All in Messaging

There will be books written about the brilliant use of social media in the Barack Obama campaign for the U.S. presidency. Richard Edelman, head of the eponymous public relations agency (and a competitor), pointed out recently

Consider this single statistic from the recently completed Obama for President Campaign. Three million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations on-line adding up to more than $500 million in funds raised. Of those donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. His email list has 13 million addresses. A million people signed up for the text-messaging program. Two million profiles were created on, his social network, plus 5 million supporters in other venues such as Facebook and MySpace.

I don't know if she has a book planned but Canadian Rahaf Harfoush, who was deeply involved in the social networking aspects of the campaign at new media HQ in Chicago, gave a captivating presentation last night at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management on lessons learned from the campaign from the inside.

Here are her six lessons:

  1. Give new media a seat at the strategy table.
  2. The new digital tools are useless without a blueprint. 
  3. As with any communications campaign, social media campaigns require consistency in messaging.
  4. Map out the digital landscape of your target audiences (find the conversations relevant to your strategy).
  5. Include a call to offline action.
  6. Be ready to give up control to your communities

None of the lessons are unique in and of themselves. Our digital team recommends them to our clients all the time . . . as do I. But the success of the social media dimension of the Obama battle may be the final proof needed to get senior executives and Canadian political campaigners out of their obtuse fog and increasingly strained and silly denial of the obvious about the power of a crowd-sourced innovation and influence . . . even in the exercise of democratic action. 

I took four additional lessons away from the presentation that aren't part of Ms Harfoush's list, but are central to her thesis: 

  1. Social media strategies should be built on smoothing the progress of intimacy, connection and conversation among target audiences, consumers or voters;
  2. A new media strategy slapped on to an old business or political strategy framework will fail (The Obama new media campaign's success was achieved in the context of an innovative political strategy, including a willingness to let online communities create their own offline actions and events);
  3. There are no off-the-shelf social media solutions;
  4. Find the digital sweet spot but prize agility

Ten days or so of campaigns being waged online:

  1. Young drivers in Ontario are using Facebook to challenge a new piece of legislation adding new restrictions on licensing of teenage drivers, including zero tolerance policies on speeding and drinking for drivers under 21 years old. Facebook group membership is at 79,000 or so and growing. The provincial government in Ontario says it will have no impact on progress of the legislation, dismissing the protest as involving what the Ontario Minister of Transportation James Bradley calls "for the most part, kids who are 16 or 17". I wonder how he determined that demographic mix of group members? A bit presumptuous I think and likely to push a spike in membership.
  2. The now famous Twitter assault on Motrin has apparently occasioned backlash from advertising executives because such campaigns may "kill creativity." The value of such hand-wringing aside, I wonder what exactly was creative about such copy as "It totally makes me look like an official mom." Judge for yourself whether this is creative or discourteous.

And finally, although I can't find a Facebook group or Twitter campaign underway on it yet, there's a movement just waiting for a digital hero. Here's the story. It was reported this week in Canada's National Post that "Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has hired six students whose jobs as "dialogue facilitators" will involve intervening in conversations among students in dining halls and common rooms to encourage discussion of such social justice issues as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability and social class." This followed hard on the heels of the university moving the controversial -- although very popular -- homecoming celebrations (read 'street party') to May when most students have all left the university. Anyone for re-reading Orwell's 1984

With a hat tip to @Monika29 (Twitter) for bringing to my attention this - albeit pretty basic - visual demonstration of social networking for business from VizEdu.

It is valuable in part because it summarizes in about 30 seconds case studies of the effective use of social networking to solve business challenges: Cooper Systems use of 'Linked in' as a recruitment tool; and H&R Block's 'Facebook' presence as a means of creating awareness of its products and maintaining relationships with its "fans". 

Beyond that, VizEdu's simple visual platform is an example of how social media can be used to communicate, teach or present through creative application of animation and words.

I have an idea for my next new business pitch presentation!

