Too harsh on Montreal College?

This is in response to a couple of comments on this blog about my harsh judgment about the lack of communication in the early hours after the event by the college administration. I pointed to the lack of participation in news stories and the fact that the website did not have any information about the event–as it turns out probably not for about 30 hours after the event.

The two comments I received are enlightening. One, from what I would say is a member of the public and that commenter, agreed with me. The one who disagreed is from a major university emergency management department. When I make presentations about crisis communications which I do quite frequently one of the main points I make is the gap between public expectations and what those who are responsible for responding think is reasonable. These two comments illustrate this point better than I could.

I have worked with a number of schools and universities on crisis communication issues, including right now helping one of the largest universities in the nation prepare to respond quickly to incidents such as this. It is a daunting challenge. But the reality that has to be faced is that the public and stakeholders such as parents of students, key donors, government officials, etc., expect to hear from the university or school involved in this kind of incident. They expect to hear fast and directly. We live in an instant news world. News helicopters and remote video crews are on scene in minutes. The Coast Guard talks about the Golden Hour. In advising clients, we talk about the first half hour. It is clear that the only way it is possible to respond in a situation like this to meet these ridiculous expectations is to prepare in advance. That’s why my book is titled “Now Is Too Late.” Responding during an event is indeed too late. The response needs to be planned in advance and when it happens, the triggers simply have to be pulled.

There is no question at all, particularly given the complexities of the response as the expert who commented from an emergency management perspective knows very well, that communicating with stakeholders in the first hour after an event is very challenging. But it is necessary. Not because I say so but because the stakeholders have developed that expectation. How? Because the media operates in an instant news manner and the stakeholders understand the capability of internet-based fast, direct communication.

Organizations, including large universities, have significant challenges to communicating with stakeholders in this kind of rapid fashion. But the choice to me seems clear. Either find ways to address those obstacles and get that ability to communicate, or face harsh criticism about the failure to communicate in a way that meets expectations. Not from me, because my view really doesn’t matter. But from stakeholders whose lives are impacted by what happens in the event. It is their expectation and their perception of the institution that determines the long term impact on reputation.

Montreal College appears to earn an F in crisis communication

Dawson College of Montreal is suddenly all over the news. News reports are telling the story of the wounding of 20 students and the panic caused by a gunman who was apparently killed by police. The problems we see so far:

– where is the presence of college representatives in the news stories? If they are not visible how can we know their reaction and what they are doing about it?

Well, I guess you could go their website to see what they have to say about it. If I was a parent or a friend of a student or someone remotely connected with the university, I would go to their site expecting it to have information about the event and what the school is doing in response. What do you get when you go there?

Big red type that says they will be closed until September 18. Click on the “Read More” button and it gives an old message from the Director General.

Now, I’m writing this at 6 pm on Wednesday, Sept 13 so by the time you read this and check their site hopefully things will have changed. But the story has been on the news for hours. And that’s my point. If you cannot communicate in the first hours after a major event, if you are silent, or oblivious or invisible, you have not only lost critical opportunities for the people important to your future to form positive impressions, you most likely have left a lot of people disappointed. It leads to questions about the competence and caring of the leadership. If it was something where they had culpability (in this case I’m certain not) then it would also lead to questions about responsibility to those impacted.

I hope there is more to this story from a communication standpoint, but I have to say as a total outside observer of the communication effort, it is a dismal failure.

The blog world goes round and round–Shel Holtz

About seven years ago, I was starting to think about writing a book about how the news world is changing and what it means for organizations who may suddenly find themselves in the news. I went to Amazon and bought a couple of books on the subject, including one called “Public Relations on the Net” by Shel Holtz. It was very clear that this guy was a pioneer in the sense of way out there on the edges of this new world of instant, online communication way before most people were even trying to define the terms. I emailed Shel and much to my amazement he emailed back (unlike the other author I emailed who was clearly to important to respond). Shel and I have maintained an infrequent conversation off and on since then–even having breakfast together in the Bay area.

Shel continues to pioneer. A few months ago he interviewed me on his weekly podcast called For Immediate Release. Again, I was just starting to figure out this podcast thing out and Shel and an associate, Neville Hobson, were busy putting one together on a regular schedule. (You can hear that interview here.)  Now Shel tells me that 1000 people are subscribing to his podcast and downloading it weekly. If you are in communications and have a commute where you can listen, I highly recommend the podcast. It’s at www.forimmediaterelease.biz. Or you can also find it on Shel’s blog: “A Shel of my  former self”.
Shel has written some of the best books on communication topics including “Corporate Conversations” about employee communication. And he is peripatetic and ubiquitous. The other day a sales manager for AudienceCentral (company which supplies online communication management applications of which I am president and founder) was making a presentation to a large oil company and there was Shel, invited in to advise them on communication issues.

