Archive for March, 2009

WSJ Editor to reporters: you will be judged on breaking news

March 23, 2009

“Given that revenue reality, henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires. This is a fundamental shift in orientation which will also require a fundamental change in the inaptly named Speedy system.”

That’s the message from WSJ Managing Editor Robert Thomson to his reporters. The memo found on talkingbiznews blog, is one of the most telling indications of the incredible shift in journalism today. As crisiblogger readers and anyone who has been to my presentations knows, I’ve been preaching that it is all about speed for a long time. But the last few months have made it increasingly clear to most everyone just what this means. Newspapers folding right and left. Local television under seige. Twitter. YouTube all over the place. Facebook. iReport. On and on and on. Now some of the most respected journalists in the world being told that their value to their organization is going to be based on how fast they find and report the news.

WSJ (Rupert Murdoch) seems to understand that today the competition for providing relevant information to his audience is not the NYT, not NBC, not Jim Cramer and CNBC, but the millions of ordinary citizens using cell phones, instant access to news channels, Twitter, Facebook and the like. The interconnected nature of our world through the internet means that hundreds, thousands, millions can get the info they need faster than ever and directly from those creating the news–or those closest to it. Witness US Airways 1549–with the first news coming out via Twitter and a cell camera. All news organizations are scrambling with how to compete in this crazy world of public information. Now you know WSJ’s answer: URGENT!

More from editor Thomson: “With these objectives in mind, we are sending Speedy to the knackery and saddling up a successor, the URGENT. New nomenclature alone will not generate news, so there must also be basic changes of principle and practice at the Journal.”


Swire Shipping “Pacific Adventurer” oil spill shows still a ways to go in crisis management

March 23, 2009

I’ve been commenting in the last while about the marked improvement I have been seeing in how many agencies and companies are responding to crises. Then one comes along like the Pacific Adventurer oil spill in Australia, that demonstrates there is still much work to be done. First, my thanks to Neil Chapman for tipping me off to this.

I encourage all crisis watchers to take a good look at the struggles (and some triumphs) of Swire dealing with this major disaster. The spill occurred on March 11 as the ship was fighting Cyclone Hamish. The Pacific Adventurer lost 31 containers containing fertilizer, one of which apparently ruptured a fuel tank causing a fuel spill. The large slick soon landed on some pristine beaches.

Swire provided an estimate of the lost fuel that did not correspond with the size of the slick. The news media attacked the government for its slow response and “outraged” politicians jumped on the company like wolves on filet mignon. There were accusations of lying. This was followed by the company categorically denying the lying charge.

Then comes the turnaround. On March 20, five days after Mr Lucas from the government lit into the company, he was now gushing over the response and trying his best to turn lemons into lemonade by suggesting the spilled oil could be converted into energy for the national grid.

But, on March 19 clearly Swire was struggling with dealing with the communication load of the response. Here is their very lame statement of March 19:

In a regrettable incident on 11 March 2009, there was a discharge of heavy fuel oil from the vessel “Pacific Adventurer”.
Very shortly, we will post here instructions to facilitate contact with people and companies who consider that they have suffered loss as a result of this incident. We hope to have these posted to this site by Friday 20 March.

We understand that there may be a considerable number of people wishing to make contact about this issue and we are keen to have facilities in place ready to handle enquiries appropriately.

“We are keen to have facilities in place ready to handle enquiries appropriately?” Come on people, it’s now 2009. This is the age of social media. This is the time of transparency, direct communication, high levels of interactivity, of actually responding not just to the oil on the water but to all those people whose lives you have impacted.

It’s much the same–too slow response. Inaccurate information. Media on the attack. Politicians go on the attack to protect themselves. Responsible party fights back but now way back on its feet. And then admits it can’t keep up with the demands for information. There is a better way. The country that brought us the great media training tool “The front of the ship fell off” had better learn from its comedians.

