Ann Coulter, Al Franken and the use of language

I commented earlier about the anger of bloggers referencing an article in Books and Culture by Alan Jacobs. As company leaders get into the blogging world and respond to those who may be attacking them in the blogging world, they will confront the issue of rhetorical styles.

While there is a great variation in styles in the blogosphere, much comment mirrors the rhetorical style that has become far too common in our political discussion. Admittedly, it can make for entertaining reading. And that’s part of the problem. The likes of Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken, Ann Coulter, Hannity and Colmes and the whole pundit menagerie have learned that they way they get the gigs and then make the money they do is by being outrageous, over the top. The need to entertain and the commercial nature of our political discussion has pushed us into a mode of talking to each other that is rude, angry, disrespectful, and downright ugly.

My point here is not to call for an end to it, as much as I would like to. It is to raise the question about the style and tone to adopt in a blog or in a response to those who are writing blogs against you. On the one hand, the bland, legalese, pr-polished corporate speak will get your groans and no credibility among those far too accustomed to overheated rhetoric. On the other hand, to jump full tilt into the gritty and ugly language of the blog world just doesn’t feel right either. Reminds me of the old saying I keep repeating: when you wrestle in the mud with a pig, you both get dirty but the pig enjoys it.

Any thoughts?

Should the top dog blog?

I talked to our local top elected official the other day and he mentioned the need for hiring a communications manager for his administration. I suggested he should start blogging. Myself?! he said. Yes, I said. Why not? I don’t have time for that.

I told him about Naked Conversations and the increasing number of CEOs of large corporations who are blogging. No way, man. There’s no way a CEO of a big company is going to take the tiime to blog.

On first take, his comment makes some sense. It seems quite clear that he neither reads blogs normally nor pays much attention to the blog world. So his perception, as a lot of others, is that only 22 year old guys sitting with their baggy pants hanging down to their knees, are reading blogs during the few hours of the day when they’re not too bleary from whatever substance they choose. Why would a CEO take precious time out of his or her day to blog when they are talking to the videogame crowd.

So I bought the elected official a copy of Naked Conversations. My perception is this. Blogging may not reach the masses that the newspaper or TV or radio still does. But the blogosphere’s influence is far greater than its readership would indicate. The mainstream media (msm) is one reason. They pay attention to blogs. If the county executive were to start sharing his thoughts on a daily basis about the issues facing the county, I’ve got a pretty good idea that the political reporter at the local daily would likely get an RSS feed pretty darn fast.

And the others in the community who would over a period of time sign up for the feed or visit the blog site would be those people who have a high level of interest in the issues. And it is those people who are most influential over others. If I said, here was a way you could communicate directly and personally with the 200 people who will most influence how the rest of the community feels about you, wouldn’t you jump at the chance. Would that be worth taking ten minutes out of your day?

What is the job of a CEO or elected leader? Isn’t it communication primarily? My guess is that a CEO or elected leader right now spends about 80% to 90% of their day communicating. This wouldn’t take up more time. It was actually save them time because of the high efficiency of communicating directly to those people who really care what you have to say.

If you’re a CEO or elected leader, it’s time to give it some thought.

Want to see the cable guy video

I should have provided a link in the last blog. Here’s the link. Video.

In discussing this with others, the recent widely distributed phone call with AOL was another example. There are more and more examples of customer service nightmares being captured and widely distributed. There might even be a new section on your local TV newscast: “Hilarious Company Screwups.”

Why a sleeping cable guy should make you nervous

This guy named Finkelstein in Washington DC calls Comcast to get his cable fixed. The cable guy comes over and gets put on hold by his own service department for an hour, so he takes a nap. Finkelstein thinks this is funny so he videotapes the cable guy asleep and puts some music to it.

No big deal. Just like ten thousand other service problems going on right now. Amusing even. But then Finkelstein does what young interneters do these days. He shared his video. With a quarter of a million others. He posted it up on www.youtube.com and 227,000 others got the opportunity to share in his little joke.

It didn’t end there. The news media picked it up. I watched the video on KING5 last night on the 11 pm news. Not sure how many others picked it up or if the likes of CNN or other cable networks covered it as well. I did check and it was on Newsvine (www.newsvine.com).

The point here is not Comcast’s customer service problems (I’m a customer and they have problems). But it is the fact that any of your employees doing dumb things can easily be videotaped or simply show up in a blog, on a news site, or a vodcast. Talk about a glass house. Talk about transparency. When one partied-out cable guy decides to take a nap, suddenly it can become a major, major black eye for his employer and make national news.

The value of having a house with lots of windows is that you tend to want to clean up. Even those untidy closets and corners. So that is the first thing to think about. What needs to be cleaned up? What would be embarrassing and undo all the good work you do and effort spent on communicating and building reputation? But, dustballs will happen. Nothing can be perfectly clean and sooner or later one of your employees is going to take a nap in front of a camera or do something else to embarrass you. Then the question is, are you prepared to deal with it–at the speed of youtube?

