Too big to fail?

I never expected it to happen so quickly.

Almost every day I am deep in the trenches of public opinion, helping a wide variety of clients navigate the perilous waters of brand reputation management, crisis communications and message development designed to garner strong public support.

But last night it got a bit personal, and I tried a social media experiment.

urlI had an issue with my mobile phone provider, AT&T, one of the nation’s largest corporations. I spent more than an hour on the phone with their customer service representatives, haggling over a bill that was grossly out of balance. You can find the details here.

The company failed on several fronts. First, they did not live up to the promises they made during prior calls about the same issue. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, they let me off the phone without asking me if I was satisfied.

I waited 24 hours and then launched an all-out social media battle with the company. I dragged their competitors into the fray. I hounded their Facebook page and chased them on Twitter. But it all ended rather abruptly.

I never had the chance to execute the second phase of my PR battle because they smartly surrendered and resolved the issue to my satisfaction.

I am just one person, but I used my social media connections to leverage my message. The results were clear. It took fewer than 24 hours for them to surrender to my one-man war on the blogosphere.

This was all preventable. AT&T spent far more than the $1,000 they claimed I owed. They also suffered as others jumped on my bandwagon, further diminishing the company’s brand and reputation.

There are lessons here.

1.) No company is too big to fail.

2.) Do not underestimate the power of social media.

3.) Your brand and reputation are your most important assets and must be guarded.

AT&T ought to take a lesson from companies like AVIS, which authorizes its front-counter rental agents to do whatever it takes to resolve customer complaints; or LL Bean, a company that built a reputation for the quality of its products by honoring their replacement for any reason whatsoever. Or, GWI, a locally owned Biddeford-based ISP and telecommunications provider that always goes the extra mile to make customer satisfaction a top priority.

Fletcher Kittredge of Biddeford started GWI with vision and commitment, but he also had to endure many, many battles with larger telecomm giants. Fletcher proved that you can compete with anyone by focusing on the quality or your product and developing strong relationships with your customers.

AT&T, by comparison, is a multi-billion dollar corporation. Why is it so hard for such a large company to understand or appreciate the value of customer satisfaction and loyalty?

Dancin’ with myself

echo chamberHow do they do it?

I mean . . . really? How do they stay together, despite their almost polar opposite political views?

I’m referring, of course, to James Carville and Mary Matalin, two political strategists who have gained national prominence for their sage political advice and their respective close relationships to former presidents and aspiring politicians across the political spectrum.

Carville is a passionate, outspoken and often controversial leader of the political left. Matalin is a passionate, outspoken and often controversial leader of the political right.

And yet, despite their divergent political views, they are married and are able to find respect and admiration for each other.

I mention this because of an experience I encountered earlier this week in the sphere of social media, where the subject of politics can be a dominating topic, allowing just about anyone to espouse their political views while attracting commentary from their “friends.”

While social media platforms such as Facebook have become powerful tools to promote various forms of political commentary, there is a growing concern that they are only reinforcing our own, pre-conceived political ideology and creating massive “echo chambers” of political discourse.

With tools such as Twitter, Facebook and cable television, we today have immeasurable ways to filter our news, information and opinion. More than ever before, we can more easily gravitate to our own pre-selected sources of information, a process that robs us of the opportunity to question, challenge and discern the validity of our opinions and viewpoints.

I am guilty of this practice, but I do try to absorb contrary viewpoints, believing that it is a valuable process for expanded learning.

I am a self-described political junkie, and there are few things I enjoy more than debating public policy issues. My real life friends know this about me; I am a born-again contrarian, willing to switch sides when necessary if only to provoke and debate hot-button political issues.

My core political philosophy mostly follows the Libertarian model. I am pro-choice and pro-gun, yet I generally abhor abortions and try to remind others than the Second Amendment includes the words “well regulated.” I voted in favor of same-sex marriage. I am a fiscal conservative who appreciates the need for sound public spending and government regulation. I like renewable energy projects, but believe global climate change is being exploited for political purposes. My Facebook friends span the political spectrum, from hard left Democrats to hard-right Republicans.

