The McLuhan is the Message – 100 years on.


This week marks exactly a century since Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan was born.

In the 1960s, this Canadian intellectual revolutionised our way of thinking about the then-new medium of TV, by outsmarting the elitist and conservative presumptions of a great “dumbing down” that would follow the abandonment of books as the primary tool for passing on human experience of a worthwhile kind.

So how would McLuhan feel today about Kindle — the TV that’s a book? Or iPad, the book that’s a TV? Or youTube, or Facebook?

He would take everything in his stride because he predicted them all with as much clarity as Leonardo da Vinci conceived the helicopter, space travel, and a myriad of innovations that came in the centuries after his death.

Consider McLuhan’s 1962 — yes, 1962, ruminations on new media:

“The next medium, whatever it is — it may be an extension of consciousness — will include television as its content, not as its environment. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organisation, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily taylored data of a saleable kind.”

Wow. Exactly 30 years before I started using something called GreenNet — a 1992 alliance of  online bulletins boards and newsgroups  financed by NGOs which in itself preceded the internet by five years — McLuhan had nailed the whole thing! He foresaw Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, the rise of Amazon, Kindle, even the monetization of personal data through behavioural mapping that’s going on behind the scenes at Facebook.

McLuhan’s immediate heir was Andy Warhol, the artist whose most famous legacy was the bon mot that in a TV age, everyone is entitled to five minutes of fame. Fast forward to today, and the same thought made it possible for the man who tried to throw a foam custard pie in the face of NewsCorp boss Rupert Murdoch, to announce his plan to more than 10,000 people via Twitter. Considering the  gambit failed, the gesture was as pure a piece of McLuhanism as you can find.

The truth is that McLuhan’s thought created the fertile California media savannah on which today’s big beasts — Page, Brin, Zuckerberg, Jobs — graze without fear of predation. They did the hardware and the software and the private equity and the IPOs and the marketing blah, but conceptually, they really just stood upon the shoulders of this particular giant. As “Blink” author Malcolm Gladwell rightly avers, every self-made genius built his success on some other unrecognised self-made genius.

What would happen if we could dig up McLuhan and bring him back to comment today? There’s an engaging little book that fits the scene perfectly. It’s called  ‘Everything Bad is Good for You‘ by Steve Johnson. And its proposition and set-up is perfectly MacLuhanesque.

First, Johnson avers that  modern media — especially TV, has ADVANCED human consciousness and intelligence. So have video games.  In terms of TV drama, he points out that the ability to follow mutliple plotlines in an HBO series, The West Wing, Sopranos or Wired,  demands far greater cognitive awareness than sitting through Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle.

Anyway, the book begins with a comic reference to Woody Allen’s comic 1973 film Sleeper, in which  Allen (perhaps a McLuhan-like figure) is himself projected into a bizarre  distopian future where in the year 2173 a team of scientists examine the pop-eyed comic. (Incidentally, this film also stars the semi-fictional ‘orgasmatron‘ sexual gratification device based on  the work of Wilhelm Reich, another future visionary who’s been in the news lately because of  a new book about the sexual revolution he unleashed in parallel with McLuhan’s media revolution.) Allen doesn’t name-check either Reich or McLuhan, but these two were the grand-daddies of the world we now inhabit.

Raise a glass, and tip your mouse to them. Looking into the past and noting how change has accelerated to warp-speed is something we all do. It’s called aging. But looking into the future and noting how some stuff hasn’t changed at all, is the prerogative of artists and behavioural seers.

And yet …  was Mcluhan who opened the way for today’s transition of the “medium is the message” mantra in which it’s acknowledged that content is no longer king.

Once it was the message. Then it was the medium. Today it’s all about Contact. CONTACT is king. (Logically: you can’t do much content in 140 characters, can you?)

Nowadays we measure influence not by quality of thought but by NUMBER (check out the celebrity battle on Twitter to hit the largest number of planetary followers). Communication is turning into a kind of Nuremberg Rally in which “boots on the ground” outrank everything. Sieg Heil to Lady Gaga’s 11.7 million followers! Hail Britney’s 8.5 million!

Facebook hit 750 million. Google Plus hit 10 million in a fortnight. Twitter has 250 million. Marshall, you really started something. And now, I’m going back to my book, where I’m the only follower.

Richard House

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Murdoch’s tear-stained King Lear upstages Kevin Spacey’s “Horrible Boss”


I got an email from the US sent by some liberal commentators entitled “Excellent seeing Murdoch on the end of a skewer”

I’m not so sure–

I watched the Murdoch “grilling” on the live feed yesterday and apart from the foam custard pies — surely arranged by The Sun and the interloper let in by (Murdoch paid) police as a stunning piece of “reality TV news” headline-grabbing —  father and son delivered a blinder in front of some deferential lawmakers. It was great theatre.

For Rupe it wasn’t so much a grilling as an accomplished “King Lear in Act V” bravura performance (yep, later on Rebekah gets to die just like Cordelia) while young Harry Hotspur (Aka James) delivered a eve of Agincourt performance that will surely guarantee he gets the keys to the (NewsCorp) kingdom. And shocking-pink Lady Macbeth (aka Wendi) swings a meaner fist to stand by her man than Mrs Strauss Kahn! No wonder the NewsCorp stock bounced back 5.5%. The Murdoch sitcom will break bigger  records in your multiplex this summer than Kevin Spacey in Horrible Bosses! (Memo to Kevin: Stick to big tragic roles like Richard III at the Old Vic and leave the Horrible Boss roles to the real professionals. Rupert plays the part way better).

Revenge is a dish best eaten hot …. And the liberal media crucially missed their chance to press home the advantage. Alan Rusbridger needs to start media training his parliamentary attack poodles if the Guardian hopes to deliver lasting change.  If anyone plans to lay a glove on the WSJ/Fox News military-industrial complex they’ll need to try much harder than those timid Brits at Portcullis House.

These people are like poison ivy — seize them and they sting you. Fail to seize them and you can’t tear them out by the roots and they will grow right back in weeks. I sense the Murdoch fightback has begun.

Go Rupes! Go James! Tell us you were betrayed by all trusted friends and Pimp that Stock! There’s only US$ 1 billion in  (temporarily lost) family net worth to recover — and the shortfall is closing fast.

Which “Big Bruvva” is poking YOU in the social media schoolyard?


My teenage son routinely rejects all his father’s friend requests on Facebook.

He’s quite right to defend his privacy. But he’s worrying about the wrong family member. It’s not his Dad he should worry about getting a poke from, but Big Brother.

In this playground popularity game, many “Bruvvas” big and small are now vying for his friendship – or yours and mine. Ranged against Facebook is Google Plus, the fast-growing muscle boy in the school-yard who also wants a piece of our lives.

Then there’s a whole crowd of skinnier, geekier “we respect your privacy” lookalikes inviting us for something discreet behind the bike sheds. Check out Thimbl, Diaspora, reclaimprivacy.org.

