Friday, November 17, 2017

Recap of Our Predictions for 2017

We feel it’s not enough to issue predictions for the upcoming year. We also think it’s important to look at how we did with predictions for 2017.

A brief recap – though we predicted a shorter news cycle in 2017, we did not expect it to be this fast/short. Whether or not you’re a news junkie (and if you’re reading this, we assume you are), 2017 has been an unusually exhausting year. Even generally apolitical Jimmy Fallon envisioned Halloween nightmare that entailed being unable to escape the news cycle. There were a lot of stories this year that we (nor anyone else) predicted – a list of so many, mostly political (which we avoid), we are not going to list them here. We will say that we did not expect the solar eclipse to generate so much coverage.

One of the big themes late in the year was the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in Hollywood, politics, the media, and pretty much every field; we hope awareness of and concern regarding sexual harassment continues to be a public conversation that will make it difficult for those perpetrating the harassment to get away with it. We also hope that it will be easier for victims to be believed and supported.

Here are our assessment of our predictions for this year.

  1. Fake news won’t fade in 2017. 
Unfortunately, we were right about this one. “Fake news” is too broad a term says Claire Wardle, Strategy and Research Director of First Draft News, a nonprofit research group housed at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Wardle told CNN’s Brian Stelter on his “Reliable Sources” podcast that there are “three different types of problems:
    • Mis-information: “the kind of false information disseminated online by people who don't have a harmful intent.”
    • Dis-information: “false information created and shared by people with harmful intent. False news reports around presidential candidates ahead of the 2016 election fall into this category, and so does their social media amplification from malicious accounts.”
    • Mal-information: “the sharing of ‘genuine’ information with the intent to cause harm. That includes some types of leaks, harassment and hate speech online.”

Keep in mind: the general definition of “fake news” tends to be news the speaker doesn’t agree with – it’s actual truth, notwithstanding.

We think Wardle’s definitions are useful to understand there are flavors of fake. But we don’t think the distinctions will become mainstream because currently there isn’t much consensus on facts (or “facts”), with one person’s dis-information (harmful intent) being someone else’s mis-information (false information passed along with non-harmful intent).

Meanwhile, we said it will be difficult for social media sites to combat the spread of fake news, especially because they profit from fake news.

Grade: A+.

  1. Big Social will evolve in 2017, but not necessarily in a good way. 
Unfortunately, we were right about this, too. We said, Twitter’s future “is very much in doubt,” and that continues to be true. We said that Facebook is facing problems about fake news, and that was proven true in November’s Congressional hearings. But we left out Google – oops. We said, “all of this turmoil will benefit Snapchat, which is already is favored by the millennials,” and Instagram, and we think that’s right – butt we overstated things when we predicted that SnapChat will be the dominant social media platform by 2018. We also predicted “LinkedIn will thrive as long as it remains (as we think it will) apolitical,” and that’s been true.
Grade: B+

  1. The media cycle will speed up. 
This certainly was true in 2017. While President Trump’s use of Twitter to announce official government policy certainly is a major reason, it’s just one factor. Another: a recent Pew Research Center report found that, “About a quarter of all U.S. adults (26%) get news from two or more social media sites, up from 15% in 2013 and 18% in 2016.” So expect this trend to continue into 2018 and beyond. (This is not necessarily a good thing but was predicted in the early 1980s by futurist Alvin Toffler.)
Grade: A+

  1. The gig economy and the sharing economy will continue to go mainstream.
Independent contractors or contingent employees – as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) used to refer to them – now comprise an estimated 30% of the U.S. workforce. The BLS and U.S. Census Bureau plan to do a better job of tracking the gig economy. In the meantime, we were right when we said, “We need to more accurately define the gig and the sharing economies… to gain an accurate portrait of overall U.S. economy as well as develop appropriate policies regarding taxes, healthcare and social services.” Both the New York Times and Wall St. Journal validated our predictions.

Grade: A

  1. IoT will continue to open the door to cyberattacks.
This was not as big an issue in 2017 as we expected. That does not mean the threat is over. As the Internet of Things (IoT) does go mainstream, cyberattacks remain a significant threat – though likely more targeted to companies than to the average home. But overall, we overstated this.

Grade: C

We will post more of our annual recap in the next few days.

Friday, September 8, 2017

More on the Death of Retail

On July 17, we asked if Americans were seeing the death of traditional retail. In its July 31st issue, Time Magazine asked the same question. In its "The Death and Life of the Shopping Mall," Time not only shared some scary statistics -- like, "This year alone, an estimated 8,600 stores could close, according to industry estimates, many of them brand-name anchor outlets" -- but raised a point we didn't think of.