In essence, I like to believe that I belong to the Common Sense party. This position earns me no respect whatsoever from those who have staked out much more stark positions. Some members of the GOP call people like me a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Some on the left, describe me as a hypocrite and a sell-out.

But I doubt very much that I am the only one who vacillates between the political poles. I am a firm believer in the political center and the notion that the “middle” is the most important demographic for any election.

Now, back to earlier this week. A real-life friend, a woman I very much respect and admire, threatened to block me from her news feed on Facebook.

Her rationale for this action: “Do you ever post anything that isn’t provocative?”

The subject at hand was last week’s announcement that helped clear the way for women to serve in combat roles. I think this was a good decision, yet I also asked whether women should now be required to register with the Selective Service, just as my sons will have to do when they turn 18.

The majority of the feedback my comment received indicated that most of my friends feel that “fair is fair,” and what’s “good for the goose is good for the gander.” But still, I was bothered that someone would threaten to block my opinions only because they did not align with hers.

My response was almost immediate, but not very well thought-out.

“I enjoy rigorous debate and alternative points of view; it’s why I like social media because it allows me to be exposed and digest opinions other than those I may have already conjured. I have “friends” of all political persuasions; sometimes they drive me bonkers and I’m sure I rattle their cages BUT through that discourse I gain valuable insight.

“I never want my news to be single-focused; I appreciate diversity…including diversity of thought and opinion; and I sincerely value your friendship. Block me if you must, but please know that would be a big loss for me. My previous career [as a journalist and political commentator] was geared toward provoking to inspire thinking. I don’t like echo chambers; and I have learned much from my Dem friends, and always appreciate the challenges to my thinking.”

In closing, my concerns about the proliferation of echo chamber discourse is shared by several academics and other thought leaders (see the links below). I also hope that this issue of echo chamber mentality will become part of a much larger conversation.

Step Outside Your Own Echo Chamber

The Echo Chamber Effect: New York Times

On the flip side: “Echo Chamber” is just a derogatory term for “community”

The Crying Game

A couple of days ago, an exhausted and emotional President Obama visited privately with some of his campaign workers and reportedly got pretty choked up. At one point, the president’s tears began to flow.

For some reason, the White House decided to release this rare footage, despite the fact that it was recorded at an event the media was not allowed to attend.

The reaction? Pundits across the globe praised the president’s candor, his show of genuine appreciation. In fact, President Obama’s crying video has gone viral, attracting more than 1.7 million hits on the campaign’s You Tube channel.

Now let’s compare this to the public reaction from just two years ago, when Republican House Speaker John Boehner cried while being interviewed on 60 Minutes about his new role as Speaker of the House…..well, you remember, right?

Here’s what Bill Maher had to say:

“Did you see the new speaker of the House John Boeher cry? He cries a lot. Mr. Boehner you’ve got to stop crying. For one, your tan is going to run. And what’s he going to do if he loses next time? Put on a Bjork record and cut himself?”

Over the last few days, media pundits and amateur pundits on Facebook have been telling us that it is time for cooperation. It is time for the GOP to brush off its brutal losses and begin working with the Democrats. To steal a phrase, It’s time to put people before politics.

For my part, I am trying. I really am. Check the letter I wrote to President Obama on the day after the election.

But it’s damn hard to accept the media’s blatant hypocrisy. Furthermore, why is it so bad for a man… a strong man, or any man for that matter– to cry? Is it a sign of weakness?

Both Obama and Boehner were captured in honest moments of raw emotional expression. The ability to appropriately express your emotion…whether it’s grief, joy or some hidden pain is generally a sign of good mental health. Do we really want our nation’s leaders bottling up their emotions?

Now, here’s a test. Watch this video and see if it makes you cry….even just a little. I dare ya.

My friends and family know that I cannot watch this scene without crying like a baby. If I were a Democrat, I suppose that would be an endearing quality. But if I am a Republican, I best prepare for some intense criticism.

It will be a lot easier for our nation to heal, if we can just move beyond some of the hypocrisy.

We love dirty laundry

It’s a strange time for the newspaper industry — especially here in Maine, where we recently witnessed several seismic shifts in the media landscape.

