Archive for September, 2009

Where does Twitter go from here?

September 28, 2009

Down, I think.

Yeah sure, they got a $100 million in investment capital (jeez, 1999 deja vu all over again?) and a capitalization of $1 billion. Their timing was superb, if not incredibly lucky because now the word is building that their phenomenal growth rate has slowed or completely stalled.

The innovation they brought to communications was and is hugely important. Even though they didn’t intend it, Twitter has done more than anyone or anything to bring the capability of virtually instant communication to the crisis communication and emergency management world. For that I am very grateful, and the citizens and consumers receiving much better, faster, more relevant content from the organizations important to them are grateful as well.

But, unlike Facebook, their innovation was shallow. Basic functional capability (text-to-webpage, sign up followers, auto distributions) are readily available in a multitude of ways. And Twitter was saddled by a focus on “I’m eating a ham sandwich” messaging. Maybe that’s where the traffic is maybe that’s where the dollars will end up showing up once the venture community comes to its senses. But they didn’t address some fundamental needs that those who wanted to use it for more than sandwich and coffee chatter really needed.

The real problem they are facing is that even the constant feed of sandwich and coffee messaging gets tiresome. Very few of Twitter users continue to use it consistently. And I’m guessing that even those who have adopted it as part of their lifestyle (like my daughter and her husband) may find it tiresome after a bit as well. Maybe not.

My guess is something else is out there aborning. Maybe that will have its 15 minutes of fame, or maybe even change the world more substantially. We shall see.


Oh sure, suing the film crew will really help Acorn

September 25, 2009

I’ve resisted the temptation to pile on ACORN, but their stupidity just keeps piling on each other until I can resist no longer. The group’s brilliant leadership has decided that the best way to try and save the organization’s life is to sue. Understandable. It’s the American Way. The best defense is a good offense. However, this offense is not a good one because the suit is not about defamation or the video team lying or saying anything that wasn’t true. This is about filming their staff without their consent.

Sorry, not smart. Sure, it is a hassle to make the video team go through all the discovery process and make everything they do public–but they are not the ones with a lot to hide. I don’t think the general public will have any sympathy for an organization so deeply caught in Acorn’s behavior when their only defense is “you should have asked us for permission before tricking us into revealing to the world the kind of people and organization we really are.”

As an organization and reputation-saving strategy, this really stinks. But, if you were there public relations advisor, what would you say? What can be done to save the organization? I found out that the Congressman in my district voted to keep taxpayer funds going to this organization. He’s a very smart guy, a capable and respected Congressman and has been invulnerable. But he just gave a future political opponent more ammunition than any other action I have seen him take. When an organization like Acorn becomes a political liability of this magnitude for all its friends, it is doomed in my mind.

Can it do anything? Nothing less than a complete housecleaning from the top down. If there is another answer, I’d love to hear it.

Redskins player shows why employers fear Twitter

September 23, 2009

Dear Mr/Ms Employer: can you guarantee that all your employees will show good sense when they use Twitter or other social media? No? Then you have a substantial PR and reputation risk. Like the Washington Redskins today. They won the game against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, 9-7, but apparently some fans at the end of the game weren’t happy with their performance, so they booed them as they left the field.

That ticked off one of the benchwarmers, a rookie linebacker, who tweeted after the game and told the fans what he thought of them. He didn’t stop there but when they engaged them insulted them several times telling them he made a lot more sitting on the bench that they did and asking what they knew about football with their 9 – 5 job at McDonalds. Youch.

Chris Chase on Yahoo Sports commented: This is why the NFL would love to ban its players from Tweeting. There’s almost nothing good that can come out of sharing your thoughts in 140-character doses, but there are plenty things that can go wrong.

What happens when an employee is dismissed? What are they going to say on Twitter or Facebook? What happens when there is juicy gossip going around the office about the nightlife of a senior exec? What happens when an employee gets into a fight with a key customer? What happens when a banker throws a party at a repossessed mansion in Malibu–and a party-goer tweets about it.

