Monday, March 31, 2008

Battling eMail Overload

If you're like me, you're drowning in a tidal wave of emails.

In 2006, the average corporate email user received 126 email messages every day ... up 55 percent since 2004, says market research firm The Radicati Group. If you spend just 60 seconds reading and responding to each message, that's two hours out of every eight-hour workday. Moreover, if corporate email traffic continues to grow at its current pace, in 2009 you can expect to be spending 41% of your workday managing your email.

In his Small Agency Diary in Ad Age last month, Marc Brownstein argues that "e-mail is diverting our best waking hours from thinking, conceptualizing and dreaming big ideas."

"It is very easy to come to the office, sit at the computer, and read/respond to e-mail for hours," he says. "Some of it is clearly useful, and maybe even billable. But let's face it -- most of it is tactical. Real thinking occurs when you shut off the digital tools and focus on the challenge at hand with just your mind, and perhaps a fellow collaborator or two."

My top three techniques for managing email overload include:
  • Setting aside time at the very beginning and end of the day (and a mid-day peak) to send and respond to emails. (The rest of my day is devoted to thinking and interactions with live human beings, in person and on the phone.) Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule e.g. client or organizational crises or other urgent developments.

  • Never "touching" a piece of email more than once. All emails are answered or forwarded and filed. Conversations are best held over the phone.

  • Banning "PDA prayer" during meetings. (That's when people in a meeting discreetly hide their Treos and Blackberrys in their laps, under the conference table, while checking their emails. It's just rude!)
What tactics have you developed for minimizing what Brownstein calls "the gravitational pull of email"?

Technorati Tags: email, email overload, The Radicati Group, Ad Age, Marc Brownstein, Small Agency Diary, business, communications, public relations

Monday, March 24, 2008

What Happened to Our Safety Net?

Ignited by the subprime mortgage crisis, the recent collapse of investment banking firm Bear Stearns — and its rescue by JP Morgan Chase and the Federal Reserve — have raised new questions about our financial system, the credit crunch and what to do next to resolve this economically threatening situation.

At the heart of this debacle is the issue of trust: the borrowers no longer trust the banks and the banks no longer trust the borrowers. Obviously, changes in the financial system are required to restore that trust. Below are excerpts from economist,
Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times (March 21, ’08), “Partying Like It’s 1929,” which cites the cause, the effect and a possible solution to save our financial system. We need to do everything possible to communicate Krugman’s rationale to our congressmen and regulators.

…We’re paying the price for willful amnesia. We chose to forget what happened in the 1930s — and having refused to learn from history, we’re repeating it.

Contrary to popular belief, the stock market crash of 1929 wasn’t the defining moment of the Great Depression. What turned an ordinary recession into a civilization-threatening slump was the wave of bank runs that swept across America in 1930 and 1931.

This banking crisis of the 1930s showed that unregulated, unsupervised financial markets can all too easily suffer catastrophic failure.

As the decades passed, however, that lesson was forgotten — and now we’re relearning it, the hard way.

To grasp the problem, you need to understand what banks do…

Normally, banks satisfy both desires: depositors have access to their funds whenever they want, yet most of the money placed in a bank’s care is used to make long-term loans. The reason this works is that withdrawals are usually more or less matched by new deposits, so that a bank only needs a modest cash reserve to make good on its promises.

But sometimes — often based on nothing more than a rumor — banks face runs, in which many people try to withdraw their money at the same time. And a bank that faces a run by depositors, lacking the cash to meet their demands, may go bust even if the rumor was false. Worse yet, bank runs can be contagious. If depositors at one bank lose their money, depositors at other banks are likely to get nervous, too, setting off a chain reaction. And there can be wider economic effects: as the surviving banks try to raise cash by calling in loans, there can be a vicious circle in which bank runs cause a credit crunch, which leads to more business failures, which leads to more financial troubles at banks, and so on. That, in brief, is what happened in 1930-1931, making the Great Depression the disaster it was. So Congress tried to make sure it would never happen again by creating a system of regulations and guarantees that provided a safety net for the financial system.

And we all lived happily for a while — but not for ever after.