Needless to say, I hold Shel in very high regard. It was no surprise to me that in Naked Conversations the authors turned to Shel as an expert on what is happening in the blog world from an organization standpoint. And it is no surprise that the next book coming from Shel will be about blogging.

What is a surprise is the very nice things he has to say about me and my book “Now Is Too Late2” in his blog. So, the blog world turns like the wheels of a bus. Thanks Shel!

Could I have an order of clothes with those fries? Coach Cullen of Detroit Lions

Whoa, this was just a little too good to pass up. Seems Lions’ assistant coach Joe Cullen is a little forgetful–or has some problems considerably worse. He ordered a burger and fries from a driveup window–completely naked. Here’s the story via Fox.

That was on Aug 24, then on Sept 1 he got arrested for drunk driving. His apology is, well a little too tame to be believable. I swear there must be a website somewhere that is called apologiestogo.com and you just pick the one you want. Here’s what the coach had to say:

‘I would like to
apologize to the Detroit Lions organization, our fans, my family and friends
for any embarrassment these incidents have caused. These incidents represent
a mistake in judgment on my part. I deeply regret them and have learned a
valuable lesson. It won’t happen again.'”

Let’s see, these statements came in written form through the team. Big problem for the Lions’ organization. Second: “a mistake in judgment.” No, ordering the burger instead of a salad is a mistake in judgment. Going through the drivein stark naked is considerably more serious than that. Third: “It won’t happen again?” I would guess not, unless he finds a way to escape from the institution.

In the meantime Detroit Lions are saying this is a serious matter and he is getting treatment. OK, but how do they really feel?

Burson-Marsteller and the Dow Corning Papers

Thanks to blog commentator James Bruni for pointing out this very interesting behind thes scenes look at major reputation management efforts at work. James writes for nowpublic.com and has a PR firm–Bruni PR. The story, covered in PR Watch details how the Burson Marsteller firm and its affiliates worked to help Dow Corning change the image of breast implants after the courts and government had determined that they were dangerous and the company had covered up the facts.

Clearly, this story (and apparently the site PR Watch) has a focus on uncovering the bad behavior of PR firms. And there is no doubt that there are a lot of PR firms engaging in bad behavior. I can tell a few such stories myself. But, I’d like to take a little different view on this story.

Activists groups including NGOs and “grassroots” organizations have developed over the years basic strategies that enable them to be very effective in bringing their cause to the public attention and creating change. Typically these “groups” are presented as grassroots organizations with lots of people behind them, but are organized and managed by one or two or a handful of seasoned pros. Typically these pros have been successful at raising money for their causes and are reasonably well paid by their own non-profit organizations. They work very hard to get media coverage, and they know what red flags to raise. In our hyper competitive media atmosphere, big companies that can be demonstrated to put the public good (health, safety, security, environment, etc.) at risk make excellent career-building stories for young, aggressive journalists. And if there is the slightest hint of a cover-up, well, can you say Woodward and Bernstein?

One great story leads to another, and another, and another. All using the basic set of facts, and all fed by a well organized “PR” planner who feeds additional media what the previous media have covered. They search out and find victims. Do they report that 99% of all customers of the companies product are completely happy and the product is safe in almost all circumstances? No, quite understandably they seek out and find those people willing to show publicly the awful consequences of the company’s disdain for customers and safety. The reporters find their job easier and easier to do.
Now lawyers sense a new area of profit. And now politicians who need to make a name for themselves see that the “public” (actually, a few reporters looking to build careers) have expressed grave concern. Pressure starts building on the regulatory organizations to “do their job” and to protect their reputations they start making it sound like it is a rogue company out of control who will be the subject of their righteous wrath. Adn the juggernaut roars on, but now with the added advantage of it being a major public issue, which does great things for the fund raising efforts of the PR person (activist) who got the ball rolling in the first place.

So, what does the company do? Gets people in place who know how to play this cynical game–know the rules and what works. They seek out people who will be victimized by the change the activists, lawyers and journalists are promoting. They show there is another side. They provide the facts about the benefits of the product or service that balances out the few who may have had negative experience. And what happens? This activity gets “exposed” as an unseamly, dirty game.

Clearly, I’m overstating to make a point. But my point is very clear: it is part of dangerous political correctness today to assume that only activists and accusers have the right to play this game. No one is pure in the ongoing struggle to bring things to public light, find the truth, uncover evil, and make the world a better place. Let us not stop being critical of the Burson Marstellers. But let us, for the sake of what is right and fair, be a little more willing to look at the strategies and tactics of all those who profit from destroying reputations and putting an end to the benefits of too many good products and services.

