Tag Archives: authenticity

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. 


Some Viral Magic to Warm the Heart on a Monday

13 May

Why a guy pumping gas became an online sensation

I’ve been writing some long and serious posts recently on effective communications strategies, and have even been called out on Twitter as an “attention seeker” as a result (apparently I hit a nerve by daring to criticize Google :-)).  So maybe it’s time for a quick hiatus from the heavy-hitting stuff, and time just to sit back and enjoy.

I plan to explore in more detail why things go viral.  There’s a terrific book by Jonah Lehrer called Contagious: Why Things Catch On that’s on my reading list.   But it’s clear that some of the things that made the video below go viral so quickly are (1) its spontaneity and the fact you just can’t manufacture something like this; (2) the guy’s authenticity; (3) his (and his wife’s) unquestioning willingness just to put everything out there.

It becomes clear that even though they initially started singing to get a free tank of gas, they end up doing it just because that’s who they are and they want to have a good time.  You just can’t make that up.  Enjoy!

and here’s them on Jay Leno

Is “Virgin America = Delays” The Unintended Message? (updated)

4 Apr

Virgin America FB message

Companies need to be careful with the unintended associations they create

I saw this message in my Facebook news feed this morning.  My initial reaction was “why is Virgin America broadcasting to the world that its flights [along with everyone else’s] are delayed?”  I’ve had real trouble deciding whether this is smart marketing or very ill-considered.

Pro Arguments: The case that Virgin is being savvy

Here’s why I like Virgin’s message:

  • Honesty – they are being honest and authentic, two things Kosher Bacon loves in communications strategies
  • Customer focused – they are providing a good service to customers.  Many people check Facebook/Twitter before getting out of bed – it’s a good way to alert people to a problem, and prevent them rushing to the airport unnecessarily.  Consumers love that.
  • Distinguishes from other airlines – if I was flying on United from SFO today, and I saw this message from Virgin, I might think more favorably about Virgin, as the airline that does everything possible to communicate with its customers.  (There’s a flip-side, though. See below).
  • Positive feedback loop (potentially) – social media can generate fantastic positive feedback.  While a very small sample size, the post here already garnered two very positive comments and a good number of Likes.  But there’s always the possibility that well-intentioned Facebook campaigns can backfire with negative comments as Samsung and General Mills, among many others, discovered (Update: see image below).

Con Arguments: The case that Virgin is shooting itself in the foot

Here’s why I think Virgin’s message might be ill-advised:

  • Wrong Audience (non-travelers) – This blast went to everyone that Likes Virgin America on Facebook (a similar message went out on Twitter too).  95% or more of the recipients are not traveling to/from SFO today.  What message does it convey? Possibly that Virgin is customer service-focused.  But possibly either or both of the following:
  • Wrong Association (Virgin America = delays) – Virgin does not want to associate itself with delays. Objectively, Virgin would say, delays happen to every airline, so Virgin is just providing better service.  But marketing is not objective.  The subconscious consequence for Virgin of shouting out flight delays publicly might be Virgin America = delays, or at least reminding people that flying = delays.  Even if its just flying = delays, that hurts all airlines, including Virgin.
  • Wrong Precedent (We will tell you when there’s a delay) –  The biggest problem, though, is this: Virgin America is setting the wrong expectations with its audience.  This FB message says:  if there are delays, Virgin America will tell me.  Virgin is putting itself in a horrible Catch-22:
    • Either they put all significant delays on Facebook (and truly create the Virgin America = delays association);
    • Or they don’t, and risk undoing the goodwill they’ve generated.   Joe Traveler wakes up tomorrow morning, checks his Facebook news feed, sees baby photos and discussions of last night’s The Bachelor, but nothing from Virgin America.  He then goes to the airport and discovers my flight is delayed three hours.  Why didn’t Virgin tell me?  Whatever goodwill and positive association was generated by the above Facebook announcement is gone in a flash.

Overall It’s Probably a Bad Idea

When formulating a communications strategy for any business, large or small, the number one question is “does it help us or does it hurt us”?  In this case, the unintended consequences and potential harm (especially based on bad precedent setting) probably outweigh any potential goodwill benefits.

I’ve never understood why any business sponsors the morning traffic report on the radio, because it always creates the association with frustration and bad news (unless you’re advertising a self-driving car, a GPS system that avoids traffic, an anti-anxiety drug, etc.).  And this Virgin America announcement falls in the same category of conveying the wrong subconscious messages and associations.


