Reflections on grief

In 2003, Detective Constable Stephen Oake was stabbed to death as he carried out an immigration raid in Manchester. His killer was arrested at the scene and subsequently locked up for life. One of the remarkable aspects of this tragedy was the incredibly dignified way his father dealt with the loss of his only son.

When ex Isle of Man Chief Constable Robin Oake faced journalists at the press conference following the murder, he was asked what he felt about the man who killed his son. His reply took everyone by surprise: “I don’t know the man or the circumstances but from my heart I forgive him.”  Mr Oake later went on to write a book called Father Forgive: The Forgotten ‘F’ Word

I knew nothing of this until I heard Mr Oake being interviewed on the Radio last week in connection with the killing of two police officers in Manchester the previous day. I was struck by his measured tone and dignity as he empathised with the families of the two murdered women. He spoke of the difficult journey ahead and the importance of forgiveness as part of the healing process.

ImageIn stark contrast, a week earlier the Hillsborough report was published and our newspapers and TV screens were dominated by stories of cover-up, culpability and injustice. One recurring sentiment expressed by friends and families of some of the 96 people who lost their lives 23 years ago was the need for justice.

They wanted those they considered responsible for the deaths of their loved ones to be brought to book. Not a single word was uttered about forgiveness.

So how is it that a man can pray for the killer of his only son and forgive him even before he’s been convicted, while hundreds of grieving relatives almost a quarter of a century on cannot see past blame and retribution?

It’s because the relatives of the 96 were denied the opportunity for closure due to misinformation, cover-up and not being listened to. They have never had the opportunity to forgive because instead of embarking on a search for the truth, those in positions of high power sought to evade any sense of personal or collective responsibility.

The irony is I don’t believe justice will ever be done. What happened at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 was the crashing together of a series of errors in human judgment that each in isolation would in all likelihood have been inconsequential. Decisions made by the FA, Sheffield United FC, stewards, police, the ambulance service and yes, dare I say it, some of the fans, all collided that day in a way that nobody could possibly have predicted.

There was nobody left holding a bloodstained knife. Nobody standing there with a smoking gun. No tangible killer to blame. The misinformation that followed and the desire by certain people to exonerate themselves rather than accept their contribution to the series of events that resulted in catastrophic loss of life is the real crime here.

I’m not sure if there is a communications lesson here or not.

There is most certainly evidence of the devastating damage to people’s lives that can be caused by those who we all rely on to act with honesty and integrity don’t.

And given the person being held up as the biggest villain of the piece is Kelvin MacKenzie, a lifelong professional communicator who was nowhere near Hillsborough that day, nor could he be held in any way responsible for the chain of events that led up to the tragedy, I think there probably is a communications lesson in here somewhere…

RIP Stephen Oake and the Liverpool 96.

Communication builds trust

Tony Hsieh is the kind of boss everyone wants. Since I first wrote about him in March 2010 I have followed his career with interest and I am a huge fan of his people-focused approach to running a business. The story of Zappos is the ultimate story of how corporate culture can drive commercial success.

Core value number 6 on a T shirtAt the heart of Zappos lie ten core values:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

As an Internal Communicator, number six is obviously my favourite. Zappos believe that open, honest communication is the best foundation for any relationship. They even put it on a T shirt.

They don’t need to spell out if they mean internal or external communications, because for Zappos they are one and the same. Zappos employee communications are conducted in public, in full view of their customers and fans.

On 6 June 2012 Tony Hsieh sent an email to Zappos staff about a very significant corporate development. At the same time he sent a link to the email to his 2.4m followers on Twitter and posted it on http://www.zappos.com.

Most companies sending this kind of all-staff email hit the send button and sit back, hold their breath and wait for a disgruntled employee to leak it to the press. Not Zappos.

