Own your weaknesses like John Oliver and Mark Pincus

11 Jun

Dealing with problems candidly is the most effective communications strategy.

Don't bury your head in sand - no ostrich defense

I presented to a packed room of entrepreneurs and others from the startup community at FUSE last week, and one topic that really resonated was the idea of owning your weaknesses.  This is part of the honesty in communications concept that I have written about frequently.

My basic pitch was as follows:

  • Identify your business’ weaknesses/problems as objectively as possible
  • Acknowledge and address them

It’s a natural human instinct to want to ignore difficulties and hope they go away.  But investors, clients, and the media smell weakness a mile off.  It’s much better to tackle the problems head on and take control of the conversation rather than letting somebody else do it.

I’ve written about the PR disasters that happen when companies don’t talk honestly, but recently I saw two very different but great examples of companies expertly handling difficult situations by owning the problems and dealing with them honestly. 

The Daily Show in “Proper English”

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Comedy Central had several choices in deciding how to deal with Jon Stewart’s three month hiatus from the Daily Show this summer to produce a movie.  Stewart is being replaced by John Oliver, one of his sidekicks on the show.

Alternative 1Say nothing (aka burying head in sand).  As we know, that’s a weak strategy, as you allow the media to take control of the story and take whatever angle they want.

Alternative 2 –  John Oliver is great.  A different tack would just be to say how brilliant John Oliver is, without really addressing that John Stewart has been pivotal to the Daily Show for the last 14 years.  This would be a pretty obvious, but still ineffective strategy.

Alternative 3 – Acknowledge the Elephant in the Room. Talk about how great John Oliver is, but also say upfront that he’s not John Stewart.  Or better still, get John Oliver to say that John Oliver is no John Stewart.

And that third strategy is, of course, exactly what the Daily Show has done to brilliant effect.  They’ve put John Oliver on the road to do the media circuit and generated a ton of positive publicity, with Oliver saying things like:

Don’t worry, it’s still going to be everything you love about The Daily Show, just without the thing you love the most about it.

This is honest and authentic, and also hits the exact tone of the show.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Daily Show gets a ratings bump with people curious to see how he performs.  Of course, an effective communications strategy only gets people in the door, John Oliver’s product itself will need to be consistently excellent to maintain the positive momentum.

Zynga’s Layoffs

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One of my first articles was about the horrifically bad job Yahoo did with its memo announcing the news that its employees could no longer telecommute.  The policy itself was probably a good one, but Yahoo did not want to piss off sufficient employees to leak the memo, making Yahoo  the focal point of a national debate on this issue.  It is difficult enough recruiting good engineers without the national headlines.  Other tech companies literally have recruiting billboards that use Yahoo’s PR mess against them.

So I was impressed when Zynga (no stranger to PR messes itself) took the right tone with the scary news it was laying off 18% of its workforce.  CEO Mark Pincus made public the company memo announcing the layoffs.  You should read the full memo here, but it was impressively honest.   The first paragraph basically said “it really sucks to lay off this many of our ‘brothers and sisters,’ and it affects everyone at the company.”  The second paragraph then explained the reason – the transition of social gaming away from computers to mobile happened much quicker than Zynga expected and they simply weren’t positioned properly.

Because they owned the news and dealt with it really honestly and sincerely, the story was basically done within one news cycle.  Zynga is a company many love to hate, and there were many bad places this could have gone (“company only cared about making its pre-IPO investors rich”, “is social gaming dead?”, “is Zynga dead?”, “another black eye for Zynga’s CEO”).  But by taking control of the conversation and being so upfront and sincere with the reasons for the layoffs, they killed the story almost before it began.

It’s amazing how difficult it can feel to talk honestly about problems.  But identifying them and addressing them straight on is consistently the ticket to an effective communications strategy. 


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