Hall of Shame and Fame: Apple Statements Regarding Apple Maps (with PowerPoint Slide for Classroom Use)

Within minutes of its release as part of an operating system upgrade on Apple mobile devices, the Apple Maps feature began to generate howls of protest. Compared to the Google mapping feature it replaced, Apple Maps had numerous problems, from egregious errors to missing functionality.

Users accustomed to finding just about anything through the Google app flooded the Internet with examples of mapping blunders. A railway station in Helsinki showed up as a park in Apple Maps. A farm in Ireland appeared as an airport. The Washington Monument was misplaced by several hundred yards. Driving directions steered one user down a railroad track. A search for the huge John Lewis department store in central London yielded nothing, even when the user was standing on the sidewalk outside the store. (This Tumblr blog offers dozens of examples—some amusing, some frightening.)

Beyond the errors and omissions, the removal of real-time mass transit schedules upset people who had been relying on this feature to plan journeys.

Two responses from Apple caught our eye during the aftermath. The first merits our Hall of Shame award, but the second gets into the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Shame Example

An article on CNN.com highlighted the many problems Apple Maps was displaying soon after launch and quoted this response from Apple’s Trudy Muller:

Customers around the world are upgrading to iOS 6 with over 200 new features including Apple Maps, our first map service. We are excited to offer this service with innovative new features like Flyover and Siri integration, and free turn by turn navigation. We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get. We’re also working with developers to integrate some of the amazing transit apps in the App Store into iOS Maps. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.

There are five major problems with this response:

First, there is no acknowledgment of any problems, even though people all over the world were having problems and sharing them all over the Internet.

Second, there is no element of apology. Many users were furious, particularly given that they had no choice in the switch from Google to Apple Maps. (Of course, you can’t apologize if you don’t admit you even have a problem.)

Third, the upbeat tone adds insult to injury. Yes, companies need to put a positive spin on things whenever they can, but when customers are angry, they really don’t want to hear that you’re “excited to offer” the very service that is driving them nuts. Yes, Flyover and Siri are cool features to add to mapping, but if the map sends you astray, they aren’t all that helpful. And promising to make customer experience “even better” is tone deaf in this context. Something has to be perceived as “good” before it can get “better.”

Fourth, angry customers also don’t care that it’s a “major initiative” or that you’re “just getting started with it.” They care that a major feature on their expensive phones was suddenly replaced with one that was unreliable and in many instances simply unusable. Plus, this aspect of the message risks coming across as “give us a break; this is really hard and we aren’t finished yet.”

Fifth, with “the more people use it, the better it will get,” the message comes close to blaming users, or at least suggesting that they share the responsibility for fixing the problems. And what are people supposed to do the meantime, keep driving down railroad tracks or walking across lakes?

All in all, it’s a classic. But not the kind of classic any company wants to be known for.

The Hall of Fame Example

About a week later, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded with an open letter to Apple customers that acknowledged the extent of the problem, apologized for the frustration Apple created, and, most impressively, explained how to put alternative mapping capabilities—including Google—on affected Apple products. (Click here for an annotated slide.)

Cook’s letter does repeat the “the more people use it, the better it will get,” which we believe is an ill-advised message point. Mapping is an important feature on an expensive product, and it is Apple’s responsibility to fix the problem, not customers’, even if customer input can help. However, the letter has enough other helpful information conveyed in a respectful way that we still think it offers a worthy example.


Vexatious Grammar: What’s Your Rule About Rules That Aren’t Really Rules?

 When those who spend their lives writing and evaluating the writing of others don’t always agree on the rules of grammar, it’s easy to empathize with students who want to get it right but aren’t always sure what “right” is.

It’s one thing to not know or not follow a rule. It’s quite another when Expert A asserts “You must follow this rule,” but Expert B says “Not only do you not have to follow that rule, it’s not really a rule.”

Consider three classic examples of this conundrum: Never begin a sentence with a conjunction, never end a sentence with a preposition, and never split an infinitive.

One can occasionally argue style when it comes to these “rules,” but none of the three has a logical leg to stand on. (Yes, we know what we just did there!) Not splitting infinitives in order to make English look like Latin—a language in which infinitives cannot be split, of course—is the silliest of the bunch. (English grammar differs from Latin in numerous ways; why did the Victorian grammarians jump on this particular point?)

