Bimbo Banter

Communication Commandments

  • Leadership
  • August 1, 2013
  • by Merrie Spaeth

Are You Ready for Right Now, Let Alone the Future?

My late husband, Tex Lezar, was fond of a story about Justice Oliver Wendell  Holmes. The distinguished jurist was traveling by train to give a speech. The conductor approached and Holmes felt in his pocket for the ticket. No ticket. He checked another pocket. No ticket. He rose and searched the seat. The conductor joined in. No ticket. Recognizing the famous man, the conductor said, “Mr. Justice Holmes, don’t worry about your ticket. Just hand it in when you get off  the  train.”  Holmes glared and replied,  “The problem, young man, is not ‘where is my ticket?’ the problem is – where am I going?”

Members of the legal profession are asking themselves–or should be–where are we going in this volatile world of Twitter, Facebook, Google and the seemingly hundreds of  new  companies or  services? The answer is:  wherever you thought you were going, you’re already there. This article is a brief look at some of  the  trends  and  imperatives that every attorney should be aware of, since attorneys, internal or outside counsel, are trusted business advisors as much as legal mavens.

These communication channels are just that – communication, and we find far too many attorneys still do not have an expansive understanding of how to use communication as a strategic tool that can help them help their clients. Let’s start with some fundamental insights and a few thoughts on the new trends.


Our first insight came courtesy of the CEO of then-Southwestern Bell Telephone. They were sending employees out to talk to customers, and he observed, “What we’ve learned is that the customer doesn’t remember what we thought we told him.” Most people, including attorneys, begin with the mindset of what they want to say or what they think a listener needs to know. Yet, how much does the listener remember? A lot or a little? Everyone knows it’s just a little. We believe that effective communication identifies the key audience and structures communication to influence what the listener hears, believes and remembers.


Our second insight was that we pick up and repeat each other’s words. We classify words very simply. “Good” words are the ones you want repeated. “Bad” words   are   the   words   you   don’t   want   repeated. (“Jargon”  words  or  acronyms  are  those  that  your audience doesn’t use on a regular basis.  Because the listener may not know what they mean, jargon words interfere with listening.) Once you recognize this, it will help you avoid the most common mistake, repeating  and  denying  a  negative  word. When  a speaker repeats and denies a negative word, the listener is likely to overlook the denial and actually hear the opposite  of  what  the  speaker  is  trying  to  say. We named the genre for the young woman who was caught with a high-profile, married man. She held a press conference and announced, “I am not a Bimbo,” thus causing everyone to think she was – a Bimbo. We publish a monthly BIMBO Memo with the most noteworthy communications blunders of the month and there’s usually an attorney included saying something like, “My client did not commit fraud intentionally.”

Attorneys can also save their clients from damaging themselves. In May, Apple CEO Tim Cook testified before Congress about the company’s multiple global locations and their strategies for minimizing taxes. While he defended Apple’s business practices, he also said, “We don’t depend on tax gimmicks” or “stash money on some Caribbean island.” He added he didn’t think the tax strategies were “a sham or an abuse.” The “tax gimmick” line became the cut line on the photo run by papers such as USA Today, which ran the story on the front page of the business section. The line also invited reporters to quote experts, such as Villanova tax expert J. Richard Harvey, who was said he “fell off my chair” at the corporate statement disclaiming “tax gimmicks.” Why does this matter? Raising  the  concept  of  “tax  gimmicks”  makes  that quote more memorable, than Cook’s other positive messages.

Here’s another example: the defense attorney for a New York State Senator charged with stealing from an escrow account said, “There are no charges in this indictment that in any way implicate Sen. Sampson’s conduct in the performance of his duties as State Senator. This is an ordinary case that has been given an official corruption coat of paint.” Needless to say, the words, “official corruption,” are “bad” words that the lawyer shouldn’t have injected into the discussion.


Organizations that understand the power of communication, as a leadership tool, to create culture and to sustain a reputation – develop a consensus around a core group of anchor “good” words, and the leaders proactively look for opportunities to verbalize those words so that others in the company or organization hear them along multiple channels.

Lawyers, whether they are in-house or outside counsel,  frequently forget that they are part of the larger business enterprise and that enterprise has, or should have, a consensus on the words which convey its reason for being. When the attorneys are committed to carrying an enterprise’s mission, it actually has significant impact because it’s so rare to have the lawyers involved.


Last year, Cisco CEO John Chambers said, “In five years, everything will be video.” Maybe not “everything,” but a lot will be video. Lawyers and their clients need to understand how to effectively use video as an influence tool and learn how to speak to internal and external audiences directly through the lens of the camera. There are a number of reasons why video is critical plus a number of implications.

First, many people simply will not read. This means that information about benefits, safety issues, company updates and more need multiple channels, including video. It’s a learned skill to be conversational and talk one-on-one through a camera. This doesn’t mean using a TelePrompTer. They cause more problems than they solve because the listener can tell immediately if the speaker is reading a script. Part of the problem is how those scripts are written. Scripts frequently cycle through committees that rewrite them, taking out all the personality and conversational tone. Language should be written for the ear, not the eye. Remember, Winston Churchill said periods were for articles but dashes, dots and exclamation points were for verbal communication.

Second, the use of video is increasing. Six in ten companies are  conducting  job  interviews and assessments via video or Skype. One thing is absolutely certain; when videos exist, especially compelling videos, they will be circulated. Your company or your clients need to make sure they have considered  the  legal  implications.

