Exposing the deny and delay corporate playbook (review of Jennifer Jacquet’s The Playbook)

I’m professionally conflicted.

My days are spent in the company of scientists who are doing their part to build us a brighter world.

I also work in public relations. It’s an industry that’s helped corporations wage a decades-long war on science and scientists.

“PR firms have been essential to scaling and disseminating denial campaigns locally, nationally and globally,” says Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor with the department of environmental studies at New York University and author of The Playbook: How to Deny Science, Sell Lies and Make a Killing in the Corporate World.

Denial’s an investment for corporations and delay’s the deliverable for PR firms, says Jacquet. Their mutual goal is the indefinite blocking of litigation, government regulation and swings in public opinion.

“The risks of scientific knowledge are as much about the public’s understanding of those risks as they are about the evidence of those risks. Therefore, the defense against scientific knowledge occurs on a battlefield of communications.”

There’s no bigger battle than global warming. Corporations are using the same playbook dreamed up by PR firm Hill and Knowlton back in the 1950s, according to Jacquet.

First came the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association, which hired the firm to help block the introduction of mandatory testing of the food supply for chemicals. Big Tobacco followed, wanting help in discrediting the link between smoking and cancer. The deny and delay was drafted. Cigarette makers got together and funneled $450 million to the Council for Tobacco Research which in turn funded more than 7,000 “scientific” papers. Other Hill and Knowlton clients included an asbestos company in the 1960s and the plastics industry in the 1970s which wanted to “refocus public and congressional attention and to reshape the national debate about the effect of plastics on American society.”

The well-used deny and delay playbook wages war on science and scientists across four fronts. “After a century of scheming, during which the tactics have been refined, disseminated, scaled and globalized by public relations firms, it is clear that corporate scientific denial also has a particular gestalt, with a four-pronged pattern to the approach and the arguments: challenge the problem, challenge causation, challenge the messenger and challenge the policy.”

So how do corporations challenge the problem of scientific findings that can devastate the bottom line?

Start by hiding or destroying internal evidence. “The destruction or concealment of internal knowledge is easier than destroying or suppressing knowledge that was created outside the corporation,” says Jacquet.

Deny outright that there’s a problem. “The complete denial of a problem is a bold stance but one that has proven effective.”

Pledge to look into the problem but acknowledge it’ll take time because it’s so complex.

Make the problem small and unworthy of a big fix. “Minimize the problem by showing it is inconsequential or affects a very small number of people.”

Point out there are bigger problems to worry about.

Announce there’s no longer a problem because it’s in the past.

Change language to eliminate the problem. The tobacco industry once called cancer “biological activity” and the fossil fuel industry managed to replace “global warming” with the less scary “climate change” back in 2002.

Play with statistics to eliminate the problem or change the scale of analysis to minimize the problem.

Point out that people are better off not knowing about the problem – what they don’t know will hurt them less.

And if all else fails, declare that it’s not the corporation’s fault. “Denial of causation is arguably the bread and butter of scientific denial. Scientific knowledge is at its most remarkable and perhaps most vulnerable when establishing a causal relationship.”

As Jacquet shows, corporations don’t have to fool all the people all the time. To throw sand in the gears, corporations only need to confuse enough of us to sow doubt and confusion. And sadly, there’s no shortage of hired hands who are schooled in the darks arts of denial and willing to roll out the playbook for a generous payday.

“The outlines of the strategy to challenge science can be elusive and it can take years or decades to even partially make sense of, in no small part due to secrecy of the corporation and its network of accomplices,” says Jacquet.

She’s done us a favour by skillfully exposing that secrecy and showing how we’re being duped. Jacquet also offers a playbook of her own to defend science.

This review first ran in the Aug. 12 Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Life’s a beach but for how much longer? (review of The Last Resort by Sarah Stodola)

There’s trouble in paradise for the beach resorts we flock to in the dead of winter.

Journalist Sarah Stodola has traveled the world to report on the economic and environmental impact of beach tourism, with stops in Thailand, Bali, Ibiza and Hawaii to Fiji, Miami Beach, Portugal, Barbados and Cancun.