It’s the age of transparency alright for good and for bad. And one thing that is certain is that not all things that go on inside companies or people minds is good, but equally certain is that in this age alot of those things will come out and be exposed for all the world to see. The NFL might try and ban Twitter, but, the genie is out of the bottle and Pandora has escaped from the box. Now it is a matter for organizations to be vigilant and prepared to deal with the consequences.

National Endowment for Arts and White House Conference Call

September 22, 2009

Oops! Big oops. The conference call between the White House and the National Endowments for the Arts has dealt damage to the reputation of both the Obama administration and the NEA. Details of the conference call were made public through release of a transcript and audio on the BigHollywood website. On the call White House staffer Buffy Wicks thanked the artists for all the work they had done together the past two years.  And NEA staff member Yosi Sergeant gave advice on where artists applying for grants could focus their efforts–on four areas identified as priorities including health care, education and the environment.

What’s the problem with all this? For some, they wouldn’t see a problem, but the idea of spending tax money on artists and in the process of determining who will get tax money and who won’t suggesting how they could help the administration carry its key messages, is, well, just a little stinky. There are a whole lot of people who don’t really like the idea of spending tax dollars on funding artists anyways and this will give them as much fodder as Mapelthorpe did a number of years ago. In that way, this conference call is immensely damaging to the NEA.

But it is also damaging to the Obama administration in a perhaps more insidious way. Asking artists to direct their work toward political causes or issues, and tying even remotely indirectly to securing funding, is dancing with propaganda. Propaganda and the intentional high-jacking of a nation’s cultural apparatus is what we expect from totalitarian regimes. Chavez comes to mind as does those German and Russian bad guys from 70 years ago. But we don’t expect this kind of thinking from an ethical, democratic, elected official. Again, something stinky here.

How is the White House dealing with this? Good and bad. White House spokesperson Bill Burton did the president no favors by offering this:

“The point of the call was to encourage voluntary participation in a national service initiative by the arts community,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement. “To the extent there was any misunderstanding about what the NEA may do to support the national service initiative, we will correct it.”

That doesn’t even come close to anything like a sincere apology and recognition as to what this looks like. On the good side, the news headlines are filled with stories about the White House issuing new guidelines to agencies in awarding federal grants. That’s also only half good. NEA is not any agency. We should not need clarification about ethical behavior in cases like this–I suspect the guidelines we had were plenty clear. Obama needs some Obama magic to deal with this which no doubt will fill the conservative airwaves for a while even with Acorn in their sights. He should fire those involved and send a clear message that their actions did not reflect his view of how federal grants should be doled out and neither do they reflect his view of how the White House should deal with artists.

Bad PR in the Social Media World

September 22, 2009

Public relations is a highly honorable and useful profession in my view, despite the attitude of some. But like a lot of worthwhile professions, it often gets a bad name from people who practice it poorly and unethically. One of the surprises of being a blogger (I’ve been blogging pretty consistently for over three years now) is that sometimes you get treated as a journalist. I’ve gotten a few free books to review, which since I love books has been appreciated–and the books I have been sent have been relevant to the blog, which I also appreciate.

But I am increasingly getting email pitches for me to include items in my blog that have absolutely nothing to do with the narrowly defined topic that I cover. And that is just irritating. I don’t want to be on someone’s list of any and all bloggers. I don’t want to have to spend my time looking at these to determine where the heck the relevance might be. And I get really irritated when I let someone know that there is no fit and I keep getting pitched.

I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion on PR blogs and news sites about the backlash against PR practitioners for just this sort of behavior. There really is no excuse for it. Certainly blogs, well read ones in particular, are outstanding ways to build awareness for a product, service or organization. But to blindly pitch bloggers with completely irrelevant items makes the professional look naive and doesn’t help the image of the profession. In part what makes this bothersome is knowing that the tools and methods are available to avoid it. For example, Matchpoint, which is an excellent tool to identify and target the mainstream and new media reporters and writers who are writing on relevant topics. Full disclosure: my company has a business partnership with eNR, the company behind Matchpoint but we do not benefit from any of the sales. So I am including this merely as an example of the kinds of technology that can help make PR people efficient and not be stupid.

