or she has assembled? Are they cohesive, while still allowing for rigorous debate that results in proper direction? Are they nimble–do they respond quickly and appropriately to the unexpected. Are they disciplined in terms of containing the dirty tricks that inevitably arise from lower levels in the campaign. Do they demonstrate the values that are core to the candidate and are inline with core values of the electorate?

We have been fooled before by effective campaigns (witness Jimmy Carter) but we have also been fooled before by experience and a track record that has not translated well into this office with its unique challenges and pitfalls. But, I submit, it is the campaign and how it is waged more than anything that is the test of leadership that we submit our candidates to. In this regard as well, Senator Obama has done exceptionally well (in my opinion). We must remember too that the real success of the presidency is largely related to how they deal with the realities of this instant news/infotainment world. The media is capable of and willing to engage in spin to an outrageous degree–and in my view anyway, Obama has benefited from the kindly response of the mainstream media–so far. Because what they like to build up they also enjoy tearing down. So the story is not told there–but the campaign is still perhaps the greatest test of how they will deal with the ups and downs of media engagement if they are elected.

Relating this to the corporate world, I take a couple of lessons. I have just hired three new key leaders for our company. Yes, their track records mattered a lot. But the process of working with them in the selection process is also critical–in some cases maybe more critical than the track record. An organizational leader who will assume responsibility for a major crisis, or assume spokesperson responsibility for a major crisis needs to be submitted to some form of “campaign” process. A well planned and executed drill is perhaps the best example. Media training that simulates a variety of circumstances and effectively simulates the stresses and strains of real engagement is also critically important. And, following on from my last post, the judgment coming out of that cannot simply focus on what that person says and how he positions the information. It has to be as much related to what the gut reaction of the audience to that person is. Is he/she likeable, perceived as honest and trustworthy, and do his/her values as reflected in word, gesture and action authentically communicate the values of the organization.

Fighters and Frat Boys–lessons learned from the electorate

Maybe it is that I am on vacation and the sun of Mission Bay has gotten to my head. But I am going to risk going into the dangerous waters of commenting on this election season. I do it not from a political perspective but from the point of view of what today’s communicators can and should learn from observing the most interesting examples of crisis management at work today–that of a political campaign.

Last night I watched the Ohio debates. My family always laughs at me because I could never really enjoy an episode of Seinfeld–George Costanza just made me too uncomfortable. Larry David’s comic genius is found primarily in pushing the extremes of uncomfortable embarrassment–in Seinfeld and then on his own HBO show. George was Larry’s favorite weapon in this comic assault. Watching the debate, and Senator Clinton in particular, reminded me of how I felt watching George in his most outrageous antics. Shouting down Brian Williams, complaining about always being asked the first question, smiling with a venomously benign smile while her tirade against Obama’s tactics were replayed in front of her. Insisting that she be allowed to continue despite the need for a commercial break. I cringed in agony. The big question going into the debate was which candidate would show up to speak for Hillary Clinton–the gracious, sometimes vulnerable “nice” candidate? Or the vicious and mean fighter. In two minutes, we knew the answer. But the fact that the question was there at all–let alone the lead question–is why the race for the Democratic nominee has been all but settled.

The strange thing is this. Democrats and perhaps the majority of Americans like her positions–they agree with her. Not only that, they perceive she is one of the most highly qualified candidates for this office to come along in a long time–in part because of her “co-presidency.” She is strong, determined, well organized, and has stood on the brink of history opening new ground for women. But she failed–and she failed in such a basic simple way that it should be a primary lesson for all in communications.

Before explaining further what I mean, let’s talk about President Bush. History will be the final judge, of course, but journalism and public opinion–the first drafts of history–have determined his a failed presidency. This is more than Iraq. As I have written before, even his friends had difficulty at times with the persona. Even those who saw in him a good man, a decent man, an honest man trying to do his best in difficult circumstances, had George Constanza reactions some times to his embarrassing communication style. I’m not just talking about the English language gaffes–the strategery and all–I’m talking about coming across as the eternal frat boy jokester who looks at life as if it is one big party and he is the self appointed “life” of it all. History will judge by actions and consequences of actions. But we who watch the news clips and the speeches–we react to the shoulder hunched naughty chuckling, the uncomfortable joking around in sober circumstances, the personality that plays incredibly well in a small group and bombs in the big moments.

