Category Archives: General Corporate

March 19, 2014 | jzeitz | Tagged , ,

Wonks Beware

We’ve been following with more than passing interest the recent controversy concerning a letter signed by over 500 leading economists, in opposition to a $10.10 minimum wage.  Essentially a response to an earlier letter signed by over 600 economists in support of a wage hike, the recent circular raises perfectly legitimate questions that any college student should expect to encounter in a macro-economics class: is a higher minimum wage the most effective means of raising people above the poverty line, or does it have the opposite effect of encouraging employers to eliminate jobs and raise prices – two unintended consequences that might bear down hardest on people living in poverty?  Indeed, many progressive economists contend that the minimum wage is a less effective means of fighting poverty than more redistributive measures like the Earned Income Tax Credit.  Surely that’s what many of the 500+ economists had in mind when they wrote that poverty is a “complex issue that demands a comprehensive and thoughtful solution that targets those Americans actually in need.”

So why the controversy?  Because it turns out that the opposition letter originated with the National Restaurant Association, and many if not most signatories – including Vernon Smith, a Nobel Prize winner from Chapman University, who agreed to distribute the letter – had no idea that the association was spearheading the effort.  Smith was approached through a third-party intermediary, and he in turn contacted other economists, thus shielding the restaurant lobby from exposure.  Or not, as it turns out.  The association didn’t hide its tracks all too well, and its detractors now have ammunition to discredit the letter. For his part, Smith stands by his effort, affirming that he is “only interested in the ideas and the content,” though adding that he “really [doesn’t] know” who created the content.

Is this a black eye for the National Restaurant Association? Not really.  We expect advocacy and industry groups to line up third-party experts and endorsements.  It’s what their members pay them to do, and realistically, it’s a perfectly legitimate form of persuasion – certainly more substantive and far less offensive than buying influence through (the legal) bundling of campaign and PAC contributions.  After all, the pro-minimum wage letter signed by 600+ economists was distributed by the Economic Policy Institute, an organization that receives almost one-third of its funding from organized labor. We can do worse than to have labor and industry groups disseminating the thoughts and wisdom of professionally trained economists and inviting an informed debate about the merits of the minimum wage and the EITC.

But there’s a reputational lesson in this for scholars, who often labor for years in anonymity and then jump at the chance to stake out a public position when their work becomes immediately relevant to the debate.  Their currency is their knowledge.  You wouldn’t write a $1,000 check to an organization you’d never heard of, so why would you sign a letter for that same outfit?  A few years ago, I got a call from an old friend with whom I’d worked on several political campaigns.  He knew that I was a professionally trained historian and asked me if I could help engineer a letter challenging the conservative argument that FDR and other New Dealers had opposed the right of public employees to bargain collectively. The idea was to get other historians to sign on.  For the record, I strongly support the right of public employees to bargain collectively.  But I couldn’t spearhead such a letter: first, it’s an inconvenient fact that many leading liberals did oppose public sector unions through the 1960s; and second, I really didn’t want to compromise my hard-earned reputation as a scholar by endorsing a campaign without knowing its provenance. So academics beware.  When a nice man knocks on your door and asks you to sign a letter, find out who sent him.  He’s getting paid a lot of money to line up your endorsement.  You’re not.  Don’t stake your reputation, which you earned over many years of hard work, on momentary relevance. It’s not worth it.


