Thursday, September 7, 2017

Who Can Win the Battle for Truth?

This article also appears in Medium.

We’re fighting over the truth in the news media, at home, at work, and in the halls of Congress. And the battle carries over to our institutions of higher education with sides taken over free speech and academic freedom.

President John F. Kennedy said, “The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth.” So, it seems appropriate that Cornell University recently held a symposium entitled, “Universities and the Search for Truth.”1

Why does this all seem more urgent today? Humans have always been truth-challenged. Ancient conquerors frequently rewrote history. The Bible is filled with stories of deception. Some countries, institutions and industries exist on the clever use of propaganda.

The truth is the amount of what we call information is expanding wildly, and spread in more ways and with greater consequences than ever before. The rise of the internet and consumer-generated content, pressures on professional journalism, and our reliance on social media channels and their complex algorithms all influence what we see, hear, believe and share.

Add these modern issues to Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that “There are no facts, only interpretations” and we have a gray, goopy and potentially grave mess. Echoing the reality of truth’s plasticity, Professor David Shalloway at the symposium said, “Data can be true or false, but knowledge is usually only an approximation.” And Professor Holly Prigerson voiced a similar view: “Truth is not an absolute thing. It’s not binary, and it’s on a continuum.”

Our judicial system recognizes our inclination to manipulate the facts into a self-satisfying truth when we’re asked to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” As much as the words matter, though, Professor Sarah Murray said, “Language itself doesn’t ensure the truth or reliability of information. It’s how we use language and communication and who’s using the language that are judgments about that.” Most people understand this – the messenger can increase or decrease the credibility of the message.

While the literature carries many comparisons between strategic communication and war – offense and defense, knowing your opponent, hearts and minds, etc. – Professor Mor Naaman acknowledged his talk was particularly “dark” and “grim.” “Modern media technology is killing truth and knowledge,” he said. “Instead, our technology emphasizes only information and emotion.” He added that social media is a “well tuned and optimized machine that plays exactly” to our biologically, psychologically and evolutionarily wired sense of emotion, not truth or knowledge.

You can see how fear and anger are being used as platforms for persuasion but we can use this insight on emotion toward a more favorable purpose. The most effective, enduring way to communicate is to link fact and emotion through the use of examples, imagery and storytelling. And the language needs to be relevant; context is required. A famous wrongful death case involving drug side effects was lost well before the conclusion of all the testimony. “We didn’t know what the heck they were talking about,” a juror told The Wall Street Journal.2

Yet, a problem remains in how we receive information. We hear about algorithms making viewing choices for us – the creation of echo chambers. The algorithms are sometimes called filters but they are not. They curate but also isolate. They homogenize, not cross-fertilize.

The symposium panel offered some fixes: Educate students on the ethical, philosophical and social issues of technology; study how technology can create misinformation and biases; create new curricula, and focus new research on these issues. While important, they are long-term solutions and it’s unclear how the findings would be applied widely.

We need equal attention on smaller, shorter-term initiatives. So, let’s stipulate that the truth is subjective and focus instead on the starter material – the objective facts – since these are frequently denied or called into doubt. In addition to the earlier call for using relevant language in describing the facts and connecting these to resonant emotions, we should consider the following:

Push to end false equivalency and the conflation of opinion with fact. If 97 percent of climate scientists agree on human causes for climate change, we should not see one-on-one debates. News organizations and social media news feeds should present the available, accurate data but must differentiate between fact and opinion.

Overwhelm the bad with the good. More experts need to speak out and share the facts to help push inaccurate information down the internet search list. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University is one of a growing number of programs tackling how to communicate complex information in more understandable, relevant ways.

Get there first. False or misleading statements are terribly difficult to retract and, harder still, to erase from one’s memory. In a study of nearly 900 participants, researchers showed “the repetition of tentative news stories, even if they are subsequently disconfirmed, can assist in the creation of false memories in a substantial proportion of people.”3 The bottom line is that people may continue to rely on misinformation even when a subsequent retraction is made and remembered.

Use technology to advance real time fact checking. We can’t rely on a reporter’s memory or ability to interrupt a guest to check the facts. The idea for a “Truth Meter” was raised at the symposium and it was reported last week that two Penn State professors received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop technology to identify and exclude “fake news” on digital platforms.4 If IBM's Watson computer can win at Jeopardy!, there's no reason that (nearly) real time fact checking couldn't be a reality. We should explore the potential for machines to sift through transcripts, proceedings and testimony; almanacs and atlases; laws, regulations and policy statements; credible survey data, and peer-reviewed research reports.

These efforts will be successful only if our institutions – and society at large – do more to promote and enforce honesty, and venerate intellectual exploration. I keep reading about our “hyper-connected world.” But in these connections we need hyper-vigilance for the facts. Perhaps then we’ll have an easier time searching for truth.


