Arnold Schwarzenneger for Spokesperson of the Year

Here’s why I nominate the Gubernator: the California Wildfires and his aggressive response when the media tried to go down the tired and untrue path of finding fault with the response to the wildfires.

It was absolutely expected. Here was a major disaster with people being hurt, property damage huge and many different agencies responsible for responding. The media fully expected that the story line that played out so effectively for them in Katrina about incompetent government would be the main story again. Arnold would hear nothing of it. He was prepared. He had his facts. And when the first hint of this as an emerging story line evolved, he jumped right on it. He said, in effect, anyone who complains about the response is just complaining and they don’t know what they are talking about. As to the criticism about not enough airplanes, he said we have 90 of them, but they don’t fly in 60 mile per hour winds for safety reasons. His tone was aggressive and impatient. He anticipated their nonsense and called them on it. I half expected him to say, “Any of you who go off and write stories other than that we are doing the best possible job is just a girlyman.” Of course, he didn’t, but it was almost there.

Compare that to the run to the caves response of the Department of Homeland Defense and FEMA following the press conference. The more I learn about that (from a very reliable source) the more I see this as a story that is farther and farther from the truth and more in the line of journalistic abuse. Did the agency leaders challenge them on their name calling of a “fake news conference?” No, they ran for the hills throwing anyone they could under the bus.

What about the nonsense of Speaker Pelosi coming to San Francisco to criticize the Coast Guard for a poor response and the CG commander losing his job because of the criticism. The only reason anyone had to complain was that in the very earliest reports, the amount of the spill was under estimated. Where was Arnold to stand up and say “if you girlymen are any better at estimating a spill amount in the first little bit after a spill, maybe you better take that job. You want the best information we can give you absolutely as soon as we can get, then when we give it you with all kinds of caveats about it may be wrong, you turn around and crucify us with it. To make things worse, girlymen, you play into an obvious attempt to embarrass the administration and politicize something where politics don’t belong. Why don’t you pay attention to the competent dedicated work of those who are dealing with this mess instead of somebody who is trying to make political hay out of an accident?”

Until spokespeople start understanding the methods and approaches of today’s media which is increasingly desperate to build audiences and start calling them on their games, the trust situation in this country is going to get an awful lot worse. I hope that when Arnold leaves office (assuming no constitutional change is on the horizon) that he goes into the media training business. Because his style of media engagement is something desperately needed.

Phone lines and conference calls–from FEMA to Enbridge

I am more and more convinced that the time of press conferences is over. Either that, or communicators have to get a lot better about the technology.

Here’s a blog post about the crude pipeline disaster currently in the news regarding Enbridge (full disclosure, Enbridge is a client) titled “Worst. Conference Call. Ever.”

The problem: phone lines. Anyone who has tried to run a large scale telephone conference or a web meeting that includes a number of phone participants knows the challenges. Noise on the line, some dumbo goes for a bio break and puts their phone on hold which goes to music that every has to listen to. A siren goes by. Somebody starts talking to someone else in the room and he’s on speaker. So you hit the mute button–now people talk and don’t know they are on mute. Or you hit mute all and your conversation suddenly feels like you are talking to an blank wall in an empty building.

Enbridge staff clearly was having a problem managing the phone technology for a massive teleconference call. Unfortunately, as the snotty blog points out, the reputation damage acrues to the company who was trying to communicate with almost everyone at once rather than the phone company for not solving an all too common problem.

Regarding FEMA, I recently learned from a source very close to the supposed “fake news conference” event that it was the reporters themselves who requested that the phone lines not allow for questions. Yes, that is true folks. The very reporters who later reported that they were not allowed to ask questions requested that the phone lines be on mute. Why? Because they had had previous experiences with phone conferences like Enbridges. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

What is the answer? I think there are several.

1) get up to speed on the best ways of handling the phone technology. Test it, practice it, drill it.

2) Make clear what your approach is going to be re muting and explain the reasons, or give the participants the opportunity to weigh on the best approach.

