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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Can’t friend requests be a little more sociable?

friend requestsI currently have 105 pending friend requests on Facebook and a similar number awaiting action on LinkedIn. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with these, since I have no idea who any of them are.

I’ve decided, reluctantly, to simply delete them all.

I’m happy to connect with people whose names I don’t instantly recognize as long as I know what the link is. Of course, I can follow the link to each individual’s profile and see if I can tease the connection out of the information they’ve offered. On Facebook, I can see the friends we have in common to see if I can figure out the connection from there.

But I don’t want to.

The folks with whom I have connected took one simple extra step that made the decision easy for me: They added a note telling me who they were and why they wanted to connect. “I was in your workshop in Chicago last week and wanted to connect,” is really all it takes.

But the default request to become friends on Facebook doesn’t cut it, nor does the default “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn”—unless it’s accompanied by the connection you’re able to indicate (“Mary Smith has indicated you are a person they’ve done business with at Acme”).

So if you tried to friend me or connect on LinkedIn and never heard back, and you’re still interested in the connection, try again just a bit more socially. Thanks for understanding.

UPDATE: I’ve decided to contact each of the folks who’ve sent friend requests using the “Send a Message” feature. They’re all getting the same one, word-for-word, and I’m actually getting answers that are leading me to go ahead and connect with nearly all of them. Many have acknowledged that they should have included this information in the first place.

Posted by Shel on 02/16 at 12:23 PM
FacebookSocial Networking • (0) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink

WOMMA to issue guide to social media marketing disclosure

UPDATE: WOMMA has issued its press release on its new guidelines for social media disclosure.

WOMMA logoThe Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) is set to issue a guide to disclosure in social media marketing sometime tomorrow, February 17. The guide was prompted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s new guidelines for disclosure of relationships between companies and people discussing them and their products or services in social media venues.

The document is designed to enhance rather than replace the rules that may already exist in your organization. And it’s WOMMA’s intention to continually update the guide given the ongoing evolution of social media.

The guide covers the most commonly used social media channels, including blogs, Twitter and other microblogging tools, social network status updates, video and photo sharing sites and podcasts.

The microblogging hashtag recommendations could be problematic, given the number of similar proposals that have been introduced over the last year or so. (Here’s one proposal; here’s another, and another.) But if all WOMMA members adopt the tags the guide recommends, we may see some consistency emerge around how disclosure is handled on Twitter. The three tags listed in the guide include…

  • #spon—Sponsored
  • #paid—Paid
  • #samp—Sample

WOMMA advises using the same tags on status updates through social networks should there be a character limit in the status update function.

The best advice in the guide—which applies to all of the channels covered—is to provide a link to a complete disclosure and relationships statement, although recommended language for such a statement isn’t included.

The document does recommend language for disclosure that is

clear and prominent. Language should be easily understood and unambiguous. Placement of the disclosure must be easily viewed and not hidden deep in the text or deep on the page. All disclosures should appear in a reasonable font size and color that is both reasable and noticeable to consumers.

For example, for personal and editorial blogs, WOMMA recommends disclosure like…

  • I received ___ (product or sample) ___ from ___ (company name), or
  • (Company name) ___ sent me ___ (product or sample) ___

WOMMA went through a deliberate process to develop the guide, including creating a blog, Living Ethics, that served as a forum for comments and questions.

I’ll update this post tomorrow when a link becomes available to the official WOMMA guide.

Oh, and by way of disclosure, I was offered a sneak peek at the guide by WOMMA and was not put under an embargo until tomorrow’s announcement.

Posted by Shel on 02/16 at 10:24 AM
AdvertisingBloggingMarketingPodcastingSocial networksTwitter • (2) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Hobson & Holtz Report - Podcast #526: February 15, 2010

Content summary: HAPPO is this Friday; FIR Interview with Marc Wright coming soon; Michael Netzley reports from Singapore on the Year of the Tiger, and a Rio Tinto update; the Media Monitoring Minute with CustomScoop; News That Fits: you really do need a Facebook page, confessions of a real-life Twitter squatter and HJ Heinz, Inc 500 social media use 2009, Southwest Airlines and Paperchase embroiled in Twitter kerfuffles, PRSA Advisory on expropriation of intellectual property; listener comment discussion; music from Omar Kadir; and more.

