When a company is in a crisis, employees, investors and public supporters rightfully hope for strong and resourceful corporate leadership. So in the wake of Research in Motion’s disastrous Q2 earnings this week, it has to be asked: Did RIM’s co-CEOs measure up? On an earnings call with analysts, co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis chose to accentuate the positive – focusing on robust sales of the recently launched BlackBerry 7 smartphones, gushing about big plans for the Playbook tablet (sales of which have been miserable) and promising an earnings turnaround in Q3. But in the face of such a crummy quarter – during which the company’s profits were down 58% (!) – such rosy outlooks beggar believability, and lend credence to the now-familiar criticism that RIM’s executive leadership is in a state of denial. And then there was the handling of the earnings call itself. As Forbes columnist Eric Jackson noted, prepared remarks took up more than half of the call – leaving just over 20 minutes for Q&A, which is typically the most valuable part for investors. In total, the call took 54 minutes before being ended. Jackson points out that by general industry standards, that’s very brief; for a company in a crisis, it’s ridiculously brief. One could argue that keeping the Q&A short limited the risk exposure for Balsillie and Lazaridis. But I think just the opposite. The tactic suggests obfuscation, not transparency; it speaks of weakness, not strength; it communicates fear, not fearlessness. And those negative attributes are hardly ones you want to communicate when your leadership is under fire. The proof was in the pudding: the morning after the conference call, RIM stock opened down more than 20%, and analysts across the board were downgrading earnings estimates.
There are many ways to drive a message, and one them is by being ready to take clever advantage of those lucky times when the stars line up for you. For Toronto councilor Adam Vaughan, nemesis of Mayor Rob Ford and his cost-cutting agenda, the fact that there was a rat – literally – running amok in the office of the city’s budget chief must have seemed like Christmas morning. While it was obviously no laughing matter that a city staffer was bitten during attempts to capture and dispense with the rascally rodent, Vaughan was still able to make light of the whole thing with the one-liner heard ‘cross the city, joking that the critter and the mayor seemed to be on the same page: “It was looking for gravy. It didn’t find any, so it ate a city worker.”
Faced with a leaked government report this week about corruption polluting the construction industry in Quebec – and challenged by opposition and media to call for a special inquiry, or call an election, or resign – Premier Jean Charest might have been forgiven for quaking in his steel-toed boots. Mais non! Instead, Charest went on the offensive. He held a formal press conference and delivered the forceful message that (as the Globe and Mail put it) his government is part of the solution, not the problem. The premier rhymed off a host of anti-corruption measures the Liberal government had taken – including the leaked report itself – and claimed that “no government ever before has ever done this much to fight corruption and collusion.” For Charest, it was an audacious strategy, particularly in a province that has been shaken by bridge collapses in recent months, and especially in light of a report that claims corruption is rife within the civil service itself. But I like the stance nevertheless – it shows leadership, it doesn’t admit error, and it points to a way forward. All in all, good proof that sometimes the best defence is a good offence
Sometimes you can receive a TD&F Fumble call for not really saying anything at all. Case in point: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s relative silence on this weekend’s scheduled double-whammy shutdown of both the Don Valley Parkway and a big chunk of the Yonge subway line. Both are being done for essential reasons: for the DVP, it’s top-to-bottom maintenance; for the subway, completion of new crossover switches south of St Clair station which will make the system better able to respond to emergencies requiring the turning-back of trains. But the fact that two critical pieces of the city’s transportation infrastructure are being taken out of commission at the same time is the kind of thing that drives many Torontonians nuts – and should have given the mayor an easy issue to rail against. Denouncing the lack of coordination and vowing to put a stop to such double-whammies is the kind of populist stuff which Ford used to be so good at leveraging for strong I’m-with-the-people-on-this-one communications value. He should have been out in front of the story, telling the city hall press gallery how unacceptable this scenario is, and how he will ensure that this is the last time. Instead, his only comments have been reactive, in response to questions such as the one from NewsTalk 1010’s Jerry Agar on Thursday morning. It’s a huge missed opportunity for the mayor to have reinforced his populist image, especially at a time of rapidly declining fortunes in his overall approval rating.
With the milestone 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming up on Sunday, it’s not overly surprising that there are heightened concerns about possible terrorist strikes in New York and Washington. New Yorkers may be, sadly, used to living with those fears, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg still had a delicate line to walk in announcing that “credible and specific” threats have been identified. “The threat, at this moment, has not been corroborated,” he said, adding that “we do live in a world where we must take these threats seriously, and we certainly will.” It was a responsible balance between informing while not frightening the good people of Gotham. Using his podium of office to encourage extra vigilance is both the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do.
As political gambits go, it’s a pretty astute one. This week, US President Barack Obama launched what looks to be a months-long and undoubtedly contentious campaign to pass an ambitious, $447 billion plan to create jobs in America. With the impact of the recent recession still lingering – and unemployment still hovering above 9% – Obama characterized the jobs situation as “a national crisis” in an address on Capitol Hill. He declared it is time to “stop the political circus” and start helping people. And he urged Congress to “pass this plan right away.” Anyone who follows politics will be familiar with such tough wording, and the spin-o-sphere immediately began to handicap Obama’s chances. But moving into election mode for 2012, we think Obama’s jobs talk makes a lot of strategic sense. First, it puts economic realities into tangible terms: when you talk about jobs, you’re not talking about GDP growth, debt statistics or (God forbid) how you’re going to bail out multi-billionaires on Wall Street. You’re talking about something that affects “real people.” As a communicator, Obama is at his best when he’s clearly talking to that audience, and by pushing Congress to pass his plan he’s lobbing a grenade into the Republican camp that we suspect will be far more promising than, say, health care reform, which became a political quagmire for his Administration. The lessons here, from a communications perspective, are “Don’t forget your core” (labour unions, not surprisingly, love the President’s plan) and, most importantly, “Frame your aspirations in human terms.” With apologies to James Carville, it’s not about the “economy.” It’s about jobs, stupid.
We missed out on the fun last week around Toronto city councillor Doug Ford’s proposed vision for the Port Lands area of the waterfront. While he was mocked from many quarters for theme park-esque aspects like the giant ferris wheel, monorail (insert Simpsons song here!) and the hotel in which you can dock your boat in the lobby, Ford certainly did spark a debate. By proposing that city hall wrest control over the future of the waterfront from Waterfront Toronto and get private sector shovels in the ground quickly, Ford provided the ultimate water cooler/talk radio subject matter to get people talking. Sure, there are a million logistical complications standing between the vision and reality, and the enthusiasm being expressed by potential developer partners may have been, shall we say, overstated – but by putting forward such a bold idea and then seizing every opportunity to talk about it in print and on the air, Ford has single-handedly and dramatically reframed the debate about the future of the Port Lands – whether or not monorails are your thing.