Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why the Defense Secretary is RIght but Wrong

It’s not every day the US Defense Secretary urges spending more on communications rather than military equipment, but that is exactly what happened yesterday. In a New York Times interview published today Robert M Gates is quoted as saying: “We are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals,” he said. “It is just plain embarrassing that Al Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America.” He goes on to propose a “dramatic increase” in spending on strategic communications, public diplomacy and other “soft power” programs. This quote and its context were in “Defense Secretary Urges More Spending for US Diplomacy”, at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/washington/27gates.html?_r=1&ref=world&oref=slogin

Gates comments are very revealing because they show that even the defense secretary acknowledges the limitations of using force. It is also clear that he recognizes that his own job will become much easier if his colleagues in the soft power programs are successful in reaching out to other countries.

But it is disappointing to see that he apparently believes that if you throw enough money at the problem it will go away. It’s good to have resources to make a program reality, but what is still missing, perhaps, is the layer of cultural understanding and humility that would make a program effective. Critics of Karen Hughes’ public diplomacy efforts (see
Making Profitable Learnings from Dubious Success of Controversial Public Diplomacy Program) point out her lack of international experience and a tendency to think that everyone aspires to be like her. This ethnocentric attitude casts a long shadow over otherwise well meant campaigns. Until this problem is addressed I doubt that the negative perceptions can be turned round.

On a more optimistic note, Gates’ quote sounds like it was crafted to get ink in the papers and sound bites on TV, but in reality it is just a rhetorical device. Al Qaeda might be good at getting its message out to its own supporters, but I don’t think that the Bin Laden videos will convert many Americans to their point of view. In the same way the US government’s messages probably work well with people back home but certainly don’t go down well in the middle east. The challenge is to reach out to the guys on the other side, and this is a lesson for all of us. It’s easy to make messages that sound good to the people who are making them, but much harder to make a message that will resonate with the other side, and this is the challenge for the public diplomacy people. I remember once drafting a message for a senior manager who commented “I don’t like it”. “Good”, I replied, “this message is not aimed at senior managers so if you like it there is something wrong with it.”

Monday, November 26, 2007

Your Mileage Will Definitely Vary -- Management in Different Cultures

Business Week magazine (http://businessweek.com/) publishes many interesting how-to articles aimed mainly at small and medium businesses. I also recommend their podcast feed if you are often on the go and need to keep your iPod well stuffed for journeys.

But the utility of some of these articles is limited outside the US for cultural reasons. Most if not all management techniques are culture dependent and something that works well in the USA probably won’t work in the same way in Singapore, Paris, Tokyo and Rabat.

There’s a good example this week in the article “A Better Way to Deliver Bad News” at http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/nov2007/ca20071120_553131.htm?campaign_id=rss_daily in which they describe an interesting technique for giving negative feedback called “reframing”. The example they give is a manager who wants to tell someone working for them that they don’t delegate enough. Their recommendation is to say instead that the employees of that manager are anxious to take on more responsibility. This can only work in a direct society because in an indirect society this would be the normal way of saying “you don’t delegate enough”.

This is certainly not the only example. One of my favorite examples for intercultural management workshops is Ken Blanchard’s “One Minute Manager”, a well known bestseller which is best not followed too literally outside of the USA unless you are looking for trouble. In this book Blanchard advises managers to reward good employees with a pat on the back. Believe me if you try this in many European countries you will make people feel very uncomfortable. And if you are a male manager and try it in India with a female employee you will get knocked to the ground. In some places you don’t even shake hands with a person of the opposite sex, never mind pat them.

Ironically, even Fons Trompenaars’ excellent and highly recommended “Riding the Waves of Culture”, in my opinion the best practical manual for intercultural management, is also culture dependent. Anyone who has tried delivering culture training or workshops in Asia or Africa will be aware that this kind of discussion of cultural differences is itself sometimes taboo. Just to give one example, in some cultures even to discuss the existence of Trompenaars' seventh dimension can cause offense. Trompenaarians are happy to discuss clinically the difference between cultures that are inner controlled (you are in charge of your own fate) or outer controlled (che sera sera), often blissfully unaware that this makes some people very uncomfortable, since to them the “inner control” option is essentially equivalent to the denial of religion, what I believe Muslims call “kufr” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kufr).