This social media “beauty contest” may look like innocent playground stuff. But it has unleashed Darwinian forces reminiscent of a war between superpowers. Claims and counter-claims and being bandied about, reinforced by public relations skulduggery akin to daily life at Murdoch’s British newspapers.

Little by little the battle-lines are becoming clear. On one side stands the IT-industrial complex of Microsoft, Facebook and Skype. On the other are Google, youTube and Apple (notice how they sound alike)?

Meanwhile the rest of us are stuck out there in no-man’s land, clutching our family photos, our holiday news, tittle-tattle and our cousin’s baby’s first scribble.

No wonder, then, that a fast-rising tide of anxiety is infecting the community of global social media users. Fear is rapidly forming into a single question: “what are they going to do with all my stuff?”

The grand “monetization moment” is drawing ever nearer, when Facebook will transform itself from a cuddly free social service into a gloves-off marketing database where everyone’s dreams and semi-secrets are up for sale.

Right now the Facebook business model can’t show more than US$800 million in revenues and positive cashflow – a pathetic financial ratio for a business with 750 million customers.

There’s no way they can justify the hyped $100 billion valuation being floated ahead of next year’s stock market IPO on this revenue model. After all, Microsoft’s investment valued the business at $15 billion in 2007.  Now, it’s as though some teenage brokers’ analysts broke into Morgan Stanley at night, ransacked former Wall Street diva Mary Meeker‘s old desk and in back of a drawer found a battered tobacco tin with a label marked: “Tech Bubble 2000: strong shit! Not to be tried for another decade.” They snuck off with it for a giggle on the fire escape before coming back to press the big red button in the trading room marked “official market rumour.”

Even if the IPO comes off at a dull 10X earnings multiple, Facebook would still need to extract $13 in revenue from every man, woman and child in the system. Were Mark Zuckerberg to match Google’s current 15X multiple, that still means jacking revenues eightfold to over $8 a head from a system free to users. No banner ads can ever deliver that amount of genuinely US-GAAP audited, SEC-verifiable click-through revenue. (By the way, a now-rehabilitated “Meeker 2.0” predicts global internet ad revenues of $50 billion – and Facebook is hardly getting 20% of that).

So, to avoid the fate of MySpace (bought by Rupert Murdoch for $580 million: just sold for $35 million) Facebook needs your data to grind into vastly increased revenue. No wonder the company is cavalier with privacy settings. Like it or not, your retail behaviour  will be monetized as surely as any supermarket loyalty cardholder. With the new Facebook, your memories will be scanned for behaviour patterns, just like a wire basket filled with Bio yoghurt, a six-pack of Diet Coke and a box of cat litter.

Already, salesmen at enterprise resource management software giants Oracle and Salesforce.com are proudly showing their social media trend-tracking systems, now embedded directly into the CRM kernels they sell to multinationals.

This means your individual tweets or postings will be fed straight to marketing staff whose mission is to engage you in their “spheres of influence” by becoming your Facebook friend or getting you to follow them on Twitter. That counts directly towards their bonus.

The algorithms driving such sales-tactics are based on lean maths – one hotel company admitted to me they’d scored just “a handful” of real customers from a 25,000–strong interest group. They need hundreds of millions of users to look Madison Avenue straight in the eye and say “social media sells”.

No wonder then, that Facebook sees Google Plus and its growth pattern as a prima facie threat. If Google is really making these numbers after two weeks with the promise of true user-managed privacy, then the Facebook IPO is walking wounded.

At first blush, Google Plus seems more like life – where social groups live in separate compartments, rather than all the same communal soup (where my son doesn’t want a father meeting his girlfriends. I should point out here that I’m really not like other snooping parents exposed in a survey). In fact Google’s model is all about regaining the old-world search engine primacy it feared to lose with the rise of social media.

So Facebook is fighting back against the Google Plus model. Already it has banned migration from one service to the other.

Facebook also hired heavy-duty PR advisors Burson Marsteller to join battle even before Google Plus launched early July. Mission: spread the word that Google’s privacy settings and its terms and conditions are even more draconian that Facebook’s.

MSNBC (notice how they stick together) posted – and then withdrew – a story alleging that Google’s privacy settings would create a privacy nightmare and potential for massive lawsuits. The blogosphere screamed back:

  • “This article screams of PR scaremongering”
  • “Wouldn’t be surprised is this was FB’s smear campaign”

Some wag even likened Facebook’s dilemma with Google Plus to the old Hitler movie scene in the Fuhrerbunker.

For the record, Facebook’s user contract says:

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”).

And the Google Plus user contract says:

You give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.

In plain English that means: “Suckers: your personal lives are now our intellectual property to sell to our marketing customers as we please.”

But are we such suckers? I think not. Yes, celebrities may need to sell their weddings, their divorces, their children and their plastic surgery to Hello! Magazine. But the rest of us don’t.

Once social media channels become marketing channels with daily pestering from “false friends”, how many people will simply say “unfriend”? Social media relies on a binary world of “like/unlike” and users will vote with their feet, whatever the marketers think.

For instance, the CRM systems simply can’t get inside private LinkedIn groups unless a moderator gives them permission. And Google’s segmentation into spheres of friendship provides additional barriers for the web marketers’ crawlers and search bots.

For last century’s technology – phone calls – we screened calls with answering machines. For last decade’s technology – email – we had spam filters cutting out the Nigerian investment opportunities and Russian penis-enlargement invites.

Social media marketing screen-out technologies will soon be here. Just as we avoid acquaintances at weddings who try to borrow money, chat up our wives or do relationship marketing for mobile phone companies, we’ll know who to steer away from.

Money-makers like Farmville? Goes to show how wrong I can be as I’d always considered there really isn’t much to do on Facebook — unless you are a truly sad, friendless person playing Zynga stuff. But once your few friends have zapped you because of this habit, you might wake up and get a life. Yet the new  Zynga IPO filing values the business at $15 billion (that’s more than Adobe), with $235 million in quarterly revenue and 88 million active users. So maybe I’m the sad one for not joining. Perhaps the real future of all this will be a low-calorie version of dating sites, as Badoo has cleverly worked out.

If we regular Joes are dazed and confused by the shenanigans in social media-land, then professional communicators must know exactly what’s going on there, right?

Wrong. Communications professionals are even more messed up. So says European Communication Monitor 2011, a new survey of 2,209 corporate professionals from 43 countries sponsored by the European Association of Communications Directors.

The survey found that fully 50.8% of those polled have NO training programmes for social media at their companies, and 48.3% have NO key performance indicators for measuring social web activities.

In terms of social media skills and knowledge, managers reported “moderate” capabilities with no respondent claiming a high score. In fact 5.6% of communications managers NEVER make private use of social media. The only thing they ARE agreed on is that it’s important: 41% say so.

In fact, business is already taking care of itself with a new category called Enterprise Social Networking. For internal communications, corporate communications and the choicer types of networking, business doesn’t want Facebook — and probably not even LinkedIn, which is not quite as business driven as it looks.  If, like me, you’ve been pestered by calls to join business networking groups on Facebook like Branch Out, you’ll be wondering what these can do for your EBITDA.

