Thinking About Risk

April 23, 2010

it’s a common term these days – Risk. When is it good, when is it bad, when should it be regulated, when should it be rewarded. Mostly this is in context of what happened on Wall Street in the last few years and through the lens of business risk. Yesterday I came across this absolutely outstanding  profile of Gen. James Mattis by John Dickerson at Slate, which reminded me of what real risk looks like. Dickerson starts off this way:

Any risks—whether, for example, singing onstage, starting a company, or rock climbing—pale compared with the risks a soldier takes in combat. A soldier risks his own life, the lives of his comrades, and the lives of innocent civilians. An officer has this burden, and more, because he also makes the decision to risk the lives of his soldiers, knowing that some of them will come to harm.

Now THAT puts it into context, eh? And I’ll even forgive Dickerson for confusing “Marine” and “Soldier” given that Mattis is Joint Force Commander, but it’s a near thing. Smile The entire story is worth reading, and is a great example of what can and should be done w/ long form journalism. But this graf below really summed it up for me:

Mattis is an evangelist for risk with two core principles. The first is that intellectual risk-taking will save the military bureaucracy from itself. Only by rewarding nonconformist innovators will the services develop solutions that match the threats conceived by an enemy that always adapts. The second is that technology cannot eliminate, and sometimes can’t even reduce, risk. Mattis warns about the limitations of sophisticated weapons and communications. They can be seductive, luring military planners into forgetting war’s unpredictable and risky nature, leaving troops vulnerable.

All too often, we discuss risk in a vacuum – risk is good, risk is bad, we should take more risks, we should encourage risk taking, we should punish risk taking, we should regulate risk and so on. I’ve said repeatedly that this is a mistake – risk on its own is nearly always bad and should be avoided if possible. Risk in pursuit of a goal, or measured risk, or risk with an outsized reward – this is what we need to go after (I’m not talking here about risk taking like rock climbing or sky diving and such – more about organizational and business risk.) So that explicit link – risk to reward – needs to be an implied part of any discussion about how to and when to take on risk. I would say that for the last several years in our financial standpoint we missed this point completely – we made two very bad assumptions. First, we accepted the idea that risk could be essentially managed or hedged out of the system. It can’t, it’s as much a constant as is change. Second, we neglected to assign risk to broader goals. WHAT are we trying to accomplish, and HOW MUCH risk are willing to accept to get there? Show me a good risk/reward ratio and I’m in…but just talk about risk and I’ll tune out.

People Remember The Lie

April 13, 2010

It’s great to see that “This Week” will try harder to fact check guests, but it is probably too little too late – the benefit of telling a lie or half truth to a big audience far outweighs the risks of having a late and likely convoluted explanation several days later about shades of gray. Why is this? Because people remember what they heard first, and no matter how many times they subsequently hear either the rebuttal or the the nuance, they stick with what they heard first. In my line of work, that is why rapid correction (as in the first few hours of a news cycle) are so crucial – you have to get the correction out there so that it lands and sinks in first time – there are no do-overs.

For a long time, I held the conviction that if there were more rapid fact checking that people would be embarrassed into moderating their behavior. But I’ve decided that there is a certain class  of person, often ideologically driven, who has thick enough skin to simply endure the subsequent pain of correction, secure in the knowledge that in many cases, first wins out over truth.

But we shouldn’t give up. The richest line in the story?

But David Gregory, the moderator of “Meet the Press” on NBC, said that accountability is “in the DNA” of his program. He said he had considered Mr. Rosen’s idea but concluded that people can fact check the program on their own online.

If that is not total abrogation of journalists responsibility, I just don’t know what is.

How To Recover from a Brand Crisis

April 11, 2010

Great piece in the current issue of the Economist looking at how to recover from a brand crisis. Using Brand Tiger as a lead in, they look at how several companies have responded well. The column has a great set of questions to ask early in a crises to help determine response:

The key to a successful relaunch lies in making a cool-headed assessment of how much the scandal damages your company. Does it involve life and limb, rather than less consequential matters? Has it spread beyond particular products or particular divisions to afflict the entire corporate brand? If the answer to both questions is yes, then companies are well advised to go into collective overdrive; if it is no, then they can experiment with more nuanced responses, such as lopping off a tainted product or sacrificing a rogue division.