If there is any management technique that is wholly culture independent I have never heard of it. If you are planning on managing people from other countries make sure you get some training or coaching in the art of intercultural management. You will gain in performance, sleep better and get knocked to the ground less often.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Beaujolais Nouveau and a Lesson in Branding

This week the Beaujolais nouveau 2007 has arrived and this gives me the chance to run out and buy a bottle of "Pisse Dru". You might not be familiar with this brand but it is easy enough to find in French supermarkets. Perhaps the name limits its popularity in other countries.

When I first saw this I wondered if somewhere in an obscure corner of France there is an unfortunately named Chateau Pisse, result of some ancient tradition and meaning something quite innocent. But it turns out that the simplest explanation is correct. It means what you think it does, even in French.

Actually the name does not mean literally "Thick Piss" because it recalls a rustic French expression of approval "Ca pisse dru", that a winemaker might say after tasting the first wine out of the cask. This is roughly the equivalent of the UK English expression "The Dog's Bollocks", which has nothing to do with dogs, of course, just a slang expression indicating approval.

But at least it is clear that the producer chose this name deliberately, and is not among the ranks of the careless marketers who choose some unfortunate brand name simply out of ignorance. I am sure I have said this before, but unless you are deliberately choosing a "funny" name -- Shitbegone brand toilet paper comes to mind -- you must check your ideas in all potential markets.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing about this and other communication topics you can contact Andrew Hennigan by email at conseil@andrewhennigan.com, through his website http://andrewhennigan.com or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Education Dept Snafu is Lesson for Rest of Us

Today's New York Times has a story about a very embarassing snafu at the US Department of Education that is a lesson for all of us: "For Want of a Proofreader, or at Least a Good One, a Reading Exam Is Lost" at

What happened is that US scores on an international reading exam were invalidated because there was a serious typo in the exam booklets, so students were told to look on the wrong page for text. The company printing the booklets did not catch the mistake and the department also failed to spot it. A copy editor could have found the mistake in 10 seconds according to a spokesperson from the department.

Many people have done something similar, though on a much smaller scale. I may even have sinned myself in this way a long time ago. The root cause of this problem is very simple: failing to define who is responsible for the proofreading and fact checking. It's a classic scenario where everyone thinks someone else is checking.

I remember once working on a program for a conference in Italy and I never checked the exact address of the venue, assuming that the company hired to handle the logistics would check everything. They didn't and the house number was wrong. Luckily there were no consequneces since the building was so big and obvious it didn't need a number -- like the White House or the Pentagon.

The lesson from all of this is that you must always define exactly who in a project is responsible for proof reading and fact checking, otherwise there is a danger that everyone else assumes someone else is doing it. If you are not sure who is doing it then ask the person who is doing it if they are really responsible then make sure that they actually confirm that they are.

Pilots do something like this when they pass the controls from one to another. So that there is never a situation where each pilot thinks the other is flying the plane -- or when both are pulling the controls in opposite directions -- the custom is that the pilot taking control says "It's mine" but then the other pilot answers "It's yours". In this way both pilots are sure the other knows who is in control.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What’s Dyke Got to Do With It?

In the nineties I used to present a management workshop about communications for a mixed group of managers from around the world. One of the most interesting parts was an activity where we used a stack of old newspapers to learn some principles of effective communications. Sometimes, though, we would end up getting sidetracked into an off-topic discussion about the content of one of the articles.

My favorite example of this was the newspaper headline from the Guardian newspaper of Friday 25 June 1999 saying "Dyke Lands BBC Prize" (See the article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/BBC/Story/0,,205389,00.html).

First of all several students asked what BBC meant since every three letter acronym can have dozens of meaning. So I told them it referred to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the UK’s national broadcaster which has had a reputation for being stuffy, conservative and old fashioned since 1922. Then they asked what the “prize” was so I explained it was the director-generalship of the BBC, then up for grabs.

Then the discussion began.

“It’s nice to see that the BBC is beginning to open up to diversity”, commented one person, “I’m even impressed they chose a woman and not the usual pasty-faced, middle aged guy in a suit.”

