Posts Tagged ‘crisis communication’

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.

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The future of crisis communication–the discussion

April 19, 2010

My questions and suggestions on the future of crisis communication raised some eyebrows, including at Ragan Communications who is re-publishing an edited (improved) version of my last crisisblogger post. I really appreciate the discussion that ensued on crisisblogger and would like to address a few very interesting points.

Patrice Cloutier and Donald Hamilton both make the very important point that a crisis communication manager (or PIO) have a very important role to play in managing the response. Hamilton puts it this way:

Organizational leaders tend to be operations or financial experts with an occasional lawyer thrown in. Not surprisingly, they do not think like communicators and seldom focus on the fact that the organization’s reputation is ultimately more important than this or that lawsuit, the urgent restoration of production capacity or next month’s stock price.

The crisis communicator’s job is to remind them of this and to assure that authoritative, repeat authoritative, information and context are made available to all relevant audiences with the greatest possible speed.

I completely agree. In training we just completed last week at our office with PIOs and communication leaders from several major organizations, I emphasized this point exactly. The goal of a response is to build trust and it depends on two things–taking the right actions and communicating well. The communicator must help response managers to understand what actions are “right” actions from the point of view of the critical audiences because ultimately they will be the judges of the response and will make the decisions about whether the leaders and the organization deserve their trust.

Commenter J.D. hit the nail on the head: If the crisis manager is one who only shares information, crafts messages and writes releases, then the future has already passed him by. Perhaps a decade ago. And perhaps that was Gerald’s point?

Exactly my point. But I work with communicators, PIOs and leaders of organizations every day where this needs this message needs to be continually repeated. We are still fighting today’s public information battles with old strategies and outdated technologies. Until communicators and their leaders understand how much the world has changed, the same mistakes will be repeated.

The job of the crisis communicator today isn’t so much put out a press release and then do some on camera interviews. It is much more about listening, evaluating, advising, and participating in the swirl of information and discussion about the event.

Behind the Scenes at the Austin Plane Crash–an exercise in virtual communication response

March 4, 2010

On the Frontline of a Virtual Communication Response—The Austin Plane Crash

For several in days in February the major news story was the crash of a small plane into a building in Austin, Texas. This is the kind of event that is discussed here on this blog all the time and I was fortunate to have a front row seat of sorts to the public communication and news coverage of this particular event.

The City of Austin, specifically the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is a new client having recently implemented our crisis communication system. While the agency’s website was set up on this platform and ready to roll, the agency’s PIO had little experience in working with the system. To make matters worse she, like several others from the office were in San Antonio for the Homeland Security conference.

I was sitting in a meeting in Houston when I was called out and informed that there was a plane crash into a building in Austin. The initial information we received, not from the City, was that the building may have housed FBI offices. The specter of a terrorist attack was immediately raised. We made contact with the PIO who was on her way back to Austin from San Antonio. We quickly informed her of the information that was being broadcast and that was coming via Twitter. She confirmed some of the information from her sources and we placed an initial statement on the City’s OEM website—from Houston.

For the next day and half we continued in almost continual contact and pushed out a total of nine information releases. Since the city staff were out of their offices and away from their normal tools and systems, they could not push the information to their normal media lists. But we quickly built an up-to-date media list of all Austin media and distributed the releases to them. These were in addition to the almost 400 contacts of Austin area agency contacts and other officials that had been built into the platform.

There were several times during the incident that we were able to report back through the PIO new information that was emerging on Twitter. This information would quickly find its way into the news coverage which had geared up with remarkable speed.

The various agencies from the City of Austin soon formed a Joint Information Center using the OEM site as the focus of new information. News reports began to reflect a coordinated flow of information from the City. Clearly the most significant communication came from the several press conferences held at the scene of the crash and fire. But the PIO was able to maintain the relevant information on the website by calling us from the press conference and we would quickly add and update the information on the site. Plus the agency was able to very quickly and efficiently distribute updates on the fast breaking situation to the media as well as to numerous agency leaders and others in the Austin community.

I say “we” because those involved in supporting Austin remotely during this event included Kevin Boxx, VP PIER Systems and Timothy O’Leary, my colleague at O’Briens’s Response Management. Direct support was also provided by Sandra Salazar, PIER’s Project Manager located in Houston who was at a different location than we were. Geoff Baron at PIER’s HQ in Bellingham, WA also provided direct assistance.

