Friday, 1:30 p.m.
Another Friday, another Friday Happy Hour Video.
Friday, 10:17 a.m.
Big Zoom call at the bottom of the hour. I just changed into my "dress-up" baseball cap. This is it.
Friday, 8:47 a.m.
I've had a nagging feeling during this coronafuck.
I feel straighter, somehow.
My blue bird is singing a little
Like I felt in college!
I would be driving from Kent State to my golf course job in Hudson in my gold 1985 Honda Civic stick shift and singing to Simon & Garfunkel with the taste of Hazelnut coffee from Dairy Mart in my mouth and a cigarette burning in my hand.
I had had sex! I knew how to drive a tractor! I was going to be a writer! I was good! I was going to be great! I might even be perfect!
"Go tell it on the mountain! Over the hills and everywhere! Go tell it on the mountain! Jesus Christ was born!"
I feel like that just a little more now than I did before the coronavirus.
I knew something was bugging me.
Friday, 8:30 a.m.
On Medium today, my take on the seemingly discouraging news that only 29% of respondents think CEOs are doing an "outstanding" job of handling the coronavirus crisis:
"But really, wouldn’t it be more surprising, in the middle of a global economic catastrophe, if CEOs making tens of millions were liked and trusted by people making tens of thousands and terrified of being laid off or forced to work in unsafe conditions — whatever those CEOs were saying or doing?"
And then I go on, to everyone's amazement, to show how CEOs actually can win credibility in this environment, the same way the best government communicators have—by managing the crisis in public, every fucking day.
What do you think?
Thursday, 9:15 a.m.
The worries are so big and many, they don't keep you up at night (though they may keep you down during the day). What, you're going to stare at the ceiling contemplating the second wave of coronavirus in Italy?
But the little worries, you can sink your teeth into. A bruising exchange with a cranky acquaintance. A friend who hasn't texted you back in a couple of days.
I can't find the exact quote, but in James Thurber's memoir The Years with Ross, about the early days at The New Yorker, Thurber recalled the famously emotionally awkward publisher Harold Ross once sticking his head in Thurber's office at the end of one day in 1940, and asking about Thurber's failing vision.
"Thurber," Ross shouted something like, "I worry about England, and your eyesight!"
And abruptly disappeared.
Thursday, 8:25 a.m.
Clear. Coronavirus. Communication.
Wednesday, 3:15 a.m.
Up late again with Winston Churchill—Erik Larson's new book, The Splendid and the Vile, about England, in 1940. On September 7 of that year, Germany shocked Londoners with the first big bombing raid on the capital, which killed more than 400 people and severely injuring 1,600 more. The next day, a Sunday, Churchill walked through the ruins, his cane in one hand and a handkerchief in another, to wipe his tears.
"Good old Winnie!" shouted someone in the crowd. "We thought you'd come and see us."
"He really cares," a woman said. "He's crying."
Another woman shouted, "When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?"
Shaking his fist and walking stick, Churchill shouted back, "You leave that to me!"
A government employee named Samuel Battersby witnessed the exchange and observed that "morale rose immediately." Battersby attributed it to "the uniquely unpredictable magic that was Churchill," and his ability to turn "the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain steppingstone to ultimate victory."
Due respect to Winston Churchill: The man was one of a kind. But I think he'd tell you himself, his magic was not so singular. Hell, his contemporary counterpart FDR had a version of it. "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself."
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has it. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has it.
We're talking about CEOs this week; Lee Iacocca had it. Jack Welch had it. They turned troubled companies around. No one would have hired them during good times. They were too iconoclastic, too emotional, too intense. Too Churchillian.
I was on a private call yesterday with Richard Edelman and a few Fortune 500 CEOs, who I'm not sure had it.
And why would they have it? Like Neville Chamberlain, they weren't hired to lead their people through a disaster. They were hired to manage their organizations in a relatively uneventful time. What are the chances they're also up for this?
When one of those CEOs answered a question about leadership by reciting something about brains, heart and courage from The Wizard of Oz, I honestly felt sorry for him. And I wondered if he and other CEOs, these days, are feeling sorry for themselves. Nobody told them there'd be times like these.
All the sober people are predicting we're going to be traversing various circles of this hell for the next couple of years. That's a long road full of lions and tigers and bears, oh my. I hope it's not just the ill-appearance of fat severance packages that's keeping some of these folks from stepping down and making way for the Winnies in the wings.