More Likes, but some negative comments too…

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Screw the Polar Bears: How to Effectively Frame “Greater Good” Messages

26 Mar


New Research Is Clear – Appealing to Americans’ Sense of Independence Works;   Appealing to the “Greater Good” Actually De-Motivates!

One of my core messages about Communications Strategies is: Be Authentic! How do I reconcile that with the following new research from Stanford – to motivate Americans to do something for the greater good, you have to appeal to their independence and individuality.  Surely, this encourages dishonest and disingenuous communications strategies?  Not really.

This research recently came up in the context of the difficulties President Obama has had selling gun control to Americans, even in the wake of Sandy Hook.  Obama was quoted as arguing:

We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of and by and for the people. We are responsible for each other.

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, the Stanford research found that when people (specifically white Americans) are asked to perform tasks explained to them as being part of the greater good, it actually demotivates them.   It doesn’t have a neutral effect – it actually undermines their performance.  Wow.

Independence is apparently so wired into Americans’ DNA that anything perceived to restrict individual liberties just doesn’t resonate.  In the gun control debate, this hurts liberals.  However, in another hot button image, gay marriage, one reason the liberal position has gained popularity is because it actually appeals to individual rights and freedoms (less government restriction on how people live their lives).

So, as far as communications strategies, here is the significance of this research for me:

Focus on direct individual benefits to specific audiences, rather than intangible abstract universal goals.

For someone passionate about climate change, talk less about polar bears.  Instead, tailor messages to the disruptions in specific groups’ current ways of life.  For example, emphasize to skiers and snowboarders in Northern California that Lake Tahoe’s snow could well disappear over the coming decades unless more actions are taken to prevent climate change.  For gun control, talk less about “gun control,” and more about individual safety, reduction in violence, and billions of dollars of savings for taxpayers from the reduced deaths and injuries.  To get your selfish friends to take a flu shot, ditch the argument that they could be spluttering next to your grandma on the bus, and instead focus on days they will lose of work, activities they may miss by being sick, and the costs of hospitalizations.

So does this encourage inauthentic messaging when the “greater good” is actually the “true” goal?  Not really.  The “selfish” selling points described above are all assumed to be true.  And in many cases, those individual rewards, if aggregated together (by motivating people to take the specified actions) will actually produce the underlying societal benefits.

The American military got into the act years ago, with their early 2001 “Army of One” recruiting campaign, which replaced the famous “Be All That You Can Be” slogan.  The point was to highlight the career opportunities that the army could produce, and to make the army seem less dehumanizing.  The then-Secretary of the Army admitted to the New York Times the contradiction of selling individuality to recruits for the ultimate collective unit.  But he understood the need to effectively frame the message to get those recruits in the first place.  “They are going to get the ethic of selfless service, duty, honor and country in basic training and in every unit they are assigned to . . . But you’ve got to get them in the door… And you’ve got to let them know that even though it is about selfless service, they are still individuals.”

I will leave it to others to analyze whether all this reveals something dark and disappointing about human motivations.  But, the take home is this: to motivate people to support the greater good, focus on individual benefits.  If you’re uncomfortable with that, realize that those small rewards, when all taken together, are just the flip-side of the same coin!

Authenticity – It’s the Real Thing

5 Mar

Mitt Romney re-entered political life this week and immediately provided a useful reminder.  Whether conservative or liberal, all voters need a sense of the real person behind the political soundbites.    


This blog will not become political.  But politics is very instructive when it comes to messaging.  The mini-brouhaha Mitt Romney caused over the weekend in trying to explain his “47%” comment illustrates why a politician’s inability to be authentic in his messaging can be deadly to his success.

Politics is about people.  The reason we elect representatives is because we don’t have the time or skill to dive into every policy issue ourselves, so we ask other people to represent us.  The criteria we use to choose those representatives varies widely.  But ultimately, what almost every voter wants – in fact needs – is to believe that the individual they send to a city council, a state legislature, Congress or the White House, will represent some portion of their interests.

Sure, politicians will break promises.  But the question voters ask is – do I have a basic understanding of how this person will act on my behalf?  Do I feel I know what this person will do for me?

