Category Archives: Current Affairs

No Snow Job Needed

The recent snow storm once again caused power disruptions across many towns in eastern Massachusetts, with notable areas concentrated along the South Shore, an area where I live. Although the snow itself was ultimately manageable, the resulting damage it caused to power lines led to several days of no electricity and cold homes for hundreds of thousands. The two companies responsible for restoring power to these areas have made very visible efforts this time in communicating to their customers, providing a toll-free line to speak with a live person to report downed lines to or request further information (if your phone works…), near real-time updates via their corporate websites showing where power outages exist and when affected customers can expect restored power, and regular statements from their senior executives regarding the status of their efforts.

First off, thank you to my power company for this, a tremendous improvement over prior efforts during Hurricane Irene, where the lack of consistent and straightforward, unspun communications left many in the dark, both figuratively and literally. Both companies now provide interactive maps and ETA for restoration of our beloved electricity. In the past, we might have seen messaging a bit off the top-line.

Making an honest effort to inform customers and avoiding much of the detached, self-congratulatory back-slapping that plagued past communications is critical to ensure customer trust. We’re in the same boat — the roads were in rough shape for all of us, weather was terrible and conditions far from ideal. And since I made it to work along those same roads, along with tens of thousands of others, you want empathy and information, not needless spin.

In times like these, how about directly cutting to the point – offering a strictly customer-centric voice to your communications – i.e. when is power expected to be restored, and where will this occur. For executives and companies that face the difficult task of updating customers and shareholders in times of crisis or those faced with conveying bad news, the best policy is often “just the facts,” without softening context and spin. Customers and the general public have a vast capacity to forgive and forget, and expect these challenges. Companies, executives and the professionals helping manage their public relations should also understand that in the era of immediate communications where customers can verify the veracity and accuracy of statements, a “just the facts” policy, whether those facts are either encouraging, or more of the same, makes the most sense.

Posted in Current Affairs, Public Relations | Leave a comment

The Design of Voting

We can fly a man to the moon, but we can’t design an effective ballot. What gives?

It’s amazing to know that we, as American citizens, cast votes to elect our officials; however, it’s equally disappointing when your experience at the polls is nothing short of confusing.

Earlier today, I cast my vote at my local polling place. Having done this for several elections, a few things stuck out:

  • many voters didn’t know what precinct was theirs,
  • others were unfamiliar with the voting process, and, most importantly,
  • the ballot appeared to be designed by a third-grader.

And “designed” is used generously. Shouldn’t this be simpler?

Fundamentals

Ballots should be designed for two things:

  • Legibility: Know your audience and assume that voters will have a difficult time reading small or light type. Typefaces matter!
  • Ease-of-use: The last thing a voter should be when reading a ballot is confused. Keep the design as simple as possible while still communicating key information.

That’s it. A legible, easily understood ballot will make for a much better polling experience – which should be more a celebration than a frustrating nuisance!

How do we guarantee this result? A few design enhancements can go a long way.

Embrace space

First, we must separate key blocks of information. The federal election, state election, and local races and questions should all be given ample white space in between each other. Similarly, each candidate should be clearly marked and given air to breathe. Cramming several candidates into less space may save paper, but doesn’t provide a satisfying experience to the voting public.

Simple instructions

Work under the assumption that this will be everyone’s first vote. Perhaps the presidential area of the ballot comes with a line of text reading, “Vote for one of the following presidential candidates. If you vote for more than one, your vote will not count.”

For local elections (perhaps state representatives), ballots might read, “Vote for one of the following state representatives. State representatives work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and represent districts across the state.”

This seems overly simple, but can help voters feel more confident about their voting responsibility.

Sizing

My ballot used similarly-sized type for the entire document. There was no dominant element and all of the information held similar weight.

Altering the headline size on a ballot can make a huge difference. Each section (federal, state, local) should have its own heading, all of consistent size. The next level of information (the candidates’ names) should have a smaller type treatment. Finally, supporting information like a candidate’s party, address, or explanatory text for a question should have a tertiary treatment and size. The size and weight of type should work like a funnel or headline structure for a web page.

Civic importance

Just as it’s the responsibility of Americans to cast an educated vote, it’s just as important for local and state governing bodies to design a simpler voting process.

With so much cynicism surrounding the voting process, the experience must be made simpler and more enjoyable. Americans should feel empowered every four years, not frustrated and pressured.

In short: save the ballot and save our elections!

Posted in Current Affairs, Design | 2 Comments

Focus and self-questioning: What we can learn from the replacement refs

Replacement Refs

By now, everything is back to normal for the NFL fan. The full-time refs returned for their first full weekend of the season. No longer will nationwide media outlets waste valuable time with nonsensical referee talk.

Despite some egregious errors by the so-called replacement refs (most notably the game-ending play in Seattle), we can learn a lot from their three weeks of sub-par refereeing – and none of it has to do with financial negotiations or football strategy.

It’s all about looking in the mirror.

