Jonathan's New "Keeping Wolves At Bay"–perhaps the best fifty bucks you could spend

Here’s a blatant plug for my friend and valued associate Jonathan Bernstein’s newest version of his media training manual, “Keeping the Wolves at Bay.” Find out more (and order) at bernsteincrisismanagement.com.

Jonathan bills this as a media training guide; indeed it is and probably the best available. (I used is recently for media training I conducted). But it is far more than that, particularly in this new edition. This edition addresses the world of the “I-Reporter,” the term used to describe bloggers and others who provide content online that may be about you and your organization. The manual provides a wealth of real life examples drawn from Jonathan’s extensive experience in communication and crisis management. And it is entertaining.

But what I like best (and this will be no surprise to Jonathan) is the role that stakeholder communication plays in his thinking. In this “post media world” or post mainstream media world, companies and organizations have the opportunity to address stakeholders and all those keenly interested in the goings on of the organization directly. With that opportunity comes the absolute necessity. Jonathan gets this better than almost anyone I have seen in this game.

So “Keeping the Wolves at Bay” is much more than another media training guide–it is perhaps one of the most concise, insightful, useful and savvy guides to strategic thinking about reputation issues available.

The Digital Media vs Mainstream war takes another victim: Life

Life magazine is no more. Once again. The venerable brand that had been resurrected by Time for the third time in 2004 to serve as a newspaper supplement, is dead. The victim of declining newspaper advertising.

But, there is much more to this story. This is but one visible reminder of the tremendous upheaval underway in how we get news and information. As I blogged about earlier this year, this year is when digital or Internet media overtakes all media as the prime deliverer of news and information.

The impact of this on ad pages, stock prices, and the business climate for mainstream media is effectively told in this story from Dow Jones’ MarketWatch. 

But, my experience is that most of us in the media business are largely ignoring these signs of tremendous change. We don’t really understand them. The whole digital and Internet world is wild, confusing, too technical, out of control and too dominated by young males who have far too much time on their hands and should go back to playing video games, or better yet, go get a job. That’s at least how many of us perceive it. The reality is more and more that everyone, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, is changing how they get news, get insight and understanding of events and people and organizations that interest them, and how they interact with each other and network together.

What I have encountered in just the last few months has been stunning to me. Discovering, for example, in discussion with the CIO of a large university that email doesn’t work to reach students anymore.  Discovering yesterday, in conversation with Sally Falkow of www.press-feed.com that your press release distribution mechanism had better include a built in method of listing on a whole bunch of social media sites. And that there are a lot more than newsvine and digg it.

Sometimes it feels wearying. But the reality is, it doesn’t matter how old you are or how much or how little experience you have in this business, if you are not constantly learning what is going on in the public information environment, you are going to get left behind. And the cost of getting left behind will be high.

Digital Crisis Management–evaluating Taco Bell and Jet Blue

Here is a very interesting assessment of two recent crises–Taco Bell and the rat problem and JetBlue’s customer service–and how each of these companies is responding on the Internet.

The point that Ed McLaughlin of SVM E-Business Solutions is making is a very important one. Your crisis communication plan had better have a very strong element of digital communication including YouTube, a crisis website, key search terms, etc. (I was especially intrigued in this article how Taco Bell co-opted negative search terms such as “taco bell rats.”)

Taco Bell and the Onion Farmer

Taco Bell’s e.coli problems aren’t over yet. The outbreak of last December cost them a lot of business and bad press, and now they are being sued by the farmer who supplied the green onions–thought at one time to be the source of the problem. Turns out it wasn’t. And TacoBell either didn’t stop their communication pointing to the green onions in time or intended not to as a way of reassuring the public that they identified the problem and were dealing with it.

Who knows what the truth is. But it is a reminder, that despite the urgency to get information out fast, it is still critically important to get it right. If this was an example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing (TacoBell folks who knew from the FDA on Dec 11 that it was not the onions, vs. the communication folks who didn’t know this and didn’t cancel the big ad in time) then it is critically important that organizations plan not only on speedy external communication, but a fool proof means of communicating about the incident internally.

Some thoughts about the changing nature of public relations

Just when I was pondering the thoughts presented in Houston by PR father Harold Burson (see crisisblogger post and Force for Good post), a co-worker gave me a copy of the New Yorker article on Howard Rubenstein, the well known New York PR man.