I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.


1.     Cornell University. “Academic Symposium: Universities and the Search for Truth.” August 24, 2017. https://www.cornell.edu/video/academic-symposium-universities-search-for-truth.
2.     Tesoriero, H.W., et al., “Merck Loss Jolts Drug Giant, Industry,” The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2005.
3.     Lewandowsky, S., et al., “Memory for Fact, Fiction, and Misinformation” (2005), Psychological Science, 16(3):190-195.
4.     Associated Press. “Penn State Professors Get Grant for ‘Fake News’ Detector.” August 31, 2017. https://apnews.com/e1b353e9e62f4e4096e419c13b061750/Professors-get-$300,000-grant-for-digital-fake-news-detector.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why Personal and Political Pivots Are So Problematic

Successful businesses know the advantages of flipping the aphorism “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” to “If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It Anyway.” Management guru Peter Drucker warned, “The enterprise that does not innovate inevitably ages and declines.” People know this, too. The hazards of “resting on your laurels” need no explanation. But changing an organization is one thing – changing ourselves is another.

While many companies have started in one place and ended up in another – morphing through competitive, economic and societal influences – it’s much harder for people to evolve their thinking and behavior. We are who we are, right? We need to stay true to our own character.

And that’s the false choice many of us believe we have to make – that we must somehow abandon who we are in order to change or to accept (or even acknowledge) the views of another. We’re thinking too small if we give in to the mutual exclusivity of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

Sadly, though, many of us take challenges to our positions much too personally. Honest feedback and new ideas may be viewed as disloyal or an attack on one’s core values. This is no more true than in the current political environment. Change is seen as weakness; you’re branded as a flip-flopper. And almost any whiff of compromise attracts a potentially ferocious, ad hominem response.

A New York Times editorial [The Donald Trump Pygmalion Project, April 26, 2016] focused on Donald Trump’s behavior and how “Mr. [Paul] Manafort’s ambition is to turn this Eliza Doolittle into a candidate more acceptable to decent society, in time for the general election.” However, Mr. Trump may not agree. He said, “I sort of don’t like toning it down.”

While Mr. Trump still has time to pivot from fiery agitator to energetic statesman, the Democratic insurgent, Bernie Sanders, missed his chance. An explanation may be found from the insurgent candidate of 2004: Howard Dean. In an NPR interview [Campaign Mystery: Why Don't Bernie Sanders' Big Rallies Lead To Big Wins?, April 26, 2016], he admitted, "I couldn't change. And I knew I had to. But the crowd pulls you back. They're dying for you. They're bleeding for you. And it's very hard to do."

The cheers and accolades from a self-selected audience can be intoxicating; it feeds the ego and induces a craving for more. We don’t want to hear what plays well now may not play well later or with others. It seems obvious but we need the strategic vision and the courage to make the shift or, more dramatically, jump the tracks. Temperament, demeanor and behavior really are big deals in building relationships. It’s also crucial in leadership. Carl von Clausewitz, the brilliant 19th century military strategist, noted it is “…the more all-encompassing than the narrowly focused mind, the cooler rather than the hot-tempered mind that we should more readily entrust in war with the well-being of our brothers and children, and the honor and safety of our country.”

Yes, we should stick to our principles but let’s push back against this noxious atmosphere before it actually becomes the new normal. We’re adaptive creatures, after all, and our massive capacity to learn, grow and relate is being stunted. The political or personal pivot (as long as it’s not pandering) should be viewed as nothing more than our natural – though sometimes tumultuous – progression.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Big Ideas versus Incremental Steps is a False Choice

A key takeaway message being reported from yesterday’s Democratic Town Hall in Iowa is the divide between big ideas and incremental steps. In general, I don’t like mutual exclusivity. (I’ve addressed this before in my book, Camelot, Inc.) Of course we need big ideas and bold moves. But small things can be out-of-the-box and innovative, too. The answer is we need both vision and execution, the large goals and the little objectives, and the short-range and the long-term views.

I know it’s hard for politicians to get elected on a platform of incremental steps. We’re conditioned to expect the big idea, to go big or go home, or to swing for a homerun. But it’s certainly not going to happen with our largest and most complex problems.

This applies beyond our politics and social ills. In the world of medicine, for example, Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D. and Chair of Medical Oncology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center said, "One advance leads to another. Although the advance might be incremental, it's a step beyond." And, "If we are only interested in revolutionary therapies, patients will miss out on the improvements in care that smaller advances offer.”

As we approach another Federal election, it’s worthwhile remembering that our Founding Fathers were believers in the proverb “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many in the Continental Congress wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted it remain.There would be no United States of America unless they could agree. So, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787 were compromises. They were steps. We had to wait nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

Small strides can sometimes add up to a completed marathon. We should embrace and celebrate the completion of each step along the way.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Humor Has Its Place... But Not Here


I've said this often: Be careful with humor in serious times. And what's funny to you may not be funny to someone else. It comes down to knowing your audience and having some compassion.

