Chevron's decision to launch a splashy ad campaign with the tagline "We Agree" was hardly the first time that a global energy company has spent millions of dollars trying to enhance positive perceptions of their brand by pivoting away from public opposition. But it may be one of the last times that we see energy companies trying to saddle up to members of the public as if they were a potential date at a Georgetown bar.
Chevron's new campaign was punked by the activist-perfomers The Yes Men, who partnered with the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch to create a fake version of the "We Agree" campaign that was erroneously picked up by the media as authentic. The Yes Men sent out a fake press release hours before the launch of the Chevron campaign and created a fake website at www.chevron-weagree.com that fooled reporters into thinking their campaign was real. Chevron is currently fighting an $18 billion lawsuit in Ecuador over the actions of their subsidiary Texaco, dating back twenty years. Chevron claims that they have repaired the damage caused by the oilfields, and they contend that the Ecuadorian courts have been biased against them. According to the Rainforest Action Network, the company is launching this campaign in order to avoid paying one of the largest settlements in history.
Chevron has launched a campaign that has struck a hollow chord with the public before. Their "People Do" campaign asked rhetorical questions about their good works including restoring marshes once used for oil exploration. Many of those "good deeds" were required by law.
The Yes Men are tapping into a rich tradition of political theater that lies somewhere in between Guy Debord of the French situationist movement and Ashton Kutcher. As the power of social media continues to grow, we'll see more and more of this type of takedown. There are no shortage of ad campaigns that deserve to be mocked.
I saw this campaign from Shell in the San Francisco airport during the heart of the Gulf Oil disaster.
If they really had the technology, it would have been nice if they had gone and shut down the exploding well in the Gulf. But I suppose that wasn't the technology they were talking about.
Or how about this campaign from Kentucky Fried Chicken for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation?
KFC committed to donating fifty cents for every bucket of chicken they sold to the Foundation. At about the same time they launched and promoted their 'Double-Down' sandwich which consists of two deep-fried filets of chicken surrounding two pieces of bacon, two pieces of monterey jack cheese, and the Colonel's sauce. It's hard to sell a sandwich with 32 grams of fat and be a respected voice in the fight against breast cancer.
As time goes on, these sorts of campaigns will begin to diminish. Chevron's recent campaigns will be remembered as oddities that were born out of a time when weak research suggested that the public could be tricked in a lasting way by a catchy ad, relentlessly applied. The era of greenwashing is over for the simple reason that it doesn't work. For the price of a URL and a little wit, a campaign that is out of step with reality can be hacked and become more of a liability than a potential benefit.
There will still be companies with reputational liabilities that will push their eager creatives to design campaigns to shine up their names. For them, I offer the following advice.
1) Resolve your crisis.
Before GE could launch their Ecomagination effort, which brought together their various ecologically-oriented businesses into one united initiative, they had to deal with their ongoing Hudson River pollution liability. Between 1947 and 1977 GE dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. Environmental advocates and the EPA demanded that they dredge the river. GE passionately believed they had fulfilled their moral and legal responsibility to clean the abandoned site and litigated to protect themselves. Eventually they concluded that paying the price to clean the Hudson was less expensive than the continuing attacks on their reputation. There is no role for a mass communications effort while the public doesn't trust your desire to resolve your responsibilities.
CEOs need to be reminded to be humble in their declarations of social leadership. The idea of a multi-billion dollar company being "green" is almost ridiculous, since the phrase has no agreed-upon meaning and there is always something more you can do. That's one reason that "sustainability" has gained favor as a goalset for corporate leaders. To be sustainable means that you bring social, environmental, economic and cultural considerations into your decisions, and that you're setting up your enterprise to be profitable for years to come. When it comes to communications, the best way to be humble is to listen to your employees, customers and the community. Chevron tried to do this by creating a fake dialogue; if you fake it you'll rapidly find that you'll be in dialogue with someone like the Yes Men.
3) Let your employees lead.
Employees need to be a primary audience for your communications. They're the ones who have to live with your reputation day in and day out. One employee at a large Midwestern conglomerate once told me that his company's poor reputation became uncomfortable for him whenever he went to an out-of-state funeral. "There's nothing worse," he told me, "than having someone feel so compelled to attack your company that he'd interrupt your mourning to do so." A poor reputation will affect your stock price, but it's much more strongly felt by your employees when they go home to their kids every night. These employees have an extraordinary motivation to help you solve whatever problem you face; inviting them into the solution and goal-setting process will empower them to share your message. Their private conversation at funerals and on Twitter will be much more effective at swaying the public than any ad campaign.