Some key learnings from this event:

–       Austin Police and Fire have received some strong kudos for their fast and effective crisis communication during this event—both from people within the community and from experts outside observing.

–       Virtual communication operation, or the Virtual JIC, does indeed work as has been demonstrated in other events. But this event was particularly telling because of the speed of information flow between the PIO and those on the scene and those operating remotely to keep the updates going.

–       Twitter and other social media are no doubt driving the information about an event of this nature. Reports coming from Twitter were almost concurrent with the event as some early “tweets” were from people witnessing the event as it occurred.

–       Major media use Twitter and other social media as primary sources of news. When you see “reports” or “eye witness reports” in the media coverage do not think it is that they have talked to someone directly but are likely getting it from the many tweets or posts on the internet.

–       The initial reports are virtually certain to be wrong—that is the nature of the internet and witnesses commenting from their perspective and speculating. But it is quite amazing to see how the online community sorts things out and gets to the facts faster than you would imagine.

–       Where it used to be that official sources would be the primary focus of the media’s interest a quick review of the media coverage will show that a primary interest of the media is to talk to eyewitnesses—often those same people who are reporting what they see or know (or speculations) via the internet.

–       PIOs and public officials have to scramble very, very hard to keep up with, let alone try to get ahead of, this kind of instant information coming from so many sources. As the official source of the news about the event, their primary role becomes rumor management—correct false information as it emerges—rather than focusing on being the first with the news.

Congratulations are due to Candice Wade and the team at Austin for a job well done in very difficult circumstances.

A Fire Chief asks: Does ICS stand for “Information Communications Standstill”?

March 1, 2010

I’ve know Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd for almost ten years–ever since we worked together on the Olympic Pipeline explosion, the event that got me into this crisis communication business. Since then I’ve not only come to respect him for his leadership skills and Incident Command capabilities, but for his deep and personal experience with managing information in this instant news/social media world. Bill was a Public Information Officer before he became chief, but more than that as Chief he has set some high standards for effective public information management including during the H1N1 crisis and the massive floods last year in the Pacific Northwest.

I asked Bill to speak Incident Commander to Incident Commander about the realities of today’s information environment. I hope advice, earned through hard experience, will be passed on to every Incident Commander, executive, fire chief, police chief and anyone else who will make decisions during a major event. (By the way, for those not familiar with ICS, it stands for Incident Command System, otherwise now known as NIMS or National Incident Management System. It requires Command approval of all information before release and consequently can substantially slow information distribution without taking Bill’s advice.)
Chief Bill Boyd:

Does ICS stand for “Information Communications Standstill”?

As I am typing this my Twitter monitoring site is logging messages by the second about the huge earthquake off the coast of Chile.  I am looking at pictures and comments from earthquake survivors, their relatives and others monitoring this disaster within seconds of being posted.  The speed and amount of information being disseminated right now is staggering, and I am contributing to this situation by relaying pertinent information to my followers through Facebook, Twitter and PIER Systems (which also posts immediately to my city’s internet news web site).

This unfolding and widespread crisis highlights the importance of strategic agility, speed and accuracy in disseminating information during a high visibility emergency event.  As a Fire Chief and Incident Commander for a regional incident management team, I recognize the need to immediately implement and use all available information tools and resources to push accurate information out to the public. How many of you with Incident Commander responsibility understand this?

The days of  a Public Information Officer (PIO) sitting down at a computer and generating a two paragraph media release a couple of times a day, and an interview here and there are gone.   If you still think this is all the PIO really has to do then you might as well give them an old typewriter and carbon paper. As an IC, I “define the box” the PIO will operate within (giving them the flexibility and boundaries to immediately release information without me having to approve it).  The IC needs to immediately set policy, validate key real time message concepts and then do the most important thing- let the PIO loose to do their job.  As an IC in this day and age, I can ill afford to get further behind the information dissemination curve (assuming we are already behind thanks to social media, camera cell phones, etc…).

This also means PIOs must be skilled in creating short messages, and relaying them in the most succinct way (how would you relay an evacuation order on Twitter?).  In the major events I have been involved with over the years, this type of messaging was not available.  Now, it is the preferred method of communication by many.  Yet, it remains foreign to many in the emergency response community.

