Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Find the "Great Trust Offensive", well, Offensive

It often takes me a while to catch up on all the magazines, newsletters, blogs, etc. around here, but I finally got around to reading an important article in the 28 Sept issue of Business Week. Written by David Kiley and Burt Helm (available online here), the article claims that "companies as diverse as McDonald's, Ford, and American Express are revamping their marketing to win back that most valuable of corporate assets."

I don't know about you, but I get queasy when companies start trying to tell me why I should trust them.

Kiley and Helm report that "...[in] the world of branding, trust is the perishable of assets. Polling in recent months shows that increasing numbers of consumers distrust not just the obvious suspects -- the banks -- but business as a whole."

Gee, given that we're still immersed in one of the deepest recessions ever, that seems really surprising, doesn't it?

"Even before the economic meltdown, companies with trust issues began realizing they couldn't keep talking past the problem with slick television commercials," the article continues. An example the authors provide is McDonald's, which has reportedly begun working with some of its long-time critics, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "McDonald's used its influence to force egg suppliers to raise the living standards of hens and cease debeaking them. PETA has publicly lauded the company for its efforts."

I must be getting cynical in my old age, but this sort of effort -- while, indeed, praiseworthy -- doesn't make me "trust" McDonald's any more than I did before.

Trust is multi-faceted, and once lost, as I know I've written before, not easily regained (remember that old saw: "Fool me once..."?). One of the key elements of trust is transparency, and most corporations are deeply uncomfortable with transparency (if only because it makes CYA so much more difficult). Moreover, making an active effort to build trust can easily backfire and be read as just so much more spin.

Trust, after all, isn't something that suppliers tell clients about. It's clients who reward the best suppliers with their trust.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Warning: Here Comes Another Advertisement

Thanks to the New York Times, I learned yesterday that WGBH-TV in Boston was broadcasting and webcasting a Harvard philosophy course, "Justice", taught by professor Michael J. Sandel.

I logged on today, and it's terrific; I can't recommend it highly enough. (WGBH website is here; the episodes are also available at justiceharvard.org, which also offers beginner and advanced discussion guides.)

According to the Times article, by Patricia Cohen, the lectures being used were taped in 2005 and 2006 and were "first used for Harvard's Extension School and for alumni."

Prof. Sandel begins with some classic ethical hypothetical stories: Imagine you are the driver of a runaway trolley car, whose brakes have failed; if you continue down the current track, you will hit five workmen and kill them; alternatively, since the steering is functional, you could turn down a side track, in which case you would strike and kill "only" one workman. What should you do, and why?

Other questions that are raised include: Can a case ever be made for cannibalism? What's the value -- in dollars -- of a human life? What happens to "natural rights" when we agree to join society and abide by society's laws?

Yummy, yummy stuff.

Friday, September 25, 2009

We're "Shocked, Shocked" ...

... except that, sadly, we're not.

Today's New York Times carries a report by Gardiner Harris and David Halbfinger with this "surprising" headline: "FDA Reveals It Fell to a Push by Lawmakers". Similar articles were published in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere (click here for WSJ article and here for Bloomberg News report).

According to the article, agency scientists who opposed approving the "Menaflex" device for sale in December of last year were overruled by agency administrators, responding to "extreme" and "unusual" (the adjectives come from the FDA's own report) pressure from New Jersey senators Robert Menendez and Frank R. Lautenberg and congressmen Frank Pallone Jr. (District 6) and Steven R. Rothman (District 9). All four are Democrats. The agency's report also accuses its former commissioner, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, of acting improperly.

The legislators and the former commissioner have all said that they acted appropriately.

Menaflex is a device designed to "guide new tissue growth" in a torn or otherwise damaged medial meniscus, the cushion between the knee bones. It is manufactured by ReGen Biologic, a Hackensack NJ-based company.

Unfortunately, clinical trials failed to show that the $3,000 Menaflex device worked any better than routine surgery. The agency is now reconsidering its decision to approve the device. According to the Times, "the agency has never before publicly questioned the process behind one of its approvals, never admitted that a regulatory decision was influenced by politics, and never accused a former commissioner of questionable conduct."