It’s an interesting email. Not just because it demonstrates Zappos fusion of internal and external communications. It also contains some lovely pointers towards a corporate culture that has become legendary in employee engagement circles and shows that none of the lustre has been lost by the constraints of plc ownership since Amazon paid $1.1bn for the company in 2009.

I love the fact that Zappos don’t call their Executive Management Team “EMT”, “SMT”, or “ExCo”. No, Zappos call it FACT, after Fred ‘no title’ Mossler , Arun Rajan (CTO), Chris Nielsen (COO & CFO), and Tony Hsieh (CEO – he’s the one with “Zappos” tattooed on his head).

Plc’s have to be very careful about making foward-looking statements outside of the regulatory financial reporting regime. Most companies opt for an easy life and keep schtum. Zappos “create fun and a little weirdness” (core value 3) to ensure their staff get the picture:

As many of you know, we already are operating two physical warehouse buildings and will soon be out of room in those buildings due to our growth. As we started looking into the possibility of opening up a third warehouse building in Kentucky to hold our inventory, we realized that Amazon was already running 69 warehouses around the world. I’ve been *reminded* by our lawyers that I’m not allowed to make forward-looking statements because Amazon is a publicly traded company, so let me phrase things this way: In the next 10 years, if Amazon continues its rapid growth rate, they will be running over 69 gazillion warehouses across the entire universe.”

Despite being CEO of the world’s largest online shoe retailer, I don’t believe Tony Hsieh sees himself as a shoe seller. I think he sees his job as the architect and curator of a unique company culture. A culture where employee empowerment and happiness creates a very powerful virtuous circle where happy staff equals happy customers and happy customers equals even happier staff. And on it goes, leaving investors, shareholders, founders and owners very happy bunnies.

Tony Hsieh is the kind of boss everyone wants. Tony Hsieh is also the kind of boss every shareholder wants.

Freedom of the press

Freedom of the press normally applies to the freedom of the press and media to operate and report without unreasonable state interference. It’s important all right, but not for me today. My mind is weighing heavily on a different interpretation of this much used phrase.

I’m looking at the freedom of the press to ride roughshod over the principles, ethics and standards of journalism. Principles like objectivity, impartiality, fairness and accountability. Principles that every journalist should swear by, but sometimes seem to stick two fingers up at instead.

Yesterday, The Telegraph’s Business Editor Alistair Osborne posted a news story bearing the headline “Betfair a ‘shambles’ says punter who lost £16,000”. With a headline like that it was soon all over Twitter like a rash.

Before I go any further I should declare an interest here. I worked for Betfair for two and a half years up until January 2011. I left the company by choice. I am not a shareholder. Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a long standing Betfair customer and fan of the company. My experience working for Betfair served to reinforce what I have always believed. It is a great business, run my passionate and capable people, as well as a great place to work.

After reading the piece I was left with an uneasy feeling that the author has a bit of an axe to grind. Since when has a customer service issue become bona fide business news in a quality UK broadsheet?  At best it’s the kind of story that given time may possibly develop into something Anne Robinson may take up on Watchdog – but even that is unlikely as there is no question of skulduggery or deceit.

I then noticed that the author’s last two pieces on Betfair were equally critical in content and tone. I had even tweeted about one of them at the time just a few days ago, as I was disappointed to learn that Betfair had physically prevented journalists (including Alistair Osborne evidently) from entering their AGM. My feeling at the time was that adopting a bunker mentality was not sensible for a public company with nothing to hide.

Anyway, after reading the comments under Mr Osborne’s latest piece I was quite shocked at how many people were taking the opportunity to indulge in a spot of Betfair bashing. So I tried to redress the balance and point out that in my opinion the author had an axe to grind and the story was a ‘shameful’ piece of journalism.

Well the moderator was having none of it and after a short delay my comment was removed. Luckily I kept a copy. This is what I posted:

“Shameful journalism. This is not business news. This is the kind of tosh I’d expect from Anne Robinson on Watchdog, not from a business editor on the Telegraph. The author clearly has a personal agenda here. Just look at his recent pieces on Betfair. Take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror Mr Osborne. Is this how they taught you to behave in journo school?”