Hedge fund financier and philanthropist Donald Sussman said he wanted to save a Maine institution and will keep his hands off the wheel of editorial decisions. (Bangor Daily News Photo)

Yesterday it was announced that Donald Sussman’s investor group will now own a 75 percent stake in the company that publishes the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Waterville Morning Sentinel and the Maine Sunday Telegram.

That’s all fine and dandy, except for one small twist: Sussman’s wife just happens to be Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and she shows no sign of leaving Maine’s First Congressional District anytime in the near future.

Sure, Sussman says he has only the best  of  intentions, and adamantly vows that he will not interfere with the newspapers’ editorial process. Yeah, okay…whatever. For the record, I actually have a full-head of hair.

I was lucky to work for a family-owned group of weekly newspapers. David & Carolyn Flood gave me a very long leash, but I was never foolish enough to forget that I was on a leash. The Courier was not my paper.

There were many times when my editorials and opinion columns came nowhere close to matching the opinions of my employers, but they sighed…rolled their eyes…and kept giving me a paycheck. For better or worse, I was promoted three times during the seven years I worked for David and Carolyn.

My salary steadily increased and the newspaper thrived. The Courier was the paper of record in Biddeford and Saco, but I always knew I had a boss…heck, sometimes I even paid attention to David.

But all good things come to an end, and it remains to be seen whether the Press Herald or smaller weekly papers such as the Courier will continue to survive in this brave new world of digital media.

Regardless of the financial implications of producing dead-tree news, the Press Herald and its sister publications have crossed a murky line, despite the financial necessity of the decision.

It’s a tough call. Do you fold, and allow a historical institution to become nothing more than a memory? Do you surrender and send hundreds of employees to the unemployment line?

Or do you hold your nose and make a deal with the devil?

I’m sure Donald Sussman is a nice enough guy. I’ve never met him. But regardless of his Boy Scout oath to be ethical, every story that involves his wife, her decisions or her detractors will now be tainted with lingering doubt.

In November 2010, the Portland Press Herald surprised many of its readers by endorsing Republican Dean Scontras over Pingree during her campaign for a second term. If that happened now, we would have to wonder whether such a stance was motivated by an editorial board trying to make a public statement about its objectivity.

Journalists bristle when discussing ethical standards, so I do not envy the dilemma now faced by the reporters and editors at Maine Today Media.  No matter what lines they feed themselves before going to bed each night, each one of them also knows that they also are on a leash . . . a very tenuous leash.

But before you criticize reporters being on a leash, consider the plight earlier this month for the more than 50 employees at the Village Soup newspaper who were laid off when that group of weekly newspapers suddenly closed.

Being off the leash feels good, right up until you discover that you no longer have a bone to chew.

Extra, Extra! This is fargin’ war!

Newspaper wars are the best kind of wars.

Typically, when newspapers go to war they are actually engaging in fierce competition.

That competition benefits both advertisers and readers.

In 2001, folks in the Biddeford-Saco area likely had no idea how lucky they were.

For a community with a population of less than 40,000, the region was being served by two daily newspapers and two weekly publications.

The Portland Press Herald had a full complement of reporters, photographers and editors stationed at their bureau on Main Street.

The Journal Tribune was still winning Maine Press Association awards and was the breeding ground for many of Maine’s best and most well-known reporters and editors, including Jack Beaudoin, Dennis Bailey, Lee Burnett, Bob Saunders, Gail Lemley and Mo Mehlsak.

David Flood, meanwhile, was busy building a small empire of weekly publications that stretched across York and Cumberland counties. The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier was the company’s  flagship publication.

A short while later, Current Publishing was formed and began distributing the Sun Chronicle, a weekly newspaper based in Saco.

Reporters, such as Kelley Bouchard of the Press Herald; and Josh Williamson of the Journal Tribune, were scrapping  for stories with yours truly.

Good times, baby! Real good times…for the journalists, and especially for the communities they were covering.

Flood was one of the original downtown cheerleaders. He immersed himself in the community. He was fiercely competitive. Still is.

I served as editor for all of Flood’s weekly publications, and published All Along the Watchtower in the Courier. I was fiercely competitive. Still am.

But the shifting economic landscape dealt a serious blow to the region’s media outlets.

