Business Communication


Recent Posts


Business Communication with Cengage Learning


  • Typo Adds 3 1/2 Years to Prison Sentence

    If you need convincing to proofread, this may do it. Federal prisoner Ceasar Huerta Cantu discovered an error while reading a legal report about his case. Using federal guidelines for sentencing, the report noted that Cantu's offense was level 36 instead of 34. It took President Obama's clemency powers to fix the mistake. White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said, "It’s hard to imagine that someone in the federal criminal justice system could serve an extra three-plus years in prison because of a typographical error." Cantu's attorney and the judge who presided over his case both missed the mistake. Six years later, when Cantu brought the case forward, another judge denied the request to cut his sentence by 42 months, saying it was too late. The case is particularly relevant now that the Obama Administration is reviewing commutation powers and because of harsh federal drug sentences. According to The New York Times , "Over his first five years in office, Mr. Obama granted fewer acts of clemency than any modern president." As Cantu's new attorney says, "If you’re familiar with federal drug laws, they are very punitive, and I deal with them all the time,” he said. “Any chance you get to right that, I think that’s a good thing." Discussion Starters: How do you think a mistake like this could happen? How could it have been avoided? Should Cantu's original attorney be held responsible for missing the error? Should the original judge? Did President Obama do the right thing? What about other prisoners who seek clemency?
  • A Handwritten Job Ad

    Advertising agency Solve has a new—and old—way of inviting interns to apply for jobs . In a handwritten letter posted around college campuses, Solve asks interns to submit a traditional cover letter and resume by mail. Emphasizing "genuine connections" and a "personal, straightforward" approach, the agency describes its rationale: "Valuing substance over silliness, Solve refuses to ask candidates to condense resumes into 140 characters, present themselves via fake campaign or funny videos, or answer irrelevant nonsensical questions. Rather, Solve is simply asking for a resume and cover letter…to be sent (via mail) to the agency." Discussion Starters: What's your view of the agency's campaign: refreshing, as gimmicky as a tweet, or something else? I'm having trouble reading the letter. Is it just me? The letter asks prospective interns to mail in their cover letter and resume. Would you submit something typed or handwritten? The letter has a fairly major grammatical error. Can you find it?
  • Face Off or Faceoff, and Other Writing Tips for the Olympics

    The AP Standards Center has provided an overview of the Winter Games and tips for writing about the Olympics at Sochi . The purpose of the guide follows, in an introduction: "To help with spellings and usage in coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics, The Associated Press compiled an editorial style guide of essential terms, spellings and definitions. Some terms are from the AP Stylebook: . Others are used in AP sports stories or contributed by Stephen Wilson , AP's Olympics beat writer. In a section on "Spellings and usage," the guide offers these suggestions: Capitalize games when attached to the host city or year: the Sochi Games and the 2014 Games. When standing alone, spell games lowercase: The games open Feb. 7. Olympics or Olympic Games are always capitalized: Winter Olympics and Summer Olympics. Each is staged every four years, but two years apart. The next Summer Games is 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Olympic (adj. without s) is always capitalized: Olympic gold medal, Olympic host city, Olympic flame, etc. Image source. Discussion Starters: Read all of the style tips for the Winter Olympics. Which, if any, surprise you? Faceoff vs. face off follows the same rule for other nouns and verbs. What other examples fit this rule?
  • Southwest's Travel Advisory

    Southwest Airlines is communicating clearly to customers affected by upcoming storms. In a tweet, the company linked to a simple page with further instructions. Southwest isn't wallowing in the bad news (after all, it's not the company's fault that we're getting an insane amount of snow). Rather, it's focusing on what customers can do to reschedule. On the Travel Advisory page , customers can easily see which cities are affected on which dates and how they can rebook flights. On the website home page, however, Southwest has only a small link with red text: Compare this approach to JetBlue's. On JetBlue's website, the "Winter Storm Update" is one of three, large screens on the home page: Discussion Starters: What could account for the airlines' different approaches? What works well about Southwest's Travel Advisory page ? If you had travel plans during this time, what else, if anything, would you like to know?
  • School Superintendent Apologizes for Botched Delay

