Reciprocity in the News

Students of persuasion likely learned about reciprocity. In my class, we discuss reciprocity as a logical reasoning type and as one of Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion. We also talk about quid pro quo, meaning “this for that,” as a type of sexual harassment.

Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “A Linguist’s Guide to Quid Pro Quo,” referring to the discussions between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

President Trump and his supporters have gone to the heart of the issue, denying any quid pro quo. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted, “What a nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger.” Defenders also say that this type of reciprocity is common for political leaders.

Pinker believes that an explicit “if,” “then” construction isn’t necessary for a quid pro quo agreement:

It’s true that the transcript of the reconstructed conversation does not reveal a smoking sentence with an “if” and a “then.” But to most readers, Mr. Trump’s claim that he was merely musing about his druthers does not pass the giggle test. That is because people in a social relationship rarely hammer out a deal in so many words but veil their offers in politeness and innuendo, counting on their hearers to listen between the lines.

More typically, we see politeness in reciprocal transactions. During the call, President Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”

This article also raises issues about a “transcript,” which he describes as a reconstructed conversation. The summary isn’t verbatim, and it’s unclear whether a recording exist.

Discussion:

  • Describe reciprocity as a method of influence. What is the value to business relationships, and what dangers should be avoided?

  • Talk about a time when you practiced reciprocity, but it felt imbalanced—either for you or for the other person? How did it feel? How can avoid this in the future?

  • In this case, do you think President Trump crossed a line, or do you believe his statement, “There was no quid pro quo”?

WeWork: "Humbler"

Several articles in the past few weeks have scolded WeWork CEO Adam Neumann and the investors who followed his story.

The Wall Street Journal was the first to describe Neumann’s odd behavior and published another article, “WeWork Investors Turned Off by ‘Sloppy’ IPO Filings.” The recent article explains one problem in the filings (shown below):

“A section headed ‘illustrative annual economics’ that assumed 100% workstation utilization vanished, for example, as did two graphs portraying a typical location going from ‘-$’ to ‘+$,’ with no y-axis showing the actual dollar amounts being depicted.”

A New York Times article, “Was WeWork Ever Going to Work?” criticizes investors for missing obvious problems with the company’s initial business plan, such as the reliance on start-up revenue when most entrepreneurial ventures fail. According to this report, it took people finally looking at the data to realize how much We is losing and how hard it will be for the company to succeed.

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The article includes other examples of investors’ blind exuberance:

“It is not merely money that separates the ruling class from the rest of the country. Often it seems as if it is the gaping difference in the application of common sense. Ultimately, it was the bankers, technocrats, statesmen and acolytes of the data-junkie class who were willing to believe that Elizabeth Holmes, a 19-year-old college dropout who thought a black turtleneck would make her Steve Jobs, was going to revolutionize blood-testing. It didn’t seem to matter that she could not deliver any real evidence to prove it.”

An Inc. article, “The Future of WeWork: Leaner, Humbler, and Duller,” suggests a new path for We. The author suggests less hype, fewer employees, and more discipline for the company to survive.

WeWork image source.

Discussion:

  • Who do you blame for WeWork’s failed IPO?

  • If you believe the New York Times article, investors are gullible. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, why might this be the case?

  • Read the “Note”—the fine print—under the table, shown above. How do you interpret this information?

  • What should We do now to build credibility and save the business?

East Carolina University Leader Placed on Leave

East Carolina University’s interim chancellor is being investigated for inappropriate behavior with students. One video shows Dan Gerlach chugging beer and dancing with students, and photos show him with his arm around a student at a local hangout in Greenville, NC.

Gerlach wrote a statement in his defense:

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When I first started here, and even before, one constant concern that I heard was that our students needed a leader of the university to be present and approachable, someone who can speak to them in their language. That’s what I’ve set out to do at ECU. I regret that these photos are being perceived as anything more than what they are.

A member of the board of trustees said, “This is very concerning without question.” However, the bar owner defended the chancellor in a tweet:

I wasn’t there, but two of the staff told me that several people were kind of excited to see the chancellor out and in the bar…It really is a damn shame. The guy came in with some off duty cops to have some beer. Just wrong place, wrong time.