“Yes, but I think that in the LGBT community they prefer the term “lesbian””, adds another. “Dyke is generally considered offensive.” At that time it was at still pretty much universally disliked.

“I don’t see what the sexual orientation of the person has to do with it anyway”, adds a third, “and it is sad that this is the one detail they pick on.”

“Actually”, concludes a fourth, “I think that this has nothing to do with the new director being a dyke, I think that it is actually a man who just happens to be called Mr Gregory Dyke”.


So what is the practical learning from this episode? Normally I am all in favor of short headlines, but when someone’s name is the same as some common word then I would recommend that people write the name in full or omit it from the title. “Greg Dyke to Head BBC” or “New BBC Chief Named” would have avoided the problem. It is, of course, possible that the editors of the Guardian knew all about this but left the ambiguity anyway.

But since then the term has become less offensive and is sometimes used by dykes to describe themselves -- see the Wikipedia page
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyke_%28lesbian%29 for details. This is an interesting example of how you can reappropriate an offensive term to render it innocuous, but that’s a story for another day.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Finland's Missing Bear Affair

In my collection of products with funny names there are also a few samples of products that don’t have a funny name but are odd in other ways. One of these is even odder than I first thought and – this will probably not surprise you by now – teaches us a valuable lesson in communications.

This product is a can of bear meat I picked up in Finland. Now you don’t get much bear meat in France so I thought that it was a handy thing to have around. Now when anyone asks what there is to eat I can say that they can choose between tuna fish and bear meat. So far nobody has been brave enough to try the bear. Wild people who like to live in the woods and eat anything they can kill tell me that it is very gamey. They recommend that you eat it early in the season before the bear has had time to eat too many disgusting things. Others suggest opening the can on a windy day.

But the most interesting part of this product is the label. There is a nice picture of the bear taken in happier times, “100% Bear Meat” written in letters you can read from the other side of the room and a list of ingredients. A list of what? If this is 100% bear meat why does it have to have a list of ingredients? Isn’t it going to say “Ingredient: bear meat?”

No it doesn’t. The ingredients list begins with “Bear meat, 90%” and then lists all the chemicals that make up the other 10%. Meat labeling laws are confusing to consumers, but I suspect that this packaging is perfectly legal though from a communications point of view it needs some work.

I think I understand what they mean: this can contains only the meat of bears and 90% of the content of the can is actual bear meat. This distinguishes it from those products where the meat is actually a cheap mixture of little bear and much more other animals that don’t need to be hunted one by one.

It is also possible, though, that the strange inconsistency is the fault of food labeling laws, where the meat content can actually be more than 100% because the definition of meat content is roughly the meat content of the ingredients expressed as a percentage of the final product weight. A can of corned beef, for example, typically needs 120g of meat to make 100g of finished product. In this way it is 120% meat, but the rules say that when the meat percentage is more than 100% it should not be expressed that way, but it is possible to label as 100% meat something that actually has other ingredients.

Whatever the reason this discrepancy looks very bad. Most consumers will assume that the maker is either an idiot or dishonest. You cannot expect consumers to be aware of all the byzantine labeling regulations and they will interpret percentages in the normal, everyday way. And the problem is easily fixable. Instead of 100% bear meat it would have been better to write something like “Only Bear Meat” or “All Bear Meat” if these are legal. Alternatively it is better to use formulas like “120g of meat used to make 100g of product” as recommended by the UK Food Standards Agency's interpretation of European Union rules at http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/meatguidance.pdf. (Better not to read this just before a meal.)

Of course you could also argue that it was better to leave the bear in the woods and eat something else but that’s another story.

Friday, November 16, 2007

One Small Step for Email

Sometimes people show me samples of incomprehensible emails they have received and ask if the problem is curable. Well, yes, it is. Practically any human can be taught to write clearly and effectively, though the result isn’t necessarily pretty. You don’t need to be born with any special literary gene; you just need to learn some techniques and then practice.

This is a topic that will not fit into a single blog posting, but I will share you one simple tip for writing emails that will save everyone some time. It’s just one small step towards better email, but it’s a big one: put some content in the message subject.

