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Why the Dot Org Sale Is Failing and How Brooks, Nevett and Sullivan Could Have Wired It

Jacob Malthouse

When ISOC, PIR and Ethos announced the sale in November they hoped for a quick transaction. PIR CEO Jon Nevett announced the same week that PIR would be going on a buying spree. This was optimistic.

Six months, if at all, is now the more likely outcome. How many times in recent history have companies surprised stakeholders with their best-laid plans, only to discover we no longer live in a world where business has free reign. The glory days of the 2000s died with Lehman Brothers.

We now live in a world where companies must do the hard work of socializing their plans, not simply with shareholders, but with all stakeholders. This is not soft talk. This is the new business reality. The theme of the 50th World Economic Forum was "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World."

What the pro-sale camp fails to recognize is that they destroyed their credibility straight out of the gate. The most critical decision — selling dot-org to Ethos — was done in secret and announced as a fait accompli. There is simply no way the parties can now don the mantle of stakeholder-driven enterprises in light of their approach to this first and most critical action.

This was always going to be a fraught process. One doesn't simply privatize one of the world's wealthiest non-profits without attracting attention. The pro-sale group never fully grasped that the fait accompli strategy was a long shot at best, and a deal killer at worst.

In the months that have followed, the pro-sale group hasn't done themselves any favours. There wasn't much they could have done. Which is why you don't ever use this approach. The risks are simply too high. You back yourself into a dead end and trying to fight your way out just makes you look worse.

What surprised me the most is that the pro-sale group doesn't even seem to be trying. Three months of dead air has been broken by a smattering of self-damaging individual salvos and a single hour-long webinar. The latest maneuver seems to have been an attempt to solve the challenge of closed-door decision making by holding a closed-door decision-making session.

This was directly followed by a serving of leftover casserole commitments no different in substance than what the pro-sale chefs have been serving since the beginning. What could these maestros of public process done differently? A lot.

First, assume it's going to be hard. The key stakeholders should have realized that this was never going to be as easy as a press release. Six months was going to be the bare minimum in any scenario to get a deal approved. A year would be more reasonable. Everyone should have been aligned internally to a long and difficult process.

Second, start with trust. Announce your intentions and open them to scrutiny. Here's what we'd like to do. We think this is how it should work, and why it's a good thing. Make your case. Don't take anything off the table.

Third, outline the whole plan. Explain the process, including engagement at ICANN meetings, public consultations, and options you are considering. Talk about how you are going to take ideas off the table, and invite stakeholders to come to consensus around ideas that can work.

Fourth, be clear about your goals. Inform stakeholders by talking about your redlines, explaining why they exist, and offering solutions or alternatives.

Fifth, over-communicate. It takes at least three times the anticipated level of interaction to communicate your position. You simply can not over-communicate. You can definitely under-communicate. Most people do.

These are not novel techniques. They are by now accepted norms for government, companies and nonprofits seeking to make major changes in how they operate within their networks. The dot-org sale was always going to take a long time. The only question was how that time was going to be used.

Unfortunately, it is clear the pro-sale camp still sees this as a business transaction to be rubber-stamped by the regulator. The interests of stakeholders are tangential at best. Until this view changes, their sale is unlikely to succeed. Perhaps, given the approach thus far, this is for the best.

By Jacob Malthouse, Fmr UNEP Staffer, Ex ICANN VP, Co-founder dot-eco domain registry.
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