As Captain Renault (Claude Rains) told Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in 1942's Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on here!" just as the croupier hands Renault his winnings, we're "shocked, shocked" to learn that government officials are susceptible to pressure from senators and congressmen, aren't we?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thank You, Messrs. Sen and Stiglitz...

... for articulating one of my long-standing complaints about economics and economic measures of performance.

According to Peter Goodman's article in today's New York Times, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, both Nobel Prize winners, have just released a report arguing against the use of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the sine qua non measure of economic health.

By focusing purely on GDP (the quantity of goods and services an economy produces), Sen and Stiglitz aver, "many societies ... [have] failed to factor in the social costs of joblessness and the public health impacts of environmental degradation."

The late, great H. L. Mencken once wrote, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong." And an "easy solution" is exactly what GDP is. If you're trying to determine how well your society is doing, there are all kinds of measures you could use. Start by defining your terms: What exactly do you mean by "doing well"?

Particularly in a society as complex as the United States, it's hard to know where to start. Our Declaration of Independence holds it to be "self-evident" that we have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", so ... does economic "wellness" really matter more than physical "wellness"? And what about "happiness" -- how does one measure that?

Goodman quotes Stiglitz as saying, "What you measure affects what you do. If you don't measure the right thing, you don't do the right thing." Sometimes we measure the wrong thing because measuring the right one is too hard. But then the "wrong" thing takes on a life of its own as the "important" thing.

What's wrong with GDP? Where to start, where to start...

GDP measures economic activity, the production of goods and services that are traded in the marketplace. Which means that anything that can't be priced isn't measured. So what's the value of, say, the person who stays home to raise a family? Obviously -- by the GDP model -- nothing, because that person isn't compensated (monetarily) for his or her work. That's not good economic thinking, that's cynicism (as Oscar Wilde put it in Lady Windermere's Fan, a cynic is a "man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.").

Not only does GDP not provide a properly-nuanced picture of a society's economic wellness (let alone any other aspects of its wellness), it doesn't consider the question of sustainability. Can anything, even an economy as large as that of the United States, grow indefinitely without any negative side effects? Name anything that could grow indefinitely without negative side effects.

Stiglitz said, "Your measure of output is grossly distorted by the failure of our accounting system. What began as a measure of market performance has increasingly become a measure of social performance, and that's wrong."

Focusing on maximizing GDP alone is as foolish as focusing only on "maximizing shareholder value" by looking for new and ever more creative ways to boost share prices. Wall Street loves it when I cut costs, so why don't I lay off another 1,000 employees? Sure enough, Wall Street will reward me, because the societal costs of 1,000 new members of the unemployed isn't part of the share-price calculation.

Friday, September 18, 2009

O Would Some Power the Giftie Gie Us....

...to see ourselves as others see us.

This quote from Scottish poet Robert Burns came to me when I saw this "surprising" headline from The Wall Street Journal: "Bankers Wary of Fed Pay Proposal".

The article, by David Enrich and Dan Fitzpatrick, posted this afternoon (available here), reports that "some" bankers have "reacted warily" to the news (Washington Post article here) that the Federal Reserve will review, and may restrict, pay policies for thousands of employees of the nation's largest banks.

Bankers still seem to have a hard time seeing themselves as others see them. While most of us not employed on Wall Street blame the risks that bankers took for much of the financial mess we now find ourselves in -- and compensation packages certainly encouraged bankers to take on outrageous risks -- bankers themselves seem to blame everyone but themselves.

Sure, they say, bad things happen. But that's just the way things are. Now that everything's fixed, can we just go back to making money?

Well, no.

The Journal article quotes Peoples Bank president and CEO Chevis Swetman as predicting that the Fed plan "will harm the industry's ability to attract talented employees", and notes that Peoples' already ties compensation to performance, and that therefore its CEO's bonus dropped from $59,577 in 2007 to $30,375 in 2008, and that he expects no bonus this year.