Get FIR:

Messages from our sponsors: FIR is brought to you with Lawrence Ragan Communications, serving communicators worldwide for 35 years,; Save time with the CustomScoop online clipping service: sign up for your free two-week trial, at

For Immediate Release: The Hobson & Holtz Report, for February 15, 2010: A 67-minute podcast recorded live from Concord, California, USA, and Wokingham, Berkshire, England.

FIR Show Notes links
Links for the blogs, individuals, companies and organizations we discussed or mentioned in the show are posted to the FIR Show Links pages at The New PR Wiki. You can contribute - see the show notes home page for info.

FIR on Friendfeed
Share your comments or questions about this show, or suggestions for future shows, in the FIR FriendFeed Room. You can also email us at; call the Comment Line at +1 206 222 2803 (North America), +44 20 8133 9844 (Europe), or Skype: fircomments; comment at Twitter:, or at Jaiku: You can email your comments, questions and suggestions as MP3 file attachments, if you wish (max. 3 minutes / 5Mb attachment, please!). We’ll be happy to see how we can include your audio contribution in a show.

Join the FIR Discussion Forum and extend your conversations with the FIR community. You can also join the FIR Facebook Community and become an FIR friend.

To stay informed about occasional FIR events (eg, FIR Live), sign up for FIR Update email news.

So, until Thursday February 18…

Posted by Shel on 02/15 at 01:31 PM
For Immediate Release • (0) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink

Death Watch: Marketing and advertising have an important place in the complex media ecosystem

We have a tendency to assume that a law of physics applies equally to the media world. In physics, according to Newton’s third law of motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

This odd assumption crossed my mind to me as I was reading last night. In the he book I was reading, the author argued that, thanks to the Internet, geography doesn’t matter any more. Under Newton’s law, this makes sense:

Action: The Internet has given us access to everybody everywhere all the time.
Reaction: Geography is no longer a factor in our interactions.

In truth, though, our complex and messy world does not abide by such clear-cut rules. Without question, the Net has certainly broken down geographic barriers beyond the extent to which the telephone (and the telegraph before it) did. But on the other hand, the geography has everything to do with the relationships I have established with people who belong to the same synagogue I do. My wife and I are still friends with parents of kids who went to school with our daughter. And I have strong ties to some of the people who work in stores where I shop (notably the local computer repair business).

It’s not likely I ever would have met any of these people online. And if I hear someone breaking into my house at 2 a.m., I expect I’ll get much better results calling the local police than I will jumping into an online law enforcement community.

The exaggerated death of marketing and advertising

The same book also argued that traditional marketing doesn’t work any more now that people are able to engage one another on the scales afforded by Facebook and Twitter. Yet many of the same people who decry the ineffectiveness of traditional marketing can’t wait to see the next “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” commercial. (Super Bowl Sunday represents the height of the “reverse-TiVo” phoenomenon, when people record the game so they can fast-forward through the football and watch just the commercials.) Denny’s drew 2 million people to its restaurants for their free Grand Slam breakfasts on the strength of its Super Bowl commercial. And who hasn’t heard of Las Vegas’ marketing campaign, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”?

Give it a few minutes and you can probably come up with a dozen advertising or marketing campaigns that captured your imagination—or at least your attention.

Good marketing and advertising are still good. The fact that they’re not as effective as they once were is not a sign that they don’t matter any more. Rather, the increased number of channels available means consumers have more options. A marketing campaign is no longer the sole source of information about a brand, product, service or company. Because we tend to simplify things, viewing them as black and white, many social media purists fail to see complexities and intricacies of the media landscape in which each piece plays its role and supports the others. In this environment, the role of marketing and advertising has changed more than it has diminished.

Multiple relevancies and the media ecosystem

Communicators and marketers have to come to terms with the fact that we live in a world of multiple relevancies. It’s not a zero-sum game. The rise of the Net doesn’t automatically signal a decline in the value of traditional channels.

This represents more than just an additive situation in which new media get piled onto old media. The media ecosystem that has evolved. In an ecosystem, the organisms within the environment interact with and are dependent on all the other habitat’s occupants. In the business-consumer ecosystem, advertising and marketing often create the awareness that fuels the conversation within the social media space.

That’s not to say organizations shouldn’t engage with customers and other stakeholders at an organic level. Companies need to already have a trusted presence, such as the one Dell has established with its cadre of tweeting communicators or the Comcast customer service team that finds and responds to online complaints. No marketing is required to initiate these conversations. But the organic presence of company representatives engaged in conversation with customers kicks into higher gear when an advertising or marketing campaign creates broad, simultaneous awareness of an issue about which customers want to talk.