Uncritically following these “rules” can produce clumsy or stilted writing, and following them just to avoid the derision of people who are convinced these rules exist is a waste of creative energy. Worst of all, these distracting tempests-in-teapots make writing seem more difficult than it is and trivialize the real rules that really do need to be followed.

Having said that, it’s impossible to ignore the potential consequences of not following these “rules” in academia or the business world. Perhaps we can only hope that one day the misguided ghosts of grammarians past who created these problems will finally fall silent.

How do you advise your students to resolve these dilemmas in their writing?


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Putting Organizational Culture on Display: Good, Bad, or Just Inevitable?

One of the more intriguing effects of social media is the way these tools have put organizational culture on public display. Companies that might have once been known mostly by products, headquarters architecture, and advertising campaigns are now also represented (officially and unofficially) by legions of bloggers, YouTube producers, and Twitter users. Professionals and managers who used to be invisible to the outside world are now presented in rich detail on LinkedIn. Glassdoor and other platforms give employees the chance to vent or boast about the conditions in their workplaces.

Few companies show off their internal culture with the quite the gusto of C3, a customer communications outsourcer based in Plantation, Florida. The company's Facebook page looks more like an internal employee social network than one of the official faces of a corporation with a global footprint. You'll find more photos of office birthday parties and costume-day getups than you will official company announcements or marketing messages.

This inside-out approach to communication is by design, according to C3's marketing VP Alicia Laszewski. Quoted in Workforce Management, she explains that it's part of a strategy to position the company as a great place to work, which helps attract employees (and, presumably, clients who want to outsource their customer contact work to a company populated by happy employees). "If your campaign is about people loving the work environment, you'd better create a company where people really love to come to work. If not, it's just a marketing campaign." Hence the party-hat, pajama-clad atmosphere of the Facebook page.

As the Internet-raised generation moves onto and up the corporate ladder, we can expect more companies to put themselves on public display like this. Will the gap between external image and internal reality collapse as a result? How will this affect the practice of corporate communications, which has long had control, or at least the illusion of control, over how the company was presented to the outside world?

With this and other communication matters to ponder, we'll leave you with best wishes for a relaxing summer. We'll see you again as the fall semester approaches. Have a great summer!

Instagram Effects Are OK, but Photoshopping Is Not? Where Do Your Students Draw the Line on Image Manipulation?

The raging popularity of the photo-sharing smartphone app Instagram offers a great opportunity to discuss the ethics of digital image manipulation.

A recent opinion piece in Ad Age asked why Instagram was not taking flak for the photo-altering filters it offers while Photoshop gets attacked as a tool for distorting the truth. (Note: the article has a touch of coarse language.) The comparison is not entirely apt, given the much more extensive editing capability that Photoshop offers, but it raises an important point.

Instagram filters let users improve or modify the appearance of photos by adjusting hues, adding sepia tone and other retro effects, adding borders, or blurring parts of the image to highlight other parts. (This article from Mashable offers a helpful introduction to Instagram.)

You can’t use Instagram to make a supermodel look like she’s made out of toothpicks, the way ad agencies and fashion magazines sometimes do with Photoshop, but you can improve the look of photo subjects and direct the eye toward certain things and away from others.

For visual business communication in general, how much dressing up is too much? At what point does persuasion change from the “truth well told,” to borrow McCann Erickson’s tagline, to deliberate deception? You can punctuate this discussion with recent cases in which cosmetics ads were deemed misleading because the airbrushed models were a little too perfect to reflect real-world results. For example, the UK advertising industry’s self-regulatory body recently sanctioned ads featuring Rachel Weisz, Julia Roberts, and Christy Turlington.

To expand the discussion about ethical communication, you might talk about how verbal communication can also be “Photoshopped,” in the sense of using more-appealing words in place of less-appealing alternatives. Anyone who has ever read a real estate ad for a “cute and cozy, one-of-a-kind bungalow” and then driven across town to find a claustrophobic shack decorated entirely with antlers and old gas station signs can relate to this phenomenon.

With visual or verbal communication, a helpful way to frame the discussion is to define the endpoints of an ethical continuum—actions that students consider unimpeachably right at one end and those they believe to be unquestionably wrong at the other. Then work inward from these endpoints to explore the gray areas between the black and white absolutes.

What Do Your Students Think About Generational Conflict in the Workplace?

