Tomorrow, Valdez

As I write this I am in Anchorage preparing to board a boat tomorrow for a trip to Valdez. It promises to be a beautiful ride–if the weather holds up–through famed or infamous Prince William Sound. I am here to observe and participate in a major oil spill drill. Something all oil companies do in cooperation with state and federal agencies every year. A requirement coming out of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and prompted by the Exxon Valdez accident.

Valdez has that ring of history to it. In the crisis management business few names or places, have more meaning than Valdez and Prince William Sound. It is hard to believe that that event was almost 20 years ago. How much has changed, and yet, in crisis management, there are some things that haven’t changed. Looking back on pivotal events such as this helps to understand what has changed and what hasn’t.

There are few examples that anyone can point to that were more damaging to a companies reputation than the Exxon Valdez incident. And few disasters more expensive. Yet, one thing that is interesting with the perspective of time is that to some degree it doesn’t seem to matter. ExxonMobil is the most profitable company in the world–in the history of the world. It is famed for its discipline, its almost military corporate culture, its rigorous focus on what it needs to do to meet the expectations of shareholders. It is highly respected. And yet, there is still a cloud. It can almost be felt in the halls of its corporate headquarters near Dallas. And the cloud hangs low like the overcast skies over Anchorage not just over this company, but over the entire industry.

Does the cloud matter? To shareholders? To fuel products consumers? To employees?

I have no answers. Just asking the questions. All I know is tomorrow I will see, as I have many many times over in the past ten years, a great many very good people working exceptionally hard to do all the right things. All the while knowing very well that the worst can happen. That too, is the legacy of Valdez and Prince William Sound.

Email interviews vs. phone interviews (and podcasting too)

Jason Calacanis was asked to do an interview by Wired reporter Fred Volgelstein. He said he would do it by email. The reporter refused to do an email interview. What follows is a fascinating interchange and discussion about the nature of reporting and the issues of how to make sure the journalist gets the story and the quotations right.

Here is Calacanis’ blog following the refusal.

And here is a podcast of a phone call with Calacanis and Volgelstein discussing the uproar this caused.

For the record, I advise clients wherever possible to submit answers to questions by email–as a way of helping insure accuracy. But I would not tell them to refuse to do a phone interview. I find Mr. Volgelstein’s defense of his position–hearing their voice helps make sure he gets their meaning right–to be weak. I tend to believe reporters do not like to get answers by email because of the lack of spontaneity and the change in style that frequently results–plus the added constraint the accuracy question.

The idea of recording the phone interview (now becoming much easier with speaker phones and built in recording on computers) is a useful idea to again help insure accuracy.

But, what is most interesting is coming to the obvious conclusion that Mr Volgelstein needs some media training. ;-)

Mainstream media comment on the risks of the instant news world–its about Time

I found this article about the new world of crisis management interesting. It’s what we have been talking about for years–as any frequent reader of this blog or almost any blog on crisis management knows. And the key points about the changing world and its impact on crisis management and communication were made in the first edition of by book Now Is Too Late. But, Time is reporting on “The New World of Crisis Management”, so it must be news.

Here is the key statement:

But 25 years later, crisis management is proving harder than ever. (Just ask Don Imus.) The biggest change comes from the demands of always-on news. Companies now have to sweat not only the morning’s headlines but endless blog postings and runaway video clips that can (and do) appear 24 hours a day. Even when there isn’t much new information, blogs can keep a crisis alive–and smart companies must pay as much attention to them as they do to the national media.

One more thing–Eric Dezenhall has an impressive press machine behind the launch of his new book, as can be seen by his strong coverage in this Time article. Thanks for the copy Mark Fortier.

The Army and the age of transparency

I watched in fascination yesterday morning the live coverage of Kevin Tillman and Jessica Lynch’s testimony to the Congress re the Army fabricating stories of heroism. It struck me how strange it was to be observing this huge and fundamental shift in public expectations and acceptance. Propaganda has always been a part of political/military life and activities. Not just in the Goebbels/Hitler mode, but also in the US–witness the enlisting of Hollywood greats such as John Ford to make what in retrospect were outrageously propagandist films during WWII.

We now live in the age of transparency. We live in the age of embedded reporters who share the frontlines with soldiers dodging bullets and living in constant fear of IEDs. And we have no tolerance for spin–not even from our military leaders. I can imagine the Army Public Affairs officers in the 50+ category shaking their heads and wondering, what is happening here. The ground has shifted under our feet and we naturally feel unsteady. And the problem is, it keeps shifting.

As another example, I am about to lead a conference call with approximately 40 university leaders from across the country talking precisely about this shifting ground. Events like the Virginia Tech horror, change the landscape forever. Universities will never be the same in terms of what is expected from them in major events involving safety and health.

Communicators: nimbleness is more important than ever.

About Imus–is silence the better crisis response?