The advent of internet journalism was just kicking into high gear. Remember, in 2001 Facebook meant your got your nose crushed in a big encyclopedia.

Twitter was something that city councilors did whenever former mayor Jim Grattelo walked into a room; and a “blog” was a stain comprised of 1/3 snot, 1/3 ketchup and 1/3 ink on your new shirt.

Today, those newspapers are barely more than shadows of their former selves.

The Journal Tribune was once again sold, this time to a Pennsylvania-based media conglomerate. The staff changed dramatically. Most of the institutional knowledge was sent packing in efforts to trim the bottom line.

Reporters were expected to do more with less, a trend that was happening all over the country and shows no signs of slowing.

Meanwhile, the Portland Press Herald was having its own financial problems. The paper was later sold (and more recently sold again). The Biddeford bureau was closed. Reporters from the state’s largest daily no longer attended council meetings in City Hall.

I left the Courier in 2005. Eric Wicklund, a veteran reporter at the Journal Tribune, was hired to replace me. That was the first sign that things were getting bad. A daily reporter was taking a job at a weekly.

Wicklund lasted a few months. Several editors came and went at the Courier.

In 2007, Flood sold his weekly newspapers to the same company that purchased the Journal Tribune and the Brunswick Times Record. He then started a political career.

David Flood

The Courier continued to shrink. Its new owners are not involved in the community. Reporters cover City Hall meetings from their homes, watching the meetings on television.

The Journal Tribune is running stories from Biddeford City Council meetings as much as six days later on their front-page. Why hurry? Who’s gonna scoop them?

Flash forward five years, and Flood is getting back into the game, stirring controversy by stepping down from the city council to restart his newspaper career.

On Thursday, the American Journal, one of the newspapers owned by Current Publishing, reported that Flood was tapped to be the publisher of its York County sister newspapers.

For the record, back in the old days (before Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook) I worked at the American Journal with Kate Irish Collins, who is now a senior reporter at the Chronicle and about to become one of Flood’s newest employees) Yes, it is a small, incestuous pool . . . this local journalism thing.

Flood, who also still owns the building that houses the Courier and its sister publications, told the Courier’s owners last week they would need to find a new home.

Apparently, Flood plans to move his newest publications into the building that he owns across the street from City Hall: the place where he built the Courier into a strong weekly paper will now be the place where he works to diminish the Courier.

This news did not go over well with the Courier’s employees, many of whom are former Journal Tribune employees.

It turns out that the Courier staff will soon be housed in the Journal Tribune’s Alfred Street headquarters, where they will ostensibly be one happy family, competing against a common enemy: David Flood.

Political implications

Meanwhile, Flood’s sudden resignation from the City Council has sparked other controversy, most notably from the chair of the Downtown Development Commission (DDC), Brian Keely.

Flood won his seat in November and now, less than 90 days later, will be leaving, forcing Mayor Alan Casavant to appoint a new councilor.

Flood is expected to formally announce his resignation at Tuesday’s city council meeting, but Keely is publicly questioning Flood’s motives.

Now here’s where it gets tricky:

Keely’s wife, Molly Lovell Keely, is the editor of the Courier, one of those people who will soon be looking for boxes, packing tape and a U-Haul.

Keely’s father, Vincent, ran and lost a bid for one of the  city council’s at-large spots in November.

Another member of the DDC is Grady Sexton. Grady’s son, Bill Sexton, ran and lost against Flood for the Ward 7 Council seat, finishing second in a three-way race that included Patricia Whitehurst.

On the DDC’s Facebook page, Keely, chair of the DDC, wrote: “… I don’t have any problem with Flood doing what he loves. I do have a big issue with the fact he ran for city office, knowing full well, he would take this new job and would have to resign as councilor. I believe he made fools of the people who supported him…”

Keely also compares Flood to Kim Khardashian, and then opines that Flood is simply trying to prop his ego after losing a 2009 mayoral bid to Joanne Twomey.

I could go into all the political maneuverings, pointing out that those who supported the idea of a racino and a third-term for Twomey are politically at odds with Mayor Alan Casavant and David Flood.

I could opine that Casavant ought to appoint someone from that political camp to fill Flood’s vacancy…. say Bill Sexton or someone else who lives in Ward Seven….but I want to watch a bit more….

