Reputation Thinkpieces

Would a crisis by any other name make you click?

Being someone who supports organisations in terms of their respective reputations, I’m acutely aware that I have a rather slavish relationship with crises. To clarify, it’s in my professional interest to keep abreast of business mishaps, cynical misdeeds and product failings the world over. I gauge the context and privately evaluate the response. I tell you this as I feel I’m moderately qualified to say that crisis is getting too big.

That last point needs some explanation. Crisis, as a concept, has grown exponentially in recent years. For a simple illustration, check out the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which shows use of the term has virtually doubled since the end of the Second World War. The irony that crisis was less talked during the turbulence of D-Day and the Third Reich than it is today, can’t be lost on us.

To be clear, crises sadly happen, but not at the rate at which the crisis circus – namely the media, insurance firms and some aspects of the public relations industry would let us believe. Crisis has been industrialised as it can be inordinately profitable for those who purport to have the credentials to help. Crisis – as is the case with terrorism – is increasingly being applied with indiscriminate flair to a range of events and situations. In recent weeks, we’ve had the media refer to the crisis in Syria, the crisis afflicting German football, the Thai cave crisis and crisis talks in regards to the NEG – that’s the National Energy Guarantee to the unitiated. My concerns with the broad-brush approach primarily relates to the inherent associations with the word, crisis. Our understanding of the world is shaped by the way the world is labelled. We perceive crisis to be big, calamitous events, and subsequently, we expect big repercussions if they are not managed effectively, such as the loss of senior people and a plummeting share price. It’s a short step indeed from ‘crisis’ to that other favourite media omen, ‘embattled’. Crises call for accountability. The English language is fantastically accommodating in its breadth, and to that end, to read about the Thai Cave Accident, or the Plight of the Thai Cave Boys would have been as accurate a reading of the situation as we had, but I guess they’re not as exciting, nor are they as exacting in their demands if things go wrong.

This article first appeared on the Mumbrella website

Orthodox thinking will be the death of agency

The prophetic George Orwell once wrote that “at any given moment, there is an orthodoxy – a body of ideas – which it is assumed all right-thinking people will accept without question and a genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing”.  Orwell’s sentiments, have, sadly, never been as resonant as they are today.

We live in an age when it is becoming increasingly difficult to have a nuanced conversation about a seemingly growing number of non-sensitive issues, whether it’s same-sex marriage, immigration, Islam, or Israel. Clearly, there are others – the list is not exhaustive – but the substantive point is the corrosive effect that this new norm has on our relationships and our future welfare.

To move from the conceptual, the idea of not being able to fully debate an issue is particularly problematic for creative work spaces, especially agency-side, whose point of differentiation is the imaginative value of their work to the client. We need to give voice to all of the feelings provoked by such issues during the creative process if we’re to achieve great work. A campaign’s objective is to persuade its target audience; that audience doesn’t think homogenously, so nor should we.

I would go as far as saying that our creative leaders – whether it be advertising, PR, or marketing – are obliged to push these boundaries, and not revel in the harmless and the anodyne. Pushing those boundaries undoubtedly takes courage, but it’s vitally important that we try as conservatism is a deadening force in creativity. Clients are increasingly risk averse, but creative leaders cannot allow that to influence their creative process. Political and economic disruption in recent years has shrunk the creative space; it can’t afford to get any smaller.  

Leaders cannot do this alone, but their freethinking will prove to be the catalyst for others to join them in looking to achieve better work. Ultimately, it’s critical that the dissenters and the heretics are embraced by business for a brand to stand any chance of succeeding. It is only with these people on board do we achieve a fuller understanding of the issue (and views) at hand, and only then can teams produce an honest depiction of such matters.

It has to be said, that I don’t look to undermine the real feelings that some people may have about such issues, but to acknowledge the need to legitimise all aspects of the debate irrespective of its flavour. So, I’ve done the easy bit of identifying the potential problem – what about the solution? The idea of having a richer creative business means we need to assess how our corporate cultures can be loosened; whether that’s in the shape of recruitment or our brainstorming sessions. For instance, we need to recognise the benefits of appointing those who don’t quite think and sound like us in terms of personal viewpoints; I would also urge us to rethink the notion of collective problem solving as the reluctance to voice ideas among team members is a lot more widespread in such situations.

The heretical ones need to be welcomed and orthodoxy has to be challenged. The dissenter can, ironically, bring us closer together as team members; they can also open our eyes to those threats that have yet to emerge and the opportunities that we cannot see.

This article first appeared in Mumbrella

The London acid attacks - are Muslims involved?

