Category: Corporate Communications

Hamilton and the Power of Narrative

By Mike Kuczkowski


In 2003, I wrote a 367-word biography of Alexander Hamilton for Columbia University as part of the Columbia 250 celebration.

I remember struggling with it and the 30 or so other biographies we had committed to write for the launch of the Columbia 250 web site (an innovative idea back then). How to tell the story in what was supposed to be 250 words of such an accomplished, intelligent, intriguing and comparatively underappreciated figure? So many facts, so little space. Hamilton wasn’t quite Washington, Jefferson, Franklin or Adams, but he was fascinating. I mean, the guy was an orphan from the Caribbean who basically invented the American banking system as we know it. How do you do that story justice?

Thankfully Lin-Manuel Miranda, with help from Ron Chernow, has answered that question. Apparently, it involves 20,520 words, a hip-hop score, a Broadway stage and period dress.

I am, at the moment, obsessed with Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. Miranda started working on the musical in 2009 after picking up Chernow’s award-winning 2005 biography of Hamilton on a vacation (Chernow serves as an historical advisor to the show) and recognizing Hamilton’s potential as not just an interesting biographical story but as a human story (an American story) that would resonate broadly.

Hamilton has been lauded for many things: bringing modern beats to the stage in the telling of an historical tale; redefining the pace of the modern musical; using contemporary language to express 18th century ideas; and fielding a cast of diverse actors as our founding fathers telling the story of our nation’s birth. All of which are remarkable. I find its storytelling to be its most outstanding feature. Here’s why:

  • In “Alexander Hamilton,” we meet a young Hamilton as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who grows up to join the American Revolution and makes a name for himself as Washington’s right-hand man. Boom, right off the bat, something we are not expecting.
  • He introduces us to Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s contemporary, rival and ultimately his killer, as an entirely sympathetic figure. Even if we know Burr from the history books, Miranda endows him with an intriguing point of view and bearing. “Talk less. Smile more,” he advises Hamilton early on. “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
  • We hear, in “My Shot,” how Hamilton is “young, scrappy and hungry”’ just like his country.

In a recent interview, Miranda described the purposefulness with which he wrote the lyrics for the musical’s first few songs:

“For me, the fun of writing My Shot is, it’s Hamilton’s declaration of purpose and I wanted to demonstrate his intellect and his ambition not just in what he was saying but in the way he was saying it. So, prior to his arrival and singing “my shot,” the other guys in that bar, right – (John ) Laurens, (Hercules) Mulligan and (Marquis de) Lafayette, are rhyming at the end of the line. It’s:

– I’m John Laurens in the place to be! Two pints o’ Sam Adams, but I’m workin’ on three!

We rhyme at the end of the line. And then here comes Hamilton, and suddenly we’re getting a lot of internal assonance and a lot of internal rhyming. And not content to just rhyme at the end of the line, but you know, have these big pun-esque lyrics, you know.

– I know the action in the streets is exciting, but Jesus between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’ I’ve been readin’ ‘n’ writin’

They’re intricately tied together and if you consider that Hamilton is delivering this in real time, suddenly you’re like, whoa, this is the greatest freestyler who ever lived. And so, that was the fun in constructing that. And it was many days and months of work to sort of make his lyrics just that much more intricate than everybody else’s.”

I’m blown away by the care Miranda took with these choices. That’s art. That’s craftsmanship. (It’s worth noting how long that takes. Many days and months.)

The narrative unfolds with beauty, grit and elegance to match its complexity. Miranda introduces us to “The Schuyler Sisters,” who include Angelica Schuyler, the eldest sister to whom Hamilton introduces himself, her younger sister Eliza, whom Hamilton will later marry, and Peggy. None of it is simple.

  • In “Satisfied,” Angelica’s wedding toast to Hamilton and Eliza, we learn how deeply Angelica is drawn to Hamilton. She recounts their meeting, and how she sized him up “too quickly” (but not wrongly) as a penniless suitor and matched him with her sister, to Angelica’s lasting regret
  • In “Wait For It,” we hear Burr lay out his philosophy of life and power: If there are reasons why he is still alive, he’s willing to wait for it. He lays bare his secret. He’s not standing still, he’s lying in wait.
  • In “That Would Be Enough,” which I find to be the musical’s most moving song, Eliza pleads with Hamilton to moderate his ambitions. Hamilton: “Will you relish being a poor man’s wife, unable to provide for your life?” Eliza: “I relish being your wife. Look around, look around… Just stay alive, that would be enough.”

Hamilton describes the rise of Marquis de Lafayette as Washington’s lead commander, the Colonists’ victory at the Battle of Yorktown and the challenge of independent self-rule. We see it all through the eyes of Hamilton, a singular figure in the early days of our nation. Miranda makes complex events, like the Constitutional Conventions, the writing of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s early cabinet meetings, and the compromise over Hamilton’s economic plan, accessible.

Along the way, Miranda captures both Hamilton’s strengths (his brilliance and boldness) and weaknesses (ambition and his inability to shut up) in equal measure, humanizing a hard-to-humanize figure.

