Tuesday, January 27

Balancing Acts: Real-Time Communication


An interesting, spontaneous, and live debate occurred between Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations, and Scott Monty, a new media communications executive at Ford Motor Company, on Twitter, the popular real-time short messaging service, today.

The discussion began shortly after Israel pointed to a New York Times article. It provides an engaging look at real-time social media in action.

Here is a portion of it, minus background noise and side discussions.

Monty: Shel, the issue is a little more complex than you're making it.
Israel: Issues are always complicated until a solution simply emerges.
Monty: A single, nationalized standard is what's needed, not state-specific standards.
Israel: Ca welcomes other states to join our standard. The Ca standards 1st offered 12 yrs ago. What progress has Detroit made towae=rd compliance during that time? During that time what has Detroit spent to block or delay the standards during that time?
Monty: The entire auto industry - not just *Detroit* - is behind a single, national standard. You should familiarize yourself with what Ford is already doing (and plans to do) to meet fuel econ & emissions standards.
Israel: So then, you should have no problem with selling Fords everywhere that comply with the new Calif, emissions standard, right? Now ask that question of your customers.
Monty: This is just me speaking (not Ford): I think a single, high standard would be preferable to multiple standards. We're raising the fuel economy standard across every single vehicle we make - to best-in-class or among best-in-class.
Israel: How much $$ was spent by Detroit to oppose tougher emission standards. What would have happened if you had invested in R&D.
Monty: It's not just R&D Shel. It's the associated $ to retool entire plants.
Israel: You know, I've been sympathetic to Detroit, but if given a choice between sustaining Earth & Sustaining Ford Motors--sayonara.
Monty: Just goes to show me that you know next to nothing about our sustainability efforts. You should research before you tweet. (To others: Please check out some of our efforts in the green area. There's lots here http://bit.ly/1KtP73)
Israel: Golly, Scott. You don't sound like that when I take Ford's side. Why is it that I'm considered knowledgeable then & stupid now?
Monty: Because you did your research then.
Israel: My position requires little research Calif chooses strict emission standards. Ford can choose to comply or not. I do not argue that Ford is working on sustainability. But you are unwise to say that the Feds should prevent CAlif. standards.
Monty: I don't think the CA should be denied (again, Scott talking). If we use that as the single standard, great. Not multiple states
Israel: When Calif acted out of frustration, Detroit went to DC to stop us. There's been a recent change in policy.
Monty: If CA wants to spend its money to fight global warming, good luck. There are other important priorities at stake in the economy.
Israel (hours later): [Scott Monty] wants to point out the good efforts Ford has made and in fact, I believe that's true. But Detroit doesn't get to set the pace.
Monty: You're absolutely right. There's a new pace being set - but at the same time we need to operate within what's realistic now.
Israel: With all due respect, that's precisely what Detroit said to CA in 1997, when hearing were held in this state. CA is throwing down a Green Gauntlet. It's an easier challenge than Kennedy saying man would walk on the moon in 8 yrs. It's time to take the issue seriously for the sake of your kids & my grand children.
Monty: With all due respect, Shel - when did you become an automotive analyst? We've got no problem taking it seriously. We're moving faster than you know. ... But real business decisions need to be made for today as well as for tomorrow. It's a balance.
Israel (hours later): With all due respect, no expert on automotive but I do see an entrepreneurial opportunity when I see one. I'll be happy with any company that complies w/standards. I'll be at the Ford showroom the day you meet that standard. I'll even tweet your virtues.

What wasn't communicated that could have added value to the conversation?

California took the lead in setting the strictest auto emissions because it began taking steps to regulate emissions well before federal standards were set. In fact, California has been at this much longer than Israel gives the state credit. The California Legislature passed the Mulford-Carrell Act, which combined two Department of Health bureaus — the Bureau of Air Sanitation and the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board — to establish the Air Resources Board (ARB) in 1967. The ARB wasn't even California's first emission reduction effort.

However, California is also the leading polluter in the United States. In 2008, the American Lung Association's 2008 State of Air Report, California metropolitan areas account for five of the top ten most long-term particle polluted metros (with seven cities received a failing grade) and five of the top ten most ozone polluted metros (with twelve cities receiving a failing grade) in the U.S. The cause isn't automotive as much as it is lifestyle.

Of course, much like California, the automotive industry has a mixed record on environmental issues too. You can find an extensive, and reasonably brand neutral, account of the automobile and the environment by Martin V. Melosi right here. It doesn't take an automotive industry expert to deduce that fuel prices more than any other factor dictate what consumers will purchase.

When gas prices are high, like they were in the 1970s, consumers buy fuel-efficient cars. When gas prices are low, they buy SUVs. The American automotive industry tends to compete better in the latter market, although Ford does have 13 U.S. models that achieve 30 miles per gallon or better. The Ford Focus was named one of the top ten greenest cars in 2008.