IC’s need to wake up and realize the impact of the explosive growth of social media and the resulting expectation for immediate and accurate information.  If the public does not get it from Incident Command they will get it from somewhere else, relay inaccurate information and/or undermine your authority by venting their frustrations about lack of information.

Hey PIOs! How prepared are you in quickly shaping and distributing messages during a dynamic crisis event?  If you are still using the “media release” tool as your primary method of distributing information, I suggest signing up for a free social media site and see how people are really communicating news and information.  It is time for those of us with incident command authority to not only recognize the power of these tools and the resulting culture change, but more importantly take the steps to establish policy, secure training, and prepare to quickly deploy these tools during a crisis event.

The smartphone–the most disruptive technology?

January 7, 2010

In discussing or contemplating the future of crisis communication, the focus inevitably turns to the mobile phone. Sort of what Bill Gates said a few years ago about technology. If you look ahead the next year won’t look like a lot of change, but in five years it will hardly be recognizable. Of course, that’s a probably inaccurate paraphrase. But it is clear that the smart phone has resulted in more change than almost anything else, certainly since the introduction of the PC and the internet.

Thanks to frequent crisisblogger reader William, here’s a great summary of the changes brought about by the smartphone. It has already transformed crisis communication. Here’s one quick example. The question often posed for us involved in web-based communication was, what happens in large scale events where power and infrastructure is destroyed. In Hurricane Ike, Houston and region was without power for a long time–some areas for 2 weeks. Yet, during this time and especially during the worst of the storm, internet use was extremely high. The crisis sites we hosted for 12 different organizations took over 14 million hits in a few days. Why? Smartphones. Our staff in Houston, like many others, were using smartphones as their primary communication device. Certainly calling when cell service was available. But texting, and accessing the internet continuously. When the batteries died, they went to their cars and charged them up.

For crisis communicators it is essential to understand that if it is not true already it will soon be true that most will get the info you want to get to them by their smartphones. That’s why text messaging and text-to-voice automated calling have become so important today. Audiences will also interact with you by phone–not just by email, but by text and especially by their preferred social media platforms which are now the most popular apps on smartphones. That’s how they want to communicate with you and they don’t really give a rat’s behind about how you prefer to communicate with them–it’s the nature of audiences and customers. As Burger King taught us, they want it their way.

As important as communicating via smartphones is the need to be able to control your communications via smartphone. Can you access all your contacts via your smartphone? Can you track who is asking questions? Can you develop and send releases? Can you manage your web content and your social media channels via your smart phone? These technologies are now available or soon to be available and if you are not using them, you will find once again that Now is too late.

Top PR Blunders Involve Social Media and the Internet

December 23, 2009

Fineman PR out of San Francisco has published its top ten list of PR blunders for 2009. I did some analysis of some of the items on the list at emergencymgmt.com, but I just read this interview with Fineman PR head Michael Fineman and his advice is definitely worth passing on.

Here are a couple of gems: “Social media and the whole online space have changed the dynamics of communications. In our society today, you have to understand that anything you say on the record can go out millions instantly. You can’t underestimate the power of that—and you have to understand that you need your own communications to help offset any negativity you experience on the Internet.”

On the importance of Googling: Fineman says that, too often, “The only way people look for your business is by Googling you. If they come up with negative links, it’s not good.” This is the exact reason, Fineman says, that “organizations have to tell their story well on the Web.”

What’s the biggest mistake in social media use in crises?

“Slow response time. In the case of Dominoes, for example, you can’t allow a video that ugly to go on for two days without responding. Ultimately, Dominoes eventually handled it effectively. But the images they allowed to run online for two days without any response did a lot of damage. They underestimated the power and impact of YouTube.”

The only area I disagreed with Fineman was in his reference to having a webmaster as part of your crisis team. The webmasters for the most part come from IT and respond only to IT managers. For the most part in my experience they do not have the sense of urgency, the chain of command, or the mentality to truly be part of a crisis response team that has minutes to respond, not weeks. Communication technologies are very available today to give non-tech savvy communicators the full power of the internet, including managing content instantly, distribution of content in multiple modes, managing interactions and inquiries, and monitoring everything out there in traditional and social media. Communicators should demand nothing less because it is essential to meet the demands that Fineman so eloquently expresses.