The blame game

Following last weekend’s overly criticized calls in the Patriots vs. Ravens and Packers vs. Seahawks games, dozens of players took to the media and Twitter to complain about the outcome of the game. Most notably, Packers offensive lineman TJ Lang tweeted the following (forgive the language):

The New York Daily News compiled many other Packers players who echoed similar sentiment.

Guess what? The referees had no impact on the outcome of the game – only the players on the field.

Taking Responsibility

In times of chaos, a first reaction may be to blame outside factors. The real determining factor is the only thing you can control – yourself. Kudos to Packers coach Mike McCarthy who took the high road after the game and stressed all things the Packers could have done earlier in the game to avoid such an outcome.

“The offense didn’t do our part in the first half. I should have adjusted plans earlier… We were wearing that defense down… We need to move on. It’s important for us to get back and get ready for the Saints.”

Before investing time in determining why external factors may have changed an outcome,  first ask, “what could I have done differently?” You don’t have to be in sports to do this.

Self-questioning in practice

Professional situations often don’t run smoothly. Perhaps a contact is unreachable, or a partner misses a deadline, or a marketing effort falls short of a financial goal.

Guess what? Many of those reasons start with you.

In hindsight, you can always do things differently. I’d argue that you could always do things better. At HB, we make a practice of discussing projects after they’ve launched, mailed, or delivered. Even if it’s informal, a candid talk about past work goes a long way to making future endeavors more successful. Such a talk also makes for happier clients. Some typical questions from our discussions:

  • Did we listen to our client?
  • Did we reference the creative brief and project goals at every step?
  • Did we stop to consider alternate solutions to a problem?
  • How could we have completed our project more efficiently?
  • Did the project succeed? Could it have succeeded at a higher rate?

It helps to ask these questions of your client as well, but the first questions are from us, to us.

Self-improvement

The referee problems may have disappeared… but players will always make mistakes on the field and in the marketing arena. Questioning our actions will consistently provide improvements to our own strategies and tactics.

In fact, it’s time for me to question this blog post – how could I have written better?

Posted in Current Affairs, Hart-Boillot | 1 Comment

Reaching into the Political Machine – A Powerful Visit to DC with The Alliance

Each year my visit to DC with The Alliance for Business Leadership turns into the single most impactful event I participate in. I invariably come away with a sense that the individual can impact government and as business leaders, we are duty-bound to participate.

A moment with John Kerry at The Alliance for Business Leadership (DC Photographer Marty Katz)

This year’s top thoughts:

  • I’m humbled by The Alliance’s membership — not the C-level titles, but the brain power, thoughtfulness, deep understanding of the issues and commitment to partner with government to ensure that business can do well and do good at the same time.
  • I left surprised by the focus, expertise and passion that government workers bring to the table:
  • Todd Park, co-founder of AthenaHealth, former CTO of Health and Human Services (HHS) and current CTO for the whole government, mesmerized a room-full of CEOs with his entrepreneurial spirit and tales of bringing government resources into the hands of existing and new businesses. Continue reading

Posted in Business, Clean Tech, Current Affairs, Hart-Boillot, Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ubiquitous Carbon

Carbon

Earlier this month, the United Nations met in Durban, South Africa to discuss the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol.

Delegates from around the world discussed the idea of a carbon tax with the hope that it will help reduce emissions over the next 10 years. Under the current agreement, richer countries must follow regulations while poorer countries contribute voluntarily.

As noted by The Huffington Post, The Protocol debates escalated throughout the meetings, with the United States’ support for business outweighing its support for the environment.

The United States, whose Congress is generally seen as hostile on the climate issue, is concerned about conceding any competitive business advantage to China.

As an American, and one who greatly values our environment, I’m frustrated by the US delegates’ protectionism of the country’s economic power over all else (mirrored by China and India). Can a temporary decrease in GDP — which many argue would not happen anyway — be so bad if it helps guarantee a hospitable planet for another thousand years?

Update: Participating nations stayed an extra day and a half, and it looks like some good came of it.

Posted in Clean Tech, Current Affairs, Green Living/Working | Leave a comment

Environmental concern – Not for everyone… yet.

I recently read an article in the Seattle Times about arctic sea ice melting at unprecedented rates and Russia’s comment about the resulting new shipping lanes. The good news: this apparently can cut the the journey for some shipping between Europe, Asia and America by 50%. The bad news: rapidly melting arctic ice already affects global climate and coastal communities.

Courtesy of National Snow and Ice Data Center, nsidc.org

I looked for other commentary in the Seattle Times, searching for an “environment” or “green” section of the paper. But there was none. Many of the media sources I use have dedicated sections for environmental/green news. These include The New York Times (usually under Science), The Washington Post (under Energy & Environment), The Los Angeles Times (under Science & Environment), The San Jose Mercury News (under Science & Environment) UK’s The Guardian (under Environment), France’s Le Monde (under Planete) and The Times of India (under Environment).

I follow news from other worldwide outlets that seem to have no section dedicated to the environment, and rarely to science. These include Russian news outlets Pravda, Moscow Times and St. Petersburg Times, Sweden’s The Local, Germany’s The Local, Brazil’s Rio Times, Argentina’s Buenos Aires Herald, China’s China Daily, Shanghai DailyPeople’s Daily and , Hong Kong’s The Standard, Singapore’s The Straits Times and The New Paper, AsiaOne, and of course Al Jazeera.

