Non-profits and foundations discover the power of saying "I'm sorry."

Are there two more powerful words in the world? “I’m sorry.” When these words are said with sincerity and the sincerity is proven by action, these words can change everything. They are an essential part of the new world of authenticity and transparency. The truth is people screw up and make mistakes. Our litigious society has made it very very dangerous to admit to making mistakes and accept responsibility. But something else is going on as well. People are realizing that credibility in these days is based on full disclosure, complete honesty and the full acceptance of responsibility.

This story from the New York Times about foundations admitting the failure of grants is a great example the growing trend toward painful honesty, and the value of participating in it. Here’s the concluding sentence: “Foundations are supposed to take risks,” Mr. Brest said. “Sure, it’s better to tell your success stories, but there’s no harm in sharing our failures, too. The only thing at stake is our egos.”

Unfortunately, this comment shows that while the trend is good, there is a lack of understanding of why it is so important. Mr. Brest says there is no harm in sharing our failures. Actually, there is. Failures are still failures. The only reason to show them is because the harm in not showing them comes from the sense of covering up what should be made visible. Don’t kid yourself. Talking about your mistakes doesn’t change the fact that they are mistake. Doing so doesn’t necessarily make you look good. It just keeps you from looking a whole lot worse if that mistake is discovered and made visible by others because then you can be charged with cover-up, with dishonesty, with not being trust worthy. The real mistake Mr. Brest makes here, however, is in the last sentence. No, Mr. Brest, the only thing at stake is not your egos. It is your credibility. And if you lose that, you can just lose the whole enterprise. That is the point.

Great ideas about public sector communication from New Zealand

Chuck Wolf of Media Consultants in Houston shared with me this blog post about public sector blogging from New Zealand.

It not only gives some great basic advice about blogging, RSS feeds, linking etc., it also makes an interesting suggestion about using blogs as a crisis dark site. In other words, pre-populate a blog with information you would need in a crisis and then make it public when you need it. It’s a great suggestion and shows the growing awareness of the need for preparing in advance with appropriate web technology if you are going to be able to respond quickly enough when it hits the fan.

I also found interesting other content on this blog including the 10 Principles for public sector social media. In the world of the internet and how it is changing public information, things seem to happen slowly at the speed of light. But, more and more communicators and elected officials in public agencies are waking up to the new world of communication that requires speed, direct access, interactivity and unprecedented levels of authenticity and transparency.

BP's Whiting refinery expansion concern highlight value of protecting reputation

Everyone is complaining about high gas prices, and many want to blame the oil companies for price gouging. More intelligent observers will note that no new refineries have been built in 30 years, that billions have been poured into existing refineries to meet ever increasing environmental regulations, that legislating all kinds of boutique fuels diminishes efficiency–all this not counting the skyrocketing cost of crude and skyrocketing demand via India and China’s rapid modernization.

So we have most major oil companies scrambling to use some of their profits to invest in refinery expansions. (NIMBYs and environmental regs won’t allow new refineries). BP has been seeking permits to expand their Whiting, Indiana refinery. That ought to be good news. More refining capacity, more product on the market, lower fuel costs. Wrong, the public is up in arms and opportunistic politicians are all over it.

This is a complicated issue with many dynamics. A couple worth noting. If the nation’s news media does not do a better job of informing the public about the costs/benefits of refinery expansion and the need to increase our ability to produce fuel products, we will have to soon accept the idea that we will be buying not only our crude from foreign sources, but our fuel products as well. As I have commented here, the industry has done a terrible job of public education. But the news media has a role to play as well and they need to step up to this challenge.

Secondly, and more to the point here, this shows the challenge of trying to do business when your public franchise has been lost or damaged. Those of us in crisis communication continue to try to make the business case for CEOs and senior leaders about the value of protecting your license to operate. I suspect that part of what is happening here is the loss of public franchise that BP  has experienced over the past couple of years.  That loss can come at a very very high price. In this case, not just to the company, but to anyone else how is trying to get a permit in the region and the entire country and globe for that matter. We are all being punished by mistakes made and by hyper-aggressive news media coverage that has demonized this company. It is time we all realize that this kind of demonization comes back to bite us all on the behind. Companies like BP owe it to all of us to do their damndest to protect their ability to operate and secure new permits. And the news media, if they were honest, would take a step back and say, you know what folks, we too have a role to play in the high prices you are paying at the pump today and tomorrow.

Virginia Tech's webmaster Michael Dame explains power of the web in a crisis

Since I’ve only been preaching this message for about 8 years, it is great to see some verification from a high profile event. Virginia Tech’s communication effort is now seen as very successful, in large part due to its use of its website for rapid information distribution. This article details some of the important specifics about traffic as well as information gathering, vetting and approval processes.

What amazes me is the comment at the very end: At the end of the presentation, Mr. Dame got a standing ovation. In the crowd, there seemed to be general amazement that staff members at Virginia Tech had been able to organize and disseminate information as well as they did. One audience member was overheard saying: “On our campus, you ask who handles the Web site, and nobody knows.”

