The Brand’s Working, Drop it!

I got a note from a colleague that instructed me to change a key component of the advertising of the denomination for which I work. The note was unusual for many reasons, not the least of which was the naivete it revealed about communications strategies.

A group of treasurers had decided, the note said, that the "theme" of the campaign had outlived its usefulness. That this was an opinion based on personal perspectives escaped the treasurers who otherwise are people who demand facts and figures before making decisions.

In fact, the research shows the brand promise–which they refer to as a theme–has not only worked to establish an identity that is sticking in the perception of people who don’t know the church or are hostile to it, it is far from being obsolete. It’s only begun to be appropriated and understood.

As with any message in the volatile media landscape in which we exist, it must be adjusted, redefined and assessed continually. A brand is a living relationship. It’s dynamic.

Moreover, in the territory of the mind there is no deed that grants permanent recognition of an organization or a brand. It takes constant repetition and reinforcement to maintain awareness in a world in which the average person is confronted with more than 20,000 messages a day. When this brand was created, the awareness of the church did not register in unaided recall among the target population. Eight years later unaided recall is between 30 and 40%.

I can only imagine what would happen if I were the CEO of a major corporation that had seen a 40% increase in its favorable rating and actually took the advice of the accounting department when they said without basis in research, without knowledge of the marketing strategy, or future plans, "OK, that’s done, now let’s move on. Change it."

I’ve written ad nauseam in this blog about the inexperience of mainline denomination leaders in media. So I won’t go there again but to say that we are on a steep learning curve and it’s urgent that we catch up to the present as best we can while also trying to stay abreast of the current wave of technology as we look to the future. And that’s the challenge these oldline religious organizations face. It’s a challenge they may, or may not, be up to. Only time and experience will tell.

I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Twittering, Network TV and Newspapers

As the dean of the school of journalism at Southern Methodist University spoke to our governing board in a classroom on campus about the state of journalism, the announcement was made that the Rocky Mountain News was shutting down. We also talked about the decline of network television, and in another session about the value of Twitter and social networking, and when we continued our meeting on Saturday morning, the NY Times carried stories about Twitter , audience erosion in network television and, of course, the Rocky Mountain News .

It was a mind-bending experience. As we talked about “new media” and how it is changing business models, culture and our relationships to each other, it was happening around and to us. We were not merely studying it, we were experiencing it and, therefore, living it. We were twittering each other as we met and social networking as we put up digital photos and video of the meeting; sharing knowledge in person and flagging issues and questions online for discussion later.

I will hazard a guess here. My hunch is this was the most contemporaneous and relevant meeting of the General Commission on Communication of The United Methodist Church since its formation in the 1950’s, and also the most transparent.

The Commission is the governing board of the church’s communications agency. It met at SMU and heard from faculty in journalism, business and theology. We spent an afternoon with senior communications executives at the general offices of Southwest Airlines talking about corporate uses of new media. And we heard from a panel of students majoring in communications, marketing and journalism about how they use new media.

Our attention and the coverage wasn’t coincidental, of course. All who use media, which means most of us in the U.S., are affected by these changes. And for all kinds of reasons we use different media in different ways for different purposes. That became clear as we discussed several of these heavy-duty questions in depth.

I’m going to put some of this discussion into posts the next few days and I invite your reactions.

Neglecting the Global Economic Crisis?

As the economy continues downward, attention narrows and becomes more local. Much of what I’ve been reading lately treats the financial crisis as a U.S. issue. In doing research recently I looked at several statements about the crisis by religious groups in the U.S. In each case they referred exclusively to conditions in the United States.

What strikes me about this is the absence of global perspective. The International Labor Organization says 50 million jobs will be lost in 2009, causing more people, especially in the developing world, to fall into poverty. The World Bank says 53 million will drop into poverty, of those 46 million will try to exist on less than $1.25 (U.S.) and 7 million will earn under $2 (U.S.). The Bank also estimates that 2000,000 to 400,000 more children will die if financial conditions continue at this pace into 2015.

To recognize this global reality does not minimize the pain of those in the U.S. who have lost jobs and homes and are facing their own experience of destitution.  But it does highlight the extreme conditions faced by those least able to absorb such an economic hit. These are people already living at risk of poverty in nations with shakey national economies.

It seems to me that religious folks must help frame the global reality so that we don’t ignore the horrible suffering around the world. We are interconnected globally and we in the affluent world cannot ignore the plight of those who by accident of birth were born into places of economic insecurity.

This is a global crisis and we’re all in it together, like it or not.

Santelli’s Rant

(Update: Blogger Dean Baker puts a bit of perspective on Santelli’s rant.)

In the world of talk radio and cable television bloviation, Rick Santelli’s rant is but a blip on the radar screen. While it is a cause celebre on the blogs, after the first blush of attention it will fade into the thousands of other oddities archived on YouTube.