Craigslist sued for prostitution ads, Seattle PI may be going digital

March 9, 2009

I found two items today in Bulldog Reporter of interest. One, Craigslist is being sued by Cook County, Illinois for allegedly being the biggest source of prostitution in the country. The other is about the Seattle PI, owned by Hearst, shutting down as a daily and considering going to an online only version.

What do the two have in common? The newspaper industry is in shambles and Craigslist is undoubtedly one significant reason. The revenues from classified advertising have long been a major source of funding for newspapers, helping to keep the journalists paid, along with display advertising of course. Nothing has impacted classifieds like online classifieds and craigslist more than any. The fact that they are mostly free and extremely effective (I’ll testify to that) makes it a no-brainer to shift from newspaper classifieds to craigslist.

Craigslist is one of the real darlings of the Internet age. The ethos of founder Craig Newmark has been almost universally hailed. I heard him speak as a keynoter at the PRSA conference in Detroit and the crowd absolutely loves his humility, his aw shucks I’m just a Customer Service Representative message, and almost everything about him.

I suspect the Internet crowd will flock to the defense of Craigslist relating to this charge of promoting and supporting prostitution. Newmark in my mind pretty well captures of the ethos of the Internet crowd with his political inclinations and libertarianism. But what I’m wondering is if the aura of almost mystical awe surrounding Mr. Newmark and Craigslist will continue. If you are wondering what I mean, here is an example article from Capital Valley that carries the headline about Newmark–“humble but awesome.”

It is probably seen as part of his humility that he disavows any connection to the problems of the newspaper industry. Here is his comment from the above mentioned article:

With regard to his effect on newspaper classified revenues, the myth that Craigslist is killing them is just that, a myth, says Newmark.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that given the realization of the impact on the media business, given the lawsuit and growing public awareness of what might be considered the seedier side of Craigslist, I’m not certain if the continuing aw shucks humility of Mr. Newmark will be enough to protect and enhance a stellar reputation. I certainly am not suggesting that people will start refusing to take advantage of this powerful free service. But I am suggesting that the door may be opening for some competition that takes a little different view on some of these things.

It will be interesting to see how Craigslist and Mr. Newmark respond to these growing challenges. They failed the first test as no one was available for comment.

Ryanair clearly doesn’t get the world of us “idiot bloggers”

March 6, 2009

This story from The Guardian in UK is so astounding I kind of wonder if I am being hoaxed. I just got off a call with a student researching online crises and crisis management and one of the questions essentially was: do companies today “get it” when it comes to the online risks. I said I they were quickly moving in this direction, and then, literally moments later I come across this item about Ryanair’s exchange with a blogger.

I certainly understand that by linking this story, which recounts the interchange between a Ryanair very rude and obnoxious staff person with a blogger about a potential bug, I am adding to the social networking spread of this rather ugly story. But that is just the point. The blog conversation is like a quiet, interchange in a corner of a very busy room when suddenly the room goes quiet, the conversation is miked and the conversation goes on in multiple rooms around the world. Don’t these companies get it? Is that really so hard to understand?

It is quite remarkable that the training of people authorized as Ryanair staff to respond was so poor, but what completely blows me away is the official response of the company when it was pointed out on a travel website that their interchange with the blogger was less than positive:

“Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion. It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won’t be happening again.

“Lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel.”

OK, so maybe there are some companies that don’t get it yet. Yes, more work for us consultants.

Case Study–Dealing Aggressively with Reputation Attack: Houston Livestock Show

March 4, 2009

I’ve advocated that there are some times in a reputation crisis when you have to take the gloves off. I know I have done this on several occasions, particularly when the activist/opponent shows little regard for the truth and they are getting traction. These battles always come down to credibility: who is to be believed and when your opponent is misrepresenting the facts, sometimes you just have to pounce.

That’s what I see the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo doing against a determined and experienced activist.