Does this evidence suggest only the richest audiences care about the environment? Not really. Plenty of outlets here in the US haven’t considered the “environment” worthy of its own section – for instance The Houston Chronicle and Chicago Tribune. And those regions certainly don’t lack wealth.

My conclusion regards the assumptions we often make. As we participate in the US efforts to catch up to Germany and other progressive nations in developing clean technology and preserving our environment, we should not assume that all people in all places share our concerns or ambitions. Such assumptions are tantamount to zealotry – comparable to people of faith who assume that their faith is the only valid one, and think less of those who don’t share it (or even worse, assume some horrible fate awaits non-believers, such as going to Hell).

Instead we should acknowledge that even as ice-cap melting sends chills of fear up our spines, it can be interpreted as good news by others. Even as environmental degradation and dependence on foreign oil keeps us up at night, our fellow Americans (and global citizens) have many other concerns that take precedence.

Bridging the gap remains our mission, not by talking ever more loudly to dominate the conversation, but by respectfully and repeatedly stating the case, and encouraging change where we can. To start, I suggest a call and a note to any news outlet you enjoy, saying that you would be more likely to return for news if the outlet offered pages or sections dedicated to the environment or clean technology.

By the way, if you currently have a favorite mainstream media outlet that covers environmental or clean-technology news, please let me know.

Posted in Clean Tech, Current Affairs, Green Living/Working, Hart-Boillot | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Doubt and Debt for College Education?

Me and Jane four years before she's off to college.

My 14 year-old daughter (the oldest) was working on a school project to identify a college and prepare a financial plan to pay for it. Since she’s not too fond of me these days, all I could do was listen-in to Jane and my wife discuss dollar amounts per year for education and room & board. Gulp.

I have four children and 12 continuous years of college to help fund (including 4 years with two in college). And on a quarterly basis, Merrill Lynch sees fit to remind me how far behind I am. This got me thinking about the weight of debt that college students and families (me) must bare upon graduation, and the value or return on investment they can expect.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one thinking about this challenge. A recent report issued by the Pew Research Center indicates that Americans are increasingly doubtful about the value of a college education (See the Report). US News and World Report quoted Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and the director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project: “There is real concern—growing concern—about affordability and value measured against cost, but a very solid registration of satisfaction [among college graduates] that, ‘This was a good thing I did in my life, and there’s a real payoff to it.’”  However, the Pew report indicated that 57 percent of the 2,142 Americans surveyed claimed that the nation’s higher education system does not offer adequate value in return for increasingly high costs, and 75 percent feel it is unaffordable for the average citizen.

I too am concerned about the cost and the value of education. I read stories about students with amazing credentials that are flipping burgers because they can’t find work and they can’t afford not to work. I am optimistic that something will shift us back on course and College will offer hope and opportunity over doubt and debt. Hopefully this shift happens within the next four years before my decade+ journey into debt begins. Until then I’ll just keep listening in.

Posted in Current Affairs, Hart-Boillot, Higher Education | 1 Comment

Race to the Top Funding

When it was announced that Massachusetts was one of the 12 states awarded federal funds for education reform, HB began to partner with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on a brochure detailing the state’s Race to the Top plan.

The brochure provides information about the program, goals, strategy and how the funds will be allocated. Governor Deval Patrick describes the Race to the Top plan as, “the next chapter of education reform in Massachusetts.”

The design incorporates messages of transformation, innovation and reform of the school system through vivid, tactile imagery and illustrations.

Posted in Current Affairs, Design, Higher Education | Leave a comment

On Politics, Taxes and Anger

On Friday, October 8, I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Tim Cahill and Deval Patrick live at the Progressive Business Leader’s Network (PBLN) Annual Summit. (Boston Globe writer Yvonne Abraham wrote a good piece about it.) Mr. Cahill spoke about reducing taxes, claiming that this would be tantamount to a stimulus to small business to help businesses create jobs. In this he was echoing a message being currently hammered by Charlie Baker and many others on the Right and Left who speak about reducing taxes. Mr. Cahill also echoed another popular refrain, noting that “people are angry.”

In the case of this tax-payer, he’s right: I am angry. But not for the reasons he and others believe.
Continue reading

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A Robot in Every Pot

Do you ever read a news story and wonder why the world isn’t freaking out? In today’s society where Miss America and philandering politicians rise to the top of the Google News page, there are some truly iconic (or as Mayor Menino would say, ionic) pieces of news that get lost.

In the journal Nature, scientists recently announced a proximity-based programmable DNA nanoscale assembly line. Or as the Wall Street Journal dumbed down for us, DNA ROBOTS! Yes folks, microscopic robots that can walk, follow instructions and can imitate the work of living cells. HOW COOL IS THAT?

Although scientists estimate that DNA nanotechnology could take 10 years to “lead to any useful applications,” the news of the developments is mind-boggling. In the future, what will a DNA robot do for you?

Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

Posted in Current Affairs, Hart-Boillot, Medical Devices | Leave a comment