Discussion:

  • How do you assess Gerlach’s response? Explain his perspective of the situation.

  • Analyze the bar owner’s tweet. How much credibility does he have in this situation?

  • What do you think of university administrators socializing with students in this way? Do you have a different perspective of faculty? Why or why not?

Amazon Response to Employee Walkout

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Like many around the world during the Global Climate Strike, hundreds of Amazon employees walked out of their offices yesterday. Employees have been urging Amazon leaders to take more steps to reduce fossil fuel dependency and wrote an open letter back in April. The pressure seems to be working.

On Thursday, CEO Jeff Bezos announced The Climate Pledge, with the following commitments:

  • Commits to net zero carbon by 2040 and 100% renewable energy by 2030

  • Orders 100,000 fully electric delivery vehicles, the largest order ever for electric delivery vehicles

  • Invests $100 million in reforestation projects around the world to begin removing carbon from the atmosphere now

  • Launches new sustainability website to report progress on commitments

The Pledge encourages other businesses to sign on, with Amazon leading the way. Bezos said, “We’re done being in the middle of the herd on this issue — we’ve decided to use our size and scale to make a difference.” Amazon employees reacted positively.

Discussion:

  • Analyze the employees’ open letter. What persuasive strategies do they use? Look for examples of logical argument, emotional appeal, and credibility. What organizational strategies do the writers use?

  • The Amazon announcement doesn’t mention employees’ influence in the decision, although news articles and employees make the connection. Should Bezos include this recognition? Why or why not?

  • Describe a CEO’s dilemma in situations like these. When is it appropriate for leaders to meet their employees’ demands, and when should they resist? Did Bezos take the best course of action?

CEOs Advocate for Gun Safety

CEOs are encouraging senators to pass stricter gun regulations, such as background checks and a “Red Flag” law that allows guns to be taken from someone who poses a threat. The leaders of 145 companies sent a letter asking for the following:

“That’s why we urge the Senate to stand with the American public and take action on gun safety by passing a bill to require background checks on all gun sales and a strong Red Flag law that would allow courts to issue life-saving extreme risk protection orders.”

The Trump Administration has implemented a ban on bump stock devices, which allows a shooter to fire in more rapid succession, and President Trump has supported more thorough background checks for gun buyers.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of CEOs taking on this activist role? What is driving them, and what are the potential risks?

  • What observations do you have about the companies that are represented—and perhaps about those that are not?

  • Analyze the letter by considering the audience, communication objectives, organization, writing style, and so on. What works well, and what could be improved?

Papa John's Attempt to Rebuild the Brand

After a tough couple of years, pizza chain Papa John’s is trying a new approach: an ad campaign featuring former NBA player Shaquille O’Neal. The campaign references the company’s history with an addition to its “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza” slogan: “better day.”

Sales were down, and then the company took another hit after founder John Schnatter criticized NFL leadership for allowing players’ protests. He parted ways with the company after using the “n” word during a conference call that became public.

According to Papa John’s chief branding officer, Shaquille “represents the pied piper of fun.” From the ad here—and two others produced by the company—it’s clear that fun is a key component.

One commentator asks, “Why is Shaq in every commercial?” A video compilation shows him representing Gold Bond, Oreos, Krispy Kreme, JCPenney, Carnival Cruise, and more.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of the new ad campaign? How effective do you think the campaign will be?

  • Is Shaq a good choice for Papa John’s spokesperson? Why would the company choose him? Is he overused by brands?

Backlash After President Trump Fundraiser

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Equinox and SoulCycle customers are not happy about a fundraiser for President Trump sponsored by the companies’ owner, the chairman of a real estate firm. Threats of boycotts and cancelled memberships provoked quick responses from both companies.

SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan also said, “SoulCycle has nothing to do with the event and does not support it. … We know who we are and we know what we believe in, and nothing will ever change that.”

Capitalizing on the brands’ distress, other fitness companies are offering discounts and free trials to try to win business.

Soul Cycle image source.

Discussion:

  • More company executives feel inspired towards political activism. What are the advantages and risks?

  • Did the real estate company owner, Stephen Ross, act inappropriately by hosting a fundraiser? Why or why not?

