Tag Archives: honesty

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. 


Why Is Google Glass Already A Marketing Disaster?

9 May

Google did not explain Glass’ compelling uses or discuss privacy honestly, and so it gave up control of the conversation.  But all is not lost…

Remember when products used to get lampooned after launch, when they were already successful?  Google Glass is getting pilloried, and that’s before you can buy the device.   And people are only starting to talk about the creepiness factor.  Google can overcome this huge messaging challenge, but only if it reasserts control of the conversation.

The Loooooong Pre-Launch Caused Google to Lose Control of the Message

Google Glass, a pair of glasses with a tiny display, video camera, and mobile computing functionality, has been openly discussed by Google for about 18 months. Google made a very public display of Glass’ potential in spectacular fashion  last June, with a skydiver flying into Google’s I/O convention all the time live-streaming from the glasses.

But why did Google publicize this so early?  Good question.  Partly, Google needed developers.  They wanted to generate worldwide attention so that developers could ponder the many different potential uses for wearable computing.  Unlike the iPhone, which married an mp3 player, a cell phone and a portable computer (as a converged standalone product), there isn’t an immediate mass-market need for a wearable device.  So Google needs to come up with some killer uses.

But even so, Google intentionally generated consumer-facing publicity.  Considering the product was half-baked, ugly, and lacked many compelling use cases, Google immediately lost control of the conversation.  Huffington Post has collected at least nine humorous parodies of Google Glass (bottom of this page).

Now that developers and journalists have gotten their hands on Google Glass, more blogs and articles are poking fun at the dorkiness of Google Glass.  And SNL jumped in one the joke with the video above.  Is all publicity good publicity, when there’s no product on the market yet?

And then there’s the Creepiness factor

I remember the exact moment I saw an iPhone in person for the first time in 2007.  I was at a coffee shop in San Francisco.  Someone sat down next to us with one of the newly-released, first generation (and still almost mythical) half phone, half mp3 player, half computer, touchscreen device Apple had just released.  It was like being starstruck.  I asked the owner whether I could play with it. (By the way, who does that?!)  I pinched-to-zoom, swiped across, and did all the other things that in hindsight seem so obvious and intuitive, but at the time were so groundbreaking.

By contrast, a few months ago I saw a Googler walk into a restaurant wearing a prototype of Google’s new glasses/wearable computer/Robocop device.  The friend I was having lunch with, and I, had the same reaction: “Is she recording us? Is she using facial recognition software to find out who we are?” Or, “Has she even noticed we’re right here in front of her, or is she just reading dlisted right now?”  I saw someone else wearing Google Glass on the street the other day, and had a very similar reaction.  My head turned on a paranoid swivel as I walked by.

It isn’t possible to tell if someone wearing Google glasses is recording you or not.   You also can’t tell what information the wearer is looking at while they’re talking to you.

(Sidenote – brilliant/scary Google Glass app idea: a dating app so your friends can “be there” with you on a first date, help you sound more charming, etc.)

In short, Google Glass can really make other people feel uncomfortable and is “creating paranoia.”  From a marketing point of view, even though Google is selling the product to the wearer, potential buyers will be deterred by the fear of being labeled dorky and creepy by those around them.

Re-asserting control of the conversation

There are many legitimate and potentially revolutionary uses for Google Glass.  But Google needs to get back on top of the conversation now.   It’s surprising that a company with as much marketing power and sophistication as Google has lost so much control over the message for its own product before it’s even on the market.

Here’s what Google needs to do:

1.  Warm the heart.

Right now Google Glass is cold, dorky and creepy.  The message needs to stop being “Google Glass records you in public.”  Give Google Glass to some doctors in remote areas that need real-time help from experts during surgery.   Give Google Glass to a climber about to summit a never-before-reached mountain and allow a worldwide audience to share the exhilaration.  These aren’t compelling use cases for the average consumer, but will shift the conversation away from creepy public recording.