Miranda is a huge talent with the rare ability to pull it off. He has a MacArthur genius grant to his name, two Tony-award winning plays and a Pulitzer Prize. No slouch.

That said, those of us who manage the narratives of the companies we represent, either in-house or as consultants, should take some lessons from Hamilton, which takes a complex figure and finds a way to turn it into something relatable. That’s a challenge many of us confront with regularity.

Here are some lessons Hamilton holds for communicators:

  1. Start with origins: Miranda’s opening number “Alexander Hamilton” (which he previewed in 2009 at a White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word) summarizes the most compelling aspects of Hamilton’s biography and foreshadows his ambition and resourcefulness. (Note: I’m fascinated to hear the White House crowd’s laughter in their initial hearing of this song. They had no idea what was coming.)
  2. Declare your purpose: The third number of the show is “My Shot,” which is a big highlight of the show, what Miranda describes as Hamilton’s “Disney Princess” number, Hamilton’s declaration of purpose. We learn what he believes the stakes are for him in the Revolution, and life. The song conveys Hamilton’s self-confidence, self-doubt, ambition and recklessness. And, by using an expression that ultimately foreshadows Hamilton’s fatal duel with Burr, Miranda foreshadows a concept with dual meaning that will come back into the narrative in multiple ways over time.
  3. Find the emotional core: Some of the strongest songs in the musical are songs that pause along the path of the narrative to take stock of the emotional aspects of Hamilton’s story. “That Would Be Enough” makes me well up every time, as it highlights the tension between the boundlessness of Hamilton’s ambition and the beautiful life that is being built around him by Eliza.
  4. Embrace complexity: Hamilton is unflinching in its efforts to round out its subject, bad choices, broken promises and ill-chosen battles. He pursues martyrdom, embraces fatherhood, shames his wife with his philandering and ultimately loses his life in an avoidable confrontation. Hero? Hard to say.
  5. Use repetition wisely: There are a number of phrases and expressions throughout Hamilton (“I’m not throwing away my shot”, “The world turns upside down”, “Right-hand man”, “I will never be satisfied”, “History has its eyes on you”, “The room where it happens”) that repeat and recur throughout the musical, often with evolving meanings. This allows a listener to anchor into key elements of the story while hitting them with new developments and concepts. It breeds familiarity while the narrative moves forward.
  6. Dimensionalize tension and conflict: There are multiple conflict vectors throughout Hamilton. The conflict between Hamilton’s intelligence and his social status; Angelica’s desires and her obligations; Burr’s trust-fund-baby status and his desire to be on the winning side; the colonists’ desire for independence and King George III’s sense of divine authority (‘You’re on the own’ he declares, dripping with sarcasm. ‘Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?’). So often corporate narratives try to offend no one, or present propositions as being without risk. That’s fine, but I’m not sure why anyone would read them.
  7. Break forms: There’s no template for a 2 hour and 45 minute hip-hop musical. The founding fathers did not speak in rhymes. Alexander Hamilton was not Puerto Rican. But, it works. Who says a master narrative has to be prose on paper? It can be a video, a web site or a speech. A Prezi deck can outline a company’s story as well as any vehicle. As long as it lives in the world, inspires employees, engages stakeholders… it’s doing its job.

Hamilton shows the power of a creative approach to storytelling that can bring dense, difficult-to-absorb subject matter to life. We can definitely do better with our narratives by grappling with the realities and messiness of our characters, finding the tension and emotional core of the story, and bringing it artfully to the page.

If Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose first public performance of “Alexander Hamilton” in front of a political audience was met with anxious laughter, can turn that into a hit play, what have we got to lose?

The Reputational Costs of Litigation: Lessons from Pao v. Kleiner Perkins

By Mike Kuczkowski

Silicon Valley is abuzz with Ellen Pao’s gender bias case against venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.

A former junior partner at KPCB, Pao, 45, alleged that male partners discriminated against female junior partners. Pao, who worked at KPCB for seven and a half years, said she was sexually harassed by a former partner. She claimed the firm retaliated against her by firing her after she filed her lawsuit.

Pao lost on all counts.

Pao’s lawsuit is a case study in the importance of communications to parties in a litigation. Delivering great communications support in the courtroom requires focusing on reputation as an outcome. Depending on what’s at stake, that can be as important as the verdict.

You can see that Pao tried to claim a reputational victory. In a post-verdict news conference, Pao said “If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it.”

That’s a big “if.” Many commentators agree Pao opened an important debate about the treatment of women in the corporate world. But in the course of her lawsuit, she shined a spotlight on bad behavior on both sides. And she ultimately failed to persuade a jury she had been wronged.

Here are some of the more salacious claims that emerged during testimony:

Claims that Impact Reputation

Ellen Pao Various individual partners at KPCB
–       Kept a “chart of resentments” against her Kleiner colleagues –       Consciously excluded women from a private dinner with Al Gore, saying that they would “kill the buzz.”
–       Had an affair with a married partner – who claimed his wife had left him, which later turned out not to be true – for six months –       Openly discussed their favorite porn stars on a private plane, when Pao was present (that’s according to Pao; another witness disputed this claim)
–       Sent negative emails about colleagues to partners behind the colleagues’ back –       Excluded women from a business ski trip
–       Was paid $200,000 in severance over a period of six months after being fired. –       Gave Pao “The Book of Longing,” a Leonard Cohen book of erotic poetry featuring nude drawings, as a Christmas gift
–       Is married to disgraced ex-hedge fund manager Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher, who himself has a history of discrimination legal claims. (His personal debt has been offered as a motive for Pao’s legal action.) –       The same male partner who’d had an affair with Pao showed up at the room of another female Kleiner partner wearing only a bathrobe and slippers (He was later fired for this and other harassment.)

