The world is more wired than ever

Almost every time I speak at a conference, there seems to be a discussion about how much activity is really going on online versus with mainstream media. Of course, it is a key point to us because we are trying to help people in PR and crisis management in particular understand that the world has dramatically changed and the old media-centric and media-first strategies don’t necessarily apply.

There are a lot of heads sticking in the sand over these issues. But, then there are some reverse trends as well. For example, I heard someone say that 200 million bloggers had quit. Not sure about that, but no doubt the majority of those who started blogging haven’t kept up with it on a consistent basis. Yet, new blogs emerge all the time as well.

Here’s a new story about the continued growth of wired activity including some surprising (to me anyway) stats about use of cell phones for entertainment, viewing tv shows online, and other things that I don’t do.

From the Hollywood Reporter.

Breaking News–Pipeline explosion kills 34!

OK, I’m doing exactly what I dislike about most media–writing a headline intended to grab your attention. It is true. It happened today (Wed, Dec 26). Here’s the BBC report.

That’s the trick–it happened in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, and therefore it will probably never be big news in the towns and cities across North America or even Europe. I got into the business I am in now because I was involved in responding to a tragic pipeline explosion in my town that killed two 10 year boys and an 18 year old young man. That incident, the Olympic Pipeline accident, resulted in huge legislative changes, international media coverage, tens of thousands of hours of pipeline safety activism, hundreds of millions in damages paid and many many more millions in legal fees, and probably a half a forest of trees turned into paper that ran all the newspaper stories. I would say nothing to diminish the importance of this event and the value of the changes made in its aftermath. But why do we pay so little attention to 34 deaths in Nigeria from a pipeline explosion–following closely after another explosion in which at least 260 died?

One reason of course is the cause–people are stealing gasoline from the pipelines by boring holes into them. So, these people are engaged in criminal acts and therefore create less sympathy when the disaster that befalls them is to at least some degree of their own making. Yet, if this happened in our town, or any town or city in North America, let alone the capital of the country, what would happen? The companies who own the pipeline would be made to pay. The fact that people could get at such dangerous infrastructure would mean it is their fault. They would be forced by legislation and legal action to make certain such acts are prevented in the future. Is this a bad thing? No. But what is bad is the unevenness of our caring. Why are we not in protest over the lack of action on the part of the Nigerian government, or after the companies that own the pipelines or the fuel in them to take action to prevent such things.

It is very clear that our activism and outrage at such things is biased and self-centered. Should our concern for the environment, for public safety and health be limited to impacts on our neighbors and fellow citizens? We are more and more citizens of the world–with communication that makes this a global village. So where is the news media on this? Where are the pipeline safety activists–even those who made a career out of it based on what happened here in Bellingham? The silence is deafening–and damning.

The New FEMA Public Information Officer Guide

FEMA has recently published a new guide for Public Information Officers. Thanks to JimmyJazz of Break Glass blog, I have a copy and just finished reviewing it.

FEMA PIO Manual

Frankly, I’m very impressed and very pleased. It is clear, concise, well-organized, well written and very helpful. Unlike ESF 15, FEMAs’ own guide for how it will handle public communication, this clearly is based on real life experience and not driven by higher political requirements.

Here’s my quick take on what is good, not so good, and ugly.

The Good:

- clear, concise and appropriate level of ICS familiarity and role of PIO and JIC in that.

- role and use of websites
- inclusion of blogs and social media as part of the mix
- reference (though not enough) to the PIO as the source of both internal and external communication
- comprehensive list of dissemination methods
- inclusion of the Virtual JIC concept (but with serious faults)

The Bad

- Media centric–assumes basic communication is very media focused and does not take into consideration that information is moving more and more direct. While websites are considered, it still seems clear that they are seen primarily as a means of communicating with main stream media, and no consideration is given to prepare key audience contact info in advance for direct communication, nor capturing contact info for those who want to get updates directly. A major problem.

