Did Verizon provide a perfect example of strategic ambiguity?

Thank goodness for companies like Verizon.  They provide me with perfect examples for my PR classes.  Stragegic ambiguity, as defined by Jargon Database (jargondatabase.com), is “One side being deliberately vague on a policy so as to preserve their options.  Also known as having it both ways.” 

If you’ve been following the Verizon strike for the past couple of weeks you’ve likely noticed the full-page print ads in the Boston Globe placed by Verizon.  In a Boston Globe article by Taryn Luna (8/17/11) union officials point out that the $85,000 annual salary of Verizon workers mentioned in one of their ads includes overtime pay.  “Union officials contend technicians in Boston would have to work the equivalent of two months of overtime to earn $85,000 a year.”  Union officials also pointed out that the $51,000 in “combined benefits” mentioned as one of the reasons why an unknown employee liked to work for Verison will be reduced if  “Verizon has its way in contract talks.” 

Each side is spending millions in advertising to get their points across to the public.  Whether or not each side should engage in such an expensive undertaking is for another debate.   The question here is should Verizon have run an ad with questionable copy?  My answer is only if they are absolutely sure they are right about the $85,000 annual pay and plan to continue the $51,000 in combined benefits.  And, Verizon must be able to defend the copy. 

Employing strategic ambiguity is nothing new. Public Relations agencies and departments within organizations have used this tactic for eons.   Today, however, it’s harder to get away with.  Social media sites and blogs have made it easier for opponents to point out ambiguous statements and lies to the press and the public. 

My belief is if organizations really believe they are right, don’t engage in strategic ambiguity to help their cause.  It might, and probably will,  backfire. If Verizon really needs to cut benefits, explain why.  Of course the unions involved must also tell the truth.  All organizations involved have their own sides to the issue, but all sites need to take an ethical stance and tell the truth.

How’s your professional rating these days?

Are you concerned about how the world sees you?  The world?  Waite a minute.  You’re just a small town lawyer practicing family law.  Or a teacher in a local school system.  Or a professor in a major university.  Or a doctor practicing in a community hospital.  Whatever your hard-earned profession is, you are subject to more than just word-of-mouth recommendations.  Sites like RateMyProfessors.com, LawyerRatingz.com, RateMDs.com, RateMyTeachers.com and others have allowed clients, patients, students and customers to tell the world what they think about your professional practice.

These sites take the traditional First Amendment, fair comment doctrine to new heights.  These sites allow reputation-damaging, defamatory comments about a professional to be posted by an anonymous person.  While these sites are somewhat useful when looking for a professional there are, however, many things wrong with these sites that cause me to question their reliability.   Among my concerns are:

  • Anyone can rate a professional.  A neighbor fed up with a lawyer’s teenage son’s loud parties can rate the lawyer. A student who failed a course can rate the professor.  A friend of the student can rate a professor.
  • The professional can rate him or herself.
  • There’s no way to tell if the rater is truthful.
  • Many ratings are defamatory.  It’s not enough that the sites are there for the world to see, but now they can be posted to  FaceBook and/or Twitter. They have a longer “shelf life” and can be viewed by many more people who would not necessarily visit the rating sites.
  • A client or student can rate the professional more than once by using different computers.
  • Ratings can be revealed in searches by employers, potential employers, friends, whoever wants to know more about you.

Professionals can have defamatory ratings reviewed by selecting the red flag.  This action will remove the post for at least a few weeks and maybe even permanently.  Of course, the posting might sill be out there if users posted the comment on FaceBook or Twitter.

Can professionals sue for defamation?  Not easily.  Since posters are anonymous, the professional has to go through legal channels to subpoena the poster’s name.  The rating sites can’t be sued because of Chapter 230 of the Communications Decency Act which immunized Internet Service Providers and users (such as RateMyProfessors.com) from legal responsibility for third-party posts.  You can sue the poster, if you can find him or her.  If you can get a name, how much money can you get from a student?  The ISPs have the big bucks.

I’m interested in other opinions about Internet rating sites.  Are they fair, trustworthy, or useful.

37signals: new business model?

Is strategic planning the “old generation’s” business tactic?  It is according to Jason Fried, cofounder of 37signals, a Web-based business software company with 16 employees.  The company was featured in Newsweek’s “Business Startups” section, April 12. My guess is that Friend and cofounder David Heinemeier Hansson do some sort of planning, “strategic” or not.  There’s many types of business planning systems, see BusinessDicitionary.com.  Maybe we “old fogies” just have a need to put a label on our business planning activities. It’s true, strategic planning usually means that the management of a company plans for growth.  37signals seems to be using a more linear approach – keep doing the same thing well. (I assume 37signals might develop new products, as the need arises.) Could this method be “tactical planning?” They have a business plan: stay small, do a few things well, don’t worry about the competition, and who cares where employees work. (Newsweek, 4/12) Their Website is quite good, especially the press pages, under “About 37signals,” where they give detailed information about their products for the press.  (By the way, we call this “transparency.”) 

I will continue to talk about all kinds of planning in my public relations classes.  Perhaps I’ll add a new topic, planning not to plan.  But first, I’m going to add Fried and Hansson’s books, Getting Real and Rework, to my summer reading list so I’ll really know what I’m talking about!  See boys, you sucked me in!  I’m buying your books. 

 You can read the Newsweek article and visit their Website.  I’ll add their blog, Signals vs. Noise as soon as I can get the Links separated from the Blog Roll on my site!