These gossipy details will stick with both Pao and her former employer for some time, and may have far-reaching implications. Both parties have the challenge of proving that they are not the versions of themselves on display in the worst days of court.

The Role of Communications

This is why communications should play a vital role in litigation.

In a litigation as high profile as this one, media relations is front and center. A lawsuit is conflict in a capsule, a natural draw to journalists and editors. I’ve been through this dozens of times, both as a journalist and as a PR professional. The legal filings and courtroom activity provide an easy narrative for reporters to follow, as two parties seek resolution of their claims. Day in, day out, reporters will look for a news hook in legal filings, courtroom strategy, testimony and jury deliberations, even if the actual proceedings are as dull as watching paint dry.

Many lawyers use media relations as a tactic to advance their own reputations during lawsuits. I’ve been in a situation where, after a good day in court, lead counsel of a high-profile lawsuit called me to urge the Wall Street Journal to run a prominent piece about the proceedings. I had to explain to him, an accomplished jurist, that that is not how media relations works.

Keys to Good Coverage

If you want good media coverage, you need to look beyond ‘winning’ each day in the media. First, you have to take the time to help reporters understand the process. Meet with them and a member of the legal team in advance of the proceedings. That way, you can brief them on the fundamental claims, the legal issues at stake, the key players and the calendar of events.

Then you need to align with the legal team on the day-in, day-out rhythms of court activity. What’s happening each week, and what do we expect from the other side. All of these details are worked out in advance, but often they are not shared with the communications team. If you can signal to reporters what to expect, you can become a trusted resource to the press, and that in turn will drive the media coverage. Reporters must file a story. That’s what they’re paid for, and in the era of the never-ending news cycle, they are often filing 140-character stories throughout the day. And like many people in many jobs, they appreciate knowing in advance when nothing interesting is going to happen.

In litigation like Pao’s, the attorneys for both sides are seeking to give their client the best representation possible, and to win their case. This invariably involves multiple fine-point decisions about legal strategy and obscure legal arguments. Some of this can get very arcane very quickly. And at times, what is efficient in the courtroom is not effective in the media.

An Approach for Litigation Communications

Once the lawsuit is in front of a jury, the role of the communications team is distinct from the legal team, but valuable. They should:

  • Own the narrative: Distill the essential legal maneuvers and arguments into comprehensible messages and narrative points.
  • Be compelling: Why does this matter? If millions of dollars are at stake, as is often the case in complex civil litigation, there’s most likely a compelling issue of fairness or ownership in play.
  • Make it relatable: Translating the legal issues into something we can all relate to is critical. Ultimately, many disputes ultimately come down to matters of fairness, ownership or righting a wrong. Who can’t identify with that?
  • Align the narrative with the legal strategy: Words matter. You can’t say things to the media that are at odds with what the legal team will say. Mine the legal team’s approach for a narrative and key messages.
  • Be resilient: There are three sides to every lawsuit: One side, the other side and the truth. Consider what the other side is going to say and how they will characterize or rebut your claims.
  • Be a resource: Lots of things that happen in court are complicated. If you can be the person who can explain it to the media, then you can be a valuable resource. And that means, you can get the ear of the media when it matters.
  • Strive for clarity: Lawyers are usually precise about the words they use. However, legal jargon can sometimes displace clear, simple language. Get a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary. Dig in and understand what the legal issues mean, and find the simplest ways to convey them.
  • Use the facts: Lawsuits ultimately involve a set of facts assembled to support an argument. That’s a framework with which communicators should be very familiar.

Reputation v. Litigation: Focus on Outcomes

Legal disputes have an ending, but reputations are enduring. In the end, both matter.

In the wake of the verdict, Pao is casting herself as a crusader for women’s issues. It will be interesting to see if her long-term career moves and activism keep her at the center of that cause, or whether that narrative was merely expedient to justify her actions. Anyone who will bring her on board as an employee (she is currently the interim CEO of the social media site Reddit) will now be aware of her tendencies.

For their part, Kleiner faces serious questions about its culture. Several observers have speculated that the firm may need to restructure. That’s no victory. It’s hard to imagine the lawsuit will improve their recruitment efforts among junior female applicants. Female business leaders may turn elsewhere for finance support.

Now, it’s up to us to decide whether what the firm said in a post-verdict email to reporters is true: “Today’s verdict reaffirms that Ellen Pao’s claims have no legal merit. We are grateful to the jury for its careful examination of the facts. There is no question gender diversity in the workplace is an important issue. KPCB remains committed to supporting women in venture capital and technology both inside our firm and within our industry.”

