Deciding to decide is just as important as accountability

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For a brief time, I worked at News Corp., and for an even briefer slice of that time reported directly to Anthea Disney, an editor once dubbed the Tina Brown of mass media for her ability to satisfy mainstream appetites. Anthea gave me profoundly simple management directions over breakfast at Rockefeller Center. "Make decisions," she said. "If they're right, take the credit. If they're wrong, take the blame."

The accountability inherent in that philosophy is admirable. But the first two words are equally valuable: "make decisions." It's advice more marketers and media companies would be well advised to follow. Uncertainty (and its close cousin, the flip-flop) scares off investors and-if you're a media seller-advertisers, providing an easy excuse for no. But there have been lately a string of high-profile decisions not to decide something. Consider:

-- Coca-Cola Co. a few years back hired a recruiter to identify the successor to Chairman-CEO Doug Daft. The job went to Steve Heyer, a blunt-spoken agitator for change. But when Daft's retirement was announced, the board split over whether to anoint the heir apparent. (Imagine that, the directors hire a change agent and are surprised to find he makes them uncomfortable.) So the board declared Heyer the sole internal candidate but hired the same headhunter to again search for Daft's successor. There were clearly better solutions. The board could have split the chairman and CEO roles, giving Heyer the latter and Coke vet Don Keough the former. It could have bounced Heyer. Or held off publicly revealing Daft's plans while conducting a quiet search. Instead, Coke shared its indecisiveness with the world, contributing to its image as a place that needs fixing.

-- As Martha Stewart's trial neared its conclusion, the CEO of the company that bears the domestic diva's name, Sharon Patrick, assured reporters and investors there were contingency plans in the event its founder was found guilty. She was. Yet it took more than a week for Stewart to resign from the board and for the company to announce that she would retain a creative role. And still there was no public confirmation of contingency plans. In a filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia said it might re-brand "certain assets," but offered no details. Advertising Age reported that the company applied to trademark the phrase "Everyday Living" days into the trial, and that the name could be a key part of its branding solution. A spokeswoman lamely offered that the timing "could be coincidental." If the company were smart it would reveal its own plans rather than let news leak out in a slow drip that reinforces a sense of uncertainty.

-- In what has to be one of the most inane about-faces in the history of marketing, KFC decided that its chicken not only isn't healthy, it's actually junk food. Just months after KFC discontinued a stunningly misleading ad campaign that touted its fried chicken as part of a healthy diet, the chain's marketing chief declared in The Wall Street Journal that his greasy drumsticks are the equivalent of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. This despite the fact that KFC never publicly disowned its health claims, insisting the widely panned campaign had simply run its course. It's more honest for KFC to pitch its product as a tasty indulgence and alternative to blander health foods. But it's dishonest to do so without admitting how ridiculous the earlier claims were. In any case, the lack of a consistent image is sure to confuse consumers and blur KFC's brand identity.

I've decided to end the column here.

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