Note that Peoples did not accept any bailout funds.

It seems to me that the Fed plan is a response to the current "heads I win, tails you lose" situation in banking: when banks are at risk of failing, they turn to the government (and therefore to taxpayers) to help bail them out, but when they return to profitability, they want to keep all the gains for themselves. As one of those taxpayers, I'd just like to say, "Hey! Wait a minute!"

To be sure, the Journal writers did find some bankers who applauded the plan, including Steve Steinour, chief executive officer of Huntington Bancshares: "I like it.... Having disciplined pay practices is good for the country long-term."

That addresses the second half of what I'd like to say to Peoples' Swetman: tying compensation to performance is a fine idea, but as with many ideas, execution counts. What performance exactly are we talking about? Next quarter's stock price? Or something a little more long-term and a little more solid?

The Post's Neil Irwin points out that the Fed plan, which is expected to be approved shortly, is separate from other government efforts to rein in what most of us would call excessively lavish compensation in financial services: "The Treasury Department is weighing how to restrict pay at firms that have received money from the $700 billion financial system bailout. And Congress is weighing legislation that would curtail pay to executives."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Truth Be Told ... It's Not Always the Truth We're Told

For a couple of years now, there has been rising concern about bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical which is used to make hard, clear plastic, commonly used for food containers. Can BPA leach out of the containers, and if so, what does it do to humans? (For information on this question, click here for an NIH overview, here for a recent (June '09) Science Daily post, and here for the official "Bisphenol-A.org" perspective; note that the "latest news" on this site, as of 13 Sept 09 is from September of '08).

Concerns about health hazards, particularly for infants and fetal development, have led many to eschew reusable plastic water bottles such as those manufactured by Nalgene in favor of aluminum bottles by SIGG.

I'm not going to address the science and the safety -- that's not my area of expertise -- but I do want to address a question of ethics.

The BPA concerns were bad news for Nalgene but, of course, good news for SIGG sales. And while Nalgene started phasing out its polycarbonate containers with BPA in April 2008 (see company announcement, here), a great deal of damage had been done.

And now we learn that SIGG's aluminum containers had liners that, until August of last year, were made with plastic containing small or trace amounts of BPA. SIGG did not market its bottles as "BPA-free", but seemed content to let consumers assume that the bottles were BPA-free.

When the story broke, SIGG's CEO Steve Wasik posted an open letter in August (here) "explaining" the history of BPA use in SIGG bottles.

Many customers felt betrayed (see examples: here from Hartford's examiner.com, here from the Boston Globe's environmental blog, here from greenerdesign.com -- an article that was picked up by Mother Jones here, and here from Toronto's treehugger.com). And not surprisingly, many customers were not satisfied with Wasik's explanation. As the Globe's Beth Daley wrote, "Any parent would want to know if a drinking container contained such a controversial chemical. If you are going to bill yourself as an eco-friendly company, be eco-friendly. And that includes being straightforward. Otherwise you’ll lose customers. You've lost this one."

Greener Design's Simran Sethi pointed out that "at no point over the last few years, in the handful of conversations and email exchanges I have had with SIGG's PR company, Truth Be Told, were my perceptions that the bottles were free from BPA corrected." For that matter, according to Sethi, Truth be Told hadn't been told the truth either, quoting one of the PR firm's staffers as follows: "As you can imagine, we were surprised and disappointed as well -- we found out this information only a few days before you did."

A second letter from Wasik was posted on 1 September (here). In it, he acknowledged that "although SIGG never marketed the former liner as 'BPA Free' we should have done a better job of both clearly communicating about our liner as well as policing others who may have misunderstood the SIGG message." More importantly, he said, "I am sorry."

It took a while for him to get there, didn't it? That, of course, is where he should have started (at least, it's where he should have started as soon as he realized that people might get the wrong idea about SIGGs and BPA).

Wasik also announced an "exchange program", effective through the end of October, by which customers can turn in their old SIGG bottles for new ones (and by the way, you'll have to pay for shipping the bottle to North Brunswick NJ because, as the SIGG site explains, "this is a voluntary program -- not a recall." Can you say, "Adding insult to injury"? Sure you can.).