3) Don’t rely on press conferences as a key element of getting info out. Frankly, for the most part they suck and are an artifact of a MSM-dominated era. That day is long past–although most in PR continue to forget that. What stakeholders, the public and all reporters/bloggers need is a steady stream of information in a variety of formats–fact sheets, situation updates, photos, videos, links to other reliable sources, etc. It should come not in spurts tagged to some long gone newscycle, but fed continually through a special website and delivered in multiple modes to all audiences with a high degree of interest.

This is what FEMA should have done instead of a hastily called and poorly organized press briefing. It is was the world now expects of Enbridge. Let’s hope they can deliver.

Vancouver Taser Death–trouble for RCMP

The death of a Polish immigrant who arrived in Canada, fought the bureaucracy for ten hours and then was tasered to death, is causing the RCMP some real problems. See how I wrote that lead? Is that sympathetic to the victim? Then read the news accounts like this from the Globe and Mail.

Who knows what the real story is. Video on YouTube helps tell the story. Clearly you have a very disturbed and upset young Polish man. The biggest problem for police is their version of events is inconsistent. The investigative report is due out today.

Universities finding text messaging not the panacea they thought

I commented earlier about the rush of universities to adopt phone-based notification systems in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy. I also predicted that there would be another wave of purchases made by universities once they realized that notification alone is not the solution. (You can read my White Paper: Notification is Not Communication).

Now there is some proof that universities are indeed recognizing that text notification is not the panacea they thought in the rush to find solutions. Here’s an article from the Examiner.com about a campus security conference in Baltimore.

Our point has simply been that when you need to reach multiple audiences in a hurry you need a single communication platform that will allow you to communicate in all modes (push, pull and interactive) and distribute (push) in multiple modes including text, phone, email, fax, special purpose website, and RSS feeds (which enables distribution to social media sites as well). And that you need to include the media in a simultaneous distribution because frankly some people still use radio and tv to get information–plus news websites. So instant, comprehensive communication management is the key. Reliance on one method alone is certain to disappoint.

About the life of the traveler

I’ve never been much of a business traveler. I decided early in my career that my wife and kids were far too important to me and that whatever opportunities travel offered, it could not offer more than the value of sharing my family’s life together. And it did cost me, no doubt, but it was right.

My kids are grown, having kids of their own, and my wife has agreed to travel with me whenever feasible so I have been doing a lot more of it, as frequent readers of this blog will know. Two comments–travel sucks, and yet, there is no question that there is so much more that can be done with face to face meetings that can’t be done in the office or even via the great new web conferencing tools.

Traveling sucks. No news to the millions of people who have to travel or who choose to travel for work. But I just have to believe between the too often ridiculously poor and unapologetically disastrous service offered by most airlines (yesterday’s flight was United, in my view one of the consistently worst performers), and the outrageously idiotic rules and procedures of our TSA, travel is far more of a nightmare than it needs to be. One should not have to be able to afford a private jet to get reasonably efficient, friendly, predictable and unembarrassing service. Having to strip oneself almost to your underwear while being pushed by a crowd behind you is outrageous. I cannot understand why we have proven to be such cattle led to this kind of treatment with so little protest.

I suggest a global traveler strike. Let’s just all say we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it any more.

The flip side is the value of face to face. Much of what I was able to accomplish with my month long odyssey on the road was because of face to face meetings. Part of it through the efficiency of group presentations, part of it developing strategic partnerships that cannot be done unless you sit across a desk or conference room table from each other.

So, there it is. Travel sucks and it has to be done. So it goes.

What happens when oil spill responders mix it up with the media?

That’s what Tod Lyons, with ACT Environmental, and I wanted to find out. I’m at the Clean Gulf Conference in Tampa and just finished the workshop that Tod and I lead called “Working with the Media in an Emergency Response.” Well, if you want to know how to work with the media effectively, how about asking them? So the four hour workshop was structured with three members of the media present to actively engage with the workshop participants on how they would do their job. We presented a complex oil spill scenario and talked though each phase of the incident to understand what the media would be looking for and how to best respond.

