Wikipedia. Your mom.

“Don’t rely on Wikipedia,” we are often told.  “It is an unreliable resource.”  This is, in varying degrees, true.  The community-based editing that makes Wikipedia vibrant and sometimes more current than traditional news sources also makes it subject to error, bias, and outright fraud and vandalism.  Moreover, from a legal perspective Wikipedia has time and again been rejected as a source of facts subject to judicial notice.*

The problem as I see it is that having decided that Wikipedia is not authoritative, most people decide that it is useless.  This is another example of the “zero sum” arguments that crop up as too-easy answers to areas that deserve a viewing in shades of gray.**  Wikipedia isn’t useless because it needs to be double-checked.  You just have to use it differently than you would a more authoritative resource.  An authoritative case should be Shepardized, and so should Wikipedia entries be bolstered by citable authority.

There is a lot to be commended about many Wikipedia entries – they can give you a fast, clear view on a variety of subjects both trivial and serious.  They can provide you with new vocabulary that might be useful in a full-text search.  And they might give you some additional facts (which, yes, should be double-checked) about a subject which you were previously ignorant of.

So, just as a reporter’s mantra is, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” so should a serious researcher’s mantra be, “If you find it on Wikipedia, double-check with an authoritative source.”

After all, we don’t despise our mothers and we needn’t despise Wikipedia.

*See what I did there?  I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.

**See also “Wrong Question” and other entries in the “X v. Y” category


If you are interested in seeing how Wikipedia pages develop and evolve, here is a video that describes the process.  It is entertaining and surprisingly current despite having been recorded in 2005.

Context, Part 2

Comprehensive resources can be dangerous things.  Many humans are creatures of habit and will go to the usual well for their answers, but a well that produces fresh, clean water is not much use if what you really want is milk.  This can be especially pernicious for law students, who begin to get the idea that the entire universe of knowledge is contained within Lexis or Westlaw.  But not all the things a practicing lawyer needs to know are contained in statutes, cases, or treatises.

Consider the case of an accident in a warehouse – your client is injured in a forklift accident and there is some question as to the safety procedures and equipment.  “Quick – find me Jones on Forklifts,” right?  Certainly there is such a treatise in one of the big two databases, right?

Wrong.  Also silly.  But it would be a safe bet that most law students who have had an introduction to those databases would turn instantly to them and do a keyword search for “forklift.”  And there are undoubtedly cases galore having to do with forklift accidents.  Perhaps there are even mentions of such accidents in Prosser or other tort resources.

But what does our hypothetical law student really know about the operation of a forklift?  Doesn’t the fact pattern turn on the safety equipment and procedures?  Some judges can write wonderful, detailed, and educational factual backgrounds that give plenty of context for the cases they are adjudicating, but it is a safe bet that reading through them is a woefully inefficient way of looking for information on the topic of forklift safety.  The facts of the particular case at issue are potentially important here: they provide the context for the entire claim.

So, on the one hand we have a doubly expensive resource – a database that costs a great deal to use and is inefficient in terms of providing the factual information that will enable an attorney to assess the potential merits of the case.  On the other hand, there are more precise, non-legal resources that can give the attorney the factual grounding in an unfamiliar subject he or she needs (e.g. the public library, OSHA’s website, possibly even Uncle Fred who is a supervisor in a warehouse and has done this kind of work for 20 years).  Many or most of these are also free for the user.

Thinking about what sort of non-legal information is necessary to provide context for the claim can save a world of aggravation and grief and make the later search for legal authority far more efficient, cost-effective and fruitful.

(For people interested in teaching the combined use of legal and non-legal resources to solve legal problems, I can highly recommend Carrie Teitcher’s fantastic article, “Rebooting the Approach to Teaching Research: Embracing the Computer Age.”)

Context, Part 1

When I worked for the Nasdaq Stock Market, I would often meet with people who asked me a very basic question: “Is [this number] good?”  They didn’t mean, “Is this number correct?” they were asking for a qualitative answer.  They wanted me to evaluate the number they were handing me.

I always wanted to say something flip like, “Yeah – three is a very good number.  But five – look out for five.  Five will cut you.”