Generational differences can be a source of workplace conflict in the best of times, and in today's workplace, the potential for conflict seems particularly acute. Between a sluggish job market, structural changes in the employment landscape, and a logjam at the top caused by Baby Boomers who can't or won't retire, many younger workers feel like they're not getting the same opportunities as those who came before them. In this climate of dissatisfaction, recurring issues such as media preferences and communication styles can become magnified, as the generations get snarkier and snarkier with one another. ("Baby Boomers are preachy and technologically obsolete!" "Millennials have no work ethic and need constant handholding!")

On the plus side, these conflicts and controversies can provide some great opportunities for exploring the factors that influence communication success in the workplace. Here are some thought-provoking questions to trigger discussion with your students:

  1. Do students feel like they "belong" to their generation? For example, people born in the early 1960s are often classified as Baby Boomers based on birth year, but not all of them feel a strong sense of kinship with that generation.*
  2. How do students perceive the next-older generation (those likely to be holding the jobs they want to get) and the next-younger generation (those who will be eyeing their jobs)?
  3. Do students perceive intergenerational conflict to be a real problem in the workplace? In society as a whole?
  4. How important are personal appearance (including body art), technology and media preferences, and communication style—three issues that come up frequently in discussions of generational conflict?

Workforce Management has just started an interesting series of articles about changes in the workplace from one generation to the next, starting with the 1950s. These articles would make good reading material to support a class discussion on intergenerational conflict.

*While there are no official labels or year boundaries for the generations, we find the following definitions to be useful:

The Radio Generation (born between 1925 and 1945)
Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)
Generation X (born 1965 to 1980)
Generation Y or Millennials (born 1981 to 1995)
Generation Z or the Net Generation (born 1996 and after)

Employment References: Automated, Anonymous Reference Checks Are Changing the Game

Employment references have been one of the more volatile areas of business communication in recent years, and the situation is often frustrating for everyone involved. With the threat of lawsuits over negative references, many employers now offer nothing more than confirmation of dates of employment. On the other side of the equation, recruiters are frustrated by the time and work it can take to track down anyone willing to provide balanced feedback on candidates, and candidates are sometimes frustrated by their inability to provide meaningful references.

In response to the challenges faced by prospective employers, a new class of software is helping recruiters get the information they need to make informed hiring choices—and the implications for job seekers are huge. These systems essentially automate a confidential online survey of a candidate's references. The candidate provides names and email addresses of a specified number of references, and the references then respond to a standardized questionnaire. As this article in Workforce Management explains, employers who use the systems report dramatic increases in the quantity and quality of information they're able to get on candidates. Given an opportunity to provide confidential feedback, past employers and other references are much more willing to offer candid assessments.

Now for the implications for job seekers, particularly less-experienced workers who might not appreciate just how long a bad reputation can follow one throughout a career. Employers who use these systems require candidates to provide references, and those references are protected by anonymity (and liability waivers, in at least one of the systems we looked at). The chances of botching up a job and moving on with no damage to one's career are going to shrink as more employers adopt these tools. Students should be aware that even those part-time and entry-level jobs they can't wait to escape from could come back to haunt them if they leave behind a negative reputation.

On the plus side, these systems should benefit employees who exhibit professionalism and dedication to the job, because their former managers will be free to provide in-depth information to future employers.

Should the Business Communication Course Change to Reflect the Media Preferences of Generation Y?

One of the more intriguing aspects of age diversity in the workplace is the degree to which technology has shaped the communication habits and preferences of each generation. For instance, Generation Y (roughly speaking, those born between 1981 and 1995) has a well-documented preference for electronic media, from texting to IM to social networking. Coupled with a generally more casual approach to information privacy, this reliance on electronic media can clash with the habits and expectations of older workers and managers.

As Generation Y continues to move into workplace and up the managerial ladder, these cultural mismatches are only going to get more common. Moreover, as a recent article in Workforce Management ("Gen Y Execs Shake Up Office Culture") points out, this generation's embrace of entrepreneurship is creating new organizational cultures built around electronic media.

