A Crisis Plan for Acorn

Here is what I would have told Acorn if it had asked me to handle the crisis involving two employees who were videotaped advising a fake pimp and prostitute how to defraud the government:

  1. Fire the people and immediately announce you have fired them because they are rogue employees.
  2. Demonstrate that the company has ethics and malfeasance policies that it enforces and communicates to employees on a regular basis.
  3. State that the organization is doing a full-scale investigation that will look into how policies can be improved to prevent a reoccurrence.
  4. Remind everyone with easy-to-understand facts how much Acorn helps people.
  5. Announce results of the investigation, which will likely reveal that these are isolated instances of rogue employees, and make sure you include at least three concrete steps the organization is taking to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  6. Consider rolling the head of an executive who takes the blame for poor oversight.

What I just described is the standard crisis communications strategy when a corporation steps into the deep stuff.  I have used these communications principles to help maybe 25 organizations to successfully overcome crises caused by malfeasance, stupidity, acts of nature, mistakes and bad luck.  My shorthand for this strategy is: fix it, tell why it happened and tell why it will never happen again.

Now it occurred to me that perhaps Acorn tried this strategy, but the news media did not let it succeed for ideological reasons.  And while it’s true that the conservative media has been after Acorn’s blood for some time now, my analysis of the news releases on the Acorn website suggests that Acorn efforts to “fix it, tell why it happened and tell why it will never happen again” have been too little, too late.

Of course, it doesn’t help the situation much when in responding to the announcement that the IRS was severing ties with the group, Acorn’s chief executive lets herself be quoted saying, “We had already made that decision to not deliver these services.”  Few things are more detrimental to an organization with a social or political mission than for it to characterize that mission as just another business product or service.

Goofus and Gallant at the G-20

A few more demonstrations took place at the G-20 conference in Pittsburgh after my post of September 25. Most significantly, there was a peaceful march from Oakland to downtown (where I saw it) and then to the Northside, organized by seven or so groups and drawing from 2,000 to 4,000 people.

The contrast in coverage both locally and nationally between this peaceful display and the September 24 protests, the ones without permit which eventually led to 110 arrests and a dozen or so broken windows, created its own kind of ideological statement. As soon as the peaceful demonstration started to unfold, every news-gathering operation spun a cautionary contrast, a kind of “Goofus and Gallant” moment: Bad demonstrators in the marches without permits; good demonstrators at the large permitted parade. Some reports actually did a point by point comparison of the good and bad behavior, just as writer Garry Cleveland Myers and illustrator would do with Goofus and Gallant in the old Highlights magazine. (I understand that this series, dedicated to teaching social cues to children, still runs, and has graduated from black and white to computer graphics.)

The fly in this ointment, of course, is the fact that the Goofusards of the Pittsburgh G-20 didn’t do that much damage, virtually all of which was caused by one guy, and that the police in fact did arrest a few too many people at the unpermitted protests. Which is not to say I applaud the damage—in fact, I have always been a “gallant” proponent of nonviolent, non-destructive protest.

Some uncatalogued final G-20 thoughts:

  • The people who broke the windows of local operations of national chains are as uneducated to the facts as those who want a “public health insurance option” to compete with commercial insurers. In the case of many of the people who want a public option because they hate the commercial insurers, they don’t realize that it will likely create more business for the commercial insurers, because the government will almost assuredly contract with the commercials to provide the administrative and claims processing services for the public option. In the case of the people breaking windows of local Wendy’s and McDonald’s locations, they don’t realize that the owners of the establishments are not multinational corporations, but franchisees who are typically small business owners.
  • As I said, for the most part law enforcement officials did a good job, but it was definitely not necessary to line Grant Street with muzzled, but vicious-looking police dogs every eight feet or so during the “good” downtown demonstration. It was also a mistake to deploy forces to patrol this demonstration in such a way that it led to a shutdown of all downtown bus service for a period of several hours.

G-20 Ideological Subtext in Pictures

The White House created a series of photo opportunities, each of which was meant to communicate a basic message of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, a classic example of ideological subtext being as important as the explicit message in words.  The use to which different media put these photo ops reflects each outlet’s view of what were the important outcomes of the meeting.

