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 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.


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.

Want to Quash the Rumor Mill? How About Joining the Conversation?

The age-old employee communication challenge for organizations has been how to contain the employee rumor mill. It’s an issue that predates formal employee communication programs and it’s even more vexing with the prevalence of social media.

These days, instead of gathering around the water cooler or hitting the local bar to gripe about their bosses or workplaces, employees often take to Facebook or Twitter, which of course gives greater reach to those complaints. Employees can do a lot more damage to organizations by hitting “send” than they ever could do over a beer.

As a result, many organizations have created social media policies that seek to restrict what employees say about them in social media. That seemed to put a little muscle behind employers’ expectations of their employees’ online activities. However, the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that there is a limit to which organizations can restrict employees’ free speech. (Hat tip to Les Potter, integrated marketing communications instructor at Towson University, who blogged about this issue at More With Les.)

According to The New York Times, which covered the rulings, the NLRB “says workers have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether the discussion takes place at the office or on Facebook. … ‘Many view social media as the new water cooler,’ said Mark G. Pearce, the board’s chairman, noting that federal law has long protected the right of employees to discuss work-related matters. ‘All we’re doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology.'”

Smart companies have learned that in order to rein in the wild-west atmosphere of social media, it’s important to engage with consumers and members of the news media covering their industries and organizations. However, it seems fewer companies have discovered how to engage with employees via social media. I’ve heard of some companies that try to do so, even creating Facebook groups where employees can share information and knowledge. But that’s still company-sanctioned media (like the newsletters and intranets of days gone by). What about engaging employees where they are? That would be risky, for sure, but could also go a long way toward taking some steam out of the rumor mill.

When it comes to the principles of effective employee communications, I’ve always believed there’s not a lot new under the sun. Communication should be two-way and symmetrical, meaning both the organization’s leaders and employees can initiate it. It should be open and transparent and it should focus on helping employees engage in the business. But when it comes to best practices, we still have a long way to go. Engaging with employees where they are — online — just might be the brave new world.


Social Media are Stressing Us Out!

As if managing the expectations of friends and family in the real world wasn’t enough, a study from the University of Edinburgh School of Business in Scotland indicates that the more types of friends we have on Facebook, the more stressed out we are.

Our anxiety increases because of the greater potential to offend someone, according to the study. Specifically, we’re afraid that our swearing, partying, smoking, drinking and engaging in other embarrassing or activities will be looked down upon by our co-workers, bosses, neighbors and parents.

“Facebook used to be like a great party for all your friends where you can dance, drink and flirt,” says Ben Marder, a marketing fellow at the university and the report’s author. “But now with your Mum, Dad and boss there the party becomes an anxious event full of potential social landmines.”

So, what is a Facebook over-sharer to do?

That’s what I talked about in an interview on the funny new weekly podcast, “Constant Crisis News & Opinion,” hosted by fellow communicators Chuck Hansen and Hamilton Holloway. (If you haven’t checked out their podcast, you should. As their tagline indicates, they poke fun at a world gone nuts, taking the ridiculous things we humans do and deconstructing them in an entertaining and often thought-provoking way.)

Chuck and Ham asked me to talk about how we can keep our sanity while continuing to be active on social media. As I said in the interview, it comes down to turning on that internal editor that social media have an inexplicable yet effective way of shutting down.  I confess during the interview that not many people overshare on Facebook better than I do. Some of my more introverted friends are horrified at the things I choose to share, though to me, crowd-sourcing my problems is cheaper than therapy.

Now, it’s not like I engage in risky or potentially career-ending behavior and post the evidence for all my 250 friends to see. But I do share my triumphs and heartaches, some of them quite personal, with my friends and family on Facebook — some of them professional colleagues. I don’t believe doing so has stressed me out, but I like to think I know the boundaries pretty well.

Some folks don’t think twice about posting what-happens-in-Vegas-worthy details of their lives and then wonder why their parents look at them disapprovingly at the next family dinner, or why they suddenly were disqualified to receive that promotion.

There’s more to the story than that, so go take a listen to the podcast. The entire episode is great, so if you have about 40 minutes to spare, grab a cup of coffee or listen to it over lunch like I usually do. If you’re pressed for time, or if you just can’t wait to hear what priceless pearls of wisdom Chuck was able to salvage from our conversation, jump to the 20:40 mark.


Like-A-Hug: Happiness is a Warm Laptop

The day is coming when human beings will no longer need actual physical contact. If trends continue, we will be able to get it all from social media.

Three MIT students have created the Like-A-Hug, a “wearable social media vest” that inflates whenever someone “likes” a photo, video or status update on your Facebook wall,  “thereby allowing us to feel the warmth, encouragement, support, or love that we feel when we receive hugs,” according to inventor Melissa Kit Chow.

Since hugs are intended to go both ways, the students also developed a means for users to return the favor by squeezing the vest and deflating it.

This development comes on the heels of the Kissenger, a device that — despite its decidedly unromantic-sounding name — allows long-distance lovers to send virtual smooches.

What’s the next logical product to emerge from this line of thinking? I don’t think I want to know.

I’m also not sure I want a hug every time someone “likes” one of my Facebook posts. And no offense to my Facebook friends, but I’m not sure I want to give all of them the ability to give me a hug, virtual though it may be. I mean, I’m an affectionate guy, and I’m choosy about the people to whom I grant Facebook friend requests, but couldn’t we develop something a little less intimate? Say, a virtual chest bump or high-five?

I’m no Luddite — I appreciate all the good things that social media can provide — but I believe I’ll stick to real hugs from real people, and only for worthy reasons. Not for posting a picture of what I made for dinner.


4 Reasons Big Bird is Still Cool After All These Years

Who would have thought that the “Saturday Night Live” performer getting the most laughs this week would be Big Bird?

But there he was, all 8 feet of his yellow plumage, seated next to “Weekend Update” segment host Seth Myers, yawning because he was up way past his 7 p.m. bedtime and nearly stealing the show from guest host Daniel Craig.

Big Bird suddenly became the talk of the U.S. presidential campaign last week after Republican Mitt Romney suggested withholding federal support for public broadcasting. Romney promised he had nothing against Big Bird, but the damage was done. The next day, from Sesame Street’s Twitter account, Big Bird tweeted, “My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?”

Big Bird was retweeted more than 12,800 times and has been the talk of social media and news programs ever since.

How is it that a puppet from a children’s show manages to remain so cool and so relevant — not with kids, but with grownups — after more than 40 years? The answers provide some good lessons for brands everywhere.

  1. Stay true to the brand. Big Bird doesn’t try to be something he’s not. He, like all the Muppets from “Sesame Street,” remain in character — and more important, true to their characters — no matter what situation they’re thrown into. It would have been tempting for Carroll Spinney, the main inside the bird, to knock off a few double entendres or attempt some “grown-up” humor, given the setting. Instead, he kept it clean: “I’m a bird! Tweeting is how we talk!”
  2. Know your audience. Big Bird’s appearance on “SNL” wasn’t geared to children, most of whom share a bedtime closer to his. He knew his audience was the parents of those kids, many of whom grew up watching him on “Sesame Street” themselves. He also knew his audience would never forgive him if he delivered a line not in keeping with his character.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. The whole reason Big Bird’s appearance worked is because Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit production company behind “Sesame Street,” has a good sense of humor about itself and was willing to play along — as long as the brand’s integrity remained intact. That’s the sign of a strong brand.
  4. Remain relevant. “Sesame Street” has managed to do so after all these years, even with many of the same beloved characters. A child-like 8-foot bird that’s active on Twitter? Now, that’s hip.