They say that all politics are local; and I say local politics are some of the best politics.

Throw in a newspaper war, and well, … it just doesn’t get much better for a guy who blogs about local politics and media.

Somebody start the popcorn. It’s going to be a hell of a show….

And maybe, just maybe, the newspaper business will come back to life….it’s just too bad it took a war.

An American Girl

I like Sarah Palin.

I can almost hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from my liberal friends, but…there it is . . . I said it. I put it out on the world-wide web for all to see. You betcha…

It feels good to have that off my chest, sort of like finally admitting that you are powerless over alcohol, corn dogs or soft porn — and are willing, even if only reluctantly, to accept a Higher Power to help you live one day at a time.

Well, she was an American girl, Raised on promises…

I like Sarah Palin, but there a lots of reasons why I don’t want to ever see her occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.(Liberal Democrats, please pause here and catch your breath)

So, how can someone like me “like” Sarah Palin and simultaneously be terrified by the idea of her sitting in the Oval Office, clutching for the suitcase with the ICBM codes?

It’s such a simple lesson in human psychology, yet it apparently lies beyond the grasp of most pundits, late-night talk-show hosts and even seasoned Democratic strategists. I like Sarah Palin because she is just like me.

She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there was a little more to life, somewhere else…

From my perspective, this is the disconnect that seems to fuel an ever expanding divide in American politics. In fact, it’s safe to say that Sarah was the spark, which ignited the roar of the Tea Party…those angry folks with their “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. I know some of these people…these Tea Party malcontents. In fact, one of my closest friends is a devout Tea Partier.

I asked him why he likes Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. His response?

“Not many people want to look at the facts,” he explained. “Our national debt is crushing, and it cannot be blamed on any one political party. We are driving off a cliff of spending, and Americans are busy on Facebook, contemplating their own navels and unwilling or perhaps unable to comprehend the madness that has become our federal government.”

After all it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to . . .

In his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank discusses how many so-called Red States that were once bastions of Democratic power became the epicenter of resentment against Washington, D.C., academia, the media and all those other elites.

Recent political discourse, Frank says, shifted dramatically from traditional talking points that relied upon economic well-being, strong national defense and the virtues of democracy toward a new focus on hot-button cultural issues, including gay marriage, gun ownership, abortion and so-called “traditional family values,” which are as hard to define as the word irony.

Yeah, and if she had to die, she had one little promise, she was gonna keep

Palin has tapped into that anger and resentment better than anyone else in the last two decades. To her followers and supporters, the relationship is myopic and not sparingly ego-centric.

Sarah Palin is just like me, they say….although not always with such clarity.

Despite that painfully obvious and rather narcissistic response, too many Democrats sneer at the very mention of her name.

Oh yeah, all right. Take it easy, baby. Make it last all night…

Sarah Palin hunts, she shops for diapers at Wal-Mart. Her vernacular is combination of west Kentucky slang laced with Detroit rhythm and swing.

Watching the roaring crowds cheer her name, a housewife can almost imagine herself running for president while her NASCAR-watching husband cracks a beer and admires Sarah for many different reasons.

Face it, the woman looks damn good in a bikini. And maybe that is why so many of Sarah’s most voracious critics are women. Maybe not, but it’s not an original theory of mine.

The more Sarah is attacked, the stronger she seemingly becomes, not only to her base but her own inner strength and eagerness to go in swinging is only fueled by snide remarks, whether they come from Katie Couric or John Stewart.

Sarah Palin is class warfare defined. The more that middle America feels disenfranchised, the greater the odds that Sarah will be thrust even further into the stratosphere of popularity and adoration.

Otherwise normal, rational and level-headed people come completely unglued at even the mention of her name. They don’t talk about the values and importance of their own political ideals and policy goals. Instead, they attack Palin’s lack of education, her vernacular and her lack of sophistication.

They might as well drive into a trailer park and start swinging at toddlers with a baseball bat.

You don’t help someone see your point of view by giving them two black eyes.

When you attack Sarah Palin, you attack everything she has hijacked for her self-promotional agenda.