Why oldtime crisis managers don't get it

It's not in my style to disparage anyone else in this business. But I've been saying for sometime now in my presentations and writings that one of the biggest problems with crisis communication strategies is the media-centric focus. Sure, the main stream media (msm) are still very important. But they are NOT the whole game. And yet it seems that the most revered names in the PR industry who are respected experts in crisis management don't seem to get this.

Here's an example I just came across from a website of a firm that touts itself for expertise in crisis managment.

Our team of specialists will work 'round-the-clock, if necessary, to craft strategy, draft the appropriate language and contact the media. We are acutely aware that unanswered "bad" news—whether true or false—can inflict long-term damage in a very short time on an organization's image or an individual's character.

We are highly skilled in quickly identifying the salient points that must be addressed and in determining the manner of delivery most likely to counter the crisis at hand. By disseminating the correct message to key journalists, we are able to help significantly reduce the intensity of a crisis so that an organization may return as swiftly as possible to its day-to-day business operations.

It probably sounds alright to most but there is obviously no recognition that in today's crises, the key is not ONLY media but the management of messages to multiple stakeholder groups. People today who are affected by an event expect to hear directly from you. Somehow they expect that you have the resources and thoughtfulness to communicate with them directly via email, focused web messages, even telephone if needed.

Years ago, the Russian people, just recovering from the closed days of Communism nearly came unglued over the Kursk submarine disaster. Why? Because the families had to learn about the fate of their sons through the media!

A major oil company came under fire when fenceline neighbors next to a refinery that had a major fire didn't get their emails responded to until two weeks after the event. Their emails had asked a simple question–should we evacuate? Somehow, those neighbors had the idea that the oil company had the capability and willingness to respond to that straightforward and urgent request. These people don't expect to turn on their TVs and wait for the evening news to tell them if they should get the hell out of Dodge. And yet, that's how the old timers in the crisis business tend to think about things.

The myspace battle

Myspace.com is in the news again. At least it was last night on my local tv news channel (KING5 NBC affiliate in Seattle). Another child preyed upon by creeps who use the information provided by some of the vulnerable young users to do ugly things. It made me wonder what myspace is doing about it.

I came across this site (tech.monstersandcritics–jeez, there's a site for everything these days) which although written in April gives a hint as to myspace's strategy.

SANTA MONICA, CA, United States (UPI) — The highly popular but often criticized youth Web site MySpace.com has hired a former federal prosecutor to oversee content, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Child-safety advocates praised the choice of Internet safety expert and former Justice Department pornography prosecutor Hemanshu Nigam as MySpace`s first chief security officer.

Nigam, most recently with Microsoft Corp., will oversee content at the Web site, which is No. 2 in U.S. daily page views behind Yahoo! Inc.

News Corp., the parent of the Santa Monica, Calif., Web site, also launched a public service advertising campaign Monday to warn MySpace.com users against sexual predators.

The spots, which are playing on other News Corp. Web sites and TV outlets, say 'don`t believe the type' when strangers approach children online.

'There are certain issues on MySpace that are endemic to the Internet that are endemic to society as a whole,' MySpace Chief Executive Chris DeWolfe told the newspaper. 'Having a safe site and having a cool site that lots of people are into aren`t mutually exclusive ideas.'

If you look at the comments on this site, some of the kids were freaking out. Omigod a cop policing the content on the site. But others have to think what will hiring one former federal prosecutor to "over see" content going to actually do. There are 78 million users of mspace.com. I'm not sure he can get through more than a few dozen sites a day. They probably already have filters that helps him find the questionable stuff. Omigod! They're filtering my stuff!

The problem is that the myspace issues are close to the heart of the cultural battle that increasingly rages around the internet. It is largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable. The internet culture, now increasingly firmly established, resists controls and values complete openness. While the CEO Chris DeWolfe made some sort of attempt at highlighting this problem, I can't imagine he and/or his communication advisors, could have done a worse job of expressing the problem. "Certain issue"? Endemic? Isn't endemic some sort of medical term for hideous swelling? Oh no, that edemic I think. The point is he had a chance to express this dilemma in a thoughtful way and instead chose to obfuscate.

The real issue is that society (whoever they are) needs to come to grips with the clash of cultures which says that controls are good and necessary in a world in which predators predate, where crooks crook, and where bad people are bad. The truth is our society keeps moving further and further into a culture of control with new laws being passed over every perceived risk or danger with little thought to the unintended consequences of such laws. But these are demanded by a society which somehow believes that we ought to be protected from all risk.

At the same time we have the internet. Open, free, without controls, inhabited by millions or billions now of people–many of them young, naive and inexperienced–who share their thoughts and intimate details with little awareness of the consequences.

One suggestion for an area of compromise. An element of blogging and commenting and posting on sites like myspace that I don't particularly like is the anonymity. I posted a link to an article about the viciousness of much blogging and I think part of it is bloggers and other posters can hide behind pseudonyms. Myspace is apparently moving in the direction of requiring those who participate to be findable by email, real name, etc. That may increase vulnerability for some but will also allow law enforcement to have better access to those who are using the site for their evil. 