There were things that bothered me about both of these deservedly much-honored gentlemen of the profession. Let me try to explain.

Ken Auletta in the New Yorker quotes Alan Harrington who said, “Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so that the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms.”

Then Rubenstein was complimented by former Governor George Pataki who said that “had Howard Rubenstein been around to represent rats during the bubonic plague the headlines would have read ‘Rodents Unfairly Accused of Mild Rash.’”

Now, I could attribute this to the general antipathy that reporters feel toward PR people, flacks, as they say. But most PR people would agree with Rubenstein when he suggests there job is to put the client’s best foot forward. And that is largely how I have understood my job with clients as well, particularly when there are those who are insistent on either putting the client’s worst foot forward, or making up a story about how bad their feet really are.

But, I must say I am increasingly uncomfortable with this view of PR. No, arranging a pretty bouquet is not untruthful or unethical. But it reminds me of a package of strawberries I bought at a high quality grocery story a few years ago. The berries on top were all pretty and red and big and delicious looking. I opened the package and found rotten, gray, small ugly berries underneath. I was not happy. I felt deceived. I lost trust in a grocery story that had an excellent reputation and high prices to go with it.

And that is my concern. In my view, particularly in this day, PR should be primarily about building trust, not putting a best foot forward. If there are rotten berries in the package, I’m not suggesting put those on top. I’m saying get rid of the package. And the best PR advisers have access to the people who can make those kinds of decisions.

What is strange about this way of thinking, and I’m even hesitant to suggest it but I think it is right, is that if there are wilted flowers, they should be visible. And perhaps it is the PR person’s responsibility to help make sure they are visible–because when they are discovered trust will be lost. And any time trust is lost, the organization loses. I have found myself on more than one occasion advocating strongly to a client that the bad news come directly from us. “But the press may not find out about, why should we give it to them?” Because if we don’t and they do find out about it, it will be that much worse for us. Trust will be lost. More than that, an opportunity to build trust by saying, we found something wrong, we are sorry, it should not be like this, is also lost.

Does this mean the days of putting best foot forwards is gone. Yes, I think so. Today’s stakeholders want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If something is wrong, fix it. Tell them that you are fixing it. Tell them you understand their perspective on it and what you are doing about it. That is called transparency. Being transparent, even when painful and difficult, is what building trust is all about.

Prediction: A flood of anonymous, vicious political attack ads

The “Big Brother (sister?)” ad parody against Senator Clinton is likely to just be the start. First, because as this LA Times article shows, there is considerable protection for the anonymous aspect. It also conforms to the ethos of the Internet and blogworld–absolute freedom with much less concern about responsibility or respect.

Political operatives have to be scrambling right now to come up with the equivalent of the “issue war rooms” that were created in President Clinton’s first race. Now they will be “YouTube War Rooms,” rapid response mechanisms to deal with damaging video clips posted on the proliferating video sites and distributed virtually instantly via the bloggers.

Corporate communicators–don’t sit back too comfortably and watch this. What happens in the rough and tumble political communication world usually spills over into public communication involving companies. Where is your YouTube war room? How will you respond with an ad parody or a vicious video attack suddenly showing up?

Where Citizen Journalism and Mainstream Media are merging…Santa Rosa

Looks like one place where the new paradigm of news and the old are coming together (a collision or confluence?) is a tiny TV station in Santa Rosa, California. The Clear Channel owned station has fired its paid news staff and is turning entirely to neighbors, friends, activists, and anyone who wants to participate to cover the local news.

This is more than desperate cost cutting on the part of station management. It is a clear sign of the times as has been commented on here earlier. The competitive pressures, in part coming from the Internet and in part coming from the impossible demands of Wall Street, are putting the squeeze on news organizations. This came up in conversation with a client yesterday as we were discussing use of video.

Client: But most news organizations don’t want to use video that you provide.

Me: Well, that used to be more true than now. With the squeeze on the news organizations plus the heightened need for compelling video not just on tv news shows but now on their news websites as well, they are much more willing and interested to take whatever video they can find that will help them tell their story and attract audiences.

Client: Even B-roll?

Me: if it is compelling, relevant and helps tell their story.