“I enjoyed the snorkeling and the views, but I found the sanitized bubbles in which resorts existed curious,” writes Stodola in The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit and Peril at the Beach. “To be honest, beach resorts weirded me out a little – their insistence on indolence, and on forgetting the world outside, both the one back home and the one immediately beyond the property.”

Our hothouse Earth is getting impossible for resort owners to forget and ignore. Rising sea levels threaten to wash out beaches, extreme storms are trashing properties and insurance companies are charging ever higher premiums. Soaring temperatures will make whole parts of our world uninhabitable, even for tourists lounging poolside with bottomless margaritas and mojitos. Mix in political instability triggered by ecological collapse and millions of environmental refugees and those of us who can still afford to travel may chose to stay closer to home. 

That’s a problem because tourism is big business. It’s the third-largest global export, provides more than one in every 10 jobs worldwide and accounts for around 10 per cent of global gross domestic product.

Based on what she’s seen from her travels, Stodola offers some strategies to make beach resorts more sustainable and resilient for the tough times ahead.

Rein in long-haul flights. Airplanes are responsible for around five per cent of global warming.“To become environmental allies, beach resorts need to address the problem of air travel.”

Source locally and regionally. “Resorts continue to import most of their food, sometimes because of unavailability in the local market, but sometimes simply because resorts want to serve their guests food with which they are familiar.”

Build more sensibly and flexibly. “Developers need to stop building with concrete next to beaches.” Those concrete high-rises that pack in tourists block the flow of sand and erode beaches.

Start welcoming locals. “The idea that a resort might be built for both visitor and local runs counter to its working definition.”

Quit planting palm trees. “Palm trees provide little shade, require huge amounts of water, have shallow root systems that don’t do much to prevent erosion and don’t absorb carbon as effectively as other trees can.” Plant canopy trees that deliver all of these benefits and regrow coastline-protecting mangroves that thrive in shallow, salty water.

Make resorts pay their fair share for maintaining and renourishing beaches and repairing the damage their operations and tourists inflict on the environment.

End the green certification racket, which Stodola calls nothing more than a moneymaking operation. “Certification is big business and has conflict of interest built into it: those applying for green certification are paying the certifier.”

Limit the number of tourists to let nature take priority. Resorts are realizing they can make more money catering to fewer well-heeled tourists who’ll pay a small fortune to escape the maddening crowds.

Stop building golf courses, the enemy of beachfront health. Courses need hundreds of thousands of litres of water every day and fertilizer run-off causes algae blooms that smother coral reefs. “The white sand common to tropical beaches is most often composed of broken-down coral. Lose the reefs, lose the sand, too.”

Deemphasize beaches and focus instead on cultural tourism. “Officials in beach destinations are beginning to understand that relying completely on their vulnerable shorelines for tourism revenue may spell economic disaster down the line.”

Stodola predicts tourists will still seek out surf, sand and sun but resorts will change in fundamental ways. “It will be farther away from the equator and farther back from the shoreline. It will forgo palm trees in favor of those that provide shade. For many of us, it will be prohibitively expensive. It will cater to Chinese and Indian tourists as much as to Western ones. It will be portable. It may even be intentionally temporary. It might not be at the beach at all, as long as there’s a killer pool to lounge around.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. This review first ran in the July 29th edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

How to make your workplace a safe space (and why you should). Review of Alphabet Soup by Michael Bach

It’s not enough to just pinkwash your logo, install rainbow painted benches or sponsor a parade float during Pride Month.

If you’re serious about recruiting and retaining LGBTQ2+ employees and their allies, you need to do some heavy lifting year-round.

Job one is transforming your workplace into a safe space where everyone feels welcome and free to be themselves. “The world is not a safe place when you don’t fit into a certain box,” says Michael Bach, CEO of CCDI Consulting and author Alphabet Soup: The Essential Guide to LGBTQ2+ Inclusion at Work.

“This concept is difficult to understand if you are in the majority. Most women who have been sexualized or objectified, or who have otherwise been the target of sexism, understand it. Most people of colour understand it, having experienced subtle or overt acts of racism. Most people with disabilities understand it, having been forced to navigate a world that is designed for the able-bodied. And most LGBTQ2+ people understand it, because even if they have never personally experienced violence or discrimination because of their sexual or gender diversity, they’ve certainly witnessed it.”