What YouTube Direct means for the post-media world

November 23, 2009

The movement toward a true post-mainstream media world took another big leap forward with the announcement last week of YouTube Direct. There’s been lots of talk, including on this blog, about how the 300 million plus people walking around with smartphones are the electronic newsgathering network of today. And how the news outlets such as CNN and CBS and trying increasingly hard to tap into this network of citizen journalists. YouTube brilliantly just made it a lot easier. While I confess I haven’t looked at it in detail it looks a bit like combining YouTube downloading capability with some HARO (Help a Reporter Out) functionality. So someone with a cell video camera can capture something stunning like Tom Cruise jumping on a couch over his new love or houses floating by on a flooded river and immediately post that to YouTube, where it can the be easily accessed by media, bloggers or anyone else to share. Also, those looking for video on specific topics can request it or search and those with them can submit directly. That seems to be the idea as I understand it.

What this means of course is more access by anyone who is interested to the videos and information they want.  The implications for crisis and emergency management professionals is significant. Now more than ever when you respond, the story will be told already. The chances of getting the first word in are remote–unless you completely control the exposure, such as if you are David Letterman and decide you will reveal the sordid facts and not leave it to someone else. If you don’t control the first hint of what is going on, then by the time you can respond, the world–at least those most interested–will be already receiving a stream of relevant info. The real question for crisis managers and emergency responders is how do you manage an event when everyone who cares very well knows more than you do? That to me is the big question that we will be struggling with in the coming years.

Crisis management–putting your ears to work

November 2, 2009

I’ve been talking for some time about the rapidly growing role of monitoring as a critical part of crisis communication. Also been saying in presentations that social media and the online conversation is where so many people are going to get their information. That crisis communicators need to understand at best they will participate and the days of control over the information flow are over.

Being involved in a fairly major event in the past week has brought these lessons home. We are using a variety of means to monitor what is going on–everything from PIER MediaTools to view and clip media including broadcast, to Google Alerts, to Twitscoop.

A few quick observations.

1) Media monitoring shows a tremendous amount of media activity but a lot of it is from the fact that media are now major players in social media with their news websites. All print media as well as broadcast use their news sites heavily which makes for a lot of traffic, frequent updates, and a tremendous amount of linking by interested viewers via their blogs and Twitter accounts.

2) Local is global. This is a fairly localized event with only a smattering of national media attention, but the conversation is global. Those interested (or passionate) about topics involved are going to be jumping into the conversation heavily and will keep it going as long as it of interest.

3) People learn from each other. It’s fascinating watching the online conversation and see many of the same news stories or comments showing up over and over on different sites. It’s one of the reasons this monitoring is so important because invariably some get the facts wrong and unless the correct information is readily available or the wrong info is quickly challenged, it does not take long for it to become accepted. The only saying about a lie repeated often enough becoming the truth takes on new urgency in the viral world of social media because it can be repeated a hundred or thousand times in mere minutes or hours.

4) The conversation was always there–but now you can hear it. That is something that really strikes me about a big change in communications and crisis management. All major events stirred lots of conversation–dinner table, office chat, in bars and restaurants, wherever people gather. Except now they don’t gather to have conversations, they do it by text, tweets, blogs, comments, all kinds of social media. And that means you can listen in on a lot of those conversations. Sometimes it seems its like the roar of too much conversation in an overcrowded bar. But if you focus in a little, you can hear fascinating things. And these can give you great insight into how things are turning, what the concerns are, what questions need to be answered, what information is going sideways, etc. In other words, the conversation will drive the communication response as much or maybe more in some cases than the events of the response itself.

5) Participate–not control. It’s is still very difficult for most response leaders and those who have been in public communication for a long time to really grasp this. In this world of heightened conversation, you don’t control the information. At best, you participate. But you do this by providing a continuous feed of of relevant, up to date information about what is going on. You can’t participate if you insist on sticking to a one press release a day strategy. And you can’t participate by putting all your eggs in the press conference basket–as important as it is. You participate by being the best, most reliable source for what is really happening. Then, you will find, as did in this incident, that soon your website will be given shortened url and sent around the twittersphere and blogosphere as the fastest, most relevant source of what is going on.