Very often you are looking at your intray and deciding which message to open and you are faced with dozens or maybe hundreds of meaningless subjects. Blank subjects are about the worst – though I think that the client should take the first words of the message body in this case. But there are plenty of others that seem to be ok but are in fact useless. “Organization announcement” is one that I have seen too many times. True, the subject matter is organization but of what? You realize the uselessness of these subjects when you need to find a message later. Often the only hope of finding an old message is with Google desktop.

A good message subject should encapsulate the main point of the message. So instead of say “Meeting”, or even “Meeting in Helsinki” you should be thinking of something like “Meeting in Helsinki cancelled”. In some cases the entire message will fit in the subject line and you don’t need the body text at all. Some people mark these messages by adding at the end. EOM stands for end of message and is an old internet shorthand meaning that there is nothing after that. The problem is that most people don’t know this so they call you to ask what it means, costing you more time than you saved. It’s also a good idea to repeat the same line inside the message or unsophisticated users --geek speak for dummies -- will send it back saying you forgot to type the message.

When you reply to a message your email client will allow you to change the subject and this is something you should always do. The best plan is to leave the original subject but to add the main point of your reply. If the original subject was very long it is a good idea to shorten it and then add your part. For example, if you received the “Meeting in Helsinki cancelled” then your reply could have a subject like “Meeting in Helsinki… / propose videoconference”.

Really it is that simple. It takes a very small amount of extra effort to make the message subjects useful but this small effort brings much bigger time savings to everyone else. And if you think it is obvious look again at your intray. I’ll be very surprised if none of your colleagues need this advice.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Name the Sin but not the Sinner

In Italian there is a convenient expression: "name the sin but not the sinner" ("nominare il peccato ma non il peccatore"). I try to follow this principle when presenting lessons we can learn from the mistakes of others. If the story is not well known then I will name no names unless it serves some public interest. This is the case of a magazine ad I have in front of me which I keep in my collection because it is a classic example of an approach that is at best misguided, though "idiotic" is the first word that comes to mind. Judge for yourself.

The full page ad announces that Bank X has been voted number one bank in its country, and gives a fragment of the ranking table, which looks something like this:

Rank Last year Name of Bank 2006 2005 2004
1____5_________Bank X_______4.2__2.7__3.1
1____3_________Bank Y_______4.2__3.3
3____2_________Bank Z_______4.0__3.6

Their message is clearly "Come to bank X because we are now number 1".

I am always amazed at how many managers obsess over these rankings. MacDonalds is maybe number one in restaurants but I still prefer the Restaurant Le Formal in Aix en Provence. In any case rankings are fickle things. You are number one this year, number three next year.

But in this case the fragment of the table they provide seems to be what is known to science as an "own goal". First of all, Bank X is not number one by a clear margin. It is not even unequivocably number one. It is joint number one. In other words, they have spent their money to tell me that I might as well go to bank Y because it is just as good. And that's just the beginning. Look at the previous years and you see that in fact Bank Y looks much more stable. They are equally good this year and they have been consistently good in the past. Even Bank Z looks pretty good. They are almost at the same level this year and were much stronger in 2005.

Based on the evidence of the ad I would be thinking that my first choice would be Bank Y, my second Bank Z and Bank X -- who paid for the ad -- would be my third choice.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bringing Two Beers Please!

Many times I have been asked if there is any point in learning other languages. "Isn't English enough today?", they ask. Well no it isn't. Let me explain.

You can survive in many places around the world speaking only English. But the key word here is "survive". In major airports, large hotels and places like that you can usually count on someone speaking English, but this is not always the case. And even when they do speak English it is often pretty basic survival stuff, so you can call for help when you are robbed or maybe tell the waiter to bring two more beers.

But even if other people speak English they will only do so when they know you don't understand their language. In addition, many signs and things like ATM displays will not always be in English and the conversation around you will be incomprehensible. You are not really participating in life.

Even if there were no issues with functional communication it is still worth learning more languages because it keeps your mind alert much longer, it gives valuable insights into other cultures and because it opens up new worlds of literature and movies. Translations and subtitles and no substitute for the real thing and some works are never translated. For example, Stefano Benni's "La Compagnia dei Celestini" is one of the funniest books I ever read but it relies almost entirely on word play and cultural references. Roberto Benigni's movies are also much better in Italian and there are many jokes that are untranslatable.

