The War on Terror–Let's call on the real soldiers needed

This post may seem off topic, and it might be attributed to the fact that it is Thursday and on Saturday I leave for a week long vacation. But it is something I have been thinking about a lot, and was further triggered by a tv program that featured two of the top terrorist experts in the US, including one who teaches our soldiers at West Point about the nature of the battle they are in.

My plea is simple: it is time to call in the communicators. Actually, it is way past time. The war on terror, by these terrorism experts and it seems by all intelligent consensus is fundamentally not a military conflict. It is an ideological one, a battle of ideas and values. And the real battle is not between Islam and Christianity or even MidEast and West, or America vs Al Qaeda, as much as some want to picture it that way. The real battle is being waged within Islam. As Karen Armstrong points out, extreme fundamentalism of all stripes is a reaction of a few to the loss of a once dominant cultural position. As Christianity lost its traditional role and influence in America, exemplified by the Scopes Trial, a minority took a militant position in attempting to staunch the loss and regain the high ground. The same forces are at work today in the strong Islamic societies. An open communication world has exposed people–young people in particular–for a generation or two now, to the values and culture of the west. As a result dress changed, attitudes changed, ideas about proper government and individual freedom changed, the concept of the role of God in society and government changed, etc. The more conservative and radical elements saw these changes with alarm and believed that not only their cultural hegemony was at stake, but their religion and eternal destiny as well. Such things are worth fighting for and so they chose a militant, even violent reaction.

If I, and the terror experts are right, we are incredibly stupid to think this is a war that will be won with guns. Indeed, we have already seen that our guns have worked to solidify hatreds and prejudices. (I am speaking as one who has been a strong supporter of war in Iraq by the way). We cannot fight this war with our military might–as important as it is to help prevent more attacks against not only our innocent citizens but all innocent citizens of the world. But, we cannot lose this war either. So, it is time to call in the real soldiers–those who are experts in understanding the minds of key audience influence leaders, who understand persuasion, who are practiced in the arts of change and change management, who think strategically and with a long term perspective. In other words, we need the best that our communication profession has to offer.

It is my wish that some respected communication organization, perhaps PRSA, or the Council or some senior level group, or even ad hoc group of great communication minds, will come together, call for the biggest and most important brainstorming session in our lifetime and come up with some answers. We cannot simply talk about projecting American values to the rest of the world. We have to, in my mind, help those who come at these challenges with a different mindset, understand the changes that are underway and help them to resist the tendency toward militant fundamentalism. Such tendencies rest in all of us–liberal and conservative alike. But, the consequences of denial and inability to reign in the most violent and closed minded are potentially deadly. Not just to us, but to the world we leave our children.

Calling all senior bloggers–speaking opportunity

 In November I will be co-hosting along with Tod Lyons a session at the Clean Gulf Conference in Tampa. This conference is for oil spill response professionals including senior oil industry managers, response organizations, government officials involved in response, etc. Tod and my session is a four hour session in which we will try to bridge the gap between the media and response leaders in understanding how a major oil spill event will be covered by traditional and new media. Frankly, most senior leaders in these organizations are not too well tuned into new media (actually, not that much into traditional media either), so adding a strong element of new media coverage should be entertaining, enlightening and we think, potentially revolutionary.

We have lined up a pretty good group of reporters as well as some high level communicators with tons of experience in dealing with this kind of incident. But, we really need a top notch blogger to serve on the panel. All travel expenses paid, plus all conference fees. Possibility of a small honorarium but that and the amount is not certain yet. It would be a great learning experience, plus a great opportunity to promote a blog and blog expertise to a good group of response leaders.

If you are interested in finding out more about this, I encourage you to contact my associate Ryan Pemberton at Baron&Company, at rpemberton@baron-co.com or call at 360-671-8708, ext. 205.

In his searches for an appropriate blogger to represent new media coverage, Ryan came across this blog about CEO blogging which I am going to add to my blogroll.  I loved the story about the fake Steve Jobs blog.

Revising my thinking on the Utah mine disaster communications

In a previous post I congratulated the Chairman of Murray Energy, Bob Murray for providing the face of the mine disaster and doing a good job of working with the media during this almost-made-for-cable event. Then I watched the news last night and saw how things have turned so against the company–from the families, the union and the media. Losing three rescuers also violated the first rule of emergency response: do no harm. But, communications has gone almost as badly lately as the rescue efforts.