The problem is this: George Bush is George Bush and Hillary Clinton is Hillary Clinton. As much as campaign handlers may wish to manipulate and comb and prepare them and try to make them something else, they are who they are. And the truth is–we don’t want a person with Hillary’s unlikeability as our leader.  We don’t want someone with George W’s apparent playfulness as our leader either.

Am I saying that choosing the person who will set the path for us for the next few years, and the leader of the free world comes down to likeability? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Of course, there are complicating factors–but essentially personality, style, communication ability, and who we judge that person to truly be is what matters most. We are electing not just an executive–we are electing our spokesperson, our face to the world. We want that face to represent us in a way we are most comfortable with.

The lesson for communicators is clear. Substance matters in crisis. Certainly it does. What you accept responsibility for, what promises you make, what actions you take–all this matters. But in this age of transparency, of personality, of celebrity, of image plus authenticity, the who matters as much or more than the what. It is what good old Aristotle said a long time ago: ethos is the most powerful persuader. We are seeing in this election season a battle over ethos. That means a sober assessment must be made as to who will represent the company or organization when all the cameras are turned on. How does that person come across? Even more important–does that person in his or her whole nature represent the values and character of the organization? Because that is how the ethos of the organization will be judged, through the very personality and character of the face and person they see.

NIU tragedy, Roger Clemens, Blackberry and New York Times cuts newsroom staff

There is a lot going on for a crisis blogger to write about. Being on the road (Pasadena, CA this time) makes it hard to keep up. The NIU tragedy is depressing and horrifying–in part because it seems that these situations may accelerate. There will be much handwringing about what to do to prevent it from happening again. I hate to see our nation and campuses become impregnable fortresses in efforts to maintain safety.

One impact of the NIU incident is to push Roger Clemens, Brian McNamee and Henry Waxman off the front page. Of the three, I can only imagine Mr. Waxman being upset about it. Frankly, I’m appalled that the business of Congress is tied up in trying to determine which of these two is lying. There can be only one justification for creating this circus–and that is Chairman Waxman knew that it would generate celebrity news coverage and given Mr. Clemens’ bulldog personality, it was sure to create fuel for the media fires. He was right–but shame on him. What is the national interest here? Is it really up to Congress to keep our national pastime clean? And what is with the ridiculously partisan questioning. Why would Republicans line up on one side and Democrats on the other? If anyone wonders why Congress’s approval ratings are even lower than the President’s, Mr. Waxman’s antics and many others of his ilk are likely culprits.

I blogged earlier about Mr. Clemens’ effort to protect his reputation. He is taking the kind of aggressive, in your face defense that has been promoted by Eric Dezenhall, which is (mostly) appropriate if and only if he is absolutely as clean as he adamantly professes to be. There is no room for shades here–he has left no room. My concern expressed earlier was that if he is not as clean as he so vehemently states, then his reputation will be damaged as much or more by his bald-faced lying than by his use of illegal substances. The jury is still out–sort of. But what I have been reading is that both McNamee and Clemens have come out of this bloodied but Clemens the most. It does come down to credibility and credibility is what reputation is all about–and Clemens’ credibility went down in many minds after the testimony. The story is not finished, but the end looks increasingly predictable.

Back to NIU. I was somewhat surprised by the focus of the stories on how well NIU communicated. Not surprising on the one hand since the story out of  Virginia Tech was primarily about failings to respond quickly and communicate well. USA Today had a detailed timeline of when the event happened, when the website had information about it, when text messages were sent, when the public address system was used, emails, voice mails, etc. According to the report, all these occurred at 3:20 p.m. Thirteen minutes after the shootings occurred. One student in the article reported getting an email at 3:41. All of this is quite remarkable and may be a demonstration of just how much university leaders have learned from VT and how far they have come in meeting todays demands for speed, direct communication and transparency. Admittedly, the situation at NIU was quite different–no earlier attack, a short shooting spree, and then the shooter was dead. Still, it appears that NIU has demonstrated what can and needs to be done and set a standard for all universities facing similar circumstances.

One student being interviewed on tv last night commented that she just wanted to talk to her family but couldn’t get out–presumably with her cell phone. It will be interesting to dive deeper and see how many voice messages and text messages were received and how the common problem of immediate jamming up of the campus phone systems–even email systems–may have impacted message delivery.

