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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Keep Derek Jeter. Don't negotiate in the press.

Why is it that smart people who should know better don't know how to keep from washing their dirty laundry in public?

The last couple of days have been relatively quiet, but last week was an embarrassing time for all involved. It started in the New York tabloids and then on sports radio - the contract negotiations between one of the most storied franchise in all of sports, the New York Yankees, and the its highly- regarded superstar team captain Derek Jeter. For those needing the background here are a few links to the NY Daily News, NY Post and even the NY Times. If you want a daily feed and the rants from sports fans, tune into WFAN in New York.

All that the entire episode continues to do is harm the reputations of both Jeter and the Yankees, and tarnish their brands.

In many management/union negotiations we've seen one side break the cone of silence when they perceive it in their interest. More often than not, this is the labor side when union officials think that going public will either score points with their membership or change public opinion. Our general advice to clients in the middle of negotiations is to learn multiple ways to say No Comment without uttering those words: "We can't comment on ongoing discussions." Or "Talks are progressing. We'll have updates on a periodic basis. It's our policy not to negotiate in public." Short and relatively sweet.

After this public negotiations concludes, we'll learn what the Yankees agreed to pay Jeter for 3-5 years, which will probably be the last contract of a very successful career. Unlike most modern-day sports stars, Jeter has only played for one major league team. He has helped the Yankees win 5 World Series while there and has achieved iconic status. He has been the current era equivalent to Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig or Mickey Mantle in terms of what he means to the team.

The Yankees are the richest team in baseball if not all sports. They can afford Jeter. Arguably, retiring Jeter as a lifelong Yankee will be of tremendous benefit to the Yankees long after his playing days are over. So why is it that Yankee owners and management felt the need to publicly say that if "He's not happy here, he's welcome to negotiate with other teams." That's a standard negotiating ploy, betting that no other team will overpay Jeter the way the Yankees will in part reward him for what he means to the team, not just his statistical accomplishments or potential stats over the next few years. But that's not a good PR strategy. Jeter's posse felt the need the respond and hence the media and fan frenzy.

I agree with predictions that Jeter will ultimately sign a contract for 3-5 years and there will be a compromise between the $15 million a year the Yankees offered, and Jeter's request of $23-24 million a year. Jeter will save face and not look like he took a pay cut. The Yankees will vow that they never wanted to lose him. The bad taste will linger for a while; all will be forgotten if the Yankees win World Series and Jeter has great numbers. But why run the risk when the potential reputational cost is so high?

Back to the point for non-sports negotiations: It's really okay to be consistent and firm in not negotiating in public. The key is to develop a communications plan for negotiations, write the FAQ documents, and rehearse spokespersons who can withstand the various different ways that reporters will bug you and ask the same questions.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Carnival Splendor's Social Media Strategy

Carnival Cruise Lines is getting generally high marks for its customer relations and public relations response to the highly-publicized misfortune that befell its "Carnival Splendor" earlier this month. The ship and passengers were stranded at sea for days with no power after an engine room fire, and the vessel had to be towed in to port.

Refunds and credit for a future cruise, air fare reimbursements, free hotel stays in San Diego or a bus back to the dock in Long Beach, and most-important -- the on-site appearance of top management to take responsibility -- went a long way toward soothing angry passengers.

The cruise line's PR response was in line with what we at CommCore always counsel our clients during a crisis that affects consumers:

• Respond quickly.

• Show genuine concern for those affected, and back it up with actions to alleviate and/or redress the situation as quickly as possible to the extent possible.

• Get senior management involved immediately and visibly.

Among the tools Carnival used during the crisis was social media -- the cruise director posted ongoing blog items, and Carnival posted regular updates on its Facebook page in real time, with links on Twitter: http://on.fb.me/cHdqxM

In the social media sphere, Carnival is getting mixed reviews from experts. Yes, they moved quickly into the social media space, and that counts in their favor. The main beef? That Carnival failed to further engage its customers online by not expanding the conversation into ongoing 2-way dialogue. Instead they by-and-large stuck to one-way corporate updates and cruise director blog postings: http://bit.ly/8YnpcR.

As a result, some experts say, they may have missed an opportunity to build stronger brand loyalty through real-time conversations with their customers, angry and upset as they were.

At CommCore we remind our clients about the following the ever-evolving rules of social media:
• Unlike traditional media, successful social media communication requires engagement and real-time conversation, not just news updates. Social media is not a platform; it's a living room. On the other hand, if the living room turns into a sit-in at a certain point there may be reason to limit the conversation in the living room. It's hard to imagine any comments that Carnival was a nice experience when passengers were eating Spam and had no electricity. In some instances, social media really means using all the available communications tools to get messages out: traditional media interviews, press releases, web postings, emails, blogs, twitter feeds. But it doesn't have to mean limiting the two-way real-time conversation, certainly during the height of the crisis response.

