Afraid of Transparency?

15 06 2008

David Stern

I’ve blogged on this topic before, but since I’m an avid NBA fan, I can’t help but touch on the ongoing NBA controversy. David Stern seems adamant on toeing the line on his stance on officiating in NBA games: Rule number 1) the Referees may be human, but they are always right 2) If any doubt arises, refer to rule number 1. It’s almost as if the Commisar (I like that title for Stern better than Commish) is putting everything on the integrity of his refs. And for a sport that is SO influenced by officiating (Curt Schilling in his blog of Game 2 of the finals said refs determine the game more than any other sport), this may make sense…or does it?

Tim Donaghy, the referee who reportedly bet on NBA games he officiated, came out this week claiming other NBA games were fixed…Stern’s reaction? Donaghy’s just a convicted felon taking everyone he can down with him to save himself. It’s almost as if Stern is afraid of being open and upfront with his most important public: the NBA fan. As more and more allegations come out reinforcing suspicions by NBA fans, Stern continues to toe the line. Maybe it’s time for the NBA to open up to the fans and not only allow NBA scrutiny, but openly discuss the league’s own scrutiny of its refs. If nothing else has been learned about communication technology in 21st century business–the most important lesson is this: The public WILL be informed whether you like it or not, it’s up to you to decide who’s going to inform them. And in a transparency focused society, that informant had better be you, or you’re going to be staring down the barrel of a public relations disaster.


Instant Academic

31 05 2008

You may or may not know, but I’m launching into my Summer of Horror…in September, I’ll be taking my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D. program in Communication/PR. So, that means I’ll be reading like a mad man all Summer long, taking notes, burying myself in my office, growing a beard…ok, maybe not that last one.

In commemoration of this “joyous” time, I’ll be posting regularly…Yeah I know, shocking. But hear me out…

I’ll making regular weekly posts on the subjects that I’m studying, particularly: Public Relations, Marketing, Branding, Qualitative Research, Global Public Relations, and New Media. In the Academic world, we live and die by endless “literature reviews” that comprise far too many pages, and are usually quite boring to read…I’ll be posting these mini-lit reviews on this blog…

Rest assured, they’ll be “Cliff’s Notes” of my Ph.D. program…read it, enjoy it, and have fun studying for my comps with me!

(de)Humanizing an Organization

27 02 2008

I’ve been intrigued by the recent crisis facing American Airlines. By now, this is probably old news, but, in a flight this past week from Port-au-Prince to JFK Int’l, Carine Desir died, because, according to family members, flight attendants would not provide necessary medical attention, including providing her air when she said she could not breathe. American Airlines denies the family’s account, but beyond what may or may not have happened, I find it intriguing how AA is handling this.

Frankly, I wonder how, from a PR perspective, the organization’s response could possibly fair well in the end. Sure, the organization claims that it is not at fault and that all procedures were maintained in their strictest standards, but what the organization is not saying is what could doom this whole situation.

Let’s say that after an investigation, it is discovered that organization took all the necessary precautions, and something still went wrong, but was no fault of the organization. Who will the public blame? The organization. At the very least, you’d think that the public relations arm of the organization would encourage spokespeople to buy the company a little time before coming out and absolving all fault in this. Knee-jerk reactions never fair well in the end, even if you aren’t at fault.

Furthermore, there’s one other thing that the airline isn’t saying: I’m Sorry. Maybe I’ve missed it, but AA has decided to ignore offering any type of condolences to the family. This is a traumatic time for the family, and you’d think the least AA would do is try to act…I don’t know…maybe a little…HUMAN.

This is the way it usually goes:

Big Organiztaion = Insensitive/Uncaring Entity

And AA is only reinforcing that image. I offered this up to my undergraduate classes in Public Relations I teach, asking them what they would do. After 5 minutes of discussions, here’s what they came up with: Say I’m sorry and assure the public that, though it is not at fault, it would be conducting extensive research into what exactly went wrong.

It seems to me, if 18-20 year old college students can figure this out, why can’t AA?

The Leadership Imperative: Leader or Manager?