Regarding the Research in Motion (Blackberry) outage crisis (or crises I should say given that this was one of several outages), I was interviewed by Michael Sebastian of Ragan Communications. I was probably a little harsh but felt it was quite ironic that one of the creators of the instant news world apparently has not been able to meet some of the challenges that they were a part of creating.

Finally, the New York Times job cuts.  Cutting 100 out of 1300+ newsrooms jobs may not seem like big news. But for those of us in reputation management and crisis communication it is big news. The icon of serious journalism is being seriously impacted by the huge shifts in the economics of news. I’ve commented here frequently on what that means. In short–increased desperation to keep audiences, more stretched news staffs, further shifts to online media. All these things have great and grave implications not just for the traditional media, but for those who need to work with them in building and protecting reputations. Add to this something I noticed on CNN’s website last night looking at the NIU coverage. They were aggressively asking survivors and people who were there to submit their accounts and photos and videos to CNN. In other words, they were enlisting the help of citizen journalists. It is the future, folks. While paid news staffs are declining, news agencies are aggressively looking to bolster their coverage of instant news by engaging the millions of amateur journalists and those who just happen to be there with a cellphone camera.

Steven Covey on Trust–must reading for communicators

Anyone who visits here frequently knows that trust is my favorite subject–and getting more favorite all the time. Trust in my mind ought to be the focus of all communicators and for that matter all CEOs.

Now I see that Steven Covey (noted author and son of Seven Habits fame author) has focused his insightful attention to the idea of trust and has a book out called “The Speed of Trust.” This one is definitely on my must read list and I hope it on yours too. Here, courtesy of Bulldog Reporter, is a preview of what this book is all about.

But the problem with talking about trust is that really, it is all very simple. At least to talk about. Go back to this blog (or read our company’s brochure ) or sit in on one of my presentations and you will see the same message over and over. Trust requires two thing: doing the right things and communicating about them well. What does Covey have to say? Here is a quote from the article linked: How can you show and establish a track record? The answer is to get the right things done, the right information out there.

Easy squeezy. Now, how do you do it? The question for the communicator is particularly challenging because he or she operating in a large organization does not necessarily control the actions of the organization when it comes to doing the right thing (or even key decisions about communicating about it.) This is both the key to gaining access to the executive suite and the necessity of it. Someone needs to constantly be asking the question in the organization: will this build trust? Will the action we are considering result in more trust or less trust? Are there facts, questions, concerns being kept hidden that if uncovered would seriously undermine our credibility and trust? Someone must be asking these questions. The person asking them must have the best interests of the organization at heart and must have a clear understanding of the consequences of actions taken–even those taken to build trust. But, given these things, if you find that you are asking the questions and you are being put in a category of trouble maker, or whistleblower, or curmudgeon, or not a team player, perhaps it is time to ask yourself the question if you are working in the right organization.

Maybe here is a simple way to start. Next time you are asked at a social gathering what you do for a living, answer: “I’m a trust builder.” See what the reaction is.

Social media and crisis communication–emerging trend

I’ve noticed some news stories lately about organizations using blog sites as crisis communications tools as well as other social media tools such as wikis. This is all very interesting and those who happen to be in London and interested in learning more should take advantage of this training session by Phillipe Borremans via Melcrum.

I learned about it via Chuck Wolf of Media Consultants who forwarded this link to conversationblog from Borremans, and this post has some links to examples of using social media tools.

Of course, from my perspective the use of social media tools for crisis communications was begun in 1999 with the development of PIER, the system I created and the company for which I serve as CEO. In many ways, this technology could be viewed as one of the earliest, if not the earliest 2.0 social media technologies. The very reason that Borremans’ recommends blogs (easy posting by non technical communications people) is one of the reasons why so many use PIER not just for crises, but for day to day communication. One of the really cool things about blogs and other social media tools is the high level of interaction–but PIER was created with the idea of push-pull-interactive communication all built into one platform, Using Surveys (quick easy survey forms), adding these to all posts, is one way of increasing the interactivity. The Inquiry Management function was designed way back then as a way of coordinating response to multiple comments and questions when a communicator or small team can be quickly overwhelmed–something blog sites which are designed for the lone blogger to manage–simply can’t do.

While we might reasonably make a claim to have pre-dated and pre-envisioned social media for crisis communications, nevertheless there is much we can and are learning from how these tools work. And what makes them such effective communication applications. I won’t get into announcing vapor ware here but stay tuned. If social media tools and their accessibility helps communicators understand both what is needed in today’s urgent communication world and how it can be done, then that is a great thing–including those of us who have been trying to carry that message for a long time.