I kept my flippancy to myself and instead asked, “Compared to what?”  An earnings per share ratio that is phenomenal in one industry is anemic in another.  Context is key.

Likewise, the iterative and narrow way many people are used to searching for information in their daily lives tends to strip away the idea of context.  Looking for a phone number is not particularly complex.  Finding a restaurant review is fairly mechanical.  But the answer to a client’s question in the real world is not “Section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code.”  It is going to be application of that code section to a specific fact pattern.  It is going to be contextual.

I have read a great deal about how students (in general – not just law students) frequently have a much higher opinion of their ability to find things then their ability actually warrants.  Some blame the “Google-ization” of finding tools: plug in a few keywords, get an answer.  This piece of our current landscape probably does shift thinking: much of the “data in/data out” searching we do on a daily basis might as well be context-free.

Considering a fact pattern in law is not a matter of placing code or regulations or case law on top of the facts, but a complex and sometimes lengthy matter of analysis.  How does this law here relate to and intersect with that fact there?  If this fact changes, how does that affect the whole?  If the law changes, how will it shape the facts of behavior moving forward?

How does this type of analysis change and shape searching strategies and behaviors?  How do other forces (availability of resources, cost, time) shape those behaviors?  Just as in legal analysis, there really is no one answer.  It depends on the context.

Your brand is your brand

…or, the $1.75 reason why Jo-Ann Fabric just lost a customer today.  Behold:

The $1.75 reason why I won't shop at Jo-Ann Fabric anymore

This arrived in a larger order from yesterday.  It was in a plastic bag with a few other spools of thread, and the missing pieces from that spool were not in the bag, so it was clearly broken before whoever packed the order put it in there.

No problem, I thought –  I can take this to the local store and get an exchange.  So, in the process of running errands this morning, I swing by the local Jo-Ann Fabrics to make the exchange and pick up a few other small items.

From the start, I have a bad impression: the store is beyond dingy.  It is dirty and run down.  The stock is disorganized and untidy.  The clerks’ uniform shirts are uniformly dirty.  It is not long after opening, and there is already a long line and only one cashier.  This is not promising, but I am already there, so I pick up a few small purchases and resign myself to the wait.  To the store’s credit, they slowly add staff members to the registers.   Even so, it takes quite a while, and when I get to the front of the line, I quickly explain that I have a bad spool from an online order.

“Oh – we don’t do returns from online orders.  It’s not really the same store.”

“Really?  Because they have the same brand.”

“No – somewhere on the website it explains that.”

Let me explain something as clearly as I can to the people who make decisions that create these kinds of conversations:

Your brand is your brand.

If you want to benefit from a brand name that has customer loyalty attached to it, you have to be prepared for your customers to view that brand as a whole entity — online and off.  Your customers neither know nor care about your corporate structure. Beyond that, when a customer is faced with an employee (your corporate spokesperson, like it or not) explaining that their broken item must be mailed back to the online entity for the approximate replacement cost of the item itself, it makes your customers… unhappy.  And that unhappy experience creates a very strong impression.  Call it a brand association.

As a result, I now associate the entire Jo-Ann Fabric brand with dingy, disorganized stores, unhelpful employees in dirty uniforms, and a corporate policy that is a paragon of customer-unfriendly “gotcha” rules.

Congratulations, Jo-Ann Fabric branding team.  That’s a clear picture of a store I won’t shop at again.

Everything in moderation: fly coach

Last month, the chiefs of the big three automakers flew to Washington in three different private jets to make the case before Congress that their companies could not continue to exist without government assistance. In the annals of “let them eat cake” executive hubris, I’m not sure I know of an example that ranks higher.

So, having been handed their… hats and told, “go away and come back with a plan, not a plea,” one auto chief will make that second trip from Detroit to Washington by driving himself in a hybrid.

Pardon me for being rude, but this is just stupid.

Why is it stupid?  It shines a big, shiny spotlight on the executive’s former egregious act by indulging in a theatrical bit of penance.  It reminds me of the old saying we had when I was waiting tables: If you screw up, apologize once.  If you apologize once, they remember the apology.  If you apologize multiple times, they remember what you did that required an apology. This is silly enough that it rivals Monty Python’s “Restaurant Sketch:”

It also makes any even vaguely colorable reasons the executive might have had for indulging in the private jet in the first place all the more laughable.  Your time is so valuable that you just had to take the G4?  That notion is pretty much shot if you spend almost nine hours behind the wheel (actually, probably more – watch 66 at rush hour. It’s a bear) ostentatiously flagellating yourself in an all-too obvious PR stunt.

