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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What Makes a Leader

May-June produces the annual crop of graduations speeches. I had the pleasure to listen to former President Clinton at the New York University graduation at Yankee Stadium on May 18th.  Clinton, as always is interesting and provocative.  I took away 3 messages:

  • Do what you love to do.
  • We need a nation that works for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. 
  • Graduates are facing a challenging world and it’s up to the next generation to really tackle the problems they are being handed.

And even stronger speech was given by outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the US Naval Academy.

Gates focused on the qualities of leadership. He listed several key ingredients that will help young military officers develop into leaders:

  • Vision - ability to see beyond the day-to-day with a broader world view
  • Conviction - a strength of purpose a belief that reaches out to others
  • Self-confidence - quiet self assurance that allows a leader to give others both real responsibility and real credit for success
  • Courage - knowing what to do what is right and not just what is popular
  • Integrity - self-reliance, self-control, honor, truthfulness and morality are the building blocks of character and integrity
  • Common Decency - treating those around you - and, above all, your subordinates - with fairness and respect

From our experience at CommCore training leaders, this is a terrific list.  Heard any other good graduation key notes?

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Remembering Mark Haines: When Tough and Tenacious is Appreciated

This week, the business and media world lost a witty, insightful and valued professional, the original anchor of CNBC’s popular program Squawk Box, Mark Haines, who passed away at his home in New Jersey.

There are some great perspectives and tributes to Mr. Haines in the news and around the financial communities. Check out a couple of them here:

Mark Haines, CNBC Host and Interviewer, Dies at 65

CNBC anchor Mark Haines remembered as 'real,' 'tenacious'

At CommCore we agree with the common thread in all of these reflections that Mr. Haines was witty, tenacious, challenging and often funny. We’d like to offer another perspective. As media coaches, we have referred to this iconic anchorman when preparing executives who had to face him. Our teaching points always included the lesson that one should never underestimate Mark. Expect to be challenged. Prepare to take the question head-on or he will come back at you. But also recognize that he’s fair and will allow you to make the point you want to make – as long as you’ve addressed his concerns.

We often imitated Mark or used him as an example in our media coaching workshops even if the participant wasn’t going to be on Squawk Box. We did that because Mark represented the critical need for a guest to prepare. Know what you are going to say in advance. Anticipate challenging questions. Expect the interviewer to be an advocate for the viewer, listener or reader. Prepare your messages as if you are simultaneously speaking directly to biggest and smallest customer, investor, shareholder or employee.

Of course, it helps when the anchor uses humor, pokes fun and employs levity. That, along with his often brusque tenacity, was actually appreciated by interviewees. Working with CEOs and other executives who have been interviewed by Mark, they often come back saying that he was tough, but fair. That it forced them to prepare and really think about what the value was they were proposing and how to articulate it in a way that made people care.

We believe that these challenges make an executive – anyone really – a better leader.

Mr. Haines – thanks for the good example and may you rest in peace.

What has been your impression of watching, being interviewed by or sending a client to be interviewed by Mark Haines? What interesting anecdotes can you share? Do you agree that his style made for good lessons for communicators?

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Leaders behaving badly

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger are the latest examples of what Time Magazine  calls "men behaving badly."

Men behaving badly isn't just confined to the sex accusations.  The litany of sins and crimes that we read about also includes insider trading, fraud and more.   I don't think that bad behavior is just confined to the male gender, so let's  broaden the topic to leaders behaving badly.  Is it power, is it opportunity, is it human nature, or the rules apply to everyone else syndrome, or are there other factors that cause people to stray from what is considered the norm or even what's legal?

In my career at CommCore as a crisis and media coach, I've long ago lost the ability to be truly surprised by a new set of facts to respond to.  There's always a little surprise at the specifics or the individual who is alleged to have at the very least made a faux pas, and may have done something illegal.

The BP oil spills and Toyota auto recalls have forced organizations to look at crisis plans from an operations point of view.  The increase in cyber attacks and data breaches have caused associations, companies and governments to plan for these crises.  To date, I just don't see enough organizations thinking through the human crises.  One reason is that it's very hard to ask a CEO if there is anything in his or her personal life.  And absent real suspicion it's hard to overly grill someone who denies rumors or innuendo.

Two points: One: reputation management means thinking about what your organization would do if your leader were caught up in "behaving badly" issue. Two:  Crisis drills should incorporate more human failure scenarios in the drills and crisis simulations.

What is your take on the "people behaving badly" problem?  How easy will it be to include more human failure scenarios in a crisis drill?

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Old Lessons Live On In New YouTube Brand Channels

Mashable blogger Todd Wasserman's recent listing of five successful branded social media video channels just goes to show that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The technology, media platform, and type of consumer interaction in social media may be relatively new by traditional marketing and advertising industry standards. But the judgments that went into creating these video channels are tried-and-true. Brand communication best practices are basically the same as before the explosion of social media. Though the applications have changed, what works in social media today is not all that different from the advice we at CommCore have always provided our mainstream media and traditional platform communications clients:

• Know your audience: Importantly, in the interactive social media world built on two-way conversation, the nomenclature is "end user" or "community," not "audience." Regardless, because interactivity and engagement is the formula for any successful branded social media campaign, it's more important than ever to know who you are trying to converse with. Otherwise, your communication will be strictly one-way.

