Archive for July, 2010

Fraud Charges Against Oracle Remind Us That Storytelling Gravitates Toward Corporate Train Wrecks

whistleblower oracle story

This blog is geared to explore how storytelling techniques can be applied to brand building.

But what about the story that a company doesn’t necessarily want to tell?

Like when things go wrong.

We’re about to enjoy a front-row seat to such a case study with the Justice Department calling out Oracle with the news release headline:

“United States Files Complaint Against Oracle Alleging Contract Fraud.”

Nothing says “this is serious business, mister” like when the government bestows the word “fraud” on you. Just ask Goldman Sachs which shoveled $550 million to the SEC in exchange for removing the scarlet F from their chest.

The inflammatory nature of the F-word triggers headlines like the one in the San Jose Mercury News: “Ex-employee says Oracle fleeced feds on software.”

I think we can all agree that “fleeced” isn’t a word that bolsters your brand equity (unless you’re a major league baseball team at trade deadline).

Using a few pieces from the Merc article, we can logically project how this story will play out:

“Oracle salespeople used a variety of questionable tactics to hide the fact they were overcharging the federal government for software, in a scheme that cost taxpayers millions of dollars from 1998 to 2006…”

While “millions of dollars” isn’t exactly a precise number, to borrow from the late Senator Everett Dirksen, we’re definitely “talking real money,” which has the Fed’s attention.

“… former Oracle manager Paul Frascella claimed the company encouraged its salesforce to structure deals — and even use “white-out” to hide figures on printed contracts — so the government wouldn’t learn about repeated violations of that agreement.”

The government has someone on the inside that has documented his claims and can name names. Oracle is already in damage control mode reaching out to every employee who ever shared a cup of java with Frascella. Those same folks can expect a friendly call from their local Feds.

The whistle blower, Paul Frascella, left Oracle in 2008 but filed his claim in 2007.

This means he gave himself another year to not only collect more documentation but to do his xeroxing guided by government attorneys. We can also surmise that the government probably told him when he could leave the company.

Plus, note that the Justice Department only jumped into the fray three years after Frascella’s initial claim, no doubt making sure they had an iron-clad case before going public.

Obviously, Mr. Ellison and his team of attorneys will determine Oracle’s course of action. Given the combative nature of the company, it’s possible they’ll pursue the character assassination route with Frascella. I’m sure Frascella has already taken the precaution of padlocking his garbage cans.larry ellison oracle fraud

Regardless, it’s likely we’ll see language gamesmanship from Oracle; i.e., we did give you our best prices. Let’s step back for a moment and define this concept called “best.” The complex nature of software makes pricing extremely complicated. Are we talking about the best price for the software or the best price in helping our friends in the government achieve the best total cost of ownership, known as TCO? You see, there are so many variables that …

As noted in previous posts, you can’t separate executive behavior from the outbound communications during a crisis. They are one and the same as we saw with Toyota’s fussy gas pedal and continue to see with BP.

But when Oracle does communicate to the outside world, they can still apply storytelling techniques.

I don’t mean they should strive to entertain.

This story will be plenty entertaining without Larry channeling Wayne’s World with a top-10 list on why the government has a “shweet” deal with Oracle. 

Here’s what I do mean.

Oracle is going to investigate the situation. They’ll learn exactly what went down. They’ll also decide on corrective actions that will prevent such a scenario from occurring again.

This puts Oracle in the perfect position to articulate what was and what will be.

I think I’m on safe ground in assuming there will be a sizable gulf between the two, a classic storytelling technique for creating drama.

To reach the happily ever after, you also need to get rid of the bad guys which calls for firing those who cheated the government as well as those who encouraged the conduct.

And finally, you need a hero.

How about Frascella?

Talk about an unexpected ending that will leave people aghast.

Can you imagine Ellison thanking Frascella for bringing this unacceptable behavior to his attention?

Now, that would be blockbuster.


Top Five Elements That Have Shaped Quest for Creativity

Newsweek’s cover story on “The Creativity Crisis” caused me to reflect on the forces that have shaped my own approach to creativity.