Newsweek Article:  http://bit.ly/buaBtR

 37signal’s Website: http://37signals.com/

Airlines should start putting the customer first

NYT article today, “Exemption Is Denied for Tarmac Time Limit,” (AP) reports that the Obama administration “turned down a request by five airlines to temporarily exempt New York-area flights from a new rule limiting how long passengers can be kept waiting in plains on airport tarmacs.”  The rule is effective April 29 and airlines will be fined up to $27,500 a passenger for each violation.  This is a  fine to be sure.  It’s unfortunate that this new rule needed to be enacted in the first place.  If airlines put passengers first, as they should, airline managers would make sure that passengers were comfortable during long waits.  I hope that the airlines’ PR managers are at least trying to convince management to consider their passenger’s creature comforts.  It would be good PR if an airline actually ran an ad/PR campaign that said “Our passengers always come first, whether it’s in the air, on the tarmac or in the airport.” I wonder how many airport managers have waited on an airport tarmac for two hours without food, water or clean facilities?

FYI:  Here’s the article.

http://nyti.ms/a18vRw

Should EVERY business use social networking?

Recently, corporate giant Nestle was caught in a social networking faux pas when its Facebook manager asked posters not to alter its product logo in their profile picture.  If they do, the manager threatened that the post would be taken down.  As stated in a post by Rick Broida on bnet. “…whoever mans Nestle’s Facebook page went on the offensive, responding to individual posters in a tone that was at times sarcastic or antagonistic.”  As Broida points out, it’s basic “PR 101, Don’t insult your customers.”  You can read more about the Nestle issue by visiting the links below. 

The Nestle issue presents a teaching moment, which brings me to my headline question, “Should EVERY business use social networking?”  Short answer – no, not every business, especially if they don’t know what they’re doing.  Facebook is a wonderful asset, if someone at a company knows how to use it and how to respond or not to respond to negative posts.  The old adage, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the fire” applies to corporate use of social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter.  Not everyone likes a particular company.  Facebook is an excellent place for customers or opposition groups to let off a little steam or promote a social cause against a company.  (Greenpeace against Nestle, for example.)  Probably no corporation knows more about how to deal with negative publicity than Walmart.  Read Walmart’s Facebook policy: http://walmartstores.com/9453.aspx.  Walmart will take down posts it deems inappropriate (my word). In a group of 133 responses to a post on “green living,” Walmart only responded to a couple of posts.  Some customer posts were a little negative.  Here’s one Walmart response to a complaint:  “We’re sorry if you had a bad experience with our produce. Let us know more at http://tinyurl.com/yhzk8ov so we can fix it.”  (Posted 4/20/10) So not only did they respond to the issue, they gave the poster a place to help solve his/her problem.  Good tactic.

Facebook is a company controlled site.  Social network managers should only post items that are favorable to the company (how about that PR!).  In another Nestle example, Nestle posts “Nestlé provides affordable nutrition to consumers in emerging markets.”  Given Nestle’s past negative publicity (I won’t go into the baby formula issue) if I were managing the site, I would definitely not post this message.   tiThe majority of commentsto this post are less than flattering.  Nestle is probably afraid to take them down after the logo issue!

Companies should avoid posting about potentially controversial issues, but they should respond to negative issues and monitor feedback.  Again, companies control the site and offensive, libelous and meaningless rants should be removed to make room for posts with constructive criticism.  Posters don’t have to love you but they should respect you and your viewers!

To Nestle’s credit, they did post the following message in response to Greenpeace’s criticism: “In a letter to Greenpeace today, our Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has called for a moratorium on the destruction of rainforests and highlights how the two organisations can meet this common goal.”

I would love to hear other’s views on this topic. 

Links for more information:

bnet: http://bit.ly/crdxSm

cnet: http://bit.ly/dxJfou

Nestle:  http://www.facebook.com/Nestle

Walmart: http://bit.ly/dsWQjc

New Website for Young Professionals

Check out YP Nation a new Website that bills itself as “The Leasership Network for America’s Young Professionals.” (www.ypnation.net) The site contains news, commentary, links to blogs, resources and more. Jesse Nankin, yp editor, received her master’s degree for Northeastern’s School of Journalism. Interested in contributing? Contact her at jnankin@ypnation.net.

Looking at Ethics & Organizations

“The evil-doer is deemed happy if he escapes, and miserable if he suffers punishment; but Socrates thinks him less miserable if he suffers than if he escapes.”  Plato’s Georgias

I like this quote from Plato’s Georgias.  I think it has a lot to do with organizational ethics.  Is it better to “escape” by an unethical decision and go about business as usual?  Or, is it better to take a financial hit (a recall, for example) and feel good that the organization “did the right thing?”  Unfortunately (or fortunately), organizations that make unethical decisions might escape for a while, but with today’s fast distribution of news, they usually don’t get by with an unethical decision forever.  The press will eventually find out.  When the news hits the press and is spread by social media outlets, the organization finds itself in crisis mode.  When serious harm or death is involved the organization is tried in “the court of public opinion,” and for organizations, that’s the toughest court in the land.

We can take a look at the Peanut Corporation of America crisis.  Management’s decision to sell a  vat of peanut paste the might be contaminated with salmonella turned out to be a fatal mistake, to the public and the company.  They filed for Chapter 7 last year.  Take a look at its Web page: http://www.peanutcorp.com/. It remains to be seen what will happen to Toyota.  They withheld the truth initially, but have since “come clean.”  I believe Toyota is trying hard to regain its reputation.  Pick up the newspaper and you’ll likely find a new ethical/PR issue.  There’s never a lack of ethical dilemmas to teach!