Here’s a copy of an email that the organization distributed (sent to my by my brother who is a Fair manager and obviously interested in crises involving similar organizations): (For those not interested in reading the entire piece, my concluding comments are at the bottom of the italicized text.)


In a widely circulated e-mail, Ben Mendez, political activist and spokesperson for the National Hispanic Professional Organization, has presented a list of inaccurate statements and facts accusing the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s volunteer leadership and salaried management of deception and non-compliance with state and federal requirements for non-profit organizations.

More importantly, Mendez accuses the Show’s volunteer leaders and management of personally enriching themselves from money intended for scholarships: “An Organization that claims to be all about scholarships is really a money-making machine for those in leadership positions.” His document is full of misleading statements and outright lies. Please see Ben Mendez’s full e-mail below.


The Show was going to move to the Port City Stockyards after the Democratic Convention Hall burned in 1936. Houston urged Show officials not to do that and the city built the Sam Houston Coliseum to house a variety of activities, including the Show.
The Show management was in private offices (sometimes sharing offices with the Houston Chamber of Commerce) until it moved to the Astrodome complex in 1966.
In 1966, the Show, at the request of Harris County, abandoned its plans to build its own coliseum (where the Northwest Mall is now located) to build a convention/livestock exposition building to support the Astrodome. The Show built the Astrohall, the Astroarena (Reliant Arena) and its year-round offices (at its own expense) and donated them to Harris County.
The Show paid for the build-out of its offices in Reliant Center. The Show’s direct contributions and bond coverage funding for Reliant Stadium and Reliant Center is $87.1 million. The Show pays $1.5 million in annual rent for its use of Reliant Stadium.
The Show’s board is reflective of the volunteer makeup of the Show (more than 21,000 volunteers) and it includes at least nine Hispanics (the Show does not track ethnicity of its membership). The Show has one Hispanic and one African-American among its 18 volunteer vice presidents (the second highest volunteer position in the Show).
According to a survey of Hispanic surnames conducted by Show volunteers Rey Gonzales, Joe Vara, Santa Gonzales and Amanda Salinas, during 2008 at least 1,324 Hispanic volunteers served on 89 of the Show’s 93 committees and they held leadership positions on 48 percent of the committees, to include being chairman of four committees.
African-Americans and Hispanics are setting a fast pace through the Show’s volunteer ranks based on dedication, commitment, continued service and merit.
The Show is a color-blind, equal opportunity employer that prides itself on being ethnically neutral.  There are 25 (not seven) minority employees (Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American and mixed-race) among the 100 full-time Show employees.  Their jobs include specialists, technicians, computer programmers, accounting and customer service, and management employees. The Show does not employ groundskeepers – that is the responsibility of Harris County. In addition, 76 percent of the Show’s full time staff is female. Forty percent of senior management, and 57 percent of all Show management, are women.
The Show does not hide its six-figure employee salaries as Mendez reports. In fact, anyone can access numerous public Web sites, including, to see the Show’s latest 990 tax return where they can view the salaries of the top eight Show employees.
The Houston Chronicle has reported the Show’s top management salaries on several occasions in recent years.  In a March, 18, 2008, article (written by Alexis Grant) the Chronicle stated that, “Only one of the Show’s 91 full-time employees, Wagner, makes more than $300,000. Two other employees, Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer and Chief Technology Officer Andrew Sloan, make more than $200,000.”
The same Chronicle article referenced Dan Parsons, the Better Business Bureau president, who said that those salaries are comparable to others in Houston’s nonprofit sector. An independent compensation consultant reporting directly to the Executive Committee determined that salaries were very much in line with comparable positions in similar organizations.
The Show has never taken in $120 million in a year (as Mendez claims). In 2008, the Show’s operating revenues were $85,185,000. Program expenses (the Show’s real exempt purpose is to put on a livestock show and fair, using some of the net proceeds for education and building) were $53,875,466. This accounted for 63 percent of the gross revenue. $15,603,897 went to Texas youth through auctions and educational support (18 percent of gross revenue). Combined, 82 percent of all gross revenue covered expenses that met the Show’s exempt purpose. The Show spent $5,757,965 on administrative expenses (7 percent) and $4,117,247 on fundraising (5 percent).  The Show had a net income from operations of $5,841,277 (7 percent). Net profit is used to build reserves to be used for three purposes:
Provide organization funding in the event there is a catastrophic event and the Show can’t be held (this possibility was very realistic after the damage caused by Hurricane Ike);
Provide the ability for the Show to make capital contributions to Reliant Park facility projects (as it has done on every project so far);
To quasi-endow the educational programs so that the Show can continue to have an impact on youth and education even if it someday is not as financially successful as it has been recently (that possibility was a real possibility in the mid-1980s with the “oil bust”).
Mendez references the Show’s $50 million in awarded contracts. The Show does not award anywhere near that dollar amount of “contracts.” It is the assumption of the Show management that he is referring to the non youth and education expenses of the Show from the audited financials. If so, those expenses included more than:
$10.5 million in city, county, and facility-related fees and expenses (expenses that cannot be bid by the Show);
$5 million in non-cash expenses (i.e. depreciation);
$14,500,000 in non-vendor-related expenses such as cash awards to exhibitors and contestants; salaries and salary-related expenses for the 695 full-time staff, part-time staff and security; U.S. Postal Service fees; etc.;
$7,600,000 to stadium entertainers which are negotiated and agreed to by the entertainers’ agents;
$1,400,000 in advertising (a considerable amount going to Spanish-language media) that in most cases is paid at the going market rates unless the vendor offers a discount; and
nearly $2,000,000 in alcoholic beverages (which as a retailer, state law requires us to purchase from distributors).
For the 2008 fiscal year, the Show paid over 8,000 vendors.  Vendors are selected by Show staff and thousands of committee members.  The Show gets multiple bids for products and services based on the type of purchase, and takes bids from qualified entities.  Some are bid project by project, some by year, and some multi-year, depending on the type of product or service provided. The bidding requirements start at $1,000, based on the size/type of the project.  If the lowest bid is not selected, a strong reason has to be demonstrated as to why it was not (i.e. turnaround time, quality of sample products provided).