It was reported late last week that a couple of miserable bastards have carried out a number of acid attacks across east London. It’s believed that the majority of those targeted are food delivery drivers; that much I learnt from the Daily Mail’s UK edition. What I didn’t learn from the Mail, The Guardian, or the broadminded Independent was whether this was an attack motivated by racial, or religious hatred. The ‘M’ word – Muslim – was almost conspicuous by its absence, especially considering the recency of another attack on cousins Resham Khan and Jameel Muhktar – yes, you guessed it, Muslims.

To raise this argument without appropriate context would appear loaded, but I bring it up in view of the Sydney Morning Herald’s report of the same incident, which you can read here. To quote, reporter Henrietta Cook, “the incidents follow a spate of recent acid attacks in east London, which have left some Muslim residents fearful about leaving their homes amid speculation that they [the attacks] may have been motivated by racial, or religious hatred”. Now, either Henrietta knows more than her UK counterparts, or they are having to be far more circumspect in light of the sensitivities and the proximity of the attacks. I suspect it’s the latter. The facts need to be fully checked before you run the risk of ensuing panic in certain communities.

However, in view of the fact that the police officially treated the attack on Khan and Muhktar as a ‘hate crime’ and the importance of the public service remit of the media to keep publics fully informed, particularly when there’s a threat to human health, it would appear fully justified to include this aspect of the narrative. I will follow future coverage closely.


What does TV impartiality look like in the age of Trump?

National broadcasters, such as the ABC and the BBC have a statutory duty to ensure that the information they share is suitably impartial. Fundamentally, the networks need to demonstrate a diversity of perspectives from a diversity of sources on a range of subject matter. This is not the same as balance; minority views, for instance should not be given equal prominence to the prevailing consensus. It’s what the BBC refer to as “due weight” – you can read their guidelines here.

So, how much weight do the broadcasters afford to the views of Donald Trump? His Chinese hoax theory in regards to climate change has been well documented – and stands in stark contrast to the scientific consensus, but he is the President of the United States. It’s a relatively easy one for the broadcasters to bat away, despite the President’s status – it’s not a position that’s widely supported (despite the tweet’s 66,000 ‘likes’) and Mr Trump has a track-record for outlandish commentary. However, despite its left field origins, the comment is clever. Why? Well it leads any curious journalist to question what exactly the Chinese are doing in regards to global warming. It’s a great example of framing an issue; there may not be a hoax, but it does put the proverbial tennis ball back in the Chinese court.

Moreover, Mr Trump’s appointment also puts the national broadcasters in an uneasy position in view of the bashing they invariably receive for their perceived left-wing tendencies – here’s a 2016 piece from the Herald. The dilemma lies in the key role that’s expected of any discerning media operator, which is to rigorously interrogate the workings of those in power, including the President of the United States. If they do what’s expected of them, the likes of the ABC and the BBC face continued charges of one-sided journalism and the loss of objectivity (which gives further leverage to the free marketeers). Yet, if they pull their punches, they stand supportive of a regime’s policies, however outrageous the facts. So, what will it be?  The question, of course, brings us back to diversity – the need for a diversity of views from a range of people. As the impact of the silent majority begins to take shape, the trick to be achieved here is getting them to speak in the first place.

The NAB Sydney move needs to be the start of something bigger.

National Australia Bank (NAB) – one of the country’s big four financial institutions – is moving its Sydney headquarters. The new home will offer staff the latest in “state-of-the-art offices” – you can read more here.

I bring this up as the bank has had its fair share of reputational woes in recent years; primarily providing customers with what’s been ruled as bad financial planning advice; in fairness, they are not alone here, with the same charges leveled at the Commonwealth Bank (CBA), ANZ and Westpac.

So, it begs the question did the bank – NAB – make its move to address its difficulties? The bank’s problems signal a need to examine the organisation’s culture; the CEO, Andrew Thorburn has, rightly, said as much, commenting that it would take 5-10 years to get “true integrity and consistency”.

Moving office presents businesses the opportunity to change, or reinforce the dominant culture. Smart companies get this; there’s enough smart people at NAB to identify the prospects that’s been afforded by the change, I’m sure.

Management guru, Edgar Schein came up with the idea of ‘cultural artifacts’ which are the tangible manifestations of corporate culture, such as buildings, uniforms and logos. So, in simple terms, the NAB state-of-the-art offices need only be state-of-the-art if the behavioural values sought by the bank, dictate that it be so – an open office arrangement would suggest an open culture, for instance.

However, it has to go further than that; a new building needs to mark the start of a process, not its culmination. The NAB move needs to be the catalyst to evaluate all aspects of the business – from recruitment, to employee benefits. If the process is limited to the seating arrangements, then the bank has already lost.



American Greats?