Bach says most LGBTQ2+ people won’t come out at work until they know they’re in a safe space. “If you don’t give them that signal, they’ll quietly keep their heads down and stay in their closet – and they won’t be as engaged or productive.” They’ll also be gone from your organization if there’s another employer that’s offering an inclusive and welcoming workplace.

So how do you create a safe space at work? Start with human resources. Are your policies and procedures inclusive or are some people being inadvertently or deliberately excluded?  For example, do you have a maternity leave policy or a parental leave policy? Do your policies talk about husband and wife rather than partner or spouse? Do you, like the Ontario Public Service Pride Network, run a Positive Space Champions program? Do you have gender-inclusive restrooms? Do you have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to harassment and discrimination and is it enforced? “The first time you don’t, you completely devalue the policy and no one will ever believe you again.”

Do you offer optional one-and-done training or is the education mandatory and ongoing, especially for leaders and employees who are fence sitters, foes and fighters of change?  “There is not only a woeful lack of education about LGBTQ2+ inclusion, but also a real problem with (1) how the education is being executed and (2) how the education is perceived,” says Bach.

Building an inclusive safe space at work requires a committed and sustained effort. Know that you’ll lose whatever trust, loyalty and goodwill you’ve built up by making even a single and small contribution to a politician or group that traffics in homophobia, transphobia and biphobia.  

“You cannot have it both ways. You don’t get to be advocates of LGBTQ2+ inclusion and then donate to candidates who are actively working against that. If you’re an organization that has ‘values’ or a corporate credo, you must decide how important those values are to you. Unwavering support means you draw a line in the sand and donate only to candidates who are aligned with those values.”

You’ll not only lose LGBTQ2+ employees and customers. You’ll also lose their allies. Lots of us believe that everyone – our family, friends, coworkers and even perfect strangers – deserves to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

Given what’s happening south of the border and the hate that’s metastasizing on social media, we need to become far more active and educated allies at work and in our community.  “An active ally is more than willing to use their privilege (usually as a straight cis person) to ensure that the space is inclusive of LGBTQ2 people, even when they’re not in the room. What is needed is for you to lend your voice and support to the cause; to yield to members of the communities; to advocate when it is required. Do not monopolize or patronize. Don’t feel the need to be the leader. Be part of something bigger.”

And if you happen to write business book reviews for your local newspaper, maybe you can do better than waiting 23 years before finally reviewing a book about LGBTQ2+ inclusion at work.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Every business is in the entertainment business (review of Jesse Cole’s Fans First: Change the Game, Break the Rules & Create An Unforgettable Experience)

You can chase after customers, clients, patients or students like everyone else.

Or you can build fans. 

Jesse and Emily Cole spent months chasing customers after buying an independent-league ball club and the keys to a 1920s ballpark in Savannah, Georgia. It didn’t go well. 

“We worked tirelessly to connect with the community,” says Cole. “We marketed the team through newspaper and radio ads and posted on social media. No one was interested. The city’s message was unmistakable: no baseball team had ever made it in Savannah before. Why should we be any different?” 

Cole says it was a fair question and one they couldn’t answer. “Because we weren’t any different. We were acting like everyone else. We were advertising and marketing and selling by the normal rules.” 

They started doing the opposite of normal when the money ran out five months before opening day. Cole and his wife drained their savings, sold their home and slept on air mattresses in a rented duplex.  

This is when the team adopted the mission of Fans First, Entertain Always. They let a fan name the team the Savannah Bananas. They switched to general admission tickets that cost $15 and included all-you-can-eat-concessions. Advertising was pulled from the 1920s ballpark. The team went on social media to introduce the Banana Nanas, sports’ first senior citizen dance team and went into a local school to unveil their mascot Split, the Prince of Potassium.  

“Attention beats marketing,” says Cole. “We’d finally cracked the code on how to get the city’s attention. Savannah had dismissed all their previous teams for being just like most baseball teams – long, slow and boring. We couldn’t go after Savannah’s hearts until we had their eyes and ears. Eventually, that attention led to ticket sales, which led to our first sellout. And then our second. And then our third.” 

