Finders Weepers

There’s nothing more coveted in journalism than the scoop, from Tajikistan to technology.

But there can be a price to pay for those who would serve up these media morsels. Just ask the 21-year-old man who discovered an iPhone prototype sitting on a bar stool in Redwood City, CA, and then sold it to a technology website. Now he’s discovered he’s “very definitely … being looked at as a suspect in theft,” according to local law enforcement. That’s because if you find a lost item in California and keep it without making “reasonable” efforts to find the real owner, you might be charged with a crime.

That $5,000 Gizmodo paid Brian Hogan will probably just end up being just a down payment on his legal bill. To minimize the pain, he’s apologized to Apple, which is known for zealously protecting its secrets and, true to form, vigorously pursued the top-secret gadget that was accidentally left behind by one of its engineers. As for Jason Chen, the Gizmodo editor, police raided his home and seized his computers and servers. But because of “shield laws” protecting journalists, Chen may have little fear of prosecution. Indeed, from the publication’s perspective, the whole affair could be more dream than nightmare: Jackboot thugs storming the hiding place of our intrepid hero, a nervy scribe intent on airing secrets and serving the public interest. Long live democracy!

At any rate, the scoops continue on, proving once again that the media and lawyers are usually the only winners in the game of human folly. First, trumpeted that it had sleuthed out the identity of Hogan and quickly publicized his name. Now CNET reports that a UC Berkeley student named Sage Robert Wallower was the one who helped Hogan find a buyer. The 27-year-old told CNET that he “didn’t see it or touch it in any manner” … adding, “I need to speak to a lawyer … I think I have said too much.”

Death by PowerPoint

Back when your trusty editor was the publications and communications director at a prominent nonprofit organization, a fellow executive took it upon herself to map out the creation/approval/distribution process she thought should be involved in putting out a newsletter. Up and down, back and forth, in and out it went – the crazy Etch-a-Sketch of lines and arrows was absolutely ludicrous. … Really funny too, when you weren’t despondent over what had become of your career and purpose in life.

And that was just a little nonprofit newsletter. Imagine trying to capture and visually illustrate all the players, procedures and factors to consider in modern military operations … Consider Afghanistan, where the Army is batting an unexpectedly tenacious enemy: PowerPoint presentations.

The New York Times reproduced a U.S. Army diagram (originally publicized by NBC’s intrepid foreign correspondent Richard Engel) showing American strategy in Afghanistan. The purpose of info graphics is to communicate visually, but this think looks like a bowl of spaghetti. Dropped on the floor.

If you want a good laugh, or cry, check it out:

When he first saw the info graphic at a PowerPoint presentation in Kabul last summer, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan reportedly said, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

So that’s why this damn thing is taking so long! Hopefully, another way to win the war will emerge that doesn’t depend on tangled intentions and garbled communications.

The Unfortunates

There was a great photo in yesterday’s New York Times of Fabrice P. Tourre, the Goldman Sachs bond trader who helped devise the mortgage instruments his bank sold to investors – and then shorted, thus piling up enormous profits as the country plunged into financial chaos and massive loss.

Monsieur Tourre, who hails from France and likes to call himself “Fabulous Fab,” is looking over his shoulder at a non-too-sympathetic mob of Bastille-stormers while seated before a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating the role of investment banks in the financial crisis, with a particular focus on Goldman’s mortgage machinations. The S.E.C. also accuses the firm and Tourre himself of fraud for selling an investment package created with an outside hedge fund, which then made billions by betting against the success of the booby-trapped vehicle.

It won’t help Goldman’s case — whether legal or in the court of public opinion — that private memos between its executives describe at least some the deals they were selling to unwitting investors as “shitty.”

When Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked about the email’s fragrant (and, as it turned out, accurate) choice of words, Goldman CFO David Viniar said, “I think that’s very unfortunate to have on email.”

Unfortunate? … Snickers rose from the crowd who thought perhaps they were witnessing a historic “let them eat merde” moment of tone-deaf response. But aside from word choice, do the various Goldman executives who testified for 11 hours feel any remorse, or even responsibility for the financial meltdown or exacerbating its effects? No, not at all. “I don’t have any regrets about doing things that I think were improper,” said former Goldman mortgage chief Dan Sparks, who did allow that his bank had “made some poor decisions in hindsight.”

