Will Chick-fil-A CEO Ever Learn?

Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy just can’t keep his mouth shut about his conservative stance on hot-button issues. Last summer he spoke out against gay marriage. This week, he did it again, although there may be evidence that he’s slowly learning a lesson.

When the U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled on several issues related to same-sex marriage, Cathy tweeted, “Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”

A short time later, the tweet was removed. Chick-fil-A released a statement that said, “He realized his views didn’t necessarily represent the views of all customers, restaurant owners and employees and didn’t want to distract them from providing a great restaurant experience.”

That is exactly the issue with CEOs using their positions to express political or religious views that have absolutely nothing to do with their business. That’s why CEOs should resist the urge to let their egos take control and keep their views to themselves.

Finally, it appears, some public relations professional at Chick-fil-A headquarters is giving the boss some good advice. It’s just too bad Cathy didn’t seek that advice before the fact.





IABC Must Refocus on Chapters

The fallout from the shake-up at the top levels of IABC continue to generate a lot of discussion among members and non-members alike, primarily on LinkedIn and among communication bloggers. The most recent fuel was added to the fire by Paige Wesley, former Communications & Marketing VP for the association, who wrote about her experience as one of the victims of last year’s massive layoff at headquarters. It’s worth a read not only because of the disturbing insight it gives us into the whole mess, but also because of the constructive tone with which she writes, complete with suggestions for how to move forward.

As a lapsed member, my input might not be valued by anyone at IABC. The fact is, however, is that I want to see IABC get back on track, not only because I invested years of my professional life as a member, volunteer leader and zealot, but also because its success is important to the profession. At its best, IABC fills an important need for an association that appeals primarily to corporate communicators as opposed to traditional public relations professionals.

Most observers agree that for IABC to succeed, significant changes need to happen. The specific nature of those changes is up for debate, and has been heavily debated in the last few weeks. A lot of ideas have been tossed out for public consumption, some of them quite specific, like Mike Klein’s reimagining of the governance structure.

To me, the question has less to do with what IABC’s executive board and staff look like than with what they do and where they focus their attention. I believe areas of focus (or strategy, if you want to call it that) are particularly important to IABC’s ability to survive the long haul.

For many years, I’ve believed that IABC has turned its focus toward providing products and services at the global level (Webinars! Conferences! Books! A new website!) and away from the place where IABC members really live: local chapters. This loss of focus began long before Chris Sorek was hired as executive director.

As I wrote in one of the LinkedIn discussions, I believe IABC members primarily want two things from their association:

  1. Networking opportunities where they can meet other communicators, learn from them, vent to them, cry on their shoulders, form professional friendships and perhaps hire them or be hired by them
  2. Education and resources that help them do their jobs better, primarily from meetings and conferences, but also from publications and online sources.

I have no hard data to back this up. It’s based on my 20+ years of experience as an IABC member, two-term chapter president, district director, International Executive Board member and former Accredited Business Communicator. Take it for what it’s worth, but I’m willing to bet I’m pretty much on the mark.

To get back on track, I believe IABC should return to a focus on delivering an excellent member experience at the chapter level. From a global standpoint, that means everything the board does (in terms of strategy, allocation of resources, etc.) should focus on members and chapters, which are the primary means of delivering member services.

IABC at the global level should do just a few things, but do them well: A top-notch World Conference, a first-rate Chapter Leaders Institute, a Research Foundation that members can tap into for best practices and for helping educate their employers as to the value communication adds, and a narrow set of excellent publications that do the same.

Otherwise, IABC Headquarters should be all about supporting chapters and, to a lesser extent, regions: Provide resources to help volunteer chapter leaders manage their chapters efficiently and easily; provide support for local and regional programs and conferences; provide infrastructure so chapters can meet the informational, technological and professional development needs of their members; and provide the mechanism for members to “Be Heard” by their association leadership regarding their needs and expectations.

This is what IABC used to do well and it is what has been largely missing in the last 10+ years.

Such a focus on delivering member services through healthy chapters suggests some pretty specific strategies and policies for the executive board to develop. The board should develop them and hire a competent association executive who understands the business communication profession to carry them out with the assistance of a competent staff.