2. Lead on privacy rather than being evasive. 

Google has been essentially silent on the privacy implications of Glass.  CEO Eric Schmidt is on record as having said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”  This is not a good way of framing the conversation, particularly for a company with a history of many, many, many privacy violations.

Ideally, Google would find a way for the device to inform people being recorded/photo’d.  A red LED may be too antiquated, but they need to find a way to manage the creepiness factor.

Moreover, Google should take the thought leadership here, coming up with recommendations on acceptable and unacceptable uses for Google Glass.  The laissez-faire alternative to industry leadership is having governments and private entities enact laws and rules regulating Google Glass, which will undoubtedly be less favorable to Google.

3.  Figure out ASAP how Google Glass is useful.

Again, it’s hard not to compare Apple’s approach to Google’s attempt at marketing.   Whereas Apple historically stage-managed with great precision how its products were publicized, the first images many people are seeing of Google Glass are weird photos of Robert Scoble in the shower and three VCs looking like Star Trek extras.

Google needs to shift the conversation from its current status (there’s literally a Tumblr called White Men Wearing Google Glasses) to a place where the product’s everyday uses are the focus.  If Google fails to manage this well, Wired magazine may be right that Google Glass will be nothing more than the next Segway, an over-hyped and under-utilized product that never gained widespread consumer traction.

I suspect that won’t happen here, but only if Google changes the conversation, and changes it now.

F***ing Forgiveness in the Age of Sharing

30 Apr

Public reaction to a rookie TV presenter getting fired for swearing on air teaches us which values are really important.

I’ve previously written about the need for more honesty in corporate communications, and the generational shift in the way people communicate. But I think this is actually part of a different trend too.  The constant sharing of personal information has had a fascinating effect: we care less about  human screw-ups.  These are different from corporate screw-ups or political screw-ups – those tend to blow up big-time.  But for individuals, we care less about single goofs because people embarrass themselves online every day.

Take A.J. Clemente – the TV news anchorman fired on his first day for dropping a giant F-bomb without realizing the cameras were rolling.  The clip above of his performance instantly went viral and has over a million views.

But a funny thing happened after he was sacked.  According to ABC News, more than 1,500 people posted on the local TV station’s Facebook page asking the station to forgive him and reconsider the dismissal.  And A.J. was then invited to appear on the Today show, David Letterman, Morning Joe, Inside Edition, E! News and more.

Probably due to his honest and authentic responses on Twitter after dropping the F-Bomb (“That couldn’t have gone any worse!” and “Rookie mistake. I’m a free agent. Can’t help but laugh at myself and stay positive.Wish i didnt trip over my “Freaking Shoes” out of the gate”) and also due to how viral the video went, A.J. generated tons of positive national news for himself.  But why?

A generation ago, more people would likely had sided with the TV station.  “He’s supposed to be a professional” and “You should never swear at work” might have been the reactions.

But, if nothing else, social media has humanized us.  People post embarrassing content about themselves all the time, intentionally or otherwise.  In the aggregate, this likely makes us more forgiving of individual mistakes, because we see them all the time, and no single screw-up seems that bad.  Documenting life in real-time inevitably means that things go wrong and human beings act like, well, human beings.

What does this teach us? It comes back to the renewed emphasis on honesty in communications.  Many people cut their teeth in corporate climates with a “never admit mistakes” culture.  Every message had to be positive, and acknowledging errors was a big no-no.

There’s a generational change occurring, though.  Corporate-speak can backfire horribly and most younger workers see straight through spin and obtuse messaging.  Moreover, because we share so much personal information, there’s much less sting to a single negative data point.  And because the line between “work” and “personal” forms of communication is increasingly blurred, we no longer expect people to be (or even present themselves as) “proper” all the time.  A rawer form of honesty and integrity is valued more than a superficial facade of perfection.

A.J. apparently didn’t get his job back, but we can learn many lessons from the reasons he was propelled to his 15 minutes of fame.

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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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! 



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