When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer recently quipped, there will be “no layoffs… this week,” many at the company were reportedly shaken (http://www.mediaite.com/online/yahoo-ceo-cruelly-instills-fear-in-her-workforce-with-ominous-joke-no-layoffs-this-week/). With discussion about Yahoo!'s future and potential cuts already in the air, this attempt at humor was particularly unfunny.

There's some history on misreading the audience at the company. When Yahoo!'s work-at-home policy was reversed in 2013, they reported that it was meant to raise morale and increase collaboration. (You can read more here: http://www.c-o-i-n-s.blogspot.com/search/label/Yahoo). 

I agree that face-to-face communication is ideal but there's also a need for flexibility to ensure the best people are able to participate in the enterprise, especially in tech where there's great dispersion of talent.

The bottom line is morale or fun can't be forced or mandated. They're outcomes of an honest, communicative and interesting work environment with visible, empathic leadership.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Lesson on Staying Focused – With Thanks to a Terrific Teacher

My high school days are well back in the past but some memories remain fresh. Hearing of the passing of my AP US History teacher, David LaPonsee, moves me to relay one of them, even though the lesson learned came at the price of some personal embarrassment.

Dave was brilliant, with multiple degrees from prestigious institutions. He expected a lot from his students but they received much in return. There was much memorization expected but he always created context. The discussions were usually intense and politically-charged.

Beyond academics, he was always available and happy to engage. I can remember spending many hours in Dave’s office discussing current events as well as our work together in student government.

The class was assigned a final paper, which could be on the topic of our choice. With a WWII Army pilot father, I chose to explore the development of the US military from the Depression through the World War. Essentially, the birth of the Superpower.

Even back then, I enjoyed research. The sources – and the tangents – grew rapidly; so many interesting lines of inquiry opened up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I was spending more time exploring the rise of our geopolitical adversaries than I was on my stated topic. The pursuit of knowledge was illuminating but I failed to conduct a reality check. I lost focus.

I handed in my paper, proud of the time and effort that went into its development. When the graded papers where distributed, I looked for my reward. All I found was a note: “Excellent paper but what does this have to do with US history? Please see me.”

Gulp. I wanted to crawl under the desk. I felt so foolish and, worse, I embarrassed myself in front of one of my favorite teachers.

The time soon came to meet with Dave. I explained the trajectory of the writing and he was comforting. Then, he asked what grade I deserved. Wow.

It was years later, when I came to teach strategy, research and communications at NYU, that I’d tell this story semester after semester and convey the lessons of Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian General. Focus, he said, “necessitates strict economy.” As strategists, if we do something “here,” it means we’re consciously not doing other things “there.” That episode from my past also prompted me to check in with each student throughout the term to ensure they stayed on track. But it’s not just about focus; it’s the feedback along the way that gives people the information and confidence they need to succeed.

I’ll always be grateful for the time I had with Dave. His intellect and empathy will always be remembered. And I’m happy I’ve been able to pass along some of his lessons, which are now used by the hundreds of students I had the privilege to teach.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Thinking Twice About Being Naughty or Being Nice


While there are always reminders that we must watch our behavior, the holiday season is the time when we tend to particularly reflect on how we speak and act towards others. It is too easy to forget the spirit of the season, however, given the never-ending political cycle and rants by the billions on social media. Rather, what we have is a non-stop, global food fight. What was aversion has, for some, given way to numbness and even a kind of sport. How many wake up each morning looking for news about who topped yesterday’s insult.


Though there’s greater awareness of this dearth of civility, a growing meanness is an important societal issue. For example, a check of the terms “bully” or “bullying” in English language news and journal sources revealed 119,088 mentions between November 1995 and November 2000; 179,396 between 2000 and 2005; 233,609 between 2005 and 2010, and 315,427 between 2010 and 2015. That’s a 265 percent increase in the last 20 years.

As I considered this further, I had a conversation about niceness and meanness with the father of a close friend. I asked him who were the nicest and meanest people he knew. He told me, “I never met a mean person in my life.” I was surprised at first but then it made a little sense; he was perhaps the most cheerful person I ever knew. Clearly, we didn’t share the same perception. So, I began to wonder about the meanest and nicest people I’ve known, and if there were lessons that could be applied to the way we communicate personally and professionally.

There are tangible and intangible elements of meanness, just as there are of niceness. Our personal and professional reputations, too, are based on both tangible and intangible characteristics. Taking one element – behavior – for example, one can imagine how demeanor, tone and conduct could impact how an individual or organization performs and communicates. Behavior also affects the perception of trust, dependability and reliability, thus having an influence on authenticity.