The vast majority of Americans do not consider themselves elite, yet few people are willing to stand up and proclaim their lack of cognitive reasoning skills, basic geography or limited vocabularies.

Sarah Palin is an American girl, and when you attack her, her beliefs or her simpleton viewscape of the world, you are attacking God, the Bible, gun ownership, simple living, rural values, the American family, people who shop at Walmart, motherhood, and a whole set of iconic images that are as subjective as they are varied.

The title of Frank’s book is evidence of the left’s arrogance and self-induced superioty complex. What’s the matter with Kansas implies that there’s something wrong with Kansas. A more objective title might be…How did the Democrats lose so much of the middle?

That latter title would require some painful introspection. Otherwise, the Democrats will continue to see themselves further marginalized by Sarah Palin and so many others who are following in her footsteps.

After all, Sarah Palin is an American girl…

Why can’t we be friends?

“We are reckless in our use of the lovely word, friend.” –Romain Rolland

If he were alive today, I wonder what Mr. Rolland, a French journalist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, would think about Facebook and its use of the word “friend.”

How many “friends” do you have?

According to the most recent stats on my Facebook page, I have 285 friends.

That’s a lot of friends . . . or is it?

Without friends no one would choose to live, even if he had all other goods,” wrote Aristotle…but what did he know? I tried following him on Twitter, but I kept getting tweets back from Ashton Kutcher.

So, how do you define the word friend?

Personally, I have one simple criterion for the people I describe as my “friends,” and there are only four people who fit into this category, if we exclude relatives.

A friend is someone you can call at 2:34 a.m., and then ask them to drive 16 miles to post bail so that you don’t have to spend the rest of the night in the county lock-up.

With a real “friend” you can do this even when you are slightly intoxicated and can’t quite remember how you got to jail in the first place.

I have to stay out of trouble because of my four “real friends” one lives in Nashville; another lives in Eugene, Oregon. The other two both live in Maine, but one of them has young children; and the other is a very sound sleeper.

But considering the onslaught of social media networking and its impact on my professional life, my definition of the word friend seems quaint, if not entirely useless in the digital age that brought us both Farmville and the word “un-friend” simultaneously.

If you think social media is just a fad or something that can be ignored by those of us who have moved beyond repeated bouts of acne and anxiety about our SAT scores, think again. In fact, check this link.

Like it or not, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become an essential part of our modern communication infrastructure. Every presidential campaign in 2012 will use all three of these platforms. Nearly every bank in Maine has a Facebook page and you can even let the whole world know what brand of whipped cream you prefer by clicking “Like” on the Cool Whip page.

I don’t mind Facebook, but it can become a time vacuum and very labor intensive if you are managing a page or multiple pages as part of an integrated communications strategy.

It’s just the casual use of the word friend that I find offensive.

Furthermore, it seems that some people are a bit less discriminating when it comes to choosing their friends.

As an experiment, I created a fictitious Facebook account. My alter ego was a woman in her mid 30s and she set about finding “friends.” It took less than 48 hours for this non-existent person to rack up more than 75 friends, including two U.S. senators, four television news reporters, three newspaper reporters and seven state legislators.

More disturbing: A recent poll showed that more than 80 percent of people in Maine still receive their news across traditional platforms, such as newspapers, television shows and radio broadcasts. But the media and the small number of policy leaders who chart local, state and national policy are all sharing Tweets and checking their Facebook pages on a regular basis. They are “in the loop,” while the other 80 percent of residents are not.

Thus, you’re nobody until somebody “Likes” you.

But what is the value of more than four or five friends?

Could you really handle having several hundred friends?

Seriously. Think about it. You would spend the rest of your days attending funerals, weddings and anniversary parties. Your Christmas shopping list would need to be underwritten by Goldman-Sachs. You would never get a good night’s sleep nor have a moment when you could just relax.

Unfortunately, the number of friends on a Facebook page has become a quantitative measure of modern-day success; a metrics of accountability and an insatiable need to be more connected while isolated in front of a computer screen.

Check your friends list. How many of them would take a call from you at 2:30 a.m.? If your answer exceeds the number 2, congratulations. You are luckier than you can imagine.

The rest is just an illusion. . .sort of like Farmville.