Marsh & McLennan and JetBlue are used as example in the “good” category, even though in the case of JetBlue the CEO ended up stepping down (while he handled the crisis admirably). The final piece of advice is at once simple and hard to do – in a crisis, remember to focus on the customer and customer needs, and not on your company or brand. As they note:

Companies have a habit of acting like Jack when their brands are in trouble—talking endlessly about how they are fixing this or reorganising that. But most successful decontaminators look at the world’s from Jill’s point of view. Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol crisis (when an unidentified attacker poisoned some bottles of the painkiller) is the gold standard of crisis management because the company simply recalled all Tylenol without hesitation or demur. Similarly, Edward Breen, the boss of Tyco, rescued the conglomerate’s reputation after his predecessor, Dennis Kozlowski, was imprisoned, by launching a public-relations campaign that focused on what the company’s products do to improve people’s lives.

And I’ll add – talk less, do more. Actions have way more impact than words!

The Perfect Acronym

April 10, 2010

Peggy Noonan’s column today focuses on the financial meltdown, the hearings held this week and the total and complete language opacity that is being used to avoid assigning guilt or driving any kind of change in the system. She also correctly notes that the people asking questions in the hearing seem to have forgotten that asking a question is sort of important, and maybe should be tried instead of making a speech designed to look (sort of) like a question. ANYWAY, the quest to find out exactly what happened in this meltdown reminds me of my favorite acronym of all time: TANSTAAFL.

I saw it first in “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” and it has stuck w/ me and protected me ever since…when someone offers something too good to be true, where everyone seems to win, where money comes into a system and gets bigger and richer in a circle and there is no more money coming in, then TANSTAAFL it is, and run the other way as fast as possible.

Blaming the media rarely works

April 7, 2010

“Shoot the messenger” is a strategy that is massively ineffective, but often used. It’s a staple of political life in particular, where the “media” is often used as code word for “other” people who don’t agree w/ the position of those speaking/writing/blogging. And over the last few weeks, it’s been the preferred strategy of the Catholic Church, with predictably bad results. (fwiw, I am Catholic). Today, my morning reads include two such “blame the media” stories. First, in the Seattle Times, an article about the Archbishop of Portland, on Easter Sunday, distributing a letter asking people to drop their subscriptions to the Oregonian. Apparently, an op/ed piece, a cartoon and an editorial pushed him over the edge. The article notes:

Vlazny’s protest comes amid a broader backlash by the Catholic Church against recent media coverage of how the church and Pope Benedict handed sexual-abuse cases involving priests. In a statement released on a Vatican Web site last week, Cardinal William Levada, a senior Vatican official, attacked The New York Times coverage as "deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness." On Tuesday, Vatican officials said that accusations that Pope Benedict helped cover up sexual abuse by priests were part of an anti-Catholic hate campaign.

Then in the NYT (second up in my morning newspaper reading), comes a “Memo From Rome,” a thoughtful piece (soon I’m sure to be denounced as an anti-Catholic screed) that includes this:

Nor has the Vatican adapted its centuries-old insular culture to face the exigencies of civil courts, let alone the courts of public opinion. Easter weekend provided two examples of what has become a pattern of tone-deafness in the hierarchy: The pope’s own preacher delivered a Good Friday sermon in St. Peter’s Basilica comparing criticism of the church’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis to anti-Semitism, offending abuse victims and Jews.

Then, during Easter Mass, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state, denounced as “petty gossip” recent criticism of the church and of Benedict, who has been under scrutiny for his handling of sexual abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich in 1980 and when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The cardinal’s remarks highlight a siege mentality that may comfort the pope, but does not answer his critics.