While we touched on the disruption to the commercial real estate market, we didn't discuss (except among ourselves) the impact of Amazonification on small towns. When local retailers can't keep up with Amazon (even as Amazon opens brick-and-mortar bookstores and supermarkets, now Whole Foods), they will close up, resulting in a problem for local towns from a tax revenue and employment perspective.

But it gets worse. As Time points out, many stores, including local malls, are not just places where people work or shop. As Time notes, "The shopping mall has been where a hug swath of middle-class America went for far more than shopping. It was the home of first jobs and blind dates, the place for family photos and ear piercing, where goths and grandmothers could somehow walk through the same doors and find something they all liked."

Retail can be a gathering place. They can act as town centers, giving people a reason to gather, not just to spend, and to work. Even if current retail staff switch from sales to warehouse, even if some don't lose their jobs, their communities will lose something important.

Without local stores and malls, where do people gather on bad weather days? Sure, restaurants, pubs, etc. will likely remain but other stores will have a tougher time. And that will have further implications on small communities.

Perhaps we're giving up something in exchange for efficiency and cheaper prices.

Anyway, check out the Time article. This will continue to be a trend we monitor because its implications are significant.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Expect to see more about "Universal Basic Income"

We usually save our trends and predictions for the end of the year but we wanted to set a reminder for ourselves for later by discussing a new bubbling policy trend, which is something we tend to avoid.

We'll make an exception for Universal Basic Income, which is getting some consistent attention at top-tier media even as it isn't setting the world on fire. According to the New York Times, "The basic idea behind it is that handing out unconditional cash to all citizens, employed or not, would help reduce poverty and inequality, and increase individual liberty."

It's being tried in a few places, including Finland, and the reason is that artificial intelligence (or, if you prefer, machine learning -- the terms of often used interchangeably), automation (also known as robotics but could also include driverless trucks and cars) will irrevocably change the nature of work.

Combined with the gig economy, those other trends will redefine what it means to be able to earn a living.

If drones are better than humans at spotting sharks, and can protect lives that way, they certainly may replace us in other jobs and capacities. 

This is where UBI comes in. It gives people some money to live. It's not welfare but would help to mitigate being pushed into lower-wage jobs if your job is replaced by a robot.

As we approach Labor Day, we're not going to debate the pros or cons of UBI. Our point is, however, that UBI is likely to discussed more as we head into 2018 because fears of being replaced by AI and robots is growing -- see our trends for 2018, to be issued in Dec. -- and we think that UBI is a topic that will be discussed by people who aren't afraid of the rise of the machine age but still want to help insulate others in what could be a "painful economic transition," as Fortune describes it.

We will write up more in Dec. but in the meantime, let us know what you think.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Accuracy Checklist to Improve Professionalism of a world of fake news

Just a quick post, more as a reminder for us in the future, too. "The Accuracy Checklist for Content Marketers," by Ragan's PR Daily, is very helpful. Worth keeping it somewhere that you can refer back to it.

(Click to enlarge.)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Is Traditional Retail Dead?

In Manhattan, there are always a bunch of stores -- aimed at tourists -- that hang huge banners proclaiming "Going Out of Business Sale -- huge discounts."

Some of those stores have been in business, it seems, for decades.

The overall retail sector may have a lot in common with those stores.

According to "The Death of Retail is Greatly Exaggerated,"

As of early May, S&P Global Market Intelligence tallied a record 18 retail bankruptcies, al­ready matching the total for all of 2016. The carnage is on full display in the new Fortune 500 list: Household names like Macy’s, Sears, and Kohl’s all took tumbles down the list, as did other struggling chains like GameStop (GME, -0.37%) (falling 19 spots, to 321) and Dillard’s (DDS, -0.94%) (which fell 37, to 417).

We began seeing/predicting the fact that retail would go through a rough 2017 back in Q1, and feel that it is a big issue because:

  • The U.S. retail sector contributes $2.6 trillion annually to U.S. GDP, according to the NRF, approximately 15% of the total economy. That includes retailing companies along with other companies that support the retail industry, such as logistics, including trucking and shipping; warehousing; construction and maintenance; agriculture; manufacturing; technology; and health care. Basically, if the retail sector takes a hit, the rest of the economy will suffer.

