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February 28, 2007
Writing memos for word of mouth
The lowly memo still has juice. Maybe more so today, thanks to social media.
Several recent memos that leaped over their corporate moats illustrate three types of company communications that create waves in the word-of-mouth waters.
1. The Rorschach memo.
The idea: Write a memo that explains how your company has lost its way and must make big changes. Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz made made news last week for his "Starbucks has lost its way" memo. It was first leaked to the Starbucks Gossip blog. In it, Schultz wrote:
Over the past ten years, in order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand. Many of these decisions were probably right at the time, and on their own merit would not have created the dilution of the experience; but in this case, the sum is much greater and, unfortunately, much more damaging than the individual pieces.
The Wall Street Journal and New York Times chimed in on its existence and meaning, as did CNBC, Bloomberg and a hearty gaggle of traditional media. CNN was still talking about it days later. Bloggers have had a lot to say, too, helping perpetuate the cycle of buzz.
Why? The Schultz memo was an emotional renunciation of the company's many time-saving tactics that have allowed it to quickly grow, relatively speaking, into a $24 billion company. Schultz's prose showed bittersweet regret, a Rorschach test of emotional well-being where the ink blots are coffee stains. He admits to a fear of losing the emotional loyalty of the typical Starbucks evangelist. It's a memo that Oprah might talk about. Also, it's best if you are the boss and no one can fire you because of your memo.
See also: "The Internet Tidal Wave" confidential memo (PDF) from Bill Gates, May 1995.
2. The Maguire Gambit.
The idea: Write a memo on how your company is screwed up and must make big changes. The caveat: You're not the boss, so your job or career could be on the line like the fictional character for whom the gambit is named. That's what Yahoo executive Brad Garlinghouse did in November 2006 when he wrote the "peanut butter memo," his view of what was ailing Yahoo:
We lack a focused, cohesive vision for our company...We lack clarity of ownership and accountability... We lack decisiveness... We have lost our passion to win. Far too many employees are "phoning" it in, lacking the passion and commitment to be a part of the solution. We sit idly by while -- at all levels -- employees are enabled to "hang around". Where is the accountability? Moreover, our compensation systems don't align to our overall success. Weak performers that have been around for years are rewarded. And many of our top performers aren't adequately recognized for their efforts.
The memo spread far beyond Yahoo's offices as the media and hundreds of bloggers dissected and analyzed its implications.
A few weeks later the executive ranks of Yahoo underwent a big reshuffling, which included the departure of the company's operations chief. Speculation was that Garlinghouse would probably be shuffled out, too. But he stayed put, effectively making him the hero. The timing of the memo and the reorg couldn't have been more delicious for the filters.
3. The Wild-Eyed Memo.
The idea: Write a memo that's equivalent to jumping on the bar with tequila bottle in hand, screaming how much you kick ass. Oh, and how much it sucks to be jilted.
In his memo, Krivkovich said he'd rather resign the account than go through the indignity of a review. Krivkovich says CareerBuilder was disappointed the Super Bowl ad that C-K created this year didn't crack the top 10 of one review panel:
We made them famous. In less than 36 months, C-K helped put CareerBuilder and their management on the map... We created a brilliant media strategy by concentrating most of their media dollars on Sunday and Monday, when people are most frustrated about starting another work week. We told them why they needed to be on the Super Bowl.... Despite all the great work and making them famous, their sole reason [for dropping the agency] is, at best, unsophisticated, unbusiness like and from the standpoint of how to run a business, unprofessional. They may not be the kind of people we should do business with. Therefore we can't justify any reason to participate in a review and have just notified them accordingly.
The media and bloggers love these types of memos because they expose and often summarize a company's inner workings. That introduces a paradox, too: A strong memo outlines a problem or issue with clear, direct language. It provides concrete examples. It builds a strong case with data and often suggests a course of action. Internal communication is just as much marketing as it is for everyone beyond the moat. Therefore a strong memo from a well-known company becomes tasty meat for the beat media reporters and the jungle of hungry bloggers.
If the memo falls under any of the three above categories, there's a good chance someone might find it juicy enough to share with the outside world.
Unless that's what you want to happen, best to assume it probably will happen.
Other blogs that reference Writing memos for word of mouth:
And we shall dub the memo: "Press Release 2.0"
Heh. 2.0: Today's default name for anything new!
My old company was ailing for most of the two years I worked there. Unable to reconcile the business models, philosophies and power structures of two recently merged companies known for their respective excellence, the new company languished, bloated, unprofitable and harboring a frustrated and unmotivated work force.
We saw a dozen of each of these kinds of memos come across our desks in those two years from VP's, division directors and even from the Pres/CEO, who was later forced out.
They did little for the company, internally, and, though our decline was being well noted in conventional media, none of them made news. I think this is mostly because these memos were weak attempts to rally troops around a lost cause and had no real intention behind them. If they had reached popular media I imagine stock holders and pundits would quickly have become as disenchanted with them as the staff.
Using internal communication for external marketing seems a good strategy only so much as the spirit of that communication is carried through and does not amount to empty rhetoric or a diluted pep talk.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but Jerry Maguire did not write a "memo." He wrote a MISSION STATEMENT, which is one of the running gags of the movie (i.e. everyone else calls it a memo and he grandly corrects them.)
Better yet, you can actually read a copy of this mission statement, which has the title "The Things We Think and Do Not Say: Thoughts of a Sports Attorney." In the Faber and Faber paperback book of the script, Cameron Crowe has included the mission statement from Jerry Maguire, and it's pretty darn good. Matter of fact, the following paragraph from the piece could probably have been taken right from the Peanut Butter and Jelly note.
"We are losing our battle with all that is personal and real about our business. Every day I can look at a list of phone calls only partially returned. Driving home, I think of what was not accomplished, instead of what was accomplished. The gnawing feeling continues. That families are sitting waiting for a call from us, waiting to hear the word on a contract, or a general manager's thoughts on an upcoming season. We are pushing numbers around, doing our best, but is there any real satisfaction in a success that exists only when we push the messiness of real human contact from our lives and minds? When we learn not to care enough about the very guy we promised the world to, just to get him to sign. Or to let it bother us that a hockey player's son is worried about his dad getting that fifth concussion."
Thom (with the h): Good point. Perhaps it's worth noting that the memos that seem to spread from the first two categories are ones from companies for which there are strong emotional investments from their customers. Failing that, the company probably needs to be just big enough to warrant the buzz.
Tom: Heh! You say mission statement, I say potato-memo.
Funny how an emotional filter changes contextual relevancy. Jerry Maguire felt he was writing something that was a statement, a belief system that had the zeal of a missionary (hence, mission statement) but everyone else perceived it as a memo. A lowly memo that got him canned.
A memorandum is not so random.
Folks - are we really in a conversation about modeling real life on cause and effect in a movie? Ask yourself -- what in movies is predictive of your own lives -- romance? business? driving? violence? Have you ever seen a piece of advertising in a movie that would work in the real world, or an ad agency that resembled real life?
And much as misty-eyed liberals such as myself might look to Michael Douglas's penultimate press conference in The American President as inspiration for how we'd like to see a president act, it doesn't make me think it might actually happen.
Don't mean to go off on this topic, just can't really see comparing Yahoo and C-K with Jerry Maquire.