Archive for August, 2009

Memo to RIM: Play Ball by the Rules

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

A number of questions arise about Research in Motion‘s (RIM) bid for the patents of Nortel, Canada’s largest corporate failure.

One thing that is reasonably clear is that RIM, in its last minute bid, was not actually interested in the company itself, having let its bidding opportunity lapse by invoking that it did not want to be subject to the disclosure rules.

RIM claimed that it should have the opportunity to submit a separate and apparently non-transparent bid, for reasons of keeping Nortel in Canadian hands. Nortel was not interested as it has a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value.

Despite some heavy lobbying, Industry minister Clement and Prime Minister Harper showed little interest in reaching down into a straightforward bankruptcy proceeding in front of an American court to test the validity of a Canadian nationalist industrial policy.

The Industry Committee of the House of Commons held some interesting hearings and will make a recommendation, but beyond some grandstanding about “Canadian champions” one should not expect too much from that quarter unless the Opposition decide to ramp up the issue.

So what’s the fuss?  RIM has had patent problems from day one. It has sued aggressively and it has been sued aggressively. A patent firm, NTP, bought up a very old telecom patent and used it to get US$612 million out of RIM.  RIM, one suspects, wants to protect itself from future patent litigation stemming out of Nortel patents, many of which may be wildly and ridiculously broad. Engineers worked for Nortel then for RIM, others for RIM then Nortel. Who knows what knowledge passed between the two companies?

RIM’s fear is that Ericsson could sell the patents or either use them as a legal club or block new patent applications as neither “unique” nor “obvious.”  Ericsson once let RIM ramp up low-level patents into a major business line. Would they do it again?  Things move rapidly and, yes, they probably would under the right conditions, not enabled by protectionist law suits.

To wrap this up and deal with the Canadian nationalist industrial strategy ploy, Ericsson is a respected multinational corporation based in Sweden, most prominently linked now to Sony Corporation of Japan.  Canada is looking for more cooperative economic ties with both Sweden and Japan.  Moreover, for RIM to consolidate its positionas a world leader, it would be counter-productive to pick fights with two significant international markets.  If you aspire to be a global commercial brand, then learn to deal with companies who are, when they come knocking on your door.

At the end of the day, RIM, as is its right, is looking to protect its intellectual property exposure given some tough situations. Fine, good luck to them. But also, good luck to Ericsson in trying to make something valuable out of what is left of Nortel, when no one else, including RIM, was willing to take on the task.

Forty Years after Woodstock, the Buzz Goes On

Friday, August 14th, 2009

What does Woodstock tell us about social networking?

I wasn’t at Woodstock for those “three days of peace and music” in August 1969, but I knew about it.

I was a recent graduate, mopping floors at a White Tower Hamburgers stand in Washington, D.C. I heard from a friend there would be a big concert at Bob Dylan’s farm in New York. He got the Dylan part wrong. My brother, a teenager in New Hampshire, heard about it too. He was one of the thousands who drove there, walked miles from the highway, got in free and slept in the rain.

Neither of us saw the guitar-and-dove Woodstock poster until much later, and neither of us saw any advertising. We heard about the concert from friends, as did many of the 400,000 people who went. When they showed up in Bethel, N.Y., they jammed the New York State Thruway and created a civil emergency.

All this was before Twitter, Facebook, texting or even faxes. Woodstock went viral when viruses just caused colds. So what does this tell us about today’s social networking boom? Two things: first, web-based social networks are effective because they tap a basic human urge to share what you know (whether your facts are right or not); second, sometimes we don’t know our audience until it shows up.

One lesson from Woodstock is that this mammoth flowering of the “counterculture” was a wake-up call to many in a divided America. Those who sang in the rain realized they were part of something big, maybe a movement. Older people found reasons to think these strangely dressed kids weren’t evil. Marketers saw a huge pool of potential customers, people who rejected materialism but would spend money on what they cared about. And politicians found the times really were a-changin’.

Today, social media makes it possible for an organization to plant its flag on the web, start a conversation and wait for people to rally around, creating a community in the process. Communications advisors and marketers used to tell us to identify our audiences, then target them with tailored messages. Now audiences identify themselves as they coalesce around a cause, a band, a brand or a viral video.

No one knew “Woodstock Nation” existed before Aug. 15-18, 1969. After that weekend, it was impossible to ignore for decades. More recently, we’ve seen social media used to generate the grassroots political movement that carried Barrack Obama to the White House. We’ve seen thousands of tweets about the Iranian election. And we’ve seen bloggers stoke fears about U.S. healthcare reform. What other social forces are germinating, waiting for an issue or call to action?

We do know that the communications model built on audience segmentation and manipulation is history, outrun by instant mass interaction. Audiences appear in a tweet and boil up over a blog post. Knowing whether the froth will harden into a political position or enduring brand preference takes time. Meanwhile, if we want an audience for our cause or a market for our brand, we must tell our story and stay tuned for the response. Most important, we must keep listening. Forty years after Woodstock, the buzz—and the beat—goes on.

Note to PMO: Open things up

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Few jobs in Ottawa today are as daunting  and thankless as director of communications for the Prime Minister.  Incumbents are at the helm of a complex and unwieldy machine that every day has to communicate decisions big and small, often in real time and with the knowledge that a misstep could cause the government to topple. 

While it is a natural reflex to want to control information in that environment, the advent of social media and the growing democratization of information make such a strategy difficult to sustain.  A better approach may be to open things up.  With speculation rampant (in Ottawa and nowhere but Ottawa)  over who will be the new PMO director of communications, here’s some free advice to the Chosen One.

1. Delegate 

Don’t try to do it all yourself. Stick to background; let someone else speak on the record and give them some slack; give ministers more latitude on the record (there are some very capable women and men in  cabinet).  Staying off the record will give you more space to work up the details and nuances of a story with reporters. It will also help create  a relationship of trust with reporters who can spot talking points a mile away.  There is real value in an informed media that report on comings and goings in Ottawa with some understanding of context and background–provide it. One of the most successful directors of communications in recent years was Peter Donolo, Jean Chretien’s first D-Comm. Peter rarely spoke on the record, his face was rarely seen in news clips, but his fingerprints were all over countless stories coming out of Ottawa. 

2.  Build relations with the press gallery 

Take the time to really get to know the people that cover your beat.  Understand what they do and respect their profession and their deadlines.  No, they’re not out to topple the government (at least most aren’t). They have difficult jobs made more difficult by the PMO’s tight grip on information.  In your background briefings,  tone down the partisan spin; lighten up; explain the back-story. Not everything the government does must be viewed through the prism of  an upcoming electoral showdown or a battle between good and evil.  

3. Cut ministerial press secretaries some slack

Here’s a good one:  Let ministers’ press secretaries do their job.  I know, I know, the thing with the tape recorder. But ministerial press secretaries should be your front line in communicating the government’s story–if you can’t trust them, who can you trust? Reporters work to tight deadlines made tighter by the advent of online reporting and social media, they need quick and authoritative answers and information to do their job. Minister’s offices should be empowered and equipped to provide that information.  Drop the e-mail answers to e-mailed questions. Encourage press secretaries to speak to reporters and develop their own relations of trust. E-mailed responses should be the exception, not the rule. 

This free advice is worth what it cost, but a more nimble, responsive and personal approach to relations with the media might help the government lead and frame its stories instead of reacting to someone else’s take–an otherwise impossible undertaking in a world of news in 140 characters or less.