Does this mean the retail sector is dying? Not really. The parts of the retail sector is somewhat cyclical and other parts are very sensitive to external factors -- like the weather or other trends. So a downward trend, by itself, is not necessarily troubling. And some retailers continue to do well, including Walmart, Home Depot, Costco, TJ Maxx and Best Buy, according to Fortune. 

What is troubling is that there's a fundamental shift going on, towards online and mobile. Bricks-and-mortar stores may no longer be about buying but sampling and community, according to another Fortune article. Instead, retail may seek to leverage: "newly available real estate to experiment with boutiques, showrooms, and pop-up shops." If that trend continues, it will mean a further decline in the number of full-time retail jobs and a further decline for companies that support retailers.

While reshaping retail to better meet the needs of consumer is good news, and more efficient, that's not good news for the long-term health of the sector. A lot of retailers that sell fashion commodities such as basic Ts and jeans will likely not survive in an e-commerce playing field. 

And one more thing, which has been overlooked by retail reporters: According to the NRF, 98.6% of businesses employ fewer than 50 people.  In a world in which most retail transactions take place online or via an app, these local mom-and-pop stores don't stand a chance. They may not have the skills and resources to move their business online, and may not be able to compete on price. They won't be able to survive the Amazonification of retail. This could decimate small retailers and small towns around the country.

That's going to be a big story the rest of 2017 and going forward.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Is Your Organization Social Media Responsive?

What seems like a long time ago, the news cycle was about 24 hours -- from the time "news" happened to when it would appear in newspapers and then on TV and radio. (At that time, cable news didn't really exist.)

Now, the news cycle is probably an hour -- tops -- before it hits social media.

It used to be that if you were in a crisis, you had hours to assess and determine how to respond.

Hours is a luxury.

Six years ago, during the Arab Spring, Kenneth Cole, a clothing designer also known for provocative ad campaigns, posted a provocative tweet in the morning and didn't check back until late in the afternoon when he realized Twitter was in an uproar because he didn't update or apologize in the initial blow back.

The fact that he was in meetings and busy was seen as no excuse.

Companies no longer have hours -- they didn't even have that back in 2011 -- to contemplate a response.

We see the implications of this everyday, whether it is a tweet rant from Trump or a poorly executed tweet from a brand or media property.

Unfortunately, most companies aren't social media responsive, by which we mean: able to respond quickly to a problem involving them on social media.

Here are some steps to consider:

  • Don't rely on apps that post content to also alert you to a potential problem. Posting content is very different from monitoring and generating alerts. Consider subscribing to an alert service so that you don't find out about a problem only the next time you log on to the app. Too many services -- even Twitter -- do a better job of capturing mentions without doing a good job alerting you. (We're not going to mention specific potential suppliers since some of these companies and a lot of their functionality can change very quickly.)
  • Make sure appropriate trusted people within your organization have the username and passwords for all major social media platforms, and are comfortable posting onto them. Too often, the login information for a company's social media accounts are held by different people so that if a problem happens, and the person managing Twitter is in an all-day off-site, there's no one else who can access the site to try to put out a fire. Sometimes, we've seen, the person in charge of, say, Facebook, has left the company without designating someone as the administrator, only as someone who can post. It's important that trusted people can back up the main driver if that driver is out of the office. Also, for this reason, it's important to know when key people -- whether it's the social media guru or the executive to be quoted -- are on vacation or otherwise unreachable for long periods.
  • Do scenario planning to practice how to respond. One hopes to never have to use a crisis plan but it really is helpful to develop one, even if just for social media. In this case, you would look at likely areas for concern -- could it be a customer complaint? A rogue tweet (meant, perhaps, for someone's personal account)? A hacked account? A legal issue? What should you do to address this issues? Without a scenario planning, you may not have an idea of what to do when seconds count.
By the way, the same should be done with a look to how to respond to the media. 

For example, there used to be something known as a "day-two" story -- a story that provided a different aspect of the story getting media's attention. On the first day, the news breaks. On day two, one might pitch a story that provides more context to yesterday''s breaking news.

As with everything else, the time to develop and pitch day-two stories has shortened considerably. Now known as "news jacking," the idea of responding to breaking news and inserting your company in an appropriate and positive way, you need to respond with a contextual pitch within hours, not days. The context to the story that former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick started hitting as soon as the initial stories began hitting. 

While it's true that stories still appeared about a week after he was pushed out, the names of the executives who were being quoted were big name celebrity executives like SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff and former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. 

