Archive for the 'Crisis Case Studies' Category

Talk to the media, or not?–O’Donnell battles national media

September 23, 2010

Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party candidate for VP Biden’s Delaware senate seat, has been the latest national media sensation, or victim, depending on your point of view. Ironically, on a national “news” show, Hannity’s America, she announced she would no longer give the national media any time.

I got some enjoyment watching Anderson Cooper and Gary Tuchman huff and puff about this–with Tuchman saying that this was like Cuba or Iran, or some other oppressive regime that was trying to control the press. Couldn’t really believe he was saying that. She is not the government, she’s a candidate. It is still her option whether or not to talk to the press. But clearly any candidate saying they will not deal with the national media is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

My question is this: at what point does a company under the kind of infotainment attack we have seen repeated so often in the last while just decide they will not talk to the press? That sounds like a really dumb question to most PR folks and crisis managers who continue to think that reputation management is about media relations. Increasingly it is not.

Here are a few reasons why it is not:

– Some use social media instead of mainstream media for announcements–evidence: Amazon’s announcement about acquisition of Zappos.

– with 300 million citizen journalists running around with all the electronic news gathering equipment they need in their pockets, plus the ability to almost instantly create a “channel” that can rival a major network, who is the media anyway?

– isn’t your focus really those people whose opinion about you matters the most for your future? If so, your interest in the media is only insofar as it is impacts or influences those people. And if you can go direct to them and tell them your story straight, why the heck would you trust that important job to someone whose interest is not your reputation but only in building an audience even if it means using your reputation as a tool?

– reputation management is about taking the right actions, doing the right things, aligning your behavior with the values and expectations of those people who matter the most. Communication is the vehicle that both helps build organizational understanding of those expectations and values and the means by which the right actions are conveyed. What does the media have to do with this all important process? In many, if not most cases, they are a hindrance to it. Recognize it, plan for it, and take action to deal with it.

The huffing and puffing of Cooper and Tuchman notwithstanding, O’Donnell has to ask the question of whether dealing with the national media will help her get elected or not. Personally, I think her loud pronouncement was stupid. It would have been smarter to go about her business of meeting with and interacting with the voters and if that left her little time to respond to the media swirl, that is understandable. No point in waving red flags.

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The link between reputation and company value–BP shows the high cost

September 16, 2010

Public relations pros often deal with the question as to how to get CEOs to pay more attention to the vital role of reputation management. Some CEO’s seems to inherently “get it,” and others, often financial-metric driven, have a harder time understanding the link because they don’t see an obvious connection between investments in reputation management or protection to the all-important quarterly results.

Crisis expert James Donnelly pointed this out in a recent post referencing a Forbes article which suggested we may be entering an age of reputation management. But, if anyone doubts the stunning impact of reputation loss on economic value, all one has to do is look at BP. One of the highest value and most respected (albeit hated by anyone who thinks hydrocarbons are evil) companies, has dropped out of the list of the 100 most valuable brands as a result of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. This according to brand valuation expert Interbrand.

I suspect that BP will be used for many years by anyone pitching PR services and particularly crisis preparation services to senior leaders. And well they should be. But I do have a fear. I’m afraid the pitch will be: See what happens when you don’t do good PR? Your reputation will go to heck and your brand value will be destroyed.  A much better pitch in my mind would be: There are some problems that even great PR can’t fix, so if you have any chance of doing some really serious damage to people, their futures or the environment, let’s look first at minimizing the risk of those bad things happening, and then let’s look at how to respond effectively if some really bad things do happen.

Burson Marsteller study validates the importance of a “go direct” crisis comm strategy

September 16, 2010

A couple of years ago I presented at a major conference on crisis and risk communications and several of the highly respected speakers talked about the need to “partner with the media” in communicating with the public about major events. My under the breath reaction was: good luck with that.

Since I got engaged in this crisis and emergency communication business fulltime over ten years ago one of my strongest beliefs has been that we need to first of all focus on direct communication to those people who are most impacted by an event and those whose opinions about us matter most for our future. One of the reasons for that firm belief was my experience in trying to “partner with the media” and the disastrous results that sometimes, very often occurred. In fact, I would have guess that about half of all efforts were disappointing if not outright infuriating.