I appreciate that the blog’s usual preserve centres on the finer points of corporate reputation, but in light of THAT result, I hope you can indulge me this one time.

Amidst the recurring US bashing and to assuage my personal sense of upheaval on news of the 45th American President, here’s the reminder to self that it is a place of greatness and no doubt, will continue to be. Here’s my download of those Americans who ripped up the rulebook and did it their way. In no particular order, and yes, there should be more women, and yes there should be more African Americans, and certainly more Hispanics, but it was borne of instinct. America, we salute you.

1 Johnny Cash

2 F Scott Fitzgerald

3 Christopher Walken

4 Philip Roth

5 Daniel Kahneman

6 Iggy Pop

7 Gillian Anderson

8 Scooby Doo (All of them)

9 Francis Coppola

10 Norman Mailer

11 Muhammad Ali

12 Deborah Harry

13 Albert Einstein

14 Jack Nicklaus

15 Robert Frost

16 Jack White

17 Jack Cole

18 Thomas Edison

19 Ella Fitzgerald

20. David Lynch

21 Dwight D Eisenhower

22 Benicio del Toro  

23 Dian Fossey

24 Harry Callahan

25 Marvin Gaye

26 Isadora Duncan

27 Harper Lee

28 Jesse Owens

29 Neil Armstrong

30 Andrew Carnegie

31 Bill Gates

32 George Washington

33 Michael Jordan

34 Jackson Pollock

35 Walt Disney

36 Henry Ford

37. Martin Luther King

38 Rosa Parks

39 Charlie Parker

40 Edward Murrow

41 Ernest Hemingway

42 Pocahontas

43 Amelia Earhart

44 Abraham Lincoln

45 Sylvia Plath 

Etihad's 5 Star U-Turn

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways took occupancy of the back page of The Australian’s Business Review last Friday to tell the paper’s readers that it’s “official – our service now comes with 5 stars”. A resplendent air hostess stands beaming under a quote from the Skytrax Audit Report, which describes how the airline’s premium rating is a “testament to innovation, high-quality service and comfort”.

Skytrax, for those who demonstrate a healthy disinterest in such aviation ranking exercises, is a UK-based consultancy, which runs reviews of commercial airlines and airports. You can read more about them here.

So, what’s the story? Well, Etihad didn’t used to be so enamoured with the Skytrax ratings; oh, no. They were the constant recipients of four Skytrax stars – even after new cabin products had been introduced – but alas, that fifth star remained out of reach. So much was the irritation at Etihad,   that the carrier announced its withdrawal from Skytrax, including its Audit and Awards, in 2014. As Skytrax pointed out at the time, the airline cannot opt to withdraw, as results are decided directly by customers, which is clearly Etihad’s good fortune as they crow with delight at finally achieving equal status with the likes of Garuda Indonesia and Hainan Airlines.

The Etihad situation does beg the question, how much is an award worth to its winners? That is a question that’s clearly open to interpretation – does Bob Dylan’s Polar Music Prize win carry as much value for the performer, as his recent Nobel Prize success? We can hazard a guess.

It is, though, a question that needs to be asked from a corporate perspective in view of the amount of energy that’s being expended in merely submitting the award entry, together with the growing sense of fatigue that surrounds some of those lesser accolades.

I won’t, however, let cynicism completely cloud my judgement, as I believe that awards to be a good thing from a number of perspectives. Firstly, they offer a vital benchmark for any organisation; a measure of collective progress. Then there’s the inherent recognition of the people involved, and of course, the brand awareness that comes with such plaudits. Lastly, the incentivising quality of such prizes to set even higher standards for the business, shouldn’t be overlooked – according to some, there’s a gulf between four and five stars, just ask Etihad.








Can hacking be good for us?

Dropbox – the cloud storage supplier – has been hacked. To be more precise, it’s just been reported that up to 68 million usernames and passwords were stolen back in 2012. Now, that’s a statement which probably bemuses the reader on two points; firstly, the scale of the breach, and secondly, the speed of the news – that’s 4 years ago. In fairness, the company made it known that they had been compromised in 2012, but the size of the incident had apparently been underestimated.

It’s said that Dropbox was completely unaware of the full extent of the attack, which leaves me in a flux – exasperated by their state of oblivion, while being gently encouraged by the fact that nothing has changed. As a Dropbox user (Darn, have I compromised myself?), I read the story with an air of resignation in light of the increasing regularity of such breaches – not just at Dropbox, I hasten to add. However, there lies the nub of the issue – my lethargic response, which is no doubt shared by others, is indicative of the consumer mindset that these attacks are a corporate problem and subsequently need corporate solutions. Not so, as corporate stakeholders we are all part of the problem and the solution. Specifically, the public’s attitude towards passwords is casual at best, with our encryption bordering on an ‘open door’ policy – Pass 1234 anyone?