Until IABC returns to a member focus through chapter support, it will continue to flail and fail – and the next failure might be its last.


IABC Drops the Ball Again, Then Goes Into Defensive Mode

For three years in the mid-1990s, I served on the International Executive Board of IABC. In 1993 and 2003, I served as the president of my local chapter. I was an Accredited Business Communicator until I gave up my membership in favor of PRSA (non-members have to pay a fee to maintain accreditation). I’ve served on committees and task forces at all three levels of the association and I happily sang its praises to anyone who would listen until IABC lost its way several years ago.

So I don’t take any pleasure in what is happening to IABC these days. Late last year, it bungled the communication of a major layoff of headquarters staff. And just yesterday, it dropped the ball again in its announcement that Chris Sorek, president of the association for the last 11 months, has resigned.

As a non-member, I no longer have a vested interest in what happens to IABC. But as someone who gave heart and soul to help ensure its success for many years, it breaks my heart to see one of the world’s largest associations for people in my chosen profession become a laughingstock. Actually, there’s nothing funny about what’s going on.

The main points I’ll make about this latest tragedy of errors are these:

  1. IABC’s staff and volunteer leaders need to update their view of how communication happens in the world. Claiming it wanted to inform chapter leaders first, IABC delayed its own announcement of Sorek’s resignation and the news apparently broke on David Murray’s Writing Boots blog. (David used to cover IABC when he worked for The Ragan Report in the ’90s, including during my term on the International Executive Board, so I know his journalistic prowess and it does not surprise me that he broke the news.) Then, IABC finally posted the announcement on a LinkedIn discussion group because it said its technology “would not allow” it to be posted on its own website. Believing that you can keep news like this secret in the age of social media is naïve at best and irresponsible at worst. Instead, IABC leaders — both staff and volunteers — should have sent an alert to volunteer leaders and followed it very closely with official announcements using all the platforms available, including its own website. (There is simply no excuse for not being able to use its own website to post such an announcement.) Then, all hands should have been on deck to respond to the initial flurry of interest by bloggers like Murray and industry journalists like those at Ragan.com. Talking points are fine to ensure consistency, but the point here is that leaders should have been armed and ready to talk as soon as the news broke instead of appearing disconnected and aloof.
  2. IABC spokespersons should give up their defensiveness, acknowledge that the association is in rough shape right now with respect to its leadership, its technology and its communication processes, and stop trying to control and spin the message. Again, this is 2013. The rules (if there are any) have changed. Claire Watson, ABC, who has been hired to speak for the association, defensively engaged in one LinkedIn conversation that included her questioning Murray’s ethics and those of volunteer leaders and her eventual pronouncement, “End of conversation.” That’s not the way to engage media or members and it certainly sends the wrong message about how IABC might handle things going forward.

I sincerely hope IABC uses these crises as opportunities to look deep within and to rethink not only its strategy for growing and sustaining the association, but also how it communicates and engages with members — who, after all, own IABC.


Busted? Five Plays from the Crisis Handbook

Three politicians in my hometown of Richmond, Va., are learning the hard way that when you find yourself challenged on issues of ethics — or any issue, really — it’s always best to take the up-front and honest route.

Shonda M. Harris-Muhammed, a Richmond City School Board member, is embroiled in a controversy over her claim that she earned a doctorate through an online university. The diploma mill denies she completed the requirements for the degree and Harris-Muhammed can’t seem to prove it, but she remains defiant. The story won’t go away and gets more embarrassing for the school system — which itself is struggling in terms of its reputation — with every headline.

Frustratingly for parents and school officials, there seems to be little anyone can do to make Harris-Muhammed and her indignation go away because several years ago Richmond voters decided to elect school board members and a recall seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, at the State Capitol, two of Virginia’s top elected officials can’t seem to escape the muck around gifts they received from the CEO of a Richmond-based company — some of which they reported in accordance with the law, but some of which they apparently did not. Gov. Bob McDonnell claims some of the gifts were to his family members, not to him personally. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli also had to amend previous gift disclosures and successfully gained recusal from defending the state in a lawsuit brought by the company.