More surprising, however, was the coverage it received on NBC Nightly News. It was high in the lineup but no mention was made of the journalism ethics of a reporter erupting into an ideological rant on live television. (Santelli is described as an "on-air editor" by CNBC .) The story was treated as a cultural event with only passing mention of any factual content.

There are times when journalism and cable news seem mutually exclusive terms. In a culture coarsened over the last several years by snarky commentary or worse, the content of Santell’s rant wasn’t particularly notable. That he stepped out of his role as an editor, or reporter, or whatever he is, to editorialize while on live television is about the only newsworthy point I can find in the affair. And that he did not meltdown a few weeks ago when funds were being given to Wall Street banks and mortgage brokerage companies has not gone unnoticed by some bloggers.

It’s not surprising that public reaction to his rant has been favorable. People are fed up with the financial crisis and the ongoing stress it is creating.We’ve lost jobs, pensions, homes and hope. The frustration is palpable. In some parts of the world, it’s explicit , making Santelli’s behavior more questionable.

Loss of jobs, lack of food and increasing poverty threaten social stability. This is well-known and well-documented. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, recently told the Senate intelligence committee that the global economic crisis is the number one threat to U.S. security outflanking terrorism.

In this environment, even if the U.S. is not in the same fragile condition as smaller, less stable states, rants on radio and television contribute to division and discord. Whether they act as pressure valves for letting off steam or invitations to the irresponsible to act out their frustrations is a matter of speculation.

Popular discontent does not justify the breakdown of standards in journalism. There is an ongoing discussion among those in the profession about "new" journalism and advocacy journalism and the place of objectivity in reporting. This discussion is also affected by the merger of entertainment with traditional journalism as taught in journalism school. However, unless I missed something, it appears to me Santelli’s remarks were not appropriate for one in his role, nor in the context of his assignment. His behavior reflects negatively upon the professionalism of the news colleagues with whom he is identified at CNBC. Commentary, clearly identified is one thing. Blowing your stack because your neighbors are getting mortgage assistance and you’re not is another.

Wesley Study Bible

The United Methodist Publishing House has hit a home run with the publication of the new Wesley Study Bible . The Bible includes textual commentary and other resources in a well-designed layout. Commentary and the text to which it refers are arranged so they appear on the same page, making it functional and convenient for study.

Boxed sidebar entries provide additional information. Appearing under the title, "Wesleyan Core Term,"  one type of sidebar connects scriptural verses to key terms from commentaries, sermon texts or letters of John Wesley. Others connect to the hymns of his brother Charles. This material brings freshness and unique insight to the thoughts and theology of the Wesleys. The juxtaposition of scripture and original Wesleyan sources results in a compelling presentation.

The third resource is meditational sidebars under the title "Life Application Topic." These meditations refer to scriptural verses and relate them to contemporary life experience. They are not biblical exegesis; that is, the critical interpretation or explanation of the text. They extrapolate meaning from the scripture and relate it to everyday living (isegesis).

The Bible is bound in soft brown leather cut to form a semi-circle that merges into an attractive forest green leather  stitched with brown thread. The pages are edged in brown ink matching the cover. It’s a visually appealing package.

The long list of contributors is also impressive, ranging from Wesleyan biblical scholars from across the Methodist movement to well-known pastors and writers with Wesleyan knowledge.

I’ve had a copy for only two days but the more I work with it the more excited I become about it.  Knowing what it takes to produce a project of this magnitude adds to my appreciation of the team who worked on this Bible. It’s a great tool for any reader who seeks to understand the roots of the Methodist movement and how scripture informs it.

A Facebook group for the Wesley Study Bible can be found here .

To Volunteer or Advocate?

How can a concerned, caring individual bring about change? Is it better to volunteer and help one-to-one or to advocate for change in a way that benefits whole groups of people?

Is it enough, for example, to volunteer at a food pantry that meets the needs of one person at a time, or to advocate for changing the food stamp program which serves millions, or better yet, funding job training, or education to equip people to become self-supporting?

Immediate relief vs. systemic change.

It’s a question that requires honest self-critique. I’ve observed for a number of years how individuals and organizations work to bring about change and I don’t see an easy resolution to the question. And it’s not a false dichotomy, though I wish it were. Individuals who volunteer to build a school in a remote village in Africa don’t necessarily move from individual engagement to support foreign assistance that addresses regional economic development. It’s a leap too far.

In my early years of working in this arena I thought it was possible to do exactly this, move people along a continuum from individual involvement on the ground to engaging in policy change. At the very least, I thought, it should be possible to get those who have seen with their own eyes how damaging poverty is to write a letter to request more funds for health care for the poor, or for economically strapped schools, or for foreign assistance for development initiatives. Not so.