For example, the September 26 front page of the regional daily newspaper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, showed one formal pose of all the leaders and an informal pose of Michelle Obama with some of the wives of the leaders.  The ideological subtext came in the positioning of the people in both photos, taken by Post-Gazette photographers but in formal or semiformal photo op situations, so the photographers really had no choice but to take what the White House photo arrangers wanted the world to see:

  • Flanking President Obama were Brazil’s President Lulu and the Chinese President Hu Jintao. 
  • Flanking our first lady were the Brazilian and Indonesian first ladies, with Michelle turned to face Lady Indonesia.

These arrangements of leaders are never by chance: The administration wanted Brazil and the rising Asian economic powerhouses to be closest to Obama, because the G-20 is, after all, an economic, not a political body.  There can be no doubt that Brazil and China and to a lesser extent Indonesia (also the country with the largest Moslem population!) will see the most economic growth and will serve as the fastest-growing trading partners for the U.S. over the next 20-30 years.  Even the fact that China gets one flank whereas Brazil gets two sends a message.  I imagine if this photo were taken circa 1875 that in one, Disraeli would be flanked by President Grant and the Russian Czar; a German would replace the Czarina in the photo with Queen Victoria.

By contrast, the front page of the New York Times of the same day took the political low road, showing the photo of Obama, flanked by Sarkozy and Brown, accusing Iran of building a secret plant for the manufacture of nuclear fuel for weapons.  The ideological subtext of course was the united front of western military powers.  I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to predict that 20 years from now most people will agree that the ideological subtext of the local paper got it right, that the rise of Brazil and China is a more important story than the continuation of our spat with Iran.  BTW, the Times photo of President Obama with Hu was very small and on page A-9 of the national edition.

On the same day, Yahoo!, the popular search engine and portal, had a “front-page” photo of Michelle with Carla Bruni, the glamour girls looking a little conspiratorial, as if they’re dishing the dirt about Carla’s former boyfriends.  That photo links to a fashion slide show of all the first ladies in attendance. Let’s close by sadly noting that more people see Yahoo! than the Times and Post-Gazette put together. 

Locking Down a City

I think that we proved to the world today that Pittsburgh authorities know how to impose marshal law, at least when given four months notice.

Law enforcement officers from as far away as Chicago and Phoenix have certainly locked down downtown Pittsburgh these last two days.  Many streets are blockaded and groups of soldiers and police officers mill in groups in the street or by barriers. The only vehicles one can see are law enforcement trucks and vans.  We saw police parading down one street on stately horses, and even a K-9 car, K-9 meaning it contains a police dog.

Razor wire twists around the tops of certain fences on the outskirts of the downtown. Very few businesses are opened, and many storefronts are boarded up in fear of an imaginary horde of protestors.  Other than law enforcement, the streets are practically deserted, although there are small clusters of people who have come downtown to try to get a glimpse of G-20 activity, plus the employees of the few business such as Jampole Communications that decided not to be intimidated by the G-20 or the possibility of marchers.

I looked for but was unable to find any marches or rallies. There were demonstrations in Lawrenceville and elsewhere that I only saw on TV: a couple of police confrontations, around 70 arrests, a dozen or so windows broken, primarily at facilities of large corporations or banks.  The size of those demonstrations—400 to 500 marchers at most at any one time —and the very minor damage inflicted convinces me of three things:

  1. It was a good idea to deploy as many law enforcement officers as the city did.
  2. The City and police should have approved more permits for marches and demonstrations, and maybe all of them.
  3. It was not necessary to lock down downtown Pittsburgh.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Pittsburgh’s G-20 experience is the financing.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the G-20 will bring $35 million in additional revenues into the city at a cost of $19 million for security and to stage the G-20 show.  Other sources are paying $14 million, leaving Pittsburgh with a bill for $5 million.  Now the area may be ahead, but not by $30 million, because we have to subtract the as-yet uncounted business losses from closing down the main business district, plus the other losses from the many fearful organizations and school districts that closed down outside the downtown area.

The other problem with the $30 million number is that it goes into the coffers of hotels, caterers, airlines, and other businesses, but the $5 million comes from the already overburdened Pittsburgh coffers.  What a perverse inversion of the economic development objective that these convocations of leaders have had since the medieval French fair.  Once the king selected a location for the fair, the royal coffers underwrote a complete sprucing up of the town where the fair was to be held, because after all, a king could not visit a seedy city.  The mayors would vie for the right to hold the fair because it represented a substantial injection of capital into the city.  I thought that that was supposed to be a salutary side effect when the G-20 comes to town.

