Polite Answers Are Perceived as Higher Quality

A study published in Management Information Systems found that the more polite an answer is, the more likely it is to be viewed as a good answer. Researchers studied conversations in Stack Exchange, a community site for posting questions and answers, on which question posters rate responses.

The only exception to this finding is when the person posting the response is considered to be an expert. Then politeness doesn’t seem to matter.

To avoid this “politeness bias,” which could falsely elevate responses, the researchers propose giving more weight to ratings by users other than the poster. And rather than marking a response as “best answer,” responses could be marked “accepted.”

In the example, below, Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) workers discuss bank transfers.

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We can see that the impolite answer is harsh, telling the poster to check instructions before asking a question, as if to say, “You’re wasting my time.” However, that answer provides almost identical information with one exception: “go to the Earnings page.” I’m not sure how helpful this is, but otherwise, the responses—at least in terms of clear instruction—are very similar.

This study reminds me of another that found well-written online reviews to increase sales—even if the review was negative. Although this is more about writing style and grammar than tone, both have implications for getting ideas accepted online.

Discussion:

  • How would you assess the two responses above? Could you see the questioner selecting the polite answer over the impolite answer for “best answer”?

  • How, if at all, are you influenced by writing style, grammar, and tone in online discussions and reviews?

Uber CEO Explains Disappointing IPO

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sent email to employees about the company’s disappointing IPO. Shares sold for $45 but dropped the next day to a low of $37.08. In his email, Khosrowshahi encourages employees to take a long-term view and compares the company to Amazon and Facebook, which he says also experienced trouble after their openings.

Team Uber:

I’m looking forward to being in front of you at the All Hands tomorrow, but I wanted to send you a quick note in the meantime.

First off, I want to thank you all for your passion for and commitment to Uber. We simply would not be here without you.

Like all periods of transition, there are ups and downs. Obviously our stock did not trade as well as we had hoped post-IPO. Today is another tough day in the market, and I expect the same as it relates to our stock.

But it is essential for us to keep our eye on the long-term value of Uber for our customers, partners, drivers and investors.

Every stock is valued based on the projected future cash flows/profits that the company is expected to generate over its lifetime. There are many versions of our future that are highly profitable and valuable, and there are of course some that are less so. During times of negative market sentiment, the pessimistic voices get louder, and the optimistic voices pull back.

We will make certain that we communicate our incredible value as a company that is changing the way the world moves, but also the value that we are building for our owners. But there is one simple way for us to succeed – focus on the work at hand and execute against our plans effectively.

Remember that the Facebook and Amazon post-IPO trading was incredibly difficult for those companies. And look at how they have delivered since.

Our road will be the same. Sentiment does not change overnight, and I expect some tough public market times over the coming months. But we have all the capital we need to demonstrate a path to improved margins and profits. As the market sees evidence, sentiment will improve, and as sentiment improves, the stock will follow. We will not be able to control timing, but we will be able to control the outcome.

We will be judged long-term on our performance, and I welcome that. It’s all in our hands.

I look forward to being there at the All Hands to answer Qs and tell you more.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • Why would Khosrowshahi write an email in advance of an employee meeting?

  • What persuasive strategies does he use to explain the IPO performance?

  • Which arguments do you find least and most convincing?

OpenTable Announces Privacy Changes

An email from OpenTable summarizes changes to the privacy policy and directs readers to the entire policy on the website. The company is using a lighthearted approach to convey what information is shared and how users will have better control over what they are willing to share.

We can view this as a positive message, although it uses some persuasive strategies. Overall, the company is trying to simplify a complex issue—and the email simplifies the far more complex policy.

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Discussion:

  • Analyze the message. Who is the primary audience, and what are the communication objectives? How would you describe the tone and writing style? What organizational strategies are used?

  • What persuasive strategies does the message use?

  • Overall, how effective is the message in meeting its communication objectives? What, if anything, could OpenTable do differently?

Typo on Australian Banknote

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Australia printed 400 million $50 bills with a typo, and about 46 million of them are in use.