Domino’s Pizza provides an excellent example of this ecosystem. The pizza chain’s decision to put its vulnerability on display by discussing consumer criticism in a series of television commercials gained widespread attention. Table Group founder and president Patrick Lencioni discusses the power of these ads in the current issue of BusinessWeek:

...the most fascinating application of volunterability is in marketing and advertising. It’s so rare that it packs a strong punch, as long as companies mean it. Go ahead and try to think of other corporate examples of humility and naked honesty. There aren’t many to choose from.

But advertising and marketing campaigns don’t exist in a vacuum and Domino’s—a company that learned the harsh reality of social media the hard way—was prepared for the conversation that ensued. On its Facebook page and on Twitter, the company engaged in conversation prompted by the advertising and marketing. The company added a four-minute video to YouTube that went into greater detail about its turnaround and invited comments.


Of course, Domino’s could have tackled the issue one customer at a time, but kick-starting the conversation with commercials and other ads makes far more sense. Domino’s—utterly clueless when it came to social media a short time ago—has come to understand the media ecosystem far better than many of the pundits who insist there is no longer room for traditional advertising and marketing.

BestBuy is another useful example. The consumer electronics retailer used traditional marekting and advertising techniques to build awareness of its Twelpforce, the thousands of employee volunteers responding to customer queries via Twitter. It would have been a much longer process to create that awareness at the organic level. (To date, the Twelpforce has sent nearly 23,000 tweets, virtually all of them responding to mostly technical questions about the consumer electronics products it sells.)

John January, senior vice president and executive creative director at Kansas City-based ad agency Sullivan Higdon & Sink (and co-host of the all-too-infrequent podcast, “American Copywriter”), told me a couple years ago that advertising is evolving into a gateway to social media activities. Based on this understanding of multiple relevancies, I would argue that Pepsi made a mistake reallocating every nickel of its Super Bowl ad budget to social media. How many more people would have participated in Pepsi’s social campaigns if they had learned about them on Super Bowl Sunday?

Smart marketers will figure out how to take advantage of the interdpendencies that exist in the media ecosystem. Figuring out how multiple relevancies can improve the outcomes of your social media efforts will take a lot more work than simply shrugging off traditional marketing and advertising as outdated techniques displaced by social media.

Posted by Shel on 02/15 at 09:05 AM
AdvertisingDeath WatchMarketingMediaNew MediaSocial Media • (0) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Hobson & Holtz Report - Podcast #525: February 11, 2010

Content summary: Social media for the Bonnaroo Music Festival; special FIR discount for New Communications Forum 2010; FIR Interview with Marc Wright coming; Dan York in Berlin, Germany, reports on Google Buzz, and more; the Media Monitoring Minute with CustomScoop; News That Fits: people leaving social networks to reclaim time and privacy, liveblog, ad agencies in Belgium go on anti-pitch strike, motivations; Eric Schwartzman in Los Angeles on Super Bowl 2010 and cooking chili; FIR Friendfeed Room round-up; music by Skeptic Eleptic; and more.

Get FIR:

Messages from our sponsors: FIR is brought to you with Lawrence Ragan Communications, serving communicators worldwide for 35 years,; Save time with the CustomScoop online clipping service: sign up for your free two-week trial, at

For Immediate Release: The Hobson & Holtz Report, for February 11, 2010: A 65-minute podcast recorded live from Wokingham, Berkshire, England.

FIR Show Notes links
Links for the blogs, individuals, companies and organizations we discussed or mentioned in the show are posted to the FIR Show Links pages at The New PR Wiki. You can contribute - see the show notes home page for info.

FIR on Friendfeed
Share your comments or questions about this show, or suggestions for future shows, in the FIR FriendFeed Room. You can also email us at; call the Comment Line at +1 206 222 2803 (North America), +44 20 8133 9844 (Europe), or Skype: fircomments; comment at Twitter:, or at Jaiku: You can email your comments, questions and suggestions as MP3 file attachments, if you wish (max. 3 minutes / 5Mb attachment, please!). We’ll be happy to see how we can include your audio contribution in a show.

Join the FIR Discussion Forum and extend your conversations with the FIR community. You can also join the FIR Facebook Community and become an FIR friend.

To stay informed about occasional FIR events (eg, FIR Live), sign up for FIR Update email news.