In the meantime, myspace is and will continue to be for some time at the forefront of this culture war between the culture of control and the culture of unlimited freedom. I hope they learn to do better in both strategy and communication.

A big day

I just got finished writing the final words for the second edition of my crisis management book called Now Is Too Late2. The first edition was published in late 2002 and this should roll off the presses probably late July. 

It's a real relief to get the updating and editing done. Just wrote the acknowledgements and foreword. I took the opportunity more than is usually taken to extend my appreciation to a great many people who contributed not only to the book, but the business I am invovled in and my own life. At the age of 54, you're never certain when you might run out of chances to say thanks to the people who mean the world to you.

 Realizing that most of the readers of this blog (few but growing), may not ever read the book, I will be talking about some of the ideas and concepts in this blog quite a bit. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, working on ideas for my next book project.

Just in case you may be interested, let me know and I will send you a copy of the new edition as soon as it comes off the press.

The message of the book can be distilled down to two words: speed and directness. In this world of public information, if you aren't prepared to communicate very quickly and very directly to the people who care the most, you will find that you are too late, and being too late can be deadly. More and more I am adding the word honesty to those two. We are already at a point when the public has little to not patience with the typical PR and corporate speak. The blogging style is driving and will drive corporate communications into a new era. I added two new chapters to this edition specifically on this–one called Blogwars and the other called the Ultimate Communicator. Blogging is far more important already than most people even in the communication business realize. And one impact is putting more and more focus at the person at the top. It is from him or her that people expect to hear and they expect the message to be personal, authentic and absolutely no BS. That a simple way of putting something that is very significant in terms of communication strategy. but its all I have time for today.

Interactive Communication Management

I'm in the of preparing for a conference presentation in San Francisco in a couple of weeks. The topic is online communication tracking and I am using the Coast Guard's experience of tracking inquiries it received during Hurricane Katrina as the main case study. It is absolutely fascinating. Can you imagine what questions you might get from the public if you were a PIO in those circumstances. Think about it. What questions would you have to answer? If you knew in advance, you would know what lines of communications you needed to have with the response team in order to get the info you needed.

Of the hundreds of inquiries received via the Coast Guard's PIER communication management system (full disclosure–my company provides that technology) the vast majority were very complimentary. As well they should be. The Coasties worked their tails off to rescue folks and accomplished an amazing 30,000 plus rescues during Katrina. Knowing that, how you would answer the inquiry from an angry woman who was complaining that the Coast Guard wasn't doing enough to save starving and homeless pets?

I think it would be fascinating to be able to view (protecting names and identities of course) the kinds of questions PIOs get in the middle of a major incident. It would help prepare you as a PIO or executive to be able to anticipate questions and therefore deal with them better and faster.

Let me know if you are interested in such a compilation and if there is enough interest, I just might do something about that. 

Crisis Leadership and Authenticity

One of the things I like most about helping organizations with crises is the issue of leadership. When I was 18 I got a job working for a funeral home in my small home town that also had an ambulance. It was quite a thrill for an 18 year old to drive that ambulance down the main street in town with lights flashing and going far too fast. But what I really enjoyed was the fact that in a crisis like an ambulance crew was usually called to, the people were real. No game playing, no dishonesty, no pretending you were feeling different than how you really were feeling. Authenticity I think is the word they use for it now.

Organizational crises are like that. You get to see people for who they really are. Strengths and weaknesses, abilities, vision, personality, leadership. I remember a good friend who had served in the Navy talking about the leadership of his ship's captain. When the crew wasn't paying attention and becoming lacksadaisical he would rant and get all excited. But in a time of real crisis, when lives were on the line or there was great risk, he was the calm one, deliberate, unruffled, unemotional.

The leadership style of your organization's leaders will be a critical element of the success in dealing with a major crisis. If you are the leader, I could tell you to think about it and prepare, and imagine how you want to lead but I think that is all rather pointless. Because authenticity will win out. Chances are you are where you are because you have the leadership skills you need to do the job when it is needed most. If you don't, you're best off delegating responsibilities of command during a time of crisis.

This issue of leadership is top of mind with me right now in part because of leadership challenges in some important situations where I am involved. And in part because I just finished reading one of the best books on leadership I've ever read. It is called "Biggest Brother" and I think it is a far better way to learn about leadership in crises than all the Harvard Business Press books you could buy. Major Dick Winters was the focal point of the Stephen Ambrose WWII history book called "Band of Brothers" and of the Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg HBO mini-series of the same name. 

This book is an authorized biography of Winters whose fame as a combat leader may now be approaching or even succeeding that of Patton. I think the biography by  Larry Alexander is better than Major Winters' autobiography (called "Beyond Band of Brothers") even though it is great too.

A few quick lessons for crisis managers from this great American hero. His leadership creed: "Follow me." Don't go ask anyone to go anywhere or do anything you wouldn't go or do yourself. He said his greatest strength was his ability to think clearly in the pressure of the battle. His leadership in the taking of four 88 guns that were pounding the troops coming off Utah beach is one of the exciting and amazing examples of tactical leadership in the face of overwhelming odds that you can imagine.