What are words for?

missingpersons2In their self-titled debut in 1980, new wave sensations Missing Persons cynically asked . . . “What are words for when no one listens anymore?” We could argue the merits of the song but the question is a good one. Of course in today’s world of 24 hour news cycles where sensationalism wins over substance and full length news articles are reduced to 140 character “tweets”, words must be carefully chosen.

Case in point – Warren Buffet made a three hour appearance on Squawk Box and shared his candid views of the current and future state of the global economy. He covered a range of topics and without sugar-coating presented a view that was both grim and optimistic. At fifty pages the transcript contains 27,000 words and dozens of insights but the international headlines that day reflected just one sentiment  . . . “Buffett says economy has fallen off a cliff”. Let the stampede begin. But wait; here came unlikely heroes to the rescue in the form of GM, Citibank and Bank of America to report better than expected news that led to a rally. As of today the Dow is back up over 7,000. Disaster averted, for now.  

Perhaps because I think about the impact of communications for a living, it seems obvious to me that a person of Warren Buffett’s stature making a statement like that on national TV is akin to throwing a grenade in a crowded room. The damage is done before you have a chance to provide context. I’m not suggesting that he or others who know the ins and outs of the economic crisis soft-pedal or resort to happy talk to make us all feel better. I am suggesting that people who are looked to as authorities and who are capable of building the nation’s confidence, think about the consequences of their words with the knowledge that everything will be reduced to a headline.

It can be done. President Obama was criticized for his negativity early-on and has tempered his language but still manages to get across a sense of urgency as he did in the this New York Times article on March 8 . . . “Look, I wish I had the luxury of just dealing with a modest recession or just dealing with health care or just dealing with energy or just dealing with Iraq or just dealing with Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t have that luxury, and I don’t think the American people do, either.” Nicely said.

Here is another example of a candid but balanced message from HBS’s Michael Porter in a CNBC interview this morning. He speaks about the importance of the US focusing on its long term priorities globally, acknowledges the extent of our challenges but says without hesitation that the US will remain the strongest nation in the world. Good message. Credible source. No headline fodder.

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Executive Dysfunction

As I write this entry I have several things vying for my attention. The evening news on in the background  (and the weatherman cheerily predicts 6 to 12 inches of snow on Monday – uhg!). Twitter is popping up every 45 seconds or so to let me know of distracted1another luminous log. And my Blackberry is dutifully vibrating towards the edge of the table with new emails.

My own fault you say? Why not shut those things down so I can concentrate? That’s a fair question, but like many of you (I suspect), I am compelled to be connected. I know the second I log off will be followed by the most important message, headline, question of my day.  So, like many of you (I suspect again), I am driven to distraction.

There is a clinical term for this – Executive Function Disorder (a.k.a. Executive Dysfunction). Executive functions are responsible for a variety of cognitive functions in mammals. There is evidence that attention deficit disorder is linked to faulty executive functions. [Insert punch line here.] 

So now I have a legitimate, clinically ratified excuse for feeling as though I can’t focus on one task for more than a few minutes. EFD has even been the focus of a recent article in Harvard Business Publishing, where Maggie Jackson, author of Dangers of Distraction, spoke about the pros and cons (mostly cons) of multitasking thusly,

“Multitasking is sold to us as the ultimate in efficiency: supposedly, it allows us to perform several tasks simultaneously. But multitasking is most oft en about “task-switching,” hopping back and forth among several tasks in quick succession, never giving deep, full attention to any of them. It’s characterized by frequent interruption, and that makes it highly inefficient. Each time we’re interrupted — or we interrupt ourselves — it takes time to get back to where we were on a project.”

Sound familiar?  So here is what I theorize, we are a nation of multi-taskers who are collectively suffering from an epidemic of Executive Dysnfunction. The condition becomes most dangerous when it effects our ability to allow reasonable time for reasonable results. Take our new President and the stimulus package for example. Barrack Obama has been president for 5 weeks. He inherited a hornets nest of problems many years in the making, some of the most serious ever faced by our nation, yet the chorus of critics have allowed him zero breathing room. Yes it’s politics as usual but I think it’s aided and abetted by EFD to the extent that even rational people are doubting every decision and exacerbating our shared national sink hole. 

My suggestion, let’s refocus our “get it done this second” state of mind on our own stuff and let the Chief Executive function for a while before jumping ship on his presidency.

We’ve seen Chief Executive Dysfunction – but not from this president yet.

