Monday, February 27, 2012

Cultivating Mutual Trust

A few years ago, Ernst Fehr, a behavioral scientist and professor of Microeconomics and Experimental Economics at the University of Zürich, undertook a very complicated, study of selflessness, selfishness and trust.

Bottom line: the professor and his colleague, Bettina Rockenbach, found that altruism — an unselfish regard for the welfare of others — is a powerful factor in economic transactions. Other studies have found compelling evidence that altruism is a genetic trait.

Theories that elevate the power of self-interest — the “greed is good” approach to doing business — often fail to take into consideration the fact that selfishness can almost completely destroy trust and cooperation. Trust, on the other hand, begets trust.

Stakeholders want to be leveled with. They really want to believe us … and they want us to trust them.

“If you trust people,” says Fehr, “you make them more trustworthy.”

Trust lies at the heart of who we are as human beings. As a species, we’re actually “hard-wired” to form social bonds. It’s partly a matter of neurobiology.

There is a remarkable hormone called oxytocin, which appears to help people build trust and form productive and meaningful relationships, both at a professional and personal level. Too little oxytocin can contribute to social phobia. Too much, and you’re too trusting … you’re an easy mark for the likes of Bernie Madoff.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Communications Through Art

Last Sunday, my wife and I visited the galleries of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These magnificent works came from a vast geographic area, which includes present-day Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, India, Spain and Morocco. Many of those countries were part of the Ottoman Empire (between the 13th and 16th centuries) and were thus strongly influenced by the Mughals, originally from India, who brought with them a pervasive Muslim influence, tempered by the artistic traditions of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

What, you are no doubt thinking, does this have to do with communications management?

Well, this fabulous art collection communicated to me that it was produced in societies that encouraged free artistic expression, and possibly free expression in other areas as well. For example, one of the researchers speaking on the museum’s Acoustiguide audio tour reported that one of the principles of Islam “was to let everyone practice their own religion.” This policy resulted in the Golden Age of Spain, a cultural cornucopia during the 15th century.

As you walk through this exhibit of great textiles, carpets, ceramics and metalwork, paintings, books and jewelry, one can only think about the changes that have taken place in several of these countries, where freedom has been restricted either recently or for long periods of time.

It all made me realize once again that art tells a story — not only of the artists that made the work, but also how people lived in the society in which the art was created. While great pieces were no doubt designed as gifts for royalty, the range of the pieces in this exhibit communicated a society where people grew and expanded their interests. It conveyed wealth, success and pride in the culture. None of this could have occurred without a desire of leadership to communicate these themes to the world. Communications, in this sense, has survived centuries.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Makes a Good Leader?

A new study from the University of Buffalo has shown that, compared to egotistical bosses, humble bosses: 1) lead by example, 2) admit their mistakes and 3) recognize their followers' strengths.

The researchers found that these three behaviors are powerful predictors of company growth. Moreover, humility has also been found to foster more learning-oriented teams, more engaged staff and lower employee turnover.

By humble, I don’t mean insignificant or inferior. I mean being modest and respectful of the people with whom these leaders work.

The kind of leadership we have at Makovsky combines the best of both worlds. It’s leadership that is ethical and humane. Ethical leaders do the right thing, even if it’s inconvenient or unpopular. It’s always been a valued part of the culture of our firm and embodies how we do business.

That’s because power in today’s transparent and open world is not power over something, but power that energizes and connects, like a network. You build your power, not by ordering people around, but by finding areas of common ground and opening up a world of possibilities that can only be unleashed through cooperation and trust.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Lessons Learned: The Komen-Parenthood Affair

Lee Davies, a Group Vice President in Makovsky’s Health Practice, is the guest author of this blog on the recent controversy between Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood.
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

According to the laws of physics, that’s when energy is created. And there certainly was a lot of energy generated when Susan G. Komen for the Cure notified Planned Parenthood Federation of America that it was withholding $750,000 in planned grant funding for breast cancer screening.

The move apparently stemmed from a change in its grant guidance last October, restricting grants to organizations under federal or state investigation – including Planned Parenthood, which, lightening rod that it is, is perpetually under federal or state investigation.

But politically motivated or not, one thing is for sure: media attention was loud and strong! Rarely do patient advocacy associations take each other on head-to-head – usually these groups take the high road and “play nicely.” So, from a communications perspective, who did what – and how well did they do it?

Planned Parenthood appeared to own this story. They turned a “victim” role into a powerful, proactive advocate voice. Within hours of official notification, they issued a call-to-action to constituents and mobilized a broad and deep communications effort, including an e-mail communiqué from president Cecile Richards; outreach to influential public officials sympathetic to the Planned Parenthood mission (including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who offered to make up part of the funding shortfall); media engagement, especially with high-profile professional women reporters (Barbara Walters, Andrea Mitchell); as well as leveraging the blogosphere and commandeering the social media space. Their multi-pronged campaign achieved critical mass and created an eventual tipping point resulting in Susan G. Komen withdrawing its grant denial.