Sen, John McCain (R-AZ) said that he did not know if the world’s largest and most profitable investment bank did anything illegal but there was “no doubt” the firm behaved unethically. It remains to be seen if that judgment hurts the bank, which ironically tells its employees they should do nothing that would embarrass the firm if printed on the front page of a business newspaper.

However you feel about the matter at hand, at least one objective lesson is clear from a communications standpoint – be very careful what you say in emails. They live on past your delete button — and the really juicy ones, the ones that make you look foolish or dishonest, are bound to make it into business publications. … Maybe even Senate hearings.

Naked Before the Storm

Is the world heading into another financial maelstrom?

The Standard & Poor’s debt rating service today downgraded Greece’s sovereign debt to junk status over concern that the country will default on its staggering debt load, now 124% of its economy … and growing. The fear of default could be a self-fulfilling prophecy as it significantly raises the interest rate at which the government can borrow in order to service existing debt or raise new funds — without outside *special* assistance.

“The challenges our country faces are unprecedented,” Prime Minister George Papandreou told his party. “Not only for Greece, but also for Europe and even the world economy. … And what I say is no exaggeration.”

If Greece defaults on its debt, other shaky European nations may fall off the precipice: first Portugal and then perhaps Spain, with its much bigger economy. And then … well, with the contagion effect inducing an accelerating whirlwind of debt downgrades and investor panic, who knows? The euro will be swamped by all the bailout demands. Hearing thunderclaps, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are trying to rescue Greece — or rather, to keep themselves from drowning if the situation deteriorates further.

Problem is, some EU member states are furious at the prospect of being soaked by Greece’s cavalier unwillingness to live within its means. Germany in particular has been, um, shall we say, hesitant to commit its crucial share of a 30 billion euro loan (in addition to 15 billion euros from the IMF) unless Greece shows a Teutonic-like commitment to fiscal discipline. Greek unionists are letting everyone with a camera know what they think about that, by taking to the streets to denounce the mere prospect of austerity. Negotiations are ongoing as storm clouds gather….

And to think it all could have been avoided, if only the Greek government and people had been more honest and responsible from the start (or even the middle) of the crisis. The government purposefully, and vastly, understated the amount of it owed, which is supposed to be under 3% of GDP to comply with EU membership rules. (Instead, it’s closer to 14%, as revealed by a recent independent audit.) Voters, meanwhile, don’t pay taxes, preferring the cheaper option of bribing tax collectors – and are outraged that services or jobs might be cut in order to close the yawning gaps in budget and credibility. Now investors and other governments have a hard time believing that Greece will actually deliver on its newest promises.

What does all this have to do with communication? This: Trust is everything in communication, so if you’ve got bad news, get it out quickly, get it out completely, and get away from it by taking immediate corrective action – or it will be out to get you.

A New Kind of Tweet

The Twitter micro-blogging service intends to mature into a formidable animal. Consequently, co-founder Biz Stone recently explained in his blog a new addition to the company’s aviary — Promoted Tweets. Translation: advertising.

It had to happen. Information may want to be “free,” but information providers and platforms don’t necessarily want to be, at least not forever.

Like other Tweets, the Promoted variety will be limited to 140 characters, and readers can respond to them or pass them along (“retweet”). The difference is, business and organizations pay to have placed at the top of relevant Twitter search results. They will be labeled as “promoted.”

Distinct from both traditional search advertising and more recent social advertising, promoted Tweets are start off as regular Tweets (they’re an “organic” part of regular Twitter). Promoted Tweets will also be timely, to connect the user in a real-time event, for example.

Much as Google does with unsuccessful AdWords, Twitter will drop a Tweet’s Promoted status if it doesn’t “resonate” with users (meaning they don’t respond to the Promoted Tweet in some way). Initial advertisers include Best Buy, Bravo, Red Bull, Sony Pictures, Starbucks, and Virgin America.