The Art of Engagement

 “The opposite of control is trust. Resist the urge to control.”

A psychologist at Duke University recently offered these words of advice to prospective parents, but these same words can be applied to business too.

The 2012 Edelman Trust barometer shows a significant decline in CEO trust. Employees and a  “person like me” are more trusted as spokespersons for an organization. Social networking, micro-blogging, and content sharing sites saw the highest jump as trusted sources of information.

People no longer accept “corporate speak.” They want to engage with a “real” person – someone who listens and understands their concerns. Instead of disseminating messages with a well-rehearsed voice, companies need to relinquish control and allow their employees to engage in the conversation. The public wants transparency – employees can bridge the gap.

Students, too, are delving beyond the glossy admissions brochures and  “corporate college talk” – one blue booklet begins to look like another. Last year CNN highlighted the use of social media by universities to attract applications and enrollment.

The key to any successful campaign is communicating with the audience wherever they are. High school, students live in the online world. To compete, universities need to be creative and engage with prospective students in the social space.

Postcards with QR codes, linking to websites generate more excitement than yet another heavy envelope with tons of reading – at least they did in my house, if only for the novelty factor.

Facebook pages are the norm for accepted students to initiate conversations, build relationships, and learn more about the institution they may or may not attend. Yes, the pages are password protected, and monitored by current students or members of the admissions team, but the university has little control over the conversation. It has to let go and trust its own students to be its voice – a more transparent and trusted voice.

Over the past week, I have watched universities use social media to engage accepted students. From welcome YouTube videos to mobile apps with maps and schedules, universities are pulling out all the stops to connect with their audience. At Duke, the students were provided with a special hash tag at the start of the visit and told that the best would be read at the closing ceremony – who doesn’t love a competition! Kids uploaded pictures from around campus and professed their love for the school. The university resisted the urge to control the message. Not only were the students engaged, but the university also received wider publicity through all the follower networks – a win-win all round.


Will a new Facebook “enemy” app become its own worst enemy?

As a society, we equate the number of “friends” or “likes” we collect on our social networks with popularity and status, but how would we feel if we were tagged as an “enemy”? Hurt, confused, insecure, or even threatened?

Unfortunately, our fears may soon be a reality. EnemyGraph, a new free app for Facebook built by graduate students at the University of Texas, allows users to make an “enemy” of their “friends,” public figures, and companies with Facebook pages.

Dean Terry, director of the emerging media program at the university argues that the new app provides balance and that people often bond over their common dislikes.  That’s true, but do we need to promote the term “enemy?” So far, Facebook has resisted the addition of a “dislike” button.

Currently making the top of the “enemy” list are Justin Bieber, Facebook Timeline, racism, MacDonald’s restaurants, and Rush Limbaugh – all fair game we might agree. The numbers using the app are still too low to have any significant impact on reputation, but companies that don’t meet public expectations may have to watch this space in the future.

My concern is not for the public figures and companies who are now more adept at engaging in the social space and responding to negativity, but for individuals. In response to criticism suggesting this is a “bully app,” a statement on the app’s Facebook page offers, “You have to be Facebook friends with someone in order to make them an “enemy.” To our knowledge anyone using this function is doing it in jest.”

Naïve! Try telling that to an emotional teenager who has been publically shunned in front of his or her “friends.” For sure, some will use it in fun, just as they are “married” to their best friends, but there is a fine line between harmless fun and bullying. “Enemy” is a harsh term.

Since the app was launched, it has had several teething problems – with the rising number of negative comments from its users, the app may fast become its own worst “enemy.”

So far, Facebook has not joined the conversation. Perhaps it, too, is hoping the app will self-destruct. What do you think – is this app fair game or will it cause more harm than good?

Update: Hope of a cure for Komen

As individuals, we feel a sense of satisfaction when our opinions are validated.

Since my last post, Harris Interactive released the results of its 2012 EquiTrend study, which measures and compares brand health. The organization with the largest drop in brand equity over the past year, and the second highest drop in the 23-year history of the poll, was Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Komen usually receives high scores for quality, willingness to recommend, and trust. This year it fell to the bottom of the pack. Negative feelings rose by 350%.

The good news for Komen – the wounds do not appear to be fatal. A press release from Harris Interactive suggests, “indicators look good for a bounce-back if commitment to core mission is re-established.” Let’s hope Komen listens.

