Wednesday, March 18

Ruffling Feathers: Jeremiah Owyang


Jeremiah Owyang, analyst for Forrester Research, left dozens of people scratching their heads in his coverage of what seems to be a crisis looming in the background at Mzinga. Mzinga, if you don't know, manages more than 14,000 online communities for companies such as Virgin Media, GMAC Mortgage, and John Deere.

According to Owyang, he has been been hearing from multiple sources that Mzinga is undergoing some changes, which includes the voluntary leave of the CMO. Under normal circumstances, this is common fare for company coverage. However, these circumstances aren't common as Owyang took his coverage a step further.

"It’s my obligation to have my clients (sic) best interest in mind, and this is the fastest way for me to reach them, by using the tools where we’re already connected," wrote Owyang. "I strongly recommend that any Mzinga clients or prospects stall any additional movement till they brief me next Monday."

In the very next line, he promises to be fair and balanced. And, more perplexing to some, he teased the post on Twitter by more or less stating that people should not perpetrate rumors. Owyang has since apologized for his post.

So what went wrong for Owyang and what can be learned?

One reason reporters tend to become cynical is that they often learn insider information that they cannot confirm. So, unless reporters can substantiate any speculation with fact, they might leave an issue on the back burner until something finally surfaces (if it ever does). Or, they might share what their insider information is, but stop short of calling the game.

What seems to be is that Owyang, who says he had the best intentions, attempted to play the middle. He decided against sharing the insider information but wanted to protect his clients (and companies beyond his clients) based on the information he had obtained. It might seem like a good idea, but it's an extremely dangerous position because it fails on both fronts.

I might point out that this says nothing about Owyang as a person. There are plenty of people who will defend him as one of the most respected names in the social media industry. However, just because people are ethical and have good judgement doesn't exempt them from mistakes. And this was a mistake.

While having a conversation about this subject with Christina Kerley (who brought this story to my attention) on Twitter, I pointed to Article 8 of the International Association of Business Communicators Code of Ethics, which suggests "Professional communicators protect confidential information and, at the same time, comply with all legal requirements for the disclosure of information affecting the welfare of others."

I didn't elaborate then, but I will now. Either Owyang had compelling information that affected the welfare of others, which would require it be shared. Or he did not, which would have precluded him from making such a heavy handed recommendation.

So to answer Jon Burg's question — should a blogger share an important or compelling rumor? — it depends. Personally, I try (with admittedly some slippage now and again) to never use the word "should," but if a blogger (or anyone) has compelling evidence, especially if affects the welfare of others, then they are better off sharing it, with qualification, to justify any recommendation on their part.

In other words, if "that" then "this" is fair. But Owyang only alluded to having "that," which means his "this" overreached, making it look like a power play from an industry analyst apparently unable to get the answers he wanted, using mostly Twitter to do so.

As for what could have happened, it seems to me that notifying clients would have best been left to private communication. Any public comment might have recognized that if you are in for a pinch, you are in for a pound. And, on something this sensitive, unless you cover public communication like I do, social media isn't the best fact-gathering mechanism. Sometimes you have to pick up the phone a few times.

So what went wrong for Mzinga and what can be learned?

While Mzinga probably didn't deserve the recommendation that could have caused a much larger crisis than whatever crisis it may be facing, the company hasn't performed much better in managing its communication. There is obviously some sort of crisis (one they intended to answer on Monday) and an unwillingness to address the situation sooner is paramount to confirming it.

Mzinga employee Dave Wilkins' comment on Burg's blog presents one revelation ... "… I'm not really in the right position to respond officially anyway. I do want to clarify a couple of things however."

What's the revelation? In the interim between Mzinga not addressing rumors and promising to address the rumors, the company's employees are left with the daunting task of addressing issues that they are not in the right position to address, which just adds more fuel to the fire.

Some, it seems, have taken to leaving nasty anonymous comments on Owyang's blog. Others demanded apologies while poking back at Owyang. And even more, vendors included no less, chimed in too. Heck, even "former" CMO Patrick Moran is speaking on behalf of a company that has left its communication to reckless abandon.

How reckless? Someone asked me "What leads you to believe that this is a 'crisis'? Is it because the rumor mill says that it is? While the company may be going through some changes, I have seen nothing other than the rumors here and on JKO's blog that indicate there is a 'crisis'."