Longtime crisisblogger commenter Patrick Van de Wille sent me some comments about my post on Don Imus. In it, he asks a very important question and so with his permission, I have captured his email as well as my response:

I’ve been invited to do a presentation on reputation crisis management and the Don Imus situation to a group of communication professors here in Chicago. I hoped for some view of yours on your blog, and I’m disappointed that you didn’t address the Imus situation more fully. I have to say I disagree with what you have written, as well as with the gist of the NY Times piece you reference, which I read when it was published. I don’t believe the problem was that the firestorm was not going to subside (although that may be true) – I believe that the fundamental problem was that Imus actually fed the fire by making himself a news item on a daily basis for close to a week. It is the same error that Michael Richards made a while back, and it is a hallmark not of “old paradigms” but of new reputation crisis management thinking, that advises people to apologize, engage discussion, control the message, move the conversation onto friendlier ground, and attack the attackers if necessary. These were some of the elements of Imus’ effort  and they are also some of the things you advise in Now Is Too Late, if my memory is good.

My view is that “news” like this is fuelled by providing an outlet for confrontation between accusers and the subject, and it only remains news as long as the confrontation exists, and the press can maintain its mantle of “fair and objective” by presenting both sides. If, as the subject of a crisis, you continue to participate in the process, you are feeding it, and your detractors’ message consistency (“He should be fired”) becomes a strength. As a crisis manager, the objective must then be to remove one of those elements – namely, your client – from the process. Once that occurs, the press finds itself in a position of pursuing the story with only one side – something they are loathe to do – or dropping the story. In that case, the detractors’ message consistency becomes a liability – it is no longer news.

I’m curious to get your thoughts on this before I present, which is late next week.

Here is my response to Patrick:
My own view on this is that you are raising the stickiest question in crisis communication which is at what point do I, by responding, fan the flames? There are certainly cases where that is a problem and I have made the mistake myself of deciding to take a very proactive position only in retrospect to see that is contributed to the problem. That being said, I am extremely reluctant in today’s complex media environment (including online media) to withdraw from the field. For one, I don’t agree that that means the comments will go away–either from mainstream media or from the blog world. I don’t think the media believes they need the main source to participate in order for them to be fair. Their only criteria for deciding coverage is if the audience is interested. Certainly audience interest can be fed by the participation of the subject, but in this case, I think audience interest would have been there anyway.

In my view, Imus needed to be highly visible to do exactly what he tried to do: apologize, and try to show that he got it. The problem in this case, his comments so violated the public view of good character, that in the same way as Michael Richards (and to a large degree Mel Gibson) the comments revealed in the public’s view a deep-seated racism that is simply unacceptable today. Saying you are sorry does not undo that perception. The only argument that I can see for Imus to quietly go away is to recognize that he was in an absolutely no win situation.

It’s a tough one and in my mind, open for a variety of approaches. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this.
Thanks Patrick.

Blackberry, Virginia Tech, SMS–so many things

There are so many important things going on right now in the world of crisis communication, that it is hard to take the time to try and keep up. I’ll limit this post to some quick items that are of note:

RIM demonstrated that just because you provide advanced communication technology, that you “get it” about the need to communicate. Here is a good assessment from AdAge.

The Virginia Tech tragedy, among a lot of other things, signals the critical importance of SMS messaging in the world of crisis communication and notification. As my last post indicates, this may be one of the most significant long term implications of this event. Here’s more evidence from Yahoo news.

Also, this commenter notes on the effective use of web technology by the VT communication team. I have to say that it was impressive–and demonstrates the need to be prepared to fully assume control over a web presence in an event like this. What I don’t understand about this comment is the negative view toward “dark sites.” Not sure the commenter understands that effective use of dark sites will result in exactly what he rightly proclaims as a success. Also, I heard anecdotally, that the VT website was having a hard time handling the traffic. Dark sites located on crisis capable servers is very important.

One more note: if you are in University communications or emergency management, you may be interested to register for an online conference I will be hosting via PIER Systems. We have a number of communication and IT managers from some major universities participating in this online conference. To receive an invitation to participate, you need to register online at www.piersystem.com.

History's take on Virginia Tech and its impact on crisis management–and the world

They say that journalism is the first draft of history. This qualifies as journalism, then, but with an eye to the changes that this event will make in our world, and particularly the world of crisis communication. I’ll present random ideas in bullet form.

1) The media, being in the infotainment business, continues its insistence on finding someone to blame.

The person who is lying dead on the floor with a self-inflicted fatal wound does not qualify. In this case, it was the administration for “failing” to notify everyone. To the point where President Steger was asked if he would resign. Outrageous. Only with the benefit of hindsight can anyone fault the decision that was made. And to apply 20/20 hindsight and find fault on that basis is highly unfair and can only be justified in the light of the insistence that someone has to be at fault.

2) For every action that grabs the media’s and world’s attention, there has to be an extreme overreaction.

As I write this I have been informed that dozens if not hundreds of schools are in lockdown. Entirely predictable. A car backfiring within three miles of any university or school campus is going to result in a lockdown. That is until cooler heads prevail, the costs of such actions are analyzed, and administrators become as afraid of being accused of being lockdown crazy as they are now afraid of being accused of what VT administrators are accused of.

3) SMS will be on everyone’s “have to have” list for crisis communication.

