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.
Pope Francis is widely believed to be a cool Pope—a huggable, Upworthyish, meme-ready, self-deprecating leader for a new generation of worshippers. “He has described himself as a sinner,” writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Pope Francis’ entry on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world, “and his nonjudgmental views on … issues such as sexual orientation and divorce have brought hope to millions of Roman Catholics around the world.”
But there’s one issue that can make even Cool Pope Francis himself sound a little, well, judgy. “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the pontiff told an audience in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year. “The choice not to have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.”
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.
The Onion had a problem: It fell behind the times. The mock newspaper hadn’t printed an issue on actual paper since 2013, and in the period since, it never redesigned its website. As the media world changed—as the New York Times and the Washington Post adapted the ways they published stories online—The Onion lost a key satirical weapon. Visually, it no longer looked like many of the publications it parodied. And so, like it had done many times before, The Onion tagged along.
In 2008, I was elected governor of Delaware. In politics, timing is everything. You can be a fantastic candidate and run in a bad year for your party and get clobbered. You can be an absolute dud and run in the right year and get the brass ring. 2008 was a good year to be a Democrat.
But beyond the political benefit, my timing was awful. A month before I took office at the depths of the Great Recession, Chrysler closed its assembly plant in Newark, my hometown. A few months after my inauguration, General Motors shuttered its plant a few miles away. That fall, Valero closed its refinery. Those three employers had represented the best opportunities for high school graduates to get middle-class jobs for decades. Within a year, all were gone.
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.
The question that most people ask themselves as they walk into their boss's office to negotiate their salaries is likely some variant of "What am I going to say?" But according to hostage negotiator Chris Voss, that might be the least important thing to keep in mind when negotiating.
Voss, now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, spent 24 years at the FBI. It was as an FBI agent that he started to get interested in hostage negotiations. At the time, a supervisor told him to start by volunteering at a suicide hotline to gain the set of listening abilities that a hostage negotiator needs. By 1992, he was training at the FBI's school for negotiators, and from 2004 to 2007, he was the FBI's lead international hostage negotiator. After retirement, Voss founded The Black Swan Group to bring negotiation know-how to the business world.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Do you understand money? Let’s see how well you do with the following questions.
1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? A) more than $102; B) exactly $102; C) less than $102; D) do not know; refuse to answer.
2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account is 1 percent per year and inflation is 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy A) more than, B) exactly the same as, or C) less than today with the money in this account?; D) do not know; refuse to answer.
3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.” A) true; B) false; C) do not know; refuse to answer.
After all the anticipation, hype, and controversy surrounding Saturday's fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., it was easy to forget that an actual boxing match was to occur. But sure enough, the two men entered the ring at Las Vegas' MGM Grand and fought each other across 12 tightly-contested rounds, trading jabs and dodges. In the end, the three judges awarded Mayweather, who landed 148 punches to Pacquiao's 81, a unanimous victory—his 48th without a single defeat.
The reaction was underwhelming. The fight had "no real intrigue," wrote Sharan Shetty at Slate, adding that "it’s unlikely that anyone new to boxing became enamored with the sport after watching." But this isn't really surprising. For all of its literary flair, boxing, as a spectator sport, is often rather dull. Saturday's match was no exception. Both Mayweather and Pacquiao applied a defensive strategy that aimed to wear down his opponent, neither made many attempts at landing a knockout blow. For serious fans, this strategy is simply part of the sport's charm, and as a clinical display of boxing, Saturday's match was no disappointment.