March 5, 2014 | jzeitz | Tagged , , ,

Making of a Presidential Reputation

Admin’s Note: This post originally appeared on O’Dwyer’s. Writing many years after the fact, John Hay, who served as a young White House aide to Abraham Lincoln, noted that if his boss had “died in the days of doubt and gloom which preceded his reelection,” rather than in the final weeks of war, as the Union moved to secure its great victory against the Confederacy, he would almost certainly have been remembered as a middling or mediocre president. It’s a useful time to think about the historical construction of presidential reputations. Strange though it seems to the modern ear, in his own lifetime, Lincoln was a deeply controversial leader – reviled throughout the South, disdained by a strong plurality of Northern voters, and underrated even by many in his own party, who agreed with one Republican senator that the nation sorely needed “a president with brains; one who can make a plan and carry it out.” It took a massive, quarter-century effort on the part of his aides and family members to rehabilitate his legacy. Lincoln’s son, Robert, carefully managed his father’s historical image.  Choking off access to the president’s official papers until 1947, he allowed only two men – John Hay and John Nicolay, his father’s White House advisors – to consult and draw upon the vast presidential archive. The result of this collaboration, a ten-volume biography that was widely serialized throughout the 1880s, gave rise to an enduring image of Lincoln as a sage political tactician and astute military strategist.  It’s an image that most historians would endorse, but its truthfulness alone did not ensure its public acceptance. That took some doing. For those of us in the reputation business, there’s something to be learned from how historical figures and their advisors have crafted and in some cases manipulated public memory and legacy making. We tend to think of news cycles, message and narrative development, and media machines as modern phenomena.  But they existed in Lincoln’s time as well as in our own. Today, we are witnessing the disruptive influence of social media, which has challenged longstanding rules about the construction and protection of corporate, political and personal reputations. But we are not the first generation to experience such rapid changes in the communications space. In Lincoln’s era, which saw telegraph cables, railroad tracks and cylindrical printing presses dramatically shorten the time that it took news to travel from one side of the country to the other (and then to appear in the nation’s growing stable of daily and weekly newspapers), political professionals and journalists got very savvy, very quickly, about managing reputation. In his lifetime, Lincoln was deft at communicating directly to the Northern public through public letters and proclamations in Republican newspapers.  After his death, Nicolay and Hay harnessed the growing power of middle-class, general-interest magazines to change and then ossify the prevailing image of their slain leader. In more recent times, presidents and their inner circle have played an even more active role in managing their legacies. Since Franklin Roosevelt laid plans for an archive and museum at Hyde Park, every president has turned to trusted political advisors to fashion research facilities and programming that influence the direction and tenor of scholarly research. Over the past several weeks, President Obama’s staff have begun carefully planning the location, scope and mission of his presidential museum, while Lyndon Johnson’s family and former staff members have regrouped to begin pulling LBJ’s distinguished domestic policy record out from under the shadow of Vietnam. President’s don’t serve and simply leave their reputations to the gods of history. They manage their reputations carefully. That Nicolay and Hay succeeded in their mission, there can be little doubt. The Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln – an all-knowing master of politicians and generals, towering over the nation like no other leader – was very much one of their making.  It wasn’t always clear that we’d remember Lincoln in this way.

humble pie

March 4, 2014 | dlauer | Tagged , , ,

Corporate Leaders: Eat More Humble Pie

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

At MWW, we counsel our corporate clients to keep one fundamental axiom in mind: people trust people, not companies.  An organization’s leadership is on the front line of the reputation game.  You can build the best widget or provide the best service, but if your company’s senior leaders convey the wrong values or point of view, your stakeholders will move in another direction.

If 2013 was a rocky year for corporate leaders – think Chip Wilson’s curious remarks about Lululemon’s customer base or the personal tribulations of Google co-founder Sergey Brin – it’s encouraging to find a rising corporate star who promises to be a beacon to American business leaders.

Enter Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella. To be sure, the naysayers have their doubts: could an understated 46-year-old Indian immigrant known for quiet collaboration have what it takes to corral the cowboys of America’s hyper-completive corporate sector and, in the process, reawaken a slumbering tech giant?

Only time will tell, but for now I am grateful that the decision is shining a light on the importance of one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated traits of leadership: HUMILITY.

Everything about Nadella’s leadership style defies the Type-A, in-your-face demeanor that conventional wisdom (incorrectly) holds as essential for those seeking to “right the ship.” It may sell books and earn magazine covers to bully, belittle and berate, but history has shown us time and again that brute force bows to humble strength. Don’t believe me?  Check Wikipedia for bios of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Malala Yousafzai.