So, until Monday February 15…

Posted by Shel on 02/11 at 04:08 PM
For Immediate Release • (0) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Forrester’s blogging policy misses the IP point

Warning: Long post follows.

Readers of this blog and listeners to my podcast, “For Immediate Release,” know thast I focus primarily on the impact of online media on organizational communications. As a blogger and a podcaster with an audience, companies routinely reach out to me with their news and information in the hopes that I’ll find their content interesting enough to share. It’s only about 9:30 a.m. here in the Bay Area and I’ve already received about a dozen such pitches today via email.

Forrester Research is one of the organizations that engages in such outreach—and, candidly, it’s one of the few organizations whose content actually is of enough interest for me to share it with my community. When Forrester issues a report that deals with social media and communications, Forrester graciously offers me a copy of the report. These reports sell for hundreds of dollars or more, and as an independent consultant, I couldn’t possibly justify the cost of purchasing one. Because Forrester shares its intellectual property with me at no cost, I’m able to opine on the research and share the findings I believe are most significant.

All of which I do on my own blog and my own podcast. As a result, readers and listeners learn about the research who otherwise may never have known it existed. Some may become Forrester customers. Which is exactly why Forrester engages in such outreach: Its IP is only worth as much as people are willing to spend on it. The more people who pay for it, the more it’s worth.

Which is why I’m so completely dumbfounded at Forrester’s much-discussed analyst blogging policy. The company is confining its analysts to blogs that reside on Forrester’s own platform for posts about research. The reason, according to Forrester and several of its analysts, has everything to do with intellectual property (IP). In a recent post, Forrester VP Josh Bernoff (for whom I have enormous respect and admiration) explained:

What people need to understand is that Forrester is an intellectual property company, and the opinions of our analysts are our product. Blogging is an extension of the other work we do—doing research, writing reports, working with clients, and giving speeches, for example.

...for Forrester, it serves our clients better to be able to get to all our blogs from one place, and to know the opinions of analysts that they see are part of the other opinions they read in our reports, in press quotes, and in everywhere else we talk.

The revelation of the policy has ignited controversy with opponents and proponents lining up with their various arguments. But for me, the underlying IP argument is perplexing. Consider this comment from Dana Baxter, left to the SageCircle blog that first reported on the policy and kicked off the whole debate:

I regularly read Bruce Tempkin’s blog “Customer Experience Matters” and it’s one of the best blogs I’ve run across. He seems to regularly refer back to Forrester. I didn’t even know that Forrester had research in customer experience until I read his blog. I know I’m not a client of Forrester, so they aren’t making money from me, but I’ve been trying to make the case based on his work. But if they’re shutting down his blog, then I don’t really want to read what Forrester has to say.

This is the key issue. When analysts have their own blogs with dedicated followings, their discussion of the research with which they’re involved can reach people the official Forrester blogs won’t reach. (If you think that’s not true, go back and read Dana’s comment again.) And if keeping the IP on the Forrester site is so all-fired important, why share it with the likes of me so I can report the same IP on my blog and podcast?

(Of course, after reading this post, maybe they’ll stop sharing their IP with me.)

I’m not the only one making this observation. Writing on GigaOm, Mathew Ingram says:

In his blog post, Bernoff defended the new policy as a necessary step, saying Forrester is “an intellectual property company, and the opinions of analysts are our product.” But a strong analyst who connects with readers and builds a following, wherever that following might occur, is a benefit to the company they work for, even if he or she eventually leaves to pursue other opportunities. That is the nature of a web-based business—something the research industry is becoming, whether it likes it or not.

Trying to confine analysts and control the access they have to readers through the web is not only wrongheaded (in our view) but ultimately futile. Strong analysts who are treated in this way will leave anyway, thus defeating the purpose. We believe that social media tools can be used both to build personal brands and to benefit the overall corporate brand, and that is what we encourage.

Why not aggregate content?

The IP distinction is one that Forrester’s proponents raise repeatedly in the debate. The notion seems to suggest that analysts who write about their work on their own blogs are somehow sapping Forrester of its IP. Maybe I’m just dense, but I don’t see how, particularly if those blogs link back to Forrester, bringing the company to the attention of new prospects.

Other companies with bloggers don’t compare because, Bernoff argues, their products aren’t about IP. I would argue that Microsoft and IBM are entirely about IP. Both companies encourage their employees to blog wherever they like. The companies link to those blogs on a page that links to all of the company’s bloggers. (Here are links to Microsoft’s and IBM’s employee blog directories.)