Adapting to a world of increased transparency is hard, and books are written about how this change has made life difficult for corporations. I started this blog in part to talk about this specific change. And being held accountable, or having to respond to the “other” people can be hugely jarring to people in authority, thus driving the “shoot the messenger” impulse.

Of course, there is one scenario where this tactic works – where the desire is to revert to a base, to only talk to those true believers (in politics this would be the zealots on left and right) and leave out those in the middle, likely the majority, who have the capacity to process information and make decisions, and who value having a voice.

What we are seeing play out in public right now will likely be a case study for future communications professionals – what happens when one of the world’s oldest and least transparent organizations comes face to face not just with “old” media, but new media as well? Making a demon of the media has been used before. But it is hard for me to see how the path the Church is currently on will end well in a world where the media is now…everyone.

Goldman Sachs v. BusinessWeek

April 7, 2010

I picked up the current issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek tonight and looked at the cover – a grim looking montage of the Goldman Sachs logo full of holes, coming out of a bunker, with the headline, “It wasn’t our fault, really.” Ooh, I thought, this is going to be good. And boy was I right. It’s a page turner looking at the most serious accusations leveled against the firm, and their response to them. The whole thing is worth a read.

But as I read it, I wondered about the strategy of engagement and what feels to be a missing direct view from the company.  After all, they have been pretty quiet in the media, not commenting, not talking, taking its lumps and moving on. Why come out of the bunker now, especially when the context is going to be pretty tough? And why be defined by someone else? As in:

Among the general public, however, the perception is that Goldman is the toxic epicenter of everything wrong with Wall Street. The firm’s 32,000 employees are seen as an army of Gordon Gekkos, greedy manipulators who pumped up the housing bubble, then bet opportunistically on its implosion as American International Group (AIG), its trading partner, buckled under massive debts. It is widely alleged—though unproven—that Goldman called on its close friends in government to arrange for an AIG bailout, effectively pocketing billions of taxpayer dollars. "Every game has a sucker," says William K. Black, a professor of law and economics at the University of Missouri at Kansas City who was deputy director of the Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corp., "and in this case, the sucker was not so much AIG as it was the U.S. government and taxpayer."

Whoa. Pretty much anything good that comes after that bit, and there is some, is a bandage on a pretty black eye.

The article notes that on April 7 the company will release its annual report, with a full defense of its conduct during the mortgage bubble and subsequent collapse. In the world we are living in, where companies and individual have access to perhaps the biggest virtual printing press and megaphone (the web) ever seen, I think it is critical to communicate directly and indirectly at pretty much the same time. I have not yet seen the Goldman report, but I have to believe they do a better job in that document of defending themselves and putting decisions into context than came across in the BusinessWeek article. And with a virtually limitless amount of space they can provide as much information and data as they care to, depth for those who like depth, recap for those who don’t.

BusinessWeek did a good job with this article. It’s well written, entertaining, and I think is pretty balanced. That’s good journalism. But constrained by space and resources, there are pieces of the story left untold – and the place I looked to for the rest of the story was still silent. That’s a miss.

Reputation Is More Important Than Ever

March 28, 2010

Yet again comes the “death of” meme, this time from Mike Arrington. The headline grabs, but Mike, IMHO, is not really saying what the headline does, he’s making a point w/ some nuance, which never translates well to headlines. He is saying that in the online flame and bake world of today, it is harder to manage and maintain a reputation, not that it is not important, or even dead. On this point, he is correct. For businesses and for people, it’s a wild west world where comment streams, twitter feeds, ratings, rankings, news posts, speeches and photos can pack a punch, where it is harder than ever to figure out what is true and what is rumor and where the ability to discern when to respond to attacks and when to pause becomes more critical than ever. He also says he is giving up, which I find difficult to believe. Smile

But the answer is not the death of reputation, but the realization that it is more important than ever. Because while everyone makes mistakes, has photos out there, commits youthful indiscretions, middle aged indiscretions, etc, these are subsumed in the idea of reputation with a big “R.” This is made up of all we do, how we act in public, in private, online and off. A reputation of fairness, built over years, can’t be undone by a Yelp review or random blog post. So the challenge is simple – think about reputation as a long term thing, built and nurtured and rebuilt time and time again. That is enduring. And important.