Here's one example: "What do two pigs do on a sofa?" "The comfortable pigs!". This makes no sense but the Italian version "Cosa fanno due maiali sul divano?" "Fanno i porci comodi" will get a laugh from your Italian friends. (There are many more like this at http://www.ridiamocisu.com/barzellette/cosafanno.asp).

Anyway, to come back to the original question: "is there any point of learning other languages?" the answer is definitely "Yes", unless your communication needs can be satisfied with a handful of expressions like "Waiter bringing two more beers please!".

(I'll post a longer note on this topic with some tips and tricks for easier language learning at http://andrewhennigan.com/articles/article_bringing_two_beers_please.htm.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Making Profitable Learnings from Dubious Success of Controversial Public Diplomacy Program

Following her recent resignation, the US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Hughes) gave an interview to the BBC in London which can be heard from 6:02 to 11:59 on the 6 November 2007 edition of NewsPod (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/podcasts/newspod/).

Ms Hughes had what I would rate one of the toughest job in communications. Since October 2005 she had been in charge of changing foreigners perceptions about America. The serious media seem to agree that she has not been so successful – approval ratings for the USA in most countries have actually gone down during her watch – but the job was the ultimate widow maker. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of being sent to dry up the Pacific Ocean with a sponge and a bucket. The coverage is the Herald Tribune (http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/10/31/america/diplomacy.php) is about the most positive; most of the others were definitely on the negative side of neutral.
But in my opinion there are two interesting lessons we can draw from her experience and her comments. First of all, she mentions in the interview that perceptions of America are not all bad. “You may like American music but you may not like American foreign policy”, she told the BBC. Now nobody is going to argue with that. Yes, we all love Chuck Berry, but this is irrelevant.
Nobody believes that the creation of Rock and Roll was the result of a federal government program. And in any case you can hate the music of a country and still have a positive impression of it.

This belief reveals a serious misunderstanding about the nature of brands. Your brand equity is “atomic” and indivisible. If I have warm feelings about a given brand it is the sum of all the parts, you cannot split the brand into component parts even if they contribute to the whole. And the concept of compensating values just doesn’t work in this case. If someone has a major issue with your foreign policy he or she
is not going to say “Ah, but we have Chuck Berry, we have The Simpsons and we have The Wheel of Fortune so it is ok”. If they don’t like your foreign policy then they will not like you, regardless of cultural exports.

The second learning from the interview is more hopeful. She points out correctly that fixing a problem like this is the work of generations. It will take a long time before the perceptions about America are restored to a normal level and this is inspiring long-range programs based on influencing people. Revealingly she mentions the example of Nicholas Sarkozy (which she pronounces wrong, by the way), who she says participated in a US public diplomacy program in the past. She credits this program and the time he spent in the US for creating in his mind a positive image of the United States, with results that we have seen this week.

And for my money this is the key learning from this episode. It underscores the close link between communications, networking and influencing and demonstrates that the solution to some long-term issues is not just a program of articles, interviews, blogs and podcasts, but a program to cultivate a positive mindset of future leaders through ethical influencing activities. I do not believe that this solution should be invoked only to recover from a disaster scenario, but should be introduced anyway as an inexpensive way to avoid costly problems in the future. This is a learning that can benefit not just unpopular governments, but also organizations and companies.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Legend of John Cloudy Bucket

We were at the gate in Chicago O’Hare airport one day waiting for a flight to Phoenix when they announced: “Will John Cloudy Bucket come to the gate please”. I turned to my French colleague and said "I guess that’s for you Jean-Claude".

There was a time when he would have stormed to the counter and explained exactly how to pronounce Jean-Claude Bouquet, but now he just sighs and says “I’m Cloudy Bucket”. I see where he’s coming from. Explaining it a thousand times will never change anything, and in the end you get used to hearing their version. I even think it sounds better.

Maybe I can understand their problem. I’ve lived in France and I speak French so I would never make a mistake like that. But I wonder how I get on with names from say Uzbekistan? Working in an airport like O’Hare you probably get a fair assortment of challenging names to read every day.