Thomas Nelson Publishers goes one better, pulling the content from each of its employee bloggers into a chronological display of the most recent posts from company bloggers. Admittedly, these posts don’t deal with IP at anywhere near Forrester’s level, but it seems a logical solution, one Tac Anderson suggested in a comment to a post about the policy by Cliff Condon, Forrester’s VP in charge of the company’s social media efforts. Condon replied that too few Forrester analysts are blogging to justify such an effort. ” I feel it’s up to Forrester to help more analysts start blogging by providing them a platform for doing it (rather than creating it on their own).”

In fact, Condon never even mentions IP in his post, asserting instead that the policy is designed to give Forrester analysts a tool designed to get them more involved in social media, to provide each analyst with a personal blog and to make it easier for Forrester clients.

I have no argument with these goals. After all, Hill & Knowlton provides a platform for its counselors to use for blogging. The difference, though, is that Hill & Knowlton doesn’t require its staff to use the platform. Many of the PR agency’s staff maintain their own blogs; their posts are aggregated on the same platform along with original posts.

Is it about control?

Forrester’s representatives argue that the policy isn’t about wielding control over what analyst bloggers write. In fact, they argue, analysts are being encouraged to stretch with their blogs.

Still, one defender of Forrester’s policy—Edison Research Strategy and Marketing VP Tom Webster—thinks control may well have something to do with it, pointing to a post former Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang wrote on his Web Strategy blog that required a follow-up apology. Writes Webster:

This could have (and maybe did) hurt Forrester right in the wallet. It’s not my intent to rehash that particular incident, but let’s all agree it was a significant black eye for the company and indeed the analyst industry as a whole. Forrester can afford to lose an analyst here and there -– but they can’t afford incidents like this.

(Webster, by the way, is a terrific dinner companion.)

I’m inclined to take Forrester’s word for it that the policy isn’t designed to keep a tight rein on its bloggers. After all, a well-communicated policy—like the one Hill & Knowlton implemented—would prevent virtually all such mistakes.

A policy would also preclude analysts from giving away more of Forrester’s IP than they should. But on this point, it’s worth looking at an article appearing in the March 2010 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead, and a quote from lyricist John Perry Barlow:

What people today are beginning to realize is what became obvious to us back then—the important correlation is the one between familiarity and value, not scarcity and value. Adam Smith taught that the scarcer you make something, the more valuable it becomes. In the physical world, that works beautifully. But we couldn’t regulate (taping at) our shows, and you can’t online. The Internet doesn’t behave that way. But here’s the thing: if I give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced. That was the value proposition with the Dead.

Yep, that’s intellectual property Barlow’s talking about.

So I’m still befuddled about this notion of lost IP. I still don’t grasp how an analyst blogging about the research he’s engaged in on his own blog, informed by Forrester’s blogging guidelines, represents a tangible loss to Forrester. Do they not grasp what Barlow does? Are they less savvy about social media than they’ve been claiming they are?

The Altimeter equation

Most of the speculation by those aghast at the policy suggest its origins rest with The Altimeter Group, founded by former Forrester vice president Charlene Li; Owyang and Ray Wang are both partners who joined Li and Altimeter after leaving Forrester. In his SageCircle post, strategist Carter Lusher writes:

Forrester CEO George Colony is well aware of that savvy analysts can build their personal brands via their positions as Forrester analysts amplified by social media (see the post on “Altimeter Envy”). As a consequence, a Forrester policy that tries to restrict analysts’ personally-branded research blogs works to reduce the possibility that the analysts will build a valuable personal brand leading to their departure.

I’d be more inclined to call this “The Scoble Effect.” Uberblogger Robert Scoble built his audience and his personal brand while blogging about Microsoft on his personal blog. He became Microsoft’s de facto spokesperson, its voice in the social media space. When he left Microsoft, he took that brand with him to each of his subsequent ventures. No single Microsoft blogger has been able to capture the share of attention that Scoble enjoyed, while Scoble ceretainly benefitted from the personal brand he had built based on Microsoft’s IP.

(Side question: If Scoble had been forced to blog on a dedicated Microsoft platform, would the company have deleted that blog upon his departure? One high-tech company—I can’t recall which—was called out in the blogosphere for doing just that and had to reinstate the posts in the face of accusations of altering history.)

