The Hurricane Hunters of Communication Change

I was reading this blog entry titled The Communication Revolution, by Duncan Wardle on the Public Relations Society of American conference blog. As a speaker at this event coming up in October, I was interested in what other speakers might be saying re the theme PR Evolution. Wardle’s thoughts are valuable, prompting me to try again to get above the clouds and get more of a 30,000 foot view of what is going on.

I do believe that we are in a revolution, or evolution, or explosion. Or maybe a hurricane. Those who study hurricanes do so by flying airplanes into the middle of them and also looking at them from above from satellites–far more than 30,000 feet. That must be how many of us feel who are experiencing and deeply involved in the day to day activities of this hurricane. As a hunter, it can be a bumpy ride. We are constantly talking about those who “get it” and those who don’t.  “Getting it” means understanding that the expectations and demands of audiences are rapidly changing and that means changing the strategies, plans, policies and technologies used to meet those expectations.

But what are the real changes?  Wardle does a good job of identifying some of the keys. They include audience control. The consumers of information are demanding an ever increasing level of control over how they receive it, when they receive it and the forms they receive it. But another change includes the very term audience. Audience is probably an outdated concept because it conveys the concept of speaker and listener. Someone talking, someone or a group taking it in. Message and recipient. Seems so 90s. Today, it is all about individuals, not groups. Mass customization. It is also about interactivity.

All the hoo haw about social media simply means that internet users never saw this a publication vehicle, as many content producers did, but as a means of carrying on their lives which includes engaging in conversation, shopping, buying, selling, praying, laughing, meeting new people, staying in touch with family, etc., etc. The internet is just another platform for living, moving and having our beings.

From a communication standpoint, what makes this so astounding is that there is unprecedented opportunities to participate in the lives, thoughts, activities and conversations of individuals as never before.

Now, I have to get back into the airplane and enter that hurricane.

School communication, social media sites and current thinking

Here is an excellent paper by Dr. Dennis McDonald
about school communication. Virginia Tech continues to be a driving force in people’s thinking about communication and particularly mass notification. As I commented today to a reporter from PR Week, this event perhaps more than any other since 9/11 demonstrates the huge shift to a post media world. Every day the expectation is increasing of direct communciation vs mass communication through traditional media. Isn’t it astounding to look at the criticism leveled against the administrators that they did have the capacity to simultaneously alert thousands of people with an instant and direct message? And since that event, that expectation has multiplied many times over. It is not just university administrators who are scrambling to come up with ways to meet this new kind of direct and instant demand. It is anyone who is in the public safety business.

McDonald’s paper focuses on the use of social media sites. As crisisblogger readers will note, this is something I have commented on several times in the past. Indeed, the technology we provide for mass direct communication, is used to push info to social media sites and we now consider it one of the many important distribution modes.

The world of public information management gets more complicated and challenging every day. Thanks Dr. Mcdonald for helping address some very important issues.

The Woes (and Whoas) of product recalls

Mattel’s big recall of millions of toys manufactured in China continues to be instructive and entertaining of the nature of large scale product recalls in this hyper-charged media/public watchdog environment.

Consider this story from Forbes appropriately headlined: “Mattel to China: Oops!” 

A few things I find interesting about this unfolding saga:

- whatever huge impact this has on Mattel, it undoubtedly has much greater cumulative impact on all manufacturer selling products made in China. In this regard, this is an unusually wide-spread crisis and makes globalization itself a key part of the issue.

-  Mattel handled the recall, as I pointed out here before, with textbook communication. But now the question comes, did they go overboard? In the rush to make certain they are appearing to be proactive to meet consumer needs, will the CEO face serious scrutiny about how much unnecessary damage he caused the company and shareholders by going far too far? This will be watched by many – and communicators for a long time. We know the trouble that can be caused by looking reactive, going too slow, and not appearing to care about safety. What damage can also be caused by being excessive?

- Fear mongering. We all know, but still pretend it isn’t true–that the media builds audiences by fear. That’s why smart companies like Mattel go so far out of their way to make certain they are addressing fears–even if unfounded. The media had all these stories–one doctor in particular I recall–talking about how horrible lead poisoning is and that parents need to go to extreme measures to protect their kids. Sure, it helped get ratings, but did it serve the public? As the Forbes article points out, lead poisoning is not nearly the safety issue as a lot of other toy concerns. But all that is lost when the headline of the day is: Your kids are going to die if you don’t watch this newscast!

- Sanity returns–but too late. The Forbes comments about putting the danger into perspective are not part of the normal pendulum swings of media coverage. But they are too late. Damage done. Fear mongered. Ratings secured. Parents scared half to death. Companies out of business. Billions in share value lost. Careers ruined. Balance of trade improved. Another day.

