Can we get more media variety?

We either get too much of the same thing, too little of the formerly hot thing or not enough of the real thing.
Consider too much of the same thing: last year the media focused incessantly (and often aggravatingly) on BP’s oil spill and its blackened brand, Toyota’s troubles, Facebook’s face, Gap’s new logo, Android’s surge and iPad’s popularity. And let us not forget Foursquare, GM’s resurgence, Nestle’s blunders, Jet Blue’s whacko attendant, Twitter’s apparent omnipresence and technology’s journey to the cloud.
But this isn’t anything new; beating a story to death personifies today’s media.
More curious are the occasions when the hottest story goes glacial. Not because the story ended, but because media interest waned. Case in point: the Haiti earthquake. The story dominated TV, online news and mainstream pubs for three months. But then coverage virtually stopped. Sean Penn called the media on it.
A similar thing happened with the BP oil debacle. Yes the oil had stopped flowing, but like the Haiti earthquake, life-altering ramifications continued to unfold including more affected shoreline, oil tenaciously clinging to marsh grass and people disagreeing with the FDA that it’s now safe to eat Gulf seafood.

Finally, and most inexplicable, we have the third story type affecting the media blend: not enough of the real thing. Consider this mere handful among hundreds of underreported stories:

  • While we heard all year that Twitter was everywhere and a major social force, a December 2010 Pew study about Twitter gave us fresh perspective, saying only 8% of American adults using the Internet use Twitter. This equates to only 2% usage on a typical day. Nearly half hardly ever read a word of the endless Tweets being Tweeted. You wouldn’t know that from all the buzz. 
  • Who knew that defrauding health care companies has now become the hottest thing since Medicare fraud? $2.5 billion was collected in the past year alone. It’s only going to get worse.
  • Last week, Amazon announced the Kindle 3 became its best-selling item of all time. Interesting news considering iPad’s media mania.
  • More than 30 states are extracting natural gas from shale rocks, fueling a new “gas rush” as we seek to diminish our reliance on foreign oil. But critics are saying the EPA is underestimating the impact this is having on our drinking water.
  • Fiber optic cable was positioned as a be-all-end-all solution, but last year companies holding dark-fiber inventory (fiber not being used) took portions off the market to push prices up. Prices have doubled in the last 12 months as the inventory shrinks while more computing goes to the cloud. Is our Internet future in danger?
  • Good news! Did you know people gave more money in 2010, despite a troubling economy?
  • Did we hear enough about the anti-regulators who “permitted the Great Recession” who were left in charge, or even promoted?
  • Even though the banks repaid TARP funds, this doesn’t mean they are healthy. “Their asset values are often grossly inflated, which means their net worth is grossly inflated.”
Getting more story richness and balance in 2011 is arguably a naïve request. But can you imagine a media climate where we heard less of what we’re tired of hearing and more of what we don’t know? Bring it on, we have the time, interest and ability to deal with more variety, not less.

Japan's disaster: why crisis plans collapse

Radiation checkGovernments and companies thoughtfully put plans in place for crises like the one unfolding in Japan, but as we can see, they often unravel.

First, we’ll list some of the communications blunders we saw last week. Then we’ll get an exclusive take from a seasoned crisis communications expert.

The mistakes:

  • Japanese officials continued to deny water from the cooling pools was gone (and radiation levels were not harmful) even as helicopters scrambled to drop water on the fuel rods and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) employees carried out what were arguably suicide missions. It was left to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) head Gregory Jacko to explain that radiation levels were "extremely high" and conditions are "life threatening."
  • Emperor Akhito delivered a rare address to the nation, but it was a full five days after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck.
  • TEPCO failed to keep Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the loop over the company’s mishandling of the Fukushima plant explosions and subsequent radioactive leaks. That’s probably why he slammed the company mercilessly and publicly.
  • While the Japanese balanced “on a knife edge waiting to see if the nuclear power plant and radiation leaks can be brought under control,” observed Reuters, TEPCO chief executive Masataka Shimizu “all but vanished from the public eye.”
  • When it comes to the food supply, no one’s steering the ship. The world is hearing about elevated radioactivity in milk and spinach but is confused by what The Wall Street Journal describes as “the absence of a central authority that can oversee the wide-reaching investigation and decide what steps should be taken.”

This framework of distrust is part of a larger pattern in Japan’s history, says crisis expert Helio Fred Garcia of Logos Consulting Group. "In previous nuclear accidents, they've lied or covered it up, which changes the dynamic,” he told Checkmate in a phone interview. “People think, ‘they’re lying to me.’ It’s a case where they need an independent level of validation for virtually everything that is said."