The lawsuit is over, but both sides lost the battle of reputations. Now the process of rebuilding begins.

Rules for Litigation Communications

By Mike Kuczkowski

The first move for anyone facing a lawsuit is to get a good lawyer.

The second move: get a good communications counselor.

In Pao v. Kleiner Perkins, (see The Reputational Costs of Litigation), both sides put significant resources into communications. Pao lunched with reporters from Reuters and re/code. (Note: registration required for access.) The Wall Street Journal took an in-depth look at crisis communications firm Brunswick’s efforts on behalf of Kleiner Perkins. (Ditto.)

I’ve been on both sides of lawsuits, as a reporter and as communications counsel on high-profile cases for law firms and corporations. Here are some keys to success for anyone who provides communications support for a client facing a lawsuit:

  1. Know the narrative: A lawsuit has a narrative arc. A good attorney will craft a strong narrative in his or her opening statement that will pay off during days of testimony and in their closing statement. This narrative will convey key messages that are the soul of a case. The communications team needs to understand that narrative before a case begins and how each day will assemble pieces of that story. It is the communications team’s job to reinforce their side’s version of events as it unfolds and to remind reporters what’s really at stake in the courtroom.
  2. Know the briefs: Even before a jury is convened, media coverage of a lawsuit is framed by legal filings and court appearances. Understanding the claims and statements in those briefs is the best way to understand the story media will report. Reviewing a legal filing as it is being filed is critical to being able to answer reporters’ questions.
  3. Know the key players: Who will testify? What will they say? The witnesses in a lawsuit are like the characters in a narrative. It’s important to know who they are, what they will say, and what their testimony will mean to the case.
  4. Understand the trial calendar: Typically, litigators will have a calendar that drives their case including expected witnesses, evidentiary submissions and legal briefs. Knowing that timeline and being open about expectations with members of the media who are covering a trial helps build trust. Trust helps the broader picture of the case from your perspective.
  5. Accept that some days will be better than others. Lawsuits present a fractured, subjective picture of events. Witnesses take the stand and tell a part of a story. This means that any news coverage that reflects the events of a given day will be highly biased, based on the events that unfolded in court. You literally will win some and lose some, but on balance you are better served if you can keep reminding reporters and others following the court case of the bigger picture.
  6. Everything is fair game: I’ve had lots of discussions with reporters and attorneys about this, and there’s no way around it—if it happens in open court, it’s fair game for reporters. Witness the fact that “Buddy Fletcher,” Pao’s husband and a hedge fund manager with a history of discrimination lawsuits, was the most frequently cited paired search term with “Ellen Pao.” The implication is that Pao’s motive was tied to Fletcher’s past behavior of filing suits claiming discrimination. Attorneys often present arguments out of earshot of jury members. However, the attorneys need to recognize that there may be media coverage of what they are trying to get a judge to allow them to say
  7. The jury itself is fair game: As a reporter, I used to hang around the courtroom after verdicts and seek to interview members of a jury to better understand why they voted as they did. These insights are often surprising, and may prove damning as in the case of Pao juror Steve Sammut. Summut has given a number of interviews about the case to several media outlets. Sammut says Kleiner should “be punished” despite being found not guilty of the specific charges.
  8. Set expectations and deliver: There’s an adage about the value of repetition in writing: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. The same approach applies to litigation communications. Reporters are busy people and their readers have short attention spans. If you can lay out an anticipated timeline for both audiences then highlight the ways in which that timeline is playing out.
  9. Be a resource: There can be pressure, from attorneys or clients, to obfuscate certain facts or try to “spin” what happens in court. Don’t do it. Tell people what happened. Explain it as best you can. Note when a witness said something that was at odds with their deposition Explain why an attorney who has been extremely animated in court felt that a witness’s testimony was inconsistent with the facts. Being a resource for facts will only help you and your client get a fair hearing.
  10. Expect boredom: The courtroom bears little relation to a Perry Mason episode. Even titillating details often become snore-worthy when they are repeated over and over. Most court cases involve days and days of drudgery.
  11. Expect the unusual: Occasionally, there will be moments of actual courtroom drama and when they happen it may well be that the litigation communications team is the only team that truly understands what has happened. Being a resource to reporters to explain what’s going on and why what just happened is important.
  12. Be ready: When a verdict comes in, the machinery of media coverage kicks into action. You have to have a clear plan and you have to be able to move fast to deliver your side of the story.

Throughout all of this, it’s vital that there be a collaborative working relationship between the legal team and the communications team. Together you can navigate the complexities of a lawsuit and execute your roles effectively.

What’s Wrong—and Right—With Starbucks’ “Race Together”

By Mike Kuczkowski

Last week, the coffee giant Starbucks launched a campaign encouraging its baristas to engage customers in a dialogue about race. Baristas around the country were encouraged to chat about race with their customers and write “Race Together” on each coffee cup.

It was a bold move, not without risk, and it has drawn both praise and criticism.

How do we evaluate a campaign like “Race Together”? I think it give us an opportunity to think about what we should want from brands and how to think about how brands can authentically lead in areas of social impact.