Now the highly respected firm of Burson-Marsteller has documented this experience. This, in my mind, is one of the most important studies to come out about media relations in general but crisis communication in particular. I would advise a careful look at this study. I haven’t looked at the mechanics of the study so can’t comment on the way it was done and how solid it is, but I can tell you that it conforms to my own experiences.

For those who want the headline version, if you send your important messages to the media, at best you can expect 50% consistency with your message and what the media actually does with it. But that is better than what happens with it in the blog world, where the consistency drops down to less than 40%.

The implications are clear and should be part of every PIO and emergency manager’s information strategy:
1) Go direct–plan ahead of any event to communicate directly through email, phone, text, website, whatever to the public, impacted citizens, elected officials, investors, customers, fenceline neighbors–anybody who is important to your future.
2) Rumor management — you now know that when you send it to the media and into the social media world is almost certainly will turn into something different than you intended. That means communication is not about sending it out and letting it takes its course, it is a continuing process of distribution, correction, challenging false reports, and providing continuous updates.

Here’s the bottom line: So many think that public information management is about sending out a press release and the job is done. That is hopelessly naive and that approach is guaranteed to cause great disappointment and quite likely loss of trust–and maybe loss of job.

How the media game is played–without accountability

September 14, 2010

I know I’m starting to sound like a stuck record relating to my analysis of how the media operates. I also realize that most of the rest of the world has moved on from the Gulf Spill and has a serious and very understandable case of spill fatigue. But, the lessons continue and for me one of the most important is looking at how the media covered this event and what it means for building trust in future events.

The story in the New York Times yesterday illustrates an important point. Here are some relevant quotes from this article which is titled: “Gulf May Avoid Direst Predictions After Oil Spill:” Yet as the weeks pass, evidence is increasing that through a combination of luck (a fortunate shift in ocean currents that kept much of the oil away from shore) and ecological circumstance (the relatively warm waters that increased the breakdown rate of the oil), the gulf region appears to have escaped the direst predictions of the spring…And preliminary reports from scientists studying the effects on marshes, wildlife and the gulf itself suggest that the damage already done by the spill may also be significantly less than was feared — less, in fact, than the destruction from the much smaller Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.

First, hats off to New York Times for writing a good news story about the spill. Next–a question: why is zero credit given to the over 60,000 people who worked on this event, often at great personal sacrifice? Certainly, the conditions mentioned contributed to what looks to be a much more positive outcome than was dared hope for, but the prodigious efforts of the responders and response leaders also contributed significantly to minimizing environmental damage. And economic damage–remarkably for example, traffic up and down the Mississippi was not curtailed even with very strong efforts to ensure impacts the spill were not carried upriver.

But my real point is this. NYT like most other media was not shy a bit about highlighting the experts who made these dire predictions. The most serious predictions ended up in the headlines–and why not? Their job is to gets eyes on the pages or the screens of their websites or tv news reports. So for weeks if not months we heard these dire predictions over and over. I can’t recall many examples of reporting at the height of the “fear creation” stage of the response saying, “but we have other experts here who are saying it probably won’t be so bad.”

So, they use these experts–the more dramatic the better–to compete to win in the infotainment game. Nothing really new about that. After all, what did Billy Nungesser and the other loud critics have to contribute to the public’s understanding of the spill and the response efforts? Nothing of substance, but a heck of a lot of entertainment value. What gets me is that when all the fear-mongering turns out to be overblown, I have yet to see a reporter or publisher say “oops, mea culpa, we did a bad thing.” No, it is those same experts who got it wrong. One of them, as I blogged about earlier, admitted he got it wrong. Good for him. But it is not just the experts who got it wrong–it was the media who made much of their fallible predictions. Certainly they can say, “it is not our job to evaluate their viability, we just report what they say.” Yeah, right. But is it the expert’s responsibility when the whole world gets a faulty understanding of what is happening? The experts would say “we just give our educated opinion, which may be right or wrong. We can’t be held accountable for how the news media uses or abuses these opinions.”

Exactly, no accountability. We know who is accountable for the spill, no question there. Who will be held accountable for creating false impressions?

