Three news helicopters flying overhead. Satellite trucks pulling up for live interviews. Multiple police and other response agencies involved. Live video streams on news websites of the activities. The worst of it, this is no drill. It’s happening right now. I’m writing this at 5:20 p.m. The 6 p.m. news should be full. I will write more tomorrow after, hopefully, this settles down. If it doesn’t settle down by them, you will all probably be hearing about it.
Facilitating the crisis management scenario for the Texas Public Relations Association conference in Houston last week was one of the most fun things I’ve done in a long time. That’s because it was my job to try and confound four top notch crisis communication experts on the panel in front of an audience of about 150 communication leaders from private and public organization in Texas. The panelists were:
– Tim O’Leary, head of communications for Shell Alternative Energy and head of crisis management for Shell in North America
– Jon Harmon, former head of communications for Ford and communication manager during the Ford/Firestone crisis, now heading his own PR consultancy Force for Good Communications
– Terry Hemeyer, former chief spokesperson for the US Air Force, for Pennzoil, for SCI and now a professor of PR at U of Texas and Rice Universities
– Mike Breslin, manager of the Houston office of Hill & Knowlton
A great group. My scenario was a national non-profit pet rescue agency using celebrities as pitch people. The executive director gets sideways with former employees and a blogwar turns into a full-blown media frenzy relating to charges of impropriety with young, female staff. And then we get a bird flu scare. And then Bill O’Reilly calls.
It was fascinating for me (and the audience I think) to hear these great minds think outloud about dealing with a challenging crisis situation. If you are interested you might check with the TPRA to see if they have tapes of the session. What was somewhat surprising is that while there was great general agreement among the panelists on certain approaches, there were also some very specific differences. And that is important for those involved in crisis communications and PR in general to understand. There is an art to this, and the one holding the brush and making marks on the canvas makes a tremendous amount of difference in the outcome. While there is no one single path to success, it is clear that different crisis counselors will take different paths.
In thinking through their approaches, it occurred to me that one of the greatest differences between my approach and the most common one I hear from other experts is what I might call the “stakeholder first” approach. By that I mean, it is just so ingrained in our profession in a crisis involving the media to have our focus of attention on dealing with the media first and foremost. But that can be a mistake. One of my basic principles when it hits the fan (actually well before it hits) is to ask the question: Whose opinion about the organization matters most for the organization’s future? Whatever that answer is, determines to a large degree the strategy, the message, the response, the speed required, etc.
In this scenario, the opinion of the celebrities was critically important because of how they could support or damage the organization. The opinion of key donors was absolutely critical. The opinion of employees and their families was also critical. The media in this way of thinking becomes one of the channels of communicating with those key stakeholders–but a particularly poor one, because there is no control over what they say and they have their own entertainment agenda to follow. So communicating directly with key stakeholders becomes the driving concern, even while the media beast is being fed. It is far too often forgotten that today’s information technology can allow very fast, very direct communication via web, email, phone, text message–multiple forms– with key stakeholders. But, most organizations in my experience don’t understand the importance of this direct communication and therefore don’t put the policies, plans, people and platform in place to deal with it. It’s a major problem and a key reason why too many fail when it hits the fan.
That point was made by the panelists in the discussion, but I would critique them somewhat by saying that the stakeholder first point should have been much more to the forefront. One panelist in his opening remarks noted that they key concern needed to be how to stay in business. For that, he gets my award.
Today’s Bulldog Reporter Daily Dog newsletter includes a piece I wrote about what is happening to the media and using my analysis of the coverage of the Delta Zeta story as an example.
I commented yesterday about how the discussion about Delta Zeta and the NYT’s coverage is lasting well beyond the newspaper’s coverage. An important lesson for crisis communicators because this lengthens greatly the time of a crisis event and adds to the need to continue communicating. Those involved in the discussion after the media flash has gone are frequently the most interested and the most passionate about the topic (as some of the comments on crisisblogger can demonstrate.) Now I find myself contributing to the phenomenon.
I look forward to the discussion that will come from this. I just read the comment from Carl who points out the difference between print media and broadcast–noting that broadcast tends to the more sensational and entertainment focus rather than print because it is so driven by immediate ratings. I agree, Carl, but that too is changing. As all print media now have their news websites, they have become broadcasters. They not only now compete more on the basis of speed–immediacy is everything–but they also compete on the basis of immediate ratings. The ad dollars they generate both on their sites and by driving site viewers to their print versions is based on traffic to their sites. They are now also ratings driven and I think we are seeing the result of that. Whether or not the Delta Zeta story is an example, I am not sure. But more and more all news media are competing on similar terms and based on quickly generating as big an audience as they can.