Curious to learn a little more, I conducted a survey (completed by 248 adults) to better understand the relationship to the meanest and nicest people in our lives, and if there was a gap, a dissonance, in self-perception – if people see themselves as getting meaner or nicer, and if people see others as getting meaner or nicer.

In response to “Who Was/Is the Meanest Person You Knew or Know?”, 34% said it was those in the workplace (boss or co-worker), 25% in school (classmate, teacher/instructor or coach), 16% in their social circle (friends or significant others) and 13% were relatives (parents, other relatives, spouse or sibling). Twelve percent were in a variety of other categories, including neighbors and strangers.

Ironically, but maybe not surprisingly, where we go to learn and achieve is also where we find the meanest people in our lives. It’s interesting to note, though, that 20%, one in five, of the meanest people in our lives are relatives or significant others. The genders were essentially split on which was meanest.

When asked who was or is the nicest person you knew or know, relatives accounted for 48% of the responses and 36% of the nicest people we know are in our social circles. Those in the workplace and people at school made up the remainder. People who knew us best were also the nicest to us.

Males were reported to be the nicest person by 28% of respondents and females were 72%. Females were both the meanest and nicest gender identified but the margin of “niceness” was dramatically in their favor.

It may not be surprising but respondents rated themselves somewhat nicer than those around them. But respondents felt others are much meaner than they perceived themselves to be. Nearly twice as many respondents thought they were never mean versus the belief that others were never mean to them in a given week.

Respondents were also asked to reflect back on the past five years and to assess if people are now meaner or nicer. Forty percent of respondents agreed that people are somewhat or much meaner today than five years ago. Forty-three percent claimed no change and 17% believed people are now nicer.

Though this is just a peek at the issues, it’s clear there are both large and small consequences to the way we interact at home, at work, at school and at play. Meanness can occur anywhere but it’s found most often in settings with professionals and experts – places of work and places of learning. This opens up a set of questions about how we lead, how we teach and how we interact. While we continue to think about how we view our choices and obligations, we could be a little more thoughtful, a little more strategic, a little kinder in our communication and in our behavior. In sum, for this holiday season and beyond, whether we reflect on a rededication to values and tradition (as in the story of Hanukkah), being judged by Santa or for any other reason, let’s “think twice about being naughty or being nice.”

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The 6 As: A New Model for Apologies

This was written with my former student, Heena Chavda, and also appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The Strategist.

Great amounts of time and effort are spent carefully crafting speeches, message points and press releases yet many stumble and bumble their way through an apology. Sometimes the outcome of a poorly conceived and executed apology creates more negative attention than the original offense. 

The apology by Bob Eckert, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of Mattel, Inc., during their lead-paint toy recall in 2007, convinced 84% of those polled by HCD Research to trust Mattel to take the actions necessary to ensure product safety. However, an apology offered does not make it an apology made. British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward undermined his apology during the Gulf oil spill crisis in 2010 by adding the now famous lines, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back”.

Apology Models

Three Elements. The University of Michigan developed a model to combat the “defend and deny” practice common among medical practitioners. Patients are: “Approached, Acknowledged, and Engaged”. “The system's annual attorneys fees have since dropped from $3 million to $1 million, and malpractice lawsuits and notices of intent to sue have fallen from 262 filed in 2001 to about 130 per year” in a 2004 report.

Four Elements. In Aaron Lazare offers four elements in his book “On Apology”: the acknowledgement of the offense, expression of remorse, offering an explanation, and making reparations.

Five Elements. Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish scholar and philosopher, describes five steps in his Hilchot Teshuva – The Rules of Repentance. First is recognizing what was done wrong and second is showing regret. The third step is the act of making a verbal declaration. Fourth is a vow not to repeat the mistake and fifth is a demonstration by the transgressor that he has learned from his mistake. John Kador in his book, “Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust,” also says recognition, remorse, and restitution constitute an effective apology but adds responsibility and repetition to round out his “5R” framework.

Gaps

Place. The choice of where to deliver an apology should be deliberate. Some times, though, immediacy will play a role and selections will be limited. Comedian Michael Richards appeared on the Late Night Show with David Letterman after a video of him using racist language at a comedy club went viral in 2006. At the behest of fellow cast-member and friend Jerry Seinfeld, Richards appeared via satellite on Letterman to explain what happened and offer his regrets for his actions. On a show typically known for its comedy content, Richards was quite somber and appeared visibly shaken during the interview. However, the mixed message of a serious apology on a program known for laughs was questionable. Indeed, the audience could be heard chuckling, unsure if his appearance was serious or part of a comedy routine.

Time. The question of when to apologize is one that continues to draw debate – too soon may seem reflexive and too late may appear to be an afterthought. Tiger Woods was criticized for waiting three months before apologizing for his infidelity. In those months, the public, media and sponsors had an opportunity to make their own judgments. When he made a highly staged apology, his words of regret were over-shadowed by his justification of having an addiction to sex.