A powerful video for communication training

September 10, 2010

All you communication trainers including media trainers may be interested in another compelling video for training purposes–on what not to do. This, along with perennial favorites “What are you sinking about?” and “The front fell off the ship.”

Here is a political speech that may go down in the annals of communication history as one of the most passionate–for no apparent reason. Of course if I lived in Stark County, Ohio, I might take local politics serious too.

I’m fumbling with the lesson learned here. I guess it is to make sure your style and message match up. But, don’t worry about the lesson–this is just plain entertaining in a cringing sort of way.

Pew Research on the Gulf Spill Media Coverage–how do you score it?

August 27, 2010

I blogged recently at emergencymgmt.com about the new Pew Research Center study of media coverage of the gulf spill. This should be mandatory reading for all crisis communicators.(the study, not my blog post)  No time left today so I won’t repeat my remarks from Crisis Comm–but would love to hear some reaction and your take on lessons learned from this report and the media coverage for the spill.

Scientists aren’t happy about media coverage of the spill either

August 25, 2010

I’m guessing most in America have finally diverted their attention away from the spill. For those who are still watching you might have noticed the back and forth in the media about the “Manhattan-size” underwater plume. NOAA and the Unified Command science team provided an oil spill “budget” that a couple of weeks ago showed all but 26% of the oil gone, and the 26% being rapidly degraded. Then, last week, news came from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute that they discovered a “Manhattan-size” oil plume suspended underwater that contradicted NOAA’s and the science teams oil budget. There was a bit of a stir about this and the media certainly jumped on the story to show, what many wanted to believe, and that is the government is wrong, can’t be trusted and that there is much greater danger still existing from the oil than Unified Command and NOAA would have us believe. It was the academic scientists against the government scientists.

One of those academic scientists, Christopher Reddy, the director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole, wrote an op-ed piece published on CNN.com that brings to light this “conflict.”  His essential point seems to be that when scientists engage in back and forth in interpreting data and they share that with scientifically ignorant reporters, the media ends up making a “big story” out of something that may not be so big. Here’s how he describes his situation:

I must have spoken with at least 25 journalists last week, and despite my every effort to explain our findings, the media were more interested in using the new information to portray a duel between competing scientists. The story turned into an us-versus-them scenario in which some scientists are right and others are wrong. Seeking to elucidate, I felt caught in a crossfire.

When I do media training and consulting with clients about dealing with the media, I try to make a few points that admittedly make me sound very cynical and anti-media. I tell my clients that most often when a reporter approaches you the story they are telling is already fixed in their heads. They simply want from you the quotes that can add spice to the story. If you information conflicts with the narrative they have already created, you will either not be quoted or what you say will be twisted to fit the story they have already written at least in their minds. Secondly, reporting today is mostly entertainment and takes the form of melodrama. It is simplified conflict with usually good guys and bad guys and something, the public good, they are fighting over. It is fairly easy to understand how they will approach the story involving you when you think about who might be the good guy, who the bad guy, and what you are fighting over.

In this case, at least according to Mr. Reddy, the scientists provided information that would help fill in the bigger picture of where is the oil in the gulf. But instead of educating the public on the additional data, the media turned it into a story of conflict, competing interests where in this case the government who has taken the responsibility for the oil from BP is hiding or denying the facts to make themselves look good, while the scientists at the academic institutions are the brave, honest, trustworthy fighters for the truth. While Mr. Reddy and his team had the white hats on in this story, they didn’t appreciate how the information they provided got spun into entertainment.

Meanwhile, abcnews provides a report showing that microbes at the oil, diminishing the plume. Much to ABC’s credit, their lead paragraphs point out that the conflicts in report may not really be conflicting:

These latest findings may initially seem to be at odds with a study published last Thursday in Science by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which confirmed the existence of the oil plume and said micro-organisms did not seem to be biodegrading it very quickly.

However, Hazen and Rich Camilli of Woods Hole both said on Tuesday that the studies complement each other.

In all honesty, I suspect that what happened behind the scenes is that the science team and NOAA got with the Woods Hole folks and said, for pete’s sake guys, if you’re going to go off spouting your mouth off about big plumes that contradicts what we are saying, give us a heads up and let us get our act together before running to the media. Properly chastened, Mr. Reddy may have offered up the op-ed and worked to show collaboration that showed up in the abc report. But that is pure speculation on my part.