So private networks like Yammer, SocialCast, SocialText and Jive are expanding rapidly. Yammer has just opened a European HQ in London. Santander, IBM, Pepsi all have enterprise social networks operating outside the Facebook-Google axis. As I posted recently in Crowdsourcing the Authentic Story, business is using these tools for mass corporate storytelling.

Anyway, what are the communications professionals – let’s call them the school seniors – gossiping about in the public social media schoolyard where my son and others also play?

In late June, I went to the European Association of Communications Directors conference in Brussels to find out.

Keynote speaker Geert Lovink of the University of Amsterdam believes “the days of Facebook and Twitter are slowly going to be over.”

His academic narrative points to an Atlantic split over social media. While American evangelists naively accept the consolidation of this new prairie under the rule of Silicon Valley’s cattle barons, Europeans are fighting back. Certainly, almost all critical writers and thinkers publishing in this field are not American: Bernard Stiegler, Nicholas G Carr, Sherry Turkle, Franco Beardi, Jaron Lanier, Eli Pariser and Siva Vaidhyanathan.

Perhaps he’s an idealist, but Lovink told representatives of the largest corporations in Europe he believes in the ‘little guy fights back’ scenario. “Before long distributed alternatives to Facebook will incorporate all your networks,” he says. The mantra is “software YOU can control.” But the alternative services Lovink lauds are still not much more than beta-tests and Facebook/Google have a marathon-sized headstart.

For over a decade, news organisations have been famously wrong-footed by social media. Only now are they accepting that reporters must use these channels for crowd-sourcing. So Sophie Brendel, head of digital engagement at the BBC, told the Brussels conference “journalists now take their stories and their steer from social media.” But, warned Brendel: “anyone claiming to be a guru on social media is not telling you the truth.”

The Economist takes a more historic view. In a special survey on the news industry, it presents that case that things have gone full circle. Newspapers originally emerged from the pamphlets and the gossip that circulated in early coffee houses where news as market intelligence circulated as a primeval form of social media. Now we’re back where things started.

Objectivity is now out and strong opinions are back in. The age of monopoly of newspapers and advertising is giving way to the “digital coffee house” where the pamphleteers of yesterday such as John Locke, Tom Paine and Benjamin Franklin, have become the bloggers and tweeters of today.

But The Economist might have finished the job properly and told us what we all need to know. Social media in a corporate context is an excellent tool for reputation management, but marketing will kill it. Social media can help enhance brands, interact with potential customers, pass word of mouth and create ‘net promoters’ by the million. It will tell the story, but it won’t close the sale.

If newspapers have gone back to pamphlets, then maybe the internet is heading right back to Web 1.0. Perhaps its time to wake up and see that monetizing Web 2.0 through social media was just another fantasy of the “2000 tech bubble” variety.

In fact the social media barons could be beating their heads against the very same rock that’s confounded newspaper owners for a decade: you can’t make lasting money out of social media by continuously milking happy customers who stay willingly inside the pen. One-time ripoffs yes, but sustainability?

All of which goes to show: retail or wholesale, personal or business, it’s clear there’s no real clarity on social media. Is it a huge commercial battleground, or a will o’ the wisp devouring untold amounts of time, energy and enthusiasm?

So let’s use the language of today’s purely binary world:

  • Like social media for brand positioning, reputation management and image presentation: above all for developing the corporate story day by day, tweet after tweet.
  • Unlike social media for marketing and commercial exploitation.
  • Friend social enterprise networking. Corpcomms outreach, brand equity projects, storytelling, experiences.
  • Unfriend hardcore marketeers, monetizers, CRM geeks, optimizers.

So back off please “Bruvvas” — one poke too many from you and I’m off to web 2.0 suicide machine, the digital equivalent of the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

Richard House

The Business of Comedy: still in search of our Seven Universal Stories


This is the third part of my series of posts about universal or archetypal stories that drive our collective consciousness.

There are seven basic plots or story archetypes. In the first posting I examined three plots in the context of politics and national leaders (Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and Overcoming the Monster: In search of our Seven Universal Stories). In the second I reviewed the way business is fixated on Tragedy stories (Business of Tragedy – Or Tragedy of Business? A further search for our Seven Universal Stories).

The source for defining the story types is The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. The analysis applying these stories to politics, business and everyday life is my own specialism.

This posting investigates the role of Comedy in Business and the need for a comic revolution in corporate life.

Part 3. Funny Business: The Never-Ending Happy Ending of Comedy.

In these cruel and paradoxical times, cinema finds little to laugh about in the world of work – yet true Comedy abounds in the world of worklessness.

Travelling light across the skies of recession-hit America in Up in the Air (2009), on his heartless mission to fire ordinary people without himself getting involved, there’s only one thing that excites George Clooney’s solipsist central character. Collecting airmiles.

All goes smoothly until a random bout of airport sex draws him into a relationship where he imagines himself the predator – only to find his sentimentality has been awakened and exploited. Worse, the same economic forces that deliver his daily bread, also threaten to ground this hyper-frequent flyer. Why have George Clooney travel to fire you in person, when his sidekick can do the job cheaper online?

Because Up in the Air is an anti-comedy about a world whose values have been turned upside-down by recession, it works back to front. George Clooney successfully shakes off love, companionship and humanity to resume his normal solitary life of work. We’re invited to reflect that true Comedy works just the other way around: life is more fulfilling than work.

And what about this summer’s hot new caper movie, Horrible Bosses? The premise is that ordinary, Prius-driving employees are driven to murder by the vileness and selfishness of their employers. Mix up Kevin Spacey as a slave-driving psycho, ex-Friends Jennifer Aniston, and the message is…. for America’s oppressed white collar-workers, it’s time to get even.

Whatever the (lukewarm) reviews say, there’s a BIG message here for Business. In a flatlining economy, Hollywood is fast turning the workplace into a comic showplace crowded by caricature monsters. I’ll bet you that this summer, millions of people will walk out of multiplexes with exactly the same thought: “If only we could nail the boss too….work really sucks with that guy around”. If business can’t respond by finding some spirit of Comedy in its own heart, Hollywood might just be right.

The central premise of Comedy is one Business should consider well: it’s all about the community, not about the work itself. It’s about the group, not the individual. People show up in the office to be part of a larger tribe, with its customs and rituals. Just as actors join a company in the theatre to do their work, so the rest of us join a company to work for because we’re expecting some theatre. We want to be actors too. The water-cooler or coffee corner is our stage, the cubicles our stalls and circle.

What we want is Comedy at work. If we can’t find it in the workplace, we’ll seek out Comedy elsewhere – even in unemployment.

Britain’s film industry has been far bolder than Hollywood in probing the comedy and values of worklessness, showing how the human spirit trumps business every time.

The surprising 1997 hit The Full Monty with Robert Carlyle explored the camaraderie of a group of unemployed steelworkers intent on retrieving dignity and respect in their working-class community. The message was that having the moral courage to go full-frontal as male strippers is more life-enhancing than finding another menial job.

