Globe and Union Step Back from the Brink

Last night the Boston Globe and its largest union reached agreement on a contract that was only slightly different from the contract the union rejected a couple of weeks ago. The New York Times got the $10 million cut from expenses that it said it needed. Instead of an 8% pay cut, they get a 5.9% cut, in exchange for deeper benefit cuts. The biggest benefit cut was the removal of lifetime employment guarantees for 176 people.

This was difficult, but the hardest part is left – keeping the paper alive.


What Staples Can Teach Associations in a Recession

Photo by OldOnliner, via FlickrA nice article in the Boston Globe this past week covered how three well-known area companies succeeded during the last recession. They are Staples, Akamai and Thermo Scientific.

The lesson from Staples can apply to anyone. Chief executive Ron Sargent told the Globe that during the 2001 recession, he focused on three things:

  • Take care of the customer
  • Pare expenses wherever possible
  • Continue to invest in the future

Sargent said, “You can’t just do two of the three. You have to do all three.”

For Staples, taking care of the customer meant fully staffing stores at peak shopping hours. “It takes a long time to get a customer,” he said, “but you lose them quickly.”

Taking care of the customer is core to Staples’ mission.  If you swap the term “member” for “customer” in this context, and you have a good template for leading associations through this recession. But assuming a member focus can be tricky, because this could drag you into doing something just because a handful of members want it. After all, couldn’t t that be called member service?

Well, not really, if you keep in mind rule #2 – pare expenses. Which is what Staples did. During the 2001 recession, Staples closed 31 unprofitable stores. But at the same time, it opened another 60 in fast-growing markets. Obviously, this improved the overall bottom line.

The other message in this story – loud and clear – is the utter necessity of continuing to invest in the future. For Akamai, it meant investing in new technologies to serve its new user base. For Thermo, it meant buying new companies and shedding those in peripheral industries. For you, what does investment mean? It doesn’t mean cut your expenses until you bleed. It means cut the peripheral expenses, and grow what is your core.

As association leaders, we have a duty to the members. And to the bottom line. And to the future. This isn’t easy to keep these three plates spinning, but that’s what they pay us for.

Staples did it; so can you.

Boston Globe-Union Negoatiations: Down to the Wire

Boston Globe front page, April 4, 2009
Boston Globe front page: April 4, 2009

Midnight tonight Sunday is the deadline set by the New York Times Co. to wring $20 million in concessions from the union representing workers at the Boston Globe. No agreement, no Globe, according to the Times’ leaders.

No agreement has been announced, yet.

This has been excruciating to watch. The Globe’s unions have resorted to begging for fawning letters from the state’s congressional delegations to the Times to treat the Globe “fairly” – whatever “fair” means when a newspaper is hemorrhaging $1.63 million a week. We’ve also learned some details about why the Globe is in such a big hole – among them, the scores of employees who have lifetime guaranteed contracts.

The Globe and the Times made a lot of decisions that today seem stupid but, back then, didn’t. Anyone who slams these decisions today is just taking easy cheap shots, because I don’t remember many people saying anything back then. Smug second-guessers have a special circle in hell.

The city’s other’s day paper, the Herald, hasn’t distinguished itself either. It’s been churlish in its reporting, as if it’s not facing financial Doomsday itself. The real shock is that Herald could actually outlast the Globe, even if for only a day.

What will happen to journalism here if the Globe folds? Some 20 years ago, after his star pitcher walked out of training camp in a salary dispute, a reporter asked the Red Sox general manager what would happen next. Lou Gorman’s answer: “The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I’ll have lunch.”

Something like that will happen in Boston. The Herald will still be the Herald – irrelevant. TV stations will actually have to work for news that doesn’t drop into their laps from American Idol or the police scanner. Local newspapers will still cover the school committees and the zoning boards,. and do a decent job with it too. ESPN will still do great sports reporting.

But the big stories won’t be reported, which will make the entrenched powers happy. Currently in Boston, that includes public pension abuses and the infuritating attitude of entitlement that pervades the governing class. We’ll miss that reporting, for a while. Call me an optimist, but I believe that this, too, will survive, if enough people care.

Stay tuned to what happens at the Globe.

Swine Flu Outbreak: A Moment of Truth for Associations and Social Media

Photo by videoplacebo via FlickrHealth care associations have had their hands full this week, gathering and disseminating the latest on the swine flu outbreak in the U.S. It’s moments like this when associations prove their worth – in times of urgency, if not crisis.

The flu’s outbreak in the country occurred last week in Texas, where the Texas Medical Association acted quickly to alert its members about what had happened. By Monday this was a certifiable mainstream media story, for better and for worse. The job for associations wasn’t so much to alert their members anymore, as to separate the good information from the bad and provide measured, authoritative guidance.