- Clarity around the Joint Information System vs. Joint Information Center. I don’t think this is the manual writer’s fault because DHS introduced this confusion very early on and has never really clarified it. I think this manual actually goes a long way to helping clear some confusion in that the JIS is focused on procedures by the JIC is a physical location. Even that gets muddy with the concept of Virtual JIC.

- Virtual JIC–while it was good that it was mentioned, it seems clear that there is little understanding of the concept nor experience in dealing with virtual JICs. There is an appropriate reference to using a Virtual JIC in a pandemic (we find it ironic that most agencies plan to gather PIOs together in one room so they can communicate to the rest of the world the stupidity of such a move). It is clear that the basic planning construct of FEMA and the PIOs they are trying to advise is to put together a Joint Information Center– a physical location for communicators from various agencies. This will all but assure the communication failures they experienced in the past. Major events are covered in minutes and hours–but JICS take days to fully staff and equip. I heard one FEMA PIO talk proudly about how they set up all these JICs for Katrina in the first week of the event. Yeah, but by the time they got them established, the news media had experienced a huge vacuum of information and decided that FEMA wasn’t doing squat. So when FEMA said, OK, now we are ready to tell you all the good things we are doing, the media story line had been sold and there wasn’t any going back. Too little too late, and this non-virtual based plan will only continue the policy of too little too late.

The Ugly

There are two areas where I think this goes seriously wrong:

1) lack of recognition of the need for speed (covered in my discussion about virtual JICs)

2) attempt at connecting up with ESF 15.

ESF 15 is the document prepared by DHS that outlines how the agency will respond in a major event. Clearly it was done post-Katrina and is an attempt to deal with the problems the agency encountered. It seems that the single lesson learned was that DHS and its member agencies are part of an administration that has been pummeled by the political opposition and the liberal media and therefore they see the information response as primarily an exercise in political messaging and control. That is a friggin disaster for transparent government emergency communication. And the contrast between the essential goodness and rightness of the PIO manual combined with the political directiveness of the ESF 15 manual makes the point even clearer.

A couple of key examples: In ESF 15, the JIC is all but gutted. The only role for the JIC, indeed the definition of the JIC, is media response. All other communication functions go elsewhere. That means all stakeholder, government, liaison, tribal, local community, public-direct, victim, state and local agency–all this communication is managed outside of the JIC. Now, if you understand that the JIC was set up to coordinate communication among multiple response agencies you see that this completely undermines the idea of mutual support and cooperation.

Where do these functions go? Well, for example, there is a new group called Production and Planning. These people are responsible for “message strategy.” Here’s a clue. Why do you need message strategists when the purpose of the PIO is to provide fast, transparent, accurate information about what is happening in the incident and what the responders are doing about it.

That’s enough for this post, but the degree of politicization I see in the public information function coming out of DHS is positively frightening. Then, when I see it played out in real life in situations such as the unreasonable pressure on for a press conference in California, the response to the problems with that conference, and even more for the firing of a respected commander of the Coast Guard for an inaccurate initial spill volume report in the Cosco Busan San FranciscoBay spill, I see there is something very, very wrong here.

When you have agencies that need the public to trust them to be effective, such as FEMA and the Coast Guard who then get reduced to political weapons (both by those supporting them and those attacking them) it is no wonder that we in the public get cynical and apathetic.

Sam Zell is the New Sheriff at the Tribune Co–can a non-media type save mainstream?

Sam Zell, a real estate gazillionaire has taken over one of the premiere mainstream media enterprises in the nation–the Tribune Company. Of course, he got a steal because of the crisis facing most traditional media in the light of the massive switch to the internet as the primary news source.

I find his approach refreshing and optimistic–he says all the focus has been on cost cutting and now the emphasis needs to be on revenue enhancement. In our own small market, the daily has changed hands three times in the past few years and the new publisher clearly has an entrepreneurial bent starting at least three glossy magazines serving the local community. I’m not certain but I’m presuming ad revenue is likely up–particularly since one company bought up all the local radio stations and with huge rate increases across the board made radio a less attractive advertising option locally.