Brassed Off (1996) with Ewan McGregor, went behind the scenes of the world’s most successful industrial downsizing operation – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s enforced 1984-1985 closure of the British coal mining industry. The comedy revolves around the striking miners’ brass band  (from Grimethorpe colliery) and their retrieval of dignity and solidarity through music. The brass band becomes a hit, winning a national competition just as the old coal mines are closed and the community destroyed. Once again, music trumps work.

The musical Billy Elliot – the unlikeliest of Broadway hits – used exactly the same backdrop of worklessness in a British mining community to show the healing and unifying power of art – Billy’s journey to becoming a classical ballet dancer. The willingness of Billy’s father and family to sacrifice their position in a proud yet doomed community, in order to sponsor Billy’s higher mission,  brings a poignant reappraisal of the importance of art for the working classes – and the meaninglessness of most work.

So Comedy works when we’re not at work. But what about ‘business as usual?’ Can it be the paradigm for a healthy world where every individual achieves fulfilment by taking his or her own place in a larger tribe?

Yes – but Comedy has to break through the hierarchical barriers of work. Just as Tragedy is about an individual hero imposing his hubris, flaws and wilful destructiveness upon the rest of the community, so a lot of Business is all about the Boss. Comedy, by contrast, is all about the community working things out together to achieve harmony. Everyone gets to play an equal role in delivering a happy ending. Try telling that to the Executive Board.

Nevertheless, successful stories of workplace and Business Comedy abound.

Consider The Simpsons. The hero Homer’s relationship with his employer Montgomery Burns, the boss of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, drives the plot. Homer’s ability to tame and moderate Mr Burns’ evil plans averts disaster and brings a happy ending, week after week.

Why is it that TV networks around the world continue showing the sitcom  Friends eight years after production stopped and almost two decades since the first script was written? Each episode is a perfectly self-contained comic drama – and the real action almost always involves the workplace – in the museum for Ross, in the fashion industry for Rachel, at the restaurant for Monica.

It’s no coincidence, perhaps that comedian John Cleese, star of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, made his real money through Video Arts, a business video company that uses comic scenarios for business training.

And then there’s  The Office. The super trivia of daily life at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company just keeps on coming, series after series.

The Greeks, of course, invented both Tragedy and Comedy. The storyline conforms to an exact formula that’s immensely satisfying to us both as individuals and as groups. By affirming the power of light over darkness, of love over discord, order over confusion, Comedy heals us and brings us together.

And the core message is always one that Business would do well to emulate: “Make love not war.” Nowhere is this more explicit that in Aristophanes’ Lysistra – all about a feminist sex-strike designed to stop pointless male fighting. That’s also a pretty rational proposition for many testosterone-driven boardrooms.

At the outset of every Comedy, we are presented with a little world where something is amiss. Often, the malaise starts at the top, with a prince afflicted by jealous rages or irrational desires.

Characters may use disguises, or change places with rustic figures less powerful than themselves. Something precious – a talisman, a child, some secret – may be stolen away, lost, or exiled. These misunderstandings ensure the kingdom is thrown out of balance, and its inhabitants cast out of alignment.

There may be a “wrecker” responsible for the disorder. But, little by little, everyone and everything will get sorted out. The prince finally throws off his rustic disguise (check out  the TV series Undercover Boss)  helping to bring about a wonderful happy ending.

Comedy doesn’t have to be trivial. And some of the people are genuinely dark and nasty, just as in life. Think about Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. His vanity, social climbing and egotism set him up to threaten everyone else’s happy ending: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” Who hasn’t seen his like at corporate offsites?

In The Winter’s Tale, the misunderstanding and paranoid jealousy of King Leontes condemns his wife, Hermione, to a period of secret incarceration not unlike that imposed by the real-life incestuous Austrian monster Joseph Fritzl on his own daughter. The banished daughter Perdita is born in prison – just like Fritzl’s offspring – and turns out to be the key to bringing her “frozen” mother Hermione back to life. How many women executives have found themselves literally “frozen out” of key decisions made by male peers?

Consider Mozart’s 1786 The Marriage of Figaro, based on the Beaumarchais play. Count Almaviva (the CEO) disrupts his little world by lusting after Susanna, the girlfriend of his servant Figaro (let’s call him a young VP).  The Count’s hatred of cheerful philanderer Cherubino (perhaps the Marketing VP)  and his wronging of the Countess (perhaps the investor community) result in improbable shenanigans that are finally sorted out in time to allow all the cast to sing in full-throated harmony: “Ah tutti contenti saremo cosí, ah tutti contenti saremo, saremo cosí.”

Now look at all this from a Human Resources perspective. Getting your employees to sing together in happy harmony is to die for!

If the Business community is like the onstage society or family in a comedy, this stuff is HR heaven!  Engagement, Alignment, Brand loyalty, inspiration, integrated Mission and Vision, Worker satisfaction, Net Promoter Score to the max. Group endorphin releases right off the medical charts!

Tens – perhaps hundreds – of billions of dollars are spent annually on coaching, training, conferences, offsites, incentives, corporate videos, internal branding, vision and values, team games, teambuilding, team experiences. All to achieve the same happy ending and a rosy glow among the workforce, that you can get in the theatre any night by buying a ticket. So you feel like you would after watching Billy Elliot.

But do HR execs ever stop to consider the behaviour (and performance) of their people might be driven by the nature of the storyline they are living through? No. Low engagement scores demand more employee remuneration incentives, more internal communication of the “message.” More top-down interventions. If employees don’t clap loud enough, then wheel in the consultants to find out what’s wrong with them.

In the theatre, we can always walk out if the storyline is weak and the actors poor. At work, if the production sucks, the lead actor has two left feet and the director doggedly refuses to embrace the healing power of Comedy, the only consolation for the workforce is “just fake it.”

No wonder we end up seeing so much second-rate corporate Tragedy, as I wrote in my past post.

Why is it that Hewlett Packard couldn’t work out a Marriage of Figaro denouement when CEO Mark Hurd was caught ogling an actress?

Talking of The Office, there was massive potential for a comedy set-up at Home Depot when Bob Nardelli quit GE to become CEO. Before exiting with a huge payoff, Nardelli nearly trashed the company, where the laughs are largely ironic.

But executives who continue to believe that work can’t also be fun and that humour is a trivial distraction from the true goals of business, should think again. The are companies out there worth billions of dollars, that are explicitly driven by the principles of Comedy.

Think about the Cirque du Soleil. You’re thinking that a company that does circus entertainment and clowns must do Comedy but probably won’t make money. But look at the numbers and the back-story. Cirque du Soleil is just as serious a business as IBM.

The French-Canadian company created by Guy Laliberte puts on new shows that cost $50 million each, has annual revenues of over $800 million, employs 4,000 people in 40 countries and runs a global network of “subsidiaries” (its shows playing on every continent but Antarctica) and has over 100 million customers (its audiences).

The former busker and fire-breather Laliberté has become an archetypal CEO (net worth US$2.5 billion, Forbes ranking 459). He cuts deals with private equity, segments his market like a real estate mogul. He’s hustled government subsidies, staved off bankruptcy, restructured several times. Laliberté even does his marketing from innovative places (a visit to the International Space Station).

