Straight talking about crisis learnings–from Ford

This article from Daily Dog contains a summary and overview of the crisis experience of the top crisis communicator for Ford during Firestone crisis of 2000-2001. This is some of the best stuff I’ve read on crisis communciations in the last while–it is very real, very honest and hits the key points. Jon Harmon, Director of Communication Strategy for Ford, learned the lessons well and communicates them simply and powerfully.

In case you don’t follow the link and read the whole story (which I highly recommend) here are a few salient points:

On Planning:

It all comes down to readiness—get your crisis plans ready in advance. Don’t wait for a recall to happen. First, identify the PR people and outward facing organizations you have to work with. Get the necessary resources aligned. Meet now to do that. Part of the agenda should be to work through the possible contingencies, including recalls and other possibilities. Conduct a crisis audit and game this out in advance. Have a live drill where you go through something like this with your frontline people—and get your policies and responsibilities worked out on paper now. Then, repeat it periodically.

Impact of bloggers and New Media:

The next big crisis or time something like this happens, the agitators will work the news cycle as usual—but they will also include New Media, CGM [consumer generated media], video and blogs. It’ll be a whole different kind of whirlwind for corporations to combat. I think that, unfortunately, most corporations will be fundamentally unprepared for this. This is an era where people, bloggers included, can use New Media to drive the news cycle in a sophisticated manner.

On opponents and the need for speed:

What was different was that the agitators, the plaintiff attorneys, had become very media savvy. They were driving the news cycle every day. The news cycle is shorter and the hole has got to be filled. It creates a real frenzy. In this case, there was litigation in play. So they fed the story bit by bit instead of getting it all out at once. Specifically, they had documents from Ford and Firestone and would release a new one every day. They’d call up a major news organization and tell them about this damning document—and then fax it to them.


Also, realize, as I said earlier, that you’ll have to react on the fly—no matter how thorough your plans look. Then realize that you have to communicate continually during crises.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have to say that these are among the key points that I wrote about in Now Is Too Late and Now Is Too Late2. These are also the key points that lay behind the creation of the PIER technology. It’s is just great having someone like Mr. Harmon help confirm the essential elements that those in crisis management and crisis communication need to understand.

Round 2 in the Spocko-Disney Blog War

In my previous blog, I suggested that Disney’s approach to shutting down media critic Spocko (who was hurting an ABC radio station by convincing advertisers to abandon it) was heavy handed and would ultimately backfire. The lively discussion about this on this blog shows the difference of opinion. Spocko should not steal copyrighted material–that is wrong, illegal, unethical, etc. But to deal with this breech of the law and courtesy by forcing removal by legal means, I suggested, might not play well with the blog world.

I think I might be right. After being forced off the web by his ISP, Spocko responded by finding a new ISP willing, apparently, to take on the legal challenge. But what is far worse for Disney, is that a localized fight has now become a cause celebre in the blog world, and as this story indicates, bloggers concerned about free speech are also taunting Disney by putting those stolen audio files on their blogs.

The right way to deal with it from Disney’s perspective is to point out loudly that what Spocko is doiong is a violation of their copyrighted materials. It is wrong, illegal, unethical, etc. Someone who cares so little about protecting other people’s rights and is operating with so little concern for right and wrong has little credibility as a critic. He shows himself to be a “true believer” in the sense that he is so convinced of his moral purity on this that he feels justified in taking any measure–illegal or not, unethical or not.

By using the heavy legal hand, they have pushed the controversy into the far corners of the blog world. It was the brutal persecution of the Christians in the Roman world that caused its rapid spread around the world. The lesson lives on.

Family Guy shows how deep Wal-Mart's crisis is

As readers of this blog know, I commented to a BusinessWeek reporter about the deep crisis Wal-Mart was in. A primary basis for that assessment was the fact that the company had become a political football, with one party in particular wishing to align itself with the Wal-Mart haters. Now there is another even potentially more ominous sign of the deep crisis. Last night’s episode of Family Guy was all about Wal-Mart. It was called SuperStore USA or some other such title but you could not miss the red vests nor the smiley face symbol. SuperStoreUSA drove all the town’s businesses out of town, hogged all the electricity so that the whole town had to sit in their underwear and sweat. It forced our hero’s daughter to choose between her job and her family and generally showed how awful a big, uncaring company can be until the wierd little pie-shaped baby-man comes in with a tank and totally blows the place up. We all cheer.