It’s a jump some can’t make, or don’t want to, for a long list of reasons. It’s a move from the concrete to the complex, from one to many, from the personal to the impersonal. Some want to see immediate change as a result of a direct, hands-on relationship while others see policy change as the most effective means to create long-term change for whole groups of people.

I heard a polite but pointedly uncomfortable debate about this recently. One person who is ardently committed to advocacy claimed that some volunteers enjoy being in a superior position to those they help. They set up a donor-recipient relationship that is threatened when the "receiving" person becomes self-sufficient. Another, from an economically depressed community, said he wanted people from outside his community to stay away. They try to impose behaviors and solutions upon his community without understanding the obstacles they face nor the culture in which they live. Can’t even speak their language, he said. Better to stay away.

And so it went. Strongly felt opinions shot through the air like lightning bolts, landing with force and exploding preconceptions around the room. And they fell unresolved.

In fact, it’s not a new debate. It’s been around for years. The positions are predictable and more than a little tiresome after decades-long repetition. Worse, this is only an elementary starting point. When the debate takes form as competition for solutions pitting one against another, it becomes destructive. HIV/AIDS vs. malaria. Water development vs. education. Agriculture vs. economic empowerment. Thinking in polarities. Thinking small.

But there is value in the discussion, I think, because we’re at a hinge point in history and this dialogue is likely to shape both public policy and the fabric of our social community into the future. It’s more important now that people of goodwill find accommodation to many methods of change and to comprehensive solutions than to assert the correctness of a single way or a single problem.

The political dialogue we’ve had for the past several years hasn’t modeled a constructive approach to problem-solving. Rather, it’s demonstrated that a polarized, divided community isn’t healthy. If we learn anything from this, it’s that polarizing rhetoric and critical characterizations don’t yield constructive results. I don’t think creating divisions between people of good will about how they can best help bring about change is healthy either.

It should be possible for those with a common desire to make life better to agree that there are many pathways to the good.

In a commentary on the need for a strategic consensus on foreign assistance, Carol Peasley, President of the Center for Development and Population Activities, identifies how differences in priorities have fragmented approaches to health. The result is several "stovepipes" which result in a "mish-mash of vertical programs" that have actually had a negative effect on health systems in a variety of ways.

Peasley calls for bringing the stovepipes together and creating a truly global health approach to health. And she says it’s not enough for development organizations to provide direct services, they must also develop local capacity, yet another issue in this long line of change-making concerns.

What will be needed going forward is a give and take conversation among many actors and a spirit of concern that gives support for holistic, comprehensive problem-solving.

A Netbook Conundrum

I ordered an HP netbook online. It was heavily discounted and I like this model for its keyboard. I received an email confirmation followed by a UPS tracking number. The netbook was picked up in Shanghai. It’s in Anchorage as I write this.

Am I the only person who wonders how a company can make money on these dirt cheap machines with the overhead costs incurred?  Various manufacturers are selling netbooks for as little as $250. Even with economies of scale, it’s difficult for me to understand how a manufacturer can make the journey from Shanghai to the southern U.S. profitable.

Merrill Lynch Bonuses Top U.S. Contribution to Fight AIDS

On Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC  show Wednesday evening, economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs made the point that the bonuses claimed by Merrill Lynch executives total more than the U.S. contributes to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis .

Sach’s comment came on the same day The New York Times reported an investigation by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo turned up the fact that 700 Merrill executives received $3.6 billion in bonuses even as the company lost $27 billion in 2008.

The U.S. pledged $2.9 billion to the Global Fund for 2009 and is $1 billion behind in its pledge.

Panning for Gold in Zimbabwe

The Guardian features a video apparently smuggled from Zimbabwe about desperate people, ironically, panning for gold to survive. Zimbabwe’s economy could hardly be in worse condition and people are bartering gold powder for a tin of millet meal, bread or salt. It’s hard to imagine a more dysfunctional and implausible situation.

Once the food basket of East Africa, Zimbabwe’s agricultural  production has been destroyed. Blessed with precious metals but unable to extract them, their market value is squandered as they are traded away for the bare necessities.

Astronomical inflation has rendered its currency valueless. Some interviewed in the video say those who can’t pan for gold, such as the elderly and young children, face starvation. Beyond the irony, this is the tragedy. People are starving.

I haven’t been back to Zimbabwe since the board of directors of United Methodist Communications (called the General Commission on Communications) met there a couple of years ago. The group I traveled with stopped at a rural village while our video crew taped a pre-arranged interview with a young mother with HIV/AIDS. As we waited, several young men came to us and offered uncut diamonds. In this region it was not uncommon for locals to dig for diamonds and sell or smuggle them. Still another irony.

Because it’s illegal to traffic in the diamonds, we, of course, declined. But the illicit diamonds were one more indication of the strange reality of Zimbabwe.