What will be interesting to watch is how Zell approaches the challenge of enhancing revenue and paying off a $13 b debt. I’m guessing it will be combinations of leveraging off existing brands in traditional media and some innovative ideas in new media. I’m just hoping–and here is the tenuous connection to crisis management–that he steers away from the way the main stream media has fought the current battle and that is turning more and more to infotainment strategies in covering the news. Infotainment is bad news for those concerned about reputations because the slightest issue–real, imagined, or accused, becomes fodder for building ratings with screaming headlines and simplistic reporting. We’ve seen far too much of that in the past few years. Publishers and producers should take note–extreme infotainment has not stopped the slide. Zell–it’s time for something else and I hope you find another way.

Why I think the world is better with bloggers and wikipedia

A recent story I heard illustrates why I think we live in an age of transparency as never before and why I think that is a very good thing. It also illustrates why millions of “citizen journalists,” bloggers, social media participants, user content providers or whatever you want to call them have made this a more open, honest and truthful world.

It was at our company Christmas party and the husband of one of our employees relayed the story of his incredible experience as a hijack victim in 1985. It was Air Egypt flight 648 from Athens to Cairo. Our subject was a young American traveling the world. The plane was hijacked by three members of the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist organization brandishing guns and hand grenades with pulled pins. A gun battle on board with a sky marshall killed one hijacker. The plane landed on Malta and the hijackers threatened to kill one passenger every fifteen minutes if their demands for more fuel to fly to Libya were not met. A young Israeli woman was the first–brought to the front by the door, shot in the head and dumped out of the plane. Fifteen minutes later, the second Israeli woman was brought forward and was also shot and dumped. Our friend was next, hands tied behind his back, talking to two American women who would follow him. He was called forward, tried to jump from the plane, was shot in the back of the head, but miraculously survived–not only the shot, but the 12 foot fall from the plane face forward with his hands still tied.

The hijackers had allowed 11 Egyptians to get off the plane but there were more than 70 left when our friend made his miraculous escape. It turned out he was one of the few fortunate ones, because the Egyptian commandos arrived, attacked the plane with grenades, automatic weapons, started the plane on fire, and killed anyone indiscriminately. 60 of those left on the plane died in the “rescue.” One of the few who survived it was an Englishman who ended up in the hospital next to our friend. He told the media repeatedly how the Egyptians botched the rescue and caused so many needless deaths, but it was simply not reported. The story was that the terrorists blew up the plane.
Why? Why would the international media not tell the truth? This was an era of strained relations between Egypt and the US but a need for strong cooperation in trying to get peace with Israel. Egypt had been embarrassed when the US forced an Air Egypt flight down with F-15s to capture a terrorist leader, and they needed to prove to the west they could be tough on the terrorists. So, pure speculation, but is it possible that the Reagan administration made it clear at least to US news media that telling the real story of the botched rescue would harm Mid-East peace hopes? It is possible and plausible. Which leads me to my point.

Let’s say any administration or powerful entity attempted to influence the coverage of such a volatile story today. Would they have any hope of success? No, and therefore wouldn’t even think of it. We now have so many and varied sources of information that it seems impossible the truth would escape from the great many who seek to reveal the “true” story. Sure, there is a lot of junk, garbage, misinformation, hidden and non-hidden agendas in all the blog coverage of events of the day. But the some total is, in my mind, much more likely to be true than when the power to inform the public was held by a handful who controlled the machines of mass media.

Wikipedia provides another example. Despite its early detractors who couldn’t believe a user generated information source could possibly be accurate, it is now known to be nearly as–or perhaps more–accurate than the most credible encyclopedias. And it is the sheer number of participants that helps make it so. I am writing a book on a survivor of Buchenwald and went to Wikipedia to get additional info. There I found a report that the Allied airmen who got sent to Buchenwald arrived in April, 1944. Well, I am writing the eyewitness account of one of those fighter pilots and I know for a fact that the group of 168 did not arrive until August 20, 1944 and were rescued from there on October 20, 1944. So I commented on the post and provided my source. Sure enough, my information was incorporated into the report with the citation to my source.

