Archive for the 'Crisis Communicator' Category

I don’t normally allow bad language on my blog, but here’s an exception

September 29, 2010

I was quite surprised to see that Josh Simpson, the instant-celebrity social media hero behind the fake BP twitter account, commenting on my post about his new found fame courtesy of ABC. Whoa, the famous is paying attention to my comments about his efforts to demean and belittle BP (full disclosure once more–BP is a client).

For some strange reason I get the impression that Mr. Simpson did not like my suggestion regarding his new career. Obviously wishing to trade on his sudden fame to launch a Twitter account aimed at exposing corporations who act irresponsibly. Now remember, this is the guy who set up a twitter account intended to fool people into thinking it was from BP’s PR department. I modestly, and with a tongue slightly in my cheek, suggested there might be room for a twitter account to poke fun of irresponsible commedians. Apparently, that makes me a pickledick. Plus, a few other choice words.

Mr. Simpson, if you can’t take the social media heat, what the heck are you doing in the kitchen. And by the way, this blog is my house and I don’t allow that kind of language here. I’m an old guy so I can say that sort of thing.


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.

Thinking about resilience

September 21, 2010

I suppose this is a bit like sausage being made but at 30 some thousand feet on another too-soon business trip had a little time to think about my presentation coming up for the PRSA International Conference in October. My topic is “Reputation Resilience.” I wanted to take a look at why some companies seem to come through crises pretty well and others seemed to be destroyed by them. This topic was prompted by two things. One is the marketing positioning I helped develop for my employer which focuses on organization and community resilience. The other was reading the book “The Unthinkable” by Amanda Ripley.

Resilience, as I recently wrote in some advertising copy, is all about strength. In fact, it seems it is about ultimate strength. Anyone can survive and look good in good times. It takes a survivor to come through the bad times looking good. And the worst the bad times, the greater the test, the higher the risk, and the more honor so to speak in surviving. As I thought about that, in this year of mega-corporate crises as NYT and Washington Post like to comment on, it is very relevant to talk about and think about corporate resilience and reputation resilience.

The thing that really struck me about Ripley’s book is the personal aspects of survival. Of course, that is what her book is all about–why some people survive disasters and some don’t, whether it is just pure luck or not. Her thesis is it is not always just luck. Some people survive because of who they are, how they react, how they think about things, how they prepare, and ultimately what their personality and character are all about. Some people freeze, become paralyzed. Some people freak out and go running off in all directions at once. Some seem quiet, calm, other-worldly. I remember a friend telling me about his time in the Navy and the ship’s captain. When things were happening that he didn’t think were being taken seriously he would scream and yell and get everyone focused. But when a real emergency hit, he was the center of calm and rationality. A true leader it sounds.

If people are more resilient based on character, personality and values, what about a company or an organization? We used to talk a lot about corporate culture, but is the culture one that will help an organization endure the worst that life can throw at it, or will a much-vaunted culture that thrives when things are groovy serve to help defeat a company or organization when things really hit the fan?

I’m reading Peter Firestein’s excellent book on Crisis of Character and I will write more about that soon when I finish it, but I think it has a lot to say about corporate resilience and reputation resilience. It seems he would agree that there is a link between character and resilience, and certainly would agree that there is a link between the values and character of the leaders and the culture they create. One of the biggest challenges leadership in any organization faces is how to inculcate the core values they hold as critical to the organization’s future throughout an organization that may be global and have employees in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

But, if resilience is the ultimate measure of an organization’s strength and organizational character will have a lot to do with surviving when things get tough, the task of building a culture based on the right values is of the highest importance.

More on this topic as I wrestle through some of these issues. And your thoughts on this much appreciated.

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?

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

August 27, 2010

I blogged recently at 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 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.