…on ABC (or ATM)

I enjoy media training and, like most trainers, focus attention on the Acknowledge – Bridge – Control (or Answer – Transition – Message) model of handling questions.  One question I get asked frequently is “Won’t the reporter / audience take it amiss if I don’t answer the question?”  Harvard Business has recently posted an interesting working paper that provides empirical evidence that, under certain circumstances, they won’t.

Essentially the paper (supported by a lot of mathetmatics) says that answering the ‘wrong’ question may actually be better than answering the right one.   In the study, audiences reacted positively when a respondent (in this case a politician) answered a question different from the one asked but on a similar theme.  Credbility was equivalent to the politician answering the question actually asked.  

However, the audience penalized the politician when he transitioned to an answer on a totally different topic from the question.  Audiences also penalized the politician for answering the actual question but handling it badly.  Most interesting to me was that audience recall of the question asked was affected by their assessment of whether the answer had been a good one.  In other words, if the politician answered a question with a response to a different issue similar in theme, audinces generally believed that the original question had, in fact, been addressed.

Lessons for media spokspersons?  An interview is a conversation and works by the same rules.  You have to maintain a logical flow, but you don’t have to slavishly answer every question.  It is essential to be prepared with key messages and proofpoints, but the core skill is to tailor your response in such a way as to address the direction of the question, not necessarily the actual content.  A good answer to the ‘wrong’ question is more credible than a bad answer to the ‘right’ one.


…on dealing with the devil

Mallen Baker, always a good read, has another thought provoking piece on his blog  about “ethical” business.  He makes a sound point about the inclusion of companies in industries like oil, gambling and tobacco being included in ethical investment indices – essentially that it’s better to have a “bad” company doing good things than to have the same company decide that, since it’s bad anyway, it needn’t bother.

I’ll agree to a point, but there is a degree of hypocrisy about tobacco companies on the one hand trumpeting their efforts to reduce smoking in the U.S. while, here in Indonesia for example, glamorising smoking through pop sponsorships (even failed ones), extreme sports and so on.  Tobacco advertising here is a lot more overt than in many other countires I’ve visited and, it has to be said, underage smoking seems a lot more visible also.

Should tobacco producers, oil companies, weapons manufacturers and other ethically dubious industries be demonized simply because of how they make their money?  No, so long as the business is legal.

I do think, though, that companies today need to be careful that their commitment to social responsibility is seen to apply across the entire global organization.  If it’s wrong to glamorize smoking in the U.S. or in Korea then it’s wrong for the same company to do the same thing in Indonesia.  You can’t hide behind what the law allows and still expect to be seen as a responsible company.

I agree with Mallen that demonising companies that you don’t like (even if you are in a majority) is an exercise in self indulgence. However, I also believe that the same self indulgence is behind the apparent idea that you can pay the cost of doing good in one market by continuing to do bad in another.


…on CEO blogging

Reading a recent Unspun post, I started thinking about something we are often asked in our line of work – “Should CEO’s blog”?  It’s both easy and difficult to answer.

As my own experience (and the paucity of posts in recent weeks) shows, it’s easier to start a blog than to maintain it, especially if you are not, by nature, a diarist.  I don’t want to turn my blog into a collection of clippings, but when work gets hectic it can be difficult to justify taking time out to write.  Yes, you can write at home but I like to keep my time at home for my family and even writing a blog post is dangerously close to bringing my work home with me.

So should CEOs blog?  Mine does, and so do many more.  Others start off, as do I, with the best intentions but find that other things get in the way and the site goes silent.  And it must be acknowledged that the average CEO has probably more pressing time constraints than do I.

Five questions I would ask a CEO who was thinking about starting a blog:

1: Do you already keep a journal or diary that you would be comfortable putting online?

2: Is there a non-business topic that you feel sufficiently passionate about to write on two or three times a week?

3: Are you absolutely certain that you can schedule an hour a week to write and stick to that schedule?

4: Do you currently read and comment on blogs relating to your business or interests?

5: Do you see the blog as an important component in your personal and professional career development?

If you can’t answer “Yes” to at least three of those questions, then blogging may not be for you.

Now I just have to answer them myself.


…on brand pride

According to the Jakarta Post , VP Jusuf Kalla has asked Indonesian SMEs to brand their products in order to make Indonesian users proud of using the products.

While I applaud the sentiment (the firm I work for generates a lot of its revenue from branding activities), I think that VP Kalla has his priorities back to front.

Edelman’s global and regional research shows clearly that corporate reputation is built on quality of a product, support for the product and the quality of the leadership. A product brand is based more than anything on the quality of the customer experience and the product’s ability to meet a specific want (not necessarily a need) in the target audience.

