Archive for December, 2010

The Lame Duck Nightmare before Christmas

The other night I had this terrible dream. I walked into this large room with marble columns. There was a huge wooden boardroom table. Hundreds of people were sitting around the table and all of them were talking at the same time.

I asked the man next to me, “What is this we are seeing?”

“The Board Meeting of the Uncle Sam Corporation of America,” he replied.

“Why are they having a board meeting right before Christmas,” I asked.

“To get done the things they haven’t done all year.”

“Like what?

“Pass a budget.”

“But it’s December. They went a whole year without passing a budget?”

“Well the fiscal year started in October, so it hasn’t been a whole year.”

“Still, that was three months ago. Why didn’t they pass a budget then?”

“Well they knew that the shareholder evaluations were coming up in early November. They didn’t want to pass a budget that would have anything in it that might tick of the shareholders before the November evaluation.”

“How did the evaluation work out?” I asked.

“Bad. The shareholders were angry. Fired a bunch of them.”

“What were the shareholders mad about?”

“Not passing a budget. Overspending. Doing nothing to increase sales or make sure the company kept jobs. Pork barrel stuff.”

“So these are the new board members holding a board meeting to pass a budget and do the other things the shareholders want done?”

“No. These are the old board members. See Nancy over there? They fired her as supervisor.”

“Then why does she have that gavel like she’s still in charge?”

“Because she is still in charge…at least until January.”

“Why are they passing a budget now? After all they didn’t do one all year and wouldn’t they want the new board members to pass a budget? After all, the new members will have to live with that budget.”

“Nah. The new guys are a bunch of health nuts anyway. They want healthy spending, a healthy economy, and healthy job growth. And they’re all on some special diet.”

“What diet is that?”

“Well they’re all a bunch of whatchamacallit, Tea Drinkers. Yeah, that’s it, Tea Drinkers.”

“What did the ones who got fired drink?”

“Kool Aid.”

“So what’s so special that they have to pass the budget now?”

“You know…earmarks and stuff.”

“What are earmarks?”

“That’s when you get stuff like having a building named after you.”

“Isn’t that like the Pork Barrel stuff the shareholders were mad about?”

“Sure it is. But wouldn’t you want your name on a building?”

“Even if it meant breaking the company? Idon’t know…”

“Hey, they gotta spend money so that the employees have money to go buy the products and increase sales.”

“But what if the employees just buy stuff from the Manufacturing Company of China and the WeSpeakEnglishSorta Service Company of India?” How will that help keep employees in the Uncle Sam Company of America?”

The man just shrugged.

“So let me see if I understand this. A bunch of the board just got fired and Nancy was demoted. So then the board meets just before Christmas, with Nancy in charge, to pass a budget that they didn’t want to pass before shareholder evaluations…?” I asked.

“Right.”

“And in that budget there’s a bunch of the stuff that the shareholders and the new guys coming in don’t want…?”

“Yup.”

“This is no way to run a company!”

“That’s how we run the Uncle Sam Company of America.”

“But this is crazy!”

The man turned and looked at me.

“No, it’s Congress,” he said.

I woke up in a cold sweat. Then I felt relieved when I realized it was just a nightmare.

My alarm clock went off and the news radio came on.

That’s when I found out that the nightmare is real.

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A World without Exile…is it wise? Update: Middle East Revolutions, Gaddafi and Berlusconi

Generally, I don’t want to make a habit of reissuing old posts. Recent events have made a strong case for the premise of this piece and it deserved a revisit. This post was originally written weeks before the Tunisian Revolution, the Egyptian Revolution and the Libyan Revolution. President Zine El Abadine Ben Ali of Tunisia wound up in exile in Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has peacefully retired to a palace along the Red Sea. Yet that did not happen in Libya.  According to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi:

“Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don’t think anyone can make him change his mind,” he told reporters.

Granted Berlusconi certainly has his own share of political and legal problems. But of all the European countries Italy has been the closest to Libia and Berlusconi probably has the best read of the Libyan strongman’s mindset. His statement gives credibility to this post that I originally made last December.

Why haven’t the two Korean nations united as did East and West Germany?

Perhaps it is because there is no way out for North Korea’s ruling Kim family. If the Korean nations unite, who can doubt that a prosecutor or judge in Europe will indict them for crimes?

This was the same dilemma that faced Saddam Hussein. He knew the US invasion was coming. Days before the start of military action in 2003, Saddam was offered a life in exile. Why not live out his days with his wealth and Viagra?

But Saddam only had to look at the situation of his friend, former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Four years earlier Milosevic, after having left power in Serbia, was arrested and held in a jail cell. He was placed on trial. He died in prison.

Saddam knew Milosevic well. The Iraqi’s had their bunkers built by the Serbs who had learned from the US bombing in the 1990’s.