- Balance of trade. I’m not a conspiracist, but I still have to think that these endless battles over Chinese goods have more to do with the hidden battle over the balance of trade with China. We are in an unspoken trade war I think. China has retaliated against some ridiculous accusations about products made in China by refusing to allow American food products and other products in for not meeting Chinese standards. Fine if this is the way we want to try and address the balance of trade issue, but where is the media on this one? I think it is simple–doesn’t create the attention that a headline like “your child will die if buy this toy” will certainly do.  But, if I am right, I am just saddened by how much damage, fear, loss of income and damaged careers come about as a result of international politics and economic manuevering. What really bothers me is that our ‘state of fear” is once again reinforced. My grandchildren can’t play with Tommy the Tanker because an irresponsible media has scared the life out of their parents.

The switch to direct communication is definitely on

For most of the past five years I have made numerous presentations to many different groups. My message can be boiled down to the need for speed, directness and transparency. At times it feels like little progress is being made–that while the world changes quickly, communicators and their processes don’t. Now there is more and more evidence that communicators are understanding and beginning to change how they do things.

Evidence: During a recent major storm event one of our clients sent out simultaneous messages to over 39,000 individuals via text-to-voice phone, SMS, email and website. It took some major grinding on servers and bandwidth, but the messages got through. Not all on the list had submitted their cell phones to receive text messages, and an inquiry back from one complained he didn’t get the message and why didn’t he hear it on the radio!

That really got me thinking because before this day of direct communication, if you needed to get a message out quickly to 40,000 people, you didn’t even think about communicating directly. Mail? Besides being too slow, it would cost $30,000 or more. Phone? Yeah, right. Email? Maybe. But simultaneously through multiple modes? No. Most would rely on some form of “mass communication” like radio, tv or the like. Untargeted, no assurance of completion of message, and you reach a lot of people who don’t really want your message. But the only way.

A school district started sending weather related school closure information to parents who registered for the updates. In one short season they completed converted from waiting on the crawl on tv or for the radio reports, to getting those email updates and if they didn’t come when they expected, to pounding on the website over and over until it coughed up the answer.

The future, folks, is direct communication. Mass communication is now in the hands of people just like you who have access to the powerful tools that make that possible. Data management must be on the minds of all communicators.

Evidence 2: Ad dollars falling.  This story in Ad Age points out that paid media is declining, not just over economic worries but may be in permanent decline. Why? Direct. The competition is not some fancy new form of mass media. It is CRM–customer relationship management.

Consider this quote from the article: ROI-conscious marketers from Procter & Gamble to Jim Beam have been loud and proud about their efforts to cut back broadcast budgets and repurpose dollars to the internet and disciplines such as CRM and word-of-mouth, which don’t involve any media outlay. 

Advertisers, with a little help from Google specifically and the internet generally, are finding all kinds of ways to send much more highly targeted, highly specific and personal messages to individuals. Mass media. Sure–mass personal media.

In 2001 I started writing about the Post Media World. Direct communication rules and I doubt there is any going back.

OJ proves rule about winning in the court of law

There was considerable discussion on tv about OJ Simpson’s new arrest and problems and why Americans were responding to this with some level of smug satisfaction. One pointed out that he has successfully evaded responsibility in most of his life.

There is little doubt that most American’s consider him a killer despite the innocent verdict. Of course, the civil case that found him legally liable is some basis for this, but the real reason for this guilty verdict is his continual series of trials in the court of public opinion. These he has consistently lost, including the coverage of the trial that freed him from the murder charge.

The lesson for crisis communicators and issue managers is clear–here is one of the most clear cut cases available that there is a vast difference between the court of law and the court of public opinion. OJ certainly would rather win in the court of law because it avoided life in prison or worse. But to live in the prison of eternal public judgment is no picnic either. Companies, celebrities and organizations need to pay more attention to the court of public opinion than they traditionally have.

Kathy Griffin's Emmy comments about Jesus

I was there. I heard them myself because my son Chris was a nominee for best cinematography for Intervention, and I heard what Kathy said. For those who may not know about this brouhaha, go to the Catholic League article about it and also all the Newsvine comments.

To me it is a great example of values in conflict (see previous post). She said those things to suck up to her friends and power players in Hollywood–just like Spike Lee did earlier in the evening getting into a irrelevant rant about our president. Sucking up. The really funny thing is that Kathy something about all those people coming up and thanking Jesus for their award. I was there–not a single award winner thanked Jesus, one thanked God without referencing Jesus. So, not sure what she heard. Chris, my son and nominee were talking about this after the show. We wondered what the reaction would be if she had said: Allah had nothing to do with me winning this–suck it Allah!” There would have been shock and horror in the audience and it would have been profoundly insulting–not only to Muslims, but also to the audience who believes it is inappropriate to insult the Islamic faith. Not so with Christianity.

The hypocrisy of those who would defend her comments is too obvious to even comment on. The point here is not defending Christianity or the founder of it, but to comment on the huge cultural divide the separates our country. It is sad, disturbing and destructive. Thanks Kathy, for making that divide so painfully obvious. And I hope your new “god” treats you well.


The role of values–and ministry related crises

Sitting at SeaTac waiting for another flight–this was never going to be my life. This time to Nashville to speak at a conference of communicators who work for megachurches and large ministry organizations. It’s been interesting to contemplate the specific issues these organizations face when confronted with a reputation crisis.