Hack fatigue would appear to be setting in among the public, leaving them perilously indifferent to the issue. So what to do? In entering the spirit of Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, maybe we need the castle defences to be brought down occasionally to best appreciate our enemy's strengths, and give priority to investing in bigger and better walls. Only when we have a full grasp of the impact, will we recognise the threat.

A Soldier's Guide to Managing Uncertain Times

Firstly, let me apologise for not being strong enough to withstand the pull of the Brexit black hole. It was out there and reams have been written and will continue to be written, but not by me I said. Well, that was my position, but I have succumbed.

However, if any respite can be offered, this is no place for the micro, or macro-economic, or further speculation about Scottish independence. No, in what sounds like an Absurdist argument, I’ll try to flesh out the challenges of organisational uncertainty.

What with the disruptive nature of technology, the lingering legacy of the GFC and the widespread rejection of mainstream party politics, It’s been said (by far too many) that we live in uncertain times, and now the UK’s decision to leave the European Union has exacerbated the sense of limbo being felt by corporates and consumers.

So, how best for corporate leaders to manage this ‘fog of war’? Fittingly, I believe military thinking to be an invaluable starting point. To expand, former CIA Director and General, David Petraeus once spoke of his frustrations of live fire arms exercises within the US Army, which were too “carefully scripted” and resultantly lost any spontaneity – you can read more here. I hasten to add that I don’t endorse executive team shoot-outs, but I believe there’s much to be learnt from an unannounced simulation exercise for team members. Clearly, such sessions are carefully choreographed and planned behind-the-scenes, but participants should very much feel ‘down in the deep end’. In extending another of Petraeus’ thoughts, it’s also vital that these exercises are now far more inclusive of more middling and junior ranked employees. To Petraeus’ words, the “decision making needs to be pushed outwards and downwards, towards where new information is originating.” Those more junior members of the team have, for instance, for more affinity with the subversive nature of technology; they know what it can do and have less in the way of reverence for those institutions that stand to lose, or gain from its application.

The military factor should also be explored by way of the war game - a cornerstone of combat strategy for the past 200 years. In contrast to the conventional simulation, the exercise is far more adversarial in nature, with your executive decision makers lining up against a team of competitive adversaries in terms of a given scenario, where every action is met by a reaction. Again, this is about leaders having to take the initiative and manage uncertainty actively.

By our very nature, we as rational animals, look to make decisions based on information; we put off difficult choices by requesting more information, and in an age of big data, there’s no shortage of content to turn to. However, there lies the potential for even greater paralysis and the overriding paradox of the Information Age. The statistics are useful, but let’s not lose sight of the need for strong instinctive leadership. 

Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder Blues

Johnson & Johnson’s widely praised response to a product tampering crisis in the early Eighties has been long held-up as the pinnacle in effective reputation management. You can read a lot more here.

I mention the business as they are back in the news last week; The Australian’s ‘J&J hit with $170 million damages in talc cancer cases’ headline captures the situation rather bluntly. To summarize, separate juries in the United States awarded two women a total $127 million (USD) in damages as the company’s iconic baby powder was deemed to have been to blame for the plaintiffs developing ovarian cancer.

The story throws up a number of intriguing points; firstly, the legal system’s effect on the notion of truth. Absoluteness in terms of the facts is becoming a lot harder to attain when subjected to the vagaries of a court process; for instance, two courts found for the women, while a third (in 2013) decided the firm was negligent, but didn’t award damages. However, all of this stands in contrast to the company’s “thirty years of medical expertise” which supports the powder. Secondly, there’s the question of who best to rebuild trust in the product among consumers? Typically, this sort of assurance would be offered by appropriate health professionals; generally, doctors. For many, though, such figures are seen as a little too close to industry; part of the problem, as opposed to the solution, possibly. So, would this fall more comfortably within the realm of celebrity endorsement – a discerning mother figure seen elbow-deep in the white stuff? You get the gist. Lastly, the case highlights the importance of external agencies to support organisations over the long-term with such issues. Specifically, it is alleged that Johnson & Johnson “was concerned about the association between talcum powder and ovarian cancer…since the Seventies”. If that was the case (and it’s a big ‘if’), it’s vital to have a agency in place to manage the issue – the matter can be transplanted to a suitable host to carry out all the required pre-crisis preparedness that’s critical for these occasions. Such work can’t be done with any great satisfaction inside the business due to the inherent politics, and the sensitivity of the matter invariably gets in the way of having a full-blown planning strategy – the ‘hush hush’ effect is not good for engendering trust within an organisation, so why not have the matter managed and nursed off site?