Speaking In Opposites: Why Organizations Need Outward-Facing Empaths

Over the weekend I encountered two signs that got me thinking about the messages large organizations send to those they serve (sometimes these are “customers,” other times they are “patrons” or “constituents”). Everyone knows that organizations have a tendency to put their own needs first. We’ve been hearing management gurus berate corporate America for this since at least the late 1980’s. So the better organizations try very hard to lean against that bias.

Still, it’s incredibly difficult to do from the inside. And even when you try, it’s easy to botch the job.

Here’s are two cases in point, discovered at two separate Wendy’s drive-throughs. The story of why I went to two Wendy’s is a story for another time.

At the first Wendy’s, as I pulled away from the menu board where I had just ordered, I saw this sign:

wendy's money
To help serve you better . . .

The sign told me: “To help serve you better, please have your money ready.” I get that. If we all drive up with our money ready, the line will go a lot smoother. We won’t get as many bottlenecks. But the way this is phrased is a lie. The reason for me to have my money ready is so the line goes more smoothly — not so you can serve me better. I would feel better about the admonishment without that “to better serve you” type of intro, because it is disingenuous. Just tell me to have my money ready.

I didn’t think much of it, until they got my order wrong and I had to go back out. I had already had communications problems at this restaurant, so I went to a different one, thinking I might have better luck there. At Wendy’s #2, where they thankfully got my order correct, here’s the sign I saw:

"If you fail . . . "
"If you fail . . . "

This sign was telling me, “If you fail to receive a receipt with your order please notify manager before leaving window for a refund of price paid.” Again, I get it. This is a way of making sure that everyone’s accountable — they’ve got an audit trail, and I’ve got a way to check my order.

But once again, the sign is saying the opposite of what it means. They really mean: “If WE fail to give YOU a receipt.” But it’s phrased as a failure on MY part.

I’m not resentful at this in any way. It is an illustration of just how hard it is, as a matter of practice, to execute the idea of being outward-facing. Each of these signs has a fundamentally good purpose (keep the line flowing; make sure people can check their orders), but the purpose was executed without any sort of external filter.

As organizations communicate with their constituents, they need to make sure they are running everything by someone who has the right mindset — someone who can put themselves in the shoes of the end user. This is harder than you might imagine because it involves a lot m,ore than just being smart. It takes empathy and creativity. The bigger the organization, often, the more these kinds of people get pushed to the margins and become hard to find.

(Please note that this is nothing against Wendy’s. I’ve seen the same tendencies in lots of organizations. They just happened to conveniently illustrate my point.)

The Plain Dealer And The Ethics Of Disclosure

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live: The Plain Dealer And The Ethics Of Disclosure. Here it is:

One of may favorite newspapers, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is embroiled in a controversy that raises some important questions, few of which have easy answers.

Reporters at that paper have long run critical stories highlighting some of what they have termed “unusual actions” by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. These range from odd dispute resolution strategies (ordering lawyers in a civil suit to remain in a conference room for days until they settled their clients’ disagreement) to more serious suggestions of wrongdoing (“the judge routinely diverted dozens of criminal cases to one Cleveland lawyer and authorized him to collect questionable fees, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to taxpayers,” says the Plain Dealer).

Gavel by Flickr user walknboston
Gavel by Flickr user walknboston

Today, the Plain Dealer reported that “Someone using a personal e-mail account of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold has written anonymous, opinionated online comments relating to some of the judge’s high-profile cases.” These comments were written as responses to the Plain Dealer’s online articles and blogs under the handle “lawmiss.” The judge’s daughter has stepped forward and taken responsibility for the lawmiss comments, but her admission appears to hold little water.

The Plain Dealer discovered the Saffold connection by examining registration information on the posted comments. The Plain Dealer allows anonymous comments, in order to keep the online conversation “freewheeling.” An outside firm administers the commenting functions.

The Dilemma

While this reminds me of a situation we faced at the community blog I co-manage, Rockville Central, things are different here and it makes the decision faced by the Cleveland editors more difficult. At Rockville Central, where we faced the issue of someone posting comments under multiple aliases, we do not allow anonymous posting so there is no presumption of privacy. And — more to the point —  the person in question was not a public figure, like Saffold, with the authority of a judge.

The Plain Dealer editors had a tough call, and answer a number of tough questions. On the one hand, some of the questions would seem to argue that the Plain Dealer overstepped:

  1. Given that anonymous commenting is allowed, is it OK for reporting staff to look at identifying information on blog commenters?
  2. Is it OK to divulge such information when it’s discovered, even when it is denied and someone else comes forward? (The newspaper obviously seems to believe that Saffold herself was responsible for the comments).

On the other hand, another question suggest that the Plain Dealer did the right thing:

  1. When a public figure who is part of government seemingly engages in wrongdoing, or even when their family is implicated, isn’t this news and shouldn’t it be reported?

