Trump’s CEOs: Why they felt having a dialogue was better than taking a moral stand

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The CEO of Merck, Kenneth Frazier, was the first executive to quit President Trump’s business councils after the events of last week (Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)

For a moment, you could hear the sighs of relief in boardrooms across America. The CEOs of blue chip firms such as General Motors, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo are no longer under the microscope for their response, or lack of, to the happenings in Charlottesville, Virginia last week. These executives were part of President Trump’s business advisory groups. To quote more on the story for those who haven’t been following the news, here’s the report from The Guardian:

Donald Trump was forced to disband two White House business councils that were disintegrating around him on Wednesday in the wake of his controversial remarks about the weekend violence in Charlottesville.

The Strategic and Policy Forum and the White House Manufacturing Jobs Initiative were both dissolved as corporate leaders continued to resign.

Trump claimed in a tweet that this was his decision, writing: “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!”

The collapse of the advisory bodies follows seven different corporate leaders stepping down from the two councils in recent days including the CEOs of both Campbell’s Soup and 3M on Wednesday.

Trump had previously stated that resignations from both panels were of no consequence. “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Wednesday’s abrupt decision came after Trump confidante Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, held a conference call for about a dozen members of the strategic and policy forum who decided to abandon it, the New York Times reported. Executives from the manufacturing council had been due to hold a similar call that afternoon, the paper added.

On Wednesday, corporate leaders who sat on the councils raced to denounce Trump’s comments about Charlottesville and to support the dissolution of the advisory bodies. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan and a member of Strategic and Policy Forum, said in a statement: “I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days.” He added that he agreed with the council’s decision to disband.

Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, who had previously said on Monday that he would not step down from the manufacturing advisory board, put out a statement on Wednesday afternoon announcing that he had resigned.

Three members of the manufacturing council resigned on Monday after Trump’s initial refusal to condemn the neo-Nazi and white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville by name. Two more followed on Tuesday after Trump defended some of the protestors in a press conference at Trump Tower. The president targeted one of the CEOs, Kenneth Frazier of Merck, in two tweetsincluding one where he mentioned Frazier, the lone African American CEO to step down, by name.

What is most striking about the events of last week was the slow reaction of these executives, particularly from firms who champion diversity and inclusion. Merck’s CEO, who was the first to act, felt compelled to leave the council due to a matter of personal conscience.

This was a minority opinion, and may CEOs were determined to remain, despite the President’s refusal to condemn extremist hate groups. To quote from the Washington Post, some, such as the four government contractors on the president’s advisory councils — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Harris Corp. and United Technologies — waited until after the councils had disbanded to publicly weigh in, if they did at all. Even then, several stopped short of singling out the president for blaming “both sides” for the violence at a white supremacist rally this past weekend in Charlottesville.

One example was Lockheed Martin, which offered no public statement. The firm’s chief executive Marillyn A. Hewson sent a note to employees on Wednesday, hours before the councils were folded, explaining that she would remain a member because the group’s mission “remains critical to our business,” even as she insisted that “white supremists, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups have no place in our society.”

Other, such as PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, personally condemned the violence, but failed to act beyond that.

Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies was unmoved, with his spokespeople telling the media that: “While we wouldn’t comment on any member’s personal decision, there’s no change in Dell engaging with the Trump administration and governments around the world to share our perspective on policy issues that affect our company, customers and employees.”

So, what was behind the inability to move? Did these executives believe that it was worth remaining to engage with a President whose position on the Charlottesville events has been condemned?

The best comment I read was shared by a communications colleague online (thank you Tim for this share). Corporate language consultant Michael Maslansky stated, “The era of the fence-sitter corporation is over. If you’re silent about an issue, then each side will assume you’re on the wrong side. You end up really having to choose.”

Corporate leaders have to choose; they can no longer sit on the fence. And they have to be prepared for the backlash, particularly from a President who takes anything and everything personally. Corporate leaders also need to act individually, as the CEO of Merck did – it’s telling that the CEOs who stuck it out decided to end the council via a conference call, preferring collective responsibility over personal ownership (which seems to be a habit of corporate life these days).