At the last count the article has 91 comments. Many are littered with strongly worded abuse towards the company, the industry and even the ‘victim’. Some accuse Betfair of being rigged. Others of theft. One even makes reference to the CEO’s ethnicity and jokes about his access to triad gangs to enforce gambling debts.

One wag using the name “the_judge” wrote “Jon Weedon get back in your plantpot. Betfair is a scam outfit. It took me months to get my deposits back from these crooks. I hope they go bust and your shares go down the toilet.”

My point is that my comment was not half as rude or threatening as many posts that still reside in the thread. I can only conclude that it was removed because it did not comply with the sentiment of the anti-Betfair brigade who dominate the thread and it dared to question the author’s journalistic integrity. It looks like the expedient route of censorship prevailed over freedom of speech.

It feels very much to me like double standards are at play here. How can a member of the press corp being excluded from an AGM be an outrage, when a member of the public being excluded from commenting on a poor piece of journalism is fine?

Hurrumph…

Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the ‘f’ word ever will

Believe it or not there are still companies out there that lack the confidence to allow staff to participate in open conversation through internal forums, blogs or just simple comment functionality on the intranet.

The majority – those that have embraced the joys of Web 2.0 internally (or Intranet 2.0 if you want to be really picky) are reporting plenty of beneficial returns; cross functional collaboration, increased knowledge flow, faster communication, better decision making, more innovation, less duplication of effort, improved allocation of resources – I could go on…

Obviously this has also been my own experience, otherwise I wouldn’t be banging on about it. I have also noticed how user generated comments attached to internal news stories drives more traffic than a catchy headline, a funky picture or a high profile author. And as an intranet manager, footfall and engagement with your content is what it’s all about.

At the same time even some of the most enlightened senior executives harbour fears about the risk of a rogue (or stupid) employee posting commercially sensitive, abusive, disloyal, defamatory or otherwise inappropriate content if left to their own devices. Accompanying this is the perception that moderation and even censorship is the best way to mitigate such risk.

Well I don’t think so.

Nothing puts the brakes on a vibrant online community more than heavy moderation and censorship. Believe me, the comments will just dry up. Not just that, but censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the ‘f’ word ever will. Similarly, if you try and suppress a story which is freely available externally you just fan the flames of gossip, conjecture, fear and discontent.

For me it’s all about trusting staff to act responsibly and professionally. I have managed internal communities with hundreds of contributors discussing thousands of topics, which are not always business related either. Most of them are, but if the occasional bit of frippery and banter creeps in, great. It shows we are all human.

And occasionally when someone pops their head above the parapet and dangerously exposes themselves – good! There’s no hiding from the public display of their idiocy and they deserve what they get when the rest of the community deals with their transgression. As well of course the HR team if it’s that bad.

I have seen time and time again that when you trust staff and empower them to take full responsibility for their words and actions they respond by moderating their own behaviour. Those that don’t and choose to abuse the privilege are arses. They are loose cannons and you don’t really want them around anyway.

It is naive in the extreme to expect you can suppress negative sentiment by banning it. Just because you prevent someone from infecting the rest of the workforce with their cynicism or vitriol by not giving them the tools and channels to use does not mean they are not doing exactly that behind your back. Of course they are – only you never get see or hear about it. There are plenty of other outlets and opportunities for detractors to detract that are wholly outside of the organisation’s control.

Heavy moderation and censorship just shows that you prefer to bury your head in the sand rather than listen to your staff and act on their feedback, and this situation just gives your detractors more to complain about.

Of course there needs to be rules around individual conduct on internal (and external!) message boards and forums. You need a strong policy that actively encourages participation, but within reasonable boundaries. Everyone needs to know that their use of such channels is valued and encouraged, but that where they cross the line and expose the company to legal, reputational or commercial risk, they must know that they face the full force of a robust disciplinary process.