The last three elected Presidents – Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama – all found a way to resonate with voters by showing voters a real part of themselves as people.  Clinton empathized and projected a message that he understood your pain.  Bush saw eye-to-eye with the common Joe and could make solid decisions based on good instincts.  Obama was both the embodiment of the American Dream, and also the preacher that made you want to believe and to be part of the “change” that was coming.

By contrast, Romney falls into the same camp as Gore and Kerry, where the image each tried to convey could not be reconciled with the unintentional messaging each candidate actually projected.  In Romney’s case, he was a moderate governor of Massachusetts but also a “true” conservative, a Mormon but also a holder of traditional Christian values, a creator of universal health care in Massachusetts but also an opponent of the federal government extending the exact same program nationwide.  As a conservative columnist recently wrote about Romney, “he would have said almost anything to win.”  And then throw in the fact that he simply could not relate to everyday people (think Nascar owners, Binders full of women, and the dog-on-the-roof), and it is not hard to see the challenge Romney faced getting elected.

This weekend, he tried to re-launch himself into political life with an interview on Fox News.  It backfired in part because, again, Romney could not explain how his private comments (about 47% of Americans being “victims”) jibed with his public position.  He said about the 47% comment, “What I said is not what I believe.”  The New York Times reporter who followed Romney on the campaign trail tweeted that this comment “epitomiz[ed]” his campaign problems.  It reinforced the idea that he would say anything to win.

It was actually worse than just that, though.  Romney prefaced that already-damning  “What I said is not what I believe” comment by saying “when you speak in private, you don’t spend as much time thinking about how something could be twisted and distorted…”  This suggests that Romney perhaps did mean what he said, he just hadn’t thought about it too carefully.

So it’s unclear whether Romney: (1) believed the 47% comment and later lied to the public about not believing it; or, (2) didn’t believe the comment at all and was lying at the time he made the private speech.

Whatever Romney meant, he lost the election because he simply did not convince enough people that they knew the real Romney and could trust him to represent them.  Undoubtedly, national politicians face a Herculean task of holding together a coalition of often competing political interests, all for the sake of getting elected.  But perhaps for that very reason, voters need to find some identifiable personal values in their candidates to guide their ballot box decisions.

In Romney’s case, the lack of authenticity created doubts in too many people’s minds.  No-one, apparently including Romney himself, knew whether he believed that 47% comment or not.

PS.  Next post will be about my trip to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business – I was asked to help several groups of students with their presentations, and I learned a lot from this experience that I’d like to share.

Marissa Mayer: An Avoidable Yahoo PR Disaster?

2 Mar

How the CEO and Mom Might Have Better Messaged the No-More-Telecommuting policy.


The way this story blew up caught everyone by surprise.  After all, it was only an internal Yahoo policy change, requiring Yahoo’s telecommuting employees to come into the office every day instead.  Then again, it’s always the ones where your guard is down – and the messaging isn’t given enough attention – that go wrong. 

In fact this one had all the trappings of a disaster waiting to happen:

  • A very visible tech company, which has been directionless for years.
  • A superstar Google exec swooped in as new CEO to shake things up
  • And she’s a new mom!
  • And now she wants to stop other mom’s at Yahoo – who don’t get the perk of a nursery next to their executive suite – from working from home!

Okay, so maybe it’s not so hard to see how this could go wrong. 

At the same, though, could Yahoo have handled things differently?  How were they to know this would catch fire? This is a tricky one, especially because we don’t know all the facts.  But there are certain clues about why multiple employees got sufficiently upset to leak the story to a major tech reporter.  Let’s take a look at the memo sent by HR:

Over the past few months, we have introduced a number of great benefits and tools to make us more productive, efficient and fun. With the introduction of initiatives like FYI, Goals and PB&J, we want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum. From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing — I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.

Thanks to all of you, we’ve already made remarkable progress as a company — and the best is yet to come.

 This is the type of memo that makes employees’ blood boil. 

The first paragraph tells you something really sucky is coming.  Why else remind everyone of all the “great benefits and tools” they’ve recently received, unless you’re about to take something big away?  It’s almost reminiscent of how a parent talks to a child (“We’ve given you all these nice toys, but now we need to tell you something . . .”)

The second paragraph tries to explain why the change is needed.  But telling people they need to hang around “the hallway and cafeteria” to develop insights, isn’t really what people what to hear (even if it’s true, which we’ll get to in a bit).  And following that up by criticizing telecommuters by saying “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home” doesn’t help.  