I’m not inside the heads of Forrester’s leaders, so I can’t say how much of a factor the fear of losing analysts who build strong personal brands played in the decision. I’d be disappointed if it was a major consideration, since it seems petty and mean-spirited. In his post on the kerfuffle, C. Edward Brice cited David Armano’s brandividuals, “people who represent your brand and their own, balancing the two may be something we see more of, not less as companies and brands try to figure out how to engage on a web that’s become increasingly social and personal.” Brice, senior vice president of worldwide marketing for Lumension Security, writes, “Basically today when you hire someone you bring their on-line social network into your company, and when they leave they take it with them.”

And if you already had a blog?

One of those defending the policy is new Forrester analyst Augie Ray, who will abandon his “Experience: The Blog” in order to comply with the Forrester policy. Ray isn’t thrilled with dropping the blog that has accounted for so much time and energy.

But I also understand Forrester’s reasons for the changes.  There are obvious benefits to the company of aggregating intellectual property on, including Search Engine relevance and creating a marketing platform that demonstrates the breadth and depth of analysts’ brainpower and coverage.

I appreciate Ray’s measured response, but I think it misses the point. He has developed a following on his blog and not all of them will necessarily follow him to the Forrester platform. That represents a considerable number of people Forrester won’t reach with its message, limiting the exposure to prospective new paying customers.

Consider Scott Monty, who brought his considerable following with him to his job managing Ford Motor Company’s social media efforts. He has used the blog effectively as a means of telling Ford’s story to a large audience than he could reach if he had been forced to scuttle his blog and start anew on a dedicated Ford platform.

The value of Scott’s Ford-focused posts still accrues to Ford (even as he continues to build his personal brand), just as the value of a Forrester analyst’s post on her own blog would still accrue to Forrester. Sure, it can also serve to build the blogger’s own brand, but even Forrester’s Bernoff admits that his brand has been built just fine without his own blog. So what’s the difference?

From a personal perspective, had Joe Jaffe told me that I’d have to give up my blog and podcast before joining crayon, I would have declined the offer. While a lot of prospective Forrester analysts may agree to drop their blogs in order to work there, it’s impossible to know how many may never apply in the first place knowing what the policy is. Some have argued that nobody would pass on the job to salvage their blog, but if I would, I’m probably not alone.

Did Forrester conduct a cost-benefit analysis?

I wonder if the powers that be at Forrester engaged in a cost-benefit analysis. What is it truly costing in terms of lost IP? (To reiterate, I can’t figure out where they’d lose a single nickel.) What is the cost if an analyst builds a personal brand and then leaves, taking her blog with her? (You’d also have to factor in how many of those analysts would have left anyway.) And what is the benefit of the expanded reach of Forrester’s messages and stories, the same reach that leads marketers to offer the IP free of charge to people like me?

I may have just answered my own question. If a cost-benefit analysis had been done, I can’t believe it would have led Forrester to adopt this policy.

So why, then? It’s either a provincial and wrong-minded understanding of IP or a knee-jerk reaction to the Altimeter Group situation.

Either way, it’s a mistake.

It’s also Forrester’s call, not mine. The company produces terrific research and I hope this all works out for them and their analysts in the long run.

Posted by Shel on 02/09 at 06:46 PM
BloggingPublishingResearchSocial Media • (12) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink

Undercover Boss makes for good television—and bad management

imageOnce the Super Bowl—the most-viewed television program of all time—ended, 38.6 million people (about 36% of the Super Bowl audience) stuck around for the premiere of CBS’s new “reality” show, “Undercover Boss.”

In case you’ve just emerged from a coma and aren’t aware of the show, the premise is simple: Company leaders go undercover on the front lines of their companies to discover what it’s really like to do the heavy lifting. Surprised at what they see—from abuses to the horrific consequences of their own policies—their humanity bubbles to the surface and they initiate changes to improve the lives of front-line workers.

(As of right now, you can watch the full episode on the CBS website.

The concept isn’t particularly revolutionary. Hertz used to require its senior staff to spend time working rental counters in order to stay in touch with the customer and remind themselves of the challenges faced by employees who are the human face of the company. JetBlue’s former chairman Dave Neeleman used to work as a flight attendant from time to time for pretty much the same reason.

The wrinkle in “Undercover Boss” is that the employees with whom the executives work are in the dark as to their new colleagues’ identity.