Another business that’s made the most effective use of Comedy to grow is Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. A lot of it  – such as Branson’s regular cross-dressing as an air-hostess – was straight burlesque. Always the plucky, irreverent underdog, Virgin has prospered by raising two comic fingers to Coke, Apple, British Airways, Smirnoff, retail banks, train monopolies – even NASA.

In his career, Branson (net worth  $4.2 billion, Forbes ranking  254) has effectively harnessed one of the great incarnations of Comedy – the picaresque. Just like Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, Virgin’s rise has been one long guitar-riff on the circumstances of the moment. Whatever rip-roaring stuff comes along is grist for the Virgin mill. Ride those warm business waves to a comic happy ending on the sands of Necker, the Virgin corporate Caribbean fun-island!

My first-hand view of a more moderate example of  nourishing power of Comedy in corporate life came at AEGON. During the 1990s this dull-sounding Dutch-based global insurer was led by a truly wonderful CEO, Kees Storm.

His brand promise was as good as any I’ve heard since. “Respect People: Make Money: Have Fun.” Apart from compelling senior executives to join him on multiple marathons (some sense of humour there!), the main plank of his management style was wagering. Storm was constantly wagering his executive teams they couldn’t beat the targets he set, with a decent bottle of wine as the good-humoured bet.

Almost every day, this long-faced CEO would bring in another bottle to meet his losses. But he secretly smiled: By sacrificing his own ego for the company, Storm generated 18 years of unbroken annual profit rises. Yet after Storm handed the reins to humourless CEO with a big US ego and a penchant for bear-hunting, the shares collapsed and the insurer had to be rescued by the Dutch government.

Folk like Branson and Laliberté are easy examples to cite. We need more ordinary, tie-wearing executives like Kees Storm to acknowledge the power of fun, and put it to work in large organisations where hundreds of thousands, millions of people could benefit from the harmony and freedom Comedy brings.

We need more people like Derek Sivers, who wowed TED 2010 with a fuzzy video showing how a shirtless man dancing in the park and his “first follower” can start a movement, giving lessons of leadership and courage to the most important, or self-important CEO.

In fact, the comic revolution in business should become the new Corporate Social Responsibility. Bring it on!

Richard House

NewsCorp’s Phone-Hacking Scandal: Live by the Sword – and perish by it?


Note: This is a huge moving story that has evolved significantly since I wrote this July 7th — and I’m not going to keep on updating every twist. Thousands of journalists worldwide, with massive resources are doing that really well. The basic story of Murdoch’s “triage operation” continues to gather pace with the news that:

  • Rebekah Brooks arrested.
  • London’s senior policeman Sir Paul Stevenson resigns
  • WSJ’s Les Hinton resigns
  • Rupert Murdoch issues (almost) grovelling apologies, meets family of hacking “victim.”
  • Parliamentary Inquiry summons Murdoch pere et fils, Rebekah Brooks to testify.
  • US Justice Department initiates  inquiry into foreign corrupt practices by NewsCorp
  • NewsCorp withdraws assurances made to the UK government about editorial independence of  a merged BSkyB — forcing a formal inquiry which won’t conclude until after the public furore has died down.
  • Murdoch’s belief is that Britain’s business-friendly government  will be so scared of jinxing other would-be mergers that it will eventually nod through  the Sky deal once the public has forgotten about it. He’s reportedly even willing to dump his entire UK newspaper portfolio (including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun) to satisfy regulators there is no monopoly interest — all to get hold of the UK£ 1 billion annual cashflow from Sky.
  • Murdoch’s increasingly desperate behaviour is not just about securing the 61% of BSkyB he doesn’t already own. It’s about escaping an inquiry that rules  he’s not fit to own the 39% he already has, and that News International forced by regulators to divest its stake in the cashcow. In this doomsday scenario News International, and behind it NewsCorp, stands to lose the entire holding in Sky.
  • Litigious investors in the US  smell blood. Investors were already disputing the  £415 million fee Murdoch paid to his daughter Elizabeth to buy her business. Now a trio of institutional investors allege disfunctional management at NewsCorp in a fresh billion dollar suit, adding fuel to the crisis  that represents the biggest threat to the company since  its near-bankruptcy in the early 1990s.
  • The phone hacking scandals keep piling up — and spreading right across the  Murdoch UK print portfolio. Snooping on the Queen, her royal household, former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The Sun and the Sunday Times are also involved. Who’s next?

Below is my original July 7th posting. Looks like I was right about Murdoch calling for the battlefield surgeon with his saw, just as I was right about the spreading infection….

Before antibiotics, the only way for doctors to prevent gangrene spreading through a diseased patient’s body was to saw off a limb.

That’s what Rupert Murdoch has done to his infected News Corporation empire, by announcing the shock closure  the News of the World (#NOTW), the newspaper on which his entire fortune was founded following its purchase in 1969.

By winding up the profitable weekly which is the UK’s largest-selling newspaper and sacking its newsroom staff, Murdoch hopes to prevent the infection spreading to the crown jewels of his media empire across the Atlantic.

By applying the brutal triage logic of battlefield surgeons of former years, Murdoch  hopes that by losing a limb he will save a life. His aim was to rescue not just embattled Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of UK subsidiary News International, but NewsCorp itself. Expert advice is that a liquidated newspaper won’t have any ongoing legal liabilities, and all its records can be safely destroyed. His commercial interest will be protected by transforming his other tabloid newspaper, The Sun, into a seven-day a week operation to take #NOTW’s place.

But infection in the form of significantly damaged reputation has already spread within the world’s  most powerful media organisation. From New York to Sydney, from Asia and back to London, a significant crack has appeared in the vertical edifice of the global empire controlled by this latter-day Citizen Kane.

What’s being uncovered in a growing scandal, is exactly how Murdoch does his business. And it’s not pretty. Governments and politicians worldwide bend over backwards to appease NewsCorp’s boundless commercial ambitions and questionable operating practices, in exchange for the positive news coverage that wins them elections.

The perfect “revolving door” of commercial power and political influence has been exposed for all to see. So a reputational threat now looms for brands as powerful as the Wall Street Journal, Fox Broadcasting Company, and satellite broadcaster Sky.

What began as a minor  upset in a distant and little-regarded “old media” corner of Murdoch’s operation, is delivering a body-blow to the aged entrepreneur and his family. Some advertisers are already shunning Murdoch’s tainted UK titles within News International, the subsidiary controlled by NewsCorp.  Investors have already taken fright, reports the Financial Times. The BBC reports that suddenly, “everything has changed” for Murdoch and his minions. Killing #NOTW won’t be enough, UK politicians are already saying.

Glee, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Hell’s Kitchen, 20th Century Fox, The WSJ’s Washington Wire, Wall Street’s finest market watchers, the Fox News political attack dogs, Sky’s glitzy army of sports commentators – you name it, everything’s up for a hostile poke once the seething bacteria of reputational damage start to proliferate inside an organisation of this size.