I hope those leaders who didn’t criticize what happened last week finally do so. Apple’s Tim Cook has been vocal about his position. It’s time to get off the fence people, and not only say what you believe in and advocate for as a company, but turn those words into actions.

Is Your Content Legal? A Q&A with Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson

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If your content is in breach of the UAE’s laws, you may find yourself in the courthouse (maybe not with Matthew McConaughey, however).

There’s few people who know more about media laws that Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, who has strived to raise awareness of legislation that impacts those working in communications and marketing. I had the fortune of sitting down with Fiona, to talk content. I started by asking, what is legal and illegal when it comes to content.

Fiona: All content must comply with the print and publications law, which was first published in 1980 and then expanded upon by and executive resolution in the 2000s. This law applies to all media, and how it is distributed, including online. The other law people need to be aware of is the Cybercrimes law of 2012.

These laws include a list of issues which are off-limits, such as criticizing UAE culture, the UAE government, Islam and any subject which could bring disrepute to the country. In relation to the Cybercrimes law, the penalties are stiff, with up to 500,000 AED in fines as well as jail terms. Anyone who is prosecuted and found guilty under the 2012 Cybercrimes law and who is not a national will be deported.

There was a case a couple of weeks ago where a media outlet didn’t obtain the correct releases for material. This material was published on a website, and the two hosts of the show were deported. When these laws are broken, there are serious consequences.

Q: Are enough publishers, brands or agencies aware of these laws?

Fiona: We don’t see enough awareness that people are concerned about this. We get to do pre-publication compliance review for foreign brands, who often approach us, but not for local brands. People don’t realize the laws are there, as they’re not well publicized.

Q: Who oversees these laws?

Fiona: It’s the National Media Council, and Telecoms Regulatory Authority who have the power to block websites.

Q: So how are these laws applicable to social media and social media influencers?

Fiona: The provisions of the Cybercrimes law does not specify who is liable for the content. The brand, the publisher, the agency or the author could be liable for the content under the Cybercrimes act. It could the content producer, the influencer. It could be the owner of the blog. If it’s on a Facebook site, then it could be you or the brand as the account owner. In the recent case which I referred to above, the authorities prosecuted nine parties for one action which was considered to be against the Cybercrimes act.

Q: Wouldn’t the platforms, the likes of Facebook, Snap or Twitter, potentially be liable?

Fiona: Potentially, yes, they could be liable. Most are based outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction so it becomes difficult to apply sanctions against a foreign entity. But the TRA could block their sites for being in breach of the UAE’s content regulations, as they do with materials relating to topics such as gambling.

Q: So what should brands and agencies do in terms of making sure that content is legal?

Fiona: There’s several laws that brands, agencies and publishers should be aware of, including both the Cybercrimes laws and the National Media Council advertising regulations. Familiarity is the most important thing. I’m still alarmed by the number of people who tell me there’s no media laws here, where there clearly are. Start there, train your staff to know what the big red flags are in relation to content, so they’re picked up before the content goes into production.

There’s not only legal issues, but also the reputational issues. Today, UAE nationals will take to social media to make complaints and disparage brands. Sometimes the issue isn’t so much legal as it is reputational. An issue is better resolved before it becomes a problem.

Q: Is producing content in Arabic more difficult than in English?

Fiona: Foreign brands and producers may not understand the culture of the region well. They may not understand the reality versus perception, and we’re often asked to help review not just from a legal perspective but also a cultural one. Having said that, the biggest advertising fail in the last 12 months was Arabic language content produced by Arabic speakers for an Arabic country.

The Business of Influence book review: Are we ready for the Chief Influence Officer?

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Philip Sheldrake’s ideas on the subject of influencer marketing and social media should be standard reading for all communicators.

I’m hoping to review more literature on marketing and communications on the blog over the coming months. First up is a must-read by Philip Sheldrake, which covers a area which is need of a serious improvement by our industry – influencer management.