So here is my shopping list for your basic needs:

  • A decent application which is easy to use, looks good and is secure
  • A well written social media policy
  • Integration with Active Directory to enable single sign-on and prevent anonymity
  • Some digitally active early adopters
  • A few senior executives prepared to lead by example
  • Thick skin, coz it won’t all be plain sailing

Have I missed anything?

Good news and bad news

It’s 9am on Monday morning. The telephone is ringing.

Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring.

“Jon Weedon”.

“Hi Jon, its James. Have you got a minute?”

“Sure – what’s up?”

“I see there is a link to the Guardian piece on the intranet this morning. Do you really think we should be encouraging staff to read stuff like that? They’ve clearly got it in for us.”

“I agree it’s not the most flattering of pieces. But is in the Guardian. I don’t think we should ignore it just because it doesn’t share our own view of the industry.”

“I’m not saying we ignore it, I just don’t think we should be encouraging staff to read it.”

“Actually it popped up on Google alerts last night. Lots of staff use Google alerts. I guess a fair few also read the Guardian. One thing is for sure, lots of our customers will be reading this today – on and offline. Surely if our customers are reading it, then our staff should at least be aware of it?”

“Yes but it’s full of factual errors and some outrageously biased opinion.”

“Staff aren’t stupid. Just because they read something in the press doesn’t mean they believe it. One thing is for sure though, if we deliberately filter out the bad news and only provide links to the good news, they will quickly realise that the intranet cannot be trusted as a source of news about the company. That discredits the comms team as well as the exec.”

“Well if staff believe half of what the Guardian wrote today that would definitely discredit us.”

“That’s precisely my point. They are more likely to believe it if they don’t trust our internal communications. They will be very unforgiving if they feel they are being deliberately kept in the dark. We should actually look upon a story like this as an opportunity to create discussion internally and help staff understand what the Guardian journo clearly doesn’t”.

“Actually, that’s not a bad idea. Maybe I should write something in the comment section outlining why I believe the newspaper has got it so wrong.”

“That’s a great idea. Maybe you could get Bob to write a few words from the Legal team’s perspective as well…”

“Steady, let’s not get too carried away. I’ll have a word with him and see what he says.”

“I think that would really be appreciated by staff. Can I take it that you are happy for the Guardian piece to remain on the Intranet then”.

“Um. Yes, I guess so.”

So this is not an actual transcript of a recent conversation I hasten to add!

I merely use this technique to illustrate an issue that I have encountered several times over the years – an issue which I suspect internal comms people and intranet managers everywhere have experienced at least once in every company they have ever worked for. That is, a perception among one or more senior executives that internal communications is just about pushing good news around the company.

Of course we should celebrate success at every opportunity. But we should be big enough and brave enough to acknowledge criticism and even failure.

Because for any internal communication to have value, it must first of all be honest.

Asda’s Green Room re-visited

This time last year I scribbled down a few thoughts on Asda’s Green Room, a website where Asda staff can get together to find out what’s happening around the company as well as share their own stories, pictures and videos.

What makes the Green Room so special is that whilst most companies do this kind of thing, very few do so in public. There’s no hiding behind the corporate firewall here.  Customers, shareholders, media, rivals – in fact anyone with a passing interest in Asda can visit the site and have their say.

So when I heard that the Green Room had a makeover last week I rushed back to pay a visit – and I must say it looks amazing.

The new homepage is very easy on the eye and packed with attractive hooks to draw you deeper into some great content.  Additional functionality has been added to make it easier to submit comments, upload and preview pictures, and receive progress information on both.

New design elements have enhanced navigation around the site as well as point you to other linked resources like the Green Room’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. I really really like what they have done.

I said some pretty negative things last time round about my disappointment at the lack of obvious staff interaction with the site. I’m pleased to say things have improved on that front.