Here’s my top-five list with a touch of psychoanalysis:

  1. Self esteem from Mom and Dad: Hate to start on a syrupy note, but my parents stayed on message until I moved out for college: “Anything is possible with hard work.” Understanding that I can’t depend on the peanut butter in my sandwich finding its way to a colleague’s melted chocolate bar for the eureka moment has served me well.
  2. Bravery from my high school yearbook advisor: His name was John Hoge. He taught English, but his guidance for our high school yearbook is where he left a lasting impact. Talk about ahead of his time. He had us reflecting the year through current events like the Patty Hearst kidnapping. More importantly, he coached us on bravery; i.e., it’s not enough to come up with a creative idea. You need to express it and do it … which means being brave enough to stand up to ridicule.
  3. Interdisciplinary skills from J-school at the University of Arizona: They stressed that creativity comes from learning stuff outside the reporter’s box. Today, I find many ideas can be triggered from simply hanging out at the Barnes & Noble magazine rack and checking out stories and ads that have absolutely nothing to do with technology, consumer electronics and energy. When I’m absorbing a large amount of varied information, I strive for a Zen state that I call zero gravity, allowing the information to push my mind wherever it pleases. Geez, I’m starting to sound like Phil Jackson.
  4. Power of the group from teaching: When conducting a workshop or guest lecturing at a university, the best part is always harnessing the collective brainpower of the group. Recognizing creativity is just as powerful as coming up with your own ideas.
  5. Decompression from overseas flights: Most people flying to Asia or Europe in United coach experience anxiety or worse. Assuming I’ve been able to avoid the dreaded middle seat, I find nothing says creativity like 10+ hours in the air. There’s something to be said for periodically getting out of the day-to-day fray and liberating creativity. I’ve also learned to throttle my desire “to share,” so my laptop download after arriving at the hotel doesn’t pepper colleagues with a zillion emails.

The Newsweek story makes the point that creativity scores for kids were steadily rising until 1990 at which point the numbers started a consistent downward march.

The story never talks about the element of bravery, but I can’t help wondering if this element alone could make a difference.

If you’re looking for dialogue on this topic, Charlie Rose tackled the Newsweek article and creativity last week.

P.S. Sorry about not breaking up the text with a visual or two, but I found WordPress to be fussy on this fine Sunday evening and opted to publish rather than wait for Monday help. 

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Chicken Gone Bad

I’ve decided to live on the edge.

By eschewing a SEO-friendly headline, I run the risk of attracting readers researching salmonella in poultry.

When this post actually reflects a rumble through the KFC website where I came across a section called “Picnic Planning.”

At this point I’m thinking this could make a terrific mini case study on thought leadership. After all, one doesn’t intuitively associate a fried chicken company helping the customer in ways that go beyond a bucket of wings.

Then, I read the copy.

How can I put this?

It’s not exactly tadpole science.

Let’s review the section point-by-point starting with the “Do”:

Make a timeline of everything that needs to be done. A party planning checklist can become your best friend when you’re in a time crunch.

Thank you, Martha, and way to push the language envelope with the phrase, “time crunch.”

Make sure to take pictures of ALL your guests, not just your favorite few.

I’m sorry, but this is just flat bad advice. If I took my Aunt Zelda’s picture, she would crush me.

Send out thank you notes to those guests who came bearing gifts. A nice touch is to include a photo of that person at the party.

Ok, now I’m connecting the dots. Take a photo of all guests who bring gifts (“bear gifts” makes it sound like we’re colonists meeting with locals).

Ask for help! Since a picnic is such an informal occasion, it’s okay to ask guests and family members to help pitch in. Be sure to have tasks/suggestions ready.  

As my wife has proved time and time again with our kids, asking is the easy part. It’s the reciprocal action that gets tricky.

Now comes the “Don’t:

Forget to give your guests fair warning.

Fair warning? Do the guests need to walk across a bed of hot coals before they can roast their marshmallows?