On the one hand, I want to give Starbucks leadership, particularly CEO Howard Schultz, credit for putting its brand in the middle of a challenging social issue. It takes courage to do that, and the company should be commended for the concept and goal.

On the other hand, I think the backlash shows that the execution of the campaign was not well thought out. The company faced a significant social media backlash against both the campaign and the company. The campaign was criticized for being tone-deaf on several fronts, and the company was criticized for the fact that its executive leadership is almost exclusively white.

So what matters more, intention or execution?

I believe we are living in the Performance Era of Communications. An organization’s marketing and communications efforts only matter insofar as they engage effectively with stakeholders and have an impact.

We have all the tools for this today. Social media provides multiple platforms for real-time engagement with all manner of constituents. Digital technology gives us the ability to create content in an unprecedented number of formats — video, podcast, short-form content, long-form content. Yet, these advantages also raise the bar for brands who want to engage actively with stakeholders.

Personally, I skew toward the strategy side of brand and marketing. Experience has taught me that strategy is incredibly valuable. If an organization fails to understand what its stakeholders truly need, it won’t deliver value to the stakeholder relationship.

But caring about strategy does not mean a bias against execution. The two are linked. As the rules of execution change – less ad-driven, ‘interruption marketing;’ more two-way exchanges – strategy becomes an exercise in execution. In our hyper-transparent communications environment, strategy is on display in every turn of phrase, every response and every action. To perform well, organizations need to build new skills in their marketing and communications operations. They need the ability to create content, master channels, create connections, manage communities and adapt and change based on signals from the environment.

In that context, Starbucks’ Race Together campaign falls short. Here’s why:

  • Content creation: Starbucks created some solid content around the campaign. If you check out their website, you’ll see compelling stories about baristas for whom race is a deeply personal issue. These kinds of stories stand out, and I think they have real substance. Schultz did a video that was distributed to their 200,000 employees via Starbucks’ intranet, another good move. They are publishing a special supplement to USA Today. All good. Still, I think it is unlikely that scrawling “Race Together” on coffee cups, which baristas were being encouraged to do last week, will change any minds. And the fact that the stock imagery for the campaign (used above) shows a pair of white hands holding a “Race Together” cup struck an off note. Which underscores how important it is to think through every symbolic aspect of brand-created content.
  • Channel mastery: On the channel front, I think the campaign scores poorly. The campaign is a multi-channel effort, as described above. But the campaign has performed atrociously in social media. AdWeek argues that the Internet hates “Race Together”, and I think they’re right. Twitter erupted on the issue, attacking the effort and individual executives. Starbucks Communications SVP Corey duBrowa briefly deleted his Twitter account Tuesday after what he described as personal attacks. (He’s back, and in a move demonstrating social media savvy, he wrote a Medium post about why.) That overall Twitter sentiment was harsh should have come as no surprise. The social network has not exactly been known for fostering thoughtful discourse. But duBrowa’s response, and the overall state of the hashtag discussion suggests that Starbucks did not have good rules in place to guide its engagement in its own conversation.
  • Creating connections: Seth Godin, whom I’ve come to admire greatly, talks about the Connection Economy. I’m fascinated by the concept that mass marketing, the kind Starbucks has mastered, is dying and that micro-marketing is on the rise. A real Connection Economy requires courage – like the core idea of having a conversation about race – and the desire to find and engage with people with whom you can have a real dialogue. Schultz did this extremely well with internal town halls last year, with some 2,000 employees. But the very notion of trying to create a dialogue at the cash register with baristas whose primary job is to (quickly) fulfill orders for venti vanilla lattes seems flawed.
  • Community management: Here again, a debate in America on race is going to show a sharply divided community, and rightly so. We’re a fairly divided nation on the issue. Engaging in the campaign is going to require navigating lots of mine fields. What happens if an in-store exchange goes poorly? A barista doesn’t have the ability to shut off the store like a Twitter account. They need to be adept enough to respond to potentially tough questions. Schultz has indicated that baristas have received no special training to equip them for this campaign, and I happen to think that’s a huge mistake. Conversation guides, we’re told, are coming. Perhaps that will help.
  • Adaptation: This is a critical aspect of the Performance Era of Communications. And what I mean by it is: Can you change based on feedback from the environment? This isn’t just about communications activity, it’s also about real substantive issues and actions. And here, while the jury is still out, there are troubling signs. The campaign has not yet articulated a plan for adding more diversity to Starbucks’ executive ranks, or bringing more Starbucks to minority areas where stores themselves are far between. Starbucks has not, to my knowledge, yet pledged to address many of the substantive national issues on race that continue to keep us divided. From a communications perspective, chatting about a heavy-duty issue like race around the espresso machine when people are rushing off to catch a train isn’t practical, but there’s still time. Starbucks can create forums to take the debate away from the cash register and into its lounges. Shutting off a Twitter account isn’t adaptation, it’s surrender – but by coming back, their communications executive has a shot at showing he’s able to weather criticism that doesn’t come remotely close to matching the kind of institutionalized bias, hate and bigotry blacks in America face daily, and throughout their entire lives.

In sum, the campaign’s operations don’t appear to be strong enough to match the campaign’s aspirations. They didn’t think it through, on a number of important fronts. There’s probably still time to address that, but doing so will require a conscious effort and real resources.