There was a lovely news piece from early December where Asda President and CEO Andy Clarke thanked staff for their Herculean efforts in keeping the business going during the extreme weather conditions, in short informal video. This in turn attracted a bunch of comments from staff and customers, telling their own stories of braving the Arctic conditions.

If I were to be really picky (which obviously I am!) I’d have loved to have seen a follow-up comment from Andy Clarke in the thread acknowledging the stories, in particular the comment from an Asda customer who explains why the residents of Slack Head in Beetham are “very lucky to have one of your employees in our community”. This kind of content is priceless. But only if people are reading it.

There is still a lot of work to be done to make the Green Room the runaway success it deserves to be. Despite improvements, levels of engagement with staff are still patchy. Most of the news stories don’t seem to attract comments, including one where the company announced it had raised £4m last year for partner charity Tickled Pink. Another story about a member of staff who had just won £5.6m on the National Lottery attracted a single solitary comment.

The same lack of engagement is reflected on Facebook, where since the beginning of December, the 30-odd posts on the Green Room wall have attracted just 4 comments.

The next step for the Green Room team has to be off-line.

The on-line offering is more than fit for purpose. It is actually bloody good. What is needed now is awareness, education, and encouragement.  Staff need to be encouraged and empowered to get involved. The easy bit has been done – the hard bit starts now.

The key to success in my opinion will be getting the entire management community to lead by example. They need to demonstrate through their own actions that engaging with the Green Room is not just permitted, but genuinely encouraged.

The Communications Revolution according to Stockholm

On 15th June 2010, the World Public Relations Forum gathered in Stockholm. PR practitioners, researchers and educators from every continent and over 20 countries ratified the Stockholm Accords, a new manifesto re-affirming the importance of PR and Communication Management in organisational success.

I must confess when I first read the Stockholm Accords it came across as a bit of a last gasp from an industry in its death throes. An industry which recognises it has to adapt or die in the face of a social media and networked organisation tidal wave which threatens to sweep aside the old order.

Let me remind you. Like it or not, it isn’t about mass communications anymore – it’s about masses of communicators.

The authors of the Stockholm Accords spelled it out quite clearly. Their objective was to launch a “global public relations program for the public relations profession” in a “conscious and planned effort to argue the value of public relations”. Oh dear thought I – more PR spin.

Then I read a magnificent blog post by my friend Mike Klein, which triggered a few dormant neurones into life and I saw that I had been missing something really quite exciting.

It’s not about the huffing a puffing of PR practitioners desperately trying to justify their existence. It’s about the very real convergence of two previously distinct endeavours. It’s about external and internal communications coming together. It’s about cross functional “strategic communication” emerging as an indispensable driver, definer and guardian of corporate strategy and reputation.

On page 12 of the Accords, one of its architects Toni Muzi Falconi acknowledges that even the most empowered public relations director cannot realistically hope to directly monitor more than ten percent of the communicative behaviour of her organisation. It has probably always been thus – however the difference today is that the communicative behaviour of the organisation can spread across the globe, into every digital nook and cranny within seconds. The old order still sees this as a threat not an opportunity. It is both of course.

On the same page comes the welcome recognition that much of the value created by the organisation comes from fuzzy (not linear) and immaterial networks that normally disrupt the distinction between internal and external audiences. I say welcome, because if you don’t recognise a problem it is very hard to fix it, and I fear that too many communications professionals continue to bury their heads in the sand over this one.

Furthermore, I absolutely love the assertion, actually, let’s call it recognition, that the most important element of communication management is understanding how an organisation’s reputation depends largely on the actions of employees. My definition of action includes words and behaviour; I trust theirs does too.

Some of the language used in the Accords worries me a bit. The authors talk of coordination and oversight to ensure consistency of content, actions and behaviours. This smacks a bit of the old corporate communications paradigm.

Sadly, the authors chose to call it coordination of internal and external communications, not convergence.

I may just have a bash at getting that amended…