Doctor Science Knows

Monday, September 03, 2007

Spin, Internet PR, Corporate Culture, and Genesis 3

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a great summary up of how to deal with internet scandals and other PR disasters: Talk, Don't Spin. My comments, in the midst of a discussion with many useful examples of the Right Way and the Wrong Way to run companies & projects:

But why don't they *listen*?!? Seriously, is there something in the culture of large institutions, corporate or otherwise, that makes them forget or ignore your teachings?

It reminds me of how David Pogue, NYT Technology columnist (not a low-profile guy) has been telling cell phone companies for *years* that:
the way to dominate the cellphone industry isn’t taking out more ads on billboards and newspapers. It’s creating a service that’s so good, the customers love you, recommend you and (here’s the big one) don’t leave you at the first opportunity.
In other words: reasonable service + accurate billing = world domination. It shouldn't be that hard to do, so what's stopping them?

we have this culture in which admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness

Everyone says this is so, but I don't see it. I need examples of public/corporate figures who got into *more* trouble by admitting mistakes than they would have by blustering, dodging, and covering up.

I think that instead there is a problem *within* corporations/institutions where the person who admits a mistake loses big time. Basically, finger-pointing is an effective strategy within an institution, especially a large one, so the PR & spokes people try to use the same strategy when dealing with outsiders (e.g. customers).

Unfortunately, it occurs to me that every one of Teresa's original points is contrary to usual (and AFAICT effective) strategies for dealing with problems internal to a large organization (TNH's Rules in italics, Dogbert's Rules in bold):
(1.) Get out there and say something, fast. Delay. Something else will come up.
(2.) Acknowledge that there have been screwups. Avoid passive constructions. Deny that anything has gone wrong. Use as many elaborate and passive constructions as possible.
(3.) Explain what you’re doing to help fix the problem. Be telling the truth when you do it. Explain what you're doing ("proactively") to fix the problem. Take all the credit. Lie.
(4.) Give up all hope of sneaking anything past your listeners. You’ve screwed up, the internet is watching, and behind each and every pair of eyes out there is a person who knows how to Google. The higher-ranking officials or managers don't know how to Google. They probably don't know what your business actually does, either, so they'll be easy to fool.
(5.) Corporate-speak will do you more harm than good. Instead, speak frankly about what’s going on. React like a human being. Talk like one, too. Corporate-speak shows you are an insider, one of the important people. Talk like a corporate insider and you will become one, too.

The question then is, how do you persuade spokes/PR people to set aside the habits that work well for them inside the organization?

I don't know if it's a question of us being in "a culture" where no-one wants to admit they've made mistakes. Clearly, there are different cultures that we all move among, and there's also a basic human desire for mistakes to be somebody else's fault (cf. Genesis 3:11-13).

It's interesting, though, that Teresa's 5 Rules apply on the Internet. As David Harmon points out @25, these Rules pre-suppose that "we're all in this together", contrary to the hierarchical assumptions of most large organizations. The human connections on the 'Net aren't very strong (e.g. it's easy to get away from someone who bugs you, compared to RL), yet the feeling of horizontal community, of being "in this *together*", is more important than hierarchy.

If one of TNH's and our goals is to persuade capitalists to follow her Rules, instead of my list @13 (which might be called Dilbert's PHB's Rules), one line of argument might be that capitalist free-market relationships are like the weak connections on the 'Net, not the strong hierarchical relationships you get in aristocratic or communist societies.

That passage from Genesis was written at least 2600 years ago, so I don't consider it to be in the "same culture" as our present one in an anthropological sense. It was a very different place and time in almost every way, but the basic human strategy of finger-pointing is still visible.

Now that I think about it, the way this particular passage is interpreted is diagnostic of whether finger-pointing is an acceptable strategy, at least among Christians. The traditional-authoritarian Christian interpretation is that the blame-shifting is correct: Satan is more at fault than Eve, Eve more at fault than Adam.

But the other way to look at the story is to say that Adam is a jerk, that his true original sin isn't disobedience, it's finger-pointing -- and look at the mess *that* made. There's a kind of bitter humor in this story, a dry mocking of human folly and our propensity to pass the buck (IIRC Harold Bloom talks about this in The Book of J, but the point has been made by more conventional scholars and rabbis, too.) -- even though, as S. Morgenstern would say, this was *way* before bucks.

I think it my be more useful not to say that e.g. the chain of command is "broken". Rather, the Bush administration tries to run everything like an especially cut-throat, hierarchical corporation. It's no coincidence that Bush II's biggest donor was Kenneth Lay & Enron. Bush II really is what he promised he would be, "the CEO President". The question people should have asked was, "CEO of what?" -- and the answer was "Enron."

Back on topic, one thing people like TNH have to do is figure out how to persuade upper managment that the Pointy-Haired Boss Rules aren't in their own best interests in communicating with the outside world -- and by implication they aren't a good idea inside, either, but I think that's a tougher job because too much of their experience says otherwise.

Those of you who've worked in large corporations (or other institutions) where bug-fixing was more of an internal priority than finger-pointing, do you think this priority *has* to be set at the top of the organization? That is, is there any hope of changing the corporate culture if you're Dilbert?


It kind of sounds like I've answered my own question, doesn't it?

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