Wasik also said that "for over 100 years, SIGG has earned a reputation for quality products and services -- and we do not take that for granted." But it seems as though the company did just that, doesn't it?

And he ended his letter by adding, "All of us at SIGG hope that we will have an opportunity to regain your confidence and trust."

As I said in a previous post, trust is much easier to lose than to regain.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Leave the Ghostwriting to the Ouija Boards, Please

Today's New York Times has an excellent, and depressing, article by Duff Wilson and Natasha Singer headlined "Ghostwriting is Called Rife in Medical Journals".

You may argue about the adjective, "rife" -- according to the article, the percentage of ghostwritten articles in major medical publications ranges from 2 percent (Nature Medicine) to 11 percent (The New England Journal of Medicine), but it is nonetheless depressing.

"In the scientific literature," as Wilson and Singer note, "ghostwriting usually refers to medical writers, often sponsored by a drug or medical device company, who make major research or writing contributions to articles published under the names of academic authors. The concern ... is thtat the work of industry-sponsored writiers has the potential to introduce bias, affecting treatment decisions by doctors and, ultimately, patient care."

As you probably know by now, my mantra is "Transparency". I don't doubt that there are many highly ethical writers working for drug or medical device companies, who contribute considerable knowledge to published articles. My complaint is simply that I don't know about them.

According to the Times article, the study which revealed this flurry of ghosting was conducted by the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association (aka JAMA), which posted an online questionnaire. The authors of more than 600 articles responded (anonymously); of those, approximately 8 percent "acknowledged contributions to their articles by people whose work should have qualified them to be named as authors on the papers but who were not listed."

I'm not saying that all those contributors had nasty ulterior motives that they were hiding. But wouldn't you like to know if, say, it was a Pharma A company employee who was giving a glowing report to Pharma A's product? Maybe the product deserves that glowing report; maybe it doesn't. But you deserve to know about the reviewer.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Trust, Once Lost, Is Not So Easily Regained

I sound like a Victorian paterfamilias warning his daughters to guard their reputations, don't I?

I've been thinking about issues of trust a lot lately. What prompted this particular post is a book review in the current (14 Sept) issue of Business Week magazine. BW writer Burt Helm reviews Women Want More, by two Boston Consulting Group partners (Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre) with writer John Butman. The opening paragraph of the review includes the following:

"...[The] work unintentionally raises a pair of important questions: How rigorous does research for business books need to be? And does it matter if the authors have much that's original to say?"

The first question is what caught my eye -- I'd probably have skipped the review otherwise (as a woman, I'm tired of being "part" of titles like Women Want More). I was a market researcher in a previous life, and have had many conversations about what makes for solid research and what doesn't. For example: what's a valid sample size?

Academic research in the social sciences is often built on what corporate market researchers consider to be woefully inadequate sample sizes. A friend, who wrote a book in 2002 on women who earn more than their husbands (Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry) , interviewed some 60 couples before writing it. I remember her saying that her academic friends were all impressed that she had such a large sample, while her market research friends all complained that her sample size was too small.

In this case, the BCG partners say that they had surveyed more than 12,000 women. Which sounds great, except that questions raised by Business Week "have prompted an amended version of the book that could be in stores, according to publisher HarperCollins, within days of the first printing."

For example, some material in the book appeared to have been taken from Wikipedia, while other information came from an academic paper published nine years ago (without proper attribution). The authors claim that most of the "questions" raised by the magazine represent honest errors which will be addressed in the revised book. If they've done that, can we trust what they say they've done in the way of quantitative research? (For what the authors say about their survey methodology, click here.)

Helm's review (co-written with John Cady), closes by saying that "...[These] kinds of glitches, on top of the unimaginative analysis that run through much of Women Want More, add up to a disappointing performance by Silverstein and Sayre, two senior executives at a respected consulting firm."

