The sticky pole

March 19, 2010

Why does anyone want to be a politician now?

There are a number of factors counting against it as an attractive career: comparatively poor salary (one reason it seemed acceptable to top it up with expenses); general mistrust – if not downright dislike – by the public at large; unsociable hours & travel; astonishing bureaucratic lethargy; etc.

However there are two really big ones that stand out for me, and there is something to be learnt here.

1) They all seem mediocre, because no-one really believes that they sign up in the name of public service. We tend to think of them as middle managers who’ve slipped sideways, in it for the duck islands because they couldn’t get onto the Boots grad scheme.

I have to say I don’t hold with this; if nothing else, look at the battery of reasons to do any other job. I believe only a genuine sense of duty, a desire to improve and to shape, could get someone over that hurdle. I’m sure that’s not always how it pans out, but I think it’s a valid hypothesis for a starting line.

You might say that power is an alluring bauble, but it is plainly evident to any observer, potential applicants included, that any power that does come is extremely hard to achieve and obviously very unwieldy. I don’t think anyone thinks that you can start banning people called Gerald and cut all diplomatic ties with the Shetland islands in your third week.

2) In our public lives, we as a country have become physically allergic to failure. ┬áThis is dangerously insane – learning lessons this way is the fundamental reason humans have risen to our status as Earth’s pre-eminent monkey, and we all constantly do it in our own, private lives.

I see this dichotomy every day; we can run a tactical online ad campaign, and discover that one particular site or format just doesn’t perform. We don’t run around screaming, or write to the Daily Mail and demand the nostril hairs of the buying team are plucked out one by one. We compile the results, establish what works and then repeat that bit. Of course we do.

I fail to see the difference between this and PFI IT schemes, or ID cards, or buying helicopters.

OK, so in the public realm then the money being apparently wasted is our money – but in my private realm, the money being spent is my client’s, so I am immediately and constantly accountable.

There is a separate issue of doing it once and failing to learn the lesson – and of course that should be highlighted as failing to perform, just as we should be slapped for recommending a website that has not delivered time & again.

There is a management concept specifically called ‘rewarding failure’ – because if you don’t accept that not everything will work, then you will never try anything new and your company will wither & die. It’s not like this is new news.

So why would you be a politician? Everybody starts off hating you as a matter of course, assumes you’re an imbecile, you can’t really get much done – and in any case if you try anything new then you will be burned as a witch.

Lesson: give people who at least should be helping you the benefit of the doubt, and be prepared to learn that some things don’t work.

We cannot recall

March 15, 2010

There are two interesting things about Toyota’s epic recall-a-thon:

1: They are not alone in recalling cars on a large scale. So far from alone, in fact, that they should get some badges and a special jacket made, and elect a club secretary.

2: They have handled it really, really badly.

To look at the first point, an instructive 15mins spent reformatting the list of all car recalls ever issued in the US from the NHTSA here shows you very quickly that pretty much every car manufacturer you can think of does this all the time. In 2010 alone, so far 22 different proper car marques have issued recalls in the US – more if you include Ford, Chrysler & GM!

Only joking – actually no I’m not. Anyone would think that the US media canon wasn’t very happy about Toyota taking over GM’s world number one┬áspot… I must have missed the torrent of panic & opinion about the Chrysler 300 saloon’s wheel nuts being recalled, or the instrument display of the Jeep Grand Cherokee [both listed as 2010 recalls above].

Anyway, the point is everyone does this, all the time. Are they as serious as Toyota’s issues potentially are? Not always, but definitely sometimes.

So why is this such big news now?

Along with no doubt a number of other important factors, one reason is my second point; how was this issue fumbled so badly by such a massive company? The presumption here is that massive companies are more prepared & well fortified from a communications perspective. That may sometimes be the case, but often the reality is that it becomes another process, just like ordering new wheel nuts or instrument clusters.

In the case of Toyota, one of the things that happened was that this issue blew up 10 days before a scheduled fortnightly PR meeting – meaning no-one did anything until the process told them to. After all, you don’t want just-in-time automated systems ordering more wheel nuts whenever they fancy. And all those fancy haircuts at the PR agency are just another supplier, aren’t they?

So there was a big gap, which inevitably got filled with the opinions of everyone who could be bothered to give one. When President & CEO Akio Toyoda (yes, relation) did make a statement, he immediately personalised it by being ‘deeply sorry’ about everything – rather than appearing in control of what had caused the situation. And then he drove off in a nice big, safe Audi

Things to learn here:

1) People don’t hang around waiting for you (as the official brand) to tell them what actually happened; they will form conclusions based on the available evidence, and if you’re not there when that happens – tough.

2) Embrace all dialogue. Imagine you’re a Prius owner that gets an email from Toyota, before there is a story at all, saying ‘It’s no big deal, but because we’re so safety-minded and curious, we’d like to check our solution to the problem everyone has – of making cars stop & go – is still the best one in the market. So come and say hello and we’ll give you a free [insert anything of value here]’. It’s the same solution, but doesn’t totally destroy your brand’s core value..

3) Buy an Audi.

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