My friend and colleague Jon Harmon provided an op-ed piece that was run by the LA Times today and it is a much better, more complete and insightful analysis than I provided. Here is the link to that op-ed.

Here is a relevant quote: It doesn’t have to be pretty. It is a measure of public cynicism toward slick spokespeople that Murray’s unpolished, bellicose presence struck many as refreshingly candid.

That is in part what I was responding to. In comparison with Mattel’s chairman who I think also has done well, but for some has come off as far too slick, practiced and insincere, the same could not be said of Mr. Murray. Ah, it is difficult challenge, isn’t it.

Communication lessons from Virginia Tech continuing to emerge

The Virginia Tech tragedy is likely one of the most significant events since 9/11 for both emergency responders and crisis communication professionals. The lessons learned continue to emerge from follow on news stories like this one from roanoke.com (Thanks Chuck Wolf), to presentations made to response organizations such as those made by Bob Spieldenner, the PIO from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Bob, I understand, will be speaking at the National Information Officers Association meeting in Clearwater Beach, Florida at the end of this month.

Bob reports that there were about 1000 media representatives on scene. His presentation includes photos of the acres of satellite trucks, reporters jammed in the hallways, and a very harried Joint Information  Center staff working hard.

It is this kind of media crush that all of us in this business need to prepare for and need to know very clearly how they would deal with it. The Joint Information Center approach can help a lot. But I would suggest that planning for this kind of absolutely overwhelming event focus on two things:

1) The in-person presentations–including individual interviews, press conferences, public meetings and the like

2) Pushing a constant stream of information out.

The in-person presentations are critical because that is what those people in those trucks are there for. You have to have the appropriate leadership ready and available and it will be non-stop. From the article about Larry Hincker, it sounds like they did a pretty good job with that.

The other is push, push, push. With 1000 reporters on campus, there are an awful lot more than that looking for info. And it is not just the reporters that matter. Families, students, staff, government officials of all kinds, key donors and supporters, university associations, etc–all these have a high demand for information. Even a well staffed JIC can simply not keep up in a reactive mode. As they say, the best defense is a good offense. So proactive communication is the only way to  respond to the crush. The keys:

- an interactive website that enables those interested to add themselves to the mailing list

- a way for the JIC to quickly develop messages, edit, approve and distribute

- distribution via multiple modes include text-to-voice phone, SMS text, email, fax and website (while Michael Dame did a marvelous job with the website it sounds, simply providing the “pull” information on a website is not enough. Push and interactive inquiry management are also critical.

- Virtual operation–having these capabilities on a web platform that enables virtual JIC operation enables the JIC team to rapidly increase without having them be in that overcrowded and hectic room. A JIC team can work from their homes or offices as a coordinated response group with the right kind of Virtual JIC technology. Scaling up JIC operations very quickly without having to deal with travel, room logistics, technology, etc., is a critical key to making this work.

Mattel shows that reputation management is becoming routine

First, let me say that Mattel seems to be handling the potentially organization-threatening recalls and reputation damage very well. And their response seems like the well rehearsed response of messaging, key executive media training, and crisis management response that many of us in this business have been advocating for a long time. Get your CEO out there. Tell the truth, even when it hurts the worst. Be the bearer of bad news yourself. Accept responsibility. Personalize your pain. Tell what you are going to do about it so the problem doesn’t happen again.

Key highlights:

The letter from CEO Eckert starts: Dear Fellow Parents. That’s good. Make common cause with your most important customers and those most concerned–and personalize. Which is exactly how he starts the video.

Video–yes, with CEO Eckert carrying all the key messages.

Key message Q&A–short, precise, to the point.

Web site and search–I could quickly find (about 6 down) the important message from Mattel about safety with a web page that took me directly to the information–which means it doesn’t have to clutter their existing site, but also avoids them looking like they are oblivious or it doesn’t matter.

Pretty text book I say. We will see how it plays out longer term. What I am seeing though is that there have been an increasing number of companies and organizations in crisis that seem to have it figured out. So much that now there emerges another problem. When does it start to look like it is too practiced, too routine, too slick? Not sure, but I expect there to start to be snide comments from media commentators about this kind of schtick–in fact, I heard one comment about “the normal round of mea culpas,” so I think it is starting. The question is–if you can’t do this and protect your reputation, what do you do?