Politics are no doubt driving how these three are responding to their ethical challenges. And the world of politics often seems to spin in its own orbit, separate in some ways from the business world or the rest of the world. However, if the school board member, the governor and the attorney general want to survive these trying times with their integrity intact, they could take a page from any public relations playbook that includes guidance on crisis communications or reputation management:

  • Get out in front of the problem. It’s too late for these three, but don’t wait for a crisis to become a crisis before taking steps to manage it. Many businesses have people whose responsibilities include issues management — scanning the environment for potential issues or problems that might flare up and planning how to avoid or respond to them. Of course, if you don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong, it might be a moot point.
  • Own up to mistakes. Publics are intolerant of people and organizations that make excuses or try to justify actions that those publics believe are wrong. On the other hand, people love a good redemption story. Exhibit A: Mark Sanford.
  • Redirect the conversation to what you’re doing to correct the problem. Rather than make excuses, talk about specific actions you’re taking to make sure you never make the same mistake again. Everything you say should focus on action — not blame, promises, intentions or platitudes.
  • Be truthful and transparent. Even when it hurts. In these days of 24-hour news cycles, social media and citizen journalists, the truth will be found out. You can either be the one who tells it, or be the one who hides it while others tell their version of it.
  • Clean up your act. Never make the same mistake again.

The last one seems to be the most difficult step, especially for people in power.

A Lesson in Social Media: Turn Off the Robo-Tweets During Tragedy

You can forgive us Americans if our nerves were a bit raw yesterday. An iconic sporting event turned into another senseless tragedy when two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line.

So, as people turned to social media to get updates from news organizations, to console each other and even to track down friends and family who were near the scene, very few were in the mood to get run-of-the-mill marketing pitches in their Twitter streams — especially from a widely followed social media guru.

That’s what happened, though, as Guy Kawasaki asked his 1.2 million followers, “Ready to get your writer’s edge?” and then linked them to the sign-up page for one of his upcoming events. Kawasaki bills himself as the “former chief evangelist of Apple” and now is an independent social media consultant.

Many of his followers were incensed. Clearly, the spam that continued from his feed as news spread about the deadly blast was auto-generated. But as a number of people pointed out, he could have — and should have — cut the damn thing off for a while.

Soon, it became apparent that Kawasaki himself was back at the controls, but it didn’t help. Rather than admit appearing insensitive — even if due to a technological miscue — Kawasaki was defensive and arrogant. “Loving how people with less than 1,500 followers are telling me how to tweet.”


The outcry only grew louder, and deservedly so. “Because that is a measure of knowledge??” tweeted one follower. “It’s nice to see that having a million followers does not guarantee a person will have any sense of humanity, tact or humility,” posted another.

The lessons here should be obvious, but for the record:

  • Technology is great, but it still requires a human touch. There are some decisions a computer just can’t make.
  • Social media is about building relationships. You can’t build relationships with a machine.
  • Part of building relationships is not coming off as an insensitive jerk at a time when your audience calls out what it deems to be offensive behavior.
  • Sheer number of followers alone does not make you an expert or automatically confer good judgment.
  • There still seems to be a mystical aura around social media, even after several years of it becoming part of the business communication mainstream. This is propagated in part by self-proclaimed experts in the field. But really, the principles governing social media are essentially the same as any other vehicle, including: Build and maintain relationships. Be transparent. Treat your audience with respect.

Honesty is the Only Policy for Great Leaders

Early in my corporate communications career, when I was still learning what the job was really all about, I did something that probably seemed brash and in retrospect looks brilliant. I only wish I could say it was an original idea, but I was simply drawing from the best practices I read about in professional journals.

I suggested that the leaders of our business should communicate honestly.

No spin. No selective communication. Just tell employees the truth, even when it hurts.

They didn’t always take that advice, but most of the times they did. As a result, I believe employees grew to trust senior management more than they used to.

When a layoff loomed, business leaders explained why it was necessary and how it would work. When major changes were coming to manufacturing operations, leaders met with employees in face-to-face meetings to explain them. When business declined, senior management talked about the reasons why and the plan for turning it around. Employees asked tough questions. Leaders responded to them.

This seems like common sense, but even in today’s hyperconnected business environment, many leaders choose to mislead employees rather than to be honest with them. (Daily Voice, anyone?)