The executives in question were called out for acting out of touch with reality, for not understanding the consequences of their actions. In communications terms, the Great Hybrid Drive comes across as reactionary and petulant – and illustrates a continued lack of understanding of what is at stake and why people cringe when executive perqs are preserved at the same time as real people, not numbers like “fifty thousand” lose their jobs.

Here’s a bit of free advice: next time you are called to be humble, do it for real. Fly coach, cope with crying babies and nervous seatmates, and when someone asks you how your flight was, say, “Uneventful. The best kind.”

It’s what real real people do.

ETA: Now they’re all doing it. And they’re also proving my point: the articles that talk about their big drives are also talking about the jets, further cementing the auto chiefs’ earlier stupidity in the public’s memory.

More topical communications examples from the Olympics

Yesterday evening, Nastia Liukin of the United States and He Kexin of China received tie scores in the uneven parallel bars Olympic final. Even as the identical scores were posted, Liukin’s name immediately went into the second-place slot.

The people who were immediately baffled by this included: Liukin, her coach (and father – former Olympian Valeri Liukin), the Olympic commentators on NBC, and probably several million viewers. The tie-breaking mechanism was arcane and automatic, causing outrage from some and suspicion from others. Tim Daggett, NBC commentator and an Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast himself, could only say later in the broadcast that “the computer” had an automatic tiebreaking mechanism, and he seemed unfamiliar with the specifics. The impression that it left with many was that the system was arbitrary, and gymnastics is a subjective enough sport without opening the door any further to suggestions of arbitrariness or caprice.

What could have saved this situation? Proactive, transparent communication from the Olympic gymnastics organization. Even if the tiebreaking rules are available (and I’m sure that researchers at news organizations worldwide were sent scrambling for the IOC Gymnastics rulebook), the situation was unusual enough that someone in the Olympic gymnastics organization should have been able to make an immediate, on-the-floor statement to explain what had happened and why. When even the experts in the field react in puzzlement, you have a communications problem. Only transparency will fix it.

“Drawing the sting”

When I was in law school, a trial practice professor of mine discussed a technique called “drawing the sting.” It referred to the strategic revelation of negative information about your client so the other side couldn’t stage a dramatic uncovering of the same information. The logic was simple: if it’s going to come out, let it come out in a way that allows the home team to retain some control over how the information is presented. This technique, when done well, also has the collateral effect of making you look frank and forthright instead of dishonest and sneaky.

The effect of drawing the sting can ripple outward from the disclosure, having impact far beyond the moment when the information is given. Therefore, whenever possible, the information has to be given in a straightforward, undramatic manner in an atmosphere lacking in emotional charge. The less emotional freight you load on to the revelation, the less it will travel.

As a topical example, consider the following scenario:

  1. Benjamin Boukpeti is the only member of the Olympic Togolese whitewater kayak team.
  2. M. Boukpeti was not considered to be a medal contender, both before the event and after the first run.
  3. M. Boukpeti’s last two runs had the kind of speed, strength, and athleticism that cause sports journalists to write things like, “heroic,” “epic,” and “fairy-tale.”
  4. M. Boukpeti won the bronze.
  5. This is the first ever Olympic medal for Togo.

Taken together, these pieces of information make a stirring, emotional story. Now add one more piece of information to that mix: M. Boukpeti has been to Togo once in his life. He was born in Lagny, France, and makes his home in Toulouse. His mother is French, his father is from Togo and Boukpeti himself holds dual citizenship. He trains with the French national team, but could not have qualified for the French Olympic team. Since he qualifies under Olympic rules to paddle for Togo, he paddled for Togo.

As I watched the coverage of his accomplishment on television, it was plain to me that this last paragraph of facts were all well known to the journalists covering the event, as they mentioned them in a matter-of-fact manner. When M. Boukpeti was interviewed afterward, he was frank and open about his background. As a result, many articles on him concentrate on his achievement rather than his nationality.