Wall Street chafed at regulations that limited risk, but also limited potential profits. And little by little it wriggled free…

For example, in the old system, savers had federally insured deposits in tightly regulated savings banks, and banks used that money to make home loans. Over time, however, this was partly replaced by a system in which savers put their money in funds that bought asset-backed commercial paper from special investment vehicles that bought collateralized debt obligations created from securitized mortgages — with nary a regulator in sight.

As the years went by, the shadow banking system took over more and more of the banking business, because the unregulated players in this system seemed to offer better deals than conventional banks…

The financial crisis currently under way is basically an updated version of the wave of bank runs that swept the nation three generations ago. People aren’t pulling cash out of banks to put it in their mattresses — but they’re doing the modern equivalent, pulling their money out of the shadow banking system and putting it into Treasury bills. And the result, now as then, is a vicious circle of financial contraction…

This is no way to run an economy. It’s time to relearn the lessons of the 1930s, and get the financial system back under control.

Technorati Tags: subprime mortgage crisis, Bear Stearns, JP Morgan Chase, Federal Reserve, Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Great Depression, banking crisis, economy, Wall Street, stock market, business, communications, public relations

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Communications Challenge for Argentina

My wife decided that she wanted to go to Argentina to celebrate a special birthday. Why Argentina? I thought. What did I know about Argentina? What did anyone know about Argentina? Why not Paris? Or St. Barts? Or even Costa Rica?

Admittedly, I had heard good things about Buenos Aires - that it was a charming city, worth seeing. But when I queried friends and acquaintances about Argentina, I usually got a blank stare along with "No, never been there, never thought about it and never really considered it. What's there?"

For all intents and purposes Argentina is a secret in this country.

Having just returned from Argentina and now knowing it is the eighth biggest country in the world - and certainly one of the most beautiful - I believe Argentina is in serious need of a public relations campaign in the U.S. Obviously, Americans do not know what they are missing, because Argentina has not proudly showcased its spectacular scenic vistas in a campaign that would bring flocks of Americans to its shores. In fact, it was the Brazilians we met in Argentina who were the most vocal when it came to singing Argentina's praises.

The graceful city of Buenos Aires with its many parks dotting the concrete landscapes; venerable European buildings mixed with magnificent skyscrapers; the tango, which pervades the city through its clubs and sometimes even the streets; Iguazu Falls, one of the seven forgotten Wonders of the World which makes Niagara Falls seem like a modest dribble; and Bariloche, the magnificent scenery mecca where the Andes Mountains join with other Argentinean mountains and seven lakes to create the lushest scenery I have ever seen. Our guide said, "The Swiss come to Bariloche to take pictures and then put them on their postcards and call it Switzerland."

And then there are the people who are warm and friendly. It is summer there now, and the weather is perfect. Like New York, Buenos Aires has many distinctive neighborhoods that make it a wonderful city to walk through. I had a chance to brush up on my Spanish, and every day it got better. We saw the Eva Peron Museum which gave us a chance to see how she is portrayed in Argentina - as a heroine - compared with her unflattering portrayal in the movie (unpopular in Argentina), "Evita."

Yes, and one thing I forgot which could be a lure for anyone: Argentine ice cream. It's better than gelato, most likely because there are many flavors with dulce de leche in them. The consistency and taste make the ice cream both a habit-forming self-indulgence and a tourist magnet. Of course, there are also the famous beef ("the best in the world") and top-notch wines.

What's more, Americans also ought to know that Argentina is a place where
our dollar goes far!

As if Argentina doesn't already have an embarrassment of natural riches to
talk about, there's also the easy trip to Antarctica, which could be the basis of an exceptional story about this spectacular destination.

According to Argentina's National Institute of Statistics and Census (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos), foreign tourism was up 22% in the first quarter of 2006 over the same period a year earlier. The majority of these tourists (31%) came from Europe. Fewer than one in five - about 108,000 - came from North America.

I think it would be a cinch to promote the story of Argentina with the objective of increasing the number of North American tourists by 25%, to 135,000 a year ... attracting a total of 519 additional visitors there per week.

I would certainly go back again. So will others, once a solid communications program is put in play.