Now I can’t contribute much to the overall knowledge in the world, and very few people perhaps care whether or not these airmen arrived in April or August. But as an amateur historian I care a lot and so do the millions of others who have specialized knowledge and both use and contribute to wikipedia.

I am glad we live in a post-media world, where many many millions more are contributing to the information, knowledge and discussion that we all benefit from.

Wheels on the bus go round and round..how this blog thing works

Like most bloggers I watch my traffic and see what contributes to views. I’ve been fascinated by how long the traffic related to my posts about the cruise industry problems has continued. I haven’t blogged about Princess Cruise Lines or Louis Cruises and Sea Diamond disaster forever. And of course, these stories have long since faded from the front pages.

But, in the blog world, the stories live on. As a crisis management educator I have long warned practitioners that this is one of the unique aspects of blogwars and reputation management in the age of social media. And now I know why. Because the wheels of the bus go round and round. In other words, I looked at my blog visits and noticed that a continuous level of traffic was viewing the Sea Diamond posts and that I was getting clicks from seadiamondsurvivors.org. This is a site set up by passengers of the ship to keep pressure on Louis Cruises to make changes. My posts about this disaster are linked on the front page of that site. So, I post on a topic which draws some traffic and my post gets linked on a complaint site which draws more traffic to my site, which helps feed traffic to the complaint site.

What remains to be seen is if this kind of traffic has any impact on the policies of an organization. We’ll see if Bob Garfield’s site against Comcast has an impact. But what is clear to me is that bad news stories follow a pattern of:

- heavy mainstream media coverage–in some ways more frantic than ever because of the immediacy competition

- faster disappearance from the front page–because a story a few hours or a few days old has lost its immediacy

- much longer term online discussion after the headlines and breaking news stories have ended.

Don’t underestimate the power of the long tail of reputation management.

TV Commentator Ken Schramm on the media

Ken Schramm is a commentator for KOMO TV in Seattle. He does a good job although I find myself disagreeing with him more often than not. Last night he commented on the numerous comments that the station received about coverage of the recent gunman incident or incidents (I forgot whether it was Colorado or Omaha coverage that drew the ire.) The concern of the viewers was that extensive coverage of such acts only encourages further incidences by giving the killers what they want–fame and notoriety. Ken responded by asking the viewers in effect to comment on what should be on the news. He said that news organizations work very hard to understand what audiences want in the news coverage and providing that. So, what do you want? Do you want coverage of such horrible events? Do you want to know these things are going on? Are do you simply want the nice, the kind, the encouraging, the namby pamby, the feel good stuff? That was in essence the question he posed.

But he also said that news organizations maybe ought not to think so much about what audiences want, but what they need.

What struck me about his comments, and strikes me about almost any person in the news business commenting about the news business is the refusal to note the obvious and driving truth, which is that they are in the business of gathering and selling an audience. That is how they survive. That is ultimately the final question–other than basic morality on the part of the decision makers–that determines what coverage will be provided and what will not be.

Here’s what he should have said: we live and die by ratings. Continuously. We decide what will be covered and not covered primarily by the impact it will have on our audience numbers. The higher the numbers, the more we get paid. We don’t really have a choice in this matter because we are in commercial television and we are hammered by competition every day. So, the choice dear viewer is yours. If you don’t like bloody news stories about maniac murderers, turn off the damn tv, or switch to the Golf Channel. Nothing there on mall murders. And if you feel strongly about it, tell all your friends and family to turn off the bad news too. If enough do that, we won’t cover it, because we’ll be too busy covering what our audience wants us to cover. Don’t like our news coverage? Don’t blame us, blame yourself and all others who tune in to what you think they ought not to.

Comcast's blogwar signals a more frightening scenario

Comcast is deep into a blogwar (I’ve commented frequently here about the clear and present danger of blogwars to corporate and organizational reputations so review past posts here for my views on that topic–or read my book Now Is Too Late2).