31 08 2007


Late Wednesday night, an official report was released on the Virigina Tech shootings placing blame on university officials for failing to communicate the impending danger in a timely and efficient manner.

While I’m sure there will be much debate on whether the horrific event that took the lives of 33 people could have been prevented, I’d like to dedicate this space to analyzing the response by Virginia Tech’s president Charles Steger to the condemning report.

One particular statement from Steger stands out quite ominously:

The crime was unprecedented in its cunning and murderous results. And yet it happened here. To say that something could have been prevented is certainly not to say that it would have been. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that this tragedy, horrific as it is, could have been worse.

We can dissect this reaction into 3 separate statements (which Steger conveniently put into 3 separate sentences).

Sentence/Statement 1: This has never happened before, so how could we have been prepared? I find it odd that in a post-911 world, anyone can pass this off as a viable reason for failure. The U.S. had never been attacked by passenger planes, but Giuliani didn’t throw his hands up and say, “Wow, we never saw this coming. We’ll just have to give up.” Contingency planning. Leaders do it. Managers make excuses for not doing it.

Sentence/Statement 2: It’s not like we could have made a difference anyway, so why worry about it?  This excuse usually follows the “we didn’t see it coming” excuse. As a leader, you take the 20/20 hindsight rule and you systematically revise your behavior and decisions to fix the situation, and then put processes in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Managers simply do the latter. The problem is, if a manager claims he/she couldn’t have done any better, it doesn’t matter how many new processes go into place, the result will remain the same. It’s the difference between building a learning and response system, and merely recreating the wheel with every crisis.

Sentence/Statement 3: “Hey, look on the bright side, it could’ve been worse.” It doesn’t matter how gravely you describe the tragedy, candy-coating doesn’t change the fact that you failed. I’m shocked that Stegel actually got away with making this statement. I can only imagine the collective cringe by public relations representatives at VT when he said it (Yes, I’m giving PR the benefit of the doubt, because no one in their right mind would try to sell the “it could have been worse” argument to an angry mob calling for your resignation).

In this one quote alone Steger illustrated the difference between leading and managing.  Leadership is a cycle of learning, thinking, anticipating, planning, decision-making and learning again. Management is making decisions as things come. One is about vision, the other about doing what’s worked before and hoping everything falls into place.

In short, a leader keeps the past, present, and future in front of him/her in a cycle of learning and decision-making. And this is perhaps the most glaring difficiency in Steger’s lack of leadership at Virginia Tech, perfectly reflected in his own incriminating statement: 

Asked whether he would have done anything different, Steger said, “No.”

It is my hope that Virginia Tech will find a leader to begin the healing where Steger’s management has failed.

Relationship Crisis

26 07 2007


Being a huge NBA enthusiast, I couldn’t help but take deep interest in the developing story around the NBA referee controversy. A week ago, news broke that Tim Donaghy fixed point margins and NBA game outcomes to pay off gambling debts. And since then, it has quickly become one of the most credibility-crushing events that the NBA has ever seen. NBA referees have already been under incredible scrutiny about shady calls and now the credibility of the entire NBA is in question.

I for one have always been skeptical about “star” calls and referee bias, but this turn of events has made me wonder even more. But questions about referee calls will probably never be resolved, even after the NBA makes it out of this mess.

What interests me most is what this means for the relationship between the NBA and its fans. Chris Sheridan of ESPN  discussed this issue, asking the question: What can the NBA do to repair the relationship with its shrinking fan base? According to Sheridan, the NBA should “worry about restoring its integrity with the fans who have stuck around…because the hardcore fans are the lifeblood of any professional sports league.”

In essence, Sheridan’s “mandate” is a question of public relations…that question being: What can the organization do to repair a relationship with its strongest supporters, once those supporters’ trust is betrayed?

Research from scholars like John Ledingham, Stephen Bruning, James Grunig, and others identifies several variables that determine the strength of a relationship between an organization and its public. Most of them fall under 4 categories: Trust, Satisfaction, Commitment, and Control Mutuality (or the level of control publics have within the organization).