One more thing. Lead poisoning is no doubt a great concern and parents ought to be alarmed. But some of the expert doctors suggesting almost that if your child had any contact with a Mattel toy need to get in and get tested seems overkill. The media loves to scare, no doubt about that as John Stossel effectively pointed out a while back on 20/20. How about some useful information now about the level of lead necessary to trigger brain damage and just how much of one of those toys would someone have to suck down in order to accumulate that much lead. That would be useful and might work to relieve some worried minds–including those at Mattel, whose CEO is a parent too.

Why the response guys don't get it

Traveling through the Southeast and East Coast on a business trip during a heat wave in the middle of August is not my idea of fun. But I must say, the Riverwalk in Augusta, Georgia is a surprising delight–even on a very warm evening.

I can’t be specific here but I was talking to Dan, my traveling companion about the respect (or more correctly, lack of it) that communication people have in the response circles. Having worked with professionals in emergency management, oil spill response, disaster planning, etc., I am quite convinced that most leaders involved in planning for and managing large scale responses tend to think that they are better at dealing with public information than the seasoned professionals they usually have available to them to manage this task. I think they think they can handle the media better, run a public meeting better, deal with stakeholder questions, etc. They only let the PIOs and communication professionals do what they do because they are usually too busy doing the important work of response management or response planning.

The sad truth, from my perspective, is most of these very smart and capable men and women are very much out of touch with the realities of public information. And they will only know that when it hits the fan and they look back and realize how ill prepared they were to deal with the realities of a post-media world. Communicators have far too little clout when it comes to the essential planning steps of a coordinated, multi-agency or large scale response. It’s a lot there own fault, I believe, for not assuming a more strategic posture in the planning process, but it also the fault of those seasoned response professionals.

I was talking to one professional today in this business who is in a very responsible position and who definitely does get it. We agreed that the key for many of these who have their heads up their, uh, sand, is to experience a major event themselves. Only in the aftermath of a Virginia Tech or Minnesota bridge incident will some of these wake up to the realities of public information management. And short of that, because we certainly cannot wish for such catastrophes, the best way to do large scale drills in as realistic a mode as possible. That’s when even the most confident eyes tend to open a bit. Communicators needs to push and push and push that response drills include a very large communication component. No namby pamby let’s have someone call into the JIC and pose a few juvenile media-type questions. It’s got to be full slam to the wall with overloads coming at the PIOs from a hundred directions at once.

For example, in the Virginia Tech incident, there were 1000 reporters on the scene!  1000! How many more were trying to reach those beleaguered JICers trying to keep up with the crush? Let alone family members, community members, students, governors, local leaders, etc., etc., etc.

No question at all that emergency management professionals have a tough job to do. But, as Katrina showed, ultimately the measure of the job they do in a real emergency will depend on communications. Precisely those people they tend to ignore and discount right now.

The engineering approach to controversy: silence

Veco, a 4000 employee international engineering and construction firm headquartered in Alaska, finds itself at a brewing storm of national significance. Senator Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the Senate with 39 years as a Senator from Alaska behind him is being investigated for corruption. The specific concern seems to be whether or not his home remodeling project was paid for in part by Veco, who could gain from the Senator’s efforts to expand oil production activity in Alaska. Apparently, according to the Economist, the project manager for the Senator’s remodel project was the founder and Chairman of Veco, Bill Allen.

This is the same highly respected senior executive in Alaska who pleaded guilty, along with his VP Rick Smith, to charges of bribery in May of this year.

Having some interest in this company (I did some minor marketing work for them in the past and they have a strong presence in my community) I decided to see how they were communicating about this swirl of controversy and a very serious reputation management problem. Nothing. Yes, there was an old press release from May announcing Mr. Allen’s retirement. But it was attributed to his age and “the events of the last several months” without any reference to what those events might be. This press release also announced that Mr. Allen’s daughter had assumed his role as Chairman. In the light of the comment on the company’s website: “Values are important at VECO. We are committed to a culture that promotes safety and protects the environment” this lack of distancing and obvious strong connection to a now thoroughly discredited leader is troubling. Particularly without any context or explanation.