So, if you are pitching me on what great things a fashion company is doing, or want me to talk about World Save the Salmon Egg Day or anything like that, forget it. Go get Matchpoint and use your head.

Facebook used instead of 9-1-1? New worries for first responders

September 17, 2009

I just returned from speaking to the Kansas Emergency Management Association conference. It was a real treat talking with a group of dedicated emergency managers at the state, city and county levels. One of the issues we discussed was the liability and public expectations around using social media such as Twitter or Facebook to request assistance. Liability may be a big concern but so is public expectation. What happens when using these two becomes second nature to people, particularly young people, and they believe that when you are in trouble you can call for help using Twitter or Facebook?

Then, getting back to the office, I was referred to this story out of Australia. Two young girls, ages 10 and 12 were caught in a drain. Fortunately they had a mobile phone with them. Unfortunately, the decided to use that mobile phone to text a message to their Facebook page instead of using it to dial Triple Zero, the Australian equivalent of 9-1-1. Fortunately, some of their friends on Facebook saw their cry for help. And fortunately, they remembered that a mobile phone is for more than texting and dialed the fire service who responded and rescued the girls. Unfortunately, this may become a trend and it is worrying the Australian authorities as it ought to be worrying all response organizations/

The story on C-Net says: Since emergency services are only available by dialing Triple Zero, the firefighters couldn’t have known the girls were in the drain until someone called. The organization is even more concerned that contacting social networks, rather than dialing Triple Zero, will become a trend.

This is the same issue the Coast Guard raised earlier and I commented on in this blog. Some are dealing with this by making it clear that their Twitter page or Facebook page is not to be used for emergency calls. LAFD’s Twitter page says Call 9-1-1 to report an emergency. However, this doesn’t change the fact that when more and more people are living their lives on social media sites and using text to communicate to anyone and everyone they care about, it won’t even occur to them to use what they are told to use. Ultimately, it is public expectations and demands that will win. As challenging as it sounds I am coming to think that response agencies are going to have to figure out how to deal with this new reality.

A 9/11 Legacy–Lessons from the Coast Guard Potomac exercise for drill planners

September 11, 2009

Today marks the somber anniversary of eight years ago. And many were greeted this morning with breaking news about shots fired near President Obama’s motorcade as it crossed the Potomac. Flights at nearby Reagan National were put on ground halt status, FBI and Secret Service put on high alert.

There, were of course, no shots fired and the scare was caused by a routine Coast Guard exercise that happened to coincide with the president’s travel plans. The scare was in fact caused by CNN scanning a Coast Guard radio channel used for training purposes where they heard reports of ten shots fired. Now the Coast Guard is on the defensive trying to explain why an exercise was conducted there at that time was actually routine, why it was not communicated to other authorities, and how the training exercise got picked up by the news media and misinterpreted. They are saying the only thing they really can say at this point which is that the incident is being reviewed.

We’re all a little bit jumpy, aren’t we? CNN certain seems to me to be jumpy and unwilling apparently to accept any culpability in this scare. What happened to verifying before you report? It is no longer part of the reporting game and can’t be when you compete against everybody with a smart phone, cell camera and Twitter account. They will almost certainly continue to take the position that if they were fooled by overhearing training radio talk it was someone else’s fault for allowing them to be fooled. I may not be happy with their lack of acceptance of their responsibility in it, but that is the reality that emergency managers and particularly drill planners have to face today.