One of the most delayed apologies in recent time came from the German drug firm Gruenenthal, makers of thalidomide. Decades after the morning sickness drug was pulled from shelves in the 1960s when it was linked to numerous birth defects, CEO Harald Stock apologized during a memorial speech commemorating a statue dedicated to the victims in 2012. The suspicion and anger caused by the long delay was compounded by the claim that it was the result of the company’s own grief: "We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn't find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being. We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us." This was taken as an absurd and insulting attempt at rationalizing an egregious decision.

Other notable examples of delayed responses include the 359-year gap between the arrest and imprisonment of Galileo Galilei ordered by the Roman Catholic Church and the 1992 apology by Pope John Paul II. In 2000, the same Pope offered a sweeping apology and sought forgiveness for centuries of atrocities of violence, persecution and mistakes committed against Jews, women, native peoples and heretics.

Authenticity. While it may be important and necessary to seek the counsel of public relations professionals to ensure an apology is crafted appropriately, it can leave the recipient – and the public – wondering if it was genuine. The derogatory comments made by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver about gay players in professional football sparked such a question. In a radio interview on the Artie Lange Show in 2013 he said, “I don't do the gay guys man. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff.”

Chris Culliver issued a statement the next day: “The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel. It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.” The quick response and Cullilver’s apology showed regret. The language and grammar used in the interview, however, was much different than the apology statement. By not placing the apology in the client’s voice, public relations professionals risk stripping the effort of its intended benefit by removing all elements of authenticity. 

Issues of time, place and authenticity all converged in 2013 around Paula Deen’s apology for her use of a racial epithet. A video apology “statement” was posted, only to be removed hours later. Though she said, “inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable,” Deen actually spent more time asking for forgiveness.

A second apology video was posted but it didn’t start with any expression of remorse to her fans, patrons, business partners or the community; her words were directed to Matt Lauer for standing him up on the TODAY show. She explained her pain “has been tremendous.” Deen then went on to blame “the press” for an untrue portrayal of her and her family. A third video apology also targeted Lauer. She said, “I was physically in no shape to come in and talk with you. The last 48 hours have been very, very hard.” Five days later, Deen made her appearance on the TODAY show. She said, “I was overwhelmed. I was in a state of shock… There have been some very, very hurtful lies about me.” Before the interview, two companies announced they were cutting ties. After the show aired, the list grew to include The Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, Caesars Entertainment, QVC, Novo Nordisk, Sears, Kmart, J. C. Penney and Random House.

A New Model: The 6 As

Building on the works using three, four and five elements, a new framework is proposed. The six elements – the 6 As – are:

1. Acknowledging something has happened. If there’s no acceptance of responsibility, there’s no foundation on which to build a future relationship.

2. Having an Authentic expression of regret. When an apology demonstrates an authentic expression of remorse, it is heartfelt, it is real, and it is something to which the audience can feel and connect. 

3. Using Appropriate tone and language. The mood, tenor and words must fit both the person apologizing and the audience for which the apology is intended.

4. Choosing an Acceptable venue. Location determine who and how many will receive the message, and will help set the tone of the apology.

5. Acting in the right timeframe. A delay or hesitation could result in mounting suspicion and a missed opportunity to correct the situation. 

6. Announcing next steps. Demonstrating how the offense won’t be repeated can be vital in rebuilding trust and reputation.

Research and Implications

We conducted a non-randomized online survey (using Qualtrics) of 205 adults to assess the relative weights of the 6 As by using a constant sum scale. Each respondent had to assign a value for each of the six elements, adding up to 100 total points.

Though this was an initial test, the average values fell neatly into multiples of the lowest average score obtained, which was Acceptable Venue (see Table). Thus, Appropriate Tone, Acting in the Right Timeframe and Announcing Next Steps were weighted as x 2, and Acknowledging Something Has Happened and Authentic Expression were weighted as x 3. With these weights and elements, we have a workable equation to measure the effectiveness of apologies.

Apology Element and Rank

Average Value
(does not sum to 100 because of rounding)
Weighting Factor
1. Authentic expression of remorse

23.6
3
2. Adequate acknowledgement that something happened

21.4
3
3. Announcement of potential resolution or remedy

16.7
2
4. Acting in the right time frame
15.8
2
5. Appropriate tone and language

15.3
2
6. Acceptable venue for apology
7.4
1

With greater exposure and access to communication outlets, there’s greater pressure to apologize. It’s a volume issue with perhaps a dash of political correctness and a decline in civility thrown in to the mix. As the numbers continue to grow, practitioners will be confronted more often with the need to develop apology or develop an apology for a bad apology. It’s important that apologies are researched and developed with the same care as any other internal or external communication messages; they must be thoughtfully crafted, and be authentic, timely, and delivered appropriately in order for recipients to receive them in the way they were intended. And though Venue was ranked last, this aspect may take on greater relevance as we witness more apologies being made on social media platforms.