The owners of MSM outlets are getting the idea that there are 60-70 million “journalists” out there willing to spend good parts of their day “reporting,” commenting, researching, reading and doing a lot of other things journalists get paid to do. Except they do it for the love of it, the recognition and in some cases, the indirect business benefits. Why not make use of this horde to do what the station owners and managers need to do: attract and audience, sell ads, make some money, keep the doors open.

The real pet food crisis…and it's not about dying pets

First, before I get hate comments on this, I have a dog and I love my dog. And dogs and cats dying from their very well known brand name pet foods is very serious business. But since I write about organizations in crisis, I am suggesting that the problem with the contaminated food will be resolved in due course, but the crisis of revealing that a great many different brands are coming from the same factory will hang around the industry for a long time.

Here’s an article from Ad Age that sheds light on this challenge.

Why is this a problem? Because the mantra of marketing has always been “differentiation, differentiation, differentiation.” It is pretty well known that fuel branded by a variety of different companies comes from the same refinery. After all, they all have to meet the same specs. However, the differentiation question is around the additives they add at the terminal. So the real brand differentiation question between Shell and Chevron for example is over the additives. If it weren’t for that, gasoline would be a true commodity (it is very close to that).

Pet food is a long ways from being considered a commodity. There are vast price differences and people paying much higher prices need to believe they are getting value. All the brands affected by this crisis are premium brands (which in itself a problem: Hey, I pay more, I should at least get a SAFE product!) but more importantly, any claims to differentiation have now been undercut by the realization that all these very different brands come from the same Canadian factory.

Here’s where crisis managers and heads of marketing or communication better get together. The crisis just undermined all kinds of brand strategy and brand building promotion. How will they deal with it? The additives strategy? Tell the world they opened their own factory? Of just quietly go back to business and hope everyone forgets that one big factory provides them and their competitors with the same products?

Thank goodness you didn't hear about it.

At least if you were not in the Seattle metro market. The breaking news story I referred to late yesterday involved the discovery of a white powdery substance coming from an envelope opened by an administrative worker of a large industrial facility. Everyone did everything right. The employee dropped the envelope and left it on the desk, security was alerted, the building evacuated, 911 called, local police and emergency response teams responded, they called in the haz mat team from the state to enter the building, evaluate the substance and determine if it was a threat. The haz mat team comes with five big trucks, lights flashing. The media is alerted via radio scanners and the phone begins to ring, they send the news helicopters, the satellite trucks are close behind and “Breaking News” breaks out on the website with live video of the helicopter over the building, then live interview to lead the 5 p.m. news. The 6:30 news leads with the mystery substance.

At about 7 p.m. the substance was identified. Packing material. Such is the world we live in today. A post 9/11 world and an instant news world and a blogging/social media world. The 11 p.m. news carried the denouement deep in the newscast. Story over.

Having been actively involved in this response, a few early de-brief notes:

- we attempted to coordinate with the FBI, Washington State Patrol, local Sheriff’s department to provide a lead media contact since we did not really want to speak for the investigation, what the authorities were doing, etc. We wanted to focus any information we provided on the facility, its operation and the people involved. But we were not successful in getting any of the agencies to take the lead or effectively get involved in the media response. As much as we tried, we were forced to be the source of information.

- we provided a short informational statement on our website about the event within the first couple of hours and well before the first media call came in. This helps the process considerably as they simply want the bare facts immediately so they can get their machines working–in this case, their news websites. Shortly after, the requests for live radio and television interviews come. But keeping the latest information available on the website makes the whole process go much smoother, and helps insure consistency and accuracy of information.

- we emailed our statement with updates out to the media who inquired as well as to the Public Information Officers of several state, local and federal agencies involved in the response. Keeping everyone involved in the loop helps insure information consistency and builds confidence in the response.

- we coordinated the communications with people in the Emergency Operation Center as well as those on the other side of the country. Company headquarters communication management was involved throughout the process. The integrated communication management technology used by the facility worked very well in allowing collaborative development of public statements, logging and tracking media inquiries, providing information and directions through a secure chat room, and giving the communication team (without IT involvement) full control over the website.

In retrospect, it is easy to say I wish all the activity could have been avoided. But, it probably couldn’t. Safety is a huge issue at major industrial facilities and everyone is taught to identify risks very early and take no chances. If this person had not reacted as they did, they would have violated that safety culture. And once the machine is turned on, the process must be followed through to the end. With all the busyness that goes with it.