BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Monday, February 23, 2009, 4:44 PM

Twitter in the courtroom?

Here's an interesting report from the Associated Press that highlights the tension between the deliberative nature of the courts and the instantaneous nature of web communications. At issue is whether a federal judge in Kansas will permit a journalist to cover a trial through a wildly popular social networking website called Twitter.

For those who don't know Twitter, the site allows users to communicate instantaneously with one another through a phone or personal computer. Users post comments online of up 140 characters and "subscribe" to other users for free. They share everything from industry best practices and political commentary to reviews of local restaurants. (If you're interested, my Twitter name is @henryfawell.) The Obama Campaign has the biggest audience on Twitter, weighing in with 315,000 followers.

The debate over Twitter's use in the courtroom pits two arguments against one another: On one hand, the press' right to report on a public trial without infringement; On the other, the defense counsel's concern that the instantaneous and public nature of "tweets" could influence witnesses before they testify.

Judge Marten in Kansas is not the first to consider Twitter's place in the courtroom. (A judge in Colorado granted the use of Twitter in his courtroom last month). With more journalists and newspapers embracing Twitter for its virtues (quick, free, and popular), this debate is likely to be starring in a courtroom near you. Companies and in-house counsel would be wise to operate under the assumption that Twitter will become the rule, not the exception, in courtrooms and should adjust their communications strategies accordingly.

What do you think? Should judges allow journalists to use Twitter in the courtroom?

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Friday, February 20, 2009, 10:56 AM

Millennials, car companies, and you

A new survey from Microsoft shows that a majority of millennials (born between 1981 and 2001) expect automotive companies to connect with them through new forms of communication, such as blogs, websites, and instant messaging. In my mind, the survey results aren't just about the automotive industry. Every industry would be well served asking how effectively they communicate with younger consumers. Remember, the oldest millennials are now 28 years old. They are adults with steadily increasing purchasing power and influence.

A few highlights from the survey:

Three out of four millennials want to visit company-sponsored blogs to get information and ask questions of the company. (See our previous post about Toyota's blog.)

More than half (56%) want companies to communicate with them through instant messaging.

Nine out of ten expect car company websites to offer a full view of purchase options and service history.

Nearly two-thirds report visiting a social networking site at least once a day, creating a huge opportunity for companies to connect with them on new platforms.

Additionally, more than half of millennials polled (56%) consider the auto industry to be "old." Not surprisingly, a majority also believe the auto industry has a poor public image and fails to offer career stability.

So, how adept is your company at using new communications platforms? The answer may reveal a lot about how well you connect with younger audiences.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009, 1:36 PM

History's advice for public speakers

With President Obama's first State of the Union speech days away, it's a good time to dust off quotes from some of history's best speech givers and speech writers. The advice below applies to corporate executives and communications managers as much as it does to public officials.

"Be sincere; be brief; be seated." -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em. Then tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you told 'em." -- New York Times columnist and Nixon speechwriter William Safire.

"Let thy speech be brief, comprehending much in few words." -- King James Bible.

“A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep! A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.” -- Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan.

"It's not that tough to write a good speech, but rather just a matter of a few lines." -- Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson.

"Grasp the subject; the words will follow." -- Cato the Elder.

Executives would be well served to heed this advice next time they deliver prepared remarks or interview with a local reporter. Communicating effectively requires more than having something to say; it requires thought, preparation, and knack for memorable quotes.

Let's hear from you. What are the most memorable speeches or quotes in your mind?

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Friday, February 13, 2009, 8:43 AM

Daily Record: Business leaders, take note.

Our monthly column appeared in The Maryland Daily Record this morning. You can view it by clicking here or read it in its entirety below. We hope it prompts creative thinking about how to communicate effectively in 2009.

Listen up, business leaders: A message from the public

Henry Fawell
Special to The Daily Record
February 13, 2009

Business leaders, take note. There’s an urgent message in your inbox, sent by consumers in the U.S. and beyond. The message is simple: Level with us.

That’s the lesson from two recent surveys that gauge whether companies are communicating effectively in today’s economic climate. If your company depends on public opinion (hint: that means you), the findings in these surveys demand your attention.

Take a look at the evidence: A January survey by Boston Consulting Group finds that less than a third of consumers worldwide have been contacted by their financial institution about the economic downturn and how it affects the consumer. Not surprisingly, those who weren’t contacted by their bank, insurer or asset manager expressed less confidence in that institution than those who were contacted.

But a separate survey by Siegel+Gale shows that what you say is every bit as important as how regularly you say it. Eight out of 10 consumers told Siegel+Gale they are more likely to trust companies that ditch industry jargon in favor of simple, plain-English messages.

Three out of four said that “complexity and lack of understanding” were major contributors to the financial crisis gripping the economy. It should come as no surprise, then, that more than a third said they are less likely to trust their bank, mortgage lender, broker or financial advisor in the coming year.

Ouch. The moral of the surveys is obvious: Financial institutions that kept their stakeholders in the dark last year — intentionally or not — damaged their credibility.