From a practical standpoint, the 6 A rubric may equip communication practitioners with a new tool to assist organizations and individuals in the mitigation or recovery from reputation-killing words or deeds. At a minimum, adding a sixth dimension to the evaluation of apologies creates a new checklist for practitioners. The maximal value, however, might be realized through its use in testing apologies in advance of their delivery or in “post-mortem” analyses of communication efforts.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Google Embraces the Predictable

Why Effective Leadership and Communication Require Consistency

This article also appears in odwyerpr.com.

 An article entitled, “The Surprising Trait Google Looks For To Identify Potential Leaders,” caught my eye recently. Walter Chen wrote: “At Google, they're obsessive about looking at data to determine what makes employees successful and what they found in the numbers was surprising. The most important character trait of a leader is one that you're more likely to associate with a dull person than a dynamic leader: predictability. The more predictable you are, day after day, the better.”

This is important but, to me, not necessarily surprising. First, Google thrives on predictability – their algorithms suggesting web sites based on your input is a prediction of what’s needed to satisfy your query. And they sell predictability to advertisers, helping to assure the right message gets to the right target.

Second, leaders must have strategic vision. Strategists look ahead, they turnover ideas, they conduct research and think through scenarios all so they can minimize risk and predict outcomes.

And third, people would rather have predictable results than uncertain ones. We may enjoy a nice surprise when it comes to parties or presents, but we’re really creatures of habit and of known risks.

I had a boss years ago who was very charismatic but also erratic. “Who would I get today?,” I would ask myself. “The nurturer, the screamer, the back-slapper, the recluse?” It was unsettling and burned emotional energy unnecessarily. Indeed, Chen quotes Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google in his article: "If your manager is all over the place, you're never going to know what you can do, and you're going to experience it as very restrictive." So, without a sense of continuity and comfort, the office is doomed to poor productivity from ceaseless speculation and worry.

As I wrote in Camelot, Inc., people want to work, support, and do business with people who are predictably responsive and ethical. This also means staff, investors or donors can rely on the leader to communicate the expectations for the business and the conduct of the organization. The boundaries and goals are clearly defined – not wavering, not ambiguous. This is the path to trust and reputation building.

People respond to predictable, consistent leaders, but they also need the same when they choose brands, friends, medicines, transportation, and foods. (Franchise operations bank on this fact. A particular franchise may not have the best-in-class service or product, but we know what to expect; we know what we receive will be consistent no matter where or when we make the purchase.) But predictable does not mean plodding or unimaginative. Google is proof that serious purpose and process can go hand-in-hand with creativity and excitement.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Our "Big Idea" Obsession

Why We Should Embrace Incrementalism 

Public relations and advertising agencies never receive RFPs for little ideas. Boards of Directors don’t select CEOs for their promises of small improvements. Politicians don’t get elected on a platform of incremental steps. We’re conditioned to expect the big idea, to go big or go home, to swing for a homerun, to throw the Hail Mary for a touchdown.

That’s why President Obama was criticized last month for talking about hitting “singles” and “doubles” in his foreign policy efforts. But he did say, “Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.” And then admitted, “That may not always be sexy. “That may not always attract a lot of attention..."

He was right and his critics were not happy. Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Is Barry Whiffing,” told the President to “stop whining.” Ms. Dowd wrote, “What happened to crushing it and swinging for the fences? Where have you gone, Babe Ruth?” And then, “It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world.” 

My readers, clients and students know I hate this type of mutual exclusivity. (I’ve addressed it before in this blog and in my book, Camelot, Inc.) Of course we need big ideas and bold gestures. But small things can be out-of-the-box and innovative, too. The answer is we need both vision and execution, the large goals and the little objectives, and the short-range and the long-term views. If we can’t always strike that “grand bargain” what are the alternatives?

It’s the same line of reasoning used to block investment in solar or wind energy because it would only be drop in the bucket compared to our overall energy needs. Or the strengthening of background checks on gun purchases because the effect on violence can’t be fully quantified in advance. Or, it could be taxes and the deficit. The so-called millionaire’s tax can’t get any traction because, the logic goes, it would do so little to cut into our national debt.

But we need to start some place, some time. We’d like to get to the goal line in one play but we can’t. It’s certainly not going to happen with our largest and most complex problems. We’ve all heard Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Well, incrementalism is hard to accept but, in so many cases, equally hard to forswear.

I’ll remind the politicos that our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many of the Founding Fathers wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted it remain. So, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787 were compromises. They were steps. We had to wait nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

As I wrote in another piece, “Compromise and incremental success may not seem satisfying, but it’s the way most things operate and succeed. Baby steps can sometimes add up to a completed marathon. We need to reject the all-or-nothing mentality and reward the smaller but still important measures. We need to learn from the past, not live in it.”

