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"They've...thrown out the part that makes things look worse." -- Ethan S. Harris, Lehman Brothers' chief U.S. economist, criticizing the Fed's focus on core inflation, which, he says, downplays the impact of higher oil prices, as reported in The New York Times

Think your company has tough office politics? Imagine how delicate board meetings might be at athenahealth. The Watertown (Mass.) e-health software company, which has won attention for fast growth, is led by CEO Jonathan Bush, a cousin of the President. Yet much of the cash used to build the company has come from Oak Investment Partners, a venture capital firm whose managing partner, Ann Lamont, has close ties to the other camp. Lamont, who sits on athenahealth's board, is married to antiwar senatorial candidate Ned Lamont, who beat Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary on Aug. 8 in part by saying Lieberman was too cozy with the President.

How to handle it? Avoidance works, says CFO Carl Byers. "We're busy, so it doesn't come up that much." Lamont did give advance notice to athenahealth of her husband's candidacy. And it helps that Jon Bush isn't an especially active Republican. He has made only one campaign contribution in the last three elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Ann Lamont gave $2,000 each to Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2003, according to opensecrets.org.) He's "a loyal Republican, but he thinks the party should follow him," Byers jokes.

While talk of a windfall profits tax on Big Oil has fallen to a whisper in Washington, D.C., it's reaching high decibel levels in California, where voters will decide in November if the state should impose $4 billion worth of new drilling fees. If the measure, Proposition 87, passes, the proceeds will finance solar, ethanol, and other alternative energy technologies. So far, independent polls show it passing by as much as 2 to 1, thanks largely to anger over high gas prices. "Make oil companies pay," declares one pro-tax local TV ad.

California producers Chevron (CVX), Exxon Mobil (XOM), Shell, and Occidental Petroleum (OXY) are ponying up $30 million for ads to defeat the proposal, which they say will discourage the state's already declining oil production. Prop 87 calls for a tax of up to 6% on oil produced in the state. One provision bans passing on the expense to consumers but doesn't spell out enforcement.

The initiative was dreamed up by Tony Rubenstein, a Los Angeles community activist. Big donations have come from his friend, film producer Stephen Bing, as well as from Silicon Valley venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, who have made alternative energy investments a major focus of their portfolios.

It depends on what you mean by "word of mouth." One of this year's popular management books is The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth, by Fred Reichheld, who founded consultant Bain & Co.'s customer loyalty practice. Reichheld's "ultimate question": How likely is it that a customer would recommend a company's product or service? The book suggests some irrefutable tactics for earning such recommendations -- hiring great employees, for instance, or creating effective ways to get consumer feedback.

One strategy it doesn't suggest, however, is launching a word-of-mouth campaign with a firm that has an army of ready-to-buzz folks equipped with free books, background material, and guides that include ideas for conversation starters. Yet when marketing his book, Reichheld did just that. As at least one rival in the customer satisfaction field has noted, 12 of the book's 40 reviews on Amazon.com were written by self-identified members of BzzAgent, a Boston-based word-of-mouth marketing firm. Nearly all 12 were glowing. (BzzAgent doesn't pay its agents, nor urge them, it says, to give positive reviews. Agents get points that can be redeemed for prizes by reporting back on their "buzz" activities.)

Bain representatives initially said the book's publisher, Harvard Business School Press, was the source of the campaign. Indeed, Rob Markey, a Bain partner who works with Reichheld, said he was "disappointed" that BzzAgent people were reviewing the book.

But the publisher wasn't the source. Reached later, Reichheld said he had accepted an offer from BzzAgent's founder and CEO, Dave Balter, for a free word-of-mouth campaign. (In return, Reichheld spoke to BzzAgent employees about his ideas.) Reichheld's view is that BzzAgent helped "legitimately energize" readers who would have had interest in the book anyway. "I thought since I was working in this area of word-of-mouth it would almost be irresponsible of me not to take that experiment," he says.

Trying to tap into the text-messaging craze, some TV stations are starting to publicize number codes for mobile users who want to shoot messages from their phones to the TV screen during certain shows. The messages, visible to all viewers, become part of the show. (Seattle's Blue Frog Mobile, which provides the technology, has workers screen for obscenities.) The service is big at music channels in Indianapolis, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. As stations lure back young viewers they've lost, mobile operators rack up messaging sales. With each message bringing in about 10 cents of revenue, says Julie Ask, an analyst for JupiterResearch (JUPM), "the carriers love it."

Love golf, Braveheart, or anything else Scottish? Try to wangle an invitation to join Globalscot, the networking club launched in 2001 by Scotland's economic development agency. Among the nearly 1,000 members so far: Donald Trump (his mother was a Scot), Monsanto (MON) CEO Hugh Grant (Scottish born), and Indian biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (married a Scot). "You have to be Scottish or have an affinity for Scotland," explains Globalscot chief Mark Hallan. What's in it for members, who help Scottish enterprises by providing contacts and advice? Pride, perhaps, or a chance to yell, in the words of comedian Mike Myers, "if it's not Scottish, it's craaap!" On Sept. 27, Globalscot, which worked with the World Bank to help Chile and Mexico create similar networks, will have its first gathering in Edinburgh. Among those planning to attend: Disney's consumer products chief, Andrew Mooney, and Ian Crawford, IBM's vice-president for global procurement. Pass the single-malt.