Philip’s narrative and clarity of thought are superb; there’s an easy flow to the book which makes reading it a delight. The book is also written to cater to those who don’t have much communications experience (many people working with influencers have little communications knowledge).

The first couple of chapters look at the theory underpinning influence. He introduces his six influence flows, which simplifies how communications occurs between different groups (the visual is below).

six-influence-flows

The book highlights the measurement trap of “we can, rather than we should,” and shows practitioners how to use influence-centric approaches (the caveat here is that there’s no one way to measure influence, and influence is a complex concept).

The first of the two big “ahas” of the book are Sheldrake’s influencer scorecard. This is a framework which he has developed, based on the balanced scorecard approach used in strategy, to make influencer marketing more scientific. What the influencer scorecard does (and you can see how it’s set out below), is enable communicators and marketers to implement measures, targets and reporting which are continuous and which feed into the business. In effect, it allows us to better show the value we are bringing to the organization through influencer marketing, using measures and goals which have a clear business impact. There’s almost forty pages dedicated to this concept, so I’m not going to do Sheldrake’s model any justice here (in other words, go and read the book).

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What excites me the most about his thinking is the second revelation. Sheldrake argues that organizations will need to take influence much more seriously, and re-design their organizational structure around a new role, the Chief Influence Officer. I’ll quote from the book:

The Chief Influence Officer is charged with making the art and science of influencing and being influenced a core organizational discipline. They will be keen to network with peers in other organizations, to share best practice, to identify, refine and codify proven techniques, and to flag up unseen or unanticipated flaws in the processes described in this book… In my opinion, the role of Chief Influence Officer will be regarded as being on a par with the COO, as CEO-in-waiting.

The Chief Influence Officer will sit at the nexus of marketing, PR, customer service, HR, product development and operations. He or she will lead all communications and marketing, and be responsible for every touchpoint with the customer, with suppliers and partners. In short, the Chief Influence Officer could be the next step for the Chief Communications Officer.

I haven’t read a book with so many original thoughts for some time. If you’re working in influencer marketing and you want a dose of inspiration as to how to do things right, get your hands on Philip Sheldrake’s The Business of Influence. You can thank me later.

The Media, the Web and Influence – a Journalist’s Response

 I wrote earlier this year about the waning influence of media, and how the media could tackle this through more transparency and better use of digital.

The piece elicited a response from one journalist here in the UAE whom I greatly respect. I wanted to share that response with you below.

On auditing and transparency:

Yes, there’s a lack of transparency and yes, there should be auditing but I’m not sure how much that would help. Most advertisers either don’t care or don’t understand that a publication with smaller numbers but the right target audience could still be valuable. In any case, an insane amount of deals are done because the media planners/agency guys and publishers are friends. So to your point, even if there were to be proper auditing, I’m not sure how much it would help the media industry regain its influence. 

On influencers and audience profiles:
Okay, the media and influencers should be treated separately. By default, media (and journalists) are – or should be – influencers, but in the context of the way the term is used here, they are not. So, why are we talking about an influencer who will give a breakdown of their followers? This is an issue, but a completely separate one.
With regards to media building reader profiles, yes they should but it’s important to define whether it should be sales or editorial. The issue of trust and transparency is relatively not as pressing when dealing with editorial because they have nothing to gain per se by bluffing/inflating numbers and audiences. Moreover, if editorial is interested in covering a story, they will do so (or at least, they should) regardless of PR/comms professionals pitching or not pitching said story. In fact, PR/comms need to think beyond what they want to communicate and instead look at what journalists want to do and try and be a part of that – something I’m sure you’re more than familiar with. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to speak to a company when they want to push something but not when you’d like them to weigh in on something.
On journalists as influencers:
There needs to be a line between journalism and whatever passes as content nowadays. Journalists should NOT be content creators and distributors for brands. It has to be either/or. They can’t have a balanced view if they’re speaking for a brand (understandably so)…it’s the whole reason we strive to keep editorial and sales apart. If anything, we need more journalists – not content creators or influencers – to dig up new stories, angles, and perhaps most importantly, be brave enough to pursue those stories.
Have a view? If you do, then drop me a line. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And to the journalist who wrote this, I’d like to say thank you.