But I do not understand the lazy radio journalist from the famous broadcaster who talks about French president Nicholas Sarkozy making his name rhyme with cozy. There is simply no excuse for this carelessness. Mr Sarkozy has a fairly high profile job; he is not just a goat cheese exporter from Macedonia on his way to the Goat Cheese Expo in San Diego. He is not even just a rank and file member of the French parliament with a tricky name. He is the President of the French Republic, a post that doesn’t change every year and has a fairly high status.

If you’re not sure how to pronounce the word you could simply ask the first French person you see, hoping she didn’t vote for Ségolène Royal.
Or you could listen to any French radio station and sooner or later they will mention him. These radio stations are mostly streamed through the Internet so you can listen everywhere. And you can also listen to a pronunciation file on the Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas_Sarkozy

Would the famous broadcaster think it reasonable if French radio stations referred to the prime minister of the United Kingdom as Mr Brovven? Actually I think that it sounds better than the real thing. “Brown” sounds like something invented that you find on a board game. "Brovven" is a non-nonsense power broker and statesman.

(Some names and details have been changed.)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Saddest Cubicle, Most Fun, Worst Strategy

Wired Magazine's "Saddest Cubicle Competition" (see picture gallery at http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/multimedia/2007/11/gallery_saddest_cubicle?slide=1&slideView=2) is not only entertaining, it is also an important example of why strategic thinking is so important in communications.

Quite possibly the goal of the contest is just to have some fun, but if anyone hoped to shame companies into treating employees more humanely then they have done exactly the wrong thing.

Now when anyone complains about their cube the manager can say "You complain about your cubicle but compared to other places it is a palace!. Look at the proof!". It would be more effective to provide managers with a benchmark guide to humane cubicles. Then you could shame them by showing that yours is worse than the pictures in the magazine.

This is often the case. Sometimes you can score an own goal by having the right objective but the wrong strategy.

Race Stereotypes on Products in the Noughties

When I was a small child you could get away with racial stereotypes in media and on product packaging that people today will find inconceivable. For example, there used to be a brand of preserves in England where there was an outrageous caricature of an african person on the label. If you saved enough of the offensive labels they would send you an offensive badge. I know because I used to have one.

In the same period the biggest hit show on English TV was something that you will never believe existed: a show where white men made up as caricatures of african men sang what I guess they thought were traditional songs of African people -- things like "Camptown Ladies", which is actually a white song mocking African Americans. You can read more about this awful show in the Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_and_White_Minstrel_Show.

So when I am browsing in supermarkets looking for products with unintentionally amusing names (you won't believe how many companies still call their product "Prick" or "Lekaculor") I am also on the lookout for the last remnants of this genre.

This week I found a Danish product called Atamon, made by Haugen-Gruppen AS, which is illustrated with a very dated caricature of what I guess is supposed to be a Chinese person. Memo to company: visit China please and tell me how many of the guys you meet have long pigtails. The product is apparently a preservative used to make jam. You can get product details from the company website at http://www.haugen-gruppen.dk/am/produkter/?opskriftaction=readmore&product=9490 My guess is that the product is an old established one and the package design was created in the 1800s or early 1900s. But tradition is still no excuse for not updating the package art. If there is some connection with China I am sure that any competent graphic designer with some knowledge of China could make an attractive and inoffensive alternative.

Most of the offensive package stereotypes these days represent Asian and African peoples, but I would be very interested if anyone can find one poking fun at Europeans or Americans. But I will not be surprised if they are hard to find.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Better Bad or Ridiculous? Lessons from the News

Former NASA employee Lisa Nowak is in the news again because evidence collected by the police from her car and during a statement have been thrown out by a judge. Among the evidence now invalidated are the famous Pampers she was alleged to be wearing but the other stuff still admitted include a steel mallet, buck knife, a fake 9mm gun and six metres of rubber tubing. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but I believe that her lawyers have cause for jubilation. The reason is that people can forgive and forget bad things, but stuff that is just ridiculous tends to stick.

Last month there were two stories that crystallized this idea in my mind. The first was the ongoing saga of senator Larry Craig and his alleged unusual behavior in an airport restroom. On the other hand there were news reports that if Hillary Rodham wins the White House race next year she will task her husband with trying to restore the good reputation of the United States. Reflecting on the two cases I was wondering which would be easier: restoring the reputation of Larry Craig or the USA.