    A school district in Leander, TX, took too long to announce a delayed opening because of icy weather, and people were upset. By the time parents heard that schools would open two hours late, many of them were already on dangerous roads. Some kids were on buses, one of which skidded off the road. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Superintendent Bret Champion sent a letter explaining the decision and addressing complaints . Download the letter. Discussion Starters: Analyze Champion's letter in terms of audience analysis, structure, content, writing style, and so on. What works well, and what could be improved? How well does Champion's letter specifically address concerns of the community? What responsibility does Champion place on parents? What's your response to this approach?
  • Coke Explains "You Retard" on Cap

    Imagine looking at the bottom of a bottle cap and seeing "YOU RETARD." That's what a Canadian girl saw when she opened a bottle of Coke's Vitaminwater . Unfortunately for Coke, the expression was particularly hurtful because the girl's younger sister has celebral palsy and autism. Their father wrote a letter to Coke explaining the family's view of the "R" word: "You see, the "R" word is considered a swear word in out [sic] family. We don't use it. We don't tolerate others using it around us. We are over-sensitive, but you would be too if you have Fiona for a daughter." The Coca-Cola Company responded to ABC News : "We have spoken to the family to offer our sincerest apologies and to explain the production process to them," Shannon Denny, director of brand communications for Coca-Cola Refreshment Canada, told ABC News. "This is certainly not an excuse in any way for what has occurred. We wanted them to know that this was in no way intentional and was a mistake on our part during the review process. We also wanted to share that the promotion has since been cancelled and we are no longer producing bottles with those caps." How did the mistake happen? Apparently, the caps were part of a promotion that randomly paired an English word with a French word. "Retard" translated to mean "late" or "delayed" in French. According to a company spokesperson, "The word's English connotation was missed during the review process." Discussion Starters: How do you assess Coke's apology and explanation? Read the father's letter . How it is organized? What works well, and what could be improved?
  • Lego Comes Through for Little Boy

    For two years, James Groccia, an 11-year-old boy with Asperger's Syndrome, saved up for his dream Lego train set, but it had been discontinued. James wrote a letter to Lego and received a nice response—and the set he wanted. James's mother, Karen, described the boy's process for writing the letter: "James was very concise about what he wanted to say. He planned it, and I just helped him organize his thoughts." How about that. James hasn't even taken a Business Communication course. Lego's response is very enthusiastic and obviously tailored to James: Discussion Starters: James's letter is great—for an 11-year-old boy—but it could be improved to meet business writing principles. What could be changed? Lego's letter isn't perfect either. What would you advise that Megan change in future letters?
  • News Corp's Reorganization Announcement

    News Corp will split into two separate, public companies: one focused on entertainment and the other on publishing. The company also announced the closing of its tablet newspaper because of low readership. In a press release , the company announced leadership changes of the publishing company (News Corporation), additional organization changes in the New York office, organizational changes in the London office, and plans for the separation of the publishing company from the entertainment company (Fox Group). In an internal email , Chairman Rupert Murdoch explained the changes, complimented the employees' work, and shared his personal mission for the company: "Many of you know that a belief in the power of the written word has been in my bones for my entire life. It began as I listened to my father’s stories from his days as a war correspondent and, later, a successful publisher. It deepened when, starting in grammar school, I rolled up my sleeves and worked alongside fellow students to publish school journals. I witnessed the hunger people had for well-written, thoroughly observed stories ... stories that provide not just information, but insight. That hunger is alive and well today; my personal mission is to serve and satisfy the human need for insight as well as I possibly can." Image source . Discussion Starters: Read the company's press release in detail. How is it organized? What works well about the structure, and what could be improved? What is your reaction to Murdoch's email to employees? What are his most important messages, and how do you think employees might react?
  • Why We Should Stop Making Fun of Obama's Emails

