Tesla provides classic example of how to head off bad news

If I had a top ten list of PR models, it would be Tesla and Elon Musk. He got a bum review in the New York Times and his damage control strategy was to demonstrate that the reviewer was less than honest. I thought no way could he win that battle. He did. The US government, typical of government-by-headline, launched a safety investigation against the cars after a battery fire caused lurid news stories. What did Tesla do? Used the opportunity to make it clear to the world just how safe their cars actually are. Lemons to lemonade. (I blogged on these stories earlier–just enter Tesla in the search on this blog).

Speaking of lemons, a “Lemon Law” lawsuit was about to be filed against them, presumably for failure to address a customers concerns. Do they meekly wait for the news headlines to hit, then say, we are very sorry we failed to meet this customers expectations and will do better next time? Heck no. They scewer the guy and his slime ball attorney (I’m making my judgment on this attorney strictly on the basis of the information provided by Tesla.

I would consider their blogpost on this lawsuit to be a classic in aggressive reputation management. It should be must reading for everyone in PR in my humble opinion. (By way, I just asked my broker to buy some Tesla stock. I like how they operate when facing trouble.)

A bad story is coming out…now what do you do?

You got a call from a reporter asking for your comment about an issue you were afraid might see the light of day. So, you know they’re onto it and going to run something.

This is a fairly common situation and unfortunately for PR and crisis comms consultants, this is often when you get the call from the client. No time to lose, but what is the strategy?

My thoughts on this were prompted by PR Daily’s post today on “Five Ways to Respond to Bad Press Before the Story Runs.” I have great regard for Brad Phillips, who wrote the post and the book: “The Media Training Bible.”

Now, if crisis communications was still just about managing the media, four of Phillips’ five suggestions would be perfectly right. But I think we passed that time some time ago. This is the age of the Internet, of direct engagement, of social media, of multiple channels and the more direct the better. This is the age of you are the broadcaster. This is no longer the age of begging and pleading with the media to get it right, and as Elon Musk showed, this is the age when it does make sense to enter a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

So New York Times is going to write a story and you know its not going to be pretty. Now is the time to tell your story straight ahead to those people who matter most to your future. Tell the unvarnished truth. Did you screw up? Fess up. Is the reporter twisting the facts to conform to a pre-conceived narrative (nah, never happens). Then say where things went wrong.

If you don’t have a way of directly reaching those most important to you (phone, email, text, social media) in time to beat the NYT’s press schedule then you should fix that critical problem right now, because, as they say, now is too late.

I’ve been beating this “you are the broadcaster” and “go direct” and “be fast and be first” themes for, oh about 14 years now and most of the time I think, jeez enough already, they get it. But then I see this or talk to a client and realize that while the world has changed, the basic thinking about crisis management has not changed nearly as much.

So, the drum beat continues.

Chevron’s publication of community news causes a stir

“You are the broadcaster,” or “you are the publisher” has been a favorite theme of mine since 2002 when the first edition of Now Is Too Late was published. It is the recognition that the Internet provides the opportunity for those making the news to go direct to audiences and circumvent (to some degree) the traditional media. Media, after all, are intermediaries, and not always so friendly to those making the news. So, go direct.

Chevron in Richmond, California (near San Francisco) launched a community newspaper called the Richmond Standard. According to Chevron’s PR agency leader, the paper was established to fill a void left by the demise of a local newspaper. However, the launch has created a mini-storm of controversy.

This story in O’Dwyer’s notesMM criticizes Chevron for “continuing a disturbing history of using propaganda disguised as news to promote its corporate efforts.”

Apparently there are a number of other publications in Richmond but they tend toward the “progressive” end of the spectrum. And they don’t like Chevron getting in the publication business one little bit: Andres Soto of the Richmond Progressive Alliance puts it more bluntly. “Richmond Standard is a pseudo online newspaper to try to counteract info that’s coming out in La Voz, the Pulse and the Bay View. It’s part of their mass propaganda campaign to try to influence the democratic process in Richmond.”