Our state Department of Public Health made our job easier. It started issuing regular alerts, held statewide conference calls, and established focused incident teams. We relayed the state’s information via our own Flu Advisory e-mail alerts, and used our website to highlight state and federal flu information feeds, as well as our own flu resources. As of Monday, we were still playing it low-keyed, since there weren’t any confirmed cases yet in Massachusetts, or even in New England. We didn’t want to stoke any hysteria.

Things changed significantly Wednesday morning, when the state announced the first two confirmed cases in Massachusetts – two school children who had just returned with their family from Mexico.

We changed our approach, deciding to put all our media touchpoints into play. We created a graphical banner on our home page, to provide easy access to our information. We focused our blog exclusively on flu information. We set up on Twitter account and invited followers. We set up a new Facebook page focused on the flu.

We didn’t add anything special to the state’s information. But we also didn’t assume that all our members, or the public, had access to all the official information at our disposal. So we reached out to people wherever they could get their information, whether it was by email, on websites, social networks, RSS feeds, or Twitter.

I’m also hoping that users of these media will contribute to our knowledge, which would make a time consuming process more worthwhile. We don’t yet have the tools to write once and syndicate to our all channels with one click – we will someday, I hope, but not now. For now, it’s a laborious step by step process, but necessary activity in our evermore fragmented media world.


Boston Herald image: April 30, 2009If you want evidence of how some media will stoke the hysteria, see this image at the left. It’s the front page this morning of the Boston Herald. As Mo Vaughn, a former Red Sox slugger, once said, “Stupid people in Boston! Stupid!”

The Herald is almost irrelevant in this market now, but this idiocy confirms the need for associations to be measured, trusted and reliable sources of information.

Nice Job, Facebook

Photo by World Economic Forum, via flickrIt looks like Facebook has its groove back. Only two weeks ago, Facebook almost ruined its own good name by unilaterally changing, then revoking, a new Terms of Use.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg (photo at right) last week announced a remarkable new plan to let Facebook’s own community determine company policy. Some might say it’s lunacy, but I think it’s the only thing he could have done.

The basics are this:

  • Facebook is creating a new set of principles, and a separate new set of rights and responsibilities.
  • For one month, Facebook will invite its community to comment. This ends on March 29. The comments will be made public and summarized, too.
  • Facebook will then revise the documents based on the feedback, then open them to a vote. The vote will be public, and if 30% of the users vote, it’s binding.
  • It will create a user council of members who provide the moist insightful comments, and will invite reporters, bloggers, analysts and other pundits to be part of a first alert network for news from Facebook.

(Brian Solis does a terrific job poking through the details in his customary lucid and concise fashion.)

What’s so good about this? Facebook listened.

What worried me most about the Terms of Use kerfuffle was that Facebook seemed so tone deaf to its own special place in the world. It was behaving like an old world company, while pretending to be new and cool.

So now, with its change in direction, Facebook is practicing what it preaches in two important areas:

  • Transparency. Users’ comments are public, and Facebook says explicitly what it will and won’t do.
  • The community rules: The community determines the brand, and it will determine the company’s policy too.

People can and will disagree about some of the specific proposed principles, rights and responsibilities. That’s fine. At least now, the final product will be up to the community, not to a faceless group of manager types.

Not everyone would have the guts to admit their mistake so graciously, and make such a dramatic about-face. We could all learn from what Facebook did.

The Un-RFP: A Follow-up

Photo by caseywest via flickrA few weeks ago, I discussed how the RFP (request for proposal) had run into disrepute, mostly among consultants and vendors to whom they are targeted. I also discussed how people like me need a good structure to solicit outside help, review their proposals, and make the best decision possible.

A good number of comments followed (thank you!). Definitely, I touched a nerve. I listened to what you all said, and recently issued this “un-RFP” to a number of possible consultants and agencies. I’d be grateful if you’d take a look and share your thoughts.