Forget to ask the neighbors to an outdoor party to avoid hurt feelings or annoyance with the noise level. It’s a thoughtful-and smart-gesture.

Not so fast. Your precious picnic invitation can serve as a nice piece of leverage; i.e., trim that avocado tree hanging over our yard or bear (now that’s how you use this verb) the consequences. 

Forget to bring extra chairs and portable tables for last-minute guests.

Did the picnic move? I thought it was at the casa where chairs and tables should be in storage (remember we don’t want to annoy the neighbors).

Perhaps KFC should replace this section with ”How To Liven Up a Picnic,” an approach with endless storytelling possibilities.

I can see it now.

If you offer a tatoo station, the works of art should be tasteful and non Goth.


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Revisiting the Disconnect Between PR and Bloggers

I’ve noticed a spike of recent attention devoted to building relationships with bloggers.

One of the better ones came from Gini Dietrich and her interview with Mickie Kennedy from eReleases.

With this in mind, I’ve dusted off a previous post that addresses this very topic:

Robert Scoble, the poster child for escaping corporate cubedom for the virtual pulpit, penned a post titled “What do the freaking tech bloggers want?”

It’s a convincing view.

A bit longwinded perhaps, but if “Scobleizer” is etched in your masthead, you get a pass to periodically pontificate.

The following line captures the gist of Scoble’s take:

“Bloggers are being commoditized.”

He goes on to say:

“If we just go to press conferences, or only deal with embargoed news, and report on the same news everyone else is reporting on, well, then, just what reason is there for our business to exist? How will we build an audience that’s any different, than, say, TechCrunch or Fortune’s or ZDNet’s efforts? How will we justify to our sponsors that they should sponsor us as we are doing the same thing as everyone else? Especially if we have a smaller audience? Yeah, advertisers really love getting THOSE kinds of sales pitches. Imagine walking into a big company and putting up a Powerpoint that says ‘we’re the same as Techcrunch, but smaller.’ What’s the chances you’ll walk out with a sponsorship?”

Hard to disagree.

In short, great blogging depends on information not in the public domain.

This is a tough one for smokestack PR which revolves around public-domain content, a one-to-many model also known by that scientific term “mass blast.” The news release is the best example of information earmarked for the public domain.

I’m not saying the news release doesn’t have a place in outbound communications. For a range of reasons, not the least being public disclosure and SEO, the news release can be the right tool for the job.

But public-domain information doesn’t work for bloggers.

Back to Scoble’s point about being commoditized, bloggers need fresh stories, unique access and turf to navigate on their own; otherwise, how do they differentiate their offerings?

Which poses a problem for smokestack PR.

Storytelling takes time. 

And it’s not a one-to-many approach in the blogosphere. Instead, it’s about pulling together the right content and sources for a single blogger.

The ROI comes from forming a genuine relationship with the blogger and one-off stories with the potential of being flung to the far reaches of the Net via the viral effect.

Scoble wrapped up his dissertation on what bloggers want from PR with an anecdote about powwows put on by Microsoft and EA:

“… That was really great because there wasn’t any pressure to report on anything, just a chance to get to know you, your team, and see some of the things you are working on. Same thing at EA last week. By providing experiences where we can get our hands on your products, meet your team, etc, we’ll discover new story ideas together. I found a few at EA that I would never have known about if they didn’t have an event where we could hang out for a day.”

We’ll discover new story ideas together.

What a concept.


Top Storytelling Posts From First Half Of 2010

2010 sparklers

Are we really at the midway point of 2010?

In honor of the milestone, I’ve captured my personal eight – lucky in Chinese numerology – favorites from the first half of the year.

1) Communicating with Fresh and Compelling Language

This was my first edition of “Moes Takes,” a vehicle to call out clever quotes in stories and show how they would have looked in dulled-down form. For example, Meir Statman, finance professor at Santa Clara University, offered this ditty in The Wall Street Journal:

“The market may be crazy, but that doesn’t make you a psychiatrist.”

The juxtaposition of crazy and psychiatrist makes for great wit.