Reminds me a lot of my hometown. It had (still has) a number of independent publications that were openly and stridently on the left side of the political divide. Even the daily was seen as left-of-center by a very left-of-center populace. Working with a business-oriented group on the other side, we launched a publication called Better Community Solutions. Holy moly, what a stink that was. The attacks got ridiculously personal even though our approach was positive and non-emotional. Of course, the fact that the funding for our publication came from business interests meant to those attacking it that it was tainted by ugly profits regardless of anything wise we may say.

But the question here isn’t one group or the other wanting to stifle the voice of those holding different views (that’s a big topic in itself.) The question is is Chevron’s move a good idea?

I believe it is. Those opposing Chevron and its refinery in Richmond will object to anything and everything said by the company. A community newspaper could become an important and valuable vehicle as a platform for community discussion on important issues. But the success of this, ironically, depends on Chevron not using it for propaganda purposes, not being overtly or heavy handed in any way in promoting its position on specific issues. You can say, then why do it?

The opportunity was well stated by one resident of the community in this article by newsamerica: “It’s obviously an outlet for Chevron by Chevron, but as long as that’s clear—and I think it is—I don’t see a problem with it.” Hunziker said he sees a need for more balance in the papers currently circulating. Unlike Smith, who sees Chevron as the loudest voice in the room, Hunziker said he feels bombarded by progressive messaging. “Most of the yelling is being done on the far left. I think it’s important that people in the center start standing up.”

Stakeholder engagement is and should be a top priority for almost any organization with public license to operate issues (which means almost everyone). Funding and running a community newspaper is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but may be a valuable part of an engagement strategy mix. It will be interesting to watch how long this paper lasts and how it evolves.

Can cyberattacks improve your reputation?

Think Target and the hit it took when hackers stole the private information of millions, requiring many to update credit cards and the like. It’s a disaster that most executives believe will happen to them–not if, but when. So, that makes it even more amazing to find out that most executives think, according a study published in the Economist, that two thirds of CEOs think a good response to such an attack will enhance their reputation.

PRNewser from mediabistro reporting on the Economist story notes that while 66% think they will come out of such an event smelling like a rose, only 17% surveyed say they are “fully prepared.”

Hootsuite, perhaps the best social media management and monitoring tool that I know of, today experienced a hack attack in the form of a Denial of Service attack. One client emailed me Ryan Holmes’ response. The CEO of Hootsuite was fast, empathetic, transparent and almost completely on target. (Only thing missed in my mind was an apology, but perhaps he felt there was nothing to apologize for and he may be right).

A couple of things stand out to me in this new arena of crisis communication:

- CEO’s seem to get the idea that fast, transparent communication can actually enhance a reputation even when customers/stakeholders have been hurt

- There seems to be quite a gap between the confidence displayed and the level of preparation. That is surprising. I would think the confidence would come after preparation, not before.

- The reality (certainty?) of this kind of crisis seems to be quite well accepted.

Now, we will see how it all turns out. My prediction: Another Target-type hacking will occur and the press and social media pundits will be better positioned to blame the company. “They knew it was coming but did not take the steps they needed to to prevent it–it was profits above people all over again.” Then, the crisis communication game really begins.

Oracle’s media access policy in serious need of updating

Shel Holtz blogged today about Oracle firing of social selling executive Jill Rowley who claims she was fired for giving an unauthorized interview to AdAge magazine.  Shel suggests, and I agree, that there seems to be more to this story than an errant interview.