After reading the very thoughtful and thought provoking comments of Michael about my criticism of the New York Times article re Delta Zeta, I decided this was a comment deserving some response. But my first comment is about the blogworld and how it changes the nature of crisis management. I pointed out in Now Is Too Late (written in 2001) that the Internet was greatly lengthening a story. The mainstream media will cover it and then typically quickly move on and the story is gone, but those most interested and impacted by the story will continue the discussion for a long time. Interestingly, I still see most communication professionals operating as if when the media interest has left, the story is over and it is time to stop communicating. One even shut down a website that was getting tens of thousands of hits a day based on the idea that the media interest was gone and there was no more new information to communicate. Well, if the conversation is still going on, there is still much reason to keep communicating. And this Delta Zeta story is an excellent example.
I very much appreciate Michael’s questions and comments regarding my take on the story. In part because even though he strongly disagrees with me, unlike at least one other commenter on this blog, he kept his remarks to the topic and didn’t slip into personal attack. Thanks, Michael. This is the way these conversations ought to go, I think.
Most of the numerous people who have commented since I first posted have far greater involvement in the issue than I did. I responded because one of my blog readers (wahine) suggested I comment. I did so in complete and blissful ignorance. I don’t know DePauw, have never been a part of the Greek system, never heard of Delta Zeta before, on and on. But I do have one clear bias from my many years of work in this business. Reporters all too frequently write a story in a way that seems more aimed at generating interest and readers than in any strict adherence to what is happening and the truth.
I stand by that assessment of this situation. One has become very clear as my knowledge of the situation has increased thanks to the many commenters here: the story is far more complicated than what the NYT reported. And that is a big part of my point. It is complicated. To suggest as they did, based on the bitterness expressed of some (but clearly not all) of the students involved that this was about discrimination against race and unattractiveness, was unfair, unwarranted, and way way too simplistic. As to what Delta Zeta leadership did wrong was not in my knowledge or purview. Same for DePauw leadership, except I noted the big difference between what the reporter said the role of the president was vs. Delta Zeta leadership–and subsequent information bears out a much higher degree of responsibility than the report indicated.
I realize that most who are following this story are doing so because they care about the university, the chapter, the sorority and other organizations or people closely involved. That is not my interest. I am a disinterested observer fascinated by how the media deals with complex stories. And, greatly concerned about how organizations and people can be so easily and callously hurt by media coverage that seems aimed at their own interests of attracting audiences rather than accurate, truthful, complete and comprehensive coverage of events.
Thanks again Michael, and please comment anytime.
I had the great privilege during my recent trip to Houston to participate in the Texas Public Relations Association annual conference. This was a great event with strong participation from an exceptional group of communication professionals. Our keynote speakers were Mayor Bill White, Mayor of Houston, and I had the opportunity of sitting next to him at lunch, finding out that it is quite likely that he is a distant relative of Davy Crockett. Mayor White’s comments showed that the mayor can indeed claim to be king of the mild frontier known as Houston.
I also had the great privilege of hearing Mr. Harold Burson, founder of Burson Marsteller and certainly one of the great gentlemen of our profession. He spoke about what he saw as the loss that the industry has suffered as we went from Public Relations professionals to managers of communication. I don’t agree with him that this change of title is a problem, but I do agree that what he sees as the loss of participation with key management in providing advice and counsel on actions that bear on public interest is a signficant concern. I found it interesting that although the words he used were different, the message he taught is exactly what we are trying to communicate today: reputation (we prefer trust to reputation) is based on two key things: doing the right things, and letting people know about it.
Anticipating a question he is frequently asked, Mr Burson offered up what was his most rewarding experience of his lengthy career. It involved removing the rebel flags from Ole Miss athletic events. Obviously, a tremendously touchy subject but he was asked by the Chancellor to assist with the removal. He told how this difficult action was managed. In talking to the new football coach (who didn’t want to touch the subject with a ten foot pole), the coach told the PR man that until the flags were gone, Ole Miss would never have a great athletic team. Why, asked Burson. Because recruiting top athletes from Mississippi and the region meant going after predominantly African-American athletes, and all competitive schools needed to do was show the Ole Miss stadium with all the rebel flags flying and ask the parents, Is this the environment you want your son or daughter to grow up in? Finally, the coach was ready to communicate that message to the public, the alumni and the world and shortly after the flags were gone.
Here is a tremendous example of the gifts we as communicators can bring to the world and the organizations we work for. It is not a matter of calling in the spin doctors as far too many executives continue to think. It is about doing the right things, finding ways for all consituencies as far as possible to win in implementing changes, and then doing a great job of telling the story with truth, honesty, class and transparency.
Thank you Mr. Burson, you are an inspiration.
As Chip Griffin of CustomScoop points out in his comment, this switch from email to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace is a phenomenon that Shel Holtz has been reporting on for a little while. Well, of course, if it has to do with communication on the web, few are going to take notice before Shel! I feel so out of it. I don’t have a Facebook page. But after reading this post by Michael Arrington about a Goldman Sachs employee who noted on his Facebook page that the nearly half his day he spent on Facebook was more important to him than his job, I’m almost fearful of the addictive powers of these sites.