First came "adlets," five-second messages slipped into TV and radio shows to thwart ad zappers or those who tune away during commercials. Now, radio giant Clear Channel Communications (CCU) is running "blinks," which last just two seconds -- short enough to fit between tunes in a deejay-mixed nonstop music hour. On Aug. 21, about 15,000 blinks aired across the network's 1,100-plus channels to promote the season premiere of Fox Broadcasting's (NWS) TV show, Prison Break. Soon, Clear Channel's 110 million listeners will catch others as they flit by: On Sept. 5, 15,000 blinks will promote the latest season of Fox's House. On Sept. 10, another 15,000 will air for The Simpsons (Homer's iconic "D'oh!" or "WOOHOO!" followed by "Tonight on Fox!").

Working with Fox's creative people, Clear Channel first aimed for one-second ads. "We wanted something super succinct," says Jim Cook, senior vice-president of creative services. Fox's Eric Poole, vice-president of radio promotion, tried about 50 sound samples to advertise six Fox shows. The Simpsons, House, and Prison Break made the cut because they had "strong sonic brands," says Cook -- recognizable voices and sounds. But when the team tried out a House character's signature phrase, "Hello, sick people!" it took up more than a second. When they added the reminder, "Tonight on Fox!" Poole said, "it sounded like garbage, it was so fast."

Neither Fox nor Clear Channel will discuss the price of a blink. With a McDonald's campaign ("I'm Lovin' It") in the wings, Clear Channel says it eventually hopes to get 10% to 15% of its 60-second ad rate. Kaye Bentley, a senior vice-president at Fox, said Fox paid much less for its pilot round.

So far, says Elvis Duran, a deejay at Clear Channel station Z100 in New York, music lovers haven't complained about the blinks. "Listeners don't have time to get mad," he says.

Think of it as a virtual focus group. Starwood Hotels (HOT) is showcasing its newest hotel brand, aloft, in cyberspace, complete with a launch party on Sept. 18. The chain -- which owns Sheraton, Westin, and W, among others -- is now constructing a model of the hotel inside the world of Second Life, the virtual community visited by users who create digital personas, or "avatars," to interact with one another.

Starwood's entry into Second Life will certainly build buzz about aloft, which will cater to design-conscious, tech-savvy travelers. Outfits like American Apparel, Universal Music (VIV), and even the American Cancer Society have already set up shop in this cyberworld to push their brands. But the real payoff, says aloft Vice-President Brian McGuinness, is the feedback about the hotel-in-progress from Second Life denizens, who post their reactions on SL's message boards. "It's the next generation of marketing," he says. Operated by Linden Lab, SL so far has about 595,000 "residents" (43% female, median age: 32). Behind each is a wallet Starwood hopes will open when real aloft hotels launch in five U.S. cities in '08.

I dread speaking before a group. I usually do fine, whether it's a formal presentation or a toast. But I spend way too much time preparing -- memorizing every word -- and feeling anxious. Any suggestions? -- Anonymous, New York

First, reflect on whether it's dread or something milder. A certain amount of nervousness about public speaking is normal, related to the pleasure that comes from performing well. If you're one of those so afflicted, life could be worse: The "cure" involves learning to tolerate the feeling.

If you're really in agony, though, the problem probably goes deeper. All that preparation doesn't dissipate the dread because there's a gap between what you consciously fear and what's rumbling deep down -- whatever underlying meaning your mind attaches to performing in front of people. What if, for you, the audience is a stand-in for a parent who was impossible to please? Your anxiety might have less to do with the likelihood of flopping than with the threat that repressed anger about that parent will erupt. The podium then feels like a slippery slope on which you're in danger of losing control. (That might explain why you memorize every word.) There's also the possibility that, for you, being in front of a group is tantamount to being an exhibitionist. It's one thing to reveal your knowledge of the budget. It's another to feel as if you're standing there naked.

Some introspection about the roots of your anxiety, with or without the assistance of a qualified shrink, can help a lot. Or if instant gratification is more your speed, consider asking your doctor to prescribe low-dose propranolol for those moments on stage. (More performers than you might imagine use these beta blockers.) Either of these solutions should give you relief. And you need some. High anxiety is tough to hide -- and tougher to endure.

Recently I participated with colleagues in a seminar led by corporate training experts. We were given roles and games to play. In one, we passed a ball across the room following silly and difficult rules. Even if I weren't a seasoned professional, I would have found this a waste of time. What's the idea here? -- Nancy Stiefel, N.Y.

The idea, usually, is to do some kind of team building. My impulse, too, is to dismiss such activities as fairly useless -- often, they are. But they can have unintended value. When the exercises are nonsensical, for instance, colleagues bond by airing their gripes about them. You can also use the experience to observe your peers and your boss (if he or she has to show up, too). People reveal quite a lot about how they feel in their real jobs when they try on new, even imaginary, ones. Finally, try to understand what your employer wants you to take away from such sessions. See if this matches what you got. If not, you might mention that to your boss -- going easy on the cynicism.

As Ford struggles to stem its losses, CEO Bill Ford must decide how to restructure. With the idea now being floated that the carmaker should go private and potential buyers eyeing some of its brands, what should Ford do to be competitive again?

"The most important thing is to focus on brands Ford can sell to retail customers, not to employees and rental fleets. The brands to go forward with and invest in are Ford, Volvo, and Land Rover." -- Mike Jackson, CEO, AutoNation, the biggest Ford dealer in the U.S.

"A CEO feeling the pull to run a great car company and the pull to maximize share price is a man divided. I wonder if Bill Ford asks himself what he'd do differently if he had only the banks to answer to." -- David Halberstam, author of The Reckoning (1986), about Detroit's shortsightedness

"Ford should jettison Jaguar and Land Rover, keep Volvo (VOLV) and Aston Martin -- and do everything in its power to resurrect Lincoln. Its mishandling of this iconic American luxury brand borders on the criminal." -- Peter DeLorenzo, editor of AutoExtremist.com


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