Former senior journalist and media executive Adrian Monck, who blogs at --well -- Adrian Monck has come out with an apparently critical book called Can You Trust the Media which according to one commentary argues the need to "understand the media's limitations and its boundaries, and make information as freely available as possible."


I'll buy that . . . and indeed Monck's book, although it seems the only place it is available at the moment is the U.K.'s The Parliamentary Bookshop. There you can also add to your check-out cart, these two. . . 

1842751360  9780745326887

If you read a single article about why there is a trust deficit with financial institutions and regulators and other industry leaders in America, take a look at Gretchen Morgenson's piece in the Sunday New York Times.

Here she is on Alan Greenspan: "Then, on Thursday, my meter sputtered as Alan Greenspan, former “Maestro” of the Federal Reserve, testified before the same Congressional questioners. He defended years of regulatory inaction in the face of predatory lending and said he was 'in a state of shocked disbelief' that financial institutions did not rein themselves in when there were billions to be made by relaxing their lending practices and trafficking in exotic derivatives."

She takes on Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, brokerage firms who "insisted that auction-rate securities were as good as cash" and Wall Street dealmakers "who were fawned over like all-knowing superstars, their comings and goings celebrated."

There are a lot of Americans whose hypocrisy meters like her's are in over-drive.

Some companies are beginning to wonder what to do with their corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, those glossy annual attempts to prove -- and justify -- "responsibility" initiatives. Others are debating whether to publish one.

The conventional model of the annual CSR report is built on the annual corporate report archetype, that snapshot in time of business focus, performance, and strategy. Meant to meet statutory reporting requirements of the jurisdictions in which an organization's stock is traded, annual reports are also sometimes a marketing tool (as is often the true intention of a CSR report). The most important part of the annual report is the management discussion and analysis, the part that competitors, investment bankers and financial analysts read . . . and hardly anyone else.

In most jurisdictions, there are no statutory obligations to produce a CSR report, no nothing compelling external reasons. And maybe they have had their day.  Some who have been in the game a long time are recognizing the limitations of this traditional reporting mechanism. CSR reports seldom satisfy a company's critical audiences, even if they are informed by stakeholder panels who help the organization ensure it is reporting on the right things.

Those with some stake in the company's activities (neighbors, local governments, environmental or human rights watchdogs) want a less static, less marketing-oriented means of narrating corporate assurances and successes in achieving CSR goals. They tend to favor more timely reporting on progress, increased interaction and discussion of CSR goals. What they are looking for is something that is less a report and more a platform for engagement and problem solving. And what employees? Well frankly only a minority likely read it.

As Scott Liebs, deputy editor of CFO magazine, suggest in a piece (link is below) on CSR reporting we ere moving to a new reporting model:

“… companies … need to focus less on the [CSR] report and more on the reporting, conceiving of it as a continuous activity that is as critical to running the business as it is to selling the business.”

And Alex Hausmann The Timberland Company's CSR reporting manager argues the same recently in an article in Environmental Leader:

"As an organization we needed to move from static data in CSR reports to more dynamic information exchange; from corporate statement to stakeholder engagement; and from delayed annualized information to quarterly updates on CSR progress."

Timberland has moved to quarterly reporting on 15 CSR performance indicators including trend data, context and analysis. The benefit of this approach is that it is more a more coincident (with current programs) and lively interface between a company and its customers, partners and critics. It promotes, even mandates engagement.

They're on the right track.

LogoLaw Times (which keeps "keeps Ontario's busy lawyers and corporate counsel up-to-date with developments and trends in Ontario's legal scene") associate editor Robert Todd interviewed me about the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis crisis.

While I usually refrain from commenting on how crises are being managed by companies with which I am not involved, and I respect the confidentiality of those clients with whom I am working on a crisis or major issue, in this case I felt it was okay to comment since I only had positive things to say about Maple Leaf Foods.   

