So what can we learn from the election of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California? That Californians are flakier than we on the East Coast ever imagined? That Arnold has some sort of charisma that transcends sublimely from entertainment to politics, as it did for Ronald Reagan? That the framers of the Constitution were smarter than we ever imagined when they included the proviso that the president of the United States must be a native-born American?
Maybe all that and more, according to a small but prescient article in the December issue of Inc. magazine. Written by the president of a Manhattan-based marketing firm, Adam Hanft, the one-page article contends that the real message of the Schwarzenegger recall victory is the "stunning depth of popular anger and the immediacy of buyer's remorse" among the California electorate that had re-elected former Governor Gray Davis just last year.
Noting that "politics leads the culture," Hanft contends that the Schwarzenegger victory has significant implications for business -- "particularly big, insular, tone-deaf organizations."
Concludes the Inc. article: "For a long time, Americans have been patient consumers. We lose a fortune in the stock market and blame everyone except our broker. We hang on the telephone tolerating easy-listening music for many eternities, only to talk to script-bound customer service people. But that's pre-Arnold. The post-Arnold consumer is far more demanding and quick to challenge allegiances. Don't be among the terminated."
The Inc. magazine article singled out big business as being particularly susceptible to the "post-Arnold consumer." Entrepreneurs, particularly those running small but fast growing companies, would be the ones to profit from this "incumbent rage."
I am not so sure. I have seen a lot of small companies exhibit the same kind of high-handed, know-it-all behavior that the post-Arnold consumer might quickly veto. More than that, I have seen my own little company display some pretty high-handed "attitude" toward both readers and advertisers. Given the threat of "termination" by our constituents, I ran a review of our operation, to see how flexible and responsive we are in meeting our customers' needs:
Accessibility. The fact that human beings answer the phones at U.S. 1 puts us above lots of other insular organizations. On top of that you can still dial our number, ask for me, and get through immediately. (I screen my own calls, but be prepared for a quick ending to a conversation that is going nowhere and a quick request to "put it in writing" if a particular idea has merit.)
E-mail access. This deserves its own special category and I would give us a slightly lower grade than on the item above. We, like a lot of you, are still trying to figure out the best way to deal with spam and viruses as well as the dozens of legitimate messages that come our way every day. Attachments are still the bane of our existence, not only because they can pose a hazard but also because they are often in some file format that cannot be opened by the computer on the receiving end.
Consideration of outside ideas. A community newspaper ought to be a forum for non-journalists as well as journalists. We have done pretty well in that area (the middle aged lawyer's excellent adventure on the Colorado River, the jobhunter's journal, to name just two), but we could be better. At least once a week I hear a conversation in which some potential contributor is told that "our policy is to only cover" this or that subject.
I keep reminding our staff that we have a general approach to our coverage, which we are happy to explain, but that exceptions sometimes rule. Never say never.
One example of a story we have ignored because it doesn't fall into any convenient category: The ongoing protests by the janitors' union at Carnegie Center.
Advertiser services. The fact that we call it advertiser services and not customer services is important. As we have to explain every so often -- to our own people as well as to the advertisers -- our real customers are the readers. Without them, as Jim Morrison of the Doors once sang, the whole you-know-what goes up in flames. Amazingly, most of our advertisers get it, and work with us so that ads and editorial content fit together in a reasonable way.
Beyond that advertisers expect us to help them produce their ads or to help them get the ad from their office to our office, or from our office to that of another publication. As with E-mail access, we and others in the communications industry are challenged by the vast range of file formats, graphic images, and fonts being slung through cyberspace. Lots of people are putting their hopes in Adobe's PDF file format. Let's hope we are going down the right path. Unlike Arnold in "The Terminator," we will not be able to go back in time to change history.