Posts Tagged 'whateverism'

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”.

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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.

Uniquely meaningless

HMS Unique: confusingly, one of 49 identical submarines

Ah! The irony. Dataram Corporation’s recent press release about measurable performance contains exactly two numbers. The first one is the information that Dataram Corp was founded 42 years ago. The second is that it was founded in 1967. So, to be strict, the press release has one number which is expressed in two different ways.

For each of those 42 years of precision measurement Dataram has apparently been:

delivering meaningful operational improvements and measurable total cost of ownership reductions… Dataram memory solutions have a track record of delivering significant performance and optimization improvements in critical applications.

I’d quote more, but then you’d have to kill yourself.

Trying to get useful information from this release, as with so many crappy self-congratulatory corporate web pages and marketing-driven white papers, is like banging your head against a giant marshmallow. It is vague wherever the precision of which Dataram boasts would be helpful. None of the many extravagant claims in the press release can be usefully understood: the company just speaks well of itself for a few hundred words. It describes operational improvements as meaningful, insight as unique, its applications as performance-driven, the performance itself as significant, its specialists as highly skilled (as opposed to all those generalist specialists out there). The result is a substantial performance improvement. It is, we read, a tremendous opportunity because performance (again) is high and the customer’s cost of ownership is substantially lower.

In other words, two paragraphs of bugger all, if that’s specific enough for you.

I write about this stuff and I have no idea what Dataram is doing here, or has been doing for 42 years, or how well it does it (is “meaningful” 10 per cent or 80 per cent? How low does something need to go before it becomes “substantially” lower?). I could read this tripe for 20 years (which sort of sums up my career so far) and still I’d have no idea.

Vague non-words like significant and substantial look like they’re telling us something, but they aren’t. They’re useful for people who have a deadline but no clear idea what they’re writing about; or people who know the numbers, don’t want to tell us what they are, but want to waste our time anyway because that’s what they’re paid to do. Often they are paid by the word, so chucking in a “substantial” here and there is basically free money.

On Factiva’s database of press releases there’s no clear trend upward or downward in the use of any of the non-words that Dataram employed to such non-effect. That would be too much to expect. Non-words have nowhere to live; so they just lie around in documents year after year, pretending to tell us something. For example, look at the graph of the use of significant and unique since 2002:

Nothing much to see there unless, of course, you are concerned that one in 12 press releases in the last eight years claims that something is unique. This seems to be setting the bar low for one-of-a-kindness.

There is, though, a worrying trend in the data. Since 2002 the frequency of press releases with just one of these annoying non-words remains roughly constant; but in 2009 you were three times as likely to find a release that claims all four of our meaningless words – that something is simultaneously significant and substantial and meaningful and unique:

Non-words are banding together to destroy our ability to think clearly. It’s literally a vague threat. Dataram’s press release is just one example of the wider problem that meaninglessness is becoming more concentrated, if such a thing is possible.

The Non-Dom-Wombat Diversion

Mutant wombat attack: this election's Cinderella issue

Conservative strategy on what we now call The Ashcroft Affair has often been to use the Wombat Diversion. So when a journalist asks about Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom tax status, a well-briefed MP will point out of the window, shout “Good lord! A giant wombat is attacking parliament!” and try to change the subject.

The Wombat Diversion is a long-standing interview technique, and not just in politics. The one time I got ask Bill Gates a question, he answered it by saying, “Actually what you should be asking is…” and answering an entirely different question, which I recall being along the lines of “Why is Microsoft so excellent?”

Of course it’s not usually giant furry critters that get the blame when politicians are misdirecting; single parents and economic migrants are much more compelling as diversions from their own faults. Also, pointing at your competition and saying “Look at them! They’re just as bad as we are”, then doing a runner, is considered a good way to change the story – and one which I note the Tories were still using yesterday.