If you want to be able to position yourself as an expert to the media on a breaking news topic, you need to respond much faster than you used to in order to get coverage.

Of course, you still have time to write a blog article for your corporate blog (like this one) after the fact but that's not the same as being quoted in a reputation-making outlet, blog or podcast. Your team and the executive(s) in charge have to have a sense of urgency.

Without that urgency, you may be able to respond but you won't truly be responsive.

As a caveat: Not every organization can or should move that quickly. But we're speaking to those organization whose marketing director is looking for quick hits by news jacking without providing the resources or the ability to move as quickly as you have to secure coverage.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Internal Communications When an Acquisition Deal Does Not Get Completed

A few years ago, I wrote an article, "Three Stages of Merger Communication" for IABC's online newsletter. Recently, I was asked if I had any advice when a merger does not go through. Here are some thoughts, that were originally published in CommPro.Biz.

It seems to go unnoticed but a portion of announced merger or acquisition deals do not go through. Reasons range from regulatory issues, such as antitrust issues; management retention issues (the length of time they are to remain in current or similar positions, non-competes for senior management, etc.) as well a pricing issues, working capital requirements, deal-related and non-deal-related lawsuits, and other due diligence issues.

After a company has announced it has come to an agreement to purchase another company, typically the CEO and management team of the acquirer will convene a town hall meeting at the target company’s headquarters to address employees to explain the rationale for the deal – why the two companies will be stronger together than on their own – and what changes new employees can expect.

If the deal falls through, the target CEO and management team need to again meet with employees and discuss why the deal fell through (with input from legal counsel). Management shouldn’t delay getting in front of employees because they’ll already have a sense of whether or not the acquisition or merger is working out. Again, with input from legal counsel and the company’s communications staff and advisers, management needs to address the following:
  • How to address any rumors that might be circulating prior to the official announcement that the deal fell through. There certainly will be rumors flying around.
  • How to address the company’s future. Management needs to discuss its new road map – will it continue as a standalone or will it search for a new, better partner.

o   If the future is to remain a standalone, management needs to explain why that makes sense in light of the fact that it had recently been ready to be acquired or to merge with another company.
o   If the future is to find another partner, management needs to discuss what lessons it learned, what it will now look for in a new partner.

Mostly, employees want to know – and management needs to reassure them – that the company’s future is assured, that employees should be focused on the future, proud of what they will continue to build.

Though this is not an internal communications issue, management needs to also reassure customers, partners, vendors, investors and other stakeholders – as well as current and prospective employees – that the company is stable and has a future. This may be a challenge if the target company had stated during the initial acquisition announcement that a primary reason for the deal was to access the necessary capital to expand. So management will need to find a way to credibly walk back that reason.

Mostly, the once-target company needs to be prepared that others may start circling the company, looking to offer a lower price because the target is considered damaged (since the deal did not go through – even if the problems was with the acquiring company). It is crucial to be able to discuss a stable, strong future.

Some things to keep in mind:
  • Don’t wait too long to announce that the deal will not move forward. While no company, especially publicly held companies, want to address rumors, management needs to get ahead of the news rather than for it to come from outside. If you wait too long, you’ve lost control of the narrative.
  • Be clear on what you’re communicating. Your answer needs to be consistent and accurate. It undermines employees’ faith in management if conflicting messages are offered up by management.
  • The almost-acquiring company and the nearly acquired company will continue to have different goals at this point, especially since people may want to point blame to one party or another (which can include management teams, attorneys, bankers, etc.) While communications teams of both companies worked together to prepare for the initial announcement to coordinate priorities, next steps and goals – that almost won’t be the case here. So one company may want to go back to reporters who originally covered the announcement while the other company may want to let the news fade. Ultimately, you need to be professional and act in the best interests of your company.
  • There could be lawsuits as a result of the failed deal, certainly from shareholders and possibly from one company suing the other. If there is a lawsuit, the company needs to reassure employees so they don’t get distracted by the lawsuit (and any coverage of that suit) so they can stay focused on the company.
  • Internal communications needs to help reassure employees – rather than give them reasons to bolt to another company, which could include  the former acquirer. As you develop your communications plan, keep asking: Does this address employees’ concerns and fears? Does it speak to them in a way that seems authentic (as opposed to legalese, which does not reassure parties of either the first or second part).
  • Don’t ignore employees (or customers, partners, vendors, investors and other stakeholders) and hope everything will be okay. Now, more than ever, they need to feel that management has things under control and can deliver on a steady, stable future.