The media were represented by Joey West of Bay9 television in Tampa, John Sepulvado of NPR and WUSF, and Tommy Duncan, representing blog media who blogs in Tampa with www.sticksoffire.com. Also on the panel was Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine who is the chief spokesperson for the Coast Guard in the Texas region. Adam did a great job of explaining the Joint Information Center and giving some hints as to why the Coast Guard has earned a great reputation for fast, open communication.

It was a lively discussion and I don’t have time to recap all the nuances. But here are a few of my impressions.

It is important not to put all media in the same category or brush them with too broad a brush as I am apt to do. There are major differences, and the differences between NPR as public media without any real concern about pursuing ratings and commercial broadcasters or print who need to work hard to attract the biggest audiences possible was vividly on display. It was fascinating to see on display how broadcasters–public and not–and bloggers would approach the same story in very different ways.

A major point of discussion was about relationships. Is it possible and even a good idea to establish relationships (even friendships) with members of the media if you represent a company or a government agency? Absolutely. That was very clear. It was surprising how much of the discussion came down to discussing the value of building a relationship of trust in advance of any major story. At the same time, the necessary distance and independence was also discussed. It comes down to, as Tod commented, “trust and verify.”

I also found the discussion about how much the public–particularly the younger public–distrusts companies and government very interesting. While there was some discussion about whether this was actually distrust or more a healthy skepticism, it became clear to me that there is a very fine line. When asked if the company provided detailed information about the toxic nature of substances released to the environment would the reporters trust that info, the answer was, only if it was verified by someone else I trust.

Obviously there was a lot more discussed and I think there is general agreement that the task of getting information out to the public to meet the incredible demands of instant information is daunting. But, this kind of session I think is very helpful to understand that we are all just people trying to do the very best job we can. Thanks to all who participated.

OK, Tommy, now let’s see what you have to say about this session.

Rackspace does more than hosting right, they do crisis communication right too

After a pretty extensive search, our Director of Technology Cameron recommended that we move our clients to Rackspace, a premier hosting provider. Their “fanatical” service doesn’t come cheap, but we weren’t looking for cheap when our clients depend on us for incredibly reliability and service. We believed they would provide that kind of reliability. Imagine then how I felt when I found that shortly before we cut over to Rackspace, they have a serious outage that affects a whole lot of their customers–others like us who place a premium on reliable service. In a vacuum of information, it is hard to understand how a top-quality hosting provider could actually go down for as long as they were.

But, there is no vacuum of information. Here is their communication with the customers. In tone, in depth, in quality of response, in all respects it is what I would expect and want from a company I need to trust. Good job Rackspace.

More on the real story about the FEMA press conference

The unique opportunity to discuss this situation at length with Pat Philbin, the former Director of External Affairs at FEMA, provides an important reminder of being careful about coming to conclusions based on what you see/hear/read in the media. And my initial caution about this not being consistent with what I know of those in charge was justified.

Here is the truth: Pat Philbin, like the good former military officer he is, accepted full responsibility for the press conference gone awry. His superiors, including Secretary Chertoff, in an immediate desire to protect their credibility and the reputation of the agencies involved, piled on Philbin. Understandable, but regretful. Particularly when their own internal investigation essentially exonerated him. The Washington Post report of that investigation which was released on November 9 is presented below.

From what I now know, I believe Mr. Philbin made two mistakes. One, when he walked into a press conference that was botched by his staff, he should have stopped it immediately and at a minimum made clear to the reporters on the line that those asking the questions were FEMA staff and that they had to resort to this method of getting the info out because of the failure to adequately notify reporters and then not allow them to ask questions by telephone. Second, he allowed about a week to go by before beginning to aggressively address the rumors, accusations, misinformation and damage to his reputation he was experiencing. In truth, when I had the opportunity to challenge him personally on this, I did not. These are the difficult calls in reputation management. When do you let a bad situation go quiet, hoping that it will die down and go away? In this case and with the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Philbin clearly needed to help set the record straight in order to protect an outstanding reputation for leadership in open, honest, credible public communication.