It makes for entertaining television, and the number of tweets I saw from communicators I follow on Twitter proclaiming “Undercover Boss” their new favorite indicates that the show resonated with people who work for a living.

Of course, it “Undercover Boss” is a network reality program, which means it’s superficial and contrived. The footage CBS requires for an hourlong show isn’t going to result in a comprehensive overview of the company’s operations and it won’t reveal most of the significant issues affecting the organization’s performance. But that’s okay. It’s just entertainment. If the executive hitting the road with a camera crew really wanted to uncover the conditions that are holding the company back, this isn’t the approach he’d take.

Ultimately, though, the program could do the company more harm than good.

Organizations need committed, engaged employees. Unlike loyalty, we know a lot about what leads employees to be committed and engaged. One driver of commitment, according to research, is the certainty that pay and benefits are handled fairly and equitably throughout the organization. This belief in fairness and equity is far more important to employees than the actual size of their own paycheck when it comes to inspiring employees to deliver their best work and to put in discretionary effort on behalf of their employer.

I once worked for an organization facing a dilemma. One of their rising stars, already a member of the management team, was pregnant and had decided to resign so she could be a full-time mom. To convince her to stay, the company made arrangements to make room for a crib and a rocking chair in her office and told her she could bring her baby to work and take all the time she needed to care for the child. The executives who concoted this scheme were proud of what they viewed as their forward-thinking solution.

Of course, the news got out to hundreds and hundreds of women at lower levels who struggled with child care but didn’t have the resources that would have allowed them to quit. Their thoroughly understandable reaction: Pay and benefits at this company is unfair. We who work our asses off get no help while the company pulls out all the stops for a highly compensated director-level executive. Morale plummeted.

Waste Management, the company featured in the premiere episode of “Undercover Boss,” could suffer the same backlash. One employee, Jaclyn, is supporting an extended family in the home she’s about to lose while she does the work of three or four people at the landfill where she works. The undercover boss, Waste Management President and COO Larry O’Donnell, risks breaking cover to tell Jaclyn’s boss that something needs to be done to help. At the end of the show, when O’Donnell reveals his true identity, he sees to it that Jaclyn gets promoted from an hourly to a salaried position that pays better; the company also hires a couple people to fill the vacant positions to relieve Jaclyn’s workload.

Then there’s Walter, O’Donnell’s supervisor at a landfill. Walter has been on dialysis for years but still works hard and has a positive attitude. At the show’s conclusion, we learn that O’Donnell has made Walter a health mentor for the company.

Yes, it’s emotional and satisfying television. But Waste Management employs tens of thousands of people. Jaclyn and Walter are not the only employees struggling to pay the bills, coping with a “do more with less” mentality, or overcoming health issues just to be able to get a paycheck. But they are the only ones O’Donnell spent time with on camera and they are the only ones whose issues were addressed by the company.

And make no mistake: There are very few Waste Management employees who didn’t watch “Undercover Boss.” Every admin doing the work of three people, every employee who isn’t making enough to save their house from the current mortgage meltdown, every employee with health issues who still needs to work or lose their health insurance watched the show and wondered, “What the hell? What about me?”

And their levels of commitment and engagement went right down the portable toilets Waste Management manages at outdoor events.

Even the resolution of a time-clock issue at a recycling facility could cause bad feelings if the problem (or similar problems) aren’t addressed at other company locations.

I’m hardly alone in recognizing the problem. Time magazine’s review notes:

Sure, he handed out promotions and raises to the few people whose stories we saw. It was moving to see a woman with overwhelming family and job responsibilities get a bump up that kept her from losing her house. But is there anything reason to believe anything is better company-wide?

The time review also notes that the policies that led to some of the situations O’Donnell encountered were the result of shareholder demands for higher ROI. Should O’Donnell alter those policies to the extent that ROI suffers, it wouldn’t be the first time a company found itself a new president. (Just ask shareholders at SAP.)

I have to admit, I’m not a fan of reality shows. I’ve never watched a single episode of Survivor or American Idol. There is one reality show I do watch: chef Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” One of this show’s regular features is an update. The crew revisits a restaurant where Ramsay worked his magic to see if the initial success wrought by the changes stuck. It would be nice if “Undercover Boss” went back to Waste Management in a year to see if anything changed company-wide.

But don’t hold your breath. It wouldn’t be good television to show a company with lower morale as a result of the undercover experience.

Posted by Shel on 02/09 at 09:47 AM
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