In the spirit of this counter-intuitive argument, let me highlight some of the “don’ts” of good corporate leadership, rather (as is more usual) the “dos”.

You don’t need to be the loudest (or smartest) person in the room.

All great leaders have a strategy: don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.  Let their strengths complement yours.  Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” and take time to listen to the answer.  Whether in a meeting, correcting a failing strategy or providing feedback, those “in charge” need not constantly remind everyone around them that they are (yes, we know…) in charge.  Let silence invite opinion.  You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn.

Don’t let it get unprofessional.  EVER.

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, but make no mistake: the quiet leader is not the weak one. A confident leader is comfortable resolving conflict, not manufacturing it. As a leader, you’re responsible for setting the tone for an organization’s culture and behaviors. Treating colleagues with respect at all times is the gold standard, and the example begins at the top.  An effective general once said, “You manage things, you lead people,” so showing your human side when dealing with colleagues is important. Show empathy and respect and you’ll get it back.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft navigates the choppy waters of change over the next 100 days.  We’ll surely continue to hear pessimists spread doubt about Nadella’s unassuming style – but sometimes it takes quiet strength to reset the sails.


February 4, 2014 | jzeitz | Tagged , , ,

“The Worst Carpenter This Side Of The Mississippi”: Your Reputational Rights In Flux

In today’s hyper-charged media environment, it takes just one false utterance to create a new (albeit false) reality. Back in the day, if a news outlet misreported a particular fact, the damage could be contained to a single print story or broadcast statement.  The best remedy in these circumstances was to correct and move on. Today, the landscape is much more treacherous.  One misstatement on a cable news show or error in a print article can quickly reverberate across digital and social channels and feed a self-referential string of follow-up stories, blog posts and organic conversations.  That’s why many of our clients, both individual and institutional, often seek our counsel on how best to address both intentional and inadvertent misrepresentations of fact.

There’s a natural inclination on the part of aggrieved parties to sue.  Setting aside the question of whether legal action is the best first approach to dealing with a media-related reputational crisis (it’s usually not), there are substantial hurdles to pursuing correction or redress through the legal process.  In effect, the system privileges the collective right to open discourse over the individual’s right to protect his personal or institutional reputation.

But the changing nature of celebrity and fame – driven in large part by the very same media innovations that have rendered the landscape so treacherous – may force media outlets to exert more care and thereby limit their legal exposure to libel and slander suits.  At least, that’s what some people are hoping. For those of us who work in the reputation business, these developments are of real importance. Our ability to work from a position of strength when seeking correction of factual or interpretive errors relies in part on how editors, publishers and reporters perceive their personal liability.

With this point in mind, we were interested in a news item that appeared last month. On January 1, The New York Times ran a fascinating article concerning a libel suit brought by criminal defendant Michael Skakel against television personality Nancy Grace.  The case is currently pending before a federal district court judge in Connecticut.  As a primer, Skakel has served over a decade in prison for the grisly 1975 murder of his neighbor, Martha Moxley.  Both the accused and the victim were teenagers at the time.  We use the term accused, rather than convicted, because a state judge, Thomas Bishop, recently set aside Skakel’s conviction.  He is currently free on bail, awaiting an appellate court’s review of Bishop’s decision.

At issue in Skakel’s libel suit is a 2012 broadcast in which Grace and an interviewee falsely claimed that police had found Skakel’s DNA in a tree adjacent to where the victim’s body lay.  This claim is patently false.  In theory, Skakel should stand on very firm ground in his pursuit of damages.  But here’s where it gets tricky.

First, so-called public figures face a steeper burden when suing media outlets for libel or slander. Whereas ordinary citizens may seek redress for false and damaging claims, no matter their intentionality or province, people who earn their living in the public sphere – for instance, politicians, rock stars and television personalities – must also prove malice.  In theory, Grace’s attorneys can claim that Skakel is a public person, by virtue of his famous family (he is a Kennedy cousin by marriage) and infamous acts (he was, until very recently, a convicted murderer).