And the rest is history. The club now has 50,000 people on a wait list to buy tickets. More than 1,000 ball players reached out to join the team this year. And they’re selling millions of dollars worth of merchandise to fans around the world.

“Every innovation, every new idea, everything we do starts and ends with the fans. First, we ask is it fans first? Then, after we do it, we ask again, was that fans first?” 

What works for the Savannah Bananas can work for any business or organization, says Cole.

His tried and true Fans First Way has five Es: 

Eliminating friction is about putting yourself in your fans’ shoes and looking at every possible pain point, every possible frustration, every possible policy that slows things down, heats up tempers and punishes fans,” says Cole. Pay particular attention to microfrictions. Cole and the front office crew take turns being an undercover fan at every game and then report back on what could be improved from the moment fans arrive to when they head home (staff holding umbrellas and walking fans to their cars during downpours is a nice touch).

Entertain always. “Every business is in the entertainment business. If you are not entertaining your customers, you won’t have customers to entertain.”  Or heed this advice from Walt Disney. “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.”

Experiment constantly. “Everything is about the experience. A lot of companies don’t try new things. They do the same thing over and over again. That creates boredom.” 

Engage deeply. “Human connection is everything. It’s not about the number of followers, ticket sales or customers through the doors. It’s about engaging deeply. If you want fans to be there for you when you need them, then your job is to be there for them always.” 

Empower action. “If you want to empower action in your team, start by changing the mindset of your organization. Instead of focusing on failure, focus on what you’re trying to do. 

The Fans First Way comes with one not-so-small cavaet. If you’re the boss of your business or the leader of your organization, you must be the first and biggest fanatical superfan of your employees and customers. There’s a reason why Cole’s at the ballpark for every game in a yellow tux and putting on a show.  

“When you care for your people, they’ll care for your fans, and your fans will take care of your bottom line,” says Cole. 

I’ve reviewed more than 600 business books over the past 23 years. Fans First is one of the best. So buy it, read it and then find ways to put fans first and entertain always. 

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999. 

With friends like these…review of Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh

What happened to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was tragic.

What Hsieh’s entourage did was abhorrent. They chose to ignore Hsieh’s alcoholism, drug addiction and rapidly deteriorating mental health to keep the party going and the money flowing.

While his “friends and associates” were inside getting ready to fly on a private jet to Hawaii, Hsieh was holed up alone outside in a poolside shed with a propane space heater, candles, bottles of Fernet and canisters of nitrous oxide. A fire broke out and an unconscious Hsieh was taken to hospital where he died nine days later from a cerebral edema. He was 46 years old and had hundreds of millions of dollars still left to his name.

While his death was sudden, Hsieh’s true friends and family saw it coming and tried to get him help.

“He began heavily abusing drugs, exacerbating lifelong mental health issues that he had always hidden from others,” Wall Street Journal reporters Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre write about Hsieh in their book Happy at Any Cost.  “He spent tens of millions of dollars in just a few months, with people around him vying for pieces of his fortune. It all caught up with him one night in a riverside house in New London, Connecticut, when a shed he was in caught fire.”

Hsieh co-founded an internet advertising network that Microsoft bought for $265 million in 1998. Hsieh then served for 21 years as CEO of Zappos, the online shoe retailer known for outstanding customer service and a unique workplace culture. He moved Zappos to Las Vegas and dedicated $350 million of his own money to revitalize the city’s struggling downtown district. He wrote Delivering Happiness, which stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 27 consecutive weeks. Hsieh left Zappos and Las Vegas during the pandemic, relocating to Park City, Utah with plans to build a utopian community.

“By that point in his life, a new entourage surrounded him, including his brother,” say Grind and Sayre. “At their best, many of these people, paid handsomely from Tony’s fortune and beholden to a man they worshipped, simply stood by as he unraveled before them. At their worst, others enabled all his most terrible instincts and drug use.”

Grind and Sayre say there are two lessons to be learned from Hsieh’s devastating story.