Yeah, it’s a crisis when it becomes part of popular culture to cheer when a company is blown up by a wierd character driving a tank.

I might be right about authenticity

I blogged right after the first of the year suggesting that 2007 might be the year of authenticity. Then I read the January issue of PR Tactics from PRSA. Editor John Elsasser (who kindly has published several articles I penned) quoted several speakers from the November PRSA conference:

Andrew Heyward, former CBS News President: “Hype and spin are going to be less effective over time in a wired world because as consumers have access to information–and they have access to as many sources as we do–as they become as powerful as they have, it’s going to be much harder to sell something if it not authentic.”

Peter Hirschberg, Chairman and Chief Marketing Officers for Technorati: “This is really a louse time to be inauthentic.”

A number of other speakers at this conference echoed the same sentiments, and according to Roy Vaughn and Steve Cody, writing in the Jan edition of PR Tactics: “The C-suite is beginning to listen.”

And you know when the C suite starts to finally sit up and take notice, the world has really changed.

Disney and Media Critic Spocko sparring

There are various ways that companies and organizations are dealing with blog wars and online critics. One of them is legal. And a major legal tool is copyright infringement. I am aware of companies using violations of copyrights to try to control or limit what bloggers are saying about them. Disney is using the posting of audio files from an ABC Radio owned radio show as a basis for shutting down a media critic’s site (spocko) that is apparently causing them some damage.

This story provides the details. Indeed, go to Spocko’s blog and you get an error message.

My question is this–is wielding the heavy legal hand effective in the blog world? This is a pretty extreme case and there is no question that companies, artists and individuals need to work very hard to protect their intellectual property in the wild lawless internet land. But the purpose here is clearly not to protect valued intellectual property. It is to staunch the flow of ad dollars resulting from Spockos attacks and efforts to stop advertisers from supporting right wing messages he hates.

The blog world in general does not look kindly on this strategy. It will be interesting to see the comments about Disney’s heavy legal hand. I suspect most bloggers will be rooting for Spocko. And in that is the lesson for you or others who may be heavily engaged in your own reputation blog war.

Starbucks vs Oxfam on YouTube–this is how reputation battles will be fought on 07

If you want to see a preview of how reputation battles will be fought in the near future, just look at Oxfam vs. Starbucks. Oxfam posted a video on YouTube on December 16 that vigorously attacked Starbucks for its policies relating to Ethiopian farmers. They showed a number of on the street interviews with people who were shocked at Starbucks terrible policies–using of course the information that the activists had provided them. (This in itself is a very troubling and unethical approach–give people misinformation and then ask them what they think about it and then put them on camera denouncing the horrible company).

Starbucks responded on December 20 with their response to the accusations with a video posted on YouTube. It was not slickly produced. Not nearly as intensely produced and edited as the Oxfam video because frankly, the people making the accusation have a lot more time to produce than those responding. But Starbucks responded quickly and effectively. They took the accusations straight on. No anger. No defensiveness. Just corrected the wrong information and the overly simplistic accusations.

And it was all done on YouTube. What does the blog world think of this? Here’s a comment from a blogger on slashdot: Regardless of the outcome of this particular incident, the move on Starbucks’ part comes off as unmistakably in touch with today’s communication modes and methods.”

I agree. Starbucks gets it. And Oxfam and other activists had better take note of a basic and increasingly important law of public information: credibility is everything. From this observer’s point of view, their credibility is quite low right now.

2007–The Year of Authenticity?

It’s always fun to look toward a new year. One of my hobbies is painting so I think of the new year a bit like a blank canvas. It  is ripe with possibilities, but there is a certain apprehension about whether things will emerge as you hope they will. And like painting, it usually takes more effort for the best to come out than you think it will. But as a canvas, the new year mostly paints itself. It’s like working on a canvas in which new colors, forms, shapes, objects are appearing even as you try to do your own thing. The year has a  mind of its own, and the art comes in not trying to control what cannot be controlled but in turning what emerges–whatever it may be–into something beautiful, graceful and meaningful.