FEMA Press Secretary Directed Fake News Briefing, Inquiry Finds

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007; A19

An internal investigation into a fake news conference staged by the
Federal Emergency Management Agency during last month’s California
wildfires found that the agency’s press secretary directed aides to
pose as reporters, secretly coached them during the briefing and ended
the event after a final, scripted question was asked, according to a
senior FEMA official.

The inquiry, completed Monday, left several unanswered questions. It
could not corroborate accounts that the agency’s No. 2 official,
Harvey E. Johnson Jr., was told before he led the Oct. 23 briefing
that FEMA staff members would pose questions.

Nor did the inquiry fully explain the event’s rushed timing. FEMA
announced the news conference at its Southwest Washington headquarters
about 15 minutes before it was to begin at 1 p.m., making it unlikely
that reporters could attend. None did, and real reporters listening on
a telephone conference line were barred from asking questions.

FEMA officials hurriedly went ahead with the event, and Johnson, who
was live on some cable news channels, praised FEMA’s response as far
better than its reaction to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The review “found nothing that indicated malicious or preconceived
intent to deceive the media or the public,” said FEMA’s acting
director of external affairs, Russ Knocke, who conducted the inquiry.
“As an aside, the content of the press event was accurate,” Knocke
said Wednesday night. “It is obvious that there was a significant lack
of leadership within FEMA external affairs.”

In an interview, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the
agency’s press secretary, Aaron Walker, resigned at his request,
effective Dec. 7. Walker is the second top FEMA communications aide
and political appointee to leave the Bush administration as a result
of the event. Earlier, the director of national intelligence withdrew
an offer to FEMA’s director of external affairs at the time, John
“Pat” Philbin, to serve as his office’s director of public affairs.

Paulison said he did not expect additional disciplinary action but
would reorganize and retrain the agency’s 90-member external affairs
staff.

“Those are career people. They should have stepped up and said
something, they really should have. But their bosses said ‘Do this,’
and they did it — some reluctantly, but there’s no excuses for that,”
Paulison said. He called the impact on FEMA’s credibility
“devastating.”

A senior FEMA official described the investigation’s findings but
spoke on the condition of anonymity and would not make them public,
citing information about personnel.

According to the review, Philbin was told around 11:50 a.m. to hold a
briefing that afternoon and instructed Walker minutes later to do so
at 1 p.m., but there is no clear explanation for why that time was
chosen. It was 12:43 p.m. before aides worked out details and notified
reporters.

At 12:54 p.m., six minutes before the briefing was to start, Walker
sent an e-mail telling members of the external affairs staff to be
prepared to fill chairs and “to spur discussion” in the absence of
reporters.

Walker specifically told Mike Widomski, deputy director of public
affairs, which question to ask first and assigned press aide Ali Kirin
to ask a sixth and final question. Off camera, Walker encouraged staff
members in the room to continue asking questions, even as he pretended
to cut off discussion, interjecting at one point, “Two more
questions,” the FEMA official said.

In an interview, Walker said he did not apologize for his actions and
said he had planned since September to leave FEMA to seek
private-sector work in Utah.

“Across the board, there was no effort to misinform, to put on a
charade. It was simply a poor choice across the board of a method to
get some information out,” Walker said. “This is the best job I’ve
ever had. I loved it.”

The review concluded that Johnson, a retired Coast Guard vice admiral
and FEMA’s deputy administrator, was “poorly served” by aides who
rushed him into the news conference without explaining the
circumstances.

Two career employees signed statements saying that Walker told them
either that he told or planned to tell Johnson before the event that
questions would be choreographed.

But Johnson told the investigation that “he does not recall being
advised that staff would be asking questions.” Of four aides with
Johnson before the briefing, three, including Walker, also said they
also did not recall whether he was told. One said he clearly was not
told, the FEMA official said.