As the Show literally has thousands of people handling its purchases, it is believable when Show officials hear that some vendors find it hard to determine how to submit bids or learn about upcoming projects.  The Show is committed to improving that process.  After this Show is complete, officials will review the process to see what improvements can be made (vendor seminars, Web site submission of information, etc.).  This would be open to all vendors that are interested in doing business with the Show. The Show knows of no one who has been unable to approach the Show about doing business.
The Show’s entertainment budget for 2009 is $8,300,000. The actual expended budget will be between $7,310,000 and $8,260,000 – depending on performance payout options. Not one entertainer will be paid between $750,000 and $1,000,000 (Mendez reported that all non-Hispanic entertainers get paid that much). If all entertainers got paid equally at the Show (they do not), each entertainer this year would be paid around $377,000. The Show never reveals a specific entertainer salary, but it would be ludicrous to compare Little Joe’s salary from 18 and 20 years ago with today’s entertainer salaries.
The Show negotiates all of its entertainer contracts based on market value (understanding that it pays a premium over market because of the one-off nature and the size of the venue).
The Show’s entertainers are evaluated, selected and contacted by the Show’s entertainment department – under the direct supervision of the managing director of entertainment. The evaluation is based on numerous surveys, computer models, record sales, comparable concert sales, and consultation with radio station program directors and others in the industry. In the case of entertainers for Go Tejano Day and Black Heritage Day, entertainment department staff consults with the leadership of each committee regarding talent. The Show has repeatedly told Mendez this and he continues to report that they have not been consulted. Like any business, the Show’s goal and fiduciary duty is to maximize attendance at the most economical level to the Show, not to the entertainer.
The managing director of entertainment reports directly to the COO and often briefs the president and CEO, and chairman of the board. The Executive Committee is not involved in this process and does not know the entertainer lineup before it is announced.
Mendez says, “Basic information has been requested year after year and every time we are given excuses. What is there to hide?” The Show knows of no request from Mendez or Sen. Gallegos prior to Feb. 10 of this year (a Texas Non-Profit Corporation Act information request from Sen. Gallegos). The information was delivered Feb. 20, while preparations were in full-swing for the 2009 Show.
During the past year, Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia requested the ethnic makeup of the Show’s scholarship recipients. The Show could not respond because it had never tracked the ethnicity of its students. Because of ongoing misinformation on this issue, the Show instructed its education department in early February to pull all winning scholarship applications for the past three years and to note ethnicity of each student from the attached high school transcript. Commissioner Garcia was given that information last week. The Show believes the ethnicity of the scholarship recipients in the Houston metro area reflects the ethnicity of the area’s population.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is a responsible 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that complies with all requirements of the IRS and the Texas Non-Profit Corporation Act. This should be evidenced by several requests from Houston media over the years. The Show does not reveal the individual salaries of its entertainers as that is proprietary and trade-secret information. Each salary is negotiated and it would be extremely damaging for other artists, agents and managers to know each salary.
If you are a member, volunteer, or supporter of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, take pride in the fact that you know the facts about the Show and pass this information on to all of your friends and associates.