Let’s be clear: Banks and insurers aren’t the only ones who can learn from these findings. Electric utilities are expected to translate volatile swings in energy prices into simple language the average ratepayer understands when he or she pays the bills. Cable companies are expected to clearly present to customers what exactly they are paying for each month. (The next time you open your cable bill, ask yourself whether they’re doing a good job.)

Health care providers, colleges and universities all risk public hostility in recessions as the services they provide are increasingly unaffordable — but no less important — for millions of Americans.

OK, so U.S. businesses have been communicating poorly. How can a business leader use these surveys to improve a company’s reputation? Here are five quick ideas.

Embrace these findings. The ugly truth about how poorly we all communicated in 2008 can be a blessing for companies seeking to influence public opinion in 2009.

Identify your stakeholders. These may include customers, regulators, elected officials or reporters, to name a few. Your communications strategy must be centered on this group.

Listen to your stakeholders. Understanding your stakeholders’ fears is central to putting them at ease. Focus groups, online strategies and face-to-face interaction give you that opportunity. Take the time to listen. What they tell you may dramatically alter how you communicate.

Give your message a tune-up. If you’ve been ignoring today’s economic realities in your public outreach, you’re probably considered out of touch. If your messages are littered with hedges, qualifiers and jargon, you can sound evasive or pretentious. Jargon is fine for industry analysts and trade publications, but not the consumer. The public wants the facts and it wants them in plain English.

Tear down barriers. For too long, companies have had to rely on reporters and editors who filtered news as they saw fit. While objective interpretation of events is important, the interpreters don’t always get it right. New technologies — such as blogs and interactive social media Web sites — allow for unfiltered conversations between you and your stakeholders. Toyota effectively uses its “Open Road” blog to correct inaccuracies in the press and level with the public in language we all understand. Southwest Airlines connects with the public by posting its own messages on YouTube. One of its YouTube messages has garnered nearly 200,000 views, demonstrating that at least some segments of the public welcome corporate participation in online dialogues. These efforts should complement your traditional strategies of media outreach, e-mail and snail mail campaigns, press releases and public speaking.

There is no monopoly on these new platforms. Any organization with creativity and a plan can harness it to their advantage. One caveat: This freedom comes with responsibility. Successful new media strategies are often centered on candid communications straight from senior management.

The message in these two surveys is a tough one to swallow, but it is unmistakably clear. Candor matters. With two-thirds of Americans saying their trust in U.S. businesses has fallen, we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s time to rebuild that trust, and the time to start is now.

Henry Fawell is a communications consultant for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Baltimore and was press secretary for Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His column appears monthly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009, 11:21 AM

Toyota blogs from "The Open Road"

We spend a lot of time exploring how and why companies should consider blogging as part of their communications strategies; the tricky part is figuring out how to do in a way that benefits both the company and the reader.

Here's an example of corporate blogging done right: Toyota recently used its blog "Open Road" to respond to what it considered inaccurate coverage in USA Today. In a January post titled "MPG Race is Good for Everyone," Toyota disputed the paper's contention that car companies were "squabbling" over which company's cars were more fuel efficient.

Toyota pushes back at the paper's coverage and lays out in easy-to-understand terms what it considers the bigger picture: the industry-wide migration away from petroleum-based energy. The response is firm, personable, and in language we can all understand -- all hallmarks of a good corporate blog.

Thanks to The Blog Council for flagging it.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009, 4:59 PM

Marketing the recovery plan

After a detour for jury duty and other obligations, Wag the Dog is back. Let's take a look at how advocates for President Obama's stimulus plan are seeking to influence public opinion -- starting with the president himself.

1. The White House live blogged the president's townhall meeting today in Florida, just hours before the Senate adopted the $838 billion package. It was the president's second townhall meeting in as many days.

2. President Obama held a prime time news conference Monday evening, which the White House immediately posted on The video had nearly 12,000 views in its first 18 hours online.

3. At the microblogging site, the author dubbed @obamanews kept the public up to date on the Senate debate over the stimulus. @obamanews enjoys nearly 12,000 followers.

4. Just a stone's throw from the White House, the Treasury Department launched a new website dedicated to the new financial market stability plan - a separate animal from the stimulus package - complete with fact sheets, videos, press releases, and more.

5. Treasury Secretary Geithner gave what appears to be an exclusive interview to New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks in an effort to market the stability plan. The results were mixed, but the effort to lower the temperature among critics is admirable.

6. "Organizing for America" - a new grassroots operation housed under the Democratic National Committee - has kept supporters engaged by encouraging house meeting to discuss the president's agenda. Check out this video of the president thanking his supporters and addressing the economic recovery debate on Capitol Hill. The video has 753,000 views in three days.

The strategy accounts for townhall meetings, beat reporters, thought leaders, web video, micro-blogging, grassroots engagement, vocal surrogates, and more.

What do you think? What is missing?

In the coming days and weeks, we'll also take a look at how the president's critics are getting their message out.

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