It’s too soon to know if the on-again-off-again talks about power-sharing will actually result in a coalition government. Humanitarian organizations are working to slow the hunger and a runaway epidemic of cholera. As bad as the global economy is,  Zimbabwe is one of the places where the suffering and struggle to survive are as stark and grim as it gets.

WHO has called for a stepped up response to the cholera epidemic and Americares has doubled its aid commitment and is responding with water purification efforts. Oxfam is calling on the nascent unity government to prioritize humanitarian needs and act immediately.  ZOE Ministry continues to provide aid to Zimbabwean children.

Did Wells Fargo Just Commit a PR Blunder?

It’s your fault, and mine, that Wells Fargo can’t say "thank you" to its tellers by taking them to Las Vegas for twelve days of revelry and relaxation because we’re so persnickety about how the bank’s corporate leaders spend money. That’s the gist of a full-page letter published in the New York Times this morning.

No, it’s not what the letter intended to say, but in today’s climate of anger, frustration and fear, it’s easy to imagine that’s how it will be read. As I read the letter I thought it is a very risky, cheeky message, one that could as easily backfire as not. I view it from a communications angle and wonder what, exactly, it hopes to accomplish.

I don’t know Mr. Stumpf, the CEO who signed the letter, and I’m not a customer of Wells Fargo (at least so far as anyone of us can know in the topsy turvy world of corporate buyouts.) I don’t even hold a grudge against any bank or financial institution. But this is a study in corporate communications that’s worth a look. Here’s why.

In the worst case scenario it could become yet one more example of the public relations fiascoes of an era of reckless greed and tone-deaf behavior by senior executives in banking and finance. It might start something like this: Wells Fargo President John G. Stumpf signed off on an audacious letter that lays blame on the media for the misperceptions that, in turn,  led Wells Fargo to cancel what he calls an employee recognition affair but what some critics called a Las Vegas junket at two of the city’s top hotels over 12 days. Mr. Stumpf’s letter says such recognition events are at the heart of the company’s culture.

Wells Fargo Letter The letter runs on the same day the front page of the New York Times features an article about people in Ft. Meyers, Florida losing their homes. It tells of an entire exurban neighborhood abandoned to weeds. It says crime is increasing and empty houses are being taken over by sellers of another kind of weed and turned into drug houses. It is accompanied by photos of people standing in line for free food.

All of this is the result of lax housing development regulations and freewheeling mortgage lending according to some interviewed in the article. Against this backdrop, Mr. Stumpf’s letter blames the media and by implication an oversensitive public for preventing him from honoring his mortgage broker teams that brought in 230 billion dollars of business. We readers should just hold our horses for a moment and consider how we are punishing Wells Fargo employees who are being denied the recognition they deserve, the letter says.

Because we’re so worked up about CEOs who’ve received taxpayer bailout money paying $1,300 for waste paper baskets, spending half a million on spa treatments and going on Caribbean golf outings while people are being evicted from their homes and waiting in line for a free loaf of bread, all Mr. Stumpf can do for his employees is put a feckless letter in the newspaper to say "thank you," and by the way, he wasn’t going to spend taxpayer money anyway.

Fair or not, that’s how the letter can be spun. That’s why it was a risk, in my opinion.

Mr. Stumpf, the anger, fear and sadness that I hear every day about lost pensions, lost homes and jobs is not merely palpable, it’s pervasive. Even if you have a case, you won’t be heard in this environment if you argue that you’re misunderstood because of media coverage and public misperception about this event. That horse is out of the barn. Your communications people failed you miserably. Whatever you intended, the letter sounds like whining and scapegoating.

Surely, if you want to thank your employees in a meaningful way, you can do so. No doubt you already ensure that each is paid a living wage with full health care coverage,  opportunities for training to upgrade their skills and profit-sharing based on achieving economies and implementing green practices. Perhaps you could agree that you will take no more than five times the salary of the lowest paid employee of Wells Fargo, that you will pay your own club membership fees, household help and forego all the other perks that sweeten the pot for CEOs.

The public reaction is not about recognizing your everyday employees. It’s about the symbolism of a junket by bankers to Las Vegas in the midst of what some are calling a depression. It’s hardly worth defending an event such as this against public misperception and media half-truths no matter how praiseworthy your intent. That case won’t "stick" today.

Whatever you do, you should tell your communications people to conduct a communications audit, an implications wheel, focus groups, attitudinal surveys, or use any number of other research tools that start with what your customers and the wider public think of your bank and the finance industry before you make another defensive and reactionary public comment. Then work backward to develop your messages and services. And then test those messages and see if they work.

And please, don’t blame us for your questionable calls. You’re already in a deep hole, and you just paid good money for a message that digs it even deeper.

A Postscript : In her own inimitable style Maureen Dowd commented on this issue today.