Tag Archives: messaging

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.


Bad Optics of the Day: Pension Funds’ Fun in the Sun

4 Mar


Photo credit: Matthew Maaskant

Four public pension funds in California are underfunded by $17.5bn, yet they’re sending multiple employees to a retirement fund conference in Hawaii at an average cost of $2,600 per employee.  That doesn’t send the wrong message, does it?

Additional bad optics #1:  The conference organizers have a page called “Attendance Justification Tool Kit.”  It’s a little worrying people responsible for making billions of dollars of investments apparently need help figuring out how to justify the return on investment of a business trip.

Additional bad optics #2:  In an interview, the executive director of the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems, explained that the conference “was planned and booked back in 2006, before the recent recession.”  Isn’t it also a little worrying when pension managers justify their mistakes by saying “we didn’t see the biggest recession in 50 years coming”?

It’s no wonder public pension plans are in such bad shape!

Kudos to California Watch for bringing this to light.

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! 



Chris Christie’s Fall and Extreme Messaging

27 Feb

How Superstorm Sandy Blew Away a Conservative House of Cards


File this one under S for Speculative.  But today’s NYT report this week about just how far New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has fallen out of grace with conservatives, brings up an interesting messaging question.

Christie upset many conservatives before the November presidential elections by publicly applauding President Obama’s efforts with respect to Superstorm Sandy.  The issue this raises for messaging is “why were they so upset” or rather “why did it matter so much?”

The standard responses are that Christie had: (1) endorsed Romney; (2) given the keynote address at the Republican National Convention; and, (3) gone so far as to (correctly) predict that Romney would clean the floor in the first debate.  Therefore, by embracing Obama’s response to Sandy, he was throwing Romney under the campaign bus.

I take issue with this analysis, and think the significance lies elsewhere.  After all, at its basest level, Obama was just doing his job.  Is it so extraordinary for the governor of a state to thank the President for organizing an efficient response to a disaster?  Additionally, this was a storm affecting states that were all clearly going to Obama anyway – only if the President had horrifically bungled the FEMA response was there any real political capital at stake.

From a messaging point of view, the real problem is that Christie’s back-patting was contrary to the image repeatedly portrayed by conservatives that Obama was the worst president in history.  It wasn’t just that Obama’s viewpoint was different, that he was taking the country down the wrong path, etc., an image was built that Obama was truly the worst.

And when he had a discrete task to perform (coordinate a disaster response), the fact that he did it well – and a Republican said so – shattered the veneer of incompetence and uselessness that had been so steadfastly built.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a more speculative “thought experiment.”  And it’s clear that many other factors were involved in Obama winning re-election (e.g. Mitt Romney).

But you have to think carefully about the messages you create.  Often times it makes sense to give people a clear A vs B choice.  But the more extreme the distinction you present between two choices, the easier it is for something outside your control to unravel that dichotomy and suggest that it’s false.  And once your audience doubts a central tenet of your message, it becomes much harder to maintain the same people’s unquestioning belief of everything else you’re trying to say.

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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