But it raises once again the issue of media access. What’s your policy? Having reviewed dozens of crisis communication plans in the last few years, I have yet to find one that conforms to what I believe is the norm following the media access controversy during Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Here’s what happened as I understand it: Reporters went out on the beaches and where spill response activity was happening and tried to interview responders. They were told they were not to speak to the media. The media understood this to be another of evil BP’s efforts to stifle and cover up–despite the fact that BP was not running, nor involved in the public communication effort at this time. It was the White House dictating media access policy. But when one veteran Coast Guard PIO tried to clarify that it was White House policy, not BP, he was promptly sacked. Pressure grew to the point where National Incident Commander Thad Allen issued a media policy carried by all PIOs (which is how I saw it). It said, again as I recall, the policy is to provide maximum access with minimum delay, consistent with safety and with not interfering with response operations. It further said that all responders are authorized to speak to the media providing they restrict their comments to their own area of responsibility.

Previously I had heard from Coast Guard PIOs that Allen as Commandant of the Coast Guard had implemented that policy for the entire Coast Guard. One senior Coast Guard official, given the White House’s desire to control the message, expressed doubts whether that policy would continue to stand. I suspect, but do not know, that it still stands in some form, but with the understanding that the leash is pretty tight.

Given all this, I have advised everyone I know to look at their media access policy in this light. Recognize first of all that if you have the media’s black hat on, there will be heightened sensitivity to any and all indications of cover-up, controlling the message or lack of transparency. When one of your employees responds to a reporter’s question with “we were told by top management we can’t talk to you” that is blood in the water to the shark.  If you do hold to a spokesperson only policy, then make certain you include in your refer and defer training (employee training on how to respond to reporter questions by referring to authorized spokesperson) use of a better response. Such as, “I’d love to help you with that, but I just don’t have the information you are looking for, so let me help you find the person who can answer that for you.” This is a little tough when all the reporter wants is an emotion-laden visual response when he/she asks the question: “How do you personally feel about this tragedy?”

The best policy and one I consistently advise, is to adopt Admiral Allen’s policy of maximum access with minimum delay, consistent with safety and no interference with the response.  Every employee or contractor is a spokesperson–but with the restriction of limiting what they say to their own area of responsibility. That is where much of the focus of media training should be today.

 

Crisis wisdom from Richard Nixon

Dartmouth professor of corporate communications, Paul Argenti, wrote an interesting and useful blog on Harvard’s HBR Blog on crisis communication. Specifically, it looks at GM’s CEO Mary Barra and how she is dealing with the inherited crisis of the current ignition switch recalls.

This is a concise and very useful summary of the key crisis communication principles–some of which I saw put to use to very good effect recently on a situation where I was a close observer.

At the very end, Professor Argenti quotes Richard Nixon from his famous Checkers Speech.  Nixon:

 “The easiest period in a crisis situation is actually the battle itself. The most difficult is the period of indecision—whether to fight or run away. And the most dangerous period is the aftermath.  It is then, with all his resources spent and his guard down, that an individual must watch out.”

Not sure truer words about crises have been spoken.

 

The hardest part of communications

Reflecting on some of the most recent crises I’ve been involved in as an advisor, I asked: what am I really contributing?

I concluded by far the most valuable contribution was an outside perspective. Looking at the event and issues from the viewpoint of the customer, the stakeholder, the reporter, the victim, the detached observer. It is often very difficult for even the best communicators who are deeply embroiled in a problem to maintain that outside perspective. It’s the main reason why I think it is probably essential that your crisis communication plan include a qualified person completely outside your organization.

I worked on a plan for a major oil company a few years ago and saw in their plan the role of a Communications Advisor. In their case, it was intended for a specific PR expert who had a strong relationship with the President. But, it struck me as such a good idea I have built that role into almost every plan I have worked on since then. The responsibility of that person is to maintain a 30,000 foot view, maintain contact with stakeholders outside the organization, and represent an honest, objective and uninformed perspective.

I say uninformed because there are always so many good reasons to not do what is needed. We can’t do this because our lawyers say we can’t, because we had such and such problem in the past, because the union leaders would have a hissy fit, because senior management doesn’t like so and so–whatever the reason. They are powerful obstacles but the outside perspective says: it doesn’t matter. It has to be done.

