Book Review: It’s an issue Jim, but not as we know it

Last October I read an interview with Eric Dezenhall on the changing dynamics of issues management that piqued my attention.

Dezenhall, who was promoting his new book: “Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal”, was incredibly pragmatic about how the combination of technological and social trends have changed the nature of a crisis.  Furthermore, he believes that the idea that there is a magic PR potion that can solve any reputational issue is nonsense:

"Most crises are not resolved through rhetoric. They are resolved through operations. What’s more ethical, doing what Exxon did and recognize after Valdez that the PR war was over—and then they spent 25 years investing in double-hulled ships and radically overhauling their safety procedures, and they’ve never had a major incident since—or do you do what BP did and spend half a billion dollars saying you’re a wind and solar company?"

I finally got to read Glass Jaw over the break and I’d recommend it.

In a world where the physical and virtual book shelves are filled with Harry Potter-esque tales of social media hocus pocus, Dezenhall provides a pragmatic, real-world view of how the world has changed and reputational risk has changed along with it.


For me, a good business book combines opinion, insight and knowledge that ultimately combine to provoke the reader to think. That doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with the author throughout – and there are some elements of his thesis that merit future discussion – but on the whole it’s a recommended read, if only to challenge you to think harder about how you approach issues management.

As you would expect, Glass Jaw presents a pretty grim picture for people responsible for the positive image and reputation of their employer or client. The emergence of social media and the associated culture of overreaction, coupled with the changes we’re seeing more broadly in society are combining to create a difficult issues environment.

It’s interesting to note that PR people aren’t exactly helping themselves or their colleagues either. I completely echo the author’s sentiment that you can’t work in issues management and not have a ‘deep empathy’ for people fighting a reputational issue.

This makes it all the more surprising to see the rise of the ‘self-invented pundit class that declares the controversy to have been mismanaged’.

He acknowledges that ‘in most crises, there are things that could have been done better, and reflection is constructive. Most high stakes situations include experimental actions – some effective, some not – and we do our best to make more good decisions than bad ones’.

Let me digress from the book for a moment. Having spent a lot of time dealing with a wide array of issues – large and small – I really don’t have any time for the ill-informed armchair pontification that accompanies a reputational issue. Anyone who has been embroiled in a real issue knows that it’s complex, challenging and often surprising. To think that someone sitting comfortably in their pajamas with no knowledge beyond what they’re reading on Twitter – and often not even that level of knowledge – can judge someone’s work is just wrong. In my opinion these ‘pundits’ are the PR profession’s equivalent of ambulance chasers.

Back to the book.

While the author does paint a great picture of the changes taking place that impact how effectively you can manage an issue, there are some things I don’t agree with.

For example, Dezenhall believes that ‘social media is of marginal value and often a disaster’ in crisis management. I both agree and disagree with him. I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to decide when and more importantly when not to engage in social media, but I don’t agree it’s not a tool or channel that can help in the right circumstance – of course correctly identifying that timing and circumstance is the key.

He also believes there is no ‘trust bank’ and that commitments like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) while worthwhile, do not inoculate against controversy. I agree that operating responsibly doesn’t give you a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but I’d also point out that if a company is committed to shared value, operating responsibly and meeting its commitments, it inherently reduces risk through more responsible decision making which in turn will aid organizational recovery.

There is always a risk when you’re reading a book about how the world of crisis communications is changing that you’ll finish it having lost all hope.

But there is hope. The world has changed. We deal with more issues today than ever before. Every issue is different, every issue has different dynamics,  we no longer have the luxury of a simple cookie cutter approach to successfully addressing an issue. Instead we must evaluate each issue on its own merits and act accordingly – in the knowledge that success is not guaranteed.

Glass Jaw is a welcome addition to this discussion. Just don’t be too depressed reading it. It’s not that bad :).

Book Review: Onward… eventually

I limit the number of books I agree to review because I always have a long queue of books to read, and I find that agreeing to review a book changes my relationship with it from being a joy of exploration, to yet another task to be completed – a task that’s now four months overdue…

However, when Katarina Hicks from Fortier Public Relations got in touch about the latest Howard Schultz book – Onward – I made an exception.

Mr. Schultz and Starbucks have fascinated me for some time.

It’s a little known fact that I made my first visit to the shores of the continental United States in 1994, spending two fantastic weeks travelling between Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. It was the first time I came across a Starbucks store and I was hooked immediately. It was cool, yet functional, stylish yet welcoming, and they also sold good coffee.

I was so impressed that when I returned to Ireland I made the Starbucks Coffee Company the offer of a lifetime. I wrote to them and gave them the opportunity to leverage the skills and experience of a twenty something – with no experience of retail, no knowledge of running a business, but someone who appreciated a good cup of coffee – by giving me the exclusive Starbucks franchise in Ireland. Amazingly they turned down this very kind offer but they did take the time to respond and I recently discovered that their first overseas store wasn’t opened until 1996 in Japan and of course it wasn’t a franchise.

Despite Starbuck’s foolish and potentially catastrophic failure to let me bring their coffee to Ireland I have long admired the company. For me they are a company that has that rare combination of a strong focus on innovation – across products and services – and a real commitment to corporate social responsibility – just think of the health, pension and stock benefits they pioneered for part-time staff. And yes I know they’re not perfect, but then who is?