This tightly-held, verticalised operation built around the Australian-turned-Briton-turned-American’s modus operandi has no reputational or financial firewalls. Murdoch’s muckraking has made him legions of enemies – and they’re coming out to celebrate.

The steady drip of revelations concerning misconduct by reporters at its British anchor paper, the sensationalist News of the World weekly tabloid, has now become a torrent. And it’s now serious enough to jeopardise the reputation of the Murdoch companies worldwide as it becomes clearer by the day that very senior executives were “in on the game.”

Murdoch’s primary media enemies, the New York Times and the Guardian, have drawn blood after a lengthy campaign. Even Vanity Fair is enjoying a gloat from the Hollywood sidelines. The Economist weighed in with a “Street of Shame” cover story

For over a decade, reports that the #NOTW’s stellar record of exclusive newsbreaks was achieved by illegal newsgathering, had been dismissed by Murdoch’s executives.

It appeared that the celebrities, sportsmen and politicians whose serial misconduct was exposed weekly through impeccably-sourced gossip and scandal in the populist “News of the Screws”, were fair game to a paper with a weekly circulation of  2.6 million.

But when Murdoch reporters broke stories about Britain’s royal princes Harry and William by commissioning investigators to illegally hack into the voicemail functions of their personal mobile phones, the hunt was on.

It became clear Murdoch’s men had used the same technique to snoop in on the private lives of:

  • A deputy prime minister  (Lord Prescott)
  • Britain’s finance minister (George Osborne)
  • Hundreds of celebrities like Hugh Grant, Siena Miller, and even Sky’s own sports presenters
  • Victims of  London’s 7/7 terrorist bombings
  • Families of missing and later murdered children (Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman)
  • A missing and later murdered teenager (Milly Dowler)
  • Families of soldiers killed on active service in Afghanistan

#NOTW’s hyper-active covert operations squad put the CIA and NSA to shame. Murdoch lawyers  reached for the corporate checkbook to pay off  hundreds of angry celebrities.

It’s also now emerging that #NOTW executives had for years made repeated – and illegal – payments to British police for similar tidbits of information. That partly explains why for over a decade the London Metropolitan police have stubbornly resisted  any enquiry into  the affair.

As The Guardian reported, any proof that  executives in the UK subsidiary News International had knowledge of corrupt payments to  public officials (UK police) could trigger an automatic investigation into the US-domiciled parent NewsCorp under the US Foreign Corrupt  Practices Act. Seizure of assets, fines and jail terms are some of the sanctions available to US courts upon conviction under this law.

In the UK, one #NOTW reporter has already gone to jail.  Former editor Andy Coulson, who left to become Prime Minister David Cameron’s head of communications, was forced to resign. Coulson has been arrested and faces a possible trial for perjury.  The drums are now beating for the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s flame-haired temptress-in-chief in the UK and herself a former #NOTW editor right at the time when the worst excesses were committed. Whatever dangerous family secrets this latterday Lady Macbeth knows about, they must be of spectacular value to force Murdoch to torch an entire property instead of letting her go.

The ‘Tweetosphere’ certainly thinks so: one post joked that Murdoch has “closed down the wrong red-top” (a reference to the coloured mast-heads on his tabloids and the Brooks hair-tint). Another compared Murdoch to a greengrocer who finds a few rotten apples — and sells his shop to keep the apples. Many think the CEO of News International knows where the bodies are buried.

If Rebakah – herself a Cameron chum who enjoys explicit backing  of both Murdochs (Rupert and son James)  – is forced to quit, this one has global ramifications for NewsCorp. Already,  across the Atlantic at the WSJ headwuarters, Murdoch’s most trusted adviser  Les Hinton is feeling the heat. If Brooks knew all about it, then Hinton also knew – and so did Murdoch.

#NOTW closure won’t stop the drum-rolls. The sight of a harassed and humiliated Murdoch, hounded by papparazzi and TV reporters in his own hallowed turf in Sun Valley Idaho, brought a cheer to newsrooms worldwide. The biter bit.

The sad thing about all this is that when one media organisation takes a reputational hit, all others seem to settle  more deeply into the mud. The New York Times  has never really recovered from the 2003 scandal of the  false stories concocted by Jayson Blair that provoked the ouster of  Executive Editor Howell Raines. At the same time the  furore over NYT reporter Judith Miller’s sourcing by highly unconventional means of dubious intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s fictional weapons of mass destruction, helped create a false case for the Iraq war and further besmirch the once-great newspaper, now sustained by a Mexican telephone tycoon.

Ever since then, news executives have been moaning around the conference circuit complaining that untrained bloggers with unknown standards have stolen their editorial lunch and doomed the commercial future of their newspapers. With every passing scandal it’s becoming clear that some bloggers have higher journalistic and ethical standards than some of the once-great news titles. Painful to say it, but Murdoch’s titles have brought journalism into such disrepute editors can no longer  look down disdainfully upon the Drudge Report, TMZ and others.

And in the UK, the #NOTW scandal  has unleashed the third great crisis of public trust. First came the collapse of faith in banks and the ethics of bankers following their economic collapse and rescue with government funds. Then came the scandal of financial corruption by parliamentarians cheating on their expenses. Now comes the third crisis in Britain’s press and media (known here as the “fourth estate”). The other great “estates” survived and so will the press — but with permanently diminished public trust.

Worst of all for Murdoch, his corporate financiers are just days away from a monster UK £7.5 billion (US$12 billion) deal to finally seize full control of the 61% of Britain’s largest  satellite broadcaster that NewsCorp doesn’t already own.  Although it’s branded as Sky, in fact Murdoch’s UK operations  are a joint-venture called British Sky Broadcasting. The other party is the rump operation that Murdoch drove out of the market in 1990.

The Sky/BSkyB deal has unveiled the Murdoch modus operandi in chilling detail. When Vince Cable, the minister in charge of approving media mergers in David Cameron’s cabinet spoke out against the deal, he was simply turned out of his chair and changed for the more compliant Jeremy Hunt, a young minister who duly approved the deal to Murdoch’s liking.

Despite a chorus of media industry complaint, Cameron’s government seemed ready to ink a deal that would concentrate media ownership and influence to a degree not seen since the Soviet era’s Pravda.

Murdoch cannily offered British competition regulators the same argument he has always used to “guarantee” editorial independence: he promised separate news operations and an independent board at Sky.

He did exactly this when he acquired the London Times in 1981. To no avail. The Times looks and reads like any other of the Murdoch tabloid titles.

He did exactly this when he acquired the Wall Street Journal  and its parent Dow Jones Company in 2007. So far, the fig-leaf of independence demanded by the departing Bancroft family still covers the WSJ’s more sensitive editorial parts.

But Murdoch’s Sky deal is still not yet signed. Everything  now hinges on whether NewsCorp is deemed “fit and proper” to be the outright owner. And the #NOTW scandal could upset this. Overnight, Murdoch has become political poison in the UK.  Cameron can’t now approve the Sky deal – but he dares not defy NewsCorp. Despite the blood-letting  of the #NOTW closure,  a face-saving solution may cost Murdoch Rebekah Brooks’ job and extra £2 billion to get his deal through, news reports say.