The American automotive industry has made significant contributions in the development of green vehicles, sometimes at the expense of their own viability (and sometimes for the benefit of competitors). And sure, they've made mistakes too. But blaming the automotive industry for attempting one of the trickiest balancing acts in history seems disingenuous.

You see, I drove one of the earliest electric cars in the 1990s. The public didn't want them. The infrastructure wasn't in place to support them. They were creepy quiet to drive. And, while researching them, nobody could tell me what they planned to do with all the spent batteries. In fact, almost 20 years later, there is no real indication that any of this has changed en masse.

The bottom line is that we need solutions. However, considering we all contribute to the problem every day, those solutions will only come from shared accountability and consensus building. We need discussion over diatribe, the kind that has helped us realize substantial reductions since the 1960s.

Do real-time online conversations add value to communication or cause confusion?

It depends on the conversation and the participants. This one today, despite praise from observers, doesn't add much value.

To his credit, Monty delivered more communication than non-communication during the discussion, better than 2-to-1. In comparison, Israel delivered more non-communication than communication, almost 3-to-1. But this wasn't a boxing match.

Nobody wins, especially those who were listening.

Even with what little truth was alluded to, it's difficult to walk away with a real appreciation of this complex issue beyond polarized content. Simply put, Twitter was not a suitable platform for this discussion. Beyond that, maybe you can tell me.

13 comments:

Kevin Goodman on 1/27/09, 5:28 PM said...

What really amazes me is that interesting and important people become accessible. I don’t know if that’s the right word – maybe it’s just the sense of real time transparency and on your feet thinking. I’m not on twitter yet so I don’t know that much about it. I don’t know if that was a productive conversation. Actually I’m going to take your word that it wasn’t but it makes me want to open a Twitter account for the reasons I already mentioned.

The Duke on 1/28/09, 5:57 AM said...

The question I have for Shel is why, like most people of his ilk, the anti car, anti Detroit intellectual elite, why just focus on Detroit's lobbying, and not Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, etc, that have spent tens of MILLIONS of dollars fighting California and other states who feel the need to differentiate themselves to their own detriment.

Rich on 1/28/09, 7:07 AM said...

@Kevin

All people are important. :)

Of course, I understand what you mean. Social media and real-time communication has helped many people are more accessible, which can be a great advantage or disadvantage.

The above conversation aside, Scott Monty, for example, has turned it into a great advantage for Ford because it humanizes the company. There are many conversations that he has engaged in for a net benefit for Ford. If you open up an account, make sure you follow him.

As far as this conversation being productive, well, I say it wasn't because the communication broke down and it broke down early. As soon as Israel asked attack questions (because they were certainly not inquisitive questions), it started to fray. By the time Monty used the word "should" in a sentence, it was over. I thought of breaking it all down, but it was already a little long in the tooth for a post.

Although, this might be a good time to point out that I have had one or two non-productive conversations on Twitter too. Nothing in the above post is meant to discourage the participants, but rather help other people understand communication.

@Duke

It's a good question and I hope he takes the time to answer it, because I could not even hazard a guess.

I can tell you that I tend to take a more pragmatic view because I've done work in the energy, environment, and automotive industries. I've been to Detroit and met people on the front line.

When you add it all up, these people are working hard to meet the goals of our society even though those goals are not necessarily in line with the company. So, society has to work harder to meet the industry halfway.

Ergo, I don't see many people demanding every gas station build alternative fuel pumps before there is a fleet to fuel. And yet, the automotive industry was asked to build a fleet before there was an infrastructure to fuel them or a market to sell them.

So, the bottom line is there is a middle ground. And it might not happen as fast as we want, but it is happening.

If people want to do something about the environment, there are plenty of things we can do. While weaning consumers off gas automobiles is noble, it's even more practical to tell Congress to fully fund EISA Section 471. But on that point, I am remarkably biased. :)

All my best,
Rich

Anonymous said...

Makes me wonder what kind of car/SUV they drive.

Rich on 1/28/09, 4:55 PM said...

Anon,

DIdn't see an SUV with any stickers today. However, I did see a Toyota Tacoma with two: "Feeling Blue In A Red State" and "Earth First."

That is not a statement. It's just an observation ... somewhere between 15-20 mpg city.

Best,
Rich

Scott Monty on 1/28/09, 8:47 PM said...

Rich, you bring a welcome and incredible dose of common sense to this discussion - something that I personally find is lacking in so many of these ideological debates I engage in on Twitter.

If more people would stop and think of the bigger picture, or truly understand what it means to the industry and to the country, we'd have more sensible conversations like this.

Thanks for pulling this together.

Scott Monty
Global Digital Communications
Ford Motor Company

Rich on 1/30/09, 6:46 AM said...

Scott,

Thank you so very much for taking the time to leave the comment. It's appreciated.

More and more, I believe that all communication is tied to situational suitability. Twitter is a great. I love it and enjoy your presence on it.