From: Ben Mendez []
Sent: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 12:14 AM
Subject: Rodeo Protest Scheduled for March 13

The Hispanic and African American communities are protesting the lack of
diversity within the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.  A press conference
is scheduled for Friday, February 27, at 10:30 a.m. at the Harris County
Administration Building located at 1001 Preston.  Everyone is welcome to
support the cause.

A protest at Reliant Stadium is scheduled for Friday, March 13, at 5:00
pm.  The performer for that evening will be Clint Black.

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo was established in 1931 and has used
government facilities since 1938.  Millions of tax dollars have been
used to create venues and provide year-round office space for the rodeo.
For this reason, leaders from both communities feel the rodeo should be
inclusive of all communities.

At the press conference, the following issues will be addressed:

1.  Board Members

There are 320 board members at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, of
which 233 are voting board members and only 7 are minorities.  The
process of becoming a board member is dependent on being a big donor,
serving on the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo Committee for decades, or
being recommended by the executive board members. There are many
minorities that have volunteered for the rodeo for decades, yet they
have never been recommended to serve as board members.

2.  Board Executives

There are 42 executives on the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo board,
which includes 17 vice-presidents.  Of the 42, there is only one
minority.   By the way, the rodeo will consistently show him in the
press to show they are diverse.  Why don’t they show the other 41
executives on television?

3.  Full-Time Employees

There are 90+ full-time employees at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.
There are only 7 minorities, which are groundskeepers and other low
level employees.  The rodeo executives have consistently hid the
salaries of employees for their own benefit.  They do not wish to show
anyone their hefty 6-figure salaries.  The rodeo is a non-profit
organization using government property.  There should be no reason to
hide these facts.

4.  Scholarships

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo will bring in approximately $120
million in 2009 and yet it only has committed to award $11 million in
scholarships, which amounts to 9% of the total funds collected.  An
organization that claims to be all about scholarships is really a
money-making machine for those in leadership positions.

5.  Concerts

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo has 20 concerts per year.  One day is
dedicated to Hispanics and one day is dedicated to African-Americans.
Are we to celebrate this?

6.  Contracts

This year approximately $50 million will be awarded in contracts by the
Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.  Has anyone seen a Request for Proposals
distributed to the community?  I didn’t think so.  There is no process
in place to ensure minority contractors and vendors have a fair
opportunity to bid on any of the contracts associated with the rodeo.
It is the good ole boy network at its best.