In the end I decided that the easiest option of the two would be Bill Clinton's job. The reason is that if you do something that is really bad you can recover the situation by apologizing, doing good stuff and somehow making amends. But if you have done something that is perceived to be ridiculous then it is difficult to fix it. The story of Larry Craig's misfortunes happened to be firmly in the second category and provided much appreciated fodder for the writers of the late shows. But the image problems of the USA are serious issues that can be addressed and eventually fixed. Difficult but do-able.

So I am not surprised that Lisa Nowak's lawyers are trying to undo the ridiculous part of their clients story, because that is the part that does the lasting damage to her reputation. If there's a moral here it's do bad things if you have to, but never ever do anything that makes people laugh. Don't forget that there are dozens of professional comedy writers whose job it is to scour the news looking for something to make fun of. They are not going to miss any of the easy shots.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Unlucky to Eat Glue on a Monday

Today I’m going to share with you a technique that I developed for remembering hard to guess passwords. If you are like me you probably have accounts on dozens of websites, all of them needing a username and a password. One way to deal with this problem is to use the same password for all of them, but this gives you very poor security because if one if compromised all your accounts are vulnerable. Even worse is to have different passwords for each account but to write them all down, maybe in a file called passwords.txt. Don’t laugh, some people really do that.

So if you can’t remember them all and writing them is risky what are you supposed to do? Well one way is to exploit the way the memory in your brain works. Most people think memorizing things is difficult. This is not true. All sorts of stuff goes into your memory; the problem is retrieving it later because you need some sort of key that recalls a whole block of memories. You ever noticed how one song or picture can trigger the recall of a flood of childhood memories?

You can exploit this characteristic of your memory to recall difficult to guess passwords like “iut3goam”, which at eight characters and mixed letters/numbers is strong enough for normal use. The trick is to think up some arbitrary and unlikely phrase like “It’s unlucky to eat glue on a Monday”. Which may well be true, but it doesn’t matter. Take the initial letters of these words to make iutegoam” and then maybe “mung”, as they say, some of the letters into numbers.

At this point you can have a little note where you write not the password or even the phrase but just one word that will recall the whole phrase. Just “glue” will probably be enough. The word Glue triggers the memory of the phrase, and then from that you can reconstruct the whole password.

It’s important to choose phrases that are not well known otherwise your note will also trigger the same memory in other people. Choose instead total nonsense or perhaps something you recall from long ago that people can't find easily by googling your keyword.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Quarterly Newsletters and other widow makers

Last week I was talking to a client about the frequency of a regular publication. Monthly issues were out of the question, he pointed out, because it was hard enough finding enough material to fill a quarterly. I understand his thinking, but reality in this case is counter intuitive. It is actually harder to fill a quarterly.

Why is it like this? The reason is that as the frequency of publication goes down most of the "news" is either too old or too new. Try this simple exercise. If the Washington Post were to be a quarterly what would you put in the fourth quarter 2007 issue? As long as it is a daily they can talk about a speech that Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver tomorrow. But if it were a quarterly you could only really talk about historical election campaigns. It's unlikely that any article you commission today about the 2008 election could be relevant in three months time.

But the emphasis on the struggle to "fill" the newsletters of companies, schools, charities, government agencies and so on reflects a much more serious problem: the belief of managers and administrators that they need to have one and that they have enough content to fill it. So many newsletters are frankly a waste of time and trees. And they are often widow makers for the poor staff who have to turn them out every month.

My advice to young "mentees" is usually to stay away from this kind of work if you can avoid it. And my advice for managers is to think very carefully before deciding that a newsletter will solve the staff morale issue or declining sales. Very often the best way to improve morale is to scrap the newsletter. And if you must have one then be realistic about the production needs. A regular newsletter is not something that your assistant can put together in his spare time, and other employees will not spontaneously deliver publication quality copy and pictures a week before your deadline.

To be honest, unless you have a suitably dimensioned communications department to do this work you should be considering outsourcing it completely. And don't forget that the nineties are gone now. You should be thinking in terms of a blog or a podcast. Forget the paper bulletin shipped out every quarter a month after the target date. Whatever it contained is either too late or too soon or worse.