Is it too late for Komen?

Susan G. Komen for the Cure continues to attract media attention, but for all the wrong reasons. This week, yet another senior executive, Dara Richardson-Heron, announced she had made a “personal decision” to leave her role as the CEO of Komen Greater NYC. Now, there are calls for the resignation of Nancy Brinker, the founder and chief executive of the organization.

Komen has been unable to rebuild its reputation since it announced the withdrawal of funding for breast cancer screening at Planned Parenthood clinics, earlier this year. So what went wrong?

Komen lost touch with its donors and lost sight of its intrinsic identity.

The organization failed to monitor its donors’ conversations and was blind-sided by the public outrage. As a result, Komen was slow to respond to the criticism, and outrage escalated.

Worse still, Komen tried to justify its decision by insisting that the elimination of funds was because Planned Parenthood was under federal investigation – this was untrue. Credibility dropped further when e-mails emerged linking the decision to the performance of abortions at some Planned Parenthood clinics. Not only did Komen become embroiled in the age-old political abortion debate, but it also failed to be honest – crisis management 101.

The organization’s behavior and stakeholder expectations are polls apart. Responsibility, reliability, credibility, and trustworthiness are key to a good reputation. Komen no longer scores favorably on any of these traits.

A crisis is a test of management. If it responds well, people gain confidence. If not, reputation suffers. For Komen, each new resignation drags the organization down further, and the damage increases.

With two major NYC fundraisers shelved, donations down across the country, and other non-profits poised to jump into the space, Susan G. Komen for the Cure needs to act now. It must refocus and start engaging with its audiences, inside and outside the organization.

At this stage, only drastic measures will restore donor confidence – a change at the top would be a good start.

Are half-truths more important than fact?

Two weeks ago, links to the “Kony 2012” video and calls to action from different corners of the world dominated my Facebook feed. I, like 83 million other people, watched the YouTube video, but, unlike many, I did not have the reaction Jason Russell, the Invisible Children charity co-founder and filmmaker, had hoped for.

Yes, I am horrified by the atrocities caused by Kony and the LRA. The “Kony 2012” video tells a compelling story and successfully plays on our emotions. Public outrage always rises when vulnerable groups of society are impacted; no group is more vulnerable than innocent children. For many, the video was their first exposure to the story of Joseph Kony.

I understand my friends’ desire to respond and to help. But, my immediate reaction was quite different. How do the local people in Uganda feel about the release of the video? More importantly, how do they feel about someone else telling their story and trying to rally complete strangers behind a solution they may not agree with? My reaction was not out of any premonition of the backlash that lay ahead, but based on personal experience.

I grew up in a country troubled by war, but was fortunate to travel. I listened to people offering well-intentioned but misguided solutions to the problems. Everyone had an opinion, even though they had never set foot in the country. Their opinions were shaped by hearsay or media coverage that often portrayed extreme views on both sides; they did not reflect the feelings of the vast majority of innocent people. Frequently, increased scrutiny from outside seemed to escalate the violence.

Sure enough, the response I expected came several days later. I cannot pretend to know what the Ugandan people have been through, or the true motives behind this video, but I can empathize with some of the feelings expressed by Anywar Ricky Richard, especially regarding the call for military action.

In the communications arena, we cannot simply impose our ideas on others. We have a responsibility to gather the facts and to include our stakeholders in the conversation. In my opinion, Jason Russell failed on both accounts. The misrepresentation of the facts and lack of consideration for local feelings angered the people he claims he wants to help, It also damaged the credibility of the Invisible Children charity and threatened the emerging Ugandan tourism market.

Two days ago, Amama Mbabazi, the Prime Minister of Uganda, released his own video to reframe the story and reestablish Uganda’s reputation as a relatively safe nation. With only 81,000 viewers, is society more interested in half truths than straight journalism and facts?

Lin–Drama: will we ever learn?

Jeremy Lin - by nikka_la on Flickr

Only a few weeks ago, most of us had never even heard of Jeremy Lin. Now, turn on the television, switch on the computer, or walk by the newsstand, his face is everywhere. Lin-mania, Lin-sanity, or whatever you choose to call it, has taken the nation by storm.