Currently …

  • The Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) has lots of experience and success working with traditional media. But we also know the effectiveness of traditional media is rapidly diminishing.
  • We were one of the earliest medical societies to experiment with social media technologies, starting in March 2007. We appreciate about social media technologies can help us accomplish our goals, and we have learned a lot about how our members use social media technologies.
  • But we don’t know as much about how to implement these tools to produce specific measurable results, nor do we understand very well how to integrate these tools with traditional media. As a result, the success of these experiments has been uneven.
  • MMS plans to launch the first phase of a website upgrade in Q1 2009
    • In Phase 1, the principal enhancements will be in the site’s information architecture, visual design, search, back-end integration, and site analytics
    • In Phase 2 (Q3/Q4 2009), we will introduce agile technological tools (.NET) and upgrade our social media offerings

What we’re looking for …

  • We want someone to shorten our learning curve in social media technologies and show us how to produce results from them.
  • Our focus is in three areas:
    • Advocacy: How do we leverage social media technologies with traditional media to increase our voice and influence in the public conversations about health care policy and clinical issues?
    • Education: How can we leverage social media technologies with traditional media to improve our business results for both live and online continuing medical education programs?
    • Membership: How can we leverage social media technologies with traditional media to improve our ability to a.) strengthen our bond with existing members; and b.) grow our membership levels among practicing physicians in Massachusetts who aren’t yet members?
  • We want a partner who has produced specific measurable business results for customers and clients integrating social and traditional media. Theoreticians without a track record need not apply.

What Success Looks Like …

  • More member activity. Members will find that our social media offerings help them become better doctors and make their membership in the MMS invaluable. They will use these tools frequently, and they will become fervent MMS evangelists to their colleagues.
  • Better business results. More people will register for our live and online medical education programs. We will be more effective in our membership recruitment activities.
  • More influence. MMS physicians will have a more vital and influential voice in the critical health care policy and clinical conversations of the day.


  • Send me a description of you and your company. Tell me about the work you’ve done for yourself and others to employ social media and traditional media to produce specific measureable results. Give yourself enough space to impress us with your expertise. Provide some detail but you don’t have to go crazy.

After that …

  • We’ll review what we get, and get in touch with those who interest us the most. At that point, we will probably ask to meet and talk some more – you’ll learn about us, and we’ll learn about you, and we go from there.

If this interests you, send me your reply by end of business, Feb. 20, 2009.

Business School: Rapid Irrelevance?

Photo by gadgetdude, via FlickrThe Boston Globe published an interview with the new president of Babson College recently, and he said something that fairly shocked me.

“I’ve argued regularly over time that the content component of a business school curriculum is irrelevant within a decade,” said Leonard Schlesinger. “Now, I’d say it’s irrelevant within five years.”

Schlesinger is no dope. He has taught at Harvard Business School and he was vice chair and COO of Limited Brands. But five years?

I may the least qualified person on earth to offer thoughts about this. I didn’t go to business school. My formal education ended with my bachelor’s degree in English. Everything I know about business has come on my own, and on the job.

But what does Schlesinger’s estimate say about the business school education? Harvard’s two-year MBA tuition is about $78,000. Sure, it’s Harvard. But is that truly a good investment, when everything is dead meat after five years?

Maybe you get a better job with that MBA. Maybe the connections you make will last forever. I’m not one to argue, either way. But if Schlesinger is right, those claims will be harder and harder to make.

As a parent with two daughters entering college in the next four to six years, this issue is rapidly becoming personal. But it’s a question for all of us.

Colleges and universities once could charge whatever they wanted. Parents navigate this black box of a system with grants, scholarships and loans. Medical students finish medical school with up to $200,000 in debt, discouraging many from choosing lower-paying specialties that they might otherwise love.

This can’t last forever. The  cost revolution is hitting health care. It swamped the airlines 20 years ago. Education may be next. How will colleges and universities react?

Why Airlines Are Dying

Is anyone home?
United Airlines headquarters: Is anyone home?

Last week, I had a one-day trip to Washington. It was a 6 a.m. flight on United, and I overslept. I got to the ticket counter only 5 minutes before departure time, which was too late. United’s next flight was three hours later – no good – so I booked a flight on another airline, and paid full freight.

Today, I called Expedia to see if I could get a credit for my $176 ticket on United. I was told that United would be delighted to give me a credit, after I paid a $150 penalty.

Unbelievable. Is it any wonder why they’re struggling?

Any company that treats its customers like the enemy does not deserve to survive.

Gatehouse and Settle Litigation

Read the update on

More comments later.

Short Sighted

blurry-eye-chartThere’s a hotel in Las Vegas that charges guests $5 to receive a FedEx package.

Most hotels still charge you $15 a day for an internet connection.

Most airlines charge $15 or $25 to check baggage. A few will charge you the same to reserve an aisle seat.

Some banks charge you extra to see a teller in person.

Some gas stations charge you a buck if you want to put air in your own tires.

Times are tough, I know.

But I don’t know customer who walks away from such encounters feeling honored, appreciated or valued  by that business.

Can the $5 the hotel collects for ransoming that package ever be worth all that ill will?

Stand out from the crowd. Don’t treat every customer interaction as a mandatory financial transaction.

See what you get.