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

P.S. After posting my blog, I came across an article on the Celgene web site, Paving the Way for Cancer Breakthroughs: Small Steps Make a Big Impact on the Lives of Cancer Patients and Our Understanding of the Disease. They warn against "holding out for those large steps" and ignoring the reality of cancer's complexity. Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D. and Chair of Medical Oncology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center commented, "One advance leads to another. Although the advance might be incremental, it's a step beyond." The article concludes, "If we are only interested in revolutionary therapies, patients will miss out on the improvements in care that smaller advances offer. In the end, these advances can help us transform cancer into a chronic, manageable disease."

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Message About Messages

This article also appears in Medical Marketing & Media.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers, CEO of Bayer, feels underappreciated. He has some good reason. At Bayer’s Spring Financial News Conference (on Feb. 28th), he said, "Almost every day, newspapers publish something about cancer – statistics, the best doctors, the best hospitals, the best treatments." Yet, they don’t discuss, "the molecule, the invention or the scientist behind the invention without which the doctors, hospitals and treatments could not help patients."

People go into a hospital, they interact with health care providers but what they see mostly from the pharmaceutical industry is a little, unimpressive looking pill. This isn’t new. Low trust and reputation scores have been a fact of life for decades now. The anger over high prices and low transparency has not been offset by improved health outcomes or the positive impact on jobs and the economy. Dr. Dekkers said, "I feel that this lack of appreciation for our ideas and innovations has to change." 

More credit ought to be given to the investments and inventions made by the biopharmaceutical sector – no question. But placing responsibility on the media for a perceived lack of fairness seems misplaced. The health care industry is attempting to meet the needs of its customers and so is the news media. In most cases, they’re selling a story with a point of view because that’s what the market is telling them to do. And they’re constrained further by the revolution in social media. There are fewer and fewer “real” journalists, professionals with credentials who have an understanding of the issues and the science. How many health and science sections in major daily newspapers have survived? Can you get beyond one hand? 

Today’s reality is health care is covered largely in the business sections and the industry feeds right into it. The first two-thirds of Dr. Dekkers’ talk was focused on his company’s impressive financial results. It was, after all, a financial news conference. But if getting a fair shake by the press was of such concern, perhaps he should have allowed his CFO, who was the next speaker anyway, to discuss all the numbers.

Next time, Dr. Dekkers may wish to lead off with and stick to some of his briefly mentioned closing messages – Bayer’s commitments to sustainability, ethics, access, value and serving the needs of the patient community. As messengers, as leaders, the tone should be set using the words, images and emotions that best communicate the industry’s contributions, not just the spreadsheets and stock charts. Tell the audiences what’s in it for them.

But there’s still a big missing piece to this communication puzzle. Dr. Dekkers pointed out, “Even the most outstanding ideas and scientific breakthroughs have no chance if people do not accept, appreciate and support them. All too often, people are afraid of – or uneasy about – new ideas, inventions, processes or products.” Indeed, the industry’s stakeholders must have a higher level of health and science literacy. Dropping information – even crucial or compelling data – onto the heads of an unprepared public, or expecting a response to another “call to action,” is unproductive and unrealistic. A massive, sustained education effort is needed to help turn the ship of disbelief and discontent.

Of course, a more knowledgeable public will not guarantee an enhanced corporate reputation. It must be earned. It will take time and the self-inflicted wounds – the reputation-killing missteps and misdeeds – need to stop or at least be minimized. Our job as strategic communicators is to help find common ground and common language, increase mutual understanding and secure the win-wins we know are out there.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Beware of Absolutes

The Danger of Black and White Communication

This article also appears in PRWeek.

We crave absolutes – yes or no, stop or go, you’re with us or against us. Most of life, however, is not so cut and dry. We live with nuance and uncertainty, and there are usually too many unknowns to be 100 percent sure of the outcome. Communication professionals must counsel their clients accordingly.

This issue is being played out in the aftermath of New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s nearly two-hour press conference on January 9th. His declaration that he “had no knowledge,” and was “lied to” and “betrayed” may well be true. After all, he’s the governor, a former prosecutor and early front-runner for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential race. Those are big responsibilities and big stakes to risk.

But many see those responsibilities and risks as reasons for their suspicion. They believe someone so involved and so concerned with appearances likely had a close eye on his own political operation. “Bridge-gate” (or what might evolve into “Retribution-gate”) was not put to bed with the governor’s long apology and assertion that he’s “not a bully.” Christie watchers will be listening for potential shoes to drop during the ongoing investigation. Any link to prior knowledge of Fort Lee, NJ lane closures will have dramatic, potentially career-ending consequences.

