Case studies from History (1)

I am looking forward to a very intense fall traveling schedule which will take me to Mumbai, Istanbul and Cairo in the space of a few weeks.

I will start with the last one, because I will be covering a whole new topic which I never discussed before in a public occasion, and that is

Propaganda vs. True Public Engagement

How is Propaganda different from True Public Engagement?

Is one leading to the other, or are the two opposed? And, has this changed with the advent of Digital, which removed all barriers to access making each individual a potential, if temporary, news channel?

More importantly, perhaps, did the transition to Digital usher an era of more authentic Communications, where people talk to people directly and information is free to travel across the world?

My impression is that after a very short period of under-evaluation, Propaganda has learned its digital ropes quite well, if nothing else because Propaganda has money and it can afford the best consultants.

One of the largest contracts I led was the Digital campaign for the 2009 European Elections: the Party that was our client won, even though with age I stopped claiming merit for that victory. Barack Obama is widely credited to have won especially the 2008 election thanks to masterful use of Social Media; across Europe, new euro-skeptic parties thrive on digital-only communications.

The Goebbels of our time have demonstrated they are as good at manipulating public opinion as they were in the ‘40s because Digital and Social Media are a channel like any other: they are not un-stoppable, they can be (and are) monitored. If anything, for this purpose they are better suited than most channels, because all that goes through them is already in machine-digestible form: as a matter of fact, some of the most advanced Artificial Intelligence applications are classified and used in military grade surveillance.

Moreover, both sides of any dispute have become so good at storytelling that very often it is quite difficult to figure out who are the Good Guys. I presume we can all think of contemporary geo-political scenarios that fit this description.

When I look at the world we all live in, alongside glorious examples of citizen journalism I see evidence of digital tools being very effectively used to recruit and indoctrinate distraught youngsters to become terrorist chrysalises, ready to blossom into the next Breivik or Abdeslam.

So I started looking at the past, where I found two stories that I believe are of relevance, as they show how in the past crises not dissimilar from the ones facing us right now have been addressed using two of the fundamentals of Communications: Messages and Reputation.

You can call these Case Studies from History.

[more to follow…]

Reading the tea leaves of the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign

To the eye of the external observer the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign seems to have turned a corner.

Now that he clinched the republican nomination Trump seems to be on a rampage of self-inflicted damage: first the goofy attack on the Khan family (whose fallen kid is a war hero of Muslim religion), then the refusal to endorse the primaries of GOP heavyweights Paul Ryan and John McCain (perhaps as revenge for their absence at the RNC), then the unbelievably clumsy kicking out of a crying baby at a rally – and the list goes on.

Media are taking their gloves off, with well-researched attacks that suggest he is not at all as successful as he portrays himself (Newsweek) and that the republican top brass is really, REALLY fed up with him (WaPo).

So what’s going on?

I think Trump plan was never to be President at all. The POTUS job is a tough one and the Don is not ready to work his ass off like that. Especially since he always had a fallback solution that requires much less work, zero risk and almost as much visibility, visibility being the only thing he really craves.

The solution is called “I could have been President if only the pussies in my party hadn’t thrown me out” and it works like this:

  1. win the nomination – CHECK !
  2. outrage the GOP so much they kick him out – NEARLY THERE
  3. HRC wins by a substantive margin
  4. for all her Presidency, Trump can go on behaving like the madman the media love, acting as her shadow opposer.

For someone who thrives on exaggeration, brashness the “I could have been President” solution is the best: no responsibility, almost the same visibility.

WCF Davos 2016

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 09.59.55

This is the event you don’t want to miss, where the Global Communications Elite gets together to discuss what is going on in our profession.

An exciting program, great speakers and an unrivalled opportunity to network with an audience that is perhaps the only true example of globally diverse in an industry that sometimes folds over itself.

As a Committee Member I have a limited number of early bird discount tickets (EUR 1,150) available until Christmas, email me for details.

Research for “The Extinction of Trust”

As I usually do when setting out on a new book project, I will devote the first six months of next year to reading good previous works on the broad subject of Trust.

Right now I am reading “A Culture of Credit” by Rowena Olegario, next up will be “Reinventing the Bazaar” by John McMillan, suggested by Niall Kearn Mills.

If you have other reading suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I am specifically interested in the history of the concept of Trust, how it evolved, how it got codified in rules and best practices.

Best is to post your suggestions in the comments below, so others can see if a book is already in the list. And it will make it easier for me to remember WHERE is the list :-D

CaseTV goes live

Psyched to report that my good friend Galina Panina has aired the first episode of “CaseTV” a video channel dedicated to the commentary of actual cases by various PR experts from around the globe.

I love the ingenuity she uses: names and surnames, everything is very plainly described; in this episode, she has chosen the case of a PR agency who attempted to bribe a reporter not to air a story that was very unfavourable for a client; the journalist however not only refused the bribe of about EUR 4,500, but recorded the clumsy attempt and reported on it as well.