(Are there Winnies in the wings?)
Tuesday, 6:21 p.m.
I probably heard about coronavirus in January but didn't think much of it until late February. Similarly, I was reading things about "murder hornets" this morning on Facebook, and just this exact moment realized they are a real thing. Jesus Christ!
Tuesday, 3:40 p.m.
An exec comms director read the below and remarked: "People hate Congress, but love their congress(wo)man. Would be interesting to know if anything similar was happening with the lack of trust in CEOs that Edelman found."
I'll be looking into that.
Tuesday, 8:06 a.m.
CEOs’ credibility down, government’s up since beginning of coronavirus crisis, new Edelman Trust Barometer reading says.
That's the headline in today's Executive Communication Report: Coronavirus, which I write daily and to which you should subscribe immediately. Here's an excerpt from the story:
Faced with one of the biggest health and financial crises in history, people are turning to their governments for leadership and hope,” said Edelman CEO Richard Edelman, reporting on the results of a mid-April survey of people in 11 countries, according to CNBC. People are impressed by “the speed and scale of the lockdowns, the brave performance of the public health services and the extent of public expenditure to support the private sector,” Edelman said. “This is a stunning turnaround for government which has always languished at or near the bottom of the trust hierarchy.”
It’s also a blow to the credibility of CEOs; only 29% believe business leaders are doing an “outstanding” job of handling the crisis, while government leaders and scientists garnered nearly 50% approval in that category. Half of respondents thought businesses were putting profits before people and 41% believed they weren’t doing a good job of protecting workers or customers.
As a cranky communication commentator, I've been uncharacteristically constructive during the coronavirus crisis, just because destructive seems like it's taken.
As I boasted yesterday, I don't write about Trump very frequently. Mostly—maybe as much for my mental health as for yours—I've been writing about the communication efforts of CEOs and other leaders who I believe are better intentioned and better equipped to be helpful within their spheres of influence.
But slavish positivity can blind us to daily barbarisms, like the CEO of the Ohio company who got a $1.6 million windfall in the stock market, generously decided to give it all to his employees. And then, he had the company make this video showing the employees expressing their tearful gratitude to him.
Dude reminds me of Reggie Jackson, of whom his teammate Catfish Hunter said, "He'd give you the shirt off his back. Of course, he'd hold a press conference to announce it."
But at least that CEO gave them the money. Back in late March, the scooter startup company Bird laid off its people in a two-minute Zoom message delivered by the clearly devastated chief communications officer, rather than the CEO. "This is a sub-optimal way to deliver this message," she says at the beginning of the audio recording, before nearly breaking down.
This whole rotten deal inspired a veteran executive communication director in our orbit to write a hard-bitten (and anonymous) "Leadership Communications Primer for Numbing Times."
Dear (employee/associate/colleague/partner/unwitting participant in this capitalistic scheme),
These are certainly (challenging/unprecedented/uncertain/scary as shit) times. But as (we work together/you manage/we blindly stumble/I gaze coldly from my penthouse above the infected throngs) through this pandemic, I want to tell you how (proud/amazed/awed/inspired/slightly alarmed) I am by your (actions/efforts/contributions/flexibility/acquiescence). Your ability to (keep working/serve our customers/video conference in your pajamas) is truly (amazing/a defining moment in our history/unsettling beyond words.)
As the (pandemic/virus/emergency/totally foreseeable public health crisis that I’ll never acknowledge because I’m scared of making Trump mad) moves ahead, it will be critical that we remain (calm/informed/ healthy/at least asymptomatic) so that together we can (move forward/return to work/muddle ahead/remain a slave to the system that created this mess in the first place.)
Over the next (few days/weeks/months/vague period determined by whether we have enough sane communication professionals left to craft something of cogent quality), (I/we/the company/the organization/the far right anarchists/the out-of-touch libertarians/the tyrannical left) will issue (guidelines/information/tips/rules/pronouncements ignoring science and without regard to public or personal safety) on how we can all (return to work/reopen the economy/reestablish a new workplace/ensure my compensation doesn’t fall/drag ourselves back to the drudgery that was drudgery before this drudgery.)
It will be critical that we all (follow/pretend to follow/completely ignore) these instructions. Our (health/livelihoods/company/organization/undeserving reputation as a pillar of the community [thanks PR team!]), depends on (you/your gullibility/your hunger/your knowledge that the organization is sitting on 27 cases of unopened toilet paper).