Give me a break. When rumors of a dramatic and possibly negative change become the only message, overshadowing everything else that the company does or says, it is a crisis. Denial doesn't make it not a crisis; it only makes it louder.

If you don't manage the message, the message will manage you. And from the looks of it, Mzinga isn't managing this one. If it had, there would be no Owyang post to be ruffled about.

If you're still confused, here's the oversimplified version.

1. Mzinga has some sort of a change ahead (small, big, whatever) and did not properly address it, which led to increased negative speculation and rumors. The fact that they promised to address it (Monday) suggests something is going on.

2. Owyang had some information, and then attempted to balance "not wanting to share it without verification" and "wanting to share it because it could impact his clients, colleagues, etc." In attempting to do right by everyone, he did right by no one. He also apologized; lesson learned.

3. Mzinga is now making a tremendous mistake by offering no easily identifiable response, leaving employees and vendors to deliver what can only be called runaway crisis communication, which promises to end badly for them. The last published press announcement was on Feb. 26.

In sum, for as much as Owyang admittedly did the wrong thing, Mzinga's crisis communication management is as much of a train wreck as the Jobster crisis communication management three years ago. The whole situation reads like amateur hour, which makes it all the more worthwhile to cover as a case study. What's the takeaway today? If you don't know what you're doing, hire someone who does.

6 comments:

Lewis Green on 3/18/09, 12:28 PM said...

Rich,

This is a serious situation that leaves one shaking his head. Without any more facts that what I read on Owyang's blog and here, here is my take. It should be noted that both in the corporate world and now as a consultant, my most important task was and remains ensuring that rumors are quickly addresses, especially with analysts. My take:

1) Mzinga allowed this to become an unnecessary firestorm by not immediately addressing the rumor.
2) Owyang's public disclosure of a rumor seems inappropriate. I should think his responsibility to his clients was to pick up the telephone and communicate privately his concerns.

Again, I don't have any information other than Owyang's own words, the comments on his blog and what you have written here. My opinions do not represent solid evidence of anything other than wonderment over what took place.

Rich on 3/18/09, 12:33 PM said...

Right on Lewis.

It seems we are in agreement.

Personally, I feel it is fair to comment on public communication as you have done (and I have done) because without any other evidence, those are the facts as they stand in terms of public perception.

Even when more information becomes available, I suspect we will still shake our heads in wonderment because that new information will not supersede the impressions that have been created or how the communication was handled up to this point.

All my best,
Rich

CrisisCoach on 3/19/09, 4:51 PM said...

Insightful post Rich. These two were both wrong and have not met the crisis test where you need to answer 3 key Qs: Are we safe [from harm whether life, financial, etc]. Do you know what you're doing? Can we trust you? Regards,
Jeff

derekshowerman.com on 3/20/09, 12:14 PM said...

Great post Rich! As a former Mzinga employee I have found the whole crisis to be sad. The opportunity was massive in August 2007 and I cant help but feel like Mzinga missed the opportunity we had.Maybe they will right the ship! Anyways, here is my response to it all: http://derekshowerman.com/2009/03/17/jeremiah-owyang-taught-us-many-lessonssadly/

Rich on 3/21/09, 11:06 AM said...

@CC

I appreciate it. You nail it with three either questions that both parties might have asked. And now, those are the questions that other people will ask for weeks and months ahead.

I will give Owyang some credit. I sent him a heads up on the post, and he responded that it was fair and balanced. Sometimes we all learn the hard way; after that, it's all about what we do with the experience.

@Derek,

Good lessons to live by. As this case develops, I will be sure to work it in somewhere. You're insight is relevant and important as it seems people need to constantly be reminded that social media didn't invent new rules; it just applies old rules to a new medium.

I'll make it a point to chime in on your post as well, later this weekend. Love the "Oops" too. Haha.

Best,
Rich

Rich on 4/7/09, 3:00 PM said...

Famous last words:

For those who wondered what all the changes at Mzinga were about, it seems pretty simple despite being buried in a blog post.

Welcome to social media, where layoffs are tucked any on blogs rather than a direct inquiry by a researcher. The outcome might have been off the mark, but the inquiry was right on the money.

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