Can We Please Appoint (Qualified) Comms People to Comms Roles?

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“Did you hear about the time they appointed a banker to head up communications in the White House?”

It’s rant time. I saw the news this morning that President Trump is expected to name Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director. This follows the move by United Airlines to promote its general counsel to effectively head/oversee global communications.

When is the last time any self-respecting firm went out and hired a CFO who wasn’t a chartered accountant. Or a legal counsel who was not licensed? And yet, despite crisis after crisis, firms and organizations are still appointing people to look after their reputations who are neither qualified nor have the necessary experience.

While I’ve written before about merit, this is different. As an industry and a function, we need to start promoting the idea of a global qualification that will be a prerequisite for stepping up to a certain role or responsibility. 

Organizations need to know that the person they’re bringing in is competent at all times (particularly during a crisis), is ethical in their behavior, understands how to listen to and engage with all stakeholders, and is able to show a proper understanding of how communications delivers organizational value through measurement. A certification should be able to prove this and more.

The CIPR has developed its accredited and chartered status labels. The IABC also has its CMP and SCMP certifications. As an industry, isn’t it about time that we come together, through a global body such as the Global Alliance, to push for certification for members and for hiring managers and organizations who are looking for communications professionals to favor those practitioners who are globally certified?

I’d say yes, it’s about time.

How the Media Industry can regain its influence in today’s Social Media world

Is Print Dead

Print may not be dead in the region, but are there way that the media industry can regain influence lost to social media celebrities? (image source http://abcodigital.com)

I recently had an email exchange with a colleague in the PR industry here in Dubai on the issue of the communications industry and how to develop. I asked, what do we need to do better to make the communications function in the region better. His response was fascinating. To quote:

The truth remains that more and more media outlets are closing down, journalists being made redundant, consumers not reading much – but “following” social trends!

All what most of us have done is jump into the “influencer” band-wagon and discuss $ rates on the number of posts along with potentially a storyline. This should change. We need to find something more creative than being short-sighted to tap into the money.

But what keeps me awake at night (beyond other things, of course!) is what if media outlets close down, journalism as a profession becomes history – who the hell do we pitch our stories to?

While it’s true that the PR industry in the region has had a hand in the rapid and prominent rise of social media influencers, what about the case for the PR industry’s role in the declining influence of media, particularly print.

Here’s my two cents on how the media in the Gulf should work to regain its influence in today’s digital age. Let’s start with a look at one issue which the media has struggled with, namely transparency:

  • Audited Media – The number of audited print publications in the region is relatively low (we’re probably talking percentage-wise in the single digits). Whilst publishers such as ITP, and, most especially, Motivate have pushed for audited print titles, few others have followed suit. Audited numbers make our job of targeting the right media easy; we’re able to easily compare media titles, understand the reader breakdown and make a judgement as to whether a certain title is worth working with editorially (and then, later down the line, through advertising). It helps PRs clearly align media outreach with the business strategy, and it gives us trusted, independently audited numbers to back up our approach.
  • Unaudited Media – The vast majority of media in the region isn’t audited. Their numbers cannot be verified, and my assumption (which I assume is commonly shared in the industry), is that distribution numbers and readership is over-inflated. There’s no way that we can trust the circulation numbers given by publishers, and there’s no way that we can trust that the audience that we need to reach is seeing our messaging.
  • Advertising Media – Forgive the name for this third category. This is media which is created solely for the purposes of capturing advertising revenues, with limited to no circulation. With little to no circulation to talk of – in contrast to the publicized circulation numbers – such media and their publishers have done little to no favor to the reputation of media in the region. And it doesn’t help our cause in promoting media as the most effective means to reach out to our target audience, especially when the publication has effectively no audience.