7.  Pay Parity

The average attendance for the concerts at the Houston Livestock Show &
Rodeo is 55,000 a concert.  Go Tejano Day (now called Hispanic Heritage
Day) averages almost 70,000.  Go Tejano Day has consistently broken
attendance records throughout the years and yet the artist performing on
that day have consistently been paid much less than their counterparts.
The average pay for a performer for each performance is between $750,000
and $1,000,000.  Little Joe, a Tejano music legend, was paid $40,000 for
a concert.

8.  Open Records

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo has consistently avoided being
transparent to the citizens of Harris County.  Basic information has
been requested year after year and every time we are given excuses.
What is there to hide?

9.  Selection of Artists

The selection of entertainers is done by Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo
executives with no input from the Go Tejano Committee or the Black
Heritage Committee.  I guess this executive committee knows it all.

I hope this information gives you insight as to the real issues
regarding the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.  If you are interested in
joining us for the press conference or the protest, please contact me at

Thank you for understanding our concerns.

Ben Mendez

Things to learn and imitate:

1. they emphasized the facts–straight ahead corrections of where the facts were misrepresented

2. they mostly avoided harsh, emotional criticism–a little too much of it came through in my mind

3. they included his actual email–shows they wanted you to read it and not rely on their own interpretation

But, I do have some criticism. I looked on their website and there was no reference to this controversy on their site. I did a search and came up with nothing. I noticed they have a myspace page and went there and managed to find the statement after a little digging (and listening to some country music ). They could be doing much better on the internet side of the communications here. Where is the opportunity to respond? Why do I have to look so hard to find their side of the story–their site is one of the first places I would go if I was involved in this more.

But, I like the aggressive, headon approach and I like they way they are focusing this on credibility.

PRSA Podcast–crisisblogger discusses realities of instant news and social media world

March 2, 2009

Eric Schwartzman recorded an interview with me at the PRSA conference in Detroit in late October. I recently spotted it posted on the PRSA site. Here’s the link if you want to hear my basic spiel.

Another new crisis risk–fake twitter accounts

March 2, 2009

Imagine this: you are the Public Information Officer for a large government agency and you have formed a Joint Information Center for a freeway overpass collapse. You are struggling to get the information flow going and you get reports from citizens and the news media of facts coming out of the JIC that you haven’t provided. Your team investigates and finds someone has set up a twitter account with “interstatebridgecollapse” on the account.

It is some eyewitness who is reporting what is going on, but with an obvious ax to grind. And everyone is treating this guy as the official source of information about the response.

Am I using scare tactics and making this stuff up? No, it is already happening. Fake twitter accounts are already becoming a problem according to this article from PR Tactics. The Dalai Lama was one innocent victim.

Bottom line–if you aren’t operating at Twitter speed, how can you immediately blunt the impact of these significant threats. But how can you operate at Twitter speed when you have a whole organization to set up and manage? Wow, it keeps getting tougher.

Another great example of “toxic talk”

March 2, 2009

Just back from a wonderful cruise with extended family to Mexico–in case you were wondering why I’ve been silent lately.

I’ve been noticing an increasing number of comments about the nasty side of social media. Might be just because I’ve been focusing somewhat on the topic–sort of like when you are thinking about buying a particular model of car you suddenly see so many more of them on the road.

Here is a great article in Media Bullseye by Chip Griffin about nastiness of social media as expressed by one of the leaders in the whole area of social media technology.

I’m hoping to do some more writing and analysis around this issue of Toxic Talk so if you have any further examples to provide, I’ll use this blog as one way of tracking and organizing them. Also, we’ve done a little theorizing here already but if you have ideas to add as to why there is so much nastiness let me know.

Also, I’m thinking at some point there is going to be some counter reaction to this–some effort by someone or a group to try to return some civility and politeness into our global conversation. If any of you know of any such movement, I’d be very interested in hearing about it.