Yesterday, Starbucks told its baristas that it was no longer encouraging them to write “Race Together” on cups, a move the company claims it had previously planned. Other aspects of the campaign are still in place. Is this an example of adaptation, or just further evidence that this was always a marketing ploy? Only time will tell.

Honestly, I hope they do turn it around and get it right because Schultz is correct. It’s an important issue, and there’s no reason a for-profit corporation can’t join the debate. Race is the most troubling of American issues, and the events of the past year in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere suggest that our nation still has a lot of progress to make on this issue.

[disclosures: I know lots of people who have worked on the Starbucks account at Edelman, invariably smart folks; I have met duBrowa and Schultz on a couple of occasions; I drink a ton of Starbucks coffee.]

Deflategate Lessons for Crisis Managers

By Mike Kuczkowski

The two weeks between the AFC/NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl is usually devoted to celebrating the success of the two teams who have made it to the Big Game, examining their strengths and weaknesses, pulling together Super Bowl party menus and generating some excitement about one of the few remaining mass cultural events in America.

We’ve spent the past two weeks talking about, ahem, New England’s balls.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know the core allegation: The New England Patriots used footballs that were not inflated to league specifications during their AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts on January 18.

According to reports, 11 of 12 of the balls were below the lower limit of the range of approved PSI (12.5 PSI). Referees apparently checked the footballs 2.5 hours before game time, and they met the regulatory standard. At half time of the game, they did not. Why? We don’t know. But the idea, at least the assumption, is that the New England Patriots gained some tactical advantage in their 45-7 drubbing of the Colts by using underinflated footballs.

Is this a big deal? No. And yes. It is true that the discussion itself sounds trivial – and in many respects it is. But the NFL, as we’ve noted previously, is a serious business. It’s a major part of American culture. With an anticipated 113 million viewers Sunday, it is one of the few mass events in an increasingly fragmented culture. Lots of advertising and sponsorship dollars are counting on a good, scandal-free game.

Deflategate has created a circus-like atmosphere. New England Head Coach Bill Belichick, Quarterback Tom Brady and Owner Robert Kraft have each had at least one press conference to discuss the issue, essentially denying any wrongdoing. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has pledged to get to the bottom of the matter, though so far the NFL’s investigation has not come to any conclusions.

For communications and crisis management experts, the whole affair has been a vividly unfolding case study of what not to do and what goes wrong when an organization takes a ‘seat-of-the-pants’ approach to crisis management. In short, it’s been a disaster. The Patriots have done poorly, as has the league itself, and the consequence is a little gray cloud hanging over Sunday’s proceedings — and a sharply divided nation over whether the Patriots cheated.

It did not have to be this way. This so-called scandal should have lasted one news cycle, maybe two, if it had been managed correctly.

Here are six key issues that have allowed this incident to become ongoing national news, most of which could have been easily mitigated or resolved.

Excuses, excuses: Somehow, two weeks into this scandal, no one has been able to definitively say what happened. In his first press conference, Belichick said he did know anything about how footballs are prepared or approved for use prior to a game. And then he kept saying “I’ve told you everything I know,” to each question. Which is defensive by definition. Brady said he didn’t know what happened. The NFL seems to be leaking out details of its investigation, but overall it has not said what happened. We’re all left to wonder about the core facts, which is not a place we should be two weeks into this discussion. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Patriots don’t know what happened, as they have said. But, then the league ought to be able to certify that footballs can, in fact, lose pressure due to other factors, such as atmospheric conditions. Takeaway: Someone, anyone, should have offered a set of definitive facts as quickly as possible, making it clear what is known and what is not.

The Roll-Out: Last Thursday morning, Belichick had a press conference in which he essentially denied all wrong-doing, and then said everyone should ask the quarterback. The six-hour pregnant pause in all of New England between the end of Belichick’s press conference and the start of Brady’s created some anticipation that Brady would take responsibility for the deflated footballs. But, then he didn’t. Brady came off as genuinely surprised and boyishly innocent about the whole thing. Still, separating those two press conferences and continuing to address it on Saturday and this week has fed the media beast on the issue far beyond what was necessary. The league issued a press release on a Friday afternoon that said nothing, other than that it was investigating the issue. Kraft was silent until Monday, leading to speculation about his views. Takeaway: The Patriots should have held one press conference, together, outlining the facts, presenting a unified image. Goodell should have addressed it sooner.

Spokespersonship: I’ve talked about this before, but there is an art to being an effective spokesperson. Either Belichick refuses to prepare properly or is uncoachable in this area. He is truculent with the media. He comes across as though he is hiding things when he is not. His eyes shift, his jaw sets, he leans back and he seems physically defensive. There is nothing reassuring about his tone or body language. Brady looked fairly open and, in my view, innocent. Goodell, like he was almost scared in his press conference. Takeaway: Each could use coaching on delivering clear, concise and direct answers to questions.