The Old Media fights back–and they're getting grumpy

Here’s a very interesting article contrasting traditional journalism with citizen journalism by New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann.

Once I got past the obvious disdain for this new breed of “citizen journalists” and the general grumpy tone–at least of the first quarter of the article, I found his analysis helpful and interesting. His overall complaint is the general low quality of journalism exhibited by bloggers–agreed. What he does not seem to admit is that the same can be said of most of journalism in the mainstream as well. Quality varies in all categories. Certainly does not diminish the impact of blogging as a new mode of journalism, nor does it diminish its impact on public opinion, politics and reputations.

His concluding point that many amateurs will turn professional as a result of the easy publishing mode of the internet is correct–and they will also turn commercial as advertising discovers the blog world.

"Blink" and "Tipping Point" author Gladwell says time for NCAA to go

Interesting points raised by eminent author Malcolm Gladwell about why the NCAA needs to go. Also, very interesting discussion about this topic on the blog.

My interest is different. Will this attack by such a respected writer cause a reaction? Will it spill from hear to the MSM (mainstream media)? Will it cause a reaction on the part of the NCAA, and if so, how will they react? Will they admit that the example provided by Mr Gladwell does represent a problem–or will they defend their rules and their reason for existence?

Non-profit organizations and industry associations can easily forget why they exist. They are run by people who like their jobs and who want to keep their jobs. It is easy for them to stop going back and asking, “Now exactly why are we here again?” and “How do we justify our existence?”

Whether the NCAA understands this will largely determine their response, if they should decide to respond. That decision about whether they should or how they should is critical. And this is one that bedevils crisis managers:

It’s just a blog, let it die.

But it’s Malcom Gladwell–this is going to grow legs!

Why should we help Gladwell by giving it more legs?

It’s not a story unless it’s in the New York Times.

But the time it is there, opinions will have been formed and the horse will have left the barn.

So the question goes on: how do we head a bad story off without contributing to its distribution? Especially in the instant news/blog world where a story and accusations like this can gain momentum in hours. Look what I am doing here. Giving it legs.

Bloggers and advertising–more thoughts

Will advertising destroy bloggers’ credibility? That question is raising some interesting comments. I know of one very strong critic of an organization who had a critic blog site, but then discovered the advertising dollars possible by trading on the name of the company he was criticizing. So he attempted to “remake” himself into a credible, objective non-critical blog that would serve as a forum for those who wanted to make pro and con comments about the company. One example of how the lure of advertising dollars can and will affect bloggers.

But James Bruni raises an interesting question about advertisers not spending money on blogs that are strongly left or right politically. I’m not so sure of that. In the pre-Civil war days, print publications were for the most part strongly aligned to one party or the other. We can’t imagine it right now, but what if our media did not pretend to be objective but clearly and unapologetically stated that they supported one party over the other–and everything they wrote about was from the point of view of persuading readers to their editorial position. While perhaps overstating it a bit, that is my understanding of the media pre-Civil War. It changed with AP, Associated Press. The idea was that they would pool the reporters who would provide the facts, then the individual papers would spin the facts the way they wanted and they way their particular audiences expected. They could save money and still report in a partisan manner. What happened is that they found readers rather liked the more objective “just the facts” approach provided by the straight ahead AP dispatches. And this style became dominant eventually.

Media historians, weigh in here. But my point is that there are many advertisers who would be happy to align in one direction or another–and many more who would prefer a more “objective” approach. Of course, talking about “objectivity” in today’s mainstream media is a whole other subject. At least there is the existing convention of presuming objectivity.

Where journalists go, advertisers are sure to follow–blogs and advertising

The emergence of citizen journalists is also triggering a big shift in where ad dollars are being spent. See this article in Brandweek about advertising dollars going to blog sites and other social media.

This is interesting for several reasons:

– only 21% of those surveyed think blogs are “trustworthy” sources of news or info

– the fact that viewers don’t consider them trustworthy doesn’t diminish their value as far as advertisers are concerned

– corporate sites are more trusted–now that is interesting given that the surveys about mainstream media vs corporate-produced info shows a real problem with corporate credibility

But the big question that fascinates me, is what will happen to the big bloggers when the lure of advertising dollars infects them? Will they keep saying just what they think? Will their thoughts be colored by how it will impact advertisers and therefore impact their income? Will their homespun version of journalism be corporatized? Will it trend toward “infotainment”–that phenomenon that has ruined much of journalism at least in my mind (see Now Is Too Late2 for more on this topic).