So that’s a very long preamble about why I accepted the offer to review the book, and as expected I saw a number of self-imposed deadlines passing by.

So finally…


Onward provides a brief potted history of Starbucks but primarily focuses on the company’s stumble in 2008 and Howard Schultz’s decision to return to the company as CEO eight or so years after he became chairman.

The real focus of the book is on the company’s ‘transformation’ from the lows of 2008 to its recovery.

It has all the elements of a great story. Man transforms a small Seattle coffee company into a global retail powerhouse. He steps upstairs as chairman and the company continues to grow and expand until suddenly, eight years later, it hits a wall. Man returns to salvage his life’s work.

It’s the perfect set up.

I have to admit it took me a lot longer to get into this book than I expected. However, in the end my perseverance was worth it. The second half of the book moves along at a faster pace and provides a more interesting insight into both the company, including decisions that were taken to address the company’s stalled growth and profitability, and a personal view of the events from the returned CEO.

Of course one’s fine-tuned PR senses tell you that a book co-written by the current CEO of a global brand and listed public company carries a health warning. You’re not getting the unvarnished inside track, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t interesting and a worthwhile read, in fact I think it is.

Schultz deserves great credit for sharing his more vulnerable moments and underlining the importance for everyone to keep growing and learning, to ask others for help and listen to advice. That’s a great message; I think we all sometimes forget that we don’t have all the answers.

While the book is co-authored by Joanne Gordon, Mr. Shultz’s voice is loud and clear and he comes across as authentic, not shying away from self-criticism, accepting blame and acknowledging where he and the company have failed.

Schultz takes you on the voyage of recovery, from difficult decision to slash costs through closing stores and redundancies, to increasing productivity, believing in the potential of innovation to drive revenue and ultimately how the company regained profitability and growth.

Aside from the day-to-day struggles of correcting the company’s course, as you’d expect with Starbucks corporate social responsibility is front and center. To quote Schultz:

“Starbuck’s mission from the beginning was to build a different kinds of company, one that would achieve a healthy balance between profit and social conscience.”

He provides some interesting insights into the work of the Starbucks Foundation and like every executive at every major corporation that has long standing CSR commitments, he struggles with how to educate and inform people about the breadth of activities the company supports.

He talks in detail about the rise of social media and its growing importance to Starbucks, from the leaking of his internal memo (see below), to the rise of Starbucks related blogs and latterly how Starbucks is using social media to drive loyalty and revenue.


“More than just a marketing tool, our digital presence further engages our customers, which is an essential element in our growth model moving forward.”


There are a few weaknesses in the book.

Reading it there were a number of times, for me anyway, you really have to suspend disbelief. For example Mr. Schultz’s surprise that a company memo he wrote in 2007 detailing the company’s shortcomings and the challenges they faced was leaked externally. Now you may have to accept his word on this, but I struggle to understand how anyone could be surprised that a critical memo from the President of a high profile global brand wouldn’t make it outside the company. The leaking of such communications has been rife since the late 1990s and it’s now expected that sensitive internal communications will reach audiences outside the organization. If I were a more cynical person I might suggest that the memo was purposely leaked to raise awareness of, and pressure around, the issues facing the management team. But of course I’m not cynical at all.

There are other areas which are glossed over, such as the transition of the incumbent CEO, and while you can understand why, it’s still a little dissatisfying.

Lastly the transition from troubled global enterprise to successful recovery at the end of the book happens a little too quickly, and while you can piece together the various elements that heralded the transition, it seems a little abrupt or maybe even accidental to me. It’s a little jarring.

These are pretty minor criticisms. I recommend this book for anyone interested in getting an inside view on the turnaround of a global brand and the very personal story of how a founding father returns to fix what’s gone wrong and drive large scale organizational change.

Howard Schultz and Starbucks are both intriguing subjects and the journey continues onward.

Disclosure: Fortier Public Relations provided me with a review copy of Onward on behalf of the publishers Rodale.

Book Review: Out of many, not enough

Harold Burson’s 2004 memoir E Pluribus Unum – The Making of Burson Marsteller was my second book of 2011 and to be honest I was looking forward to starting it. 

Mr. Burson is one of the few giants of the Public Relations business.  In 1953 with Bill Marsteller he started Burson-Marsteller and drove its growth and expansion to eventually become the biggest PR firm in the world. He continues to go into the office today in his 80s and he has his own site and blog.

I had high expectations for the book, I was looking forward to insights into the PR business from the 1950s to today, but to be honest, I was disappointed.

The book opens brightly with an account of how he found himself in a career in Public Relations, but it soon descends into a potted company backgrounder on B-M’s growth around the world.  There’s little narrative or insights into the business but instead it becomes a collection of cities, people, dates and office openings.

I really struggled with it and I actually considered not finishing the book, but I was glad I did.  The last third of the book provides a little more insight into Mr. Burson’s working life such as his work with Coca-Cola and some of the high profile issues he managed.

But overall I’d have to say that this was, sadly, a missed opportunity to get a better insight into the career of one of the most successful Public Relations executives who worked with many of the best known organizations in the world over five decades.

The lack of a compelling narrative and limited insights into the practice or business of Public Relations mean I couldn’t recommend it.

A pity.

Posted by Tom Murphy@tpemurphy