4) Set North Star Goals. A North Star Goal is an aspirational goal that combines your business objectives with a higher purpose. These goals, which are being set by an increasing number of Fortune 500 companies, have the following attributes:
Actionable by everyone in the company
Tied into the core of the business
Inspirational to your employees and customers
Achievable in 5 - 15 years
In service of a cause larger than making money
Companies that are setting North Star Goals are finding that by being in step with society's demands bold forces come to their aid.
Starbucks' North Star Goal is ethically sourcing every cup of coffee and making every cup either recyclable or reusable.
Toyota's North Star Goal is to make cars that never crash and clean the air as they drive.
P&G's North Goal is to sell $50 billion in sustainable-innovation products and send zero consumer or manufacturing waste to landfills.
No doubt we'll still see a few last campaigns like Chevron's "We Agree" campaign. But you can be comforted by the thought that those campaigns will do more to harm the companies they represent than help them.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
After a five-month delay, Loretta Lynch made history last week. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general, the first African American woman ever to hold this Cabinet position. Her long-stalled nomination sometimes seemed in doubt, held hostage to partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. But one political bloc never gave up, relentlessly rallying its support behind Lynch: the black sorority.
During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business. The Deltas were not alone. The Lynch nomination also drew support from congressional representatives from other black sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Hours after a major earthquake wreaked havoc across his country, Nepali Information Minister Minendra Rijal appeared at a news conference on Saturday to announce that schools would be closed for the next five days. "We never imagined we'd face such devastation," he said.
But for geologists, Saturday's disaster—which has claimed over 2,400 lives—was sadly predictable.
"Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen," James Jackson, head of the earth-sciences department at the University of Cambridge, told the Associated Press.
Blessed with stunning natural scenery, Nepal is a popular tourist destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of travelers each year. But the source of the country's beauty is what makes it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Much of Nepal's population lives in a valley beneath the Himalayas, a mountain range formed by collisions between the Indian and Central Asian tectonic plates. These collisions—which occur when the Indian plate slides underneath its much larger neighbor—are what cause earthquakes. According to The Washington Post, a chunk of the earth measuring 75 by 37 miles shifted 10 feet in 30 seconds on Saturday, destroying much of what lay atop the surface.
A lot of Internet ink has been spilled over how lazy and entitled Millennials are, but when it comes to paying for a college education, work ethic isn't the limiting factor. The economic cards are stacked such that today’s average college student, without support from financial aid and family resources, would need to complete 48 hours of minimum-wage work a week to pay for his courses—a feat that would require superhuman endurance, or maybe a time machine.
To take a close look at the tuition history of almost any institution of higher education in America is to confront an unfair reality: Each year’s crop of college seniors paid a little bit more than the class that graduated before. The tuition crunch never fails to provide new fodder for ongoing analysis of the myths and realities of The American Dream. Last week, a graduate student named Randy Olson listened to his grandfather extol the virtues of putting oneself through college without family support. But paying for college without family support is a totally different proposition these days, Olson thought. It may have been feasible 30 years ago, or even 15 years ago, but it's much harder now.
I’m not a dog person. I prefer cats. Cats make you work to have a relationship with them, and I like that. But I have adopted several dogs, caving in to pressure from my kids. The first was Teddy, a rottweiler-chow mix whose bushy hair was cut into a lion mane. Kids loved him, and he grew on me, too. Teddy was probably ten years when we adopted him. Five years later he had multiple organs failing and it was time to put him to sleep.
When I arrived at the vet, he said I could drop him off. I was aghast. No. I needed to stay with Teddy.As the vet prepped the syringe to put him to sleep, I started sobbing. The vet gave me a couple minutes to collect myself and say goodbye. I held Teddy's paw until he died. Honestly, I didn't think I was that attached.
Whenever a college student asks me, a veteran high-school English educator, about the prospects of becoming a public-school teacher, I never think it’s enough to say that the role is shifting from "content expert" to "curriculum facilitator." Instead, I describe what I think the public-school classroom will look like in 20 years, with a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The "virtual class" will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a "super-teacher"), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.
Soon, thousand of police officers across the country will don body-worn cameras when they go out among the public. Those cameras will generate millions of hours of footage—intimate views of commuters receiving speeding tickets, teens getting arrested for marijuana possession, and assault victims at some of the worst moments of their lives.
As the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed exempting body-cam footage from local open records laws. But the flurry of lawmaking speaks to a larger crisis: Once those millions of hours of footage have been captured, no one is sure what to do with them.
I talked to several representatives from privacy, civil rights, and progressive advocacy groups working on body cameras. Even among these often allied groups, there’s little consensus about the kind of policies that should exist around releasing footage.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.