Second, Grace’s attorneys claim that the segment was “substantially true,” as Skakel told investigators that he had climbed a tree adjacent to Moxley’s home earlier in the evening.

Much will depend on how the judge construes both claims.  For one, Skakel can fairly claim a certain form of double jeopardy: he is a private citizen who became famous after being convicted of a crime; now that his conviction has been set aside, he should once again enjoy the privileges of a private citizen.  Likewise, as his attorney argued, this was no case of simple inaccuracy, as if Grace and her guests had incorrectly argued that Skakel wore a blue shirt when in fact he wore gray.  “When you see the letters DNA and put that in any story and hang that around any defendant’s neck,” contends Skakel’s lawyer, “the whole world believes that there is DNA evidence that is lock, stock and done,” Mr. Seeger said. “It’s totally misleading. Anyone who is watching that show now forms the belief that the DNA was there: We all know he’s guilty, period.”

Judges often turn to compelling dissents to ground new findings.  In this case, the judge may look to a dissenting opinion authored in 1984 by then-circuit court judge Antonin Scalia.  “The libel that ‘Smith is an incompetent carpenter’ is not converted into harmless and non-actionable wordplay by merely embellishing it into the statement that ‘Smith is the worst carpenter this side of the Mississippi,’” Scalia wrote.  In effect, he argued that words have real and actionable meaning, and warned his colleagues not “to mistake a freedom to enliven discourse for a freedom to destroy reputation.”

Lower-court trial decisions don’t change the wider landscape overnight, but the judge’s disposition of Skakel’s libel case will have a certain impact on the larger reputation management industry.  The ability to work from a position of strength when seeking corrections of fact and interpretation often correlates to an outlet’s perception of criminal and civil liability.  If Nancy Grace and her show are dinged with substantial damages for making what was arguably a meaningful error, many producers, editors and publishers are likely to take notice.

For clients whose reputations are on the line, the facts are sacrosanct. Errors in reporting can mean lost revenues, declining share price, or – in the case of some criminal defendants – the loss of liberty. In our experience, most reporters and editors want to get the story right. Rare is the journalist who intentionally distorts facts. But when there is no penalty for getting it wrong, even the best-intentioned actors are likely to treat errors as a trivial matter – to shrug their shoulders and say, “we’ll correct it the next time we report on it.” That’s cold comfort for the client.

For these reasons, we’re interested in how the Skakel-Grace libel suit shakes out. We’ll follow the case and report back when we learn more.


January 31, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , , , ,

When Friendly Fire Cause a Crisis: Three Easy Ways to Avoid a Brand Scandal

I came across this slideshow about the biggest brand scandals, and its simplicity made the problems, and the solutions so clear.  Here are three ways to avoid brand scandal:

1. Learn from the mistakes of others – Victoria’s Secret tried to launch a “sexy” line of underwear for tweens.  Abercrombie did the same thing, and got hammered.  12-year-old girls don’t need thongs, and their parents won’t pay for them.

2. Remember that nothing is “only internal” – if you don’t want to say it on Twitter, or see it printed on the front page of The New York Times, don’t say it, and definitely don’t write it.  Case in point: Target and the “sombrero” remark.

3. Include a sensitivity check in your final approval process – if the joke is at someone’s expense – or at the expense of an entire gender, ethnicity, religious group or other demographic, it isn’t funny.  Don’t do it. Half of the brands that found themselves on this list earned their spot this way.

We are all existing in a complex environment where it is difficult to get attention.  Where speed kills.  But any attention is not good attention.

January 30, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged

What CEOs Can Learn From A Failed Leader

This article caught my eye and reading it makes me also want to read the book.  That’s the recipe for great content.  And when it’s also about leadership lessons for CEOs  BAM – you’ve got my attention.  This is worth a read.


January 29, 2014 | admin | Tagged , ,

What Mattered More: 2014 State of the Union Address

Millions tuned into the State of the Union, and more than 670k tweets show they didn’t just watch, they formed and shared their opinions in real time, even before the pundits started talking. MWW tracked the conversation and learned what mattered more to Americans.