Dulled-down version:

“The markets are erratic so it’s extremely difficult for the average person to understand.”

2) Open Letter to Toyota Customers Hits Pothole

It’s amazing how the BP tragedy has put the Toyota recall into the distant memory category.

But Toyota dominated the business headlines for several weeks and could never seem to hit the right communications note to diffuse the crisis.

Its open letter to customers set a tone that I dissected in this post.

The second line can only be described as Clintonesque:

I am truly sorry for the concern our recalls have caused, and want you to know we’re doing everything we can – as fast as we can – to make things right.

Notice that Toyota stays away from apologizing for an accelerator that seems to have a mind of its own. Instead, they’re sorry — no, make that “truly sorry” — that they caused heartburn from implementing the recall.

This type of language gamesmanship causes the customer to check out before getting to the part that matters– that Toyota is going “to make things right.”

3) Storytelling 140 Characters at a Time … Not

Intrigued by the concept of microstorytelling, I conducted an experiment reworking the first graph of Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” into a tweet stream. Here’s an excerpt:

Here’s another proof point- the boy always goes down to help the guy carry his coiled lines.

If it’s pathetic, it’s not functional. If it’s functional, it’s not pathetic. That’s my deep sea thinking for the day

I saw the sail … pathetic #tiger.

I agree with @ernest- saw the boy help carry the gaff and harpoon and even the sail furled around the mast.

Pathetic but functional #rachelray.

4) Essay Makes Case For More School, But Student Writing Skills Seem Just “Fine”
A Wall Street Journal piece took the position that U.S. kids are falling behind academically because they don’t spend enough time in the classroom.
Refuting this claim, I shared writing from actual high school essays.  

“Long seperated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.”

On one hand, you shouldn’t feel like you’re taking the SAT to figure out a love story. On the other hand, the ambiguity pulls you in because you can’t be 100 percent sure when the lovers will actually collide.

5) The Wall Street Journal Prints Lame Name-calling Article

Every once in a while I’m inspired to go down the original reporting path.

The Journal deemed Google poaching a Sun employee who had criticized Apple in his personal blog as worthy of an article.

This prompted my own digging. 

“It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers,” Mr. Bray wrote on his personal Web site. “I hate it.”

Perhaps with Madoff fading into the background, The Journal has a surplus of investigative bandwidth.

Can you imagine?

A company criticizing a competitor.

6) Storytelling in Warren Buffet Shareholder Letter

Among Warren Buffett’s many gifts, he’s a master storytelling.

His latest shareholder letter provided the fodder for this post:  

Long ago, Charlie laid out his strongest ambition: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” That bit of wisdom was inspired by Jacobi, the great Prussian mathematician, who counseled “Invert, always invert” as an aid to solving difficult problems. (I can report as well that this inversion approach works on a less lofty level: Sing a country song in reverse, and you will quickly recover your car, house and wife.)

I just tried this with a Merle Haggard tune and it works, a sad reminder that no matter how many times I played the Beatles song “I Am The Walrus” backwards, I could never make out “Paul is dead.”

He’s right.

7) Storytelling in Social Media and Traditional Media

If we were playing American Idol, this post won the popular vote.

After speaking at the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing on storytelling, a Chinese magazine interviewed me on the topic. This post encapsulates my answers.

The vast majority of people have been programmed to think business is serious so their communication must be dry and boring and, yes, serious.

On the positive side, if you can create a personality, it literally becomes a differentiator in this sea of sameness … which is where storytelling comes in.

Storytelling can become a powerful tool in creating a company’s personality.

8) Pogue Wraps Product Review in Allegory

It’s not easy to entertain in product reviews.

David Pogue goes one step further, bringing dry humor to product features and functionality.

I had some fun reverse-engineering this particular review on digital cameras.

The review goes old school with the lead ‘graph:

Centuries ago, a young boy in Japan was preparing for a long journey. “You will need much drinking water,” said his master. “Construct a barrel that will catch the rain.”

You can almost sense David Carradine flashing back to his Grasshopper days, an allusion that keeps as the story unwind.    

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