The point is to understand how the media works. Did they love the conflict between Woods Hole and NOAA? Absolutely. Could they get more eyes on their screens or papers this way? Absolutely. Does it fit the “melodrama” theory of today’s infotainment? Yes, it does. Does it mean the media is being irresponsible? Hmmm, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just important for those dealing with the media to understand how they operate and be a little smarter in how they work with them. And it would be helpful if the American people were a little more sophisticated in their understanding of how the media creates conflicts and stories like this. On the other hand, given the exceptionally low trust in the media, maybe I’m not giving the American public enough credit.

HP’s crisis management–right or wrong?

August 23, 2010

I’ve seen a lot of debate in the last while about HP’s decision to fire their impressively performing CEO Mark Hurd. The two lines of argument are thus:

Anti-firing: the guy’s a superstar, he delivered the goods, you’re going to toss a guy that can do that much for your company and shareholders under the bus for some minor expense reporting errors?

Pro-firing: Well there’s this thing about sexual harrassment and then the supposed victim went ahead and got an attention-grabbing attorney so you know whether he is innocent or not you are going to face a mud fight. So spare yourself the agony. And your famous PR agency says you should.

If that was the way the argument really went I’d have a hard time making a decision. After all, one of the prime rules of PR, like the Hippocratic Oath, should be to do no harm. Firing a superstar CEO just because some lawyer who loves to see her name in the paper makes sounds like she’s coming after you would cause a reverse PR problem of acting like chicken little. But, clearly that is not the problem here.

PRSA Chair Gary McCormick in this post provides a reasoned explanation for what really happened. While investigating the sexual harassment charges which turned out to be false, the board discovered other problems–inappropriate contractor payments and personal expenses recorded as company expenses. Certainly they could have not disclosed those items. The focus was on the sexual harassment and they could do away with that.

I don’t know if APCO, their PR firm, advised them to release Hurd based on fears of the celebrity attorney or based on the reality that the guy was being dishonest and a cheat. Larry Ellison’s defense of him is based on the idea that whatever tiny little cheating he may have done, it is absolutely nothing compared to the huge value he was delivering. Ah, there is the problem isn’t it. Turn our backs on little violations of company ethical standards if you perform well enough. If the guy isn’t doing his job, and he cheats a little drum him out. But if he is making us big bucks, then we’re stupid to lose him for a minor little infraction.

It’s the Ellison kind of thinking that contributed to the collapse in judgment we saw in the financial crisis. It’s the Ellison kind of thinking that destroys public trust in business. It’s the Ellison kind of thinking that contributes to an atmosphere of moral and ethical ambiguity–and to bad decisions that lead to much worse problems. If the HP board which has a significant legacy of integrity to live up from its founders, and whose actions in the past relating to previous CEOs and board members leaves much to be desired, had chosen to take an ambiguous position on Mr. Hurd’s discretion much would have been lost. If you can’t trust your highest leaders, what does that do for the boardroom? What does it convey to the organization? To shareholders? To the public?

Coming out of this event there seems to be the Ellison Way and the HP Way. I’m glad they chose the HP Way.

New York Times weighs in on crisis PR–will the hypocrisy never end?

August 23, 2010

First it was the Washington Post who declared that the high-priced crisis PR folks were out of their league when it came to crises like BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs. I gave my opinion about that bit of silly reporting earlier. But the article this weekend in New York Times really takes the cake.The overall message seems to be that the reputation problems that BP, Toyota and Goldman all now presumably share were if not fully preventable by more competent PR, they certainly wouldn’t be in as bad a shape as they are. (Again, full disclosure, I count both BP and the US Coast Guard among my valued clients.)

As “evidence” of BP’s bad reputation the NYT’s reporter Peter S. Goodman provides an egregious but typical example of the kind of reporting done by Rolling Stone referring here to Goldman: “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Let’s see, what kind of invectives might this kind of reporter use against BP: “A giant radioactive death cloud dripping oil and toxins on innocent families below, skillfully and malevolently directed by a foreign cabal intent on sucking the very life blood out of the American way of life.”