Why some apologies work and some don't

Here is a terrific interview by Bulldog Reporter’s Brian Pittman with Jennifer Thomas, and author and expert on apologies. I strongly recommend that everyone in crisis communication read this interview (and probably the book too).

The simple reason is that recovery from a crisis where you, the leaders or the organization has messed up is largely based on a quick, full and complete apology. This article makes it crystal clear why some apologies are effective and some not. But I can tell you the secret in two words: complete and sincere. Sincerity, hedging, limiting, dodging while trying to issue and apology simply doesn’t work. It’s like saying to your wife, “I’m sorry I said those things to you, but…” The “but” will get you every time.

The one thing this excellent article doesn’t deal with that almost must considered in apologies is speed. In my experience as many apologies have gone wrong for being too slow as for being incomplete or insincere. That is why it is critical to gather your top executives, talk about the things that can wrong, and prepare to issue a full, complete and sincere apology right away. That means getting the lawyers involved and hassling through those issues NOW and not in the crazy minutes and hours after something has gone terribly wrong. Because as they say, Now is Too Late.

When good news is really, really bad news for reputations–ExxonMobil's profits

Usually when a company posts a great big honking profit it is pretty good news all the way around. Corporate profits are what get investors jazzed up and help the market. Helping the market go up is good news for most Americans–and for others around the world as the recent weakness once again demonstrates.

But it is not good news when an oil company does it–and particularly when all oil companies do it. It makes me shudder to think how the politicians will deal with this–and that was before I read Sen. Schumer’s sarcastic and totally populist remarks in this Bulldog report.

ExxonMobil is one of the most efficient, organized, impressively managed organizations in the world. The oil industry is without question the most scrutinized and investigated industry when it comes to compliance on all fronts–environmental, safety and anti-trust. There are continual investigations going on relating to price-fixing–and all come to the same conclusion. No evidence exists–(except for a few rare and largely inconsequential stupidities by lower level managers). Prices are set by the market. Oil prices are determined by supply and demand–supply is tight, demand is escalating.

But ExxonMobil does have some responsibility for the quagmire the oil industry is in being the least respected, least trusted of all industries. Even slightly worse than (gasp!) the media itself. It bears responsibility because as the giant in the industry it not only failed to lead in addressing the huge shortfall in public understanding of the industry, its benefits, its relatively modest ROI compared to other industries, etc., but it also stood in the way of the effort of other leaders to address this. Now it is not only ExxonMobil that is suffering from the most massive license to operate challenge, it is the entire industry. And if they don’t address it and address it fast, it is going to hurt all of us.

The loss of public confidence in an industry as important as this industry could be devastating. More oversight, more regulations, greatly increased cost of doing business, increased sending of our plants and facilities overseas, etc., etc. The strategic important to our country is immense, as is the economic impact of this wildly out of balance public perception.  The crisis was on us already–and then we get these profit reports.

What did I say about Microsoft and Google–Microsoft offers $44b for Yahoo

Yesterday I posted about Microsoft’s global reputation at the top of the heap in two of the latest corporate reputation surveys–Edelman and Cision. I commented that Microsoft’s stunning improvement, compared to their serious trashing about five years ago–had more to do with Google’s ascendance than anything else. I suggested that it was the technical literati who understood how serious the Google threat was and this threat rapidly removed the monopoly fears and hatred of the software giant’s power, which resulted in rapidly improved reputation scores. Now Microsoft is trying to buy Yahoo–perhaps the only serious (somewhat) challenger to Google’s hegemony over search and ad related search. Story in NYTimes.

So, what do you think of that? Do Microsoft and Yahoo together make an overwhelming force–so much that Google is now in trouble and that therefore the shift of reputation follows? I doubt it. And that in itself is a credit to Google’s incredible position which is partly related to the founder’s vision of “organizing the world’s information.”

What worries me about Microsoft (as a longtime shareholder I might add) is that the vision was crystal clear before. I even had Bill himself explain it to me on a flight (in coach) to San Jose in 1983. It was to bring the power of computing to the masses. How does the Yahoo purchase help accomplish this mission? Not real clear to me. In fact, if I look at who is accomplishing the Microsoft mission more than Microsoft I would have to say Apple. And with the iphone perhaps even more than with the Macs.