Posts Tagged 'Blame culture'

The buck does not stop here

No one likes a blame culture. Especially when you’re the one taking the blame.

While News International flip-flops its way through the phone hacking palaver – offering various explanations of exactly what it was doing, who did it, and whether the evidence has been successfully deleted – one of the few things that most people agreed was adroit was Rupert’s personal apology (see right). We remember it because it has the word sorry at the top. You can argue that he is only sorry that they got caught, but you can’t dismiss the power of the apology.

Of course, it’s one thing to ask your advertising agency to write “sorry” on a piece of paper, it’s quite another to say it out loud. That’s why James Murdoch used a beautiful weasel phrase to describe the closure of the News of the World and any illegal phone hacking. Having got his sorrys out of the way at 3:30, phone hacking and its consequences quickly became a matter of great regret, so that he can get into the technical stuff instead:

Elsewhere in the scandal, Yates of the Yard went further. His impersonal regret was extreme:

Antitalknormalists use the Matter of Regret (MoR) when they are nominally in charge and bad things happen. They want to look concerned, just like ordinary people, while subtly emphasising their lack of individual responsibility. They want to stay on the outside, sadly shaking their regretful heads and tutting ritualistically, going along with the crowd.  This is especially the case when the crowd wants that head on a plate.

Transforming your apology or blame into a generic MoR means you keep a career-maintaining distance from the problem. It skips over who’s to blame and why it happened.

In the UK the MoR is also such a dull phrase as to be handily unreportable in most cases, because it provides no insight beyond the obvious: it’s like saying that something made you unhappy because it is sad. It has been quoted in stories in the UK papers more than 10 times in a month only twice – probably because if that’s the best quote in a story, it’s probably not much of a story. It was most popular in September 2010, when it was a matter of regret for the boss of Waterstones that demonstrators stopped Tony Blair doing a business-boosting book signing tour in his shops. That’s until July 2011 when, as we have seen, many of the people involved in phone hacking news stories were fond of using the phrase. Go figure.

MoRs imply a devolved responsibility that everyone can share but no one takes, and so they transform apology into a generic blanket of mild sadness. MoRs sit in the News International tactical toolbox alongside matters of profit and matters of political influence, ready to be used when they really want to say “don’t blame us”.

Nagging: someone must do something


If you haven't watched all 1001 of them, you clearly deserve to die anyway

During the UK general election, and afterwards, I thought I was reading an unusual number of comment articles telling David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown that they “must” do something. Once I’d spotted it, I couldn’t stop noticing that all of us are constantly being told what we must learn, deliver or promise. Governments were most often the recipients of this nagging, as were religions, and for less specific nags, “we” are constantly being told by columnists what we must do. And I haven’t even got to the things we must not do yet.

I checked to see if there was an increase in newspaper-based nagging. In British newspapers between 1990 and 1998, the frequency of headlines telling us we “must” do something declined gradually:

Then it started a long, steep climb. Now nags are twice as frequent as they were in 1998:

We must find out why. Someone must take the blame for this. Something must be done. Not that it will be: newspapers run many more opinion pieces than they did in 1998. They use them to attract commenters, which creates advertising revenue. Telling a person or group what to do is a quick way to start an argument and, in this context, all arguments are good.

Alternatively, as we become less patient and increasingly self-obsessed, we can just forget the column underneath the headline (most of us do that already) and personalise the experience. You could sign up to a genuine Daily Me, written by robot columnists, which is just a series of nagging headlines inspired by the newspaper we really care about: our Facebook wall posts.




That’s much more useful than telling me that I must not let slip the opportunity to provide a legacy from the 2012 Olympics. I live next door to the stadium, but I’m pretty sure it’s not me they should be nagging.

Meanwhile columnists are free to tell all sorts of groups what they must do in the certain knowledge that their instructions will be ignored. They are lucky that no one has decided yet that bossy opinion columnists must be paid by results, because they might as well write an article telling ice cream it must not melt.

Conference call etiquette

Still don't have an answer to the penguin question

I’m doing more conference calls these days, but so is everyone else. It’s the perfect activity if you are working from home: your boss knows you are apparently doing something, but it’s the sort of activity that needn’t interrupt other home-office tasks – such as watching Homes Under The Hammer, or playing internet poker.

Another reason that I’m doing more calls is that, for decision makers who don’t like to make decisions, it’s the answer to every question:

Me: If penguins wore trousers, would they be better off with a belt or braces? They’ve got no hips, but no shoulders either.

Decision maker: I’ll set up a call

There are informal rules of etiquette for these calls. If you are new to conference calling, the most important thing is to have another activity – such as deleting spam, indulging in ritualised self-harm, or squeezing out quiet tears of rage – that you can perform comfortably at your desk during the call.

I almost finished that paragraph off with “…to avoid disappointment”, which is ridiculous. Conference calls are institutionalised disappointment. We tolerate them only because we don’t have to look each other in the eyes while we waste each other’s lives.

So, for newbies, this is what to expect:

Day minus 2: Marketing Person 1 decides we need a call to discuss the Penguin Pants Project Crisis that you have created. A flurry of emails results, during which we establish that there are no mutually acceptable times for the next three months. Eventually Alpha Male 1 sends an irritated email saying that his PA could possibly try to move some things around for him because he’s about to get on a flight to Singapore. PA instantly offers six available slots in the next 48 hours. The call is set up for the day after tomorrow.

D -1: Marketing Person 1 sends calendar notification to all announcing that The Bridge Has Been Set Up. It includes dial-in details for a list of 25 countries, not including the one you are in – but including Slovakia and Norway, where your company doesn’t have offices.