The article is fair and accurate and provides a good summary of my point of view on the role of legal counsel in a crisis.

The accusation leveled against communications and public relations professionals is that what they (we) do is "spin" facts on behalf of clients to evade truth. Anyone who has actually practiced the profession knows that this is in large measure stupid and ahistorical.

To quote myself (for the second time . . .forgive me again) from a previous post on messaging and spin:

"This is nonsense and I have written about it elsewhere. Forgive me if I quote myself from that post:

Messaging to my way of thinking is making a point of view apparent . . .  with simplicity, clarity and force. It is an element of Aristotelian rhetoric and is the foundation of ordinary discourse. Using it on behalf of a client to explain -- truthfully and openly -- a point of view is much less manipulative than juxtaposing a terrifying image with an alarmist headline. Of course, when messages are treated as dogma they can't help but sound like spin."

Two things have led me to reprise the idea: A unique beta website (hat tip to colleague Alan Chumley for bringing it to my attention) called SpinSpotter and an article in The Globe and Mail on the 'L' word in the current Canadian and American elections.

SpinSpotter is "a website and software tool that exposes new spin and bias, misuse of sources, and suspect factual support." You turn on SpinSpotter and it will flag words and phrases in an article that evidence bias, are just recycled phrases from a press release, or favor slant and opinion to reporting. What constitutes "spin" is defined by an advisory group of journalists assembled by the SpinSpotter folks. A computer algorithm allows all users to contribute to the knowledge base of "spin". And truth mongers can share with others their own "spin markers" when they come across an egregious example of the uniquely subjective writing that sometimes passes for reporting today. 

The Globe and Mail story talks about the Democratic Party launching a 'Count the Lies' site which keeps a running tally of the number of lies John McCain tells during his campaign. This may seem redundant since political campaigns are about power not truth, and truth (like civility and decency) is easily sacrificed in politics. But at least the Democrats have given political campaigning its true name.

I love both because they are small proofs that social media and and the web encourage the democratization of ideas and facilitate honesty. And if you need further evidence, Jeremiah Owyang at Forrester has developed (although it isn't clear from his post if he is the progenitor of the concept) a protocol for using Twitter to score the candidates in the first presidential debate on September 26th.

His scoring guide looks like this:

-3 for a personal attack
-2 for a false statement
-1 for avoiding the issue, or not answering the question
+1 for a successful assertion
+2 for a successful counterpoint to opponents assertion
+3 Quotable sound bite

Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf Foods (not a client), in the midst of a full recall of the food products made in its Bator Road facility at a news conference yesterday as quoted in The Globe and Mail:

"Going through the crisis there are two advisers I've paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants. It's not about money or legal liability, this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food."

Maple Leaf Foods full page "open letter" in today's The Globe and Mail:

"This is a terrible tragedy. To those people who have become ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I want to express my deepest and most sincere sympathies. Words cannot begin to express our sadness for your pain."

Daniel Diermeier, a professor of regulation and competitive practice at Chicago's Kellogg School of Management has this to say today in The Globe and Mail about Maple Leaf Foods Inc.'s reaction to its meat product recall:

"They face a very, very difficult challenge here and it's very important that they have stepped forward and accepted responsibility. They have chosen to protect their brand, rather than protecting their legal liability. This is correct. They can deal with legal issues later, after they have rescued the brand . . . Crisis management should never be delegated to a legal department or corporate counsel."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

I have an article on corporate apologies in the latest issue of Ampersand, Hill & Knowlton's online "magazine". 

This is my third piece or post on the subject, and although the argument will have a long shelf-life, I suspect I should give it a rest. I will end (well maybe) with a quote from my H&K colleague Chris Gidez who takes a somewhat different approach to the issue in a post from earlier in the year: "But at the end of the day, such an expression (apology - my note) is nothing more than a Band-Aid.  It doesn't cure the ill."

If you come to the issue of corporate apologies from the perspective of ethics, can I also recommend you take a look at the article in the same issue by Stuart Smith and Carole Essex on the sustainable enterprise.