Contrast that with this report, which makes Boukpeti’s past and his representation of Togo look clandestine and shady, and imputes cynical motives to his representation of Togo. It acknowledges that his choice of nationality is within the letter of the Olympic regulations, but implies a violation of the spirit. It also implies that the facts of M. Boukpeti’s nationality are not well known and readily obtainable. (I can’t speak to the British television coverage of the event, but the information available on the Internet indicates that you don’t need a “former England & Great Britain kayaker…[and] something of an expert on the sport of canoe slalom” to “reveal… the real story behind a would-be fairytale.”)

If you mentally rearrange the order of the facts above to put the discussion of his nationality second in the numbered ranking, it probably lessens the emotional freight of M. Boukpeti’s accomplishment. The story becomes a bit less of a “fairy tale,” but no less of an athletic accomplishment. It is also how Boukpeti actually handled the facts, which seemed to smooth the ripples of most journalists’ stories about him as well. Now imagine what would have happened if those facts had somehow been concealed – the story discussed in the last paragraph would have been written everywhere, and it wouldn’t have mattered how legal his choice of nationality was: the focus would have been off the bronze and into the dirt.

“Let’s make some noise.”

News releases: they are great tools for communicating important information. Whether you’re letting important constituencies know about a new product launch, a regulatory approval, a big new customer or contract, or some other reason for saying, “Yay, us!” a news release is often the basic means of communication.

When you release good news, often even more good can flow out of that announcement. Additional customers might become interested in your product. Potential corporate partners may come out of the woodwork. If you’re publicly traded, your stock might rise. Success can beget even more success.

But what if you’re in a fallow period? What if you’re working hard on the next new product or service offering but aren’t ready to talk about it yet? There are lots of good reasons to stay silent. Perhaps you are a small organization and giving a progress report on a new product could give a bigger competitor the ability to leapfrog ahead of you into the market. Maybe there are too many variables at present to talk about when your project will be complete. Possibly this is a risky project that you might not want to trumpet to the rest of the world until you’re sure enough it’s going to be a success.

In those fallow periods, there is often a lot of pressure from internal and external constituencies to put out some news. A reporter wants to produce a follow-up to a glowing profile she’s written about your company. A shareholder is getting agitated about what’s going on behind the scenes at his favorite investment. An internal manager, having seen the positive collateral benefits of good news, encourages the communications staff to “make some noise” about a relatively minor accomplishment.

What to do when there’s nothing to say and lots of pressure to say it as loudly as possible? Always remembering that every situation is unique and recognizing any regulatory requirements that might exist for your company, here are a few tips to help manage lean information times:

  1. Manage expectations. When possible, telegraph the potential lack of imminent news to important constituencies. If you can give a range of dates when you may have news, give it – but you will have to have news to give by the end of your date range, so be sure you can deliver. Be sure that you’re clear about the length of time it takes to make it to the next milestone and why it will take that long.
  2. Don’t cry wolf. The manager who wants you to “make some noise” about that minor accomplishment is not doing the company any favors. If the company gets the reputation for putting out news releases about trivia, after a while the company’s news isn’t going to get read.
  3. Where possible, bundle. While a single release about one small accomplishment can be a letdown, a release that notes several smaller accomplishments can possibly slake your audience’s thirst for information.
  4. Update your website. When the news bites are too small to bundle, consider whether or not they can be added to your website. Flag these items on the homepage so your audience members know where to go. Better yet, if you have a reasonably steady stream of smaller news bites, consider starting a blog, complete with RSS feed. While you’re at it, flag larger news items here. That way, RSS-savvy audience members can get their complete news picture from a single source and your company remains top-of-mind.

One last piece of advice: when you get to the end of your news drought and are ready to talk again, there will be a lot of temptation to trumpet the news loudly. Maintain a sense of perspective, not just about your company, but about how your news will play in the context of what is going on in your industry as well. Since employees of a company often have a hard time maintaining that perspective, outside advice can help. Contact me if you would like to discuss how I can help you with your communications planning and implementation.

Location, Location, Location

I’m going to apologize right up front here, because what I have to say is not particularly new. Unfortunately, it keeps getting repeated in different forms because people just keep getting it wrong. It’s about where you say something and how you say it. In this, the realtor’s essential mantra is also that of the good communicator:

Location, location, location.