After all, it was NewsCorp that made Cameron, just as Murdoch made former British prime minister Tony Blair – and several UK leaders before him. When in 2009 Murdoch’s UK media stable pulled the plug on previous prime minister Gordon Brown, the way was opened for Cameron.

Will Cameron have the courage to use an Independent Inquiry to finally confront Murdoch, block his Sky deal and purge Britain’s press of corrupt practices and influence trafficking?

Whatever the outcome – and after well over half a century of outfoxing politicians and business rivals – it’s unlikely Murdoch will lose out to an inexperienced first-timer like Cameron.

And so it has proved. At a Downing Street press conference July 8th, Cameron was full of mea culpa about how politicans and the media were “all in this together” — but he kicked the  BSkyB issue into the long grass and did nothing to  confront the Murdochs directly — except for stating that if he was in Murdoch’s place, he would certainly accept  Rebekah Brooks’ resignation.

Instead, Cameron offered public inquiries to get to the bottom of the media maelstrom in general  (rather than the Murdoch tribe’s “fit and proper” status in particular.) Cameron also  signified that Britain’s toothless media self-regulator, the PCC (which he called “ineffective and lacking in rigour”) would be replaced.

Cameron said he was anxious to be seen following the takeover rules, rather than making industrial policy on the hoof. That means Murdoch could weather the storm and still take his BSkyB prize after the summer vacation cools Britain’s now-feverish spirits.

Nevertheless NewsCorp’s reputation has been significantly damaged by the #NOTW
scandal. Muckraking is not a sustainable business activity. After all, those who live by the sword will eventually perish by it too.

NewsCorp may yet have more reasons to call for the sawbones in his blood-spattered apron if the gangrene keeps on spreading.

Richard House

Business of Tragedy – Or Tragedy of Business? A further search for our Seven Universal Stories.


This is the second in a series of posts (well chapters, really) about universal or archetypal stories that drive our collective consciousness. They work – whether our chosen group is a nation, a company, a sporting team, or a domestic relationship.

Story is the first collective cognitive experience for every one of us – whether we speak of early civilisations, or our own early childhood. Our education, our recreation and just about every human act is illustrated, enriched and given meaning by story. In fact, story is the shared global asset we call “culture.”

The proposition is that stories drive our group behaviour and destinies in ways that are unseen. Cracking this code makes us actors, not spectators. Users, not losers. It gives us potential to be free and active agents of human development.

The purpose of these posts is to learn what use effective leaders make of this insight, and then to apply their lessons to help us shape the world around us in positive and life-enhancing ways.

We saw in my earlier post  (Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and Overcoming the Monster: In search of our Seven Universal Stories) how politicians and national leaders use these archetypal stories – and the ability to switch between them – to reshape the outcome of history.

This post is all about Business. Good CEOs can “bend” reality to transform the collective perception of brands and the company’s place in society. But are entire companies and all the people in them subject to the same hidden rule?

I will investigate how – and why – employees collectively act out one or other of the basic story archetypes identified in Christopher Booker’s seminal 2004 The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories.

In the first post we looked at four archetypal stories in a political context:  Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and The Quest.

For this discussion of the Business story, I want to analyse the way events in large organisations are driven by the most powerful of all our story archetypes: Tragedy.  And to raise the question: Does it have to be this way?

Subsequent posts will deal with Business in the context of Comedy and Rebirth.

Part 2. The Blood-Boltered CEO. Why is Business so stuck on messy Tragedy?

The Social Network said it all.

There has been no more graphic a representation of the ‘Hero as Monster’ story since Shakespeare wrote King Richard III.

With one critical exception, the Hollywood version of the birth and rise of Facebook is an exact carbon copy of the Tragedy focused on this most vile of all historical stage characters.

The Aaron Zorkin-scripted movie opens with (emotionally crippled) hero Mark Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend. “You’re not an asshole Mark, but you sure try hard to be one,” she says. Bitterly excluded from social acceptance in snobby Harvard, the arrogant anti-hero then embarks on a misogynistic, power-crazed bender of betrayal, dishonesty and theft.

The Shakespeare play opens with (physically crippled) hero Richard of Gloucester bitterly exulting his exclusion from female affection and the inner royal circle.

Since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,   

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasure of these days.

The arrogant anti-hero Richard (he too gets a tongue lashing from his girlfriend Lady Anne) then embarks on a misogynistic, power-crazed bender of betrayal, dishonesty and theft.

While Richard suffocates the young princes in the Tower to achieve the crown, Zuckerberg steals the intellectual property of two privileged Anglo-Saxon Harvard princes. While Richard beheads his loyal ally Buckingham, Zuckerberg commits the latterday equivalent of extrajudicial murder – he dilutes the share options of his CFO chum Eduardo. The film ends with Zuckerberg counting the financial gains – and personal losses, of his bloody ascent.

But The Social Network ends in Act III. And it’s not over yet for Facebook.

In Acts IV and V of the Shakespearean drama, discontent about King Richard’s contempt for the nobles’ rights and privacy coalesces into staunch opposition around Henry of Richmond. The denouement is the Battle of Bosworth Field where the last Plantagenet Richard, having recklessly staked all, loses all and on his death the “hollow crown” passes to another dynasty.

Today, whisperings of discontent among Facebook’s 500 million-plus “citizens” about abuse of right and privacy settings, plus exploitation of personal data by marketers, have begun to coalesce into staunch opposition in the shape of a new prince Henry of Richmond. Let’s call him Google Plus.

No wonder that, in just the same way as Richard exiles Henry when he senses a power threat, Facebook immediately blocked the emigration of Facebook users to Google Plus.  Make no mistake: this is the cyber War of the Roses.

Just as King Richard’s disgruntled supporters switch sides to join Richmond, the Social Media stage is rapidly filling with other, less powerful nobles who also oppose the arrogance of Facebook. Check out Thimbl, Diaspora, reclaimprivacy.org, web 2.0 suicide machine.

Today, kings are made and unmade on the battlefield of the international capital markets. So I predict the hunchback King Mark’s Battle of Bosworth will be the Facebook IPO. This where the US$100 billion hype hits the fan for Zuckerberg and his Wall Street chums.

Facebook’s own rise caused the value of MySpace to collapse from US$ 580 million US$38 million in 3 years. One prince (Murdoch) was replaced by another (Zuckerberg).  And by early 2012, the emergence of a third prince (Google Plus) could leave Zuckerberg with a terrifying roll of the IPO dice.

Perhaps, like Richard, he will exit the battlefield screaming:

“I have set my life upon a cast

And I will stand the hazard of the die

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

OK. I’ve laboured the point – perhaps to death.

Business is the new stage for Tragedy and Hollywood has finally broken down the division between corporate life and art.

But why exactly is it that Business has got so stuck in endlessly repeating this Tragedy thing? Nobody (except Hollywood) gains. While it’s great in the auditorium, it’s fatal in the boardroom.