On the front of the bill, we see a picture of Edith Cowan, who was a social reformer and Australia’s first female parliamentarian. Near her shoulder, we also see a transcript of her first speech to the the Western Australian Parliament. In tiny print, but clear when it’s enlarged, is a misspelling of “responsibility,” missing the third “i.” The bills were in circulation for about six months before discovered by a radio station.

The Reserve Bank of Australia has since confirmed the mistake, saying it will correct the error in the next print run. A spokesperson explained the error:

“The process of designing and printing a banknote is complex and iterative. We have strict quality assurance processes, but like any manufacturing process, errors can occur. We have reviewed our processes to remove the likelihood of such an error occurring in the future.”

Discussion:

  • How does an error like this happen? How could it have been prevented?

  • How do you assess the bank’s response? Who is the audience, and what are the communication objectives? What, if anything, should the bank say or do differently now?

Southwest Responds to Boeing 737 Grounding

Southwest sent an email to customers about the grounding of Boeing 737 planes following two crashes.

The message, which is also posted on the Southwest website, expresses sympathy for the lives lost and emphasizes safety as the top priority, yet touts the 737. What remains unclear is the effect on passengers. At the end of the website, Southwest could be clearer about what passengers should do now:

I realize this disruption will inconvenience our Customers during this busy spring travel season, and we will do everything in our power to mitigate the impact to our operation. For that, I offer my sincere apologies. To support our Customers, we are offering flexible rebooking policies for any Customer booked on a canceled flight.

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Nothing is more sacred to all of our Southwest Family Members than the trust our Customers place in our airline every day, on every flight. You have our commitment to minimize the disruptions to our Customers’ travel plans, while adhering to the FAA’s requirements and ensuring the Safety of our fleet.

Southwest may have received feedback because additional text is included in a box at the bottom of the page:

Until further notice, you will not be traveling on a 737 MAX 8. Our goal is to operate our schedule with every available aircraft in our fleet to meet our Customers’ expectations during the busy spring travel season.

Due to high call volumes and extended hold times, we strongly encourage Customers to check their flight status at Southwest.com.

For more information, see the 737 MAX 8 Travel Advisory.

The last link, the 737 MAX 8 Travel Advisory, doesn’t seem to clarify. The company was also criticized for the image on “A message from our CEO.”

SW plane image.

Discussion:

  • Analyze the Southwest messages. Who are the primary and secondary audiences, and what are the communication objectives? Assess the organization and writing style.

  • How could Southwest improve its communication to customers? Do you agree that the messages for affected customers could be clearer? For example, how do they know whether they’re booked on a 737, and what should they do if they are?

  • In Southwest’s later messages, the woman’s image is omitted. Should Gary Kelly’s photo be placed there instead? Why or why not?

OurBus Handles a Mistake with Humor

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OurBus sent an email with a link that wasn’t yet working and quickly corrected the mistake with some fun. The company offered a $7 discount for rides booked on St. Patrick’s Day and corrected the link with the subject line, “Our Bad. That code doesn't quite work yet...”

In the first email, the date is clearly March 17, but the subject line, “It's your lucky day. Our flash sale starts NOW,” is certainly deceiving.

Discussion:

  • Assess the second message from OurBus. How well did the company handle the situation? What changes would you suggest? (Hint: alignment.)

  • Are people still saying “my bad”? Did they intend to play on “OurBus” with “Our bad”? If so, would it have been better to write, “OurBad”?

  • Which leadership character dimensions does this situation illustrate?

College Admissions Bribery Scheme

The U.S. Justice Department has charged college coaches, exam administrators, and parents with scheming to get kids into elite universities, such as Yale, Stanford, USC, Georgetown, and University of Texas at Austin.

The complaint names 32 defendants and charges them with conspiring to do the following:

(1) to bribe college entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating on college entrance exams

(2) to bribe varsity coaches and administrators at elite universities to designate certain applicants as recruited athletes or as other favored candidates, thereby facilitating the applicants’ admission to those universities

(3) to use the façade of a charitable organization to conceal the nature and source of the bribe payments.