  • Analyze the companies’ statements. What persuasion strategies do they use to rebuild each brand?

  • Compare the statements. Does one work better than the other? What criteria do you use to compare them?

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Capital One's Response to the Breach

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A hacker got access to 140,000 Capital One customers’ credit information and social security information, and about 106 million people were affected by other leaked information. Officials arrested Paige A. Thompson, who goes by “erratic” and was a former Seattle technology company software engineer.

In a bar chart, a BBC article puts this breach in context of others. Capital One’s press release describes the company’s quick response:

“Capital One immediately fixed the configuration vulnerability that this individual exploited and promptly began working with federal law enforcement.”

The release also includes a statement from Chairman and CEO Richard Fairbank:

"While I am grateful that the perpetrator has been caught, I am deeply sorry for what has happened. I sincerely apologize for the understandable worry this incident must be causing those affected and I am committed to making it right."

In addition, as expected, the release includes information for customers, offers free credit monitoring, and provides an FAQ.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • Analyze the press release. Consider the audiences, objectives, organization, tone, and so on.

  • How well does Fairbanks demonstrate humility in the press release? What other leadership character dimensions are illustrated? How well does he inspire confidence in Capital One?

  • Analyze the BBC chart shown here. What works well about the chart, and what else would be helpful to understand these breaches in context?

Why Political Campaign Emails Are Successful

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With more than 20 democrats still in the 2020 presidential race, campaign emails are sounding more “desperate,” according to a Wall Street Journal article. The emails may be annoying, but they reap high rewards.

The number of candidate emails reached a high of 130 last weekend and are likely to continue. The article explains, “There is no such thing as too much. And the more cringeworthy the content, the more likely you are to click and give money.” Expect long subject lines, time-sensitive pleas, all-caps, contests, attempts at humor, and invitations to dinners and chats with candidates.

Candidates are trying to make themselves likeable and are practicing authenticity. Whether we know them any better from these emails is questionable, but the fundraising results are clear.

President Trump email source.

Discussion:

  • Have you received emails from candidates? What has been your reaction? Have you been inspired to donate to a campaign?

  • Assess President Trump’s email shown here. What principles of persuasion does his campaign use, and how effective do you find the message for fundraising?

Nike Flag Shoe Controversy

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Nike pulled shoes with flag decorations and is taking some heat for the decision. The shoes featured 13 white stars, reflecting an early version of the American flag created by Betsy Ross in 1776. But, according to a Bloomberg article, “The design recently has taken another meaning for some Americans as far-right groups have claimed it as a symbol of their cause. It has also been criticized as evocative of an era when slavery was still predominant in the U.S.“

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who endorses Nike products, and others asked the company to remove the shoes because they are considered offensive. The company complied but is facing backlash from some groups, and the Air Max 1 USA sneakers are selling for up to $2,500 a pair. The company also issued a statement:

“We regularly make business decisions to withdraw initiatives, products and services. Nike made the decision to halt distribution of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.”

Sneaker image.
Colin Kaepernick and sneakers image.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of the sneaker image: offensive, patriotic, or something else?

  • How do you assess Colin Kaepernick’s role in the controversy?

  • Did Nike do the right thing in pulling the sneakers? Why or why not?

  • Assess Nike’s statement in response to the controversy. What else, if anything, should company leaders have said?

Boeing at the Paris Air Show

After two fatal plane crashes involving its 737 Max jet, Boeing is trying rebuild its image, and the company made some headway at the Paris Air Show, an international aircraft sales event.

Company leaders are coming closer to admitting mistakes more directly. CEO Dennis Muilenberg said, “We clearly had a mistake in the implementation of the alert.” Muilenberg also admitted that company communications were “inconsistent” and “unacceptable.” Kevin McAllister, the company’s head of commercial aircraft, said, “We are very sorry for the loss of lives as a result of the tragic accidents...our thoughts and our prayers are with their families," and "Our priority is doing everything to get this plane safely returned to service. It is a pivotal moment for all of us.”

At right is a video of McAllister discussing future plans.