“There is not a lot of consistency in terms of recollection of what
was said, but it’s clear from everyone that there was not an adequate
briefing,” the FEMA official said. “There was poor staff service of
agency leadership.”

Paulison said he had “tremendous confidence” in Johnson. He praised
his deputy’s honesty and ethics and the “ungodly amount of hours”
Johnson has spent rebuilding the agency. “It wasn’t intentional, but
he was set up,” Paulison said, “and he walked in there, and he didn’t
know everyone in the room.”

In an earlier statement, Johnson said FEMA’s intent was to provide
information as soon as possible, and he apologized “for this error in
judgment.”

FEMA has announced it will give at least one hour’s notice of future
news conferences, allow only reporters to ask questions and no longer
bar reporters listening on teleconference lines from asking questions.

Want to see the future of communications? Look at today's students.

Young people for the most part have led the digital revolution. And major innovations that have changed corporate and organizational communication have frequently been adopted first by young technology enthusiasts. I remember, years ago, when my kids were early teens and hooked on video games and adults were debating exactly how damaging this would be to their work careers, I said that in the future wars would be fought this way and work would be structured more in the form of video games because that’s what these kids were being raised on. Plenty of evidence of that now.

This recent conference highlighted the coming change in organizational communication in adoption of social media. Already we are seeing this on university campuses (see previous posts on this topic). Students are abandoning email in favor of Facebook and other social media sites. Linkedin seems to be gaining more traction as the social media site of choice for the more mature user–including corporate types.

There are many issues related to this including company policies on internal communication. From a crisis communication standpoint, just when people were getting used to the idea that direct emails to those affected by an event are critically important, now the ground shifts again. If students expect to hear about an event on campus through their social media site and not email, how soon will it be before workers within a large organization expect the same, or citizens of a community expect the same from those charged with their safety?

Time to stop the piling on about FEMA–my discussion with Pat Philbin

Having had the unusually good fortune of having lunch with Dr. John “Pat” Philbin in DC yesterday, I would ask those observing from outside to take it a little easy here. Here’s an example of going over the top in making judgments when circumstances are not fully known: the PR News take on it.

How did my lunch with Pat come about? I was in DC in meetings with consulting firms about the communication technology we provide. Mr. Philbin is a former customer of ours in a previous position, a strong advocate of our technology and a friend of the company. That’s why when I posted initially about this incident I expressed some real caution of rushing to judgment knowing the quality and character of the people involved.

To respect Mr. Philbin’s desires regarding a fuller explanation, I will not divulge the specifics of the situation–at least at this time.  But I will make a few general comments.

No doubt, mistakes were made. No doubt some of those could have been avoided through  better coordination and communication management technology has a strong role to play in that. But, this is also a good example of infotainment at work. Given the spotlight on FEMA following the Katrina debacle, any story suggesting that lessons had not been learned is going to be the automatic main narrative. While the Economist, for example, has written very positively about FEMA’s success as well as the other agencies working together in dealing with the disaster in Southern California, the story about the good work has been completely lost in our media because of what has become a story about some form of fakery or cover-up. As most of us in crisis management teach repeatedly, credibility is critical, we live in an age of transparency, and any hint of cover-up will quickly supercede whatever the story was about to begin with. The story of a “fake news conference” attracts an audience much faster and more effectively than telling what a great job dedicated government employees are doing to deal with a disaster.

As all of us in this business consider what happened in California on October 23, I ask you also to look at the bigger picture. FEMA has made tremendous progress in restoring public trust and part of it was by creating a culture of openness and transparency. It is evident in how they are providing much faster and better information about the status of payments in Louisiana, and in the planning for  dealing with major crises.

Ultimately the lesson is that this is the media environment we live in. It may be nasty, unfair, and vicious. It is not driven by the old journalistic ethic of what is the real story that needs to be conveyed, but much more by what it takes to attract and hold an increasingly scarce audience. Any form of cover-up story sells. Just remember that in the real world the white hats are usually not nearly so white, nor are the black hats nearly so dark as is depicted in the melodramatic world of today’s media coverage.