The Calendar: If there is one truth in life and in crisis, it is that the calendar does not lie. Good crisis managers know that the calendar is the backbone of almost everything they will do. Yet, we’re going to watch a major sporting event Sunday, without a resolution of this tempest. That’s bad for everyone. If the Patriots win, New England will rejoice and the rest of the nation will call them cheaters. If the Seahawks win, the nation will say that it proves the Patriots cheated to get there and when the world was watching, they could not cheat and were defeated. Both of those interpretations are wildly unfair. One cannot gather all the facts on everything in a limited time span, but it does seem like this should be the sort of thing that could be done completely and quickly. Takeaway: As soon as this was seen to be a significant issue, the organizations involved – both the Patriots and the NFL, needed to start managing the clock and looking to address questions and put the issue behind them.

Reputation and trust: The Patriots have been accused of, and in one instance found guilty of cheating. In 2007’s “SpyGate” scandal, the team was accused of videotaping the New York Jets defensive coaches during a 2007 game, . Even the completely legal, “trick” offensive formations the Patriots used against the Baltimore Ravens in their second-round playoff game, were a proof point that New England will look to bend the rules. In that context, Belichick’s repeated denials strained belief. The NFL has shown that it can barely manage a crisis, performing poorly on the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson off-the-field domestic violence issues. And, it came up short by not dealing effectively with this one. Takeaway: Reputation matters, and needs to frame the context of the messaging around crises, and the approach to the response.

Lack of context: The one question no one appears to have addressed is, does this thing really matter? What is the punishment for using underinflated footballs during regulation play? I presume that there is no punishment, since the referees did not impose a penalty on the Patriots after the issue was discovered at halftime of the game. I’ve seen multiple demonstrations of how deflated footballs either do or don’t aid a passer or a running back. So if there is no punishment, is there a crime? Multiple quarterbacks have stated that it really doesn’t make a difference. Based on that, I’m inclined to think this is much ado about nothing, but by failing to set that context, the league has allowed the situation to get completely out of hand. Takeaway: Someone needs to address the stakes and help the general public understand what matters in an incident like this. Often best if it is a credible third party. Both organizations didn’t do that, and so we’re all left wondering what to think.

So what does this all mean? This reminds me of the famous “Pine Tar” incident in Major League Baseball. In 1983, when the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals were playing a not-terribly significant game, George Brett came up in a 4-3 game in the bottom of the 9th inning and hit a home run. Yankees General Manager Billy Martin protested to the umpires that Brett’s bat had an excess of pine tar that was against the regulations. On the spot, umpires inspected the bat, declared the home run nullified and called Brett out, ending the game.

It was an incredibly controversial call. Brett rushed out of the visiting dugout, looking like he was going to kill the umpire. He had to be restrained and started screaming. Soon it emerged that Martin had noticed the pine tar earlier in the season, and had waited for the right moment to raise the issue.

I’d forgotten the outcome of the incident – my most vivid recollection was the image of Brett screaming at the umpires. It turns out that the Royals appealed the umpires’ decision. The League granted their appeal and reinstated Brett’s home run. They ordered that the game be replayed from the point of Brett’s home run, later in the season.. The Yankees did not score, and the Royals won the game 5-4.

It was the right call, no question about it.

Applying this to Deflategate, the parallels are clear, and the differences are instructive. In the pine tar incident, referees made an overreaching decision on the field, and the league stepped back, evaluated the thing that mattered most – did the pine tar meaningfully impact Brett’s ability to hit the home run – and came to a clear, fair decision.

In Deflategate, it’s clear that the whole issue was not important enough to prompt the referees to take any action on the field. And yet, we now have a league that is investigating the issue and potentially meting out punishment based on what that investigation finds.

My sense is that the regulation about football inflation levels is merely meant to standardize the game, not to deny cheaters a competitive advantage. I think it’s also likely that there are conditions in which a football can lose pressure without a vast conspiracy to carry it out.

Regardless, the past two weeks have given us a lot to think about from a crisis management perspective. Deflategate has shown us how quickly a minor issue can emerge from nowhere and dominate an industry’s discussion. It’s shown us how long a crisis can persist when key questions remain unanswered. It’s shown us how poor performances by leaders can raise doubts and fuel negative speculation based on reputational issues.

More than anything, it has shown how needed a decisive arbiter is in situations that involve allegations of cheating.It would be great to hope we could have league come forth with a clear and decisive proclamation about Deflategate that will put everything into perspective and allow us to enjoy a game. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t put great odds on that happening.

Orangefiery Memo | Open Letter To Tim Cook


DATE:       August 19, 2014

TO:             Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

FROM:     Mike Kuczkowski

RE:             Apple Communications Leadership

Much has changed since Apple hired its last communications leader in 1996. We thought we’d offer some thoughts about the communications function and the role of chief communications officer, as you head up a search for the successor to Katie Cotton, who retired at the end of May.

Admittedly, we don’t know much about Apple’s communications. We know Ms. Cotton was highly respected and regarded as a gate-keeper of Apple news and the Apple brand. We know the company has not used agencies, has a strong internal team, has been highly secretive (note: paywall) about company developments and discourages employees from speaking publicly about the company. We also know Apple has been a tremendously successful company, particularly in the period of 1997 to present. It tops the league in rankings of brand value and corporate reputation. And, it cares deeply about the clarity and quality of its communications. All of which begs the question: Why change? Fair enough, we’ll try to address that along the way.