The issue the NBA faces would appear to be an issue of trust, but that would be a hasty conclusion. Sure, fans’ trust has been betrayed, but launching a “trust” campaign–which the NBA will ultimately do–might not be the most effective strategy. No matter how strong a variable trust seems to be, research has shown that control mutuality and satisfaction are the strongest…and since it can be argued that satisfaction is a composite of the 3 variables, control mutuality rises to the top here.

For years, fans have wanted a stronger voice in the decisions of their favorite sports, not the least of which is the NBA. Up until now, the only option has been to yell at the TV at a bad call, curse team management, or express their dismay while attending games. Basically, the fan has no voice in the NBA, outside of selecting the players for the All-Star game.

Maybe it’s time the Commish hands over some of the control to the fans–his most important public. This is more than just an issue of improved transparence in NBA officiating, it’s recognizing the fan in NBA issues like this. Obviously, rule by the masses is not what I’m preaching here, but the Commish has to figure out a way to amplify the voice of the fan in league decisions and issues. Trust and commitment will follow, leading to satisfaction and a better NBA will emerge from this controversy.

Majority or Minority

19 07 2007

You might find this blog post a slight departure from my usual rants about communication, public relations, marketing, and anything else business-focused. I thought I’d take a time out because of an interesting article I read about a small movement in Texas to uphold traditional values.

According to a story in the New York Times, a small group trying to teach abstinence programs in school is facing threats to its future. Virginity Rules teaches abstinence in public schools (I’ve included an image from advertisement below), an idea that up until the end of the last century, was an accepted value. And yet, it faces certain “death” in the public school system in areas where it has been instigated.

Virginity Rules Faces Uncertain Future

The problem: A comprehensive study has shown that it is not delaying the “sexual debut” of our youth. In other words, teenagers aren’t listening. Despite efforts to slow down the sexual introduction and activity, the programs which feature media like the picture above coupled with quotes like “No is where I stand until I have a wedding band,” simply aren’t working.

Perhaps the real question isn’t whether the program is working, it’s who’s speaking louder? It’s no revelation that media today is a far cry from the standards of only 50 years ago. But do we really know the ramifications of such a liberal approach to media? I’ve always thought that preaching “safe sex” was simply a shadow of failure to uphold the values of marital and pre-marital fidelity.  

But, this story raises one slightly larger question: Does the majority always follow in line with what’s best for society?  The Founders of this country believed so. And it seems to be the basis of democracy, pockets of dissent will always exist, but the majority will uphold the best values. But in this situation, I disagree. In putting faith in studies that show the majority is not listening to abstinence programs, we’re merely giving in to second-rate morals, and letting a skewed morality dictate the demise of our society. Safe sex education is merely the lesser of two evils (the other being “free sex” education).

And, I know that I may be in the minority when I say this, but I don’t think that “comprehensive studies” that tell us that abstinence education isn’t working, can dictate the moral values of our country. Often, it is the minority that has it right.

Issues Management 101

13 06 2007

In an interesting turn of events, former CBS news anchor Dan Rather bashed his former CBS news show for “dumbing down” the news and “tarting it up” with the Today Show ethos. CBS’s mind-numbing response: Dan Rather’s sexist. Nice way to sweep the issue under the rug, CBS.

Now, I’m not a big fan of Dan Rather, nor am I a frequent viewer of the CBS News, but I can’t help but think that CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves pulled a card out of the “deeper issues that can be force-fit into any situation” deck rather than address the real issue at hand: the loss of hard-hitting reporting. In the midst of a newsweek that saw Paris Hilton overshadow more worthy headlines, I don’t think Dan Rather’s accusation is that far off.

Perhaps a more disturbing revelation from this quabble: Throwing around serious issues (like Sexism) willy-nilly to escape accountability. Re-reading Rather’s statement reveals that his complaint was against the direction of the news, not Katie Couric, and Moonves’ skirting the issue by playing the “sexism” card is a pitiable strategy for issues management–especially since calling an accuser sexist doesn’t change the fact that the issue still exists. 

Sweeping issues under the proverbial rug is not a legitimate issues management strategy.  In issues that affect the image of an organization, sometimes transparence is the best policy, even if that means owning up to a  legitimate marketing strategy to woo over younger viewers.