    During the presidential campaign, the Obama Administration was criticized for sending emails some called "creepy" and "desperate." Well, laugh no more! According to Bloomberg Businessweek , "Most of the $690 million Obama raised online came from fundraising emails." With subject lines such as "Wow," "Hey," and "Join me for dinner?" the emails were crafted by a team of analysts experimenting with different approaches to see what garnered the most financial support. During the campaign, Obama's staff was secretive about the email strategy, but now we learn that 20 writers would draft as many as 18 variations of emails to test responses before sending out the winning version. Amelia Showalter, the director of digital analytics, explains how the campaign changed emails based on results: "We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing. Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty 'Donate' buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, 'How could we make things even less attractive?' That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to." What can business writers learn from the analysis? Here are a few key points that may be adapted for work email: The most effective subject lines were similar "to what you might see in your in-box from other people," according to email director. Light profanity (e.g., "hell") got a strong reaction. Although the emails may have been "mildly irritating" to some, people did not unsubscribe, showing a lot of tolerance for a lot of messages. Discussion Starters: Based on the previous criticism , are you surprised at the results of the email campaign? Why or why not? I'm not sure that business writers should use profanity in their email, but how could you interpret this finding and write subject lines for a professional work environment? Review a few of your own emails sent for business purposes. Given this analysis, what, if anything, would you change?
  • New NYT CEO Emails Staff

    Mark Thompson, new CEO of The New York Times Company, emailed staff after his first week at work. This is a great example for business communication students to study: Content: What are Thompson's main points? What does he want NYT employees to know, and how does he want them to feel? Organization: What structure does Thompson use for his message? How does he sequence paragraphs? How does he convey the main point of each paragraph? Tone: How would you describe Thompson's tone? What changes, if any, do you see throughout the email? How does he balance positive messages with a sense of urgency? Sentence variety: How does Thompson vary sentence structure throughout his email? How many different types of sentences (simple, compound, complex) does he use? Punctuation: As we might expect, Thompson uses impeccable puntuation. How does he use m-dashes and semi-colons effectively? As I finish my first week at The New York Times Company, I would like to thank the many people I’ve already met. As you’d expect, Times employees come across as super-smart and totally committed to maintaining the values and quality that the company and its newspapers have always stood for. But I’ve also been struck by how friendly and welcoming you’ve been to me. I’ve been impressed by the work that’s already in motion to tackle the structural trends that our industry faces and the products and services we’re developing that will drive new growth and profitability, all while securing the brilliant journalism on which everything else depends. The digital subscription story continues to be an exciting one, and we can build on it further. With Invest in the Times and similar projects at the Globe and IHT, our company is already focusing on other growth opportunities. We are looking in the right places for future success: understanding and engaging with our readers and consumers better; developing compelling propositions in video, mobile and social; and figuring out how to drive more revenue from international audiences. The work done so far is really valuable. But I don’t want to underestimate the challenges we face. As our third-quarter results showed, the company is experiencing the same advertising and economic pressures as the rest of our industry. Figuring out how best to respond to these pressures — especially the long-term downward trajectory of print advertising — is also going to be an important part of our work in the coming months. Thank you for a productive and inspiring first week. To help us get to know each other better, we have scheduled Town Hall meetings with me for Monday, Dec. 17, and Tuesday, Dec. 18, in The Times Center and Wednesday, Dec. 19, at College Point. More details will follow soon. I plan to have Town Hall meetings in Boston and at the IHT as soon as possible.
  • Restaurants Respond to Shutdown of Meat Plant

    A slaughterhouse in Central California is being investigated after a video showed sick cows killed for meat, a violation of federal regulations. Although it's still unclear whether tainted meat made its way into the food system, McDonald's and In-N-Out Burger have "severed ties" with the plant, which has been temporarily shut down. According to the Associated Press, the video seems "to show workers bungling the slaughter of cows struggling to walk and even stand." In-N-Out Burger has issued this statement: On the McDonald's home page , we see a different approach: photos of meat suppliers and this page title: "Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing high quality food every day. And get the story behind your McDonald's favorites." Image source . Discussion Starters: In-N-Out's statement could have been better organized and more clearly written. How could you improve the message? In the statement, what examples do you see of logical arguments, emotional appeal, and credibility?
  • Jack Daniel's: Finally, a Nice Cease-and-Desist Letter