Over the last few weeks there could be an entire battle group of oversized marsupials munching on Big Ben, cheered on by feral hoodies, and it still wouldn’t have helped the Tories escape the Ashcroft day of reckoning. If we look at the amount of coverage of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status over the years, the trend is firmly upwards. With only 2007 as a break, the proportion of political stories about the Conservative Party that mentioned him kept going up for half a decade. I speculate that this is because the dissimulation became the story – a sort of wombat feedback loop:

Labour has found a similar problem. The political interviewer’s party game in the last few months has been to try to make a Labour politician say the word “cuts”. MPs have tied themselves in entertaining linguistic knots in an attempt to avoid being associated with this word. When Evan Davies is doing the interviewing on Radio 4’s Today programme, he sometimes exhausts an entire week of the BBC’s exasperation budget when trying to get Labour ministers to say “cuts” even once.

On one hand, the political machine is winning. No one has stepped out of line, in case Gordon Brown throws a tangerine at them. But the number of articles discussing the Labour party and spending cuts continues to climb. Often the articles are not about cuts, but about how the politicians refuse to talk about those cuts: more wombat feedback. The graph is a bit more up-and-down, but mostly up, with a spectacular result last September when a quarter of all political articles about Labour mentioned the “C” word:

It’s my theory that Wombat Diversions – not just for politicians, but for anyone in the media – are becoming ineffective. We are more comfortable than our parents were with the idea of leaders (that’s CEOs and football captains as well as MPs) as liars and cheats who are cynically manipulating us based on little more than their lust for wealth and glory. On second thoughts, maybe “comfortable” isn’t quite the word, but you see what I mean. And so, at that point, we stop looking for what they are saying, and start looking for what they are not saying, and discuss that instead. The longer they keep not saying it, the harder we look.

Second, it’s much easier to spot evasion and misdirection when you can Google it afterwards. Even the BBC had good sport yesterday by stringing together a series of interviews in which senior Tories tried the Ashcroft Wombat Diversion in all its forms: strung together, the spluttering evasions were comedy gold. A Wombat Diversion might keep the story off the front pages in the short term, but thanks to internet reporting there are an unlimited number of other pages where it can incubate.

Foolish media trainers still consider this type of misdirection to be useful, but times have changed: whether a you are a product marketing manager or you’re Baron Ashcroft, it’s not up to you any more to decide what peasants talk about. For example: if people hate your set-top boxes you can’t get away with saying that you’ve got a new one coming out soon! if you have 109 one-star reviews on Amazon for the one people are buying today. Politics is going through the same process.

A sad consequence of this is that, when mutant Wombats really do attack the Mother of Parliaments, it will take us by surprise. “Why didn’t the powers that be warn us?” we will ask as giant furballs chomp their way through the House of Lords. It would be ironic, at this point, if Lord Ashcroft escaped death because he was in Belize, filling in his tax return.

Going off on ongoing

Ongoingness: a perpetual motion machine. The wheel at the top writes the email, the twisty thing sends it, and the disc on the left reads it and sends a reply to everyone. This process carries on for ever.

When Rev. Philip Gulley was promoting his book “If the Church Were Christian” last year, he complained that the “ongoingness of the institution is all-important.” You could say the book is about the unfortunateness of the ongoingness of churchiness.

Even though ongoing has no reason to exist (telling me that there’s an ongoing discussion gives me no more information than telling me there’s a discussion, for example), it is getting more popular in the press.

It is routinely paired with other problem words to make them even more irritating than they were before: imagine that you’re about to deal a savage redundancies blow to Solihull. The first draft of your statement blames the redundancies on the problems of the economy, but that looks a bit strong. It may be true, it may be accurate, but it is not smooth and reassuring.

Perhaps in the second draft you rename “the economy” as “the current economic climate”, which sounds more reassuring already. You might also downgrade “problems” to “challenges”, but you need one more word that will knock the final hard edge off your statement.

Ongoing is that word. Bingo. A spokesperson for Fujitsu:

This has been necessitated by the ongoing challenges of the current economic climate and the resultant requirement for Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe to scale its operations in line with anticipated business volumes and mix.

Translation: we’re making 140 people redundant. With a weasel word as useful as ongoing, it’s hardly surprising that it is catching on:

But the real growth is found in pairing ongoing with words like challenge, as above. The phrase has increased in frequency by a factor of four since 2002:

Or in turning issues into ongoing issues, a phrase that is now five times as common as it was eight years ago:

There’s hardly a weasel word that you don’t find paired with ongoing. Ongoing is the Cliff Richard of weasel words: on its own, irritating yet pointless; in a duet, borderline dangerous.