William Rick Singer founded Edge College & Career Network, also known as “The Key,” which facilitated these schemes. A cooperating witness submitted phone transcripts and described how the organization works:

What we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school … They want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing. And so they want in at certain schools. So I did what I would call, “side doors.” There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement, which is 10 times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in. Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody, but there’s no guarantee. They’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee.

Some schools have posted statements on their websites. Compare statements from USC, Yale, and Stanford.

Singer photo source.

Discussion:

  • This situation illustrates the failing of which leadership character dimensions?

  • Compare the schools’ responses. What are the communication objectives? What differences do see in the messages, and how do you account for them? Which statements work best?

Open Letter to Amazon

After Amazon’s failed move to Long Island City, Queens, local executives, lawmakers, and others signed an open letter asking Amazon to reconsider. The letter focuses on the benefits NYC would gain from having Amazon, particularly 25,000 new jobs.

Also appearing as a full-page ad in the New York Times, the letter includes some emotional appeal about New Yorkers’ “charm” and acknowledges difficulties in getting community support for the project. Not until the last paragraph do we see a shift from New York to Amazon and how the company would benefit from building in Long Island City.

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Discussion:

  • What principles of persuasion does the letter illustrate?

  • How could the letter be improved?

  • What leadership dimensions are illustrated? Which may be lacking?

HBO CEO Departs

HBO CEO Richard Plepler is leaving the company. His announcement came shortly after HBO’s chair of the board spoke with the WarnerMedia CEO about possibly taking over HBO and Turner.

Here is Plepler’s email to employees:

My dad always gave the best advice. Whenever there was a difficult decision to make, he counseled that since no one could ever have perfect visibility into the future, the best thing you could do was trust your instincts. It has been a touchstone for me throughout my life, and I have found myself returning to it again recently as I think about what is an inflection point in the life of this wonderful company. Hard as it is to think about leaving the company I love, and the people I love in it, it is the right time for me to do so.

In the past weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the incredible journey of this company in the nearly 28 years that I have been blessed to be here. It’s a journey of great pride and accomplishment because so many of you, and many others before us, have made HBO a cultural and business phenomenon. Thanks to all of you, we are today churning on all cylinders both creatively and as a business. Thanks to all of you, I can move on to the next chapter of my life knowing that the best team in the industry remains here to carry on our continued progress and success. As I have said before, this is the team of teams.

It has been the great joy of my professional life to share this ride with you over these many years. And the great honor of my professional life to be your CEO. I don’t have the words to express my gratitude for the support and talent that made our success together possible. But suffice it to say, my love for this place, and for all of you, is deeply a part of me and will last a lifetime. I look forward over the coming weeks to thanking as many of you as I can for the thousands of contributions big and small that have made “this thing of ours,” to quote Tony Soprano, so special. I have told John, who has been nothing but gracious since we spoke, that I would work closely with him to assure a seamless and organic transition.

We’ve created a great and unique enterprise and I know that you will protect its legacy and do all to enhance its future in the years to come.

Know that I will always be cheering loudly, even when I am outside this building, as HBO continues to thrive.

With respect, admiration, and gratitude,
Richard

Image source.

Discussion:

  • Assess Plepler’s email. Who are his primary and secondary audiences? What are his communication objectives?

  • What principles of business communication does Plepler follow, and how could he improve the email?

  • What, if anything, does he give as the reason for his decision? Should he say more about this? Why or why not?

  • What leadership character dimensions are illustrated by his email?

Instacart Tries to Make Things Right

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Criticized for underpaying shoppers, personal grocery delivery company Instacart is changing its compensation model. Personal shoppers were always paid a minimum for orders, but the company had started including tips in that minimum amount. The company admitted to paying only 80 cents in some cases for someone to pick and deliver a batch of groceries. In a petition, personal shoppers claimed that “customers' tips are essentially being paid to Instacart rather than to the workers ourselves.”