• Monitoring social media in real-time is a critical aspect of proper crisis response.

• Social media engagement isn't always about good news; by allowing angry or concerned customers to vent, and communicating with them in real-time about their experience, an organization can buttress their brand credibility and loyalty that regular PR, corporate communications or marketing have helped build. .

What do you think of the Carnival Splendor response? What communications lessons did you or your clients learn from it?

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Communications/Negotiations Lessons from Ted Kheel

Noted labor lawyer and negotiator par excellence, Theodore W. Kheel, passed away this week. As the obituaries attest, for the better part of four decades Ted was the key connector between management and labor in New York City and in Washington. The New York Times obit tells a good story about his role in labor disputes involving newspaper, railroads, sanitation and transit workers.

I owe a good deal of my communications career to Ted Kheel and one of his many ventures. In the late 1960's, Ted and several union leaders were concerned about the changes that "automation" would have on the American workforce. He developed a center on Manhattan's Upper East Side called Automation House, dedicated as a meeting and conference center to come up with answers to late 20th Century automation and industrial problems.

Automation House had one of the better TV studios in Manhattan at the time. I was working as a free lance writer and was asked to write an article on how broadcast facilities could be utilized for an activity called "Media Training." I watched the training, wrote the article and as they say, the rest is history.

I learned a good deal about negotiations and client management from Mr. Kheel. Two quotes in the obit summarize his approach to mediation and creating settlements. One came from a New Yorker article: "The essence of mediation is getting information. The dirtiest question you can ask in bargaining is "What will you settle for?" If you ask that question, you ought to resign, but that's the question you must have an answer to. You get it by asking every question except that. What's left over is the answer." That dictum is somewhat like what the defense attorney is instructed: Never ask your client if he/she did it. Ask all the other questions. Because if you get the answer you don't like, it will be much harder to represent your client.

The other quote was Ted's metaphor for how to reach a settlement. "It is like sculpting an elephant. You chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant, and what’s left is an elephant. When you're trying to get a labor contract, you do the same thing. You chip away everything that doesn't belong in the agreement, and what's left is the agreement."
Ted Kheel was one of those figures who worked hard to achieve the honest broker status. He taught others how to be better at their professions.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

"Neutral Sentiment" in Social Media

As Social Media Monitoring and Measurement becomes increasingly defined and sophisticated, it appears that the communications industry is beginning to settle on common terminology regarding results or impact. But one important area where differences remain is on the meaning of the crucial term "Sentiment" - specifically "Neutral Sentiment." There are even those who claim that there simply is no such thing as neutral sentiment and that it is, in fact, a contradiction in terms.

There are literally hundreds of new tools, dashboards, programs and technical widgets flooding the market place to help organizations know who is talking about them in the digital/social media sphere, what they are saying, how often they are talking about them ("frequency") and whether that talk is positive or negative ("sentiment"). These tools can be extraordinarily complex, graphically illustrated and expensive, or they can be simple and free. (The New York Times just jumped in with its article on companies trying to cash in on social media monitoring).

Positive or negative sentiment is determined in a number of ways as these tools crawl the internet. Mostly, sentiment is identified through a predefined dictionary of qualitative descriptor words that have been applied in social media to a product or an organization. Sometimes it is simply a key word search and other times it involves artificial intelligence technology. Then, these data are pulled into a report, a matrix or even a "heat map." As an illustration, perhaps it's green for positive, red for negative and tan for neutral. It seems obvious what words or whole conversations will result in a positive or negative pixel added to the "map," but, what would be "neutral"?

Some social media experts I've spoken to say that's easy - any time a product or organization name is mentioned without any descriptive word or adjective, it is deemed neutral. This runs against an old PR maxim, "As long as they spell your name correctly, all news is good news." We don't fully subscribe to that view but it's a good place to start the discussion.

Other experts argue that the internet is filled with SPAM and automatic updates and auto-triggered responses from companies that couldn't possibly meaningfully contribute to users' sentiment.

Even if professional communicators can agree on a meaningful definition of neutral, what does a company or organization do with this information? I suppose they would want to engage these "non-opinionators" and move them to a positive, non-neutral perspective. But how?
For more discussion on this subject here is a recent discussion from Fresh Networks.

What are your thoughts? Or are you neutral on the issue?

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

It may be legal, but is it the right thing to do?

A recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board raises interesting questions about the difference between the legal right to post anything in social media and the practical implications of such a posting.

The NLRB ruled that an employee of an emergency response company in Connecticut had been improperly fired for posting comments about her company on a Facebook page. The company has a policy that prohibits comments depicting the company "in any way" on social media sites in which employees post pictures of themselves.