Another reminder to corporate executives and politicians there is no such thing as off the record when talking to journalists . . .

And in the spirit of Leslie Stahl's immortal words shortly after catching a CEO making a snide comment about an opponent supposedly in a camera break, "We're not your friends" . . .

Jesse Jackson gets caught whispering disparagingly about Barack Obama.


I didn't know it at the time of my post on apologies, but on March 25, 2008 the Ontario Bar Association (a branch of the Canadian Bar Association) sent a letter to the provincial government urging the Attorney General of Ontario to amend or enact legislation to "give effect to the provisions of the Uniform Apology Act" in the province.

Forgive the legal language, but here is what the central parts of the proposed Uniform Apology Act (also available on the OBA's website) have to recommend about the effect of an apology (corporate or personal) on liability.

Should such legislation be enacted, the benefit for companies (the legislation would apply to "all persons, natural and corporate") facing a crisis in which management recognizes it has done something worthy of apology is self-evident.

2 (1) An apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter

(a) does not constitute an express of implied admission of fault or liability by the person in connection with that matter,

(b) does not constitute [a confirmation of a cause of action or acknowledgment of a claim] in relation to that matter for the purposes of [appropriate section of the applicable limitation statute],

(c) does not, despite any wording to the contrary in any contract of insurance and despite any other enactment or law, void, impair or otherwise affect any insurance coverage that is available, or that would, but for the apology, be available, to the person in connection with that matter, and

(d) may not be taken into account in any determination of fault or liability in connection with that matter.

I make it a habit to read Jeremiah Owyang's blog nearly every day, in addition to those of my colleagues Brendan Hodgson, David Jones and Anil Dilawri (who blog less frequently unfortunately).

Mr. Owyang is a  senior analyst at Forrester Research and celebrates his second anniversary of blogging at with another useful 'how to' post on making a blog successful. His three most valuable ideas:

  1. "Create focused content"
  2. "Publish frequently" 
  3. "Interact"

Point taken. I will try to do better.

Starting next post . . . because as something of a grammar Nazi, I do want to point everyone to a post called Loosey-Goosey Latin by Todd Defren. He reviews the provenance and usage rules for “i.e.”,  “e.g.”, “etc.” and “et al.” My only comment, other than complete support for defending decent usage, is that the post would have been thoroughly invaluable if he had taken some of his readers to task for verbalizing 'etc.' as 'eckcetera''.  Awful.

Note One:

One of the questions asked by corporate communicators about corporate blogging is how you handle negative comments. The answer is straightforward . . . with grace, patience and diplomacy, even if what you feel like saying is screw you. There is an instructive example of how to do it right in a response by Adam Nash of Linkedin to a nasty live blogged post at Web 2.OH really?(By the way, the blog's subtitle is 'A skeptic's guide to emerging web 2.0 technology.') On Nash's reaction the blogger commented "He started with a compliment and shifted into a clarification that reframed [and corrected] what I’d written. He ended with another compliment . . . This is a near-perfect display of best practices when responding to a negative post."

Note Two:

Steelmaker Arcelor MIttal today is holding its first in a series of investor and analyst meetings in the Second Life virtual world with the goal of reaching potential investors in a different demographic than its current pensioner retail investor base. Future intentions include offering Second Lifers the option of buying shares in Linden dollars. According to ArcelorMittal (Disclosure . . . a former H&K client) investor relations head Julien Onillon said the company will be happy if even 10 people turnout to the Second Life meeting. I hope ArcelorMittal will report publicly on whether this target is exceeded or at least reached. 

Note Three:

To provide a little balance to social media evangelism (including my own), here is a post with cautions about using YouTube as a corporate social media tool. The tone is off-putting. But the cautions and recommendations are useful. 

Industry and business seldom take on advocacy groups and science ("junk" or legitimate) any more, at least publicly.