Let me ask you, how would your reputation hold up to that kind of treatment? What if every newspaper and TV station in the land were clambering over each other, competing to see how bad they could make it to attract the biggest possible audiences to get the ratings that would let them charge their exorbitant advertising rates? And how would your reputation withstand the withering attacks of politicians like the representative from Massachusetts who see an opportunity to lead the parade of public outrage by heaping on scorn and new legislation? And what if the holder of the highest office of the land, intent on protecting his electoral future, makes certain that the news media blame game is focused on the “Responsible Party” rather than the government?

My point is this: It is the news media today, operating in a hyper competitive environment, that is one of the most important factors in the damage to reputations we see. For them to observe as both DeBord in the Washington Post and Goodman in the New York Times have done that the “spin” of public relations professionals has failed these organizations is hypocritical and ludicrous. It is a little like a guy standing next to a train track in the aftermath of a horrific head-on collision saying, someone could have prevented this, when he has just pulled the lever that put the trains on collision course.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming the news media for the mess of BP, Toyota or Goldman. In fact it is my firm belief as I have previously stated, that some events are beyond PR. As my colleague Tim O’Leary says, there is only so much lipstick you can put on a pig. When you spill a few thousand or hundred million gallons of oil in the Gulf or practically anywhere, and you can’t stop it for months while the public looks over your shoulder, that is a mighty ugly pig. The best PR in the world is not going to fix it.

And don’t get me wrong about there being no mistakes. Of course BP made mistakes. Nothing like the mistake that led to the explosion and spill and then the “mistake” of not preparing better to contain an event that exceeded their worst case scenario planning. But the focus on the statements like “I want my life back” is just ludicrous, as if Tony Hayward singularly caused the reputation crash of BP by casually making himself the victim. Give the guy a break. If you had cameras stuck on you 24/7 in the worst days of your life, would you say something stupid too Mr. Goodman? BP’s public relations team and advisors made a mistake in allowing Mr. Hayward to be accessible 24/7 which enabled him to say things that minimized the spill or conveyed that he too wanted the spill done with. But, here’s the dilemma–if they hadn’t they (the media) would complain about the absent CEO, if they allowed it, which they did or he insisted, they run the risk of making a comment that the media will use to hang him and the company with.

I find the comments of Mr. Rubenstein referring to BP particularly troublesome: “It was one of the worst P.R. approaches that I’ve seen in my 56 years of business,” says Mr. Rubenstein. “They tried to be opaque. They had every excuse in the book. Right away they should have accepted responsibility and recognized what a disaster they faced. They basically thought they could spin their way out of catastrophe. It doesn’t work that way.” Mr. Rubenstein’s problem is that he’s been reading the New York Times to get his news. He should have been looking at what BP and the coordinated response was doing and saying rather than letting the media “spin” the story for him. From the very beginning BP accepted responsibility, said it was their spill, said they would compensate all legitimate claims, said they would do all they could to stop it, said they would communicate. They did.

As evidence of opaque communication two examples are continually provided: the inaccurate initial spill volume estimate and the fact that in front of Congress BP indicated they were not the only ones to blame. Giving the initial estimate was a mistake–it was a mistake not just made by BP but by Unified Command. Remember, that number was provided by the Federal On-Scene Coordinator speaking for the government and all agencies. The number no doubt came from BP. It was the best estimate they had at the time and it was wrong. What Doug Suttles said later as reported in the Times-Picayune was that what he said when he provided that number was that the number didn’t matter because they were treating the spill as if the volume was unlimited. In other words, there was no scaling of response to the estimated volume. It was all hands on deck to get it stopped with nothing held back and every bit of oil clean up equipment possible was called on. What he should have said when pressed for a number–and here is the lesson for crisis communications in the future–is similar to what Mayor Giuliani said when pressed for an estimate of those killed on 9/11 when the buildings were still falling. Suttles should have said, “We don’t know, we can’t know for certain, but whatever it is is, it is more than we can bear.”

Now, if he said that, what would the media (and Mr. Rubenstein) have said? “You’re being opaque, you’re hiding information, your trying to minimize.” The fact is the response leaders including all gov agencies required an estimate, BP provided their best based on the info they had, Unified Command communicated that to the world, and in the media spin that followed it simply proved how inept and evil BP really was and is.