Garcia reminds us of two fatal flaws in times of crisis.

"The single biggest predictor of distrust and reputational harm is the perception that people in charge don't care,” he said. “The second is when they are perceived as not addressing legitimate expectations and pretending something is better than it is."

Complicating matters is the misalignment between governments and the companies that operate the plants, a typical dynamic in Japan. Different entities have different kinds of concerns, for example, litigation vs. political concerns: “It’s a misalignment which infuriates people who are supposed to be accountable to us,” Garcia said.

A common mistake during a crisis is trying too hard to make people feel better. “I believe Michael Brown lied at that press conference during Hurricane Katrina in an attempt to prevent panic, but the consequences were far worse,” said Garcia. “This approach gets even more complicated in a Japanese culture where saving face is a strong motivator.”

What should government and corporations do during monumental crises like Japan involving tens of thousands of lives (missing and dead), trillions in property losses and growing health concerns?

Trust, transparency and consistency are the keys, Garcia said.

“Tell us what you know, tell us what you don’t know, tell us what we’re supposed to do and tell us what you’re going to do,” he advised. “Then do what you promised. Then continuously repeat this communication cycle."

Checkmate post is 2010's #1 social media blog on


The #1 social media blog on the popular site in 2010 was a Checkmate blog about Nestle and Facebook called Seven social media lessons from Nestle's reputation crisis. See our original post here.

These lessons are still relevant as we enter a New Year with social media's continued omnipresence.

Green Launching Pad innovates state-level clean energy branding

One of the more innovative collaborations between a higher education institution, statewide and federal government is unfolding in New Hampshire.
This past February, the Green Launching Pad was launched. It’s a strategic partnership between the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (ARRA).
The organization connects entrepreneurs and private industry with technical, scientific and business faculty, students and state-level resources to successfully launch and accelerate the growth of new green businesses.
Five New Hampshire companies received funding in Year One of the program. Seventy-one businesses and entrepreneurs submitted applications for this funding, bolstered by $750,000 in federal stimulus funding.
An advisory board selected the five winners who are now being supported with an intensive business accelerator program aligned with UNH. The companies are connected to business, science and engineering faculty to develop product development, finance and marketing plans. The GLP also builds relationships on the financing side via angel investors and private sector business mentors (disclosure: Beaupre mentored one of the five winning companies, Air Power Analytics).
The new Green Launching Pad businesses are required to help the State reduce carbon emissions in sustainable ways. By building successful companies, New Hampshire believes it will also fuel job growth and broaden economic opportunities.
Governor John Lynch led a roundtable discussion with GLP companies last week, answering their questions and uncovering their needs and concerns. He said “I want to see you succeed in New Hampshire. I want this effort to create jobs. I want to help you win.”
So far, it’s a model bearing fruit in the Granite State.
This week “Venky” Venkatachalam, one of the original GLP founders, told Michael McCord of “You read about this when you have academia and industry working together. This has been a huge positive experience that could be a powerful force for economic development.”
Clean energy conscious state government, higher ed institutions, energy companies and the corporate sector may benefit by keeping a close watch on its progress.

Apple's sour grapes bruises a stellar brand

Even the ultra-cool sometimes just don’t get it.

After a few haughty responses earlier in the week to complaints about its iPhone 4 dropping calls, Apple made a smart move and offered free cases iPhone 4 consumers. The cases will prevent the “death grip” problem that cause the phone’s reception to fade and sometimes drop calls if held a certain way.
But Apple CEO Steve Jobs apparently just couldn’t just hand out the cases and live to fight another day. Standing on a dais in front of an image that said “Antennagate,” he had to show a video illustrating problems with competing phones like the Blackberry. Then he insisted there’s nothing really wrong with the iPhone 4 – that the situation is a media creation.
“We're not feeling right now that we have a giant problem we need to fix,” Jobs said during a press conference at Apple’s Cupertino, Calif. headquarters. “This has been blown so out of proportion that it’s incredible. I know it’s fun to have a story, but it’s less fun when you're on the other end of it.”
Has Jobs grown too accustomed to the rainbows and unicorns he usually gets from the media? I have to wonder if his PR people warned him he’d look like a whiner if he complained about the press because that’s how he came off – defensive. The media did not, as Jobs intimated, create this problem. Apple’s arrogant response to customer complaints did. When customers got the high hat from Apple, they started complaining publicly through social media and the news media picked up on the story.
When are executives going to learn a little humility and contrition go a long way in situations like this? You’d think that coming so soon on the heels of Toyota’s and BP’s PR Armageddons that Apple, normally a PR-savvy company, would have had a response as slick as its products. Considering the vast reservoirs of customer good will it has to draw on, Apple could have snuffed this out before it became a problem. It might have had to eat a little crow by admitting its hot-shot phone had a flaw, but at least it wouldn’t be getting bludgeoned in the press at the same time.