This brought the attention of the world as nothing else has in my 20 plus years of crisis communication, of the need to reach people quickly in ways they can be reached. Phone notification vendors (of which we are one–offering it as part of a comprehensive solution) are going crazy trying to capture the feeding frenzy of buyers of emergency notifications services. Some of the strategies and approaches are stomach turning, but that is another issue. The point is, the world of emergency notification and crisis communication is forever altered by this event.

4) Rapidly changing modes of communication.

A few days ago I would guess that most professional communicators were only vaguely aware of Facebook–and certainly did not consider these social media sites as a viable means of communication. Let alone, a replacement for email. Let the record show, I blogged on this several weeks ago. Now, many are looking at these sites in a whole new way including looking at how they need to be incorporated into a comprehensive emergency and crisis management solution.

5) Don’t expect too much in responsible or moral thinking from the media.

This goes to the issue of NBC playing the video. I don’t want to be as harsh as this may sound. The reality is that someone somewhere with a website would have gotten this, it would go on YouTube soon, and it would be all over. And NBC would have lost a scoop opportunity of enormous proportions. It would have happened. Do not doubt it. Our world is brutally transparent and the beheadings in Iraq have demonstrated. So what would you have done if you were an executive. Your future is at stake, your ability to draw an audience is being hurt everyday as the compelling stuff is found on the Internet. I will not judge them. But I will say that the overarching economic realities need to be kept in mind as people set their expectations for media decisions.

6) What becomes possible, becomes expected, then demanded.

Personally, I think this is the biggest long term outcome–and particularly for us in crisis communication technology. A few days ago, few knew about SMS text messaging as an alternative means available to reach people in a life-threatening event. Now it is known. It is known that it is possible, even inexpensive. Every university in the world is scrambling to answer the question as to how they would reach students in this event. But, this does not just apply to students. A university is, after all, a community. It has public safety officers, headed by a main administrator responsible for the welfare of those in his or her care. Sort of like the mayor of a town or city and the public safety officers. I suspect that many people will soon start to ask the question–if a university can reach all students by cell phones and text messaging, why shouldn’t I be alerted if there is a rape, or murder, or bomb explosion, or toxic release, or some other health and life event taking place in my town, my city, my neighborhood?

When Federal Express announced you could get a package shipped across town or across the country in a day, absolutely, positively, it changed the expectations forever about package shipment. I predict this event will change the expectations forever about emergency notifications for everyone. It seems inevitable.

I have already had conversations with a fire chief and a head of communications for a county in this area about announcing to the community that they can get text alerts about life threatening situations by logging their cell phones into a public safety websites. The technology these departments have is already in place. The only thing missing is to let the community members know it is possible. But once they understand it is possible, they will demand it. That is what I predict.

Finally, this interview by PRWeek with one of the media responders gives a very good idea what the pressure of dealing with the media frenzy in this event was like.

Ford's former crisis manager's take on Virginia Tech

This article from today’s Daily Dog is important reading for all involved in crisis communication and looking at the Virginia Tech situation. It is all the more valuable because Jon Harmon has been through the mill as the communication manager for Ford during the Ford-Firestone crisis. Jon, correctly in my mind, focuses much attention on the role of social media in today’s communication environment.

I encourage readers to subscribe to Jon’s Force for Good blog.

On another note, it is interesting to see how universities are dealing with the question they are receiving from all local media these days: how would you deal with a situation like VT. Here is a clip from Houston TV regarding University of Houston’s response (full disclosure–they are a client and use our technology). What I find most interesting is the response of the other universities who do not have such systems in place. Come on–because you have smaller student bodies you don’t need to worry about how to communicate quickly with students? Now that, dear friends, is what I call spin.

Virginia Tech–changing things forever

Since my company works directly with several very large university systems providing crisis communication and emergency notification technology, this event has obviously impacted our clients and us quite directly. I commented to some of our staff that this event will likely be a watershed event in our work and the crisis communication industry for the way it is has highlighted the need for exceptionally fast and multi-mode notifications. As one example, we just completed and are distributing as I write this to some of our clients instructions about how Facebook can and should be used as one aspect of a complete emergency notification solution.

Tomorrow morning I will participate on a web conference call with a large group of university communication leaders on the strategies and technologies needed to respond to this kind of event.

One thing is clear–it takes more than the right technologies. The solution has to include what we talk about frequently: the Four Ps: Policy, Plan, People and Platform. It is easy in hindsight to question the decision of the university leaders not to order the complete lockdown of the university after the initial incident. It is not so easy in real life to make those kinds of decisions. It is one thing to have the technology that will enable virtually instant multi-mode communication with an entire university community. It is quite another to have the plans, policies and people in place to make the right decisions and to be able to act on them in concert and efficiently. The challenge is huge and those who would too easily criticize those who were in that position probably have never been in a similar situation.

Stunned–the Horror of Virginia Tech

I started several blog posts on this incredibly horrible event and I can’t bring myself to evaluating how the university is doing right now. There will come a time. But for now, as the father of three former university students, and the board member of a small university, I can only imagine the pain of those involved. My deepest sympathy to the families, friends, teachers, and administrators.