Some time ago I wrote an article on how the US Coast Guard used PIER, the online communication management tool I created and my company provides, to facilitate communication during Hurricane Katrina. That article was published in the October issue of Government Procurement Journal. Read the article.
Here’s a quote from the article:
It’s fair to say that the world is shifting under the feet of today’s Public Information Officer and, for that matter, today’s Incident Commander (IC), both of whom need to understand the demands each faces if he or she is to make informed decisions. Experienced ICs know that their efforts are judged positively by the public only if two things occur: the response is handled well, and the public is kept adequately informed. A poorly communicated public response, no matter how effective it originally may have been, is nonetheless a disaster.
Is Wal-Mart in a reputation crisis? I think so, and I expressed that opinion to a reporter working on a story for BusinessWeek. I guess I didn’t expect my judgment about that to appear in the title of the cover story of BusinessWeek online as it is right now. Read the article.
How did I get the opportunity to comment on Wal-Mart’s situation, given how many smart people in crisis and reputation management are either working on this or thinking about it? This blog. I commented on Edelman’s problems relating to the “flog” site “Wal-Marting Across America” and the BusinessWeek reporter, Pallavi Gogoi, who broke the story of Edelman’s sponsorship saw my comments and gave me a call.
I’ve blogged before about the connection between MSM (mainstream media) and the blog world and if this isn’t clear evidence of that connection I don’t know what is.
Of course, you are always a little nervous when a reporter from a publication like BusinessWeek gives you a call. But I was quoted accurately, thank you Ms Gogoi. It’s the gems that got cut you always grieve. Like the fact that what makes this a reputation crisis of significant proportions is that the public license to operate is very much at risk. Wal-Mart’s ability to enter new markets is very much at risk and whenever you have become a political football or pawn, with one party lining up against you and the other one either for you or remaining meekly silent, you have big problems. No company wants its brand to become so politicized, to become a symbol for what a segment of the public most hates about this country. And that is exactly what is happening.
We also discussed union involvement. Is organized labor behind the effort to damage or destroy the Wal-Mart brand? If so, how are they doing it? The connection between organized labor and the increasing opposition from the Democratic party is logical. How much does this play into Wal-Mart’s current distress.
Crisisblogger readers, please weigh in. I’d love to know what you think about Wal-Mart’s problems, potential solutions, and the reporting it is currently receiving.
The Houston Chronicle is reporting that Metropolitan Transit Authority, the public transportation agency of Houston, is launching a blog. George Smalley, the VP for Communications for the agency, and former communications director for Shell Oil is one smart guy, and certainly understands the value of “joining the conversation.”
A blog in this case is particularly appropriate since the agency is in an intense public debate over the development of a light rail line through Houston. Bloggers who are opposed have been having their say for some time and now Metro will be joining in and making certain information is correct, rumors are addressed and the public gets their questions answered.
The Chronicle article indicates that a number of other government agencies are looking to get their own blogs. Great idea. I think they should keep a close eye on what Metro is doing as Smalley and company will no doubt lead the way with appropriate and effective use. (Full disclosure: I think a lot of George because he was one of the pioneer purchasers of PIER, the online communication management technology I created and which is now used by many government agencies (including Metro) as well as leading companies. No wonder I think the guy is smart!)
Best of luck, George with your blog. I’ll be watching.
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association has been in the news lately based on violations of its code of ethics by Edelman Public Relations, despite the fact that Richard Edelman helped draft the code.
WOMMA has published its ethics rules and is appealing to clients to make certain the agencies who work on their behalf subscribe to these rules. Excellent rules and here they are.
Now, if we can just get those attacking reputations of companies and organizations to form a similar group and issue their code of ethics.
OK, this is completely different–pure entertainment. But someone just sent me this link to the panopticist blog–and it has one of the most awe-inspiring examples of hubris (as blogger Andrew Hearst correctly points out) that you might ever see. If you are ready for a few moments of raw talent pushed way over the edge, have a look.
Video is coming quickly. Some will laugh at that because for many video is very much already here. Millions posting videos regularly to Google/YouTube. Gazillions watching those (whether or not the copyright is properly held). I flip up my MacBook Pro and connect almost instantly to my son who may be in LA where he lives or may be anywhere in the country on one of his shoots. Apple announces much more robust video conferencing with work services coming next year. Yesterday, I got a demo on a very interesting web application that allows up to 90 people to video conference and collaborative work together on websites, files of all sorts, an object-oriented whiteboard, etc. If you are interested, reply and I will tell you which application it is, but I would guess if there aren’t several already out there, there will be soon. And GoToMeeting, WebEx, and LiveMeeting will all have much expanded video capabilities soon.
This is very important for communicators. If you aren’t preparing to communicate using video, you are probably already being left behind. As things become possible and known, audience expectations rise. Those who fail to meet those expectations face disappointment. And a failure to communicate, as is told over and over, is tantamount to guilt, incompetence, coverup, and all kinds of other reputation nasties. Get with video and the time is now.