Susan G. Komen, on the other hand, appeared to let the story spin out of control. They knew they were taking a highly controversial position. Given their potentially inflammatory stance, they could have done more to prepare the market environment to receive potentially difficult news. Moreover, did they have a “crisis” plan in place to address the media storm that immediately swirled? The impact on reputation or “brand equity” cannot be easily determined. According to news reports, daily individual contributions may have actually risen in the days following their announcement – a reflection of the fact that controversy always has two sides. In the long-term, though, Susan G. Komen’s credibility may have been damaged by muddled communications and contradictory actions. Time and a raft of positive communications – especially with Planned Parenthood – will be necessary to counter this.

So what are the key learnings for us, as communicators, when it comes to delivering controversial news?

• Create a receptive environment in advance by engaging with key audiences and explaining your planned actions.

• If possible, deliver messages in a face-to-face environment, and answer questions forthrightly.

• Enlist the support and aid of outside experts who can help deliver the message.

• Develop a strategic plan anticipating media and audience response, and be ready to either pre-empt or react quickly.

• Engage early and often in the social media space. Monitor discussions and anticipate the tipping point.

• If you are the recipient of negative news, assess your position and its impact, and be prepared to mobilize your stakeholders to take a desired action.

Now that the dust may be settling, one thing seems certain: this communications controversy is likely to become a case study in the power of social media, grassroots constituency relations, advocacy relations and public policy development. It is our job to learn from it.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

A New, "No Secrets" Environment

More than 50 years ago, public relations pioneer Arthur W. Page, said, “Prove it with action. Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.” With the advent of the Internet Age, this may be more true today than ever before.

The fact that there are no secrets anymore requires a new mindset. We need to think of ourselves as custodians and role models of the correct behaviors.

If we remember that, in a world where cameras now come standard with cell phones, everyone is watching us — even if we can’t see them — we’re less likely to allow the kinds of lapses in judgment that can undermine relationships … or even kill a company.

It’s all too easy, in a thoughtless moment, for otherwise conscientious, intelligent people to forget that their behaviors are just a mouse click away from exposure.

In a careless gesture, an individual hits the “reply all” button on an email and accidently informs the client that the writer thinks he’s “a jerk.” An unhappy employee tells a friend that she’s being harassed by a supervisor. That friend tells a friend who posts it on an industry bulletin board and the story goes viral. Or let’s say the supervisor’s behavior doesn’t go beyond the employee – until a year later when she quits and tells others at her new company – a competitor. Then it becomes gossip.

How we do something may loom larger than what we produce in today’s open and transparent business environment. Author Dov Seidman calls this “the new frontier of conduct” … and I contend that it is rewriting the stakeholder equation. Exceeding stakeholders’ expectations is only part of the equation. As PR professionals, we also need to cultivate the kind of behavior that enhances trust, rapport and, ultimately, reputation.

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Monday, February 06, 2012

Setting Records... and Breaking Them

Big news on CNNMoney.

Recently, Apple nudged out oil giant Exxon Mobil to become the most valuable publicly-traded company in the world.

“The company's stock was up 6.3% to $447.02 a share, one day after Apple reported the best quarterly results in history for a tech company. That spike pushed the company's market value to $419 billion,” Ben Rooney writes.

According to The New York Times, last year Apple earned over $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil or Google.

Here’s my personal theory why …

Apple first redefined the consumer’s experience of using a portable audio device in 2001, when it launched the iPod First Generation in 2001. Now it seems like Apple is coming out with new products — and impressive innovations on existing products — just about every “15 minutes.” Steve Jobs’ brilliant engineering, design, branding and marketing teams have redefined the market and given rise to a whole family of products that now includes five or six different varieties of iPods — plus iPhone, iTouch and iPad.

Apple outperforms its competition by outperforming its own past performance. Lesson to be learned.

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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Shame on the New York Times

It is distressing that a publication with the stature of The New York Times would slam the term “public relations” as a pejorative at best and a phony empty suit at worst…especially in a day when it is defined in Webster’s Dictionary, Wikipedia devotes pages to it, and organizations spend millions on it.

In referring to President Obama’s new task force, the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, designed to investigate abusive practices in the mortgage industry, the newspaper published Gretchen Morgenson’s column, in which she writes: “Some greeted this new task force…with skepticism. It is an election year…and many might wonder if this [new task force] is just a public-relations response to the outrage against [those who] almost wrecked the economy.”

Would The New York Times refer to its own aggressive public relations program as superficial? Even if the Working Group were just a shell, why not call a spade a spade, as opposed to insulting an industry that the newspaper itself depends upon to bring it a percentage of its news and some of its revenues? Further, The Times recently ran an article on the definition of public relations being updated to take the internet into account. Isn’t this two-faced?

Webster’s Dictionary defines public relations as “the business of inducing the public to have understanding for or goodwill toward a person, firm or institution.” Wikipedia offers several definitions, among them, “public relations is the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics.” Another: “the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders.”

During his debates with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858, Abraham Lincoln acknowledged the importance of public relations when he said, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” He didn’t just preach, he practiced. He was one of the first presidents to use tools of our profession to shape public sentiment.

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