Day zero: Emails from three people asking if our call is still going ahead, because if not they have another call that’s quite important, but don’t worry they’ll cancel the other call, even though it’s quite important, if our call is still going ahead.

Time -55 minutes: Email from someone who is confused by daylight saving time, asking where everyone is.

T -15 minutes: Email from Marketing Person 1 to remind us that the call is in 15 minutes. Response email from Alpha Male 2 warning that his previous call with Important Customer might not finish on time to join our call. Try to get the ball rolling without me, he says, difficult though it might be.

T +2 minutes: After frantic and unsuccessful attempts to dial in, you call from your mobile using the Slovakian access number. It’s just you and a marketing intern on the call. The intern has been instructed by Marketing Person 1 not to say anything during the call. Small talk is difficult.

T +5 minutes: Someone who speaks no English dials in using the Norwegian access number. This may, or may not, be a mistake. Small talk not improving.

T +5 to T +15 minutes: A new person joins each time you get three words into a sentence. Fragments of speech about difficulty of using access codes, and weather in New York/Singapore/Slovakia, occur. Alpha Male 1 and Alpha Male 2 have not joined yet, but seven middle managers you’ve never heard of are present on the call. They seem to know each other, despite being based in different continents, and exchange opinions about previous relevant conference calls to which you were not invited.

(I hear the opinion that these call-hangers don’t contribute. If we look at the conference call as an attempt to make a decision, this is certainly true. On the other hand their real job is to send emails afterwards to a Senior Person which

1. Questions the wisdom of any decision, hinting that it might undermine Senior Person’s authority

2. Suggest Alpha Males 1 and 2 might be unhappy with the outcome agreed on call

3. Subtly implicate you as the cause of both

This makes sure that any decisions will swiftly be reversed, giving them the opportunity to build a career based on lurking destructively in the background.)

T +15 minutes: Alpha Male 1 joins from airport lounge, and asks us to recap summary of Penguin Pants Project Crisis. Marketing Person 1 attempts to do this, but airport announcements picked up by Alpha Male 1’s phone keep cutting in.

T +20 minutes: Alpha Male 2 joins, and tells us to carry on as if he wasn’t there.

T +21 minutes: After 10 seconds, Alpha Male 2 announces he hasn’t received the agenda for the call from Marketing Person 2. Intern is silently surprised when he is blamed by Marketing Person 2 for this. He is sent to email the document (which he doesn’t possess) so that Alpha Male 2 will have the opportunity to learn why he was on the call after we hang up. Alpha Male 2 asks that, in the absence of an agenda, Alpha Male 1 clarifies Marketing Person 1’s recap of the summary.

T +25 minutes: Silence.

T +26 minutes: Alpha Male 1 remembers he muted his phone because of airport noise, and starts clarification again, which is twice as long as the recap, which was twice as long as the summary.

T +33 minutes: Alpha Male 2 remembers you are on the call, and asks you for the Penguin Pant Crisis action item options. You list the action item options as quickly as possible. You recommend that we decide, while we are on this call, which action item option to take.

T +35 minutes: Long silence.

T +38 minutes: Alpha Male 1 breaks silence by announcing they are calling his flight, so let’s pick this up next week. Call-hangers burst into life to say sycophantic goodbyes to Alpha Male 1, including jokes about performance of local sports teams. Marketing Persons 1 and 2 compete to thank Alpha Male 1 for sparing this time because they know how busy he is, but discover he has already hung up.

T +43 minutes: Marketing Person 1 proudly announces that she has been given access to Alpha Male 1’s diary to schedule follow-up call, and suggests a time. Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T +46 minutes: Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T +49 minutes: Alpha Male 2 says he knows that Alpha Male 1 is not available at that time, because Alpha Male 1 has offered to meet Alpha Male 2’s Important Customer. Marketing Person 1 says she has Alpha Male 1’s diary in front of her, and Important Customer is not in diary.

T+52 minutes: Alpha Male 2 politely points out that his agenda hasn’t come through yet.

T +54 minutes: Everyone agrees to pencil the meeting depending on Alpha Male 1’s availability. Alpha Male 2 points out that Alpha Male 1 is meeting his Important Customer during that hour, so we might be wasting our time.

T +57 minutes: Exaggeratedly polite goodbyes. Marketing Person 2 says we made some great progress today.

T +60 minutes: You are accidentally CCed on an email from call-hanger suggesting that you placed Alpha Male 1 in an awkward position, and that they should revisit any decisions offline before the follow-up call.

Tech PR: twice as much business jargon as average

If you think the picture's dull, imagine the press release

Last week I pointed out that some of our most hated business jargon terms really caught on during the dot-com boom, where a lot of crap was spoken by a lot of people with MBAs. Their qualification could stand for “Master of the Bullshit Arts”, ha ha ha. See what I did there? It doesn’t stand for that really.

Well it’s unfair to single out the dotcommers and their graduate degrees, I’ll admit. So, to redress the balance, look at this graph: the top seven business jargon words that I’ve used before, and their frequency in US press releases over that period. Along the x-axis, US press releases in general; along the y-axis, technology press releases. Not just dot-com: any type of techie or telecoms business, consumer or not.

Over 20 years, consistently in every year, for every phrase, techies use business jargon about twice as much as the average. That’s maybe understandable for a word like scalable, which has a technical meaning of sorts. But world-class? There’s no excuse.

Maybe more tech PR is business-to-business. But that is a rubbish excuse too.

Occasionally someone posts on Twitter that I blame PR people for causing our jargon problem. As I pointed out last week, British journalists haven’t been doing their jargon-filtering job either, and at least the non-techie PR people among you can feel better today. Not good mind you, just better than that other lot.

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