It is a sad but true fact that too many communicators at large organizations with much at stake have no ability to fully command the most important communication tools they need when they need them. I would quit any communication job that gave me such responsibility without the requisite authority. It is that important.

Notification is Not Communication

Ever since the Virginia Tech tragedy in April, there has been a tremendous increase in interest in emergency notification. There is almost a sense of panic, so many seem so intent in putting emergency callout capability in place. This is positive in many respects because it is a strong indication that more are starting to understanding the growing expectation that today’s stakeholders have for DIRECT communication. When their lives are at risk, or what you are doing affects them, they want and expect to hear from you directly, not the media, not from blog sites, not second hand–directly from you.

But there is a lot wrong in this frenzied rush to buy notification solutions. We have bandied this about in our offices for weeks and with the prompting of Marc Mullen, my associate who drafted the first version of this paper, I finally put down what I think is wrong with the current thinking about emergency notifications.

Here is the White Paper.

I fully expect that those providing telecom-based notification services will disagree. Good, let the debate begin.

Good news for the oil industry–some honest discussion

The New York Times article this weekend on refinery problems will probably not change any minds about what is happening in the oil industry. Those, like the junior senator from Washington State, who are convinced that it is all a big conspiracy and that refinery problems are just one more way the three-piece suited slobs in smoke filled rooms have figured out how to gouge us all, will see in this confirmation of their views. Others will see glimmers of hope that the real issues of no new refineries, billions spent on environmental regulations, burden-some boutique fuel requirements, etc., are emerging and will become part of the national debate about the price of fuel.

What is most bothersome to me about this important issue of fuel prices, fuel supplies and energy policy is how one-sided the debate is. Most seem to believe that anyone with any ties to big oil has no right to speak because clearly all they care about is obscene profits. Meanwhile, those ignorant of the situation along with the populists looking to boost activist or political careers, have the field of public debate to themselves. So we have a national debate going on with only one perspective being heard. Sure, the media has a role to play in this (which is why the balance in this NYT report is so welcome), but more important, the industry has a role to play. They have sat on the sidelines and kept quiet for far too long. Yes, I know it is because a CEO of the Giant wanted it that way, but he was wrong and he is gone. Time to speak up, loud, long, sustainably. The national debate about our energy future is too important to muzzle anyone–even if the muzzling is self-inflicted.

I never thought the Emmy's were such a big deal…until now.

Wow, I look at all the news coverage and all the buzz and all the excitement and I see what a big thing these Emmy’s are. Imagine then how I feel as the father of an Emmy-nominated cinematographer. Yes, our son Chris, who I have blogged about before regarding his great work for the A&E show Intervention, has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding cinematography for primetime reality television. The episode that was nominated, “Sylvia” was shot by him and he subsequently has been named Director of Photography for the series.

Chris, this is a dream come true. I’m so proud of you–not just for the great work you do, but for the personal mission and desire to change and improve the world that you embody in your work.

Las Vegas Sun interview re MGM Grand labor problems

On my way home, stuck in Seattle gridlock traffic, I was interviewed by a reporter from the LasVegas Sun. The question–does MGM Grand have a reputation crisis on its hands? Labor negotiations are apparently going badly and there is the threat of a work stoppage. Worse, Nevada is the site for one of the first presidential primaries and Democratic candidates are likely to jump on board to show solidarity with the unions and may even lead the parade arm in arm with union leaders. Is this a problem for MGM Grand and how should they deal with it.

First, let me admit, I made two mistakes in responding to this reporter–probably more but two I can think of right now. First, I didn’t take the requisite time to think things through like I always advise those I media train. Second, since I was driving I didn’t get the reporter’s name and phone number and when I went to call him back after thinking of an important point I missed, I saw my phone said “Unavailable” number.

What I told him (I think) was that this was a two edged sword and if handled right could fall into the category of “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.” In other words, it is publicity. But it will only to their advantage if they are aggressive and effective in communicating how they have bent over backwards to treat their highly valued employees right and with respect. If they cede the field of communication to the obviously media-savvy union leaders, they could get hurt. What makes these situations worse, is the company is frequently reluctant to talk publicly since they know that can infuriate the other side and make negotiations tougher. Between a rock and a hard place so to speak.

What I should have told the reporter and thought about later, is that I would try to diminish the enthusiasm of candidates to publicly participate by communicating directly with them how they have gone overboard to meet demands, how their offer is more than fair, etc. Also communicate their willingness to let their side of the story be told publicly to the point of committing to get their message out even through paid advertising if they have to. The the candidate would have to decide whether there is more to gain or lose by staying out of it.

I pointed out to the reporter that in my view the majority of Americans are in the “saveable” category when it comes to union issues. In other words, they can be swayed either to support the unions or support the company. Die hard union supporters of course are not “saveable” neither are die hard anti-unionists. But most Americans want to know that companies are caring, respectful and have good reason to hold the line against unreasonable demands. MGM can show that and win. Without showing that, the unions and the candidates will have a field day.