What’s new

Communications has always been a critical business function, but the explosion of information, technology, connectivity and communications channels in the past 15 years has made it far more complex.

Here are the biggest trends:

  • The media environment today is always on and global, so the notion of a news cycle no longer exists.
  • The ease of online publishing means that stakeholders have powerful ways to communicate and advance their personal agendas without the traditional media’s editorial filter.
  • The rise of social networks means that news moves faster than ever.
  • And the nature of influence, by virtue of all these factors, has changed, though few people can say precisely how.

For Apple, this creates competing tensions. On the one hand, you increasingly need communications people with highly specialized skills that can master the nuances of engagement in all these channels. On the other hand, you need someone who can connect all the dots. It’s all one brand. It’s all one voice. For better, or worse.


Communications strategy must align with business strategy. We don’t know your business strategy intimately, so here are our assumptions:

  1. Apple will continue to bring new products to market in new categories while improving products in existing categories, consistent with its track record of innovation. We don’t care if it’s an iWatch, iHealth, iTV or an iCar… (actually, we’d really like an iCar). But we assume that in general you will continue to disrupt new categories with remarkable products.
  1. Apple will continue to face considerable scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior, IP and trade practices, Foxconn and labor practices, tax policies, collusion with other technology companies on hiring practices and environmental issues.
  1. You are leading Apple through a subtle but significant shift, empowering developers to collaborate more within its operating ecosystem and breaking down traditional barriers to openness in the context of its products.


Based on these assumptions, and the changes in communications and the marketplace, we offer the following recommendations for your lead communicator and the function overall:

1)     Corporate storytelling: You need someone who can articulate and advance Apple’s corporate story in multiple ways and across multiple channels. You clearly understand this, based on the more narrative approach you’ve recently taken to product marketing communications (e.g., ‘Stickers’). This doesn’t mean you should hire a children’s book author as your lead communicator, but you should hire someone with the ability to convey powerful, simple, clear stories about the company moving forward.

2)     Integration: Your leader needs to be able to integrate your stories to Wall Street and Main Street, and beyond. As the silos between audiences have broken down, people expect to see how it all ties together. You can’t have a story about sapphire iPhone screens and not anticipate some reactions – even ill-advised ones – from outsiders, for example. Your communications leader must be exceptionally strong at this and at identifying areas where you are at risk of delivering potentially dissonant messages to developers, suppliers or consumers. Again, the notion of a singular voice and brand will be brought to life by your communications function, and it’s critical that your leader be adept at this.

3)     Systems thinking: The world of communications moves so fast today, it is virtually impossible to maintain a centralized command-and-control approach. (And we say that while maintaining that there is nothing wrong with pushing for confidentiality and secrecy in product planning cycles.) Think of your communications infrastructure as a network. Most of the action — the interface with the outside world – happens at the nodes, rather than at the center. You need a communications leader who can empower the system of communications – whether through internal communicators, leaders, agencies or a combination of all three – and get great results. This will require substantial amounts of centralized planning, training and performance enhancement. This means you’ll also need someone who’s highly collaborative and willing to invest in talent development.

4)     Multi-channel skills: Don’t just hire someone who’s good at media relations. Hire someone – and surround them with a team – who can think about how to leverage all the potential channels in which you can tell your story. You also need to activate corporate embassies on Twitter and Facebook. Apple has the power to be a social business success story, but it can’t be if it’s not active in the social media space.

5)     Research capabilities: Your communications group should be constantly absorbing qualitative and quantitative data about your audiences, looking for insights and advising the organization about its actions. There’s so much data now about, well… everything. Your communications team should be facile with data, ask smart questions, and be able to find meaning in the numbers.

6)     Two-way orientation: Related to the research point above and the accountability point below, communications at its best is a two-way function, delivering insights to the organization while also representing the organization to the outside world. This is both art and a science. But if the proper channels are established internally to turn insights into actions, the communications team can be a powerful partner on key strategic (public) issues.

7)     Transparency: This is one of the few strategic choices companies can make from a communications perspective to build and maintain trust. Historically, you’ve gone the opposite way. There’s no obligation to be transparent about upcoming product releases. Until you launch something, it’s not news. But you can and should drive greater transparency around your environmental footprint, labor practices, privacy policies and other issues.

8)     Accountability: The public relations industry is a mess when it comes to measurement, but the function itself should be measurable and accountable to leadership. There’s a huge lexicon gap between marketing and public relations, but with all the data we’re now gathering about people, their behaviors, and what influences them, we should be able to do more to understand the impact that effective messages/narratives and smart, strategic deployment of those messages can have on stakeholders.

That’s it. Eight points. We thought there might be more. We wish you tremendous success finding that leader and building the infrastructure and the team. [1]

[1] Full disclosure: We have been Apple customers since 1989, when we bought our first Apple Macintosh SE. We’ve followed the company closely, and currently own two iMacs, a Macbook Pro, three iPhones, an iPad an iPod, as well as multiple peripherals and more iTunes songs and movies than we care to admit. We may sound critical, but we want you to succeed.