    BizCom in the News readers may recall the U.S. Olympics Committee's recent cease-and-desist letter to knitters , which didn't go over too well. This time, we have a much more polite example of a legal attempt to stop a trademark violation. The Jack Daniel's letter addresses a violation of its whiskey label on this book cover . Comparing the two, we see obvious similarities in color, borders, and some of the text. The full letter includes this excerpt : The book author acknowledged that the letter was nice : "...perhaps, the most polite cease and desist ever written. If it wasn’t signed by some lawyer, I’d imagine ol’ Gentleman Jack penning it himself, twirling his bushy mustache." However, he didn't take the company's offer to reprint the book: " In case you’re wondering, no, my publisher, Lazy Fascist Press , will not be taking them up on their offer. We’re proudly independent and don’t need any of that sweet corporate booze money to redo the cover." Discussion Starters: What risks does a company such as Jack Daniel's take in writing a non-traditional legal letter? Can you find the modifier problem in the letter excerpt? How can you fix it?
  • "Strictly Confidential" Memo About Greece's Debt Is Leaked

    As a new restructuring plan and bailout package for Greece are announced today, a memo about the plans marked "Strictly Confidential" was leaked. (View the memo on Scribd.) Based on the memo, Slate describes the situation as follows: "Greece can't pay its bills. But even if Greece was relieved from the obligation to service its outstanding stock of debt, it still couldn't pay its remaining expenses. It can't devalue to try to boost its tourist sector. Instead, the rest of the Eurozone is heading into recession which hurts Greece's main shot at export earnings. Draconian as the austerity that Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland are insisting on as a condition of their charity accepting the charity is the only way to avoid an even more draconian round of austerity. This austerity will, however, only further crush the Greek economy and make it less likely that debts will be paid." For instructors and students of communication, the memo is interesting to analyze in terms of business writing principles: audience analysis, content, visuals, organization, writing style, and editing. Discussion Starters: Audience analysis: Who is the original, intended audience? How did the leak affect how the memo was interpreted? Content: Are the main points clear? What evidence is provided to support the major arguments? Visuals: How are charts used to support the main points? Are they clear and easy to understand? Organization: How is the memo organized, and is this effective? How is skim-value achieved? Writing Style: How do you assess the writing style? Is it clear and concise? How could it be improved? Editing: How are the attention to detail and writing mechanics?
  • NYU Student's Emails

    Upset with a class assignment to write an ethnography about the Occupy Wall Street protestors in Zuccotti Park, NYU senior Sara Ackerman wrote several emails to her professors and university administrators. The emails show frustration on both sides—a student wanting a different assignment and a college struggling with how to respond to complaints.Besides the drama and voyeuristic appeal of the situation, the story is rather sad. Ackerman follows through on her threat to publicize the controversy, but does she get what she needs? And university officials are embarrassed and can't satisfy the student. Sara Ackerman Emails: “An Open Letter to John Sexton regarding Professor Caitlin Zaloom” One of Ackerman's goals is to get her professor fired. She claims that she was offered an A in the course to be quiet about the situation, but university officials deny this. Instead, the VP of public affairs said, "We looked into the complaint and found the accusations were unwarranted." A look at NYU's Student Email Policy is no help, of course, particularly with a 2003 "effective date," and the Guidelines for Student Email Use offers little guidance other than how to forward email and expectations for regular email-checking—another throw-back to 2003. The confidentiality statement is getting closer, but students needs more help to determine effective use of university email. Then again, what would help in this situation? Discussion Starters: What is the student trying to achieve with her emails? To what extent is she successful? What alternative communication channels and avenues might be helpful to a student in a similar situation? If you were the head of communications for NYU, what, if anything, would you say to the press?
  • Two More UBS Executives Resign

    Not surprisingly, the two co-global heads of UBS's Equities division have resigned . These resignations follow a trading scandal that cost the Swiss bank $2.3 billion and the CEO's resignation on September 25. An email to employees from interim CEO Sergio Ermotti uses a sharper tone than emails from the previous CEO : "We have to be straight with ourselves. In no circumstances should something like this ever occur. The fact that it did is evidence of a failure to exercise appropriate controls. Our internal investigation indicates that risk and operational systems did detect unauthorized or unexplained activity but this was not sufficiently investigated nor was appropriate action taken to ensure existing controls were enforced." Discussion Starters: Ermotti's email uses an indirect organizational plan. Do you think this is appropriate in this case? Why or why not? Compare Ermotti's email to that of Carsten Kengeter, the head of the UBS investment bank. What differences do you notice, and how would you explain them? Download UBS emails .