Twitter – Too Legit to Quit

hammerTwenty years ago I could never have fathomed that superstar rapper/dancer M.C. Hammer would have something interesting to impart to HBS students. But this past Wednesday he packed the house and held the audience rapt with his insights about social networking media and how it is reshaping the entertainment business. True to his name he was a smash hit but these days he tweets to drive home his point .

Twitter 101

Hammer is an early adopter of Twitter (http://twitter.com/MCHammer) the social networking and micro-blogging platform that mashes texting together with blogging. It’s like texting because you have to squeeze your big ideas into 140 characters per message. It’s like blogging because you are sharing your big ideas with the world. Messages are called “tweets” and people and organizations sign up as “followers” of each other. Hammer has over 90,000 followers who hear from him daily as he shares snippets of his day running the gamet from business to personal items and everything in between.

Who Cares?

The question that greets every Twitter user upon login is “What are you doing right now?”  and although it’s broadly interpreted, a lot of tweets are just that, people describing what they are doing in that moment. But many others use their 140 characters to ask probing questions or share links to articles, videos and music. Groups spring up around topics and themes and flurries of tweets ensue creating a rich and insightful discussion – sometimes. Frankly I am still trying to figure it out but after hearing Hammer, and signing on to follow close to 100 twitterers at the suggestion of HBS Associate Professor Andrew McAfee, I am feeling more and more like there is substance here. I’m thinking of ways that I can use Twitter in my job by following and listening to our students to hear about the things that interest them or irritate them or to learn where they get information. I even asked members of the Twitterverse (cute huh?) to give me their ideas for this blog.

Am I sold on Twitter? Not entirely but I am sold on the idea the people like engaging with each other and they like to voice their opinions and ideas and in a time and attention-starved world 140 characters can go along way. So I am going to stick with it for a while and see where it goes.

My next tweet – “Hey, check out my latest blog entry about Twitter!”. You’ll see it at http://twitter.com/bckenny.

Wading in on E-Defense

Well it’s taken a while but I’ve finally found the time/topic for my first blog posting. Very exciting. I was invited to speak on a panel this week on the topic of Winning Strategies for Online Reputation Management. The discussion was hosted by Weber Shandwick, a global PR agency (who works with HBS). The discussion centered on a survey that WS conducted with The Economist probing CEO concerns about managing reputation in the digital age (Risky Business – Reputations Online).

The findings are interesting and they do show that within the last few years CEOs have taken greater notice of the Internet in terms of it’s potential to impact company reputation. What I find a little surprising is the preponderance of fear. One attendee quipped they should have named the event E-Offense but it is clear that of the 703 CEOs surveyed, the vast majority only see the destructive capacity of the Internet as a brand destroyer rather than its promise as a brand builder.

The findings reinforce the notion that the boardroom is still struggling with the tectonic shift brought about by social networking. How can they rise above the chatter of customers, shareholders and employees in a world where everyone has a microphone? How can they control the message? The answer of course is that they cannot. The companies that have embraced that notion stand to gain at the expense of those who fight it.

For the benefit of any current or future CEOs in the room I offered the following thoughts about managing reputation in the digital age. Avoid these missteps:

  • Indifference – No CEO can afford to be ambivalent about the web and the power of social networks. Bad news (whether justified or not)  travels exponentially faster in the blogosphere.
  • Fear – There is a clearly a lot of it and I believe it comes from ignorance about how these tools work and angst about how to wade in. The result is paralysis.
  • Hubris – One of the great benefits of the the web is that it has created much more transparency and accountability. Those who fail to realize the importance of authenticity in the 2.0 world will likely be exposed.

Here are three suggestions I had for those wondering about how to wade in:

  • Be aware – Versus beware . . . Yes people are talking about you and/or your company online. Yes they are probably saying things that incorrect or negative. Wouldn’t you rather know about it? Being aware means you have to have the right tools to monitor online chatter and these run the gamut from free (Technorati) to custom (Cymfony).
  • Pick your spots – The web in all its enormity can be overwhelming. It is important to know what conversations to monitor. Which ones do you care most about? Most likely there are places on line where you want people talking about your product/service. Start there.
  • Have a plan for engagement – Once you start to listen in you have to be ready to take action. There are appropriate ways to do this in the unwritten rules of the Web. Authenticity looms large here. Trying to sneak into a conversation under false premises is a recipe for brand disaster.

So I’m sure this is waaay to long for a blog entry but I get some slack as a first-timer. I’ll try to update this blog weekly (with something a little shorter).

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