Silicon Valley – The HBO Show (not the place)

SiliconWhile binge watching HBO’s Silicon Valley last weekend, I was thinking about whether the show actually mirrors reality, or if it’s mostly a work of fiction. Since I’ve never started up a tech company, I don’t have an opinion on how real that aspect of the show is, but since I do spend my days in the worlds of finance and communications, and I did work for a tech company that was incubated, I believe that the show’s conversations about venture capital, fund raising and public perception are pretty on the money (pun intended).

So, I thought a blog about Silicon Valley (the show) and its ties to business and celebrity of Silicon Valley (the place) might be interesting. But when I sat down to actually write something, I couldn’t quite figure out how to relate what I’ve seen on the small screen to my life in investor relations. That got me pulling up a search engine (one based in Silicon Valley, of course) on the off chance there might be something that would help stir my creative side. Much to my surprise, when I typed “HBO’s Silicon Valley and business” into the search bar, I got 421,000 results. Titles like, “3 Management Lessons from HBO’s Silicon Valley,” “Business Lessons from HBO’s Silicon Valley” and “INCUBATE THIS: Trade Secrets Lessons from HBO’s Silicon Valley” made me realize that this is a topic that has been done before.

At the risk of being somewhat of a copycat, here’s a quick summary of the lessons a lot of bloggers and journalists want to you take away from the show:

  • From Hivewyre: Have a work/life balance. “By taking the occasional break (or, gasp— even a vacation) you’re doing yourself and the company some good. Doing so means recharging your batteries, clearing your head, and coming back ready to kill it!”
  • From InsideCounsel: Protect your IP. “It is important for these companies to invest in protecting its own IP so that it can use that IP to defend itself if necessary.”
  • From WeberShandwick: Clear messaging is essential. “Especially in deep tech, it’s easy to get caught up in the specs and techs of a product. Our challenge is to elevate the messaging to something meaningful, but not generic. Instead of “making the world a better place,” can you get more specific?”
  • From Forbes: Do your homework. “Startups need to have the basics buttoned up long before raising money.”
  • From The Business Journals: Assembling a board is not an easy task. “Good board members can help young companies gain credibility and open doors. Board seats are valued rewards for key investors and personnel. But they also carry tremendous responsibility. Board members must place the company’s interests ahead of their own. And for every new board seat created, the value of every other board seat is diminished. The lesson: board positions matter and should be given out very carefully.”

If you haven’t given the show a chance, check it out. It’s politically incorrect and foul-mouthed, but an incredibly funny look at the culture of tech start-ups, and a fountain of good information…for what NOT to do!

– Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

The Art of Apology

“I’m sorry.”

For public figures and organizations, no other phrase could be more difficult or more complicated to say. It means something went wrong or someone was hurt (or worse).

Here are the three necessary ingredients for delivering an effective apology:

  1. Honesty: Acknowledge completely what went wrong.

Popstar Ariana Grande’s first attempt at an apology is a perfect example of what not to do. Following the disclosure of a Fourth of July video in which she displayed rude and disgusting behavior in a local doughnut shop, the popstar chose to focus her first apology on her “I hate America. I hate Americans” statements and tried to unconvincingly explain that her comments were directed at her disgust with childhood obesity in the United States.

Her failure to acknowledge the other elements of her behavior during “Doughnutgate” resulted in immediate public and media backlash that kept the story in the news for nearly a week and forced the popstar to address (and re-apologize) for the childish prank several times.

In contrast, a few years ago, I worked with a manufacturer of specialized batteries that discovered that under a certain situation their products were likely to fail. By being proactive in communicating the weakness in the battery design and a solution for avoiding the situation, the company avoided being forced to do a major product recall and was able to maintain its reputation as a preferred and trusted vendor.

The first step to an apology that rings true is to openly and factually acknowledge what went wrong. Whether the circumstances are preventable, accidental or deliberate, an open acknowledgement of what went wrong demonstrates honesty and empathy for those affected by your actions.

  1. Timeliness: Apologize as soon as possible.

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson demonstrated how a quick and complete apology can actually end up creating positive results. In June, the actor made an immediate U-turn after he accidentally sideswiped a parked vehicle. After finding the vehicle owner, Johnson delivered an immediate apology and promised to pay for the damages. Johnson’s candid, quick and sincere apology not only resulted in the vehicle owner refusing compensation but reinforced his image as an all-around stand-up guy.

Following the disclosure of a New York-consumer agency investigation that found multiple incidents of overpricing, Whole Foods issued a defensive written statement accusing the agency of “overreaching” in its investigation. Public reaction included the company’s stock price dropping to near yearly lows and consumers calling for a boycott of the company stores. Less than a week later, co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb released a video on YouTube to apologize “straight up” for the issue. By personally admitting that the company was in the wrong and quickly apologizing for it, Whole Foods leadership took the “controversy” out of the story and reinforced Whole Foods brand image as a company where “values matter.” The result: news coverage of the issue ceased and the stock price has seen a steady rebound and increase since the co-CEOs public apology.