This article from Bulldog Reporter about the blogwar suggests something even more frightening to me–not that I have any great love and affection for Comcast broadband as an only moderately satisfied customer myself.  (the blog is called somewhat predictably: comcastmustdie.com and the first words are I really don’t want Comcast to die(!)) What frightens me from a crisis management standpoint is a potential pattern I see developing. The blogger starting this is not some unemployed 28 year old sitting in his bedroom, cranky after a night of partying. This one was started by Bob Garfield, a highly respected writer and expert in advertising and marketing. I’ve read his stuff for years.

Note the reference in the article to Jeff Jarvis, the now extremely famous blogger who launched the Dell Hell blogwar and was at first ignored, then triumphed with significant improvements in Dell’s customer service. So, bright, entreprenuerial writers like Garfield who know the weakspots of corporate leadership, can accomplish two things at once. They can build an tremendous audience and their own celebrity by becoming the next Jeff Jarvis and get the self-actualization satisfaction that they can change the world for the good by getting Comcast to respond. Wow, that is powerful motivation. Hey, I want that attention. I want that readership. I want to go to the grave thinking I have done the world some good. I should start a blog: younamethecompanymustdie.com. I will be a hero. People will know my name. they will talk about me in the hushed tones they now reserve for Jeff Jarvis. Am I judging Garfield’s motives here? Yeh. Am I wrong? Who knows.

Do you see why this scares me? On the other hand, being a crisis management expert might be the best gig to get into these days.

Defining authenticity–Bulldog publisher gets it right

Early this year I declared (not that anyone noticed) that 2007 would be the year of authenticity. That word, like transparency, is noble sounding but not necessarily well defined. Bulldog publisher Jim Sinkinson does a great job of not only helping gain clarity around this topic, but also providing some relevant and recent examples of why it is essential.

The struggle that many companies are having relating to this idea of authenticity or transparency and translating that into the online conversation was highlighted for me in a conversation with an attendee at a presentation I was making. He said that the company had decided not to comment on blog sites or respond to bloggers in anyway, nor blog themselves, because things happened so fast in the blog world that they couldn’t get their approval process moving fast enough to keep up with it. He asked what I thought of that, if it was an appropriate decision. Hmmm. No. Address the policies which is what you can control. But using your speech impediment as an excuse for not participating in the conversation simply doesn’t cut it.

A Sour Battle: Splenda and the Sugar Industry

Sometimes its hard to believe what supposedly smart companies and organizations with expensive and smart lawyers do. Splenda is in a battle against sugar producers over “false advertising.” The issue is whether Splenda stating that their claim of “made from sugar, tastes like sugar” constitutes false advertising.

I had no idea how they made Splenda. I just know that it has let me enjoy some foods I really like without all the calories of sugar, and frankly, to me it does taste like sugar while some in my family (with admittedly more refined taste buds than mine) say it doesn’t–at all. Turns out, it does come from sugar. Chemically modified to eliminate the calories without the sweetness using chlorine. Now I don’t really like the idea of my sugar dipped in chlorine, but I do have pretty high confidence that if there wasn’t something safe about it somebody would be screaming bloody murder by now. Most likely the sugar folks. But they aren’t screaming about safety directly, they are screaming that Splenda says their product comes from sugar and tastes like sugar. Well, it does come from sugar, and at least one consume (me) thinks it tastes very much like sugar.

So what the heck is this big false advertising lawsuit all about? What damage do they think they can cause other than causing Splenda to spend a bunch of money on lawyers like they are doing? Ah, the lawsuit says that the company (owned by Johnson and Johnson by the way) uses “phosgene gas–a deadly weapon used in World War I” to create Splenda. Still, no safety claims to this lawsuit–but maybe it is just a clever way to get their accusation about using WWI weapons of mass destruction technology to kill us all. In this case, it is PR strategy disguised as legal action. I’ve seen it before, defended against it before and I found it disgusting then and even more disgusting in this case.

Come on lawyers (and sugar clients), give us a break. If it’s made from sugar and tastes like sugar, it ain’t false advertising.