I’ve been a strong advocate of being quick to apologize when you have done something wrong–both personally and as a company. I believe people are very willing to forgive when there is a sincere expression of regret and clear communication about how you are changing.
This headline from the Bulldog Reporter (a PR Industry publication) suggests that Sony’s apology over bad batteries has hurt them:
Sony’s Public Apology For Massive Battery Recall Only Amplifies Widespread Impact—And Company’s Ongoing Economic and Technological Crisis
Read the article, though, and you will see that this headline (like many of us in PR complain about) is badly misleading. It was not the apology that created the problem, it was the fact that it was so late in coming according to the writer.
Messages: late apologies are almost as bad as no apologies at all and 2) bad headline writing even occurs in PR industry publications. (All they would have had to do is say “Sony’s late apology…”
Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News and the lead executive during the Dan Rather fiasco, commented in a PRSA article about what he learned from the crisis. His comments should be posted on the wall of every CEO:
In the frenzy that erupted, you, along with many of your colleagues at CBS, found yourself in the media’s crosshairs. How did you deal with being part of this media onslaught? What can PR professionals learn from your experiences?
Heyward: First of all, I think we handled the aftermath poorly and exacerbated the problem. There are lots of lessons there for PR professionals. In retrospect, they seem so obvious: Be quick to recognize not only that there is a problem but also the magnitude of the problem; be quick to address it, not only with the outside world but also with your own colleagues; and be open-minded about what your critics are saying. At the beginning, it might have been a commendable instinct to stand by your colleagues, [but] loyalty . . . should have been balanced more effectively and quickly with the responsibility to get to the bottom of the criticism and find out what had really happened and whether we had, in fact, fallen short in our reporting — which we had. That took way too long, and that was partly because we were too busy fending off attacks and had placed too much faith in colleagues based on their track records as opposed to the evidence that was before us.
If we had found out what happened and disavowed the parts of the report that we eventually disavowed — if we had done that faster, and if we had said right away, “Look, we believe in the story or we wouldn’t have put it on. We believe in our vetting procedures or we wouldn’t have put it on, but these are important questions that are being raised and we’re going to immediately get to the bottom of them and find out what happened.” If we had done that instead of circling the wagons, this would’ve been less of a controversy and less of a tragedy than it ultimately turned out to be. So, those are certainly mistakes I’ll never make again.
The first instinct when caught in a bad situation is to circle the wagons. You know all the good you have done. You know how hard you and your people try. You know how much some of your enemies would like to get you and how they are working right now to take advantage of this unforseen vulnerability. All of this can easily lead to a reluctance to accept the responsibility that is so obvious. Get out of the bunker. Get real about the situation. Accept responsibility. Ask for forgiveness. Tell what you have learned. Commit to do better. And then get on with things.
I love this quote from a story in Fast Company about this guy Rob Curley who is doing some interesting things with news sites:
“On the bottomless Web, there’s always room for more detail, more depth.”
This is an important message for crisis communicators because so often I see the minimalist thinking more appropriate for the old media world. Hey, you’re in a crisis. Give them the minimum. The media’s going to stay with the headlines anyway. And the more you put out there, the more they may write or more questions they may ask
The truth is, usually when you are putting content on a website in a crisis you are speaking to the few and the highly interested. Family members. Neighbors. Investors. Senior executives. Activists. They are reading what you write because they are interested for some reason in what is going on. And they want details, and lots of them. They are not and never will be satisfied with the simple headlines and the old pyramid style of news reporting. That was writing in the age of newsprint rationing. Bits and bytes are all but free.
This point is really expanded on in this article about the new kind of news sites that Curley is selling. Highly interactive, of course. Rich in detail. But, you might ask, who reads such details. Look what happened in Kansas:
“And kusports.com, one of Curley’s better-known projects, covered the University of Kansas Jayhawks teams in ways the Lawrence Journal-World couldn’t. In addition to live play-by-play, it featured an animated playbook of the basketball team’s most effective plays, and a writer who previewed coming matchups by simulating them on a computer game and covering them like real games. The result? Three years after Curley took over, monthly page views soared from around 500,000 to a peak of around 13 million. Not bad for a town with 82,000 residents. “
The point is this: when someone is interested enough to spend time on your site, they want details. Get out of the old media world thinking, and give them what they want.
In my new edition of Now Is Too Late2, I added a chapter on blogwars. “Blogwars” is my term for the increasingly frequent challenge for companies and organizations who have to deal with activists or attackers who are intent on damaging their reputation for one reason or another. The internet and blogs in particular, with their built-in advantages for search engine optimization, has made reputation management more interesting and challenging than ever.
One of the premier experts in this area is Jonathan Bernstein and I have been fortunate to work with Jonathan very actively in the past year including on several “blogwar” situations. Jonathan has written an article on dealing with online attacks that was recently published in a national assoication magazine. This is probably the best you will read on the subject of internet-based reputation attacks and strategies for dealing with them.