We need to quit idolizing tech titans and dismissing self-destructive behavior. “Silicon Valley doesn’t just accept strangeness from its titans, it expects and celebrates it. But some of the same traits – mania, magnetism and almost singular focus – that can catapult leaders to stardom can ultimately spell their downfall.”

Hsieh wasn’t acting strangely when he boarded a bus for a weekend retreat wearing nothing but pajama bottoms and carrying a box of crayons or when he began writing all over himself with magic marker and giving away millions of dollars to half-baked business ideas scribbled on Post-it Notes left by his entourage. It was a sign that something was seriously wrong and Hsieh needed immediate help.

Grind and Sayre also say we need to finally break the silence and end the shame around mental health and addiction. “The gulf between how people viewed Tony and his private struggles exposes a much greater societal problem: the taboo surrounding mental health problems and addiction. Both issues are still discussed in whispers, willfully ignored, unacknowledged even when they are in plain view.

“Without a dialogue surrounding addiction and mental illness, those who are suffering must do so alone, hiding their problems and putting on happy faces. They use drugs and alcohol to mask their pain and anxiety. Tony embodied that lonely struggle.”

It’s also worth asking what we would’ve done. Would we have tried to get Hsieh help and risked being banished and cut off or would we have stayed silent with our hands out and bags packed for yet another all-expense paid adventure?

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Aim to deliver value rather than go viral (review of Becky Robinson’s Reach – Create the Biggest Possible Audience for Your Message, Book or Cause)

You can pay PR pros like me a boatload of cash to make you a thought leader and build an audience for your speaking gigs, books and consulting services.

Or you can get a head start and do most of the heavy lifting yourself, with some practical advice from Becky Robinson. Robinson’s the founder and CEO of a marketing agency and author of Reach: Create the Biggest Possible Audience for Your Message, Book or Cause.

While a leader needs followers, a thought leader needs an audience. To reach and grow the biggest possible audience, you need to be online and show up in the right way.

Worry less about going viral and focus instead on delivering value. No one wants or needs videos of you dancing to Jon Batiste’s Freedom or humblebragging about your wonderful life while you sit in your SUV on the way to the gym or a wellness retreat. Instead, keep putting out great content that makes life easier and better for the audience you’re hoping to grow.

“Going viral is not the goal,” says Robinson. “Viral does not equal value. Most viral content has a very short life. Even if you can create viral content, you will still face the challenge of creating impact over time if you want to make real difference through the content.

“Instead, start with focusing on creating value. When you do that, you may be able to achieve true reach that expands your audience and creates lasting impact.”

How do you deliver impactful content? Share your deep thoughts, big ideas and wealth of expertise. Be generous by giving audiences the best of what you know. Don’t hold back or tease us with promises of giving more once we’ve handed over our credit card or signed a contract.

“If you know something that can help your ideal audience, share it as often and as widely as you can,” says Robison. “Sometimes people worry that giving away their ideas for free will undermine their business success by preventing people from wanting to invest in their book, product or service. While it may seem counterintuitive, I’ve noticed that the more generous I am, the more successful my business becomes. The value you provide through generously sharing your expertise creates trust with your potential customers and draws them to you.”

Robinson does exactly that at the back of her book by mapping out her four-phase plan for launching campaigns. She also offers up her reach framework for growing an audience online.

To follow Robinson’s framework, you need to start with your own website, a permission-based email list, great audience-building content and a presence on social media so we can get to know, like and trust you and then head over to your home on the web.

“The most important investment you can make online is your own website,” says Robinson. “Your website is a place where you clearly share the value you offer to the world, where people can very quickly understand your message and where you can invite people to learn more from you.”

Most of us aren’t famous and never will be. But all of us can still make an outsized difference in the world. “Choose to show up in online spaces where you share valuable content and ideas,” says Robinson.

“As you do so, you will create the greatest possible impact for your work. Over time, if you invest patiently and consistently, you will create wider reach for your work and ideas. You’ll become more well known and you’ll experience the benefits of a growing online presence. Those you are serving will benefit also. The more you give, the more you’ll gain.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The six habits of resilient leaders to get us through these turbulent times (review of Rise Up by Ali Grovue and Mike Watson)

I’ve worked with some great leaders, lots of good ones and a few who left me wondering if the hiring committee had played a cruel joke.