In a blog post, Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta admits “clearly we haven’t always gotten it right.” He announced policy changes to ensure the following:

  • Tips should always be separate from Instacart’s contribution to shopper compensation

  • All batches will have a higher guaranteed compensation floor for shoppers, paid for by Instacart

  • Instacart will retroactively compensate shoppers when tips were included in minimums

Shopper image source.

Discussion:

  • Read Mehta’s entire blog post. What principles of business communication does he follow? What, if anything, can be improved?

  • In what ways does Mehta demonstrate strong leadership character?

  • How could Instacart have avoided this situation, including the negative effects on personal shoppers and the negative publicity?

Don't Ignore Email

A New York Times opinion piece by Adam Grant warns us not to ignore emails because it’s rude. He compares ignoring email to not acknowledging someone who says hello when walking by you in a hallway. He cites a survey that, on average, employees have 199 unread messages in their inbox.

But Grant addresses people who say they’re “too busy” to answer emails, and he makes several exceptions:

You should not feel obliged to respond to strangers asking you to share their content on social media, introduce them to your more famous colleagues, spend hours advising them on something they’ve created or “jump on a call this afternoon.” If someone you barely know emails you a dozen times a month and is always asking you to do something for him, you can ignore those emails guilt-free.

I wrote an article last summer encouraging people to respond to any email, including the type he says we can ignore. I’m not Adam Grant, so I’m sure I don’t get his volume of messages. I see responding to an inappropriate or misguided request as a learning opportunity for the sender. For most of us, a short response doesn’t take too long and, as Grant says, is the civil thing to do.

Cover image source.

Discussion:

  • How do you handle emails such as those Grant describes? How many do you receive?

  • Describe an email you sent that was ignored. In retrospect, was it appropriate to send? Why do you think the receiver didn’t respond?

Jeff Bezos’s Medium Post

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News is swirling about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s long Medium post accusing the National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail” for pictures of him and a woman other than his wife. Bezos claims that Chairman and CEO David Pecker acts of behalf of President Trump to discredit key people, and he cites an immunity deal between the Enquirer and the justice department for these actions. President Trump has openly criticized Amazon for not paying enough taxes.

A popular story about the piece is how Bezos used the word “complexifier”:

“My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me. It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy.”

A Slate article explores whether it’s a real word, and it is not in standard English. The “investigation” concludes that the word “appears most at home in the canon of self-help business gobbledygook.” As expected, memes, like the one here, are popular.

Bezos’s post is interesting from a business writing and character perspective if nothing more.

Discussion:

  • Analyze Bezos’s post: who are the primary and secondary audiences, and what are his communication objectives? How is it organized? What is the tone?

  • To what extent does Bezos meet his communication objectives?

  • Overall, what’s your view of his approach to address the situation with this post?

  • Which leadership character dimensions does Bezos demonstrate?

Marriott Breach Involved Passports

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Although fewer people were affected by the Marriott data breach than originally expected, millions of passport numbers have been stolen. Marriott representatives have clarified that the breach happened at Starwood before the acquisition was completed. In its latest statement, Marriott confirmed that the following were stolen:

  • There were approximately 8.6 million unique payment card numbers, all of which were encrypted

  • There were approximately 5.25 million unique unencrypted passport numbers and approximately 20.3 million encrypted passport numbers.

Officials say it’s unlikely that someone could create a fake passport based on only a number. But the breach is worrying because passport numbers provide intelligence agencies with information about where people go, particularly when they cross borders. The U.S. hasn’t charged China with the breach, but experts say tactics are similar to those used in other breaches.

Marriott is offering new passports for guests whose documentation was used for fraudulent purposes.

Marriott image source. Passport image source.

Discussion:

  • Analyze Marriott’s communication so far: the audience, objectives, organization, tone, and so on. What works and what could be improved?

  • Compare the communication to how other companies handled a data breach.

  • Should Marriott offer new passports to all affected guests—not just those whose documentation was used for fraud? Why or why not?