But then, I’m from the days when I can remember an actual working Linotype machine, type was placed with wax, and if you packed a writing instrument with you, it was a slick portable typewriter. To think that email is quickly slipping into history makes me feel like I am sadly watching the last horse leave on the Pony Express.
I’m traveling this week and one of my meetings was with the CIO of a large university. Since I am involved in crisis communication technology and one of the key stakeholder groups university leaders need to communicate with in a hurry when things go wrong is students. The system we were discussing pushes out messages via multi-modes: email, fax, text-to-voice telephone and SMS (text messaging). But, the administrator said, the students don’t use email anymore. Now, I haven’t seen the stats on this yet, but he said he hears that students check their email with decreasing frequency. On the other hand, he said the average MySpace or Facebook user checks their page 30 times a day! Again, don’t quote me and I may not have it right, but the trend is probably accurate.
This article from eMarketer.com bears out the fact that young people are spending a tremendous amount of time of the social networking websites. Of course, from my point of view in delivering communication technology solutions, we have to figure out how to reach key audiences the best, fastest, most comprehensive ways. That may very well mean posting urgent or emergency messages to their social network sites. With their permission, of course. It is a strange and changing world.
This thought-provoking article by David Henderson of Siegel+Gale, suggests that pressure on main stream media is resulting in bite-sized chunking up of significant news stories. The example here is the CNN headline that summarized all the intrigue of he Scooter Libby trial into four words: Libby Convicted of Lying. (Of course they could have said: Libby Lied.)
The over simplification of complex stories has long been a favorite topic of mine, and I don’t attribute it as much to the pressures of New Media on Old Media as to the intrusion of journalism into the world of entertainment. Entertainment operates by a different set of standards–the premium being on capturing and holding attention–than traditional journalism. Now, of course, the pressures on Old Media is forcing them into ever more desperate measures to compete for audiences–so Henderson is very right about the result.
But the overall impact of the blending of New Media and Old Media may be positive in addressing this. There is no doubt that with 70 million “citizen journalists” writing frequently on almost any and all imaginable topics, far more information and discussion occurs than before. And news readers have access to all that real info and pseudo info very easily through search engines. The result is that each story in its sum can get far, far more coverage than before. Not in the traditional way of the coverage in the hands of professionals paid for by news organizations, but we have seen the weaknesses of this. The weakness of the new breadth of coverage, is that it is not professional and frequently the “journalists” do not have much of significance in new or valued information to add. But, frequently they do.
Add up the increasingly brief news capsules offered by traditional media with all the chatter, discovery, commenting and analysis by millions of blogs and you have more depth than ever. I believe this will result in a stronger fifth estate–but the jury is definitely out on that.
It continues to surprise me, even stun me sometimes, that so many people in responsible positions don’t seem to understand the world we live in. When serious things go wrong on your watch, it is no longer socially acceptable (if it ever was) to hide out and not face the crowd. This applies to a company much in the news who decides to turn off a public website with tens of thousands of people coming to it every day as it does to these school officials with serious misdeeds going on in their classroom.
But, time to ask yourself again. Do the senior leaders in your organization (or you if you are one of them) understand that in this world of speed of light information, you must talk soon after a story erupts? You cannot wait until you have your ducks in a row and it all worked out with your professionals and your attorneys what to say. On the web, a juicy story can get an audience of hundreds or thousands or millions in mere hours–sometimes minutes. To be MIA in these circumstances is to concede all the worst that the worst of those who think the worst of you have to say about the situation. Really now, school officials, just come out of your bunker and say something. Saying nothing did not kill the story. Instead the reporter had to quote parents (outraged), an attorney for the state (what does he have to do with this) and one school board member who happened to return a call (was she an authorized spokesperson?).
When I wrote my post about James Cameron and Discovery Channels PR coup in the Jesus’ Tomb documentary, I suggested it was a controversy and not a crisis because both sides (producers and Christian believers) would come out winners in this. A crisis is typically defined as involving risk. (Risk and opportunity if you follow the Chinese character for crisis.) However, there are some at risk and I was going to point it out at the time and neglected to do so. Those at risk are the scholars who participated or were included in the presentation of the evidence. If they have legitimate scientific reputations at stake, their careers could very much hinge on how this documentary is received. The first indication of that is now out. In this story from the Scientific American website shows how one of those scholars is reacting to her involvement in the documentary. There is no question her reputation, as well as James Tabor and other key players involved in this is very much at stake. So, for crisisblogger, the interest is now in how these people attempt to protect themselves when there is strong feelings all the way around.
This “breaking news” post from Biblical Archaeology Society will provide more information on the evidence for those interested.