Ghosts in the machine and the Marriott hack

Last week brought another large-scale security hack. This time it was the hotelier, Marriott that was the subject of unwanted attention. More precisely, it was their recent acquisition, the Starwood group, which was targeted. The business operates a number of well-known brands, including W Hotels, Sheraton, Westin and Aloft. The size of the operation goes some way to rationalise the scale of the breach, which is reported to have impacted as many as 500 million Starwood customers. To put the numbers into context, that’s second only to the 2013 attack on Yahoo, which affected 3 billion users. A distant second place, I recognise, but even so, these are astronomical numbers.

I don’t bring this up in terms of the crisis response; in fact, the Marriott actions to date have been laudable, including the neat idea of giving those who have been affected, the opportunity to use a web monitoring tool for up to a year to gauge whether there is unauthorised use of their personal details.

No, from a crisis communications perspective, the real interest lies in what was happening ‘upstream’. What I mean is that the Starwood hack is four year old! Its defences were breached in 2014, which is two years prior to the Marriott acquisition. The Marriott systems, apparently, are not affected. My point being – as is invariably the case with crisis communications – is that this is a crisis preparedness issue.

In short, mergers and acquisitions have always had their challenges for the reputation specialist, whether they were cultural differences, the inevitable job losses, or market volatility. The Marriott case, however, is illustrative of the inherent sensitivities of corporate acquirement in the digital age; principally the fragility (or not) of the systems, security and associated employee behaviours that’s characteristic of the newly purchased asset. To be clear, I don’t point the finger at Starwood, but make the point to best demonstrate the changing nature of reputational risk, and more importantly, to highlight a need to involve communicators sooner rather than later if an intrinsic threat – however feint - exists. The process of due diligence is tightly marshalled, typically, due to the sensitivities of the circumstances, but it’s vital that a link is established between those who delve ‘under-the-bonnet’ in the first place, and those of us who are tasked with managing the brand and any innate frailties thereafter.

This piece 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

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.








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. 

Why not let the army handle the Sydney siege?

The coronial inquest into the 2014 Sydney siege at the Lindt Café, which led to the tragic death of two hostages heard how the Australian Army had contacted the NSW Police and offered their assistance to best resolve the situation. The offer was turned down to the apparent dismay of some within police ranks – you can read more here.

Clearly, the situation is a hugely difficult one involving high-pressure judgments, but in light of the fact that army commandos had actually carried out an exercise in the vicinity of the siege, only a month earlier and have far more experience of combat in close-quarters than their police counterparts, why didn’t the police cede control?

Well, there lies the clichéd $64 million question and as is usual with a drama of many moving parts, the reasons are undoubtedly, many. One unnamed ADF (Australian Defence Force) source talked of “police pride” getting in the way, which unsurprisingly won’t be substantiated by the police. What can’t be argued, however, is the way such an approach – had it been taken up – would have been perceived by the public. Quite simply, as laymen, we put the army on a higher footing in terms of brute force than we do the police, as they have the scale in weaponry to justify such a notion; greater firepower though means greater threats. It would be a brave political leader to order the troops on to the streets of Sydney when the country was not at war. The impact on such images around the world would seriously damage the tourist revenue stream.

Yet, if the aim of the inquest is to get to the truth and apply some painfully learnt lessons to ensure the future safety of Australian citizens, it’s only right that we explore the army option more fully. Firstly, are we not already at war? Malcolm Turnbull has talked recently of broadening the war against terrorists, while predecessor, Tony Abbott’s readily referenced the threats to national security posed by terrorism. If that’s the story, why not keep to it? Secondly, the Coalition Government is viewed by the public as the most trusted to handle national security, so why not go the full ‘nine yards’ and leave them with a reminder they’ll find hard to forget?