Jeremy Lin has been hailed the fastest-growing athlete brand, worth an estimated $14 million. He is reported to have signed a lucrative Nike endorsement deal and is said to be entertaining offers from hundreds of other companies.

With the dramatic increase in viewer ratings, the Knicks, MSG Network, ABC/ESPN, and the NBA will all benefit from the success of Lin.

Even marketing campaigns have latched onto the nation’s obsession with Lin. Spirit Airlines invited its customers to, “Check Out Our Linsanely Low Fares.”

Unfortunately, not everyone has gained from the basketball star’s meteoric rise. The media created “Lin-mania.” But, the pressure to find new angles and new headlines for stories proved too much for some. Mistakes have been made and reputations damaged.

 An ESPN editor was fired and a news anchor suspended. Radio, television, mobile news websites, and Twitter have all been the sites of potentially offensive (and inexcusable) racial slurs directed at Lin and the Asian American community.

Last week, to prevent further incidents, the Asian American Journalists Association released guidelines for media coverage of Jeremy Lin – sadly, it has no influence over the general public.

Despite all the discussions about racial stereotyping, on Friday, a high school football recruit posted a racially offensive remark, about Lin, on Twitter.

While he may not be bound by the same professional code as journalists, as a future college athlete, his actions will always be under public scrutiny and his behavior will reflect the college he plays for – watch out U. Maryland!

Like so many others, he has been left apologizing for his “unintentional” behavior.

When will we learn to engage our brains, and pause to think about the possible consequences of our words, before pressing “tweet,”  “send,” or “post”?

A Week of Social Media: Good, Bad, and Ugly

This week, the reputations of companies, brands, and individuals have been tarnished, supported, enhanced, and immortalized. The public has contributed its voice through social media channels.


Yesterday, family, friends, and celebrities gathered to say goodbye to singer, Whitney Houston. While acknowledging her vulnerabilities, the powerful eulogies paid tribute to Houston’s achievements and helped secure her place in history as one of the great voices of her time.

Ordinary fans gathered on Twitter to pay their respects, just as they had done a week earlier to express their grief over Houston’s tragic death. In fact, Houston related themes dominated the top ten Twitter trends for much of the past week.


At the beginning of the week, Harris Interactive released the results of its 2012  Reputation Quotient Study. Apple ranked highest, confirming (perhaps, even enhancing) its reputation with the general public.

But, to some, this achievement was surprising. For several years, Apple has been fighting groundswell against the treatment of employees working in its supply chain. One New York Times article alone, “In China, Human Costs are Built into an iPad,” attracted 1,770 online comments condemning Apple’s human rights record.

Corporate social responsibility is only one of six categories in the survey. The financial performance of the company, success of the iPhone 4S, and the recent memory of the visionary leader, Steve Jobs, contributed to Apple’s overall first position.

The following day, the Twitter world was abuzz again.  Tim Cook, Apple CEO, finally, acknowledged the company’s human rights problem by announcing that the Fair Labor Association is assessing working conditions in its factories. In a further victory for activists, Foxconn Technology, an Apple manufacturer, announced pay rises for workers.

If Apple is to maintain second place in the social responsibility ranking, it needs to deliver on these promises. The company cannot ride on its innovative products and financial performance forever.The question is now clear, “Profit at what cost?” The world is watching.


Single Rose – by Thor

As a result of another social media outburst, the reputation of 1-800-Flowers.Com, Inc. took a nosedive this week. The company suggests it is rated number one amongst its competitors for customer satisfaction – I’m guessing not any longer!

1-880-Flowers.Com failed to deliver hundreds of orders on Valentine’s Day. Unhappy customers posted derogatory messages on Facebook or took to Twitter to express their dissatisfaction. Soon, complete strangers were engaging in conversations with each other. The anger towards the company increased. Apologetic employees attempted to quell the Twitter outcry.

While we might applaud 1-800-Flowers.Com for monitoring the social media channels and for listening, responding, and apologizing to its customers on Twitter, communication cannot fix the problem. It can only attempt to limit reputational damage. Improving performance is key to restoring trust.

Time is limited. With Easter and Mother’s Day on the horizon, will dissatisfied customers (and the many others who read the angry Tweets) give the company another chance? Or will the newly formed Twitter group recruit more disgruntled followers?