I’ve often said being a consultant is the best job for someone like me because I have so little to lose. Sure, I can get fired, but after about three plus decades I’ve gotten some confidence I can get another gig. I don’t have my future tied to relationships within the organization, to political sides, to protecting anything. Therefore I can be honest, even undiplomatic (which seems to come too naturally to me).

The hardest part of communication is taking a three foot jump from your skin to that of the person or people you are talking to. If you do look at the situation with their eyes, all the “yeah, but…” excuses melt away. All the obstacles that look insurmountable become hurdles that must be bowled over.

The purpose of suggesting this is not to sell my services or even other crisis consultants (I’m plenty busy enough right now, thanks very much). It is rather to point out that the first thing you learn in your very first communication class should be learning to think like the one you are communicating with. But, as foundational as the”you attitude” is, it remains the biggest obstacle to effective communication and the very hardest part of this job.

 

 

Benton County (WA) PUD demonstrates what is expected in admission of error

Admitting you messed up and hurt someone or something is one of the biggest dilemmas in crisis communication. Your lawyers are screaming you can’t do it because its an admission of guilt and will kill you in court. The public is thinking–let’s see what these folks are made of. They messed up and now they won’t accept responsibility or are trying to blame someone else. The media, of course, plays the blame game right from the start and any attempt to duck it almost automatically assures the black hat treatment.

That’s why it is so refreshing to see when the legal concerns are brushed aside and someone just comes out and says, yep, we screwed up and we are really sorry.

That’s the story that is told by Dave Statter of Statter911 about Benton County, Washington, Public Utilities District. A young firefighter almost lost his life because linemen from the district checked the scene, didn’t see a live line, and cleared it for firefighters to enter. The firefighter went into ventricular fibrillation but was rescued by his fellow firefighters and is fine.

I’m guessing (and I certainly hope) that this firefighter understands that the linemen and the District are very sorry, that mistakes happen.  But the sad part about a story like this is that he is likely already being contacted by plaintiff’s attorneys with all kinds of promises about how much they can get him for this accident. The same plaintiff’s attorneys who for years on end have supported candidates who fight tooth and nail to prevent legal reforms that would enable agencies and organizations and doctors to apologize when mistakes are made and not have the apology used against them in court. British Columbia has such a law, some states (Colorado I believe) has a law relating to medical malpractice, and I wish it could be the law of the land.

Would make seeing this kind of apology a lot more common. But, I applaud Benton County for doing the right thing and sincerely hope they do not have to pay for it in court.

 

Harvard study says BP’s “greenwashing” paid off

I greatly object to the obvious bias in this report on the value of “greenwashing.”  According to Wikipedia “greenwashing” is “spin” and deception.

The real point and value of this study about the impact of BP’s pre-spill advertising on its sales and reputation after the 2010 Gulf oil spill is that building reputation equity makes a huge difference when you encounter a major crisis. This is an extremely important point. Not because it supports buying expensive advertising, but because it supports the value of working hard to build reputation and trust before an event.

I call it reputation equity and liken it to a bank account. It’s a fund of goodwill and positive perceptions that will be extremely important when/if you ever face a major reputation crisis. In my other blog at emergencymgmt.com, I suggested that my emphasis in 2014 would be building that reputation equity and suggested some ways to start thinking about that. This report provides academic credence to that position and further encouragement to continue to focus on that part of crisis communication.

Crisis communication is primarily about preparation. If you’re not prepared to deal with it and communicate effectively, it’s almost a matter of just stick your head down and ride out the storm or succumb to it (like Freedom Industries in WV). But preparation is not just about putting a good plan together, creating message maps and all that–those are extremely important of course. Preparation is above all , analyzing your risks and redoubling efforts to prevent bad things from happening and then, working hard to build the trust in your key stakeholders that will be essential if/when you do face a problem.

This study doesn’t provide any information on the relationship building with key stakeholders that I think is the core of a reputation equity effort. But it does show that working hard to communicate who you are with the public prior to an event happening can pay off big time when the big event happens.