The NLRB ruled: "..whether it takes place on Facebook or at the water cooler, it was employees talking jointly about working conditions, in this case about their supervisor, and they have a right to do that."

Under the technical rules of the labor board, employers are prohibited from disciplining workers for discussing working conditions or unionization. According to the articles, this is the first case in which the NLRB has stepped in to argue that workers' criticisms of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally a protected activity and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements. This specific case will be heard by an administrative law judge early next year.
The NLRB ruling then prompted at least one major law firm to send out and advisory to its clients about the ruling so that companies could be aware of the new rules. I'm sure others will jump in the fray.

Based upon our experience, the issue won't be settled by one ruling nor will it open a flood gates of employees criticizing employers on Facebook and other sites. For one it already happens. This maybe the first time that a case made it through the NLRB.

I'm reminded of the practice (still going on, no doubt) of companies buying up domain names with the endings "company s*cks.com" and other derivatives. This was an effort to keep unions and others from blatant attacks against the organization.

And notwithstanding the NLRB, why shouldn’t organizations develop social media policies for employees? Maybe they can't say, "Do this and you'll get reprimanded or fired." But we suggest it is appropriate to set transparent policies and procedures. They should be positioned to make it clear general corporate codes of social media conduct are in the company's (and hence the employees') best interest. We also know that there are differences between the water cooler and the social media.

What's your view on this?

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010


One of the biggest mistakes a professional communicator can make is assume that because he or she is knowledgeable at communications now, or was good at it in the recent past, that that will always be the case.

Consider the following stark reminder – a Newsweek article from 1995 that has been making its way around social media after being publicized by a blogger. It pooh-poohs the Internet as a vehicle for communications and commerce. In retrospect, it’s sadly funny: http://bit.ly/94SEgb. (Recognizing that due diligence is a crucial element in communications and public relations, I double-checked to make sure this too-good-to-be-true article was, in fact, legit, and not a spoof.)

The article, headlined “The Internet, Bah!,” concludes: “While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where—in the holy names of Education and Progress—important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.”

In the process author Clifford Stoll, an astronomer and scientist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifford_Stoll), trashes everything that we now know to be true: “Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities….Baloney….The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works. Consider today's online world. The Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board, allows anyone to post messages across the nation. Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.”

Oh, really? But lest we laugh too loudly, let's see what we might learn from this about communications, technology and…hubris:

• What's out there now that we don't recognize yet as a potential communications tool? The next generation of an interactive PR application like that used by Foursquare, or the latest reported push by Facebook to connect your likes and dislikes with news and offers from nearby businesses or complementary causes via an app on your smartphone?

• The Internet was a large factor in President Obama's election victory in 2008, largely because his campaign used social media to mobilize young Democrat voters. Well, the very same strategy didn't work for the Democrats in the just-completed mid-term elections. Young voter participation declined to near pre-social media levels. Sometimes we forget that newly successful communications tools can get old very quickly.

How might you apply Newsweek's "teachable moment" example to your communications strategy, or to that of your clients?

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A New Look at an Old Adage

The old adage says that any publicity, even if it’s bad, is better than no publicity. As adages go, this one has been proven wrong enough times to merit relegation to the dustbin of sound bites. (BP and Tiger Woods anyone?)

But there's a corollary here worth investigating, as marketing researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and Stanford University's Graduate School of Business have done this Fall: just because ANY publicity isn't necessarily better than no publicity doesn’t mean SOME bad publicity can't actually benefit an organization, product or brand. Their task – which has implications for crisis communications and reputation management decision-making – was to determine how and why that happens. (See: http://www.stanford.edu/~asorense/papers/Negative_Publicity.pdf).

Among their findings: in some circumstances negative publicity may have positive effects if it increases product awareness. As they report, though it has not focused on negative publicity directly, more quantitative research suggests that media or interpersonal communication can influence whether consumers are informed about a particular product. Consumers have finite attention, they say, and thus when a movie debuts, a book is released, a brand is re-positioned, or a product is launched, many consumers may not be aware of it. Further, the sheer multitude of product offerings can mean that many consumers will never learn about a given offering.

In other words, the researchers establish that the very newsworthiness of negative publicity can "re-inform" the public about a brand or product they may not have been paying attention to.

At CommCore, in such a case we would argue that the inherent communications challenge is to ensure the following before deciding how to view the problem:

• That the nature and scope of the negative publicity is properly assessed.

• That the company's reputation in the marketplace is strong enough that it can be banked on.

• That the root of the bad publicity can be publicly addressed and acknowledged in a manner that shows genuine concern.

• That a publicly-promoted plan can be implemented to ensure that any problems are fixed transparently.

What has your experience been with bad publicity? Can you cite examples where proper assessment and a strong reputation has allowed a brand or product to benefit from the problem?

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