Search & Replace

February 12, 2010

From a previous post looking at Google Wave. Just replaced with “buzz.” This is less about the products and more about the dangers of hype…Original article in LAT, I did the search and replace…



How Google Buzz could transform journalism

September 30, 2009 |  4:26 pm


Google Buzz lets users collaborate live on documents.

The tech world is awash with excitement for today’s scheduled release of 100,000 invitations to preview Google Buzz.

Seems like everyone is buzzing about how the collaborative Web tool will revolutionize how we do business, organize parties, manage projects with friends, cheat on homework and market brands (trust us, we’ve seen the news releases, plural). The term "Google Buzz" has been on Twitter’s top-trending list all day.

For the last two months, while we’ve been testing the Google Buzz developer preview, we have been talking amongst ourselves about how this thing could change (or add to) what we do. So, here’s a list of a few wild ideas we had for using Buzz.

Collaborative reporting: You may notice that double bylines aren’t very common. That’s because trying to co-author a news story stinks.

The process usually involves one reporter talking to and researching a few things and another following a different set of sources and finally combining their findings toward the end. This can result in a mess of incompatible and unrelated research that gets either thrown out or somewhat-awkwardly wiggled in.

We’re not going to e-mail our co-writers with every new lead and minute detail we dig up. But if we’re sharing a virtual notebook, we can scan through …

… or search the newest findings as they’re logged, make comments and highlight our favorite bits.

Then, when it comes time to write, we can rearrange and discuss the story’s flow in the same software. Thanks to the openness of Buzz, collaborative pieces between bloggers could become more common.

Record and archive interviews: As reporters conduct interviews and frantically jot notes day after day, we start to develop our own shorthand. To outsiders, it looks like some sort of alien language.

If Google connects its Voice calling service to Buzz, we might be able to easily insert call recordings, voicemails and text messages into our notes. Buzz’s founders, brothers Jens and Lars Rasmussen, have indicated in a past discussion that Google was looking at ways to connect many of its products with the Buzz platform.

A third-party Buzz extension called Ribbit lets users initiate conference calls inside of the program as well as the ability to call a designated phone number and have audio transcribed into the document.

Live editing: We love our editors (really, we do). But sometimes crucial things get changed that we miss in the final read-through and in rare cases, tweaked to inaccuracy.

Google Buzz clearly marks updates to documents and lets you view a timeline of changes. Eventually — once Google adds the feature — users will be able to revert to a specific point in time. And the most passionate writers could watch live as editors tweak documents and respond to questions or changes.

Smarter story updates: Take a look at a breaking news blog like L.A. Now or the New York Times’ The Lede. Scrolling down the page, you’ll probably see the word "updated" in bold again and again.

Instead of creating a new post for each piece of news that’s later uncovered on a breaking story, the blogs post an update to clarify which paragraphs have been changed or factually corrected.

That timeline feature could allow users to intuitively view previous versions of a post and see exactly what has been changed and why.

Discuss while you read: All of the Times blogs and many of stories on the website have areas where readers can log comments. These are just static message boards.

We get a lot of comments, saying, "That’s stupid" or "You’re totally wrong." That leads us to wonder, Uh, which part?

Buzz lets users leave comments on particular paragraphs, sentences or words. This would allow readers to discuss passages as they’re reading along and clarify which sections they’re addressing.

Transparent writing process: Many readers say they’re genuinely interested in how reporters string together a story. That fact was perhaps best evidenced on Sunday when curious readers gawked at the Associated Press’ accidental publishing of a reporter’s notes on the Roman Polanksi story.

What if we let readers watch the text as we write it? In our own testing, we found it to be a really fascinating peek into the writing habits and minds of our associates. It’s also comforting to know that we’re not the only ones who have trouble spelling the word "etiquette."