Thank you for (understanding/all you have done/grieving on your own time/your reluctance to call us out when we ran out of hand sanitizer that one time we called you back too early because we totally ignored CDC guidelines and common sense.)
I’ll see you (back at work J!/on the floor where you belong/under my thumb again soon.) Until then, (stay safe/remain healthy/be thankful you’re even getting this note and not instructions on how to apply for meager social assistance.)
"Business has been drafting for the past three months as government has led the first leg of this race," Richard Edelman concluded. "Now it’s time for business to sprint to the front of the pack as the focus shifts to reopening the economy. This is a moment of reckoning for business and the promise of a stakeholder approach must now be delivered by filling their supply chains with small businesses and the retaining and reskilling of workers." Read the whole report.
And then talk to your CEO, because whatever you've been doing—and I know you've been doing it around the clock in the best way you know how—it hasn't been good enough.
Of course, some CEOs have surely done better than others.
Near the outset of this crisis—March 17—I wrote "an open letter to American CEOs," telling them, "a nation turns its lonely eyes to you." I advised CEOs to communicate via video every day, answering every question you and your staff can gather from employees and customers. And I promised them that the practice would help them lose their communication inhibitions and start getting real with people.
I've studied CEO communication every day since then. The closer CEOs have come to following my simple and not-particularly-insightful advice, the better they have done.
As the economy trembles on the edge of reopening, it's not too late for CEOs to step up to this daily grind of candor, detail, repetition, consistency that has characterized the best government communicators over the last two months.
But it's high time.
Monday, 11:45 a.m.
I don't post much here about President Trump. That's because I don't have anything very original to say about him. So I've taken to focusing on other things. As CNN should, but won't.
Or as The New Republic's David Roth puts it:
The bigger problem is that the definition by which these things are considered news—basically, because the president says them—is no longer workable.
Or rather, it works only for the wrong parties, in the wrong ways. Trump gets to be on TV, which is all he wants; the news media gets to do popular stories about the president, which is all media executives want. But it is a perfect circle of obfuscatory noise—what Trump says will always be nonsensical and self-serving because his brain is a gilded bowl of rotten nectarines, and any response pegged exclusively and expressly to covering this state of arrested cognition will inherently be similarly nonsensical—and, differently but no more helpfully, equally self-serving. It is true that Trump will never get it right, or tell the truth; he’s not up for the job, and getting it right is just not in him. There is just not very much to say about it.
P.S. Elsewhere in the article, Roth says that when Trump is listening to experts, his expression is that of a dog listening to classical music. Which reminds me to tell you that one of my wife's former students—a young woman who was born with a sly smile on her face—got a puppy, and named it "Trump."
Monday, 10:00 a.m.
A break from our usual coronavirus communication programming.
Today is the 50th anniversary of Kent State—or as we Kent State students called it, "May 4."
When I think of May 4, I think of Dr. Thomas Lough, my sociology professor when I attended Kent, around the 20th anniversary of the shooting.
Dr. Lough (pronounced "Luff") was present that day, and told us of one of his students running toward him with blood pouring out of his mouth.
His wounded student—"a good radical," Lough called him—lived.
And after charges against Lough were dropped, he taught on, eventually introducing a young upper-middle-class kid from a conservative, WASPy little town to his astounding theory that President Richard Nixon actually ordered Ohio Governor James Rhodes to send the National Guard to send a message at Kent State that all war-protesting American college students would hear.
Yes, Lough believed there was a good chance that Nixon ordered the shooting. And he spent much of the semester—far more of the semester than the course curriculum called for—making the elaborate case.
He also educated us on his far-left political philosophy—notions like, the highest-paid jobs shouldn't be those of CEOs but those of people who do work described by the what he called "Three D's": Dangerous, Dirty or Dull.
Conservatives complain a lot about "liberal indoctrination" on college campuses, and I guess they have a point. But it seems to me that lots of college-class kids get a capitalist, conservative, conformist indoctrination every time they turn on the fucking TV or update their "streaks" on Snapchat.
And it's not that I swallowed Lough's theories about Kent State or Karl Marx wholesale. It's that I was forced to confront them—and made to realize they were both strange to my callow sensibility and politely apolitical upbringing, and goddamned compelling! I was never as sure about anything again in my life.
Left, right, or unseen center, that's one of the great purposes of a liberal arts education: Confusing cocksure kids, permanently.
Tom Lough died in 2008, having done his job.