Consider Enron the Musical. Not because the production failed on Broadway last summer, just as spectacularly as Enron the company itself had failed in 2001. But because Enron’s (unsuccessful) nomination for a Tony Award signalled the last breakdown of the frontier between corporate disaster and mainstream entertainment.

I have to admit that I interviewed later-to-be disgraced Enron President and CEO Jeffrey Skilling. He didn’t look or act like a tragic monster. He was dull and compulsive, yet no different to the many dozens of testosterone-driven MBA button-downs I’ve interviewed when I covered finance. But in those primetime courtroom scenes, he was transformed into a tragic figure as loathed as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Business is bad. And Business is totally stuck on Tragedy. Flawed leaders driven by their hubris must subject the world to chaos, before finally getting a richly deserved come-uppance. Greed, vanity, and hunger for celebrity are the compulsions attributed to business leaders, from Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski to fraudulent UK newspaper baron Robert Maxwell.

Business and its Central Casting villains offer scriptwriters the luxury of not even having to make the story up. “Real” plotlines are just lying around for any scriptwriter like Sorkin to grab. Roger and Me, Too Big to Fail.

That’s Hollywood’s “take on business” — from Modern Times through Citizen Kane to Wall Street. What successfully puts backsides on cinema seats is a plotline confirming our prejudices about the greed and dehumanisation that corporate life inevitably engenders.

Bad Business is bad for business. And it’s bad for people. We want something else. Why is there so little evolution?

There’s a fundamentally pessimistic form of Darwinian reductionism behind all this. Business must of necessity be bad because it is in our nature to use force to strive for supremacy. Capitalism thrives on (barely) controlled violence.

So Supervisory Boards are experts in picking CEO candidates who can use more force to achieve more supremacy. That’s how they deliver “shareholder value.”

Anybody who can’t do the Macbeth thing is a wuss. It was such fun proving Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers was a loser – and anyway who cares about all the boys and girls toting their lives out of Lehman office buildings in cardboard boxes?

Yet Tragedy derives for the Greek word for goat, or scapegoat. Every time the corporate cast reaches for that mask without the smiles, somebody’s throat will get sacrificially slit. Worse than that, the tragic hero and his boundless ego disrupts the entire world around him before his grim exit.

Armies must perish before the tragic process is done with in King Lear, Anthony & Cleopatra, and other stories. Roman society too, is set in turmoil by the actions of Brutus in Julius Caesar.  In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, many are deceived by the false-accounting miracles he works with Mephistopheles. Nameless bystanders are murdered to feed the schizoid barbarities of Stephenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Why on earth has this become the default narrative for organisations? It may be the most powerful form of drama, but Tragedy is not the highest.

In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Business narratives need to take a hike up the pyramid toward self-actualisation. If Business has a corporate soul worth saving, we have to get away from this fixation with low-end tragic tales and look higher up for a collective working model of spiritual evolution.

So let’s start a movement. “Business: get a new script! Reject Tragedy!” Next time, I want to focus on Comedy as the paradigm for balanced healthy Business and fulfilled people at work. And we’ll examine whether genuine spiritual Rebirth is possible for organisations attaining the highest evolutionary level.

Together we are going to start a corporate comedy revolution!

Richard House

“Mr Communicator: You will never become a CEO”


At marketing conferences the message is clear: “go and sell more stuff.’ At medical conferences it’s “sell more drugs.” So you’d guess the takeaway from the European Communications Summit in Brussels might be “sell more messages.”

Wrong. The 1,000-plus professionals of the European Association of Communications Directors got bombarded with a blizzard of contradictory and sometimes plain crazy advice.

Here’s a random pick from the keynote slurry doodled in my conference notebook:

  • Journalists now get the stories and their steers from social media
  • In terms of monopoly, Microsoft is harmless compared to Google.
  • Find a new sexual partner every three months.
  • Become a communications architect because architects seem to get more CEO face-time than PR men.
  • Have opinions.
  • PR is out
  • Your next product launch/sexual encounter/child will always be better than the last
  • Don’t air disputes in public.
  • The days of Facebook and Twitter are slowly (going to be) over.
  • Beware charisma.
  • Twitter’s your distribution tool
  • Use Greek ‘practical wisdom’.
  • Smaller hamburgers give more satisfaction than big ones.
  • Lady Gaga is up there with Mother Teresa.
  • Multitasking messes up your brains

But through all this cacophony comes one doom-laden, over-riding drum beat (and yes, there was a group endorphin-releasing collective drumming session to loosen up the boys and girls). The drum says: “You will never become a CEO.”

That might sound like an impossible aspiration, but for Europe’s smarter corpcomms elite, the news comes a something of a blow. Some of them clearly thought they had what it takes. After all, don’t CEOs these days refer to themselves as “Storyteller in chief” or Chief Communications Officer”? Surely a real communications guy has a shot at the top?

After all, a survey published at the conference (European Monitor 2011) seemed to show that communicators’ influence stood at an all-time high.  While 77.9% of communications advisors are “taken seriously” by management, fully one quarter of these folk in Northern Europe enjoy seats on their Management Board.

What’s to stop them following in the footsteps of marketing professionals  or strategy wonks who’ve climbed the greasy pole of CEO-dom?

A lot, it seems. The message is that even at the top, corpcomms professionals are doomed to play the role those pilot fish who clean the shark’s teeth on the Great Barrier Reef, or those birds that perch on the back of buffaloes in the African savannah and pick off the ticks.

Being an advisor is just not the same as being a decision-maker. It takes a posse of university academics and  a former minister  to administer the coup de grace to unrealistic aspirations.

At the European Association of Communications Directors Summit in Brussels June 30/July 1st, the harsh reality was delivered by keynote speaker Stephen Carter, a former advertising kingpin who adroitly abandoned the sinking ship of former UK premier Gordon Brown’s doomed administration, to join Alcatel-Lucent as a marketing whizz.

Carter, who describes himself as an “accidental communicator,” jumped ship from being an adviser to become a decision-maker. Although 59.9% of communications managers report directly to the CEO, they will not join him. Only a tiny fraction of communicators ever make it to the top.

Why? Perhaps the answer was provided by Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in the UK and another keynote speaker in Brussels. Furedi highlighted the paradox that it is the “authorised communicators”: and NOT the leaders who most often have the authority to communicate the most critical matters.

Service providers or managers of information occupy the hot-seat. Because corporate culture  passes the buck of leadership by using “communication templates” which constantly address the institutional fear of being “off message,”  communication professionals get all the kicks and no thanks for their work.

And in the same week that Europe’s communications professionals were told: “you will never become CEO,” the Pope – after all a kind of CEO himself — sent his first ever Tweet.

It was the week that Rupert Murdoch’s News International – which paid US$580 million for MySpace – accepted just US$35 million for the abandoned property, and during which  Google launched its own social media service, Google +. The week folk started chattering about the sudden droop in Facebook’s ever-expanding number of subscribers, and what this might mean for its US$ 100 billion plus IPO.

Maybe next year’s message will be clearer. How about “go sell more tweets”?

Richard House