If I were one of their fellow partners, I would be concerned about the effect that such a review (and such a book) could have on the overall reputation of the firm. BCG is not just a well-known firm; it's highly respected, and its opinions are valued and trusted. For which the firm can charge handsomely.

If I were a BCG client, I think I'd be wondering whether I really got what I paid for. Do I still trust them as I did before? And what, exactly, can they do to earn that trust again?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Where's That Headline I've Been Expecting?

Ever since the news broke Thursday that Pfizer had agreed to pay $2.3 billion in civil and criminal penalties relating to the marketing of its now-withdrawn painkiller drug, Bextra, and other drugs, I've been looking for this headline: "Pfizer Board Fires CEO Jeff Kindler"

Big surprise -- so far, I haven't seen it.

For those of you who haven't followed the story (a sample of newsreports are here, here, and here), this was, as Gardiner Harris of the New York Times notes, "the largest health care fraud settlement and the largest criminal fine of any kind ever."

According to the government's investigation, Pfizer actively promoted Bextra for off-label uses by providing all-expenses-paid trips to doctors, and even kickbacks.

What makes this especially upsetting? A couple of items:

(1) This is Pfizer's fourth settlement regarding illegal marketing activities since 2002.

(2) 2002 is the year that Jeffrey Kindler joined Pfizer, as executive vice president and general counsel. I don't want to assume that ethics is not taught at Harvard Law ( from which Kindler graduated, magna cum laude, in 1980, and at which he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review), but if there was an ethics requirement, I'm thinking he didn't pass....

(3) The settlement may be huge to your eyes and mine, but it represents less than three weeks of Pfizer's sales, according to the Times.

(4) What happened to the companywide corporate integrity statement that Pfizer signed in 2004 (in conjunction with a $430 million fine over improper marketing of its epilepsy drug, Neurontin)?

The point is that while a great many people in Pfizer sales are responsible for the illegal marketing activity surrounding Bextra and other drugs, given the company's history, I don't see how it could have occurred without (at the very least) a wink-and-a-nod from the top.

The Times quotes one of the Pfizer whisteblowers, John Kopchinski, as follows: "The whole culture of Pfizer is driven by sales, and if you didn't sell drugs illegally, you were not seen as a team player."

I'd say it's time for regime change at Pfizer. Hello, board -- Are you listening?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

When Is a Promotion Not a Promotion?

I'm basing this post on a statistically significant national sample of ... oh well, all right, it's really based on the experience of three friends of mine, but that counts, doesn't it?

Back at the dawn of time, a "promotion" meant three things: more responsibility, a "better" title, and a higher salary. These days, "promotion" appears to mean only two out of three, and the higher salary isn't one of them.

In the past six months, three of my friends have been "promoted" to "better" positions with important new responsibilities. Which is great, except that they still have to do their old job, too.

I realize that times are tough out there, and that every business that's trying to stay in business is looking for ways to do more with less. But "human capital" is not the same as economic capital: it gets tired; it gets cranky; and it wants recognition for the hard work it is putting in.

Do the human resources departments that come up with the fancy new titles think that we're so gullible that we'll be caught up in the excitement of the new business cards ("Look, honey, I'm a senior director now!"), that we won't notice that we are now doing two jobs for the price of one? I'd like to think that they're smarter than that, and I'd hate to think that they're that cynical.

In at least one case, I believe that the corporate situation was dire. If "asking" your employees to take on double jobs (I'm putting that "ask" in quotes, because, especially in this job market, if you're "asked" to do two jobs, can you really say, No?) is truly a stop-gap emergency measure, then the company owes it to those employees to say so: "I know that what we're asking isn't fair. But here's why I think we'll have turned the corner in six months, and here's what I'm going to do for you then." Most people can handle six months at double-time (or whatever the time frame is -- as long as they know what the time frame is). What people can't handle is uncertainty. Is this "emergency" measure going to last a week, a month, a year? Or will the company conveniently "forget" once the moment of urgency is past?

No matter what your business, your employees are your greatest strategic resource. You deserve their loyalty and hard work, and I guarantee you'll get it -- as long as you give them your loyalty and appreciation.