The other complaint is that BP tried to duck blame. Evidence for this is their testimony to Congress. I challenge you to show me one public statement that BP ever made disowning their responsibility for this event. The truth is that in an event like this there are undoubtedly many complex causes–it is not one single failure. They will be able to point to a whole number of things that if someone had chosen to do something different, the outcome would have changed. If the valve controlling the ram that would pincer off the riser had been manufactured better, or designed better. If a third or fourth or fifth backup emergency shutoff system had been put in place. If alarms had been handled differently, if, if, if. There are more companies involved than BP and more people involved than work for BP. That is the truth. It will take the next 10 years to determine all the liability and where it falls. It would be stupid for BP to hand over to the lawyers of those who also may be liable all the fodder they need to make an open and shut case. So while BP has clearly accepted responsibility and is focusing on cleaning it up, they also have to keep in mind that the courts will make a final determination on cause. An intelligent, responsible media would point this dilemma and problem out. But such nuanced reporting doesn’t create compelling headlines needed to get eyes on the page and advertising rates up.

Once again, I am in agreement with Eric Dezenhall, even though I think the reporter seemed to miss his point. Dezenall said in the NYT article: “The two things that are very hard to survive are hypocrisy and ridicule,” Mr. Dezenhall says. “It’s the height of arrogance to assume that in the middle of a crisis the public yearns for chestnuts of wisdom from people they want to kill. The goal is not to get people not to hate them. It’s to get people to hate them less.”

The public–in a very broad generalization–hates BP. But they hate Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Citgo and all the rest. These companies and the people who run them are the poster children for planet despoilers. They are fouling our atmosphere, causing global warming, forcing us to buy SUVs to take them to the next protest rally. The public’s hypocrisy in their animosity to these companies is of course too obvious to comment on. I have complained for years at the terrible job the oil industry has done in addressing this public sentiment. But when you do something like spill an almost endless amount of oil into a body of water terribly important to fish and people, it is not going to make people like you or the industry any better. When you add the kind of coverage we have seen on this spill–coverage based on competition for eyes–it heaps on the outrage.

So what does this mean for crisis communication of the future?

I’ll repeat my old mantra: Trust is based on two things–do the right things and communicate about them well.

BP did the wrong thing by whatever they did to contribute to this event happening. That is done. What they can do now that they have finally stopped the leak, is continue to do all they can to clean it up and make it right with the people they have harmed. They are doing that and I’m confident they will continue to do that. And they need to communicate well. They need to make certain the world and the American people know what they are doing. In communicating that, they have some very significant obstacles–the media and the politicians who use the media for their own agendas. In my mind (and since I do some work for them I have so advised them) they need to be much, much more agresssive in challenging the kind of coverage that we have seen. They need to correct the facts and mis-information, and challenge the spin that media reports put on the bare facts of this response.

Will it end their reputation problems? Heck no. At best what they can look for is earning the respect of the millions of people in the Gulf that they are working with closely day to day. From that almost one-on-one trust and relationship building, the world will begin to see that there are good people here, doing their best to make things right.

Communicating well in this era of hyper-competitive major news outlets is increasingly going direct with your message. When BP began to advertise nationally that the public could get information directly from the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com website, it was a smart thing to do. It doubled the website traffic overnight. It was smart because people going direct for information had a different view than those who only got their info from the media. However, the value of this was minimized for BP when the Unified Command communication’s became a platform for White House talking points and the primary talking point was that BP was only doing what they were doing because of a boot on their neck.

Crisis communication of the future is going to be increasingly technology-driven and increasingly direct. The event website, social media channels, live video feeds, 24/7 “broadcasting” from the response will be the primary means by which the public gets its information. Sure, bloggers will spin the information according to their agendas and all news outlets will be recognized as the same as bloggers. The communicators for the response will not allow rumors, misinformation, Rolling Stone-type hyperbole to go unchallenged. The communication channels provided by the responders will be a place of lively public debate about the truth. And those providing the information will be committed above all to credibility, to being believed, to provided the unvarnished truth regardless of its damage to them. The news outlets, desperately fighting for audiences, will have a hard time creating salacious headlines in that kind of truth-filled environment.