About “greenwashing.” I can understand why many believe that BP’s ad campaign “Beyond Petroleum” was deceptive. In one way it was. I don’t think it communicated, as I see with other oil companies such as Shell, that alternative and renewable energy sources are one part of the mix and that petroleum would continue to be essential. But I think this is judging the past from the perspective of the present. Even just a few years ago we were facing “peak oil” and renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal were the future. Nuclear was even getting a new look. Then fracking happened, and Fukushima and now nuclear is once again off the table and the US (amazingly) is set to become an energy exporter–at least until the rest of the world starts getting serious about natural gas. When the Beyond Petroleum campaign started I believe it was aspirational and forward thinking telling the world what BP was and that it was going to be about far more than oil. Is that greenwashing? For some, no doubt, but I think the researchers doing this study are showing their bias. It’s noteworthy that their own conclusion is that the government needs to get involved in investigating environmental claims made by companies.

Yeah, right. Because we little people are too stupid to see through the “greenwashing.” Give me a break.

 

Farmers now have “go to jail jobs” too

(Similar post also published on emergencymgmt.com)

A few years ago, a friend and board member of my company who was an oil industry executive, talked about “go to jail” jobs. He said a lot of senior leadership positions in the oil industry were now jobs that carried the risk of jail time if things went wrong on their watch.

That was borne out in the first major crisis I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline accident. The GM of the pipeline company went to jail for six months. This despite the fact that the accident, like many, was caused by a very strange confluence of a number of factors, many of which he had absolutely no control over and which, if they had changed just a bit, would have prevented the accident from happening.

Now I am shocked, appalled and saddened to find out that farmers also have “go to jail” jobs. This article from NBC News tells about the sentencing of two young Colorado farmers from whose farm tainted cantaloupes emerged that resulted in a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people. The farmers narrowly avoided jail time, instead are sentenced to five years probation and a large fine. The reporter/editor of the article clearly feels this was a gross injustice. Look at the headline and focus of the article.

It is a horrible tragedy that 33 people lost their lives, including the 92 year old “spry” victim whose son is so disappointed in the result. If there was intent, if there was criminal negligence, if there was an established pattern of callous disregard for harming others, I could see the calls for treating these farmers as criminals. But, even this very biased article makes it clear there was no intent, no pattern, no callousness. There was a mistake, or mistakes made. The farmers are called “salt of the earth” types.

I will withhold further comment on the sad state of our justice system, and our society, and the state of our media. Instead, this situation requires the attention of anyone who is in a business or government position where action or inaction could harm others. And that is a lot of you.

First, the lesson clearly is to look at all your plans and procedures and make certain you are doing all you can to prevent such things from happening. That is the value of such a great tragedy and the shocking outcome. Preventive measures will greatly reduce the risk, but not eliminate it. And when, despite your best efforts, something goes horribly wrong, what do you do?

This situation creates a dilemma for crisis communications. In the pipeline accident the company was “lawyered up” to the max. But, it made sense despite the severe impact on reputation. The company went bankrupt, but gasoline continues to flow through the pipe. Now farmers and others have to look at the legal implications when something goes wrong. A sincere apology with acceptance of responsibility is absolutely necessary to avoid turning the media and public against you. And a highly negative public atmosphere is just what a plaintiff’s attorney or prosecuting attorney wants when selecting a jury. So, it makes sense to be transparent, empathetic and forthcoming. But, such admission in our great nation, is going to be used against you in court. So, you end up walking a very fine line–or saying nothing.

There are two preventive measures to consider right now. One, we already talked about, which is preventing bad things from happening. The other, recognizing that all risks can’t be eliminated, is building reputation equity before something bad happens. I commented on this on Rich Klein’s “The Crisis Show” last week looking at the very different press coverage and social media comment about Freedom Industries vs. International Nutrition. Both had tragedies–one of them involving fatalities. But it was the company without the fatalities that took by far the greatest beating. It’s worthwhile looking at why that may be.

Innovative thinking on today's crisis communication challenges