The second issue is digital. Whilst some publishers, titles and journalists have embraced digital platforms including websites, podcasts, vlogs and social media, others have yet to leverage the power of online distribution and amplification. Digital remains a challenge for much of the media industry globally; no newspaper has been able to make a profit and run its business from its online sales revenues. However, with consumers in the Gulf region essentially living their lives online, does it make sense for traditional media publications to not be online?

The other aspect of digital which media needs to leverage is its ability to engage in real time with its audience, and build audience profiles. I’m yet to see or meet an influencer who will be able to give me an up-to-date breakdown of their followers’ interests, age ranges, geographies and other demographics. The media can and should be helping to build up reader profiles which in turn will help us work with them to target the right audiences. This requires trust and transparency, which is still hard to come by with many titles (see the above).

I feel its especially important that journalists build their online profiles. While many are being laid off as publications shrink, brands need reputable voices to work with. For me, there’s little comparison between a professional journalist and a social media influencer in the Gulf (there are exceptions). When reviewing a product, it’s much more likely that a journalist will give a less biased viewpoint, and will include both positives as well as negatives. That builds integrity and trust with readers, which advertisers should seek out as the holy grail of brand building. Journalists need to think about transitioning into content creators and distributors for brands, much like their social media influencer counterparts. The difference will be in their ability to tell a balanced story that is trusted by their readers.

Whilst the region’s media scene is slowly feeling the impact of ad spending shifting online (just look at the recent closures, including 7Days), I cannot and don’t want to image a day where we have no media to work with. The media industry has to play its part in changing to meet the needs of consumers, through embracing both transparency and digital platforms. I have a great deal of respect for the professionalism and expertise of many publications and journalists in the region, and I know how influential they can be. We need to ensure that their influence is recognized in a fashion that is understood outside of the media industry, by businesses who want to engage publicly.

Do you have any inputs or thoughts on the media industry and how they should change to remain relevant? If yes, then please do share them with me in the comments below.

Join me and pledge to work with and hire comms people on merit

On merit

Merit. I just love that word and what it means. To quote the Oxford Dictionary, the noun merit is understood to mean, “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” Hence the phrase, to be deemed worthy of something on merit.

I was reminded of the notion this week, by a journalist who was Tweeting about being treated poorly by a brand. Her frustration was in part to her feeling that she was being mistreated by the brand’s agency due to her cultural heritage. I completely understood her frustration and her sense of injustice, hence why I’m writing this post.

In one sense, we’re lucky to work in the Gulf. It’s an up-and-coming region which has attracted some remarkable communications and media talent and experience from around the world. There’s a dynamic feel to working in such a multi-racial industry.

At the same time, I often get the feel of tribalism, of people in companies and institutions wanting to work with one of their own, not for any other reason than culture or nationality. It probably doesn’t surprise many of us that people stereotype (and if you don’t believe me, look at this research from Berkeley-Haas Asst. Prof. Ming Leung who analyzed 3.9 million applications), but there’s also official discrimination – the hiring of certain nationalities to fill quotas – as well as unconscious bias . Finding people on merit, who can do the best job, seems to be a challenge we employers often get wrong.

The question I then have to ask is what does bringing the wrong people do to our industry, or even people who are too junior or who don’t have the right understanding of the role or the audience? In my own view, it devalues the work of us all, pushes us farther away from the board room, and loses us respect from those we work with, be they colleagues internally, media professionals or other stakeholder groups.

We have to look beyond traits such as race, nationality, gender, and ask if the person you’re looking to hire and work with has the right attitude, understanding, skills and experience for the role. We need more diversity and inclusion in our industry which mirrors that of our audiences and communities, and that will happen by understanding our biases and looking beyond them to finding the best talent out there, who deserve and will succeed in a role based on their own merit. That includes working with representative bodies such as the CIPR, IABC, Global Alliance and MEPRA who promote skills-based learning and certification programs.

I’m willing to take a pledge now to work with and hire comms people on merit. I want you to join me in taking this pledge. Either share this article or leave a comment below. Together, we can and will change the comms industry for the better, to be a function that respects and promotes the notion of merit.