Looking back on the changes in crisis communication and the world of public opinion making, I see some fundamental shifts underway. Much of my work in the past six years or so has been aimed at helping clients and communicators understand the accelerating pace of public information. Most it seems to me, still do not understand, the depth and dimensions of the instant news world. So that word needs to continue to go out, but I think there is something even more significant emerging. And it comes as a direct result of the emergence of the blog culture as a powerful force in our society.

The blog world has a culture. No one has dictated it, and no one that I know of has really tried to define it. Yet, I think we all sense that it is there and we know somehow the boundaries of that culture. We have a sense for what the blog world considers right and wrong, just and unjust. One of the fundamental rules not just of the blog culture but the internet itself, is the strong desire to minimize the rules. So while there have been some rule making and enforcing mechanisms, mostly the internet world and blog culture in particular rely on social convention t0 enforce values. And those values I believe are spilling out beyond the blog culture into the broader world of main stream media, politics, business, advertising, and almost all aspects of culture making.

The blog culture values immediacy, that is certain, and that connects it to the instant news world. When bloggers see or hear something of interest, their first thought is to send it to the world. Mistakes can be made and often are made, and then the blogger is mightily flamed and says he or she is sorry. But it does not slow anyone down.

The blog culture values personality. Bloggers have little or no tolerance for the bland, impersonal language of much of the academic, professional and business world. If a CEO blogs, they want not just to see what he or she has to say about the company or its latest products, they want to have a clear picture of who that person is. They want to see warts and all. They want to see emotion.They want to see beyond the screen of packaging and vetting that normally accompanies corporate or professional communication.

The blog culture tends to be impatient and even angry. It doesn’t take much of an offense to set them off and get them to express raw language and raw emotion. There is variation here and you see a more mature and moderating influence coming in, but the rash, angry response still lives and to some extent dominates. Those who live in this sphere and who do not appreciate it learn to have a thicker skin.

The blog culture is highly political. While again it is shifting as more and more people enter this culture, it has been strongly dominated for some time by those whose primary motivation for blogging has been to participate in some way in the political dialog. It is definitely left-leaning, but again changing as more people become involved. But for a great many bloggers, the polarization of left and right and the desire to somehow influence political direction of the nation and the world is a primary part of their online persona and their reason for actively and aggressively participating.

The blog culture despises profit for profit’s sake. I am careful how I describe this because it is rich and complex. There is a strong anti-large, anti-powerful element in the blog world, and that applies not only to businesses but to any person, institution or organization which is large and has strong influence. Bloggers tend to be highly skeptical of any entity which impacts their lives and over which they have little or no control–so some of this extends to businesses. Their criticism of them tends to focus on the profits they generate, but I believe the underlying concern is not the profits themselves but the way in which power is exerted and the perceived failure of the organization to change based on the values and ethics of the critics.

The blog world has high ethical standards and little patience for those who violate them. The essential standard is openness and honesty. And if you are powerful, it includes humility and vulnerability. This is in effect the sum total of the items listed above. The blog world is about authenticity and its absolute disregard for anyone or anything that is less than authentic. People who buy things routinely over the internet do not want to be fooled by a scam artist. To do so is to undermine the whole potential for online economics. To engage in a lively debate or share interesting information with someone, only to find out they have a hidden agenda, a profit motive, or an economic stake in the outcome of that discussion cuts to the very bone of the reason why bloggers spend their time engaging in these conversations. It is vitally important to them, and therefore they will protect the authenticity of discussions with all the vehemence they can muster.

So when I suggest that 2007 may be the year of authenticity, it is not just in the blog world. A previous post pointed to another blog that reported that this year will be the first year when more people get their news online than from traditional news outlets. Last count I saw there were over 60 million active blogs tracked on technorati.  But it is not just the blending of the sidestream and the mainstream that will result in a significant movement toward greater authenticity. It is how the values of the blog world are becoming some of the fundamental values of the rest of the world. We tend to see history as broad sweeps of changes that are not visible while you are in them. But historians find those individuals and specific actions or activities that are both representative of those broad sweeping changes and who help drive them. Who knows who history will credit with the lighting the spark that changed the world’s value system forever. My vote might be Robert Scoble and Shel Israel because of the impact their book Naked Conversations had on me and the understanding it helped me come to about the importance of the blog world in the greater world of opinion making. And from that standpoint, I guess all history is personal. May it be authentic.