Pro-Gun Lobby Rhetorical Update

In a blog entry last week I anticipated the argument of someone opposed to gun control when I pointed out that stiffer gun control laws would most likely have prevented virtually all of the recent spate of mass murders.  In doing so, I mistakenly used an old saw of the gun lobby that “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”

I should have used the new and improved, and slightly scarier version, to whit, “if more people carried guns, then mass murderer X would have been stopped or caused less harm.” After each of the mass murders over the past few years, we have heard many versions of this idea.

Let me get this straight:  Someone is able to become a mass murderer because we have loose gun laws that allow virtually anyone to buy as many guns as he or she likes, and also let people carry guns, sometimes concealed and sometimes in the open.  Now instead of tightening up these gun laws to prevent these nuts from getting weapons as easily as they now can, we are supposed to encourage people to carry loaded guns to use if someone should try to pistol-whip them.   In other words, instead of trying to stop violence, we should encourage the use of it to combat violence.  Which of these approaches will lead to more people dead, I wonder?

Pittsburgh G-20 Should be a Celebration of Freedom

Since the Obama administration first announced several months back that the G-20 was going to meet in Pittsburgh on September 24-25, the town has been in a frenzy of anxiety.  City, state and federal government are intent on turning the downtown where the G-20 leaders will meet into a military zone and the specter of becoming another “Seattle” has led a very large number of businesses, school districts, universities, museums and other organizations to close their doors for the two days.  Many of those closing are not in or near the downtown G-20 zone, and in fact, some are in the distant suburbs.  The news media daily reports the terrified reactions of much of the area.

Instead of embracing the G-20 as a coup for the region, people and organizations are behaving as if they are frightened not just by their shadow, but by democracy itself.

Of course, the code word for bad riots by unruly and anarchistic demonstrators at an international event, the brand as it were, is Seattle in 1999.  But when you look at the reports, what you find is that:

In other words, the fear of Pittsburgh becoming another Seattle during the G-20 isn’t much of a fear at all.

I believe that the G-20 have a right to meet and should be protected, but that the demonstrators also have rights. It seems that virtually all the groups that want to demonstrate are interested in making their points and not in inciting violence.  The peaceful confluence of the G-20 leaders and the demonstrators can only have a beneficial impact on our open and free society. 

With that in mind, here’s my view of how the major players are handling the G-20:

Law Enforcement: Bringing in extra troops, cordoning off the downtown, restricting and placing patrols around the area are all necessary.  We do have to protect the many world leaders coming to Pittsburgh and I applaud law enforcement authorities for what looks like a good plan. 

The City:  By denying permits to protest, the city has it absolutely wrong. The city should have approved as many of the requests for permits as feasible and then worked with the protesters and with enforcement officials to keep things peaceful. Appropriately trained law enforcement officers know how to maintain crowd order without overreacting. 

Organizations:  Every organization that canceled its activities and closed its offices for the two days should be ashamed for giving in to baseless and irrational fears and misperceptions about demonstrations and demonstrators.  Instead of running from the G-20 experience, Pittsburghers should embrace it. Instead of an exercise in paranoia, we should have made the G-20 a celebration of freedom.

The Big Lie or Check Your Facts, Part 2

If you read yesterday’s blog entry, you know that I’ve been investigating the facts behind the many reports of large numbers of people at the Taxpayer March of September 12 with the help of my assistant.

Virtually all the news media that chose to count got a total of 75,000 or less at the event, except for the British newspaper, Daily Mall, which reported that as many as 1.0 million may have been there.  Instead of reporting these numbers, many reports took advantage of the fact that other reports cited numbers that did not exist to state that a number of nameless media estimated the crowd at more than a million and some as high as 2.0 million.

What has never gotten out in the main stream news media, however, was the fact that an entirely separate event, the annual Black Family Reunion, filled two-thirds of Washington’s Mall that day.  The prevalence of this other group at the Mall was reported only by The Atlantic and then noted in an Associated Press story that got very little play.  In other words, the low numbers cited by most of the media that actually cared to chime in on the issue may have in fact been on the high side. 

Now if people knew about this other group, they would realize that the one and two million person counts thrown around on right-wing radio and hinted about in much of the mainstream media in fact boil down to one big lie.  But like all big lies, it’s one that many people want to believe.