The issue again is trust and what is needed to keep it and build it. The challenge for Christian organizations is somewhat unique in this culture at this time because of the basic animosity of the mainstream media and cultural elite including higher education toward anything deemed evangelical or conservative.

It comes down to a very basic conflict in values and how that conflict is played out in media coverage. Particularly when the event involves the moral downfall of a celebrity Christian leader. Value conflicts include the perception of a “holier than thou” attitude. Anyone who says, in effect, I’m going to heaven and you’re not is open to such a charge. It comes to a basic misunderstanding of the evangelical concept of grace, but the problem is culturally we equate going to heaven with righteousness or goodness and therefore when someone suggests they are going to heaven and you are not, it is understood as saying: I’m good enough and you are not. That does not sit well. And when such message comes from very high profile individuals whom many flock to, there is a certain glee in the media and in the cultural elite public when such a person demonstrates moral failing.

This basic conflict in values makes responding to a major crisis event involving moral failure also more challenging, because the internal audiences and key stakeholders subscribe to very different values than those outside. But you cannot have two messages. So bringing the basic messages and actions to be taken together in a way that has integrity and recognizes the difference in values is quite a challenge.

It will be fun exploring these ideas with a room full of ministry organization communicators.

Wal-Mart borrowing more credibility

While on my recent travels (Alaska, Indianapolis, Chicago and LA in the past two weeks) I got the chance to read the September issue of Fast Company. Adam Werbach, the one time wunderkind of the environmental activism industry (youngest president of Sierra Club) was on the front cover. He is now a consultant and Wal-Mart hired him to manage their sustainability employee training program.

Well, as you can well imagine, the environmentalist “true believers” went absolutely ballistic. Adam has had to hire a body guard it has gotten so serious. Long time friends have disassociated and even ones willing to give him some of the benefit of the doubt are scratching their heads at what has happened to him. The title of the article and headlines on the front cover don’t help: “He Sold His Soul to Wal-Mart.”

The obvious reaction is that he has been co-opted and now can no longer be considered a true believer in the environmental cause. In other words, he has lost credibility as an environmental leader and spokesperson. His answer is that Wal-Mart is serious and he can do far more good inside the tent than harping from the outside. What is at stake is the reputation of both Mr. Werbach and Wal-Mart.

I have written extensively in my books and in this blog about the concept of “borrowed credibility.” My advice, based on Aristotle, is whatever you do, don’t do anything to lose credibility. But if you do lose it, you only have one option and that is to borrow the credibility of others. Arthur Andersen tried to do it by getting Paul Volcker in place to run the company, but by then it was too little too late. Wal-Mart has made several high profile attempts at borrowed credibility, most notoriously by hiring Andrew Young. Unfortunately, as I commented earlier on this blog, that effort went sideways when Mr. Young himself made racist comments. It backfired, hurting both Young and Wal-Mart’s efforts. But they clearly are intent in following this strategy now by hiring Mr. Werbach. Will it work? Well, who better to tell the environmental world that he has sat in the offices of the top leaders of the world’s largest company and has determined that they are serious about sustainability than one of the top stars of the environmental world? So, yes, it is working. At the same time, by taking this step, Mr. Webach’s credibility has been harmed so his effectiveness in the “true believer” environmental world has been diminished.

The real hope for both he and the company is in the actions, not the talk or the positioning. Will real, visible action result from the employee training program that Werbach and his team are heading up? Are their substantive and potentially dramatic changes in how Wal-Mart does business that will prove to the skeptics that they are serious? If so, the enviro skeptics will be proven wrong, Werbach will be vindicated and Wal-Mart will have demonstrated that a big company can do good things in big ways and that the strategy of borrowing credibility really works.

Dispelling Rumors and Myths–why it is so tricky

Thanks to our good friend Eric Holdeman, I read this article about the persistence of myths by Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post in the Sept 4 edition. If you are in communications, you NEED to read this article.

It will make you rethink how you need to respond to rumors, misinformation and false accusations–a topic that was discussed at my presentation with the Midwest ISO today.

A few key points in case you don’t read it:

- False statements will be remembered as true even when you say they are false. (“I am not a crook” turned out to be essentially heard and remembered as “I am a crook.” That’s why, as Eric points out, don’t deny a rumor by saying “Despite the accusations I did not beat my wife,” you should say, “I love my wife.” Don’t repeat the false information in its false form or you will be seen as the source of the false information and it will be believed as true. If you don’t believe me, read the article.

This may lead you conclude, reasonably, that when confronted with a myth, accusation or misinformation, it is better to ignore it. Not true. Here’s one quote from the article: “The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it. “

But the problem is that “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.” The research demonstrates that. “Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true. “

So, if you deny a rumor by repeating it, you are in trouble. If you do not deny it, you are in trouble. It sounds like the only response to this is have a consistent, powerful, positive message that contradicts the false information and is repeated until you are ready to go nuts.