How social media is changing emergency and crisis communication

October 19, 2009

I blogged on this at emergencymgmt.com which is my blog more focused on government communication and emergency management. But, it may be of more general interest to those involved in crisis communication so, here it is. It’s my crisis management take-off on an excellent post by Soren Gordhamer on the five ways social media has changed our lives.

Comments on Peter Shankman’s Comments

October 8, 2009

Peter Shankman is a “rockstar” in the social media world. By that I mean he is one of the few celebrity speakers to emerge (and I’m tweaking him because he begged not to be called a rockstar anymore). I’m in Houston speaking at the PRSA Houston conference and this is the second time in a year my presentation has immediately followed Mr. Shankman’s. The first was in Las Vegas last March at the Ragan/PRSA Social Media conference.

First, I want to say that he was a keynoter on both of these and I was a lowly breakout speaker–so I don’t want anyone to interpret my comments as bitterness, not one little bit, well, maybe. Fact is, Peter is a very entertaining, highly energetic speaker with some serious social media pioneering chops (one of first to work for AOL for example) and he says some important and intriguing things about social media and where things are going.

(By the way, I’m a fan of HARO and think he did a brilliant and good thing for reporters and PR people alike.)

The fundamental things he talks about (I think, since he talks so fast that a lot of older people like me have a hard time following even though in this case I was only a few feet away from him) I agree with when it comes to analysis of social media and where it is going. But on almost everything else of importance I disagree.

For example, social media is not mostly about getting dates, nor is life mostly about searching for your next girlfriend. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion listening to him (and I’ve heard him twice now give essentially the same presentation) that his life revolves around sitting on airplanes (320,000 air miles this year? Yikes, I agree with your then girlfriend Peter who said get a life!) and finding his next conquest. And its hard not to conclude that for him that’s where social media is largely focused–the examples he provided whether defining advertising vs, public relations or how the emerging “one network” idea all lend credence to this focus.

I also fundamentally and strongly disagree with him that if you are not tweeting a thousand times during his presentation you obviously don’t give a crap about building your brand, or if you don’t have 15,000 fans on your facebook page and you’re not spending the early hours of every morning sending happy birthday messages to everyone you know, you have no clue what social media is all about. Peter, not everyone is a worldclass connector like you are, not everyone has time for this kind of activity and some of us treasure quality time with a few longtime friends rather than trying to build connections with strangers all over the planet.

And I most clearly disagree with him about David Letterman and Governor Sanford. His view, and he professes to speak for all of New York on this, is that no one will think ill of Mr. Letterman’s or Mr. Sanford’s behavior and since Letterman did such an admirable job of honestly and transparently dealing with his creepiness (Letterman’s words, not mine) that the world will rush to forgive him. Also that the entire public relations community should look at this as a wonderful example of crisis communication.

I blogged on this on emergencymgmt.com and I couldn’t disagree more. There are some like Peter whose moral values include the view that it is not only not wrong to sleep with anyone who consents, that there is something honorable about it. And that includes those who have made promises to their spouses in an ancient and clearly outdated institution called marriage. As I recall, the wedding vows still state that faithfulness and commitment are a pretty normal part of this arrangement. It also appears in New York or in Shankman’s view of it, that it perfectly appropriate for a superior in an organization to use that position to influence the “consent.” Even if you take a different view of morality than me, it is hard in this age where sexual harassment is illegal and broadly defined, that Mr. Letterman is going to escape some very reasonable accusations here. But to Shankman, all this is normal, reasonable, expected and I sense even honorable.

I asked the group I presented to right after Mr. Shankman finished what they thought of his presentation. They were enthralled–such is his attraction as a presenter (and why he gets the keynote invitations). But when I mentioned that I didn’t see eye to eye with him on the issues I just raised and mentioned that I have been gratefully married to the same beautiful woman for 36 years and hope to continue on the rest of my life, I received warm applause.

So I suspect there are more than a few fuddy duddies like me who think that Letterman is a very funny and talented creep. And that social media has more to offer society than the fast hookup.

Note–after posting this I noted the pingback on my earlier blog about Letterman’s future. I agree and wish I could have said it so creatively.