BP triggers dark side for augmented reality

No sooner did brand managers and marketers discover augmented reality (AR) as the next big marketing frontier then did consumers find a way to use AR to voice their own opinions.
AR developers Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking are keeping BP’s feet to the fire with a new AR iPhone app that lets users visualize the Deepwater Horizon oil spill at their local BP gas station or wherever they happen to see a BP logo.
Called “the leak in your hometown,” the app transforms the logo into the source of the deep sea gusher. Just point your phone at the logo and your outrage and sense of futility over the unceasing disaster is rekindled.

If you’re new to augmented reality, it’s technology that overlay’s digital information and imagery onto your view of real-world things, typically using a webcam or smartphone camera as the visual conduit.
The BP gusher app is pretty simplistic as far as AR apps go. Yet it’s a brand manager’s nightmare. As the app’s creators describe on their blog … 
An important component of the project is that it uses BP’s corporate logo as a marker, to orient the computer-generated 3D graphics. Basically turning their own logo against them. This repurposing of corporate icons will offer future artists and activists a powerful means of expression which will be easily accessible to the masses and at the same time will be safe and nondestructive.
Remember back when brand managers first swooned over the potential of social media as a new direct-to-consumer marketing channel, not yet realizing how the technology gives consumers their own, sometimes critical, voice? With AR, it’s déjà vu all over again. Google ‘augmented reality’ and ‘marketing’ and you'll see what I mean. But the effusive praise by marketers will soon be tempered as they discover that AR can be a double-edged sword, as much a threat to their companies’ corporate reputation as it is a powerful marketing tool. 

Next BP victim: 'brand journalism'

The brand journalist is the one of the most compelling marketing concepts I've encountered in a while. Leave it to BP to spoil a good thing.

Read more from our CleanSpeak blog here.

Has the Olympics brand jumped the shark?

The Vancouver Olympics open today. What’s your reaction? Is it yay!, yawn, or yikes?
Watching the endless hype and hoopla as NBC prepares to broadcast the Games, I’m wondering whether the current Olympics concept remains right for these times.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my country and enjoy healthy competition among nations. I appreciate the ancient Greek credo of healthy mind/healthy body. I subscribe to Sports Illustrated. I’ll watch some of the Games.
It’s none of that. It just seems to be an awkward time for excessiveness.


  • The current estimated cost for the Vancouver games is $6 billion – that’s nearly $6 billion of Canadian taxpayer money. Experts expect the final number to climb as high as $8 billion. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the Beijing Olympics which racked up $50-60 billion (U.S. dollars).
  •  According to the Vancouver Sun, the cost of security alone will be $800 million more than the budgeted $175 million.
  •  NBC paid $2.2 billion for rights to the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. Meanwhile, Dick Ebersol, Chairman of NBC’s Sports Division said the network will lose money on the deal.
We observe (and sometimes experience) this mind-blowing spending every two years, in different cities/countries every time.
One month ago today, over two million people became homeless in Haiti and more than 200,000 people died. It may take that country 25 years to recover from the earthquake.
The Great Recession is in full bloom. More than 10 million Americans are unemployed. Home mortgages are being abandoned. Consumer confidence is low. Canada’s New Democratic party says 15,000+ British Columbia residents are homeless as the frivolity begins. It’s a climate of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
To make the point, some folks organized the Vancouver Poverty Olympics this past Sunday, protesting the billions being spent.
With this undercurrent, do you think it’s time to steer the Olympics in a new direction? Yes, a lot of it is funded privately, but does it feel like it’s too much spend for too little gain? Billions and billions of dollars for 17 days?
Aside from the massive spending, there’s also the issue of Olympics brand erosion.
Did the Olympics jump the shark when it shifted from every four years to every two years? Does the adage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” apply? Did dividing the winter and summer games dilute the brand?       
This is supposed to be a global event, but Anheuser Busch, for example, is using the Vancouver Olympics as a “regional play,” according to Ad Age, strategizing the World Cup delivers a more global platform. Is it just this particular Olympics? Winter games always draw less than summer games (80 nations in Vancouver vs. 200+ in summer). Is this a growing trend for penny-pinching advertisers?
I’m all for fun and games. I like the Olympics concept. But is it time for this gargantuan bi-annual undertaking to be simplified and re-imagined?
I’m just sayin’…

