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It’s been fascinating to watch the media coverage and Web chatter around Toyota’s massive global recalls due to faulty accelerator pedals. Check out some of the media coverage here and here. Toyota has received kudos from some for being proactive about the recall, while others accuse it of knowing about the problem but keeping it buried. To me the bigger story is the damage to Toyota’s once pristine  reputation as a corporate paragon.  Even accounting for media packaging, there’s no shortage of Toyota customers – and fans – willing  to share their deep disappointment and even anger at the developments, almost as if they’ve been personally betrayed.

The lesson here – if we needed another example – is that even the strongest brands are fragile, and vulnerable to a rapid and even permanent decline in equity with consumers. That’s particularly true if the scandal is related to the organization’s key assets. Indeed, some pundits suggest Toyota’s fall from grace is so acute because its lofty reputation was based on the quality and reliability of its products, efficiency of its factories and progressive management culture. All three of these assets have been brought into question…if not obliterated. Is it possible that Toyota’s apparent obsession with passing General Motors as the world’s largest automaker made it take its eyes off the ball? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time hubris caused the downfall of an organization.

Another conclusion I draw from this episode is that old chestnut of PR and crisis planning – building a “goodwill” bank – may not be the insurance policy it’s cracked up to be. I assume Toyota has spent plenty of time and resources trying to burnish its reputation. Solid corporate citizen…check. Manufacturing legend…check. Dependable employer…check. None of that seemed to matter much when the scandal hit the airwaves. That magic pixie dust of brand reputation – trust – is hard to earn but easy to lose. It will be interesting to watch the outcome of this scandal – not just in the short-term (the recall will reportedly cost billions in lost revenue) but over the next few months and years. The one thing in Toyota’s favor is that consumers seem willing to forgive and forget.

The always-erudite Economist magazine recently featured an article detailing the growth of the American public relations business this past year – in contrast to falling revenues in marketing and advertising. The Economist folks attribute this boost to a number of factors, including: a spate of high-profile corporate scandals; the explosion of social media; and, PR’s expansion into specialized fields like web projects and event management. An interesting side theme in the article is the increasing blurriness between PR, advertising, web firms and other agencies as evolving technology – notably the boom of social media and online commerce – forces consultants to stake out new ground and learn or buy new capabilities.

From my perspective, what’s missing in this analysis is the strong demand for counsel and support for internal communications. All of the developments listed by The Economist are also relevant for employee audiences – particularly the increasing use of digital technology to help communication and collaboration within organizations. In many cases, the corporate intranet is at the nexus of these discussions, and often becomes the main platform for information-sharing and networking. And much like the external side of PR, lines are blurring between departments that historically defended their fiefdoms – such as Human Resources, IT, Legal and communications. Presumably this  collaboration has been turbo-charged by the lingering recession, which resulted in millions of lost jobs in the U.S., and created even more need to keep the best talent. Informal discussions with my peers in the communication business suggest there is increasingly robust demand  for consultants who can help companies leverage the new technology to more effectively inform and engage their employees. Given the dramatic gap in technological savvy and appetite for progress across companies, I don’t see that changing in the near future.

The latest Conference Board survey suggests U.S. job satisfaction is at its lowest point in two decades.  Based on the survey, only 45 percent of employees are satisfied with their jobs – down from 61% in 1987. The negative findings cut across all ages and income brackets, and the trend is consistent through  periods of both economic boom and bust. Perhaps the most worrisome finding is that younger workers – notably those under 25 – are the least satisfied.

This survey raises three questions for me. Is this a surprise to anyone? What are the implications for business productivity? And perhaps more importantly, why is this a persistent trend? Let me tackle the third point here.

There are numerous theories on the inexorable erosion of worker satisfaction in corporate America, including: the dissolution of the implicit “compact” between workers and companies through layoffs and cutbacks; lack of executive transparency; widely uneven salaries and perks; and, lack of support/training for beleaguered managers. Ultimately, I would argue, it all comes down to the basics of any relationship: trust and respect.

Despite sustained effort – and presumably some good intentions – many companies still fail to treat their workers with the fundamental behaviors required for a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship. And this goes beyond the obvious proxies for respect – such as pay (which for many is stagnant or down), benefits (being eroded) and development opportunities (more illusion  than reality for many).  For those of us in the communication business, we see constant evidence of this implicit (or sometimes explicit) lack of respect. Many leaders still hesitate to trust their employees with critical information – often using the argument it’s too complex or sensitive – or allow them to access the internet. Few executives seem truly committed to listening to their workers, and seriously considering their questions, comments and  suggestions. In fact, many corporate strategies or plans appear to be hatched and delivered with virtually no input from workers…who are of course the ones who will have to execute the programs. And incredibly, despite mountains of evidence on the importance of managers to employee satisfaction, many leaders still balk at investing resources or time to help their managers communicate with their teams. As a result many corporate programs aimed at employees – ranging from cultural or value campaigns to strategic overhauls – ring hollow and often die on the vine.

I suspect some executives will argue these negative findings are par for the course in a down economy, or that a gap between leaders and workers is an inevitable part of business. I would suggest they go back to the drawing board and start with a genuine commitment to understanding their workers and seeing them as partners. Otherwise, employee satisfaction, commitment and productivity will continue to be elusive.

During a recent visit to NASA‘s Houston Space Center, I kept hearing and seeing a recurring theme: “Failure is not an option”. This was not likely not a coincidence. Though the tours and facilities are presented as a tourist attraction, the folks at NASA clearly want to get out their messages on the value (and potential) of their space agenda. At every event – even fun shows like “Living in Space” – the hosts included a short prologue on the value of space travel and excitement about future missions. Film trailers and promos all had similar language about the value and viability of NASA. During a tour of the Jupiter rocket facility (which was used for all Apollo missions) a retired engineer who worked on the Apollo 11 mission gave an informal demonstration and shared stories on the legendary lunar landing. He certainly appeared genuine, but he was also on message about the huge value and potential of space travel. Finally, it was hard to miss that a good portion of the gift shop was filled with products branded with “Failure is not an option” – the famous statement associated with the Apollo 13 mission (and also the title of a book by NASA scientist Gene Krantz.)  Though there are questions about the origin of the statement, it has apparently become a mantra within NASA, and they are now using the theme to brand themselves with outside stakeholders – including visitors to NASA facilities.

The subtext to this visit, of course, is that NASA continues to fight for increased funding and approval of specific programs, such as the relaunch of moon mission. So the ultimate audience for the messages shared in Houston are for President Obama and legislators. NASA seems to understand that their best approach may be to align their staff under a central theme and educate and engage citizens as their advocates. Might their not-so-subtle message to Washington be that they are able and determined to launch successful missions on budget – or “not fail”?

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