Early in my career, I worked at a company that was loaded with great leaders. Almost all were homegrown. The executive team had brought the business back from the brink and turned it into an industry leader. The company was also a leader when it came to employee engagement. Employees, from new hires to the old guard, were proud to work for the company and confident in senior leadership.

I didn’t fully appreciate at the time what the executive team had pulled off. I assumed every organization was blessed with this caliber of leader. I’d learn over the years that resilient leadership is a rare and wonderful thing.

Ali Grovue and Mike Watson with Ignite Management Services are doing their part to close this leadership gap. Through coaching established and emerging leaders, the authors of “Rise Up: Leadership Habits for Turbulent Times” have identified six essential habits that separate the best from the rest.

Resilient leaders build relationships based on mutual trust. “If your team does not trust you, you cannot succeed,” say Grovue and Watson. Trust is built through care, communication, character, consistency and competence.

Great leaders are inquisitive. “Be present, ask questions and listen deliberately.” Make a habit out of asking open-ended questions. You don’t know all the answers or even all the questions you should be asking.

Humility is another hallmark habit of resilient leaders. Success is a team effort so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Resilient leaders are optimistic. They believe that hard work pays off and leads teams and organizations to a better place. “Leaders who fear the worst will be more prone to accepting mediocrity. Their mindset permeates their team, who invariably embrace negativity, which stifles creativity.”

Great leaders have the courage to push themselves, their teams and organizations out of their comfort zones. They also have the courage of their convictions, refusing to compromise on core values.

And above all, resilient leaders are disciplined. It’s the one habit to rule them all, says Grovue and Watson. “Self-discipline is the master habit that enables leaders to sustain behavior change across all six habits. The most resilient leaders are those who are unrelenting in their efforts to prioritize their health and use their time well.”

Grovue and Watson acknowledge that making these six habits a daily practice will be challenging. You can’t get away with mastering a few and ignoring or faking the others. You’ll also need outside help to break your bad habits and build up the right ones.

“If resilient leadership were easy, we would see much more evidence of it,” say Grovue and Watson. “Countless leaders have ambitiously set out to change the way they lead. Yet few make changes that are enduring. Building new habits is a difficult thing. It takes great tenacity to redefine, on a permanent basis, how we lead – and requires having the discipline to stick with it and the ability to reengage when we face setbacks.”

These are tough and turbulent times. Now more than ever, we need resilient leaders who share Grovue and Watson’s belief that “being a great leader is about enabling people, individually and collectively, to be the best versions of themselves in pursuit of noble goals.”

So if you’re a leader who’s only in it for the next promotion with a bigger title and more pay, perks and power, you have a choice. You can either change your mindset and adopt new habits or step aside and let a resilient leader rise up and take the helm.

Organizations would also be wise to require everyone heading off for leadership training and development to first read Grovue and Watson’s book and do some serious self-reflection. It’ll be time well spent.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Punch up, never down (review of Cathy O’Neil’s The Shame Machine)

Did anyone else stress-eat their way through the pandemic?

After two long years of sitting around on Zoom, I signed up with Noom in a bid to get into shape before going back to the office.

Noom’s a subscription-based app that calls itself the most modern weight loss course known to man or woman. It claims that 78 per cent of customers lost weight over a six-month study.

I am not one of those customers. I bailed before my free trial expired.

Cathy O’Neil would tell me I dodged a silver bullet. “Noom provides a prime example of marketing with sketchy statistics,” says the mathematician and author of The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation. “I’m glad I’m here to walk us through that research.”

According to O’Neil, Noom’s study only counted customers who’d recorded their data two or more times a month for six consecutive months. Customers, like me, who dropped out, weren’t included. “Noom’s decision to track only very active users is guaranteed to weed out people who have been overcome with shame. Selection bias, check.”

The study also didn’t go beyond a year, which O’Neil says is too short a time frame. Studies have shown that dieters who lose a lot of weight in the first year are likely to gain most or all of it back in years two through five.