  1. Genuine Action: Outline how you’re going to make amends – and follow through.

I once consulted for a large regional hospital that discovered not one but three problems involving sexual misconduct in the same week. While one was sure to become public (an arrest involving criminal behavior); the other two incidents did not involve any arrests but had the potential to put into question the hospital’s security and hiring practices. In addition to acknowledging all of the events that had occurred and the actions the hospital had taken to reach out to potentially affected parties, the CEO also communicated the proactive measures being taken by the hospital to avoid problems in the future.

The result was that instead of a front page headline story reading “Sexual Scandals Rock Local Hospital,” the actual story was headlined “Hospital Installs New Security Measures” and ran on page 11 of the local daily newspaper.

More importantly, by following through on the preventive measures they outlined during their press conference, the hospital and its leadership retained their positive standing in the local community.

When a crisis hits, the public will often judge you or your organization not by what has happened but by the actions that follow. When you find that you or your organization is on the wrong or hurting end of an issue or event, an apology that is delivered with honesty, timeliness and genuine action can reinforce your integrity and reduce the likelihood of lasting material damage to your brand.

– E.E. Wang, ewang@pondel.com

IR Songs

OK, I admit that summertime and investor relations blogs have very little in common. And yes, most of the topics that surface on this blog are serious and may have ramifications for the livelihood of your communications strategy. However, one mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we are in the heart of summer and bringing a little levity to this so called investor relations world is healthy, especially before we head full bore into earnings season.

So, my question to you is this: If “Investor Relations” is the name of a band, what is a plausible name for its hit single? I suppose it would help if we also came up with a musical genre for the band, but I can’t even begin to imagine what Investor Relations would sound like musically. Obviously, money would be a dominant muse.

Following is a top-20 list of actual song titles that could have ostensibly been written by Investor Relations. If you have other suggestions, please post them on Twitter at #IRsongs and we will add them to the list.

  1. For the Love of Money – The O’Jays
  2. It’s All About the Benjamins – Puff Daddy
  3. Money – Pink Floyd
  4. San Francisco Bay Blues (references not having a nickel or a “lousy” dime) – Jesse Fuller
  5. If I Were a Rich Man – Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Block
  6. Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes – Paul Simon
  7. We’re in the Money – Al Dubin
  8. Greenback Dollar – Kingston Trio
  9. Nickel Bag of Funk – Digable Planets
  10. Luck Be a Lady – Frank Loesser
  11. Jack & Diane – John Cougar Mellencamp
  12. Like a Virgin – Madonna
  13. Money, Money, Money – Abba
  14. 99 Problems – Jay Z
  15. Chariots of Fire – Vangelis
  16. Ring Around the Rosie – Artist Unknown
  17. Pomp and Circumstance – Sir Edward Elgar
  18. Eye of the Tiger – Survivor
  19. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – The Beatles
  20. Back in Black – ACDC

Additional song titles posted on #IRsongs or submitted by blog readers:

  1. Price Tag – Jesse J
  2. She Works Hard for the Money – Donna Summer
  3. Material Girl – Madonna
  4. CREAM (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) – Wu-Tang
  5. Money (That’s What I want) – The Beatles (Barrett Strong)
  6. Money for Nothing – Dire Straits
  7. The Money Song – Monty Python

– Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

Walk Down the Hall before Sending that Email

It’s no secret that the ability to write well, which typically equates to the ability to think well, is a fundamental skillset that goes a long way in many businesses and professions, certainly ours, whether the public relations or investor relations side of our practice.

The University of Chicago, however, revealed in a recent study, that no matter how well and in which medium writing is deployed—via email or text message, in a legal brief, or in our world, a press release—verbal communication is a far more powerful tool than the proverbial pen.

The study conducted by UCHI Professors Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder concluded that the same information that could be conveyed verbally comes off sounding less intelligent and convincing in writing, and that picking up the phone or walking down the hall to a colleague’s office, rather than sending an email, virtually always will be more effective.

The study, “The Sound of Intellect,” revealed that voice inflection and other vocal cues show that humans are “alive inside, thoughtful, active and (written) text strips that out.”

Even if precisely the same words that can be delivered verbally—in person, in a voice message or by video—are put into written form, the study showed that the verbal medium won hands down.

None of this means emailing and text messaging are going away. And as far as skillsets are concerned, solid writing still equates to sound thinking and still reigns supreme at firms such as ours. But the study does confirm that humanity is the real winner, and if there is a choice, perhaps think twice before pressing the send button.

-Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com