As the tourist operators and the politicians know, the answer is fear. We may be able to render greater control through the army, but their presence would be greatly unnerving to the public. Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion, which tends to stay in our memories for an inordinate amount of time, which is no accident. Daniel Kahneman in his fantastic, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ details the dominance of negative outcomes over positive ones in human psychology. As he says, “threats are privileged above opportunities, as they should be.” Fear is closely aligned to these threatening feelings. The respected Lowy Institute recently revealed that only 24% of Australians feel “very safe” – you may question the definition, but you get the gist; relatedly, the think tank also found the majority of respondents – 55% of Australians – believed the country’s participation in fighting ISIS only increased the risk of terrorism at home. As Kahneman also knows very well, statistics offer a far more accurate rendition of reality than the way we feel. The chances of us being the victims of terror groups are unbelievably slim; however, as political leaders know, our emotions get in the way and if the people are feeling scared, political change will undoubtedly follow. 

Trolley collectors of the world unite!

It’s a classic case of ‘David versus Goliath’ – in one corner, Coles – one of Australia’s biggest supermarket chains; in the other, the often overlooked men and women who collect their trolleys. You can read more here.

In summary, the giant was slain (okay, I’m going too far with the metaphor); in fact, the supermarket was penalised by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) for the “gross underpayment” of these workers. I chose that last word – ‘workers’ - carefully, as it goes to the heart of the matter. Essentially, the Coles defence rested on the idea that the trolley collectors were contractors and not direct employees. So, they could – in the words of the FWO’s Natalie James – “wipe [their] hands of the problem.” Not so; Ms James was unequivocal in her agency’s appetite to address big business’ exploitation of workers. Her words – “we will look up to the business at the top” – will leave corporate boardrooms with no doubt where the responsibility for such elaborate supply chains lie.

The episode is also a notable case of issue mismanagement; to clarify, issues are those situations which if left unattended have the potential to significantly affect a business – I would suggest that workers underpaid to the tune of six-figure sums is significant. In fairness, it has to be said that Coles has back-paid the workers in question and established a $500,000 fund for others who could also have been affected. 

However, the developments clearly illustrate the seemingly unrelated nature of issues – in that they are not related to us, so we don’t need to worry about them. This is an important point as it should challenge the commonly held mindset among senior teams that reputation management is exclusively about what we as a business do – our people, our products, our prices. Yet, the people who also carry out duties under our name as third parties are rashly overlooked. It’s a point that was writ large following the BP response to the blowout on the Transocean owned Deepwater Horizon and should have been enshrined across the collective executive, but it would appear that memories are short and to that end, reminders will continue to be painful. 

The London Whale Never Stood a Chance

The London Whale has spoken. More specifically, Bruno Iksil, the trader behind the wonderfully evocative nickname and the man at the centre of the JPMorgan Chase multibillion-dollar trading loss in 2012 has broken his silence about the whole affair - you can read more here.

In a comprehensive three page letter sent to the media, Mr Iksil sets out his side of the story and in doing so, points squarely to the door of his former employer as the engineers of the whole debacle. The trader writes that he was made a scapegoat for trades that were “initiated, approved, mandated and monitored” by senior management. JPMorgan Chase, have (at time of publication) made no comment, I hasten to add.

Mr Iksil goes on to say that the losses “were not the actions of one person acting in an unauthorised manner [and] for no good reason, I was singled out by the media.” Now, despite the losses, Mr Iksil is it’s assumed a very smart man to have made it to such rarefied heights in one of the biggest banks in the world. He clearly knows far more about banking than I do, but it’s apparent that he doesn’t know much about the media. Let me, pass Mr Iksil’s comments by you again – “for no good reason, I was singled out by the media”. Mr Iksil, you were always going to be singled out thanks to that nickname - the London Whale. It’s a label which, unsurprisingly, the trader resents and apparently borne of the size of the bank’s bets in corporate-debt markets. But that doesn’t matter; the media had their man. Trading is a complicated business, which leaves most audiences cold – you try explaining derivatives and credit-swap indexes over breakfast (or any other meal).

Quite simply, the media thrives on conflict, which results in victims, and with victims come villains. This is not to judge Mr Iksil, but to illustrate the point. The global financial crisis had shown that there was something rotten in the state of banking and to that end, those deemed culpable needed to be held up by the media.

The ‘London Whale’ hints at a corpulent, greedy culture which so resonates with the public when it comes to perceptions of the banking industry – the GFC’s Mr Creosote (see Monty Python), if you will. The name gave the media a face and personality (albeit wrong), which is a damn sight easier to engage with than corporate-bond defaults. So, you see Mr Iksil, singling you out may not have been fair, but it was always going to happen.