Then I read that in June 2007, the company was purchased by CH2MHill, the highly respected engineering firm headquartered in Denver. I read the press release about the acquisition. Nope, no reference to the troubles that led to what was undoubtedly a bailout and a protection against complete collapse. Given the international publicity about Steven’s inquiry, it seems that the venerable CH2MHill has adopted a significant reputation issue without giving the slightest indication publicly that they are aware of the hornet’s nest they now own.

I’m not sure about all of this to tell the truth. Mr. Allen, the chairman of a huge engineering firm serving as Senator Steven’s own personal remodeling project manager? Come on. But, what are they to say? I expect more openness and communication from the company–old and new owner as well, but is that smart or realistic. I’m not sure. One thing for certain, their closed position on this is not what I would call transparent communication. Certainly, I would hope they are doing an excellent job of communication privately with customers, employees, industry leaders, other government officials, etc. I hope so. But something tells me that a company or companies who treat such a significant issue in the public eye with such stoic silence is probably also not going to be too progressive or active in communicating with key stakeholders.

All I can say is that based on this, if I was an employee I would be very concerned. If I was a valued customer and this indicates the communication from the company, I’d be looking for a new engineering supplier. And if I was a new customer and had even the minimal level of knowledge about what was going on as I do, I’d never give them a second chance. That is the real price of such silence and lack of transparency.

The "face" of the mine disaster

The mine collapse in Utah is perfect stuff for cable news. There’s the drama of following how close the shaft they are drilling is getting to the workers and the opportunity to break in with breaking news every time there is the slightest new development. As a result, the president of the company is getting lots of face time on cable news. In fact, several times last night Soledad O’Brien commented on Bob Murray, I believe, putting a face on this event. I will admit, on first glance, not being too impressed with the “face” they were putting on this event. But I have changed my tune. Mr. Murray, while admittedly not photogenic and obviously tired, in my view is a very impressive spokesperson for the company. He is the president and that is critically important. The company is not running and hiding from the scrutiny and the obvious circus environment this entertainment-based opportunity provides the cable news providers. He is almost ubiquitous. He provides details that are relevant and bordering on the too technical because it is clear he is a mining guy and knows what it is to be in the trenches, or shafts. He is sad and sober, empathetic with the families. His care worn appearance is appropriate when he talks about being at it for four days straight, we believe him. He has obvious patience with the media and their questions and expresses it.

So, for all of us media trainers who want to put a pretty face on such an event, there is a lesson here. Good job, Mr. Murray. You are earning your pay in these troubled days.

Crisis aftershocks–what communicators can anticipate

OK, I think I spotted a trend here. Most of you probably noted it already but I tend to be a little slow. I’m calling it the “crisis aftershock.” We’ve seen it clearly in the Virginia Tech situation and now in the Minnesota bridge tragedy. Everyone in a similar position to the organizations involved are facing questions by local or regional media about how they would prevent such a thing happening to them or how they would respond. After Virginia Tech, virtually every university, community college or private college was asked by their local media how they would prevent the Virginia Tech tragedy from happening, how they would notify students, and if they would have made a similar decision to delay in notifying. This public scrutiny of their preparation is largely what has spurred many universities to suddenly act in buy notification systems. I wish that the driver for this was only the need to communicate re safety information. The reality is the embarrassment of not having a good answer to those question is what is driving a lot of very foolish purchases right now.

Everyone responsible for bridges is now having to answer the same question. This article highlights the demand for accountability–now focused on bridges that share a similar design. Communicators and leaders from every state and local transportation authority are facing questions about how can they assure that the bridges under their control won’t all of a sudden collapse. They’re in a tough spot.

So, the point is–each high profile crisis creates a series of mini-crises for anyone in the same or related business. If you make grow organic spinach and some organic spinach gets tainted with e.coli, you will be asked if yours is, how do you know, and what you are doing to prevent it. If you make baby widgets like six other manufacturers and one of your competitor’s baby widgets blows up and hurts a baby, you will be asked how you can assure your customers that yours won’t blow up.

The interesting thing is that we prepare for crises where we may be directly involved. But we don’t necessarily prepare for crises that others similar to us are involved. We prepare for the quake, but not the aftershock and it is the aftershock that may hurt us. So, add one more thing to your list of crisis preparation items.