Still, we expect leaders to deal in absolutes and they accommodate us for fear of seeming weak or uncertain. Short and sweet statements usually win over the long and complicated. But there are too many examples of failed absolutes to ignore the danger of black and white or the outright denial. Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” rocked two presidencies and the nation. The trajectory of events was largely within their control.

Even when events are not within our control, the siren song of absolutism dashes leaders onto the sharp rocks of crisis. After weather forced JetBlue to cancel flights and strand some passengers on grounded airplanes for over 10 hours in 2007, founder David Neeleman said, “This will never happen again.” His apology at that time was called “perfect.” But in 2011, weather created havoc and, you guessed it, it happened again. Passengers were sealed in and were parked on the tarmac for over seven hours with toilets that wouldn't flush. A strategic look ahead could have avoided this failure of absolute statements.

Scenario development and greater oversight also could have saved pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb from an embarrassing episode involving one of its spokespeople. Andy Behrman, who chronicled his life with bipolar disorder in Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania, reportedly accepted $400,000 in 2004 and 2005 to talk about the benefits of the drug Abilify®. He said the therapy was life changing and all of his drug side effects "went away." A warning bell should have been going off with that definitive statement. While Abilify may have a better safety profile than some other antipsychotic medications, it carries a long list of side effects and warnings on its label. Indeed, after his non-disclosure agreement lapsed, Behrman said he experienced side effects that were worse than any treatment he had tried and stopped taking the drug within the first year.

What's clear is there are few absolutes. It takes a marriage of analysis and creativity to develop statements that are appropriately qualified but not evasive. It's a tall order to communicate complexity in a succinct and compelling manner but that's our job. And it’s imperative we educate our students, staff and clients that the risk to reputation by seeking and telling the truth is less than telling or living a lie, or making promises - absolutes - we can't keep.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Science Denial Part 2: A Threat to Children, Education and Competitiveness


The New York Times published a special Education Issue last week, “Learning What Works” in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. The articles, collectively, set out an array of recommendations from top experts. They include:
  • Increase attention to ideation and creativity
  • Make teaching more immersive
  • Increase teacher training and teacher pay
  • Develop and distribute better instructional materials
  • Encourage mentoring by outside experts or college/graduate students
  • Provide the history and the context for science
  • Dedicate time to applying ideas and practical invention
  • Raise curriculum and testing standards

These are all good and important. So, let's go! There are many priorities out there but STEM education must be in the highest classification. We know from the scores obtained by the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment that 15-year-old students in the U.S. perform about average in reading. Average isn’t great but, when it comes to the math and science scores, it’s practically outstanding. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 17th in science and 25th in math. (The 2012 results will be released at the end of this year.)

But there are barriers to success even within the science teaching community. Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, said that roughly 20 percent to 25 percent of the nation’s biology teachers don’t believe in evolution and subscribe to creationist views. Teaching evolution and/or climate change in schools has been hotly debated by legislatures and school boards in states including Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas. These boards should embrace and promote, not disparage and reject, the facts.

Students receive at least some science as part of a required curriculum. But what happens when they arrive at home? Are the lessons in science class reinforced or refuted? In a 2012 poll by Gallup only 15% of U.S. citizens believe humans evolved without any intervention from God. Thirty-two percent said God guided the evolutionary process and 46% said God created humans in their present form. (Seven percent had no opinion.)

And what do the students hear from those in power? Rather than lead the country through and away from false and flawed ideas, a number of our elected leaders are cheerfully, bombastically, pulling the country backward. In Congress, the House Science Committee hardly holds to its title. Rep. Paul Broun (GA) fumed, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” Former Science Committee member Todd Akin (MO) famously opposed abortion for rape victims, in part, because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacker (CA) said recently, “Global warming is a total fraud” and dismissed global warming as a plot to institute a “global government.” His suggestion that “dinosaur flatulence” could explain historic climate change patterns was also notable. Rep. James Sensebrenner (WI) similarly amped up the conspiracy theorists when he said climate change theory was a “massive international scientific fraud.” Rep. Ralph Hall (TX) also charged that climate change is the product of a global conspiracy of scientists and told the National Journal in 2011 that he didn’t believe in a human influence on global warming because “I don’t think we can control what God controls.”

This competition between God and science is a false construct and distracts us from the issues. In his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), Dr. Francis Collins, director the National Institutes of Health, wrote, “the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science.” He went on, “there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science.” Not believing in a “personal God,” Albert Einstein, nonetheless said, "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."

The task of increasing our STEM preparedness goes well beyond the confines of schools. It’s immensely complex, opposing interests are deeply entrenched, and will take much longer and cost much more than most people realize. It’s not a problem that can be addressed by a five or ten year plan. It will take a generational blueprint that needs to be comprehensive, cohesive and well capitalized in order to see a return on the investment.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.