Check Your Facts

If I’m a little late in commenting on the vast differences in the reported head count at the so-called Taxpayer March on September 12 in Washington, it’s because I took the time to do some homework (with the help of my assistant Colette).

I first noticed that reporters were including a wide range of numbers in their stories about the march in an article analyzing the significance of the march on the front page in the September 15 edition of the Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune.  Here’s the paragraph in question:

“Estimates of the crowd size ranged from a low of 75,000 to a high of 2 million. A number of news organizations reported that more than 1.2 million people attended. “

Now my ethical sixth sense as a former journalist tells me that the discrepancy in numbers from 75,000 to 2 million is so great that the reporter should have cited the names of those news organizations that were reporting these figures. 

As some readers will know, the political bent of most articles and opinion pieces in the Trib-Review is decidedly right-wing.  I therefore immediately thought that the higher figures were probably spurious numbers.  

To check my hypothesis, first I had Colette look online for news media accounts of the march that mentioned that a number of news organizations reported that more than 1.2 million people attended, but without citing the organizations. Colette found dozens upon dozens of these stories, including from The Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, Hawaii Free Press, Care2.com and The Huntsville Times.

The next step was to find which news media had actually reported these large numbers of marchers, and in doing so I uncovered what may be labeled a conspiracy of incompetence.  As we will see, the main stream media allowed the larger numbers to get into the mainstream public discussion by citing the broad range of numbers in a typical “he said, she said” approach to story-writing, instead of going to the original sources and finding out who really said what. 

We found very few citations in the news media or online of reporters naming the parties actually providing head counts, but here’s what we did find:

  • In his September 14 show, Glen Beck said that The London Telegraph reported that more than a million people attended the Taxpayer March. In fact, what the London Telegraph actually said was “There was no official count.”
  • In one of its stories on the march,  Hawaii Free Press says on September 14 that the Daily Mall, another British paper, stated that “up to two million marched on the U.S. Capital.”  The Daily Mall did say “up to one million,” which is the only number reported by the news media that turns out to actually have been proposed by a cited reporter/media outlet. How the one turned into a two is anyone’s guess.
  • The American Thinker reported that the National Park Service called the march the largest event ever held in Washington.  That was a lie.  What the Park Service said, as reported for example in Washington Post, was that the Inauguration of President Barack Obama had the largest crowd of any event ever held in our nation’s capital.
  • As The Nation points out, during the rally part of the march, one of the organizers announced onstage that ABC News estimated the crowd at from 1.0 million to 1.5 million.  Of course, ABC News issued a quick denial.
  • An ultra-conservative friend said he heard that by analyzing a photograph, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin concluded that there were 2 million people at the Taxpayer March.  We checked this claim out too.  In reality, it was Glen Beck who cited a university study but could not remember the name of the university.  That was it for this weird rumor.

By contrast, a number of news organizations directly cited estimates of from 10,000 to 75,000 and pit their names behind the estimate, including Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Associated Press and Fox News.com.

At the end of the day, if news media outlets wanted to cite low and high range numbers (instead of accepting the low range consensus), they should have said that the Daily Mall estimated that as many as 1.0 million people were in attendance.  Why didn’t they? Occam’s razor, that principle that the simplest explanation is probably the best, might say that they didn’t think the Daily Mall’s one claim of a million stood up real well against multiple claims of under 100,000.

Citing numbers that no one is actually using is a variation on the Matt Drudge phenomenon that has already weakened the ethical standards of journalists and other writers.  The Matt Drudge phenomenon occurred when reporters started reporting what Matt Drudge said about the facts of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  Drudge was not always right, but that did not matter to mainstream reporters who instead of investigating allegations themselves instead told us what Matt had reported.  While Drudge got some things right, he got far from everything right, and the longer the scandal went on, the less right he turned out to be. 

But quoting Drudge allowed the news media to present an anti-Clinton (and at heart an anti-progressive) bias as facts without having to defend the facts. It’s the very same approach used by the news media who reported numbers without citing which organization provided the numbers.  The effect in the later case was to give the false impression that the views of the Taxpayers March represent a large majority of the country, and not just one corner of the increasingly marginalized right wing.

Notes from the Overground

From a September 17 story in the New York Times exploring why gourmet teas are thriving even as the global economy sags, Mark Daley, chief executive officer of Dean  & Deluca says, “Demand for quality products has remained strong.” 

