Showing posts from November, 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 Gates comments are very revealing because they show that even the defense secretary acknowledges the limitations of using force. It is a

Your Mileage Will Definitely Vary -- Management in Different Cultures

Business Week magazine ( ) 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 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

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 indicatin

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 e

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,,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-gen

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% Be

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

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 ama

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 b

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 ( ) 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 ( ). 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 ( ) is about the most positive; most of the others were definitely on the negative side of neutral. But in my opinion th

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

Saddest Cubicle, Most Fun, Worst Strategy

Wired Magazine's "Saddest Cubicle Competition" (see picture gallery at ) 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 . So when I am browsing in supermarkets looking for products with unintentionally amusing names (you won't believe how many compani

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

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 trig

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, school