Different people might decide this dilemma differently, but you can make a strong argument that both courses of actions are right in their way. It’s a right-vs.-right dilemma.

One outcome of the Plain Dealer situation is that the company administering the comment functions is taking steps to make sure reporters and editorial staff can’t see the identifying information of commenters. This is something that should have been in place already.

While this is a high-profile and high-stakes dilemma, public leaders at all level face dilemmas like this every day and will continue to do so as the social web continues to evolve. More and more, as individual leaders, we are given power over others’ personal information and stories.

Public leaders and the organizations they head need to have policies in place and understand the consequences of what they are doing. Divulging people’s information is not always wrong — but it needs to be done with full awareness of the competing values in play.

Social Preening And The Fine Line Of Self Promotion

As the status update (Twitter, Facebook) becomes more firmly embedded into people’s professional lives, it’s interesting to watch how different people make use of this tool differently. Some use it to share good work by others. Some use it to connect. Some use it to pass along aphorisms and motivational comments. Many people appear to have made a strategic decision that they will use their status updates to burnish their reputations and grow their “personal brand.”

Male Peacock With Feathers In Full Strut by Flickr user respres
Male Peacock With Feathers In Full Strut by Flickr user respres

This is understandable. Why spend time goofing around with social media unless there is a payoff? In fact, there isn’t a good reason, so it’s important to make sure you are meeting your goals. And one legitimate goal is personal brand building.

In the compressed, 140-character world of Twitter updates, every word (literally) counts. It makes sense to make sure each one is working for you. However, a word of caution: As more and more people enter the social media space, the rules and nuances shift, and you run the risk of backlash.

There’s a fine line between brand building and bragging.

#SXSW and #fakesxsw

Here’s a case in point about the backlash. The South By Southwest Interactive conference is a tech confab that runs just before the popular music and film festival in Austin. It’s a tech Mecca (and where Twitter got its biggest boost in 2007). Throughout the year, you saw a number of people adding the “#sxsw” hashtag to their Twitter updates as they talked about it — for instance, there was a period where people could vote on what panels they wanted to see at the conference so you’d see a lot of “Vote for my panel at #sxsw!” updates. The hashtag helps people find what they are looking for.

But it also serves a reputational purpose. It says, “Hey, everybody, guess what? I am going to South By Southwest!” Certainly, if I am going, I want people to know about it. But this year, with so many new users of Twitter — it seemed everyone was adding the hashtag, getting on the bandwagon. It became silly enough that a facetious anti-hashtag was born: #fakesxsw. The non-attenders began adding the antitag to tongue-in-cheek descriptions of panels that never existed.

The cool tag of 2009 became the wannabe tag of 2010. (And lest you think this is just me being cranky, I’m an offender myself — used the #sxsw hashtag to promote a panel I was trying to get accepted and used #fakesxsw to poke some fun at those who were attending.)

The lesson? Be judicious when latching onto popular and prestigious events. There’s a fine line between what will come off as legitimate discourse and just plain preening.

The Fine Line

That fine line is the one professionals who are using Twitter and Facebook have to walk all the time. You want people to know about the cool things you are doing, but you do not want to go overboard. No one likes a braggart — and the temptations are all around in Twitter and Facebook-land.

Here are just a few areas to watch.

  • Keynote. Are you giving a talk? You might be tempted to call it a “keynote.” Scanning people’s Twitter updates, you get the feeling that everyone’s “keynoting.” People are beginning to see through this, and it’s not so cool to be keynoting anymore. Save the term for when you really are keynoting — that is, opening or closing the main plenary session of your event.
  • RT @aplusk @me. Has someone praised you on Twitter? Or “retweeted” you? Is that someone influential? (@aplusk is Ashton Kutcher.) It’s quite tempting to retweet their update so everyone knows they noticed you. I’ve done it. One time Craig Newmark linked to one of my articles. I was excited and wanted to share. But it’s a fine line between sharing and looking silly.
  • False interactions. It’s also tempting to try to engage in conversation with the cool kids on Twitter, responding with “@” replies to their updates. “Hey @aplusk, I agree.” This applies to retweeting famous people too. If you really think you have something to add, then OK. But too much of this comes off as desperate.
  • Follower goals. If you are near some milestone in followers, it might seem like a great idea to let people know, and challenge them to get you “over the top.” “I’m at 498 followers — who will push me to 500?” Once in a great while, this can be a good idea. However, choose numbers that all would recognize as real milestones: 100, 1,000, 5,000. Doing this every hundred or two hundred followers is the opposite of cool.

I know there are lots more similar strategies. What are your favorite “self-promotion in disguise” Twitter  and Facebook techniques?

More important: How do you stay on the right side of the line? Let me know in the comments!

The Ethics Of Coming Clean

Visiting from Gawker’s Valleywag? Welcome! Please consider signing up for my occasional (free) email.

If you’re not in the tech world, you probably have never heard of the Silicon Valley blog called TechCrunch. This is a widely-read and frequently-updated blog on happenings throughout the tech world. It is among the handful of top news sources for the tech world.