Now I ask Mr. Daley and the public relations staff that wrote this response if the word “product” conjures up a comfy image of steaming tea, the soothing heat as one cups the glass, the blossoming fragrance, the sense of relaxation.  If this were an article about gourmet retailing in general, perhaps “product” could be an appropriate (if weak) word choice, but in an article solely about tea, why not say “tea” and help to sell your product!

Over the past week, I have seen marketing people use the word product to describe software, cereal, healthcare insurance and special equipment. In each case, referring to the actual name of the product would have brought life and warmth to sentences that sounded stiff and, even in the TV ads, vaguely corporate.

From a September 18 World Brief column of the New York Times , a story about an 18-year-old German kid who ,”…armed with an axe, knives and Molotov cocktails wounded eight fellow students and a teacher at his high school…”

Notice, no one dead, only wounded.  This story, although not really important as news, is nonetheless one of the most poignant if macabre rationales for greater control of all fire arms.  Lots of violence, but no one died! And before they make it, here is my refutation to the knee-jerk sloganish argument that if we outlaw guns only criminals will have them: the backgrounds of the men who have committed mass killings over the past five years; lots of outsiders, some extremists and some prone to rowdy behavior, but no career or even occasional criminals.

From a September 14 article in the New York Times business section on why Business Week is in trouble, there is a paragraph explaining why advertisers discount the number of visits to Business Week’s website pages.  The reason:  because they figured out that 45% of unique visitors go there to see the slide shows, which can be endless (but represent only one real visit and one unique visitor). 

I have been wondering for about three years, why Forbes¸ Business Week other mags insist on presenting the website version of their lists of top 5, 7, 10, 20 and 40 cities, companies, states, resorts, schools and etceteras as slide shows in which the fastest turn to the next screen lasts approximately three times the length it takes to read it.  In designing this approach, they were not thinking either of their readers (or is viewers more apt for Internet reading?).  They were thinking primarily of pumping up their advertising rates.

How Not to Get a Job, Part 3

I’ve reserved for its very own blog entry what may be the most important tip I have for job-seekers: Never lie on the resume or in the interview.

Employers detest lies and usually can smell them. And a half-truth is considered the worst of all lies, as Alfred Lord Tennyson once observed.

When someone claims to have done something that is not associated with the job he or she held at the time, or when the applicant cannot provide details of an assignment or job, that’s usually a good sign that some unhealthy fibbing has occurred.

My favorite example is a lie we didn’t smell, but still uncovered through some standard checking.

After hiring an advertising professional a few years back, we called the company that he claimed was his current employer to do a standard check, only to discover that he had been laid off six months earlier.

I immediately rescinded the offer of employment because our business operates on a basis of trust. We are trusted because we are trustworthy. It takes only one lie to a client to destroy what years of honesty have built up.

The sad thing is that being laid off from an ad agency during a recession was, and is, no big deal, and would not have affected in the slightest what we thought of the job applicant.

A special type of lie is to submit a work sample that was not yours.  In my business, the most frequent work samples are writing or design samples.  Unbelievable as it might seem, in 20 years of doing business my company has uncovered three instances of people claiming writing that someone had done at Jampole Communications was their own work product! 

You ask, how could people be so dumb?

In one case, a former employee responded to a blind ad with work samples that others had written at the agency.  In another, the applicant had taken the work sample from a former employer who had engaged Jampole Communications to write it for them.

My last example is a bizarre variation on the theme of lying about a work sample: A client called us because someone claimed he/she had written something while employed at Jampole Communications. Now it was true the person worked briefly (and well) at my company and it was also true that the person had written the work sample she had submitted to my client.  Unfortunately she had not written it for us, but rather as a writing test as part of our hiring process.  While the sample was well written enough to get an entry level job at Jampole Communications, we would never have released it to a client or the public.  And our client (thank goodness!) recognized that the quality of the writing was beneath our high standards immediately. To claim that a writing test was work you did for a company as opposed to being a writing test to get a job is a fairly self-evident kind of lie to virtually every employer.

So what have we learned, class?

Follow directions, avoid mistakes, do research, never lie. If you run down this list of tips for job seekers, you’ll find these suggestions are precisely the skills that make for good employees. Sometimes they are called good work habits. But call them what you may, they not only increase the chance of landing the job but also help employees to thrive on the job and build successful careers.