What the VP should have been saying to SMEs was:

  1. Get your quality control up to international standards
  2. Make sure your customer support functions are given plenty of budget support
  3. Keep your customers engaged in an ongoing dialog to ensure that you fully understand their wants and needs
  4. Make sure that every promotional rupiah that you spend comes back to you with interest
  5. Build a cadre of customers who are so delighted with you and your product that they will shout it from the rooftops
  6. Set your advertising budget after you have allocated sufficient resources to every other point of customer engagement

In short, don’t settle for anything less than international standards, even if your product is for a predominantly domestic market.

A modern brand is built on a strong narrative.  That narrative can be based on social responsibility, innovation, service quality or anything that customers find is a good reason to pay a little extra.  Crucially, though, it has to be real.  Investing in over-priced promotional campaigns to sell products that will never match the claims made for them is effectively brand suicide.


…on Accountability

According to Brand Republic, Publicis has walked away from a client because the company wanted to penalize the agency if it didn’t meet campaign objectives.

Having been burnt myself for missing objectives (though in my case it was because the client moved the goalposts!) I can sympathize to a degree with Publicis. There are so many variables in a client’s business that to blame a failure on one aspect of the communications mix and then exact a financial penalty from the agency is, I beleive, unfair.

However, the actual points that Publicis is objecting to seem, well, odd.

[Publicis] departed the arrangement, upon learning that [the client] intended to penalise the agencies by twice the media spend, if the necessary media timing schedule and space objectives were not met.

To me, the media timing schedule and space objectives are pretty straightforward outputs. There’s no hint that the client is trying to make the agency responsible for business results, just for doing their job properly.

[The client] was also seeking the same penalty provision if its telephone number and address were misspelled in the advertising campaign.

We felt this was not a fair position,” said [Publicis]

Not fair to demand that your advertising agency correctly copies your telephone number and address? Give me a break! That’s basic quality control. Any agency that objects to being asked to guarantee the quality of its work and meet its required deliverables has no business pitching for clients.

At IndoPacific Edelman we have a very rigorous quality control system based around client surveys. One of the many areas we ask clients to rate out performance is delivering on commitments – and may God have mercy on your soul if you get marked down on that one! Clients have a right to quality work. End of story.


…on how to avoid being a global company

Although both in Indonesia and in Korea I have found myself talking to local companies with regional and global aspirations, not every company wants to expand its business overseas. Here then are ten tips for remaining a purely local player.

  1. Make sure your website is available only in your local language. Bad English is an optional addition.
  2. Train your call center staff to just put the phone down if the person on the other end is speaking a language other than their own.
  3. Ensure that no-one in your organization knows who to refer international inquiries to.
  4. Focus all your communications on the things a domestic audience wants to hear – international perceptions of your company are irrelevant if you want to stay a local player.
  5. Benchmark against your closest local competitor. There’s no point setting an international standard for quality or performance if you don’t want to compete internationally.
  6. Make sure that any emails that you receive from overseas in relation to your product or your business are ignored for at least two weeks. For each follow up mail you receive, add another week.
  7. Don’t worry too much about employee engagement. The ones that want to work for a global company will quit anyway and you can get by perfectly well without attracting expensive, top caliber talent.
  8. If you are looking for outside support make sure you choose the cheapest possible option. After all, money is money. And see point 5
  9. If you decide to market your brand, make sure it is absolutely indistinguishable from your competitors. Prominent, successful brands attract outside attention and you don’t want that.
  10. Forget about transparency and corporate governance. None of your local competitors waste time on it, so why should you?

Of course, if you want to be an international player then disregard all the above.


…on the voice of dissent

I read an editorial this morning that hit home on a number of issues that I observe on the ground here in Indonesia. The salient paragraphs are:

It’s a feature of human societies that we can have views on a certain matter that differ from others. In a democratic society, we should be able to express different views. We lived through an era that did not accommodate different views and their expression, and we called it dictatorship. We were proud that, after making great sacrifices, we achieved a society recognizing our mutual differences….

We will only reach political maturity when we acknowledge our differences, when those who oppose something, others can also oppose them in turn and hold different views. Those who believe they alone are right and bully others who disagree with them are in no position to criticize.

Interestingly, though, the comments were not in an Indonesian newspaper but in the June 9 edition of  Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s leading national daily.

I find the parallels between my previous home and my current one absolutely fascinating – both are relatively young democracies with a history of authoritarian government, both have a tradition of street demonstration of student activism as a catalyst for change (for better or for worse).

The undermining of the democratic process that Korea is seeing in the face of beef protests, we are seeing in Indonesia in the persecution of religious minorities and what an acquaintance called the “creeping Islamization” of the country.

Tolerance of minority viewpoints is a feature of stable democracies. Where that tolerance is seen to be breaking down, it has an impact both on the rights of the citizens of the country and on the willingness of international investors to place funds there. Something the government should consider in face of militant activism.