The third paragraph (aka, the “reveal”) implies a couple of interesting things.   After saying that the telecommuting ban starts in June, the memo says that affected people have already been contacted about this.  That was definitely a smart thing to do.  And it likely mitigated the negative reaction from telecommuters. 

But the patronizing “use your best judgment” when deciding whether “to stay home for the cable guy” likely further inflamed everyone.  Again, this feels a little reminiscent of a parent talking to a child, and does not add much. 

So what could have been done differently?  Apart from being less patronizing, the better solution would be to inject some authenticity and honesty into the messaging.  Yahoo could have acknowledged some of the problems the company is facing – and the fact that asking employees to put in more face time was a proven method to address them. 

Rather than beating around the bush, Yahoo could have acknowledged its very-well known strategic problem – the company has had an “identity crisis” for years, with too many disparate parts, and no particular corporate direction.  This wouldn’t be telling employees anything they didn’t already know.  Mayer was brought in from Google (which has trounced Yahoo over the past decade) exactly because Yahoo needed to right its ship, and to do so with Google-like philosophies.

And according to academic studies described in Bloomberg, people working together in offices tend to be more creative and collaborative than those telecommuting.  The memo could have admitted in a carefully-worded way that Yahoo needed its employees to work together to innovate more, so that Yahoo can be more competitive again. 

Strains of this message were there, but got lost in all the PR-speak, the criticism of telecommuters sacrificing “speed and quality” and the patronizing “cable guy” comments. 

The knee-jerk fear of telling employees “we’ve got a problem” led to a message that completely backfired and produced a national debate about work-life balance, centered on Yahoo.  Unfortunately, this will likely make it significantly harder for Yahoo to attract the forward-thinking employees in the future it needs to thrive. 

For the current generation of worker-bees, honesty in messaging is much more valuable, and builds confidence rather than taking it away! 



Seth MacFarlane: Destroying What You Are By Being What You’re Not

26 Feb

Seth MacFarlane managed to bomb the Oscars by apologizing for being himself, rather than just being himself. 


There were witty gags and awkward staring-at-floor-and-wondering-when-Jack-Nicholson-would-finally-arrive moments.   But every comedian has jokes that work and others that fall flat.  That’s not what’s interesting from a messaging point of view.  Where MacFarlane really bombed was his complete lack of authenticity and inability to establish a connection with audience.

When did this happen?  Two answers.  Answer One: about five minutes and eight seconds into his performance (we’ll get to that).  Answer Two: likely about a month before the show when he started worrying about his ability to pull off the Oscars.  There was a freak-out moment when MacFarlane went from “wow, I’ve been asked to follow in the footsteps of Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg” to “how the hell do I follow in the footsteps of Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg?”

Vanity – and the fear of being negatively compared to your esteemed peers – does strange things to people.  To avoid the fear of being labeled the worst Oscar host in history, McFarlane decided five minutes into the show to do a skit with William Shatner giving him the “worst host ever” label preemptively. Apart from being a self-fulfilling prophesy, it came across as horribly insecure and inauthentic.

Think about it this way.  Imagine you’re adored by bijillions of Family Guy and Ted fans, you’ve been selected by the ultimate Hollywood institution to host the Oscars, and you’re playing in front of a hometown crowd.   And yet you feel the need to pre-emptively tell everyone how awful you are?

The alternative would have been for MacFarlane to display exactly who he is – the sophomoric humor dude.  Every guy with a man cave loves MacFarlane.  Trying to “excuse” this self by making fun of the one thing that he actually is – the sophomoric humor dude – just didn’t work.  His role model should have been Ricky Gervais.  Gervais didn’t apologize for his piercing, uncomfortable, in-your-face sense of humor when he hosted the Golden Globes in 2010.  He knew that’s who he was, and he thrived in it.

And he got invited back to do it again in 2011.  And again in 2012.  By contrast, MacFarlane, not content with pre-emptively saying he was the worst host ever, also sent out a tweet after the Oscars pre-emptively declining an invitation back.  Had he just been himself, MacFarlane’s core constituency would have adored him even more, and everyone who didn’t like his humor would have just written it off as “not their thing.”

But instead, MacFarlane managed to ingratiate himself with basically no-one and, through his lack of authenticity, create the broad perception that he really was the worst host of all time.  How’s that for controlling your messaging?!

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