Galina’s questions to the panel were therefore:

What would be the right behaviour to avoid getting in this situation?

What do do now?

Do not worry If your Russian is a little rusty, as they kindly provided english subtitles, and all the answers are in English.

Enjoy!

Monday Morning Quarterbacks

C’mon bitches, do you REALLY think Google needs YOU telling them that Alphabet is in use by BMW?

Would-be branding strategists are perhaps the worse of all marketing professions when it comes to “I would have done this better than whoever-they-gave-it-to” recriminations. I see comments like “Didn’t they check on Google?” No, of course not: nor Larry or Sergey, nor anybody in Google’s management team, nor anyone at the branding firm they hired, nor anyone in the legal department nor any of their external consultants.

Think of the difference YOU would have made if they had retained YOUR services.

In all my twenty+ years of consulting with companies, I have very rarely witnessed situations where NOBODY had thought of a certain, important thing. Even more rarely I was the one bringing it up, maybe I’m too stupid. Or maybe it does not happen that often.

In the world of global branding it’s virtually impossible to choose a word of any meaning in a major language that’s not being used already as a brand; what happens next is negotiations and methinks Google has something to offer to anyone owning any of the hundreds of the companies called Alphabet to convince them to renounce it.

University rankings

Since a couple of years I started working on the world of Universities, both in Italy and abroad, and I noticed the great deal of noise created by the very concept of ranking Universities.

It is the same sort of noise that explodes at every hint of measuring in whichever way the effectiveness of the educational system; most countries exhibit this, with some (like the U.S.) being more used to such exercise and therefore howling less loudly.

As an engineer, I am fond of saying that anything that can’t be measured does not exist, which is an obvious exaggeration as there’s plenty of things that escape the ruler: happiness, beauty, friendship, love, religion just to name a few.

So let’s rephrase the statement to make it more accurate:

“Anything that can’t be measured is irrational”

This statement (not to be taken in its mathematical meaning) definitely reflects my own personal view, also in the meaning that when something is of a rational nature, there should be a way of measuring it (it’s just a matter of finding it).

So, back to Higher Education: I don’t think HE falls into the irrational category, so there must be a way to measure it. The real question is WHAT should we measure.

There are as many attempts to compile rankings as there are researchers, and the prestigious italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, not to be outdone, gave it a stab with this ranking:

2015 07 23 best italian uni

What’s interesting about it is the fact that, instead of picking a set of criteria, they allow the reader to move the “weight” of different criteria (on the left hand side), essentially allowing (almost) everyone to be the winner of a ranking based on some twisted set of criteria.

What I definitely am missing, and it’s surprising since the publication is the voice of the Italian industrial establishment, is the criterion that I, as a freshman, would consider most important after my own inclinations and preferences, which are probably in the irrational bucket.

This criterion says:

“How likely is that within six months of graduating I will have a job, and how much will this job pay?”

Ancillary questions may be whether the job is within the domain of the University courses taken, what was the role of the University in securing job interviews, etc. These data exist and they are relatively easy to combine and would create a ranking that is very relevant to young recruits. Instead they have chosen a set of 12 criteria, mostly inward-looking and mostly completely irrational. A great example is the “Effectiveness” criterion which measures NOT how effective a University is in transferring knowledge to its pupils, but how many credits on average pupils receive in a year. WTF?!?

Such a ranking would also have the advantage of being far less debatable, as it’s based on hard facts and not on interpretation.

Come to think, that’s perhaps the very reason they didn’t use it.

Resiliency

Friends wonder how comes I rarely lose my temper: there are people with whom I worked for 20 years without ever seeing me throwing a fit.

I have no real idea why is that, but I put it down to my desire to adapt to situations, which is also perhaps my greatest asset when working abroad. However, I also think most Italians have a head start in this, having daily to deal with an environment that seems to have been designed to make them go crazy.

A month before my driving license was about to expire,  I went to an agency specialising on automotive administrative procedures. Last time I did it (about 10 years ago) the thing was painless: you get an appointment with a doctor that carries out a (rather perfunctory) exam, fill in a form, pay some dues and you’re good to go. After a month or so, a new license is sent to your home. A simple, efficient procedure.

And I guess that’s why they changed it.

When I visited the admin agency, they said they’re no longer allowed to perform this service: you have to get your medical at the local unit of the NHS but – she said – before you do that, check which documents you have to prepare on the website so-and-so. Said documents include:

  1. a photograph (of a punctiliously stated size)
  2. a payment for EUR 9.00
  3. another payment for EUR 16.00
  4. your old license

I prepare the required documents, including a physical line at the Post Office because the two accounts to which the two payment go DO NOT accept online payments, book my appointment and show up about 30 minutes early at the NHS local unit offices.