Illustrating confidence in the plane, IAG, which owns British Airway, ordered 200 new 737 Max jets, worth about $24 billion at list price. Airbus wants a chance to bid, and we’ll see whether the request is granted.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • Based on this and other news reports, how well is Boeing recovering from its crisis? Read more about reactions to the IAG order to help inform your conclusion.

  • Analyze Kevin McAllister’s communication in the video. Compare his style and approach to Dennis Muilenberg’s. What similarities and differences do you observe?

Harvard Rescinds an Offer

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Harvard withdrew an admissions offer after discovering racist comments by the applicant online. The applicant, Kyle Kashuv, posted his version of events, including Harvard’s withdrawal and his responses before and after the final decision.

Kashuv became an activist for gun rights after he survived the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. He joined Turning Point USA, which The Chronicle describes as “a right-wing organization with chapters on many college campuses.”

Despite his explanation and apology, Harvard decided to rescind the offer. ]

Harvard College image source.

Discussion:

  • Read Kashuv’s account of what happened as well as news articles. What’s your view? Did Harvard make the right decision? Why or why not?

  • What, if anything, could Kashuv have done to prevent the withdrawal? Could he have been more persuasive in some way?

VW's New Ad

Volkswagen is still trying to rebuild its image after the emissions scandal in 2015. A new advertising campaign tackles the issue directly, beginning with audio news reports from that time. But the focus, described on YouTube, is on the future: “Every negative has a positive. Learn more about our all-electric vehicles and our plans to help make a better tomorrow at vw.com #drivefortomorrow #vw.”

With an emphasis on innovation, the ad is set to Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song, “The Sound of Silence.” Viewers can imagine company engineers during the past few years creating a new line of electric cars— while VW executives said little about the controversy.

The senior VP of marketing for VW of America acknowledged that the ad is risky but explains the rationale:

“[w]ithout mentioning the past...we would never have the credibility or authenticity to move forward with the brand. Through the last three-and-a-half years or so we kind of operated as usual in the consumers [sic] eye. We kept a very consistent message in the marketplace but didn’t really have a powerful point-of-view as a brand.”

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of VW’s new ad campaign? Did the company make the right decision by invoking the scandal?

  • Other companies facing scandals, such as Uber and Wells Fargo, placed large apology ads, but VW didn’t take this approach. Why do you think that may be the case? Compare VW’s strategy to other recent recovery campaigns.

Carnival Responds to New Charges

Again, Carnival Cruises is accused of polluting and cover-ups. In 2016, the company paid a $40 million settlement because of actions by its Princess Cruise Lines, including dumping oil-contaminated waste. Now, the company has admitted to violating the 2016 agreement and will pay an additional $20 million.

The Justice Department’s statement identifies violations of probation terms, such as falsifying training records, preparing ships before inspections, and discharging plastic into the water. The plastic discharge was from another Carnival Cruise ship, the Carnival Elation.

In response to the charges, company chairman Arnold W. Donald said, “I do take responsibility for the problems we have. I am extremely disappointed that we’ve had them. I know you have reservations about our commitment and who we are. I want you to know we are fully committed.”

The company also posted a response on its website: corrective actions, information about water treatment, and FAQs. The short press statement, at the top, includes the company’s commitment:

“Carnival Corporation remains committed to environmental excellence and protecting the environment in which we live, work, and travel. Our aspiration is to leave the places we touch even better than when we first arrived.”

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Image source.

Discussion:

  • Assess Carnival’s response. What persuasive strategies does the company use on its website? What works well, and what could be improved?

  • The chairman said, “I know you have reservations about our commitment and who we are.” Do you have reservations? Why or why not? How can the company change perception? Consider dimensions of leadership character.

Persuasive Writing

Trish Hall, author of an upcoming book, “Writing to Persuade,” offers advice in a New York Times opinion piece. Most of her suggestions follow principles taught in business communication courses:

  • Tell the truth. Hall says that emotions are usually more persuasive than facts, which is true, yet she cautions against losing trust. Her advice is backed by research on behavioral integrity—doing what we say we’re going to do.

  • Be quick about it. Hall emphasizes conciseness, a well-worn principle of business communication.

  • Banish jargon. Using simple language is another core principle of business communication.