Still, many business leaders get it. Last month, Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason wrote a refreshingly honest memo to employees about why he was leaving the company. “I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family,” he wrote, using one of the most common cliches in business communication. He quickly added, “Just kidding – I was fired today.”

Mason went on to give the reasons for his firing. “As CEO, I am accountable,” he wrote. Then he set up his successor for success: “This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, leadership John Kotter tells of another CEO who departed with honest words. It wasn’t because of anything wrong Jack Ma had done as the leader of Chinese web company Alibaba, however. In this case, Ma was a popular and successful leader who knew employees would have a difficult time adjusting to a new CEO. Acknowledging this was not an act of inflated ego, Kotter says, but rather an honest assessment of the situation.

“We want the truth from our leaders,” Kotter writes. “But we have become cynics, accustomed to twisted messages from politicians and company marketing communications so wordsmithed that they lack meaning. These things do not inspire us, or pull us toward someone in a leadership position, with an attitude of wanting to help. They do the opposite. Great leaders have the ability to surprise and reassure people with their direct and honest communication. This is an essential part of what makes them great. And it is especially important in times of big change and uncertainty — such as CEO transitions — where it can smooth the way for the incoming leader.”

In good times and bad, honesty is the way to go. Great business leaders know this.


Daily Voice Layoffs: The Lowest of the Low

Every time I think I’ve seen the worst example of employee communication, another one comes along that lowers the bar to new depths.

Daily Voice is the new lowest of the low.

I read this incredible story on Ragan.com, which picked it up from the gossip website Gawker. Daily Voice, a network of micro news sites in the Northeast U.S., is going through some tough times like a lot of companies these days. But unlike most companies, Daily Voice chose to first tease employees with a Friday afternoon promise of “good news” about the company’s future, then engage in a Monday bloodbath of closures and layoffs.

Make no mistake: Daily Voice management flat-out lied to employees. “Monday morning we will share with you the news about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” wrote Chairman Carll Tucker. “The news is good—but you’ll need to sit tight while we finalize our plans. I am pumped about the prospect of working with you to build a great company.”

Management then scheduled individual meetings with employees that were in fact termination notices. Adding insult to injury, the company gave no severance packages.

I’m guessing this mess will stand for many years as the best example of how not to communicate and carry out a layoff. Critiquing it is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel.

So, how should a company share such bad news? I’ve written about layoff communications before, but let me give some tips germane to this example.

First, tell the truth. And don’t lie. These are two separate but equally important points. Hopefully, talk of a forthcoming layoff is not going to be a shocker to your employees because your leaders have regularly communicated how the company is doing and what is at stake. If a layoff is inevitable, explain the business reasons for it and be up front about the process. (This all requires planning, and a communication professional should be part of the layoff planning process.)

Never mislead employees. Never try to gloss over a terrible situation — and layoffs are terrible. There is no getting around it. But business leaders and communicators must be forthcoming and transparent, open and honest.

The best way to communicate that a layoff is coming is face to face. That’s not always possible, depending on how an organization is structured, but it is an option that should be discussed and considered before resorting to other communication methods. In a face-to-face setting, business leaders have a better opportunity to demonstrate sincerity and empathy (through tone of voice and body language) and employees have a chance to ask questions.

Employees should hear about their specific fates in one-on-one meetings with their managers. Without question, this is one of the most difficult things a manager ever has to do, but it is part of the job. Communicators can help prepare managers for these conversations by providing information, resources and even coaching.

Remember the survivors of a layoff. They are the often-forgotten victims of downsizing. A layoff is likely to leave them in sorrow over the loss of co-workers and their confidence in the company’s viability is likely to be shaken. While business leaders should eventually turn employees’ attention forward, there must be a period of time for grieving — yes, grieving. Don’t try to communicate optimism for the future and a forward-focus too soon after a layoff or the surviving employees may not get on board. Can you imagine anyone at Daily Voice today being as pumped up about the future as Chairman Carll Tucker? Not likely.

It’s amazing that in 2013 we hear stories as stupid as what has happened at Daily Voice. With a still-struggling economy and an increasingly competitive marketplace, however, there will be plenty of opportunities for other companies to get it wrong — or to do it right.