“Noom makes money with bad science,” says O’Neil. “Let’s consider the human toll on the folks who ‘failed’ on the Noom diet. They are made to feel not only fat but condemned to remain so. And it’s their fault. Like other toxic forms of shame, this one hinges on a false choice. This failure, as defined by the shame machine, disheartens them every day. It’s a lifelong blight.”

The multi-billion dollar weight loss industry isn’t the only place we’ll find what O’Neil calls shame machines. We’re targeted daily by businesses and influencers who make us feel bad and then sell us pseudoscientific fixes that don’t work. They bank on us failing, feeling even worse and coming back for more. Shame sells and never runs out of easy marks. The rest of us turn a blind eye.

“These immense shame machines punch down on people to exploit their obesity, addiction, poverty or suboptimal health, gaining power and market share in the process,” says O’Neil.

“From addiction to poverty, a constant in these shame industries is the concept of choice. The guiding premise is that the victims screwed up: they could have chosen to be rich, shapely, smart and successful, and they didn’t. It’s their fault and yes, they should feel awful about it. But now they have the opportunity to right the wrong, to correct the problem and follow the prescribed route to redemption, which is almost always fruitless. The rest of us maintain this status quo by accepting as gospel its false premises: the losers deserve their fate because they’ve made bad choices; maybe if they feel bad enough, they’ll fit ix.”

The most powerful shame machines are the social media companies on our smartphones, says O’Neil. Enragement drives engagement and nothing works us into a frenzy quite like a digital shaming. But performative virtue-signaling solves little to nothing, and risks making things far worse. “The shame networks are busy engaging us to rip apart our social fabric, and in doing so, addict us to short-term highs, the feelings of petty power or outrage or vengeance.”

So what’s the solution? Don’t spend your time and money with businesses that profit off shame. Don’t vote for politicians that campaign on shaming others. Quit shaming strangers on social media. Extend dignity and forgiveness instead. Adopt a personal policy of due process. Treat others the way you’d want to be treated when you screw up.

And start punching up to shame the shamers. “We’ll fare far better as a society, in terms of both happiness and justice, if we succeed in redirecting shame from its current victims, who are disproportionately poor and powerless, to people who are taking advantage of the rest of us and poisoning our lives and culture,” says O’Neil.

This review was first published in the April 23rd edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

What’s hate got to do with? Everything if you want to stay in business (review of Nicholas Webb’s What Customers Hate)

What’s not to love about your business?

If you don’t already know, you’re in for a shock. And you’re flirting with disaster.

 “Haters hold the secret to your success – or lack thereof,” says Nicholas Webb, a customer service expert and author of What Customers Hate. “Being loved by your customers should be your goal, and every business must be focused on providing value and a superior customer experience. But the recognition of the flip side of the coin—the fact that consumers hate many businesses—should alert you to the very important fact that reducing what your customers hate is just as important as increasing what they love.”

Here’s why you need to reduce the hate. Most of your customers stick with you not because they love you the most but because they hate you the least. Of the millions of people who shop at Amazon and Walmart, could you fill a minivan with all the customers who are truly, deeply and madly in love with either retailer?

For your customers, you’re currently their best possible option. You’re in serious trouble if a competitor shows up promising fewer headaches and hassles.

This is why you need to ask your customers straight up what they hate about you.

If you don’t ask, they’ll tell you indirectly through one-star reviews posted online for the whole world to see. It won’t matter if you have dozens of glowing reviews from happy and satisfied customers. Everyone reads one-star reviews to find out what’s the worst thing that could happen by doing business with you.

 “When compared to customers who love you, haters are far more likely to share with friends and social media the fact that they hate you,” says Webb. “A few bad reviews can knock you out of the competitive arena, costing your organization dearly.”

Think of the hater’s feedback as a gift, even if it hurts. Dissatisfied and disappointed customers will tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong and, as an added bonus, tell you how to make it right. “Haters are inventors who offer up specific suggestions regarding what companies can do to stop the hate.”

Best of all, you can win haters over by talking with them and taking action. “Haters who are converted to lovers are some of the best promoters for an organization or brand,” says Webb.