They were kindred spirits. So when Saddam was offered exile, he had only to look at Slobodan’s fate and conclude that he was better off trying to stick it out in Iraq. We all know the rest.

Contrast this to the Exile of Chilean General and dictator Augusto Pinochet several decades earlier. Pinochet was allowed to live in exile in Spain with some of his ill-gotten gains. The transition in Chile to democracy was relatively smooth and peaceful when compared to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The Kim’s of North Korea have no doubt watched what happened to Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. They knew them both. People who are used to leading entire countries can conceive of retirement with their wealth, but living in a prison cell is worse than death.

The European courts and judges mean well. The idea of dictators living out their years in the lap of luxury without being brought to justice is distasteful. No civilized human being likes that idea. Part of the idea is making sure that dictators and others know that there is an international watch on their doings and that this would encourage good behavior.

But reality has us working in a world with paranoid dictators at a time that nuclear technology is achievable. Dictators and repressive regimes are turning to the Korean model of buying time and respect by acquiring nuclear weapons. Wounded dictators with nowhere to go are as dangerous as cornered animals.  They will fight to the finish. Now they can do so with nukes.

The exile option is far from perfect (Europeans know this from the Napoleon experience, where his return from exile led to another war.) The alternative, attempting regime change against dug in despots with atomic weapons (think North Korea, and soon Iran) and suddenly exiled dictators playing in their retirement palaces doesn’t seem so bad.

The world and European courts need to reexamine their prosecutorial zeal and allow the exile option to reemerge.

After the recent events in Lybia and Berlusconi’s remarks the last sentence above is more relevant than ever.

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Is your organization prepared to be Wikileaked?

The giant Wikileaks data dump is making headlines for the contents of the revealed documents. It is also making headlines as a landmark internet event. The revelation of thousands of pages of Pentagon, US Department of State and other government documents was followed with the news that a major financial institution is next.

This will not be the last event of this kind. Digital documents, downloading, thumb drives and processor speeds have made this too easy. It can happen to you and your organization. There are technical people who can advise you far better than I can on how to beef up your information security. The history of information technology teaches us that almost all security measures can eventually be defeated.

That leaves you with no choice. You must have a communications strategy ready if and when a data dump happens to you.

Know thyself

When running political campaigns, one of the most vital departments is “oppo” – or opposition research. Researching the opposition is good – researching yourself is vital. 

Years ago , when starting a campaign for a candidate for public office, I did my due diligence and asked the candidate my usual series of uncomfortable questions. The list included “Have you ever been arrested?” The candidate told me “No.” Three days later, the candidate sheepishly admitted that he had been arrested once in college days. It was a case of mistaken identity and nothing came of it.

Sure enough, as my candidate was heading for a big win, his desperate opponent trotted out the arrest record. Since we had done our research, the campaign was ready and turned the tables on the mudslinging opponent. There was no “deer in the headlights” or “gotcha!” moment. The result was victory.

In the same way, your organization must find out what is in your files. Are there potentially embarrassing internal assessments about clients, vendors or competitors? What about evaluations of current and former employees, or even current top management? Are there any digital skeletons in your virtual closet?

Keep it Confidential

This must be done by a highly trusted and discrete individual or team– either inside or outside the organization. After all, you will be handing this person or team the “keys to the kingdom.” The last thing you want to do is choose a person who ultimately becomes a leaker!

Here’s an idea on how to help keep their findings confidential; hire the assignment done under the retainer of an attorney. This may keep their findings in the undisclosable realm of attorney client privilege. (Disclaimer: please verify this with your own legal counsel, I am not an attorney nor do I play one on the internet.)

You may want to have a team do this research since financials as well as language can come into play.  Were there any comments that could be misunderstood from your audits, or tax records?  Are there any legal issues? It helps to have someone who can analyze financials, someone with legal and someone with a public relations background.

Have a Plan

Once you have done your self-audit, ask yourself how bad is it? What will this look like as the main headline of the Drudge Report or the equivalent for your industry?  Do not pooh-pooh the impact – after all you know the reason behind each revelation, don’t trust that your entire side of the story will cut through the Fog of Scandal. What will your answer to embarrassing questions be? This means questions from media, from clients (angry to be a part of the scandal), business partners, investors and employees. The answers for each of these audiences may be different to address their concerns.  Think them through and have them ready.

If you get a sinking feeling in your stomach when you read the results – consider placing on retainer public relations professionals with crisis management skills and experience. These are people who can help you weather the digital storm by staying calm, at the very moment almost everyone in your organization will be flustered.

Prepare Now

Proper preparation is vital today. Who knows who will be leaked next? If you are ready, you can at least minimize damage, and possibly even turn your fifteen minutes of infamy into a positive.

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