Maybe we can go one step further and let the observers comment throughout the writing process. Readers could help shape a story.

Instant polls: Every once in a while, bloggers like to poll their readers on topics. But gathering a decent sample size takes a while.

Presumably — maybe once Google turns on compatibility with standard e-mail platforms — people will practically live inside of the Buzz software. We could blast out a poll using Google’s Polly extension and instantly begin pulling in feedback.

Wiki news aggregator: Now we’re drifting a little far out, but allowing readers to rearrange our homepage would be an interesting experiment. Of course, there’s always the worry of a few unsavory links getting injected in there. Even Wikipedia isn’t prone to destructive tricksters.

Got any ideas for how Buzz could be used to change news gathering? How could it change your work? Let us know in the comments. (Sorry, no fancy in-line comments on this blog.)

— Mark Milian

Follow my commentary on technology and social media on Twitter @markmilian.

The Rest of the World Doesn’t Work for the NYT

February 8, 2010

David Carr has a good look at the  future of content in his column today, profiling On Demand Media and the work they do to provide content (and hopefully answers) for the web. While I bet this is not his intent, the entire piece reads as a “I work for the NYT and you don’t” rant. To whit, to open the piece he describes the work done to create the column:

Since then, I’ve spent about 20 hours reading past articles, calling people for background, doing interviews, writing my column, and working on the copy with editors Sunday afternoon. At Demand’s current pay rate, I’d be making almost a buck an hour.

Leaving unsaid, of course, is that he most certainly is not. And then goes on to note that the cost to create (or edit) content in this new world is hugely low, about $3.50 to copy edit a story, for example. Yowser. He finds freelance writers and editors who say that some pay is better than no pay:

“In a way, it is liberating, once you get over the anger and sadness of losing your job in a profession you love, to find out that you have a place that will pay you for doing something you are good at, something that isn’t Wal-Mart,” she said. “The pay part is difficult, but right now the price of a lot of what we do seems to be free.”

In a nutshell, this describes the dilemma facing all content creators – who sets the price? Who defines value? This is playing out in eBooks, online, in journalism and so on. Content is worth *something* but for sure is worth less today than it was yesterday, and everyone is struggling with this – another article in the NYT makes that same point re: posting prices for merchandise online.

But the kicker for me was this throwaway comment near the end of the piece, noting that the On Demand model may not work in the future:

Increasingly, people use the social Web to bring them answers and referrals to information sources. If I want to know how to compress a video file, I just Tweet a query and a human-enabled RSS pushes relevant information toward me.

Dude. You work for the NEW YORK TIMES. Given this, you have 244,718 followers on Twitter, many of whom are incented to help you out, just on the off chance they may show up in your column/twitter stream and benefit from that reflected halo. I think it is safe to say that everyone else’s mileage may vary here. Now if On Demand is hyperfocused on sellling to book writing, quarter million follower NYT columnists, then your point is valid. But if not…On Demand for you!

What Price?

February 1, 2010

I don’t have a dog in this hunt, other than essentially agreeing with Mr. Blodgett that the marginal cost of an ebook (and the fact that I can’t really loan it out) makes pricing tricky. So my kneejerk is to say – go amazon!

But yesterday I read this story in the NYT on the cost of a beef bowl in Japan. The article notes:

The battle has also come to epitomize a destructive pattern repeated across Japan’s economy. By cutting prices hastily and aggressively to attract consumers, critics say, restaurants decimate profits, squeeze workers’ pay and drive the weak out of business — a deflationary cycle that threatens the nation’s economy.

And then:

“These cutthroat price wars could usher in another recessionary hell,” the influential economist Noriko Hama wrote in a magazine article that has won much attention. “If we all got used to spending just 250 yen for every meal, then meals priced respectably will soon become too expensive,” she said. “When you buy something cheap, you lower the value of your own life.”

At least, this made me think. What is the value of a book? And if books just get cheaper, do we value them less?

Discuss. 😉