Your company or your clients should have up-to- date, sophisticated planning to handle events or issues that could threaten a reputation. Crisis Planning 101 advises that you think through the 20 things that could go wrong, identify the target audiences, the key messages and channels and identify the spokespersons. Being  prepared for an unexpected requires being able to resopnd in about 30 minutes. Fortunately, this only requires what we call the “aspirational headline” and a commitment to investigate and brief the public later. Remember to set expectations for change. BP was roundly criticized for its initial estimate of oil being spilled into the Gulf when the actual number turned out to be much higher. All information should be couched with the caveat, “As  we  get  new  information, we  may  update what we’re providing now, so it’s quite possible these numbers/facts may not be final.”

Incorporate what we call “competitive video” into crisis planning or risk management. What’s “competitive video?”  As you think through potential scenarios, include the visuals that will be generated. For example, any company – even the most safety conscious –with a trucking fleet will have accidents. Conscientious companies pay close attention to the letter and spirit of safety training and safe practices. To counter the video or pictures of an accident, someone should provide video of the company’s safety training, it validates the company’s statement that “Safety is a top priority” or “We provide ongoing safety training for our drivers.” Claims without validation turn into platitudes – particularly if delivered by written statement rather than by a real person.

“Competitive video” must be real. No production values. No special effects. It’s not an ad. It’s important because today, everyone has a mobile device with video or photographic capability. Every mouse, every cockroach, every  racist  comment  is  likely  to  be captured and circulated. You can chase these forever or you can proactively compete with them. This includes engaging employees, on video, talking about their commitment, experiences and pride in the company. Too few companies enlist their employees and customers as ambassadors.

BP, which certainly deserves criticism for its handling of the spill, finally allowed its employees to speak publicly, and their employees were exceptionally convincing  discussing  their  expertise, determination and commitment to stay for the long term.


Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other sites are proliferating. They  provide  great  opportunities  for engagement for employees, customers and other key audiences. Attorneys need to recognize that these channels are now part of daily life. Last year, we consulted in a major trial of a defense contractor and the local reporter covering the trial tweeted from the courtroom for three weeks, keeping up a steady stream of comments.

It doesn’t work to “just say ‘no,’” in Nancy Reagan’s famous words. The football coach at one of our university clients found his players tweeting pictures of their anatomy. (You can guess what parts.)

He told them, “Stop it.” The pictures kept coming. The players’ defense? “I wasn’t tweeting pictures of my body. It was the other guys’ bodies.”

Farsighted companies are building these channels into their business models. Recently, a celebrity complaint via Twitter about one of our clients went viral. Within 30 minutes, a customer service representatives picked up the complaint, responded to it, apologized, asked  the  celebrity  to  call  her and within another 15 minutes the problem was resolved, and the celebrity tweeted out his satisfaction.

Companies are struggling to engage key constituencies while at the same time recognizing that some people will misuse   the   channels. As an illustration of how volatile the situation is, there is wildly conflicting advice about how to prepare for and handle social media. Peter Post, great-grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post, tours the country advising companies on using social media. He encourages companies to draft policies about acceptable and unacceptable usage. Many attorneys also have recommended that companies and organizations articulate policies about employees’ use of social media. But, David Rubin, a partner in the Labor, Employment and Benefits Practice at Nutter McClennen & Fish, cited a number of comments and complaints issued by Lafe Solomon, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board on companies’ attempts to write policies involving Facebook, postings on the internet and other social media, wrote he was currently counseling “clients not to post a social media policy” (HR Magazine, February 2013). He recommends that companies maintain confidentiality and non-disclosure and harassment policies that can be applied to channels like Twitter and Facebook.

Social media becomes critically important in a crisis situation, but companies need to be prepared for the unexpected. BP eventually did a good job during the oil spill and cleanup in the Gulf. They tweeted about their efforts and enlisted hundreds of volunteers. However, parody account @BPGlobalPr popped up with tweets like, “Special on blackened shrimp.” When a BP spokesperson was asked about the tweets, she claimed she hadn’t seen them. This was hard to believe and didn’t help BP’s credibility.


Lest we get too wrapped up in the trends screaming from the headlines, it’s worth closing by noting that culture counts. Joel Allison, CEO of the Dallas-based Baylor Health Care System, says “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Every organization should be focused on creating an organizational culture that is resilient, stresses integrity and supports productivity.

The scandal at Penn State in 2011 was a direct result of a  toxic culture where a number of people knew what was going on but told investigator Louis Freeh that they knew nothing would be done. This was not a “black swan” event, something hard to anticipate like terrorists kidnapping your CEO in Niger; this was an evil secret that would predictably become public and cause catastrophe.

Lawyers are uniquely positioned to help their companies and clients create a positive culture where people do the right thing for the right reason.

I went to Washington, D.C., on the White House Fellows program, and was assigned to the FBI as Special  Assistant  to  Director and  former  Federal Judge, William Webster. When appointed by President Carter, Judge Webster simply moved his chambers to D.C. and converted his law clerks into Special Assistants. Each had specific liaison duties as well as the stipulation to “use good judgment.” As the only non-lawyer and one of the first two women to join the director’s executive staff, I asked him what he meant. He replied, “Your job is to make sure I hear things that people think I don’t want to hear and things that they don’t want me to hear.” Imagine what a difference that would have meant to BP, Enron and Penn State. The advice goes far beyond the crises we see in the news. It applies to any time an organization says one thing and does another. Attorneys, because of their training, analytical abilities and status, have the opportunity to make communication count.

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