You have a complicated story – perhaps it is technical or scientific. It is important that people understand what you’re bringing to the marketplace. So many people worry about the technical nature of their product that there are a million slide decks out there that have some version of this:

Some slide decks contain about ten versions of this type of slide. And just about anyone looking at someone else’s deck will say, “You need something different here. There are too many words, too many bullets, not enough white space in that slide.”

But the owner of that slide – he or she knows just exactly how complicated the story is, and that person is terrified of leaving something crucial out. There’s just one problem: if the story is that complicated, you are not going to explain it in a typical slide presentation. There is too much to absorb. There is certainly too much to read in the limited time available.

That’s where the realtor’s mantra comes in:

Location, location, location.

In other words: where can you put supplemental information that fills in the detail? The typical presentation is 20 minutes to a half hour. That’s an informational gatehouse with no indoor plumbing. You can’t house your weekend party of 12 guests in that kind of a venue. So what sort of communications real estate is appropriate for that 7-bedroom, 5-bath mansion of information and how are you going to direct your guests there?

White papers, journal articles, abstracts, federal filings, patents: all of these are structures where you can house those big informational galas. And the acreage you need is generally right there on your website. So do yourself and those sitting in your presentation a favor and use the presentation as a gatehouse to give out maps of the grounds and direct your listeners further up the driveway to your mansion on the web.

Silence, mortals.

Quick quiz: is the communications discipline a unique function, or is it integrated throughout a business?

Answer: both.

(Did I mention I have a law degree? Lots of my answers are variations on the theme of “it depends.”)

Digging deeper into the question, communication is always happening at all levels of a business. Unfortunately, what is communicated is often what the communicator would never intend. For example, silence is a form of communication, and a particularly pernicious one to many leaders. In the face of management’s silence, employees see only actions. In the absence of verbal messages to modulate these actions, they interpret, speculate, and talk.

Or, in other words, they gossip. When this gossip is handed from person to person, it gains an unmerited patina of credibility. As they’re waiting for a meeting to start, Robynn says to Neville, “I don’t know what’s going on upstairs, but there was a big meeting the other day that wasn’t on the usual management calendar: maybe we’re being spun off.” Later in the day, Neville turns to Fiona and says, “I’ve heard that we might be spun off,” while they’re both waiting for the microwave to free up. Two days later, in response to Chris’ frustrated rant, Fiona tells him, “They’re spinning us out.” In three easy leaps, like that grade school game of “telephone,” a bit of idle speculation is turned into an expensive problem as employees spend their workdays being distracted, worried, and unsettled instead of committing their energies to the corporate problems they are paid to solve.

Can managers always tell employees everything? The short answer is no. The long answer is a complicated and situational mix of what is sensitive, what is useful, and what is mission-critical. But a manager who continually and proactively communicates with staff gains a measure of credibility and a short period of silence is less likely to be filled with fevered speculation and gossip. The main key is the cultivation of a key question: “Who needs to know this?”

This sounds tremendously simple, it’s true – and once it is a habit firmly ingrained, it is simple. But like all good habits, it takes a lot of cultivation. Not every piece of information needs to be communicated to every person, and in the same way every time. Where many managers realize the need for communication in the big, sweeping situations, they often miss the opportunities for communications on smaller issues. The question that needs to become ingrained is, Who needs to know?

A compliment at a senior staff meeting on a project that is being handled by a subset of the manager’s staff? Who needs to know? At the bare minimum, the leader of that project should know. One approach: an e-mail to all staff members on the project, letting them know that their efforts are being noticed.

A technological change that might have some impact on the manager’s IT department? Who needs to know? IT is the obvious port of call here, but managing downstream effects is important also. Therefore, a call or quick meeting with the IT manager to make sure any necessary transition is handled smoothly – and communicated to those end-users affected might be in order.

A staff change at a major competitor? Who needs to know? What member of the manager’s staff is going to find this piece of information useful to fine-tune their approach to their job?

The daily result of such constant communication is trust. And when the spin-out is contemplated but can’t be communicated downstream yet and silence is necessary at the moment, that trust is going to be extremely valuable.