So the message is, in this jumpy environment, be careful with your drills and exercises. Be aware of how creating a realistic scenario can be interpreted. The military needs to be careful when the exercise their forces in mock attacks that they don’t scare the bejesus out of the population. I was in a cross-border drill one day that involved a scenario of an anthrax release at the international border crossing. All drill participants were in a hotel near the border without any use of internet or phones or any contact with the outside world. But a couple of drill participants went to the restroom during a break and were discussing the scenario. They were overheard by someone in the restroom who was not part of the drill and soon there was minor panic in the hotel. The lesson: even while you are in the restroom preface everything with: THIS IS A DRILL.

It’s tough to simulate distribution of public and media information while keeping the information tight–but it is essential. Again, clearly label everything and all info, including that intended to stay behind closed doors as a drill. There are some good and effective ways of simulating mass distributions including through Twitter and other social media. The key is to plan it well to be as realistic in interaction with the outside world as you can without making the big mistake of getting caught on CNN and making national news.

The most important lesson is to understand that in today’s hyper news environment the rule is report now, blame others later. So, be careful out there.


Added note: Just viewed the interview with Vice Adm Currier on CNN. I am even more angry with CNN for the outrageous false reporting, their culpability in this mess and their stunning unwilingness to accept any responsibility. Fortunately, at least some others are seeing CNN’s role in this–at least to some degree.

Letter of Intent Signed to Acquire PIER Systems

September 10, 2009

I’ve been missing from these blog pages for a few days–partly because I was busy in LA working with clients and now because working hard on finalizing the sale of the company I founded nine years ago–PIER Systems. Press release announcing the planned acquisition was released today.

O’Brien’s Response Management is an outstanding organization and I have known them for a number of years, before PIER was even created. I am very excited about moving from an angel funded organization to one with much greater resources and with a shared commitment to providing the best in public information and emergency response communication technology and services. I will be continuing with this company and working hard to take PIER to the next level and continue the transformation in public information management that has begun. I’m also very pleased that our team will continue in place as is and will continue to operate from our much-loved home base here in Bellingham, Washington.

I might also mention I’m very pleased to be a speaker at this year’s Kansas Emergency Management Association conference in Topeka next week. I’ll be speaking to 200 emergency management professionals and very eager to address not just PIOs but those who carry the ultimate responsibility not just for the response but the reputation of the organizations responding. If you’re from Kansas and plan on being there, looking forward to talking with you.

California fires–on accommodating elected officials needs

September 2, 2009

Still in Pasadena with a front row seat to the devastating fires. It’s hard for me not to look at the newspaper and local television news from the standpoint of writing plans for regional emergency communications, since that is what I am doing largely these days. One element of the plan has to include accommodating the need for the top elected officials to helicopter in and get their air time.

I have to say how ludicrous it feels to me sitting watching on the tube. This morning Gov. Schwarzenegger and LA Mayor Villaraigosa (hope I got that right) both did their standups just in time for the morning news. The news crews breathlessly followed the mayor as he transferred from and LAPD helicopter near to a LA County Fire Department helicopter, providing the complete model number of the new helicopter he was flying in. There were numerous shots of the press conference scene where the PIOs were busily preparing the podium and background, including affixing the governor’s seal to the podium, while awaiting his arrival. Now I will be the first to say that the Governor does one of the best standups I’ve ever seen–I was superimpressed the way he took on media complaints a couple of years ago in similar situations. But the question is, what does all this have to do with the fires and the concerns of people whose lives are being impacted. The news reporters tell how the two are being briefed on the latest situation by the very communicators and incident commanders who have just briefed the news reporters with the same information.

No doubt JIC plans and agency communication plans will have to continue to accommodate the needs for this often pointless and too-often political exercise. The really bad side of it, as was seen in the DC train crash, will cause some to pause. And in truly dire circumstances, such as 9/11, having highly visible and credible leadership who are seen as deeply involved in helping manage the event is very important and reassuring to the public. But those circumstances didn’t apply this morning. I suspect as the public moves further and further away from traditional media and this kind of essentially irrelevant coverage, going instead direct to those credible sources of information that provide the actual news that is relevant to them, maybe this kind of sideshow will diminish. If so, the job of emergency managers and communicators will become a little simpler and the public better served.