  • Know your audience. Hall recommends listening to what your reader needs; for example, condolence notes should include something personal about the loved one. Tailoring to the audience is good advice for any message.

  • Just ask. Hall says people could ask more directly for what they want. I agree, but I’m not sure about her example, which is for “Getting someone to show up”:

    No:

    Dear Everyone,

    I’m involved with a group that gives scholarships to young people and I am hoping that some of you might be able to attend our celebration next Monday. Let me know if you can.

    Yes:

    Dear Trish,

    I’m involved with a group that gives scholarships to young people and I am hoping that you can attend our celebration next Monday. A number of people you know, including John and Jim, will be there. Can I leave your name at the door? It’s at 6 p.m. at the Historical Society Building.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What other persuasive business communication principles would you suggest for writers?

  • What’s your view of the “Yes” example above: too pushy or about right? What principles does the example follow, and what, if any, changes would you suggest?

  • I’m curious about the article title, “How to Get Every Email Returned,” which doesn’t quite match the content. What’s your view?

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?

Facebook Announces Plans for Privacy

After several scandals and escalating criticism, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced new products and several new features to move from public posting to private conversations. The new Facebook design focuses on groups instead of the newsfeed and adds interactivity, such as posting jobs. Some of these features, of course, compete with existing social platforms, such as LinkedIn.

In a post, Facebook described the focus of its two-day conference: “how we’re building a more privacy-focused social platform — giving people spaces where they can express themselves freely and feel connected to the people and communities that matter most.” 

Communication, friends, and community are themes in the message. Zuckerberg’s keynote is titled, “The Future Is Private.”

Discussion:

  • Assess Zuckerberg’s keynote. Who are his primary and secondary audiences? What are his communication objectives? To what extent does he meet them? How would you describe his delivery skills? Does he convince you that Facebook is addressing criticism? Do you think Facebook is moving in the right direction?

  • Zuckerberg opens his keynote by saying, “Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves.” How does this relate to concepts of authenticity? Do you agree with his conclusion?

  • Also assess the post announcing changes for Facebook and other apps. Which features or new products most and least excite you?

Boeing's Crisis Response

At a shareholder’s meeting, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg addressed 737 Max safety concerns following two fatal crashes. He started, as predicted, with an apology and sympathy for the “loss of life,” acknowledging the “devastation.” He contrasted these losses with the many Boeing flights that run safely—”roughly every 1.5 seconds.”

Muilenberg didn’t explicitly address issues raised in the past couple of days, particularly a Wall Street Journal article the previous day accusing Boeing of failing to report the safety feature shut-off to airlines (including pilots) and the FAA.

When asked during the Q&A about accountability, Muilenberg spoke mostly about plans going forward. When asked whether he would resign, he talked about his and his employees’ commitment to safety.

At about 9:00 on the video, a reporter asks about whistle-blowers at Boeing, referring to recent reports that employees tried to alert senior management and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Muilenberg says the question is “fair” but doesn’t quite respond to the accountability issue. At about 14:15, a reporter asks, “Can you admit that the design was flawed?” This is after Muilenberg skirts the previous question, blaming a “chain of events.” Still, he would not admit to a design flaw.

And then he ends the news conference, as a reporter shouts, “Sir, 346 died. Can you answer a few questions here about that?” Earlier, another reporter noted that this was the first time they had a chance to meet with him to ask questions.

Discussion:

  • Assess Muilenberg’s delivery skills. What does he do well, and what suggestions would you have for his future news conferences?

  • How well did Muilenberg address reporters’ questions? What, if anything, could he have said differently?

  • What leadership character dimensions are illustrated by this story? How well did Muilenberg demonstrate them?

A Pie Chart Totals 128%

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A pie chart represents part of a whole, so how can numbers total more than 100%? They can’t. On Twitter, Dorsa Amir identifies additional problems.

The caption is also concerning: “High Support for Legalizing Marijuana.” Do we see evidence to prove this claim?

Note: This chart was created as a joke and posted on a sub-reddit.

Discussion:

  • What is the point of the chart?

  • What data would prove the point, and how could the designer have presented data differently?