Bear with me as I set up a scenario. The details are important.

About a month ago, the site’s founder, Michael Arrington, wrote “An Apology To Our Readers” in which he said:

I received a phone call from someone I trust who told me that one of our interns had asked for compensation in exchange for a blog post. Specifically, this intern had allegedly asked for a Macbook Air in exchange for a post about a startup

After an investigation we determined that the allegation was true. In fact, on at least one other occasion this intern was almost certainly given a computer in exchange for a post.

The intern in question has admitted to some of the allegations, and has denied others. We suspended this person while we were sorting through exactly what happened. When it became clear yesterday that there was no question that this person had requested, and in one case taken, compensation for a post, the intern was terminated.

Arrington went on to delete all posts that had been written by the intern. Since the intern was underage, his name was originally withheld.

Daniel Brusilovsky by Flickr user magerleague
Daniel Brusilovsky by Flickr user magerleague

Later, though, the intern came clean in both a blog post and an interview with the startup-focused blog Mixergy. His name is Daniel Brusilovsky and he’s a 17 year old senior.

Here’s what he told Mixergy:

There is supposedly a company I was meeting with who offered me a MacBook Air in exchange for a post. That got escalated to TechCrunch and TechCruch wrote a post about it and terminated my employment with them.

Brusilovsky is in the news again, one month after the incident came to light, because another character has stepped forward — a business owner who says he was the one shaken down for a story.

Sam Odio, who is CEO of a tech startup called Divvyshot (and who is as far out of the Valley as you can imagine — in Charlottesville, VA [UPDATE — that’s ’cause he’s at school at UVA, according to his web contact details]), has written in his own blog that, “Daniel Brusilovsky recently asked the founder of a startup for a Macbook Air and offered coverage in exchange. That founder was me, the CEO of Divvyshot. I came forward to Mike at TechCrunch.”

For a long time, Odio had remained silent. According to him, he was initially shaken down evidently sometime in December 2009:

Daniel came to me about Air while writing this article. He wrote the article in “real time” while interviewing me. It was in this context that he told me a friend of mine (a guy I went to college with) bought him an iMac in exchange for an article. Daniel told me that the “cover story” for the iMac was that he had received it as a gift for his birthday. I don’t know exactly what their agreement was as I wasn’t there.

Sam Odio, from his blog
Sam Odio, from his blog

When Daniel told me about the iMac, he mentioned that he needed a new laptop and that he would cover Divvyshot’s upcoming announcements in exchange for a new Macbook Air. I was stunned and responded with something like “Haha, we’ll talk about it later.” I hoped the issue would be dropped after that interview but over the coming weeks Daniel continued to bring up the Air.

My reaction was always “we can do this, but not right now.” That was a mistake – I should’ve just said no. Instead it took me over a week of struggling with the issue before coming forward to Mike at TechCrunch.

Some time after coming forward to Arrington (but while he had still not told anyone else), Odio came upon what he saw as a sympathetic piece by prominent tech journalist Jason Calacanis. The piece criticized Brusilovsky’s less than full-throated apology. Odio sent a note to Calacanis saying that he was the one who’d been shaken down.

Calacanis forwarded the email to acerbic commentator Loren Feldman who took the opportunity to exert pressure to get more of the story by Tweeting: “Divvyshot. You have 24 hrs.”

And so Odio wrote his piece on Monday, laying out his role.

I am sharing the details of this story because it is a potentially very, very fruitful study about ethical decision-making. There are right-wrong as well as right-right questions all over the place:

  • Brusilovsky: The way he tells it, he and Odio were sort of joking over IM and the language could have been construed as a shake down. (He’s also said Odio was the one who initiated the exchange.) If the “joking around” story is true, at what point do you put a stop to such conversation and inform your superiors?
  • Odio: His start up could be made or broken (or so he thought) by a story in TechCrunch. How do you have the courage to say “no” when it is necessary (instead of a week later)?
  • Arrington: Confronted with the evidence, but faced with denial, how do you respond? Do you divulge who is involved? How about the companies involved?
  • Calacanis: You are a high-profile person who gets an email out of the blue. What obligation do you have over whether you divulge it or not? And to whom?
  • Feldman: You care deeply about transparency. Where do you draw the line over who you “out?” Or is that even a relevant question?

My own take is that Brusilovsky was in the wrong, and I find his explanation of the story hard to swallow. But he is also a young person. While he should know better, he may not have developed his moral compass fully yet — so, while his punishment seems right, the court of public opinion might do well to give him a second chance. Don’t hate on him too hard, in other words.

But, in the chain after the initial shakedown, the questions become much more murky and interesting. Each player had a right-versus-right dilemma (as my friend Rush Kidder would say). You can make a case that they did the wrong thing or that they did the right thing.

This is worth studying as a public leader. Often, it is the wrongdoing of others that places us in our own ethical dilemmas.