And then there are days that I cannot help but to think how much more satisfying your discussion with Shel (and many more like them) might have played out with two posts that take people deep into the issue. Not polarized posts, but rather those that present real thinking behind the sound bytes and find common ground. At the end of the day, if we really want it all — a cleaner environment and a lead position in the automotive industry ... since both may be vital to our children and grandchildren — then the discussion really is "how do we do that?" At least, I like to think so.

Thank you again.

All my best,
Rich

Zane Safrit on 2/14/09, 8:02 PM said...

Thanks for sharing this. I liked Kevin's comment. Important interesting people are accessible on Twitter. And like some conversations in person...the conversation itself may not be productive but it can lead to something productive. This post is one such productive outcome. The idea of a two more posts, offering indepth ideas and development of arguments to support...is an excellent.

Frankly, I didn't see any attack questions from Shel. Blunt, direct, opinionated. Yes. And with all due respects, Mr. Scott, the American public has more than earned the right to ask them of Ford and the other 2 car makers, in the same manner as any good lender would ask a potential loan applicant.

Rich on 2/14/09, 9:10 PM said...

Hey Zane,

Thanks so much for your comment. I am honored that you think this post helped carry the conversation forward. I also hope one day, this subject can be discussed at length because it is an important one. More dialogue and less diatribe.

I appreciate that your assessment of Shel conversation and mine differ, possibly because I teach hostile interview tactics in class. Shel uses a number of them.

That is meant no disrespect for Shel. I've quoted him favorably on more than one occasion, and openly made an effort to engage him on this topic.

Also, just to clarify, Ford did not receive any bail out money. They are beholden only to their shareholders, employees, and customers ... as it is supposed to be.

All my best,
Rich

Christy Brewer on 2/15/09, 5:57 AM said...

Yes. This discussion is GOOD! It moves us all past, "well, if you just..." from both sides. Too much of that has been going on already.

This issue has so many other complexities, like how emissions change with weather and climate changes, too. These two did a great job of voicing their frustrations without totally breaking down into an f-bomb war. I'll bet if these two sat down in a room together, they'd accomplish a ton and figure out how to concisely communicate the logical assumptions and fallacies we've all been fed by way of lack of communication to date.

I respect both these men, and was really, really sad to see such emotion out of both of them. Then again, these two have upheld the highest standard in respecting others and communicating openly, so, of course, they set the bar incredibly high. I was specifically disappointed by the "hostile interview tactics" and the "do your research" retort, but I'll forgive them both because these two are doing it absolutely right.

Rich on 2/15/09, 8:15 AM said...

Hi Christy,

I respect your point of view. It was shared by many, perhaps half of those who participated. I certainly did on the front end.

Then there were others who politely brought it to their attention it had gone too far, suggesting that we "might all get along." And others, tried to ignore it after some time, suggesting the conversation was dead.

While I'm not sure communication requires f-bombs to break down, I am sure it broke down.

That is not to say this is good or bad, as Shel concluded I had judged (I did not). Or good or bad for Twitter. I make no such judgements because different people will conclude different things.

On several occasions, I've noted that my post was not meant to discourage the participants, but rather help other people understand communication.

As a communication consultant, political advisor, and public relations teacher (among other things, including copywriter as Shel identified me), I want my students and clients know that when this type of communication begins to occur, they need to manage it without risking negative impressions to themselves, their positions, or their companies ... or the other person they are speaking with.

It dilutes the message, and shifts the conversation from the topic to a discussion about the individuals. That's not dialogue, it's diatribe. It's exactly the kind of the communication we see in Congress everyday. There is too much of it.

Buy hey, we're all human. I've included that I've had conversations break down on Twitter too (and off Twitter for that matter). It happens.

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

All my best,
Rich

Christy Brewer on 2/15/09, 10:21 AM said...

Ah! Yes, I totally follow your point. This conversation did break down, and it risked all those negative things we already have piling up.

I'm at a hard point with this... Do I focus on the facts at hand, and get back to adding to your list? Do I coach people on how to argue and discuss effectively? Do I step back and write this one off?

I'm afraid that so many people took the third route. We need to somehow re-open this discussion so that everyone can understand the factors at play and resume finding a solution.

Thanks for continuing this discussion!

Rich on 2/15/09, 10:59 AM said...

Christy,

I think you may have just demonstrated the difference between how effective communication can bring people together and non-effective communication can push people away, with a positive example. :)

What to do about it? I suppose the answer depends on your passion and purpose.

Do you want to bridge the gap between two poles on environment?

Do you want to help people learn how to communicate more effectively (keeping in mind that there is no good or bad, but rather effective and non-effective)?

I don't think either of us wants to write it off in entirety, though many other examples abound. (It's these tamer ones that provide better examples, then the most toxic, in my opinion.) I'll be revisiting it again, I am sure, though probably without this example.

And, the thanks belongs to you! It takes more than one to continue a reasoned discussion. I'm thrilled you became part of it.

All my best,
Rich

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