To see our infographic, visit our State of the Union page.


January 28, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , ,

Will the Super Bowl Be A Reputation Win For New Jersey?

After months of anticipation, the Super Bowl will finally come to New Jersey this week.  The view from my office window overlooks the stadium, and I’ve been listening to the expert opinions about what a boon this will be to New Jersey for over a year.  No doubt, the economic impact of the Super Bowl will be huge, even with all of the expenses for extra security, clean up and the like.  But has anyone considered the reputational impact of the Super Bowl for New Jersey?  And that it might not be positive?

The weather certainly won’t help…but it also can’t be helped.  Some very wise airline executives I know always say, when Mother Nature is winning, let her.  Playing the game in a stadium without a dome during the coldest winter on record would be just about our luck.  Who knows how many fans will become sick or injured due to the cold, and with the traffic in and out of the stadium, we know they will have to be there early.  But I hardly think we can hold a state responsible for the weather, and the committee chose to have the game in a dome-less stadium.

Here are my three reasons why the Super Bowl could actually harm NJ’s reputation:

  1. Traffic/Infrastructure – after nearly two decades working across the highway from the stadium, I can definitively say, without the need to conduct a study or create a feasibility report, that the roadways can’t support the stadium volume.  I’ve battled the traffic on game days, concert days, and the worst traffic day I can recall: when the Pope came to Giants Stadium.  The Super Bowl will be worse.  I’m sure there will be more than a few fans who paid the equivalent of a mortgage or a car for tickets, and spend a good part of the game in their cars.
  2. The (ahem) scenic views – so much of the negative perception of New Jersey is based on the limited view from the New Jersey Turnpike, the drive from Newark Airport to New York City, or the length of Route 95 yields sights, sounds and smells that don’t particularly put our home state’s best foot forward.  So many people think all of New Jersey looks like Bayonne, and the trip to the stadium won’t do much to change that.  Add on the eyesore previously known as  the Xanadu Project…I am not sure people will be lining up to pre-book their return trip to Mall of America, Jersey style.
  3. New York City – one of our region’s best attributes is its proximity to New York City.  And while the game is being played in New Jersey, it is actually being co-hosted by New York.  The media continues to portray the games as a NY Super Bowl, much to Corey Booker’s chagrin.  It will be interesting to see how much of the economic windfall actually comes to New Jersey vs. New York.  Add on the media’s insistence on stories like this one that reinforce the New Jersey stereotypes, and you’ve got a less than ideal positioning of New Jersey as the armpit of New York City.

Of course, all of this may prove to be a real win for the stripper who has been waiting 30 years for the Super Bowl to come to New Jersey, because she can finally promote her reality show concept “The Real Life Strippers of the Bada Bing.”

Will the Super Bowl be good for New Jersey’s reputation? Fugeddaboutit.



January 15, 2014 | dlauer | Tagged , ,

2014: Resolve to Tell Stories People Want to Hear

In 2014, competition for stakeholder attention – let alone for getting heard – will reach an all-time high.  It’s a prime opportunity for organizations to scrutinize their corporate messaging: what do we want people to think about our company? What are we telling people to think about our company?  Are we messaging in a way that will capture their attention and make them care, or are we losing them at hello?

As our world expands with new media and technology, our attention spans are shrinking just as fast.  From my clients to my five-year-old, I’ve forced myself to get a point across in the six seconds they’ll give me before tuning out and turning back to their iPads.  And although methodologies may differ among age groups (for instance I try to avoid threatening my clients with the “count to three”), I’ve found that good storytelling is the same regardless of the audience.  The following two adjustments can help your company pave the way to more powerful and compelling messaging this year.