After a little wait, my name gets called, the clerk checks my document and asks: “Do you need a Special?” I reply I have no idea what a Special is, and she points at my wrists saying, assertively “Of course you do, I’ll set you up with the Commission, come back in 15 days. Oh, and bring your rheumatologist’ diagnosis”

Fast-forward 15 days, armed with my papers I line up a second time; after about two hours the doctors (there’s feckin’ 5 of them! Why ?) visit me, pronounce me a victim of Rheumatoid Arthritis, prescribe me a Special (as predicted) which means I will need to use only cars with auto gearshift (which I was using anyway) and ask for the “Marca da Bollo”.

Foreigners probably don’t even understand the concept of a Marca da Bollo which, as far as I know, only exists in Italy. It is essentially a small tax on admin procedures: you buy a “stamp” (in this case worth 16 euro), stick it to the document which is ipso facto official. This stamp however is only sold by authorised dealers, so I must look for one, and they only accept cash for this stamp, despite the fact the same store takes plastic for everything else, so I must look also for a cash dispenser because I am so obtusely opposed to cash.

Gotten my stamp, when I think it’s over the clerk says in handing me my medical: “Now you can go to the Automotive Registry to file your request”. So the following morning I line up at the Automotive Registry: it’s a good idea I go there early, because the first line is solely to obtain another list of documents I need to prepare, including all the documents I have already presented plus:

  1. a form on triple-copy chemical paper which could not possibly be downloaded from anywhere – hence the line
  2. a SECOND photo, identical to the first one
  3. another 16 euro payment to an account – you guessed it – that does not accept online payments
  4. a copy of my ID card
  5. a copy of my taxpayer’s number

Don’t even ask why they could not merge the two lists: #3 is especially a problem, as the photo I gave them was a unique specimen: they stamped it and filed it with the medical and now I don’t have a second one. which is the one that will go on the license itself.

So I rush home, get the documents I need, go to the Post Office to make my payment, and stop by a photo booth to get a fresh set of pics. Back to the Automotive Registry for my sixth line (two at the NHS, two at the Post Office, two here), I finally file my request and succesfully negotiate the photograph affair by obtaining that the second pic will actually different from the certified one:

2015 gianni fototessera

And when I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, this clerk gets me the closest I came in all this ordeal to losing my temper.

While the mysterious machinery of the Ministry of Transportation issues me a new license (a process that may take up to 60 days) I am given a temporary permit. valid for said 60 days; I therefore ask “When will my license be ready for me to pick up?” I had noticed they noted my cell number, but somehow it did not seem very likely they’d call me.

She stares at me blankly and responds: “Before the 60 days are over, of course!”

Now, this is a beautiful example of bureaucratic information-free precision: engaging in a conversation like this can be fatal to the inexpert citizen. I immediately understand I am dealing with a pro and rephrase my question: “When is the earliest time I can come and be sure my new license will be here?”. I see her squirming, desperately thinking of an answer whereby she could avoid giving me the actual date; her eyes blink, one, two, three times. She lets out a long sigh, a sort of guttural lament and then she concedes: “In fifty-seven days”.

So I won. Or did I?

Like Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare movies, the monster is never really dead, and she has a last lash: “By the way, your temp permit is only valid in Italy” I stagger, the blow is mortal as for the next six weeks I am going to commute weekly between Italy and France as I do every year.

How did she guess? What gave me away? I will never know…

Amex love (4)

Several years ago I had a run-in with American Express over a procedure which I though was silly and unhelpful. Amex was so kind to call me and resolve the issue.

But after a couple of years, I have another problem which causes me frustration and waste of time.

I have decided to upgrade my Business card to the Gold level, on the strength of the better insurance coverage I get when I purchase travel tickets. This is apparently something that does not happen often, as the procedure calls for the cancellation of the old (Green) card and the issuance of a new (Gold) one.

The cancellation however is not implicit in the fact that I am upgrading, but needs to be requested specifically by sending a fax (really? in 2015???) to a certain number: in this request, I need to quote the full card number; since I was not aware of this need, I have destroyed the old card and don’t have this number. No problem, stupid me thinks, I can find it online, where the card is still alive, waiting for my cancellation.

Not so fast, Buster! Nowhere on the site the full number appears, nor in any of the statements: the number is always partially deleted:

XXX-91006

So I call the Call Center where a poor devil nicely tells me that “for security reasons” they cannot read the number to me; instead I must ask the Bank which pays my statements every month and they will read it to me.

Get that?

Amex does not trust its own tech to state the stupid number in a page whose access is protected by countless layers of encryption, but instead it trusts an employee of another bank to violate the very rule which they impose on themselves.

Sorry, Amex, you now succeeded in making me extremely nervous about the quality of your systems security!