Framing Hillary Clinton

The results from the first US presidential nomination vote in Iowa were always going to be interesting, because it’s a largely entertaining group of runners who have made it to the starting line. Was the momentum built by Donald Trump going to continue, despite labelling the Iowans, “stupid” earlier in the campaign? What of freshman senator, Ted Cruz, and would the wheels of the Clinton juggernaut rock, or roll?

Now we know – a good night was had by Cruz, Marco Rubio and the veteran, Bernie Sanders, while it was a case of ‘could do better’ for the more prominent Trump and Clinton. Or was it? While, Trump’s underachievement is uncontested, other outcomes are far greyer when presented by the media. Specifically, how did Senator Clinton get on? In terms of the numbers, she shaded it from Sanders by .3 of a percentage point; that’s 49.9% versus 49.6%. She “struggled” according to the Australian Financial Review; she was “unnerved” in the Sydney Morning Herald and won on the “toss of a coin” in the UK’s Daily Telegraph.

However, the Clinton bandwagon knows politics to be a long and expensive game; crucially, it also knows the media very well and how it operates. More accurately, it knows how to frame the story. I allude to the concept of framing, which when applied to the media is primarily concerned with news outlets and how they give meaning to events is determined by the prominence they give to some aspects of the story over others. The Clinton clan is also acutely aware of the power of the image; ergo, pictures of a euphoric Hillary, Bill and Chelsea – this is the jubilation nation. Gone are the struggles and nerves; these are pictures that tell a different story – this is juggernaut unstoppable and these people are one thing, winners and we should all join in to feel the same way.

I’ve cited Gavin Esler’s ‘Lessons from the Top’ in this blog before and I do so again in relaying the story of television reporter Lesley Stahl, who looked to highlight Ronald Reagan’s “hypocrisy” in regards to public health schemes. Stahl used footage of Reagan visiting a nursing home to report the fact that the President opposed funding for such places. Following the broadcast, a White House aide called Stahl to say that they had “loved the piece”. Stahl had wondered if they had heard the piece correctly. The aide replied that they had heard every word, but that “nobody heard you”.  Fundamentally, the images of a doting Reagan with society’s marginalised far outshouted Stahl’s words. Hillary and the rest of the regiment know quite clearly that seeing is believing.


Death of a Spokesman?

Edelman has just published the latest findings from its ever-compelling Trust Barometer. The survey gauges public trust across a range of institutions, including governments, the media, NGOs and business. We always find it a great read and they generate a truck-load of coverage.

In keeping with the rest of agency-land, the ‘Employee Advocacy’ theme was writ large, and unsurprisingly, employees – that’s your ‘Ordinary Joes’ for want of a better form of words – were deemed incredibly trustworthy figures in regards to sharing company news. No real revelation here, in view of the fact that such people are unencumbered by the corporate baggage which thwarts more senior personnel from giving a relatively straightforward answer to a straightforward question. However, it’s a point that must not be overlooked, or denied by management teams; especially on noting that employees are the most trusted sources of information when it comes to “crisis handling”, “financial and operational performance” and “employee treatment”.  For far too many organisations, internal communications is a top-down process, which leaves the rank-and-file at best, indifferent and at worst, suspicious. As we’ve always counselled at CRP, employees need to be at the forefront of any organisational communications if management stand any chance of being heard.

What we found particularly interesting though was the plight of the official “media spokesperson”. To be precise, the company spokesman now ranks lower in terms of trust than ­all other stakeholders, including “activist consumers” and “academics” – essentially, the general public would trust outsiders more to give them accurate news about an organisation than the man, or woman on the inside who’s been tasked to tell them what’s happening. This, naturally, throws up some interesting questions – what, for instance, does that mean for media trainers, who pride themselves on developing polished corporate messengers? What of the individuals who are asked to play such roles – will they now think twice about the exposure to their own reputations? Do the findings signal the death knell of the official spokesperson? We find that unlikely, but what of the title – doesn’t the notion of spokesperson feel a little too regimented in the new, (flat) world order? As ever, we welcome your comments.