So it is with some interest I noticed in yesterday's National Post that the tanning bed industry in Canada has launched a campaign to challenge what it calls the "extreme" point of view of the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) and the World Health Organization in its "pure abstinence messaging" when it comes to UV exposure. The duel between white coats has begun and has already gotten a bit messy as the Joint Canadian Tanning Association accuses the CDA of having close financial links to sunscreen manufacturers.

The tanning bed industry is using a model of aggressive reputation defense that has fallen out of favor given the relative lack of public credibility in business compared to NGOs and global health and environmental bodies. Dialogue and active problem identification and resolution are the preferred routes to managing social, environmental and health problems blamed on industry. But I presume there are more than a few frustrated companies standing on the sidelines of this one waiting to see how the tanning bed industry fairs in its campaign for "moderation" in assessing the cancer risks in UV exposure whether from the sun or a tanning bed.    

Doctor By coincidence given my post yesterday today's New York Times has an article called Doctors Start to Say 'I'm Sorry' Long Before 'See You in Court'.

Physicians and even malpractice lawyers in the US are becoming more willing to find a way to communicate regret when a patient is harmed in error:

"By promptly disclosing medical errors and offering earnest apologies and fair compensation, they hope to restore integrity to dealings with patients, make it easier to learn from mistakes and dilute anger that often fuels lawsuits.

Malpractice lawyers say that what often transforms a reasonable patient into an indignant plaintiff is less an error than its concealment, and the victim’s concern that it will happen again."

Sw_logo_left_2 I am ambivalent about the idea of corporate "front groups" or what is more pejoratively labeled 'astroturfing'. Misrepresentation of any sort is just too dangerous a communications or lobbying strategy when every citizen, employee or bureaucrat can be a whistleblower or journalist.

The issue was raised again last week when I came across a 'Front Groups Portal' wiki, a SourceWatch project of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD. . . a biased and uni-dimensional advocacy group -- with a url called -- which nevertheless keeps corporate communicators on their toes.) The purpose of the wiki is to expose groups which claim “to represent one agenda while in reality (serving) some other interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned -- typically, a corporate or government sponsor.”

As an aside, you got to hand it to the CMD. Using a wiki for the purpose of "exposing" makes a lot of sense. When it comes to advocating a point of view, for some campaigners, NGOs and watchdogs facts are less important than the way they can be used to serve ideology. (Look at the situation Barrick Gold finds itself in today.) Unedited and unsupervised wikis can encourage the primacy of 'doxa' rather than rational analysis. Innuendo and rumor become fair game.

But What About Astroturfing?

First principle here . . . There is nothing wrong with creating a coalition of like-minded companies to present a coherent, well-defended and honest point of view about a social or political issue. Business creates wealth and therefore has a right to attempt to influence policy. Governments are fallible when it comes to writing regulation. Partisan politics can distort effective public policy. And few advocacy groups are willing to admit their science is sometimes shaky; their motivation driven by ideology; their "proofs" less than rigorously questioned internally.

Spirited exchanges of ideas are essential to effective economics and democracy. Like labor, business leaders have a right to organize responsible support for, or opposition to, a trend, decision or policy: the pivotal word, of course being responsible. And responsible organizations shouldn't tolerate misrepresentation. Here are five ideas to avoid astroturfing, to remain real not fake.

Five Ideas for Creating Defensible Industry Coalitions

  1. Be transparent. Always. Without having to be asked or told you are not being so.
  2. Be honest. Don't name a group 'concerned citizens' when it is really a group of 'angry industry executives'.
  3. Treat opposing viewpoints with respect. Nothing undermines bias or radicalism like valuing the contribution of the activist even if convictions differ.
  4. Take the rhetoric out of the coalition's communications. The contrast between an opponent's overstatement and a reasonable presentation of fact will be recognized by the people whose opinions matter.
  5. Defend the value in a democracy of the freedom of association . . . even for business leaders.