Technorati Tags: Argentina, Buenos Aires, public relations campaign, Brazilians, Iguazu Falls, Niagara Falls, Bariloche, Andes Mountains, Switzerland, Eva Peron, ice cream, Antarctica, business, communications, public relations

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Unique Starbucks Strategy

Every now and then, a company's management comes up with a simple but brilliant public relations move where the very action itself shows how much it cares about its customers. The move scores a triple whammy: it gets media attention in advance of the action, during the action and afterwards, maximizing visibility. And to add further impact, it has the advantage of potentially building sales. Starbucks' recent strategy had all of these ingredients.

A couple of weeks ago, on February 26th, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. local time, Starbucks closed nearly 7,100 of its stores in the U.S., ostensibly to retrain its baristas in making the best possible espresso shots, steam milk and other drinks for its customers.

The Seattle coffee giant made a public announcement, saying that, starting Wednesday morning, it is promising customers that their drink should be made perfect every time. If not, the company is urging customers to let the barista know and they will remake it correctly.

"Over the years we kind of lost our way," Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told workers in a video that started the training, the Wall Street Journal reported. Schultz urged workers to "really embrace this moment" and make a more genuine connection with the company's customers, after the training session.

What more can a Starbucks' customer want than a demonstration from management that it desires to produce the best drink possible ... in accordance with its customers' expectations?

Further, think about the transparency of the strategy from a customer vantage point and the support it likely engendered from many quarters. Most of the time management in similar situations does not publicly acknowledge the problem and would conduct such training sessions in secret. In this case, the president openly announced that things were not what they should be and needed to be improved. We can all not only identify with that, but sympathize as well. I have always believed that the truth triumphs. This is a refreshing example of that.

The triple-whammy publicity I saw with my own eyes ... in everything from ABC News and The New York Times to the BBC and Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.

Although I do not have access to the sales report, the next day I went into a Starbucks to get some coffee; the product was excellent and the store was as busy as ever. Whether that was true everywhere, I cannot say, but the move did get me into the store. It also told me that this management is "tuned in" in so many ways. Overall - meaningful to the business as well as a reputation plus.

Technorati Tags: Starbucks, Howard Schultz, reputation, Wall Street Journal, ABC News, The New York Times, BCC, The Colbert Report, business, communications, public relations

Monday, March 03, 2008

Honesty in Advertising

Under Congressional pressure, Pfizer, the world's largest research-based biomedical and pharmaceutical company, will be pulling its TV ad for Lipitor, its cholesterol-lowering drug. The ad prominently featured Dr. Robert Jarvik saying he's a user of the product and apparently rowing a boat. It turned out the rowing was done by a stunt double; and Dr. Jarvik didn't start taking Lipitor until after he was hired by Pfizer.

The House energy and commerce committee also has suggested that the ad presents Dr. Jarvik as a medical expert, when most of his career has involved the invention of the artificial heart. Ian Read, Pfizer's president-worldwide pharmaceutical operations, said in a statement that "the way in which we presented Dr. Jarvik in these ads has, unfortunately, led to misimpressions and distractions from our primary goal of encouraging patient and physician dialogue on the leading cause of death in the world – cardiovascular disease. We regret this. Going forward, we commit to ensuring there is greater clarity in our advertising regarding the presentation of spokespeople in the statement."

This is a very distressing situation, and obviously a mistake was made. Fortunately, the worldwide president jumped in quickly and appropriately apologized for the error, thereby attempting to recover some of the integrity lost in this incident, and I commend him for that.

Many presidents have been absent at such times of need, compounding their original problems. American consumers traditionally admire the quick admission of a mistake, and if the company has a long history of building trust, as Pfizer certainly does, consumer confidence is usually restored more rapidly.

Nevertheless, when one thinks of all the work that is put into the development of an ad, and the misrepresentations that evolved during subsequent policy discussions, one must question — in this Age of Transparency — Pfizer’s system of checks and balances …especially at a time when outside customer needs and the specter of a declining pharma industry reputation, factor into internal review.

For a company that has made such a significant contribution to medicine in the U.S. — and worldwide! — we know that President Read's statement and his rapid response are emblematic of the standards that we can anticipate and which exist in its medical and scientific areas.

Technorati Tags: Pfizer, Lipitor, Dr. Robert Jarvik, The House energy and commerce comittee, artificial heart, advertising, President Read, Age of Transparency, biomedical and pharmaceutical company, medicine, business, communications, public relations