Webb’s created a Net Customer Experience tool along with a RealRating survey. It’s a way to track and tally what customers both love and hate from the start to finish of their customer journey with you.

That journey usually begins with a website that too often gives prospective customers a reason to hate you right from the start. “The overwhelming majority of organizations essentially suspend a brochure on the internet that they call a website,” says Webb. “Your website should be structured in such a way that it is delivering real and meaningful value to your site visitor. If you look at websites that deliver the best experiences for their customers, they are dispensing free e-books, white papers, value-based videos and free offers that are of conspicuous value.”

So don’t use your website to humble brag. Make it all about your customers. Show them some love. And make it quick and easy for them to get what they need.

Webb has practical advice for taking the hate out of the rest of your customers’ journey. He even identifies the first step every business or organization should take starting today.

“The most important action you can take right now is to repeat this mantra out loud,” says Webb. “Our customers judge our company, brand or service not only on what they love about it but what they hate about it. We pledge to recognize this reality, and henceforth strive to both increase what they love and identify and decrease what they hate. This is the future of our organization.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Pay attention to what’s stealing your focus (review of Stolen Focus by Johann Hari)

Would you pay to use Tik Tok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter or LinkedIn?

While these social media platforms are currently free, we’re paying a steep price.

These platforms are pouring acid on our attention, warns journalist Johann Hari. He interviewed more than 250 experts on focus and attention while writing his book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again. Hari says social media platforms harm us in six ways.

These platforms have conditioned our minds to crave constant rewards above all else. It’s all that many of us seem to focus on. “They make us hunger for hearts and likes,” says Hari.

These platforms push us to continually switch tasks. We stop whatever we’re doing at work, school and home to check in dozens, even hundreds, of times a day. “The evidence shows this is as bad for the quality of your thinking as getting drunk or stoned,” says Hari.

We’re being fracked. “These sites get to know what makes you tick, in very specific ways – they learn what you like to look at, what excites you, what angers you, what enrages you. They learn your personal triggers – what, specifically, will distract you.”

Enragement equals engagement so the algorithms that run these sites amp up the crazy and intentionally make us angry. “Scientists have been proving in experiments for years that anger itself screws with your ability to pay attention,” says Hari.

We start believing that we’re surrounded by equally angry people. “These sites make you feel that you are in an environment full of anger and hostility, so you become more vigilant – a situation where more of your attention shifts to searching for dangers and less and less is available for slower forms of focus like reading a book or playing with your kids.”

And most concerning of all, Hari says these sites have set the world on fire. “There is evidence that these sites are now severely harming our ability to come together as a society to identify our problems and to find solutions.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found that fake news travels six times faster on Twitter than real news. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, falsehoods on Facebook outperformed all of the top stories at 19 mainstream news sites combined. This explains why once rational family and friends believe conspiracy theories, deny science, distrust institutions, cheer on trucker convoys, refuse vaccinations and pledge allegiance to autocrats here at home and around the world.

So what’s the solution? Ban surveillance capitalism and these social media platforms will switch overnight to subscription-based business models. Yes, we’d have to pay to use these platforms but we’d stop being the product that’s constantly distracted, packaged and sold to advertisers.

“Suddenly, Facebook would no longer be working for advertisers and offering up your secret wishes and preferences as their real product,” says Hari. “It would be working for you. Its job, for the first time, would be to actually figure out what makes you happy and give it to you. So if, like most people, you want to be able to focus, the site would have to be redesigned to facilitate that.” Notifications could be batched and served up once a day. Infinite scrolling could be dropped while features that connect you offline with nearby friends could be added.

Expect Silicon Valley to put up a fight. Instead of changing business models, we’ll be told to change our individual behavior by showing some self-restraint. Hari says offering upbeat, simplistic and individual solutions to big problems with deep causes in our culture constitutes cruel optimism. “It is cruel because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail.” And when that solution fails, we’ll believe it’s our fault and won’t hold social media companies accountable.

Hari is calling for an attention rebellion because a distracted life is a diminished life. It’s time we start paying attention to what’s stealing our focus.

This review first ran in the March 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.