McKinsey PPT Slide Causes Problems

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Back in 2006, Boeing hired management consultancy McKinsey to help the company launch its 787 Dreamliner despite rising titanium prices. According to a New York Times article, McKinsey evaluated a proposal for Boeing “to mine titanium in India through a foreign partnership financed by an influential Ukrainian oligarch.”

On a PowerPoint slide, the consultancy suggested that Boeing “respect traditional bureaucratic process including use of bribes.” Included on the slide were names of eight “key Indian officials.” As the article notes, “Nowhere in the slide did McKinsey advise that such a scheme would be illegal or unwise.”

McKinsey admitted authoring the report only after learning that the Times had a copy. Details are fuzzy, and McKinsey isn’t offering more explanation.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of McKinsey’s responsibility in this situation? Do you believe they encouraged illegal activity, were just doing the job of management consultant firm and considering cultural realities, or something else?

  • The PPT slide seems to have implicated McKinsey. Should the consultants have been more careful about what was documented? Why or why not?

  • What character issues may be at play in this situation?

  • The NYT author wrote, “Nowhere in the slide…” I would say, “Nowhere on the slide…” Which is correct—or are both acceptable?

Facebook's Rules for Managing Political Speech

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A New York Times article describes a complex rulebook to help employees decide whether to address political speech on the site. The decision process is daunting, and guidelines include extensive examples of content—text and visuals—that may indicate hate or inspire violence.

The author questions whether Facebook employees are making rational, consistent decisions:

The guidelines for identifying hate speech, a problem that has bedeviled Facebook, run to 200 jargon-filled, head-spinning pages. Moderators must sort a post into one of three “tiers” of severity. They must bear in mind lists like the six “designated dehumanizing comparisons,” among them comparing Jews to rats.

Others say Facebook has too much power because the company controls speech in international political situations. For example, before an election in Pakistan, during a 24-hour media blackout, Facebook may have been the go-to source. Before this time, Facebook distributed 40 pages of “political parties, expected trends, and guidelines” to its employees. But guidelines sometimes contradict each other, and Facebook relies of Google Translate, which may not be accurate or precise enough.

Cover image source.

Discussion:

  • When Facebook faced criticism about sharing information with technology partners, company leaders responded in a blog post. If they were to do something similar in this case, what should they say to rebuild confidence in the site?

  • Although the rules can be a “bit baffling,” as the author says, Facebook is trying to address other criticism about its response to hate and violence on the site. What, if anything, can the company do differently to accept accountability?

Facebook Defends Sharing Information with Partners

Facebook is responding to new criticism about how it shares users’ information. A New York Times report identified a few examples of how Facebook allowed other technology companies to access private information:

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.

In a blog post, Facebook’s Director of Developer Platforms and Programs, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, explained the reason for about 150 companies to have such access:

Today, we’re facing questions about whether Facebook gave large tech companies access to people’s information and, if so, why we did this.

To put it simply, this work was about helping people do two things. First, people could access their Facebook accounts or specific Facebook features on devices and platforms built by other companies like Apple, Amazon, Blackberry and Yahoo. These are known as integration partners. Second, people could have more social experiences—like seeing recommendations from their Facebook friends—on other popular apps and websites, like Netflix, The New York Times, Pandora and Spotify.

To be clear: none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people’s permission, nor did they violate our 2012 settlement with the FTC.

The post goes on to explain the value to Facebook users of having their information shared.

Discussion:

  • Read the full blog post. How well does the company defend its practices? Analyze the audience, communication objectives, writing style, and so on.

  • How well does the company accept responsibility for sharing information?

  • What else, if anything, should Facebook do to rebuild its image? The company has faced increased criticism and regulatory interest in the past few months.

Marriott Security Breach

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Personal information of more than 500,00 guests was stolen from the Starwood reservation system. Exposed data includes payment card information, and critics say the company could have avoided the breach years ago. In 2015, Starwood announced a small breach, which cybersecurity experts say should have inspired the company to do more at the time. Starwood argues it didn’t realize the risk, and Marriott leaders argue that they had not yet acquired Starwood. On Friday, Marriott shares were down 5.6%.