• Transparency: We have always advised our clients to identify their company or brand as the source of any PR or corporate communications campaign in order to maintain credibility with the news media. Though successful engagement in social media brand campaigns requires creative content aimed directly at end users without the filter of an editor, being creative with identifying the source of the channel is a no-no. A deceptively-labeled front for a brand's channel will be "outed" very quickly, and will create a brand crisis when news of the disguise is spread in the blogosphere and virally.

• Consistency: In traditional one-way communications repetition is important to make sure your brand message is firmly planted in the audience's memory. In social media, twofold consistency is required: monitoring the channel to ensure prompt responses when the brand is engaged online, and regular updating of content so that interest in the campaign among the community of end-users doesn't flag.

• Sticky Messages: In traditional one-way communications brand messages have to be delivered in the form of memorable or "sticky" stories and analogies that audiences will remember and act on or re-tell. In successful branded social media channels, stickiness comes from blending relevant interactive content, targeted calls for action, and topical and timely online engagement with the community of end-users.

How have you or your clients adapted traditional communications best practices to social media?

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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Rage over Raj: How Will the Verdict Play?

From a PR and corporate communications perspective, the highly-touted insider trading verdict against Galleon Group hedge fund founder Raj Rajartnam (http://bit.ly/k1jlzA) already seems to be having a ripple effect far beyond Rajartnam and hedge funds. It is making waves in all aspects of the financial services industry, as well as for prosecutors and investigators charged with rooting out financial malfeasance.

Being found guilty on 14 counts raises Rajartnam"s "Black Hat" profile to those of the very real Bernie Madoff and the fictitious Gordon Gekko, and further tars the image of an already tarnished financial sector. Regardless of the outcome of his likely court appeal, the conviction of a man worth more than $7 billion has already brought predictably disgusted blog comments such as, "When is $1 billion not enough?" and "The whole system is broken. You can’t trust anyone who touches on banks or Wall Street any more."

But impressive as the verdict is, some are already asking much more penetrating questions about its meaning. Some commentators are wondering if the Rajartnam verdict isn’t a misdirection play by both investigators and Wall Street: http://nyti.ms/iZuxwl

Says filmmaker Charles Ferguson whose "Inside Job" won the 2011 Academy Award for best documentary: "The Justice Department has yet to bring criminal charges against an executive who ran a major financial-services firm leading up to the disaster, which was caused by aggressive risk taking and shoddy lending practices. The total amounts of money and the consequences in insider trading are trivial compared to the damage caused by the behavior that caused the financial crisis."

The fallout from this verdict may be tangled in a more complex web than most crises given the wide impact of the ongoing financial meltdown on the national and global economies, employers, individual investors, the entire financial sector, political leaders, and government regulators and prosecutors.

From a communications perspective, how do you see the Galleon verdict playing out in the media, in the financial services industry, and with the public?

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Fed Chairman and The Press

The recent news conference by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was an interesting communications achievement, though it doesn’t contain too many lessons for other government institutions or the private sector.

As Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Bernanke is in essence the CEO of the institution.  Despite the fact that his peers - the heads of the nation's central banks have held news conferences - this was a first for a chairman of the US Fed.

Bernanke has been very careful in how he has engaged with the public, aka tax payers. As opposed to his frequent rounds of testimony in Congress (one might call this a media interview when covered by C-Span and the snippets in the press), Bernanke's first TV press interaction was in March 2009 with a feature on "60 Minutes."  This was a great "get" by CBS.  And while there were a number of hard questions in the middle of the financial crisis, it was more of a profile than a "gotcha" interview.  Interviewer Scott Pelley was tough but respectful.

The next major Bernanke exchange was a three-part series on PBS with Jim Lehrer, a town hall in Kansas City.  There were good substantive questions from citizens, but it wasn't an in-depth reported piece.

That brings us to the recent Press Briefing.  The communications team at the Fed did a very good job in staging the event.  It was announced well in advance, in essence making news for just the fact of the briefing.  The Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington is such a historic building that it almost created its own civil atmosphere and tone that was different than if the press briefing had been held at the National Press Club or at university in Washington.

Here are a few observations:
  1. Bernanke had a relatively long opening statement that was not directed at the general public.  The Chairman spoke in the language that regulators and markets understand. If he had simplified it more, it might have been misinterpreted by those critical constituencies who regularly parse his statements like tea leaves.
  2. Bernanke did the unusual move of sitting for the briefing rather than standing.  This is not recommended for most others holding a press conference. It is okay at a reporter round table.
  3. While this was held before the traditionally tough press, the reality is that Chairman Bernanke gets equally tough questions from Congress and at frequent Fed meetings. I did not think there were any zany or unpredictable questions.
  4. There was a risk that given his lack of experience in such a Q&A forum, Bernanke might have made a mistake that would have had "market consequences". If he had made a mistake - which he apparently didn't -  I am sure the Fed communications team would have been ready with a rapid correction.
  5. It was clear that he had practiced. None of the questions appeared to throw him.  The language in the answers to reporters' questions was a little more consumer-friendly, but was on-point and did not descend into platitudes.
  6. Prediction:  Next press conference will have tougher questions and reporters wanting to do more follow-ups.

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