Vow to Kill Complexity:

Longwinded and complex is so 2013.  This year, fight the urge to cram every last superlative and syllable into your messaging. Instead, think about the one, lasting point you want to make and make it – without a dissertation. Your customers, partners, shareholders and employees shouldn’t have to whip out a thesaurus or CliffsNotes to walk away with an understanding of what you do or what you can do for them. It is much more difficult to say in three words what you can in 10, but the impact really pays off. Case in point? The wild popularity of Vine. Everyone from Microsoft, Samsung, GE, Target and Lowes are maximizing these tiny, precious windows of content where less needs to be more, like it or not.

Be the Author (and Illustrator) of your Story:

I predict 2014 to be the year of the visual. More and more, companies are taking advantage of infographics, data visualizations and video to connect with their audiences and humanize their value propositions. While nothing can replace a strong narrative, one way to get companies there is to think about messages as pictures. In many ways, it will force you to focus your message on what’s important.  It can also help to bring clarity to an otherwise complicated subject. When thinking about your “big picture” – the platform your company should own or the company’s mission and vision, try visualizing it first, and then put it into words.

In 2014, get the attention you deserve. Resolve to be heard this year.


January 10, 2014 | ccoakley | Tagged , , ,

5 Reputation Resolutions for CEOs

We are two weeks deep into 2014 and CEOs are facing another year of great uncertainty marked with political and market instability that can dampen executive leadership and governance. Merciless economic movements, the waxing and waning consumer confidence, and Congress’ inaction—these are the great “unmanageable” variables that CEOs have tried their hardest to manage. In the process, CEOs regularly miss another vital factor, one that is arguably more important and manageable. Reputation.

A strong corporate or executive reputation has just as much weight as a deft financial/business investment in driving company profitability and growth. So for the New Year, we’re laying out 5 reputation resolutions for CEOs to amplify their professional and organization’s positions.

1. Internal is the next reputation frontier

In the past few years, challenging economic and employment conditions have made it difficult for employees to change jobs and advance their careers, giving the upper hand to employers. However, 2014 is likely to be the year tables turn in the favor of employees and the war for skilled talent intensifies even more.  In fact, according to the Hay Group, global employee turnover is expected to increase by 12.9 percent in 2014 compared to 2012.

What does this mean to a CEO?  Focus on the inside.  Employees can be your best reputation advocates.  But, too many leaders think of reputation solely from an external lens and do not pay enough attention to building the brand internally.  So, in order to hold on to your most valued professionals make sure to talk and listen to them.

2. Communicate.

Most leaders are well aware of the fact that a good reputation creates advocates for a company, both among employees and customers.  But, you can’t create advocates without effective communication. So in today’s reputation economy, where stakeholders demand executive engagement, get involved.  Participate in periodic town halls and internal meetups to shape the debate rather than sitting on the sidelines, because the conversation will continue on with or without you.

3. Make social media your reputation driver

As of last August, there were 28 Fortune 500 CEOs on Twitter, up from 18 in 2012. Not quite the number you would hope for, given how studies have proven that the more social a CEO is, the more likely the company is to find untapped value, feedback and collaboration both in and outside the organization.

Social CEOs have the potential to use social platforms as reputation and loyalty drivers with critical stakeholders. But that requires active engagement, an authentic voice, fresh thinking, and perhaps most importantly, CEOs’ personal involvement.  It is true that it takes years to build a brand like Richard Branson’s. But even if you’re not Branson, it is not too late to embrace social media as a way to build a bond with your stakeholders.  If you do it right, you can create an army of brand ambassadors from customers to analysts to your employees.

4. Use big data to advance reputation and loyalty

People with access to more online distribution channels than ever before means little control over what’s said and shared about brands and their products.  But it also means better insights that can prove invaluable to helping shape the future of your business.  Big data is your friend.  Use it to stay ahead of market trends and customer needs, ultimately advancing the reputation of your brand.

5. Own your role

The famous Peter Drucker once said that innovation and marketing are absolutely critical to company success.  And he was right but there is one more leg to the table and that is the role of the CEO.  As CEO, YOU are the voice of the brand, of your reputation.  It’s well documented that almost 50 percent of a company’s reputation can be attributed to its CEO.  Own it.

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