The differences in technology preferences can be significant on their own, but the changes run much deeper than just the tools themselves, of course. Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • Lean versus rich media. Lean media, those with the fewest informational cues and least potential for feedback or personalization, are at the core of this culture clash. For example, Baby Boomers accustomed to walking down the hall to a colleague's office or using their phones for actual voice communication are sometimes dismayed at the tendency of younger workers to fire off a terse text message in situations where they believe a more nuanced live conversation would be more effective. Gen Yers, for their part, can sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about, having grown up texting and IMing.
  • Synchronous communication with real-time feedback. Richer media, including phone and face-to-face conversations, can make it much easier to resolve misunderstandings and negotiate shared meanings. We've probably all had the experience of getting stuck in time-consuming email loops where neither side seems to be getting the message, only to resolve the confusion with a quick phone call.
  • A comfort level with distributed, virtual team communication. As networked and even unstructured organizations become more common and traditional employment gives way to independent contracting for many workers, the ability to communicate without a fixed organizational framework is becoming increasingly important. For all their perceived shortcomings in other areas, Gen Y communicators have a big head start here—and could be developing information encoding and decoding methods that work well in this environment but are perhaps underappreciated by older communicators because they don't fit established patterns and process models.
  • Illusions of communication efficiency and effectiveness. Every mode is vulnerable to the illusion that communication efforts are successful, of course, but email and other asynchronous modes are particularly prone to this because it is so easy to fall into the trap of believing that hitting the "send" or "publish" button is the same thing as communicating.
  • Attitudes about privacy and sharing. These concerns range from publishing sensitive company information (or inappropriate personal information) to treating information as a resource to be shared, rather than as a "power lever" to be hoarded and used selectively.

Given the range of important differences involved in media choices, how far should the business communication course move toward reflecting these emerging preferences? There is never enough time to cover everything we'd like to cover, naturally, so how do we find the optimum balance? For instance, many instructors like to devote time to telephone skills, and understandably so, but should some of that time be shifted over to skill development with instant messaging (as one example), given the shifts in workplace habits? On the other hand, one can argue that the very lack of practice and finesse with phone conversations makes this mode even more important to cover in the business communication course.

We'd love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you've already made changes in your topic coverage or teaching style to accommodate these evolving habits and preferences.


Image credit: woodleywonderworks

Business Storytelling Using Facebook’s New Timeline Feature; Suggestion for Student Activity

We've written here before about the power of storytelling in business communication, and all our textbooks now cover storytelling as a compositional mode, so we are definitely intrigued to see how businesses will be using Facebook's new timeline feature as a storytelling tool.

This article in Ad Age highlights a number of firms that have extended their Facebook timelines back in time to tell the company's story from its founding. The tone and presentation vary widely, as one would expect, from the quirky nonsense of Old Spice to the journalistic presentation of the New York Times.

These timelines offer a great opportunity for a student activity. Have your students analyze several Facebook timeline histories and compare them with the About Us pages on the companies' websites. Which medium presents each company's story in the most compelling fashion, the Facebook timeline or the website? What are the potential disadvantages of the Facebook timeline feature? (Students should recognize, for example, that the linear, chronological format can be a frustrating way to find specific information and to read the company history in proper order, one has to find the very bottom of the timeline and read upward.)

What do you think of the timeline as a communication feature in general and as a storytelling tool in particular?

This Stuff Is Important: “Strategic Informality” in Business Communication

When Google wanted to alert users to significant changes in its online privacy policy, it didn't couch the news in the formal language that corporations normally use for major policy announcements. Instead, it used phrases such as "This stuff is important" and "This stuff matters."

Whether or not one believes "stuff" is stylistically appropriate language for serious, high-visibility business communication, it strikes us as effective in this case. At the very least, it stood out from the thousands of other words that wander across our computer screens on any given day.

We haven't measured it, but we suspect this sort of studied informality is definitely on the rise. Language that businesses would not have dreamed of using for formal communication 20, 10, or even 5 years ago is becoming more common. Just this morning, for instance, Copyblogger Media sent out an email message in response to apparently widespread complaints about the pricing of its blog hosting services. The subject line? "How We Screwed Up Our WordPress Hosting."

Two forces seem to be driving this shift toward informality. The first and most obvious is the rise of social media. Just as conversations are less formal than public speeches, communication in a social media environment is more casual than communication in the old "we talk, you listen" model of corporate communication. Writing that comes across as stilted corporate-speak is rejected as inauthentic.

The second possibility is that formal business language is simply being worn out and trivialized in some instances by overuse and misuse. How many times a week do you see a print or online message that proclaims to contain "Important Information About Your Account," for example? If it's from your bank, credit card issuer, or cable TV company, it's probably not "important information" about "your account" at all but rather a sales pitch that may or not have any relevance to your account or your needs.

How do you see this trend affecting your business communication teaching? Have students raised questions about any disconnects between what they learn in class and what they see businesses actually doing? Let us know what you think.