A notice at the top of the Marriott homepage reads, “For more information on the Starwood guest reservation database security incident, please click here.” Although the breach was from a Starwood database, the media is consistently reporting the news as “Marriott.” That link and a press release on the website both go to legal sounding statements, although they do provide FAQs at the bottom.

Lawsuits have already been filed against the company for failing to protect users’ data.

Discussion:

  • Is the company taking adequate responsibility for the breach? Explain your response.

  • How can Marriott respond to this crisis and protect the brand at this point?

  • How can the website information be improved? Consider the primary and second audiences, communication objectives, organization, writing style and so on.

Good News, Bad News About Student Preparation for Work

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A survey of freshmen and seniors at 500 U.S. colleges shows that students feel positively about their career preparation. The According to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), 93% of students say what they learned in school is relevant to their future career, and perhaps surprisingly, students with professional majors agree only slightly more than students in arts and sciences programs.

This is good news. But a Chronicle of Higher Education article identifies a disconnect: employers aren’t so confident about graduates’ preparation. Employers want students to immediately apply skills on the job, but faculty may not be teaching specific work-related skills, such as running a meeting or writing memos—two examples from the Chronicle article.

Discussion:

  • Students of business communication certainly know how to write a memo—or more accurately, an email. What other skills should be included in a college curriculum for any major?

  • One argument is that employers are responsible for skills training, while the university teaches critical-thinking skills. What’s your view?

  • What report writing principles does the NSSE follow, and how could it be improved? Particularly analyze the charts and graphs, such as the one shown here.

GM Lays Off 15,000 Employees

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General Motors will lay off about 15,000 employees and close five U.S. factories. About 2,250 employees accepted a voluntary buyout, which could include six months of pay. But that number wasn’t enough for GM to reach it goals.

About 8,000 salaried employees, or 15% of the workforce, will leave the company. Engineers and designers are hardest hit, and the company will hire more technology workers to focus on electric and hybrid vehicles. The move reflects shifts in consumer preferences against small cars, such as Cruze compact and Volt, in favor of SUVs and trucks. Gas prices are low, so people want larger, more convenient vehicles.

In a statement, GM outlined its plans for the future, and Chairman and CEO Mary Barra explained the decision:

“The actions we are taking today continue our transformation to be highly agile, resilient and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future. We recognize the need to stay in front of changing market conditions and customer preferences to position our company for long-term success.”

President Trump said he spoke with Barra and was “very tough.” He also said he’s “not happy” about the plant closings and is hoping for the company to rebuild in Ohio.

Discussion:

  • Evaluate GM’s statement. What business writing principles are followed, and what could be improved?

  • What else, if anything, should GM do to maintain brand image during the cuts? For example, Barra could agree to media interviews. Should she? Why or why not?

Controversy About Wildfires

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As wildfires rage in California, let’s look at controversy about the cause. So far, fires have taken 31 lives, and more than 200 people are missing. Governor Jerry Brown requested federal aid.

In a tweet, President Trump blamed California for poor forest management. This drew a harsh response from the California Professional Firefighters association, which called the statement “dangerously wrong.” In a statement, the group defended state actions, firefighters, and victims:

“The president’s message attacking California and threatening to withhold aid to the victims of the cataclysmic fires is Ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines.”

Later, the president tweeted a more compassionate message:

More than 4,000 are fighting the Camp and Woolsey Fires in California that have burned over 170,000 acres. Our hearts are with those fighting the fires, the 52,000 who have evacuated, and the families of the 11 who have died. The destruction is catastrophic. God Bless them all.

Discussion:

  • Analyze the California Professional Firefighters statement: audience, objectives, writing style, organization, etc. How well does the group defend its position?

  • How well does the statement illustrate principles of persuasion: logical argument, emotional appeal, and credibility?

  • Which leadership character dimensions does this situation illustrate?