Toyota should meet recall questions with big doses of transparency

Until a few days ago, who didn’t want to be Toyota? They had it all. A sterling reputation for quality. The world’s most popular hybrid car. Insanely loyal customers. And in 2009, to crown it all, Toyota ended General Motors’ 77-year run as the world’s largest automaker.
It probably would have been nice for Toyota if it could have had some time to celebrate being top dog, but that wasn’t meant to be. The company is playing defense over recalls affecting 9 million of its vehicles worldwide. The news that gas pedal assemblies on its top models can cause sudden acceleration strikes at the most durable part Toyota’s brand image – its reputation for quality. Toyota got great by making quality cars that people could afford. It built that reputation one solid, reliable Corolla, Camry and Prius at a time. Even though competitors like Honda and Nissan were rated just as highly, Toyota was to quality what Volvo was to safety – first among equals and better than everyone else.

Now the auto company that could once do no wrong has shut down production lines and instructed dealers not to sell some of its most popular models. The New York Times reported that Toyota knew about the acceleration problems two years before it issued the recall. Rep. Henry Waxman, one of Congress’ most persistent consumer watchdogs, announced he will hold hearings to investigate the sudden acceleration problem next month.

What’s unfolding is the next great case study on the value of openness and transparency. Toyota has already said it welcomes the chance to address the issue head-on and publicly at Waxman’s hearings. The company has already started a pre-emptive media campaign. Toyota issued statements saying it started working on a solution this fall, when it learned how pervasive the problem was. Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda issued a public apology from the World Economic Conference in Davos. Toyota USA President Jim Lentz faced Matt Lauer on the “Today” show. The company announced over the weekend that it has rushed millions of repair kits to dealers.
So the court of public opinion is convened. How will the Toyota brand come out the other end? It depends how the company’s mea culpas resonate with the public. If Toyota is perceived as earnest and sincere, history has shown that the public will forgive it and continue to see it as a brand synonymous with quality. If it is perceived as elusive and defensive, then the Toyota brand could become just another name in the pack.

Apple iPad (cringe) reminds us how brands succeed by transforming experiences

To borrow a line from Scrooge, “I’m as giddy as a drunken man.” With today’s Apple iPad intro, it feels like Christmas.
I was glued to Engadget’s live blogfeed of the announcement. Apple is leveraging its iPhone technology in a new tablet format, adding bells and whistles like unlocked, no contract, and cheap 3G data plans, a keyboard dock and the iBookstore.
But once again, as we’ve seen in the past with Apple, the whole may be larger than the sum of the parts.
In the tech industry we pay homage to “innovation” as the ultimate springboard for leadership positioning and killer differentiation.
Lots of companies make products, but only a few reinvent how we learn, communicate and experience. Remember trying to use a pre-iPod Mp3 player? Mine was a Diamond Rio; frustrated and ticked off are two reactions that come to mind.
Remember how you felt the first time you used an iPod? For me, it was the same feeling I get when I step foot in a new country. Wow, this is someplace different, and it’s cool, and a little scary but I’m happy to be here and I want to discover this new place.
The iPod wasn’t just innovative because of its simple design and intuitive ease of use. The kicker was the iTunes store – it gave us a whole new way to stay on top of music, broaden our horizons, consume and share at far less cost. The entire experience of finding and listening to music was transformed.
I used to think it was de rigueur to be able to stay in touch via e-mail on my mobile phone. But now as an iPhone user, I can’t fathom how I was satisfied with a device that made surfing the web painful and offered little else.

The iPhone gives me a broader, more fulfilling experience. While typing is a little less speedy, I now have - in one device – painless Internet, much better viewing, a decent camera, games, nifty video, all the music I love, instant social networking connections, an e-book reader and access to over 140,000 apps. Nice trade-up.

The iPad isn't perfect (bad name; doesn't multi-task; no webcam; no widescreen; no GPS) but it may hold similar long-term promise.

If I was a newspaper or magazine publisher, I’d be more hopeful. This device has the potential to help reinvent the publishing industry like iTunes reinvented the music industry. As I watched today’s New York Times demo, it reminded me of the Harry Potter movies where animated video moves across “The Daily Prophet” student newspaper. The iPad features drop down context menus; re-sizing of pages with a pinch; and embedded video inside articles. If the content providers and app developers get onboard with this vision, it could be a reinvention of how we read and learn.

It remains to be seen whether the iPad will make it or die a Newtonian death. The lesson I walk away with is that consumer and B2B brands can endear themselves to their customers - and potentially win - if they focus on innovating customer experiences vs. merely announcing feature-rich products. The former is a benefit-laden differentiation that’s damn hard to disrupt.

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