Faint traces of buttock

In September 2009 The Times Bugle podcast described an apology by the former CEOs of bailed-out banks in front of a UK parliamentary committee as “not so much half-arsed, as containing barely detectable traces of buttock.

As the CEOs of the large US banks appear in front of their senior politicians to admit to as little as possible – while approving billions in bonuses from trading in a market created and supported almost entirely by central banks – it’s worth having a bit of a buttock rummage in the press to see what’s motivating our CEOs to do good.

What are we writing about corporate social responsibility these days? After all, when money’s tight, it’s a pretty obvious thing to cut back if money is more important than ethics.

On first look, there’s good news in the press coverage of CSR. The consistent rise in the number of stories about it since 2002 has continued. There are about four times as many articles about CSR now as there were in 2002, which suggests that interest hasn’t gone away:

What are these stories about? Business ethics in general have been in the news quite a bit in 2009, yet the number of stories that mentioned CSR alongside ethics or ethical behaviour, and didn’t talk about profit, dropped off suddenly:

Still, doesn’t look too bad; the long-term trend is slightly upward. And this is a rough measure: it would not capture a story about how ethics are more important than profit, for example.

Now if we look at the similar graph for CSR stories that mention profitability but not ethical behaviour, we see the opposite effect in 2009: a sudden jump.

Note the scales were different; so to see what’s really going on, let’s overlay the two trends:

Gosh! Our search is not perfect, but in 2002 there were the almost the same number of ethics-not-profit stories as profit-not-ethics stories. Since then the number of ethics-based CSR stories hasn’t really shifted, and is now declining. But look at the coverage for CSR-as-profit! That’s really taking off.

A couple of possible explanations: maybe the only way to protect a CSR programme right now is to convince shareholders and CEOs that it is all about making pots of money. Or maybe we’re all just writing stories about balance sheets now, and find business ethics a bit irrelevant.

In the banking industry in the last 12 months – a sector that has been accused both of being ethically-challenged and far too motivated by profit – there have been 82 stories on CSR that mention ethical behaviour, but not profit. There have been 548 (six times as many) CSR stories that mention profit, but not ethical behaviour.

You might think that business, and especially the financial sector, has often been half-arsed about its social responsibility. If so, these graphs seem to suggest (in Bugle terms) that the press coverage of those responsibilities shows increasingly faint traces of buttock.

Selling empowerment by the pound

no lack of power here

If you’re lacking power, don’t worry. There are a lot of people who can sell you something for that. At the time of writing, about 80 press releases in the last week were promising some form of empowerment.

Whether it’s from the ambitiously named Empower MediaMarketing (“Understanding is the bottom line”), which among other recent empowerments organised a Discovery Channel Shark Week promotion for Long John Silver Fish Tacos, or the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (“to inspire, empower , educate and entertain by showcasing the best golf professionals in the world”), or even the Center for Applied Identity Management Research‘s ongoing efforts “to empower and engage with clients in combating identity theft crimes and mitigating fraud”, there’s a lot of empowerment available – if you can pay for it.

Which isn’t really the point of a word that once described how you give victims of discrimination or poverty the ability to change their lives. Empowerment had an ethical and political meaning, which doesn’t have much relevance to tacos or golf.

The releases that mention empowerment on PR Newswire confirm that empowerment in 2009 usually involves a commercial transaction. It’s empowerment in the sense that if you buy a pair of jeans from me, I empower you to wear some new trousers.

Or, rather: “Possession of the Talk Normal LegRight Solution (TM) empowers the global community of potential denim-wearers to actualise our jeans dreams!” See? We can all get into the action.

According to Factiva, quite a few businesses are getting into it. Empowerment went almost unmentioned until recently, but not now:

I get it: it’s no longer enough to sell us a product, we have to buy a better life. Marketers have hijacked the idea of empowerment to do this, because it’s a no-risk proposition. “We don’t make promises,” these empowerers tell us, “we just sell you something to help you change yourself.”

They don’t make you happy; but they are willing, for a fee, to claim they empower you to achieve happiness. It’s not their fault if you’re too stupid, ugly, poor (or powerless) to make the best of it.

Commercial empowerment: if it works they take the credit. If it doesn’t, that’s your problem.


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