Employee blogs–how lawyers are forcing tightening of corporate policies

Cisco got in trouble over a blog by one of its employees–legal trouble of course. I agree with the Economist who consistently laughs at our litigious system and the high cost we all pay for the abuse of it. I say that without intending any comment on the merits of the case against the Cisco blogger.

Blogging by employees has become part and parcel of the business scene–and a tremendous impetus toward transparency. But, there are risks and dangers. And while Scoble and other leaders of corporate blogging argued for minimal guidance and control by corporate leaders, it seems our litigious society will not allow that to happen for long. I suspect this case and the thousands of others soon to follow will drastically change corporate blogging–much to the loss of all of us.

Our legal system, after all, completely discourages organizations from saying “they’re sorry” when they screwed up. I just heard from a friend about the sad story of his mother who fell off an x-ray table in a hospital as she was dying of cancer. A hospital staff person who turned his back on her and she fell off the X-ray table–seriously contributing to her decline and destroying what little quality of life she had left. Rather than saying “we’re sorry” and explaining in detail what happened which would have satisfied my friend, they instead refused to provide him any records or information about the incident, refused to accept responsibility and refused to discuss it with him. Just following legal advice, no doubt. But because of this excellent advice, he is now considering taking action–all avoidable by saying you’re sorry.

What this has to do with blogging, I’m not sure–oh yeah, stupid lawsuits.

Now is still too early for some government communicators

It absolutely astounds me how some of the top people in our government responsible for responding to large scale events–such as terrorism events–still don’t get the realities of today’s instant news world. I recently had a conversation with someone involved in the information operation of some large scale drills that the federal government runs regularly. It wasn’t until three hours after the event initiated that there was a call for the formation of the JIC–the Joint Information Center–which is the point of all communication about the response. Hours later and there was discussion among the leaders about whether or not to and when to hold a press conference. Hours later and they got their initial statement out.

I suspect that at the end of the drill, they all got together and patted themselves on the back for a job well done. While in reality, there would be a completely and totally predictable story dominating the news media–both mainstream and online–that once again, the government response was too little, too late and hopelessly inadequate.

What will it take for those responsible to understand the new realities? Government officials in Katrina took three days setting up their JFOs (Joint Field Offices) and related JICs. Those three days were absolutely precious in getting the word out about what was being done. Instead, they spent this time getting ready to tell their stories. It is like a person whose house is burning tying up their sneakers with triple knots because they don’t want them to fall off in their dash out of the house! Get out of the stupid house!

There is no question that the news media today has a story pre-writ about any large scale government-led response to a major disaster. That’s too bad because a lot of people are spending an awful lot of time and energy preparing to respond quickly and effectively. But if their communicators, under guidance of their response managers, think that releases and conferences hours after the event are just fine, they will find the news stories are horrible before they even crank up their fax machines. The rules have changed. Machine guns are on the field–and the generals are still lining up the troops in rows and telling them to charge the hills. Unbelievable.

Someday, just maybe, they will realize that a Virtual JIC, with all preparations in place is the ONLY way they have a chance of getting out in front of another “botched response” news fiasco. I’m afraid we might have to go through a few more Katrinas before that lesson is finally learned.

Netflix gets it–swift and proactive steps when you goof up

Netflix had a problem with the delivery of their DVDs. Here is the message they sent to subscribers:

We’re Sorry Your DVD Was Delayed

Dear Paul,

As you may have heard, our shipping system was unexpectedly down for most of Monday. We should have shipped you a DVD but were unable to. Your DVD was shipped today, Tuesday, March 25th, instead.

We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused. We will issue a 5% credit to your account in the next few days. You don’t need to do anything. The credit will be automatically applied to your next billing statement.

Again, we apologize for the delay and thank you for your understanding. If you need further assistance, please call us at 1 (888) 638-3549.

-The Netflix Team

And here is how their quick and proactive response was evaluated by Bulldog Reporter.

Here’s what Netflix spokesperson said about it:

“The key thing here is: This was completely proactive on Netflix’s part. There’s no requirement for Netflix to do this, no obligation. There was no request for it. We thought it was the right thing to do,” Swasey told AP writer Amanda Fehd.

The question to me always is trust. Did the action taken work to increase trust or decrease it? An argument could be made that most might not have noticed the glitch, so why bring the vulnerability of their shipping systems to the attention of customers. But that is old thinking. The few who would know could easily be vocal, use their blogs and blogsites to let people know that something went seriously wrong at Netflix but they pretended nothing happened and hoped you wouldn’t notice. And suddenly, something that is relatively minor undermines the trust and confidence built through millions of timely deliveries.

Swasey said Netflix’s response was not necessary or required–emphasizing the proactive response in both apologizing and offering a credit. But, he is wrong. In this age, taking such a swift and proactive response to even a relatively  minor inconvenience is not just good business, it is increasingly necessary. Good job, Netflix.

Now its becoming a strategy–accuse the media of coddling

I commented earlier about the success of Sen. Clinton’s effort to make life more difficult for Sen Obama by complaining vigorously about the media coverage of him–specifically their coddling of him vs. her. Crisis communicators and PR folks have long been tempted to do this in the middle of a reputation problem but it is fraught with risks. Indeed, the press didn’t take it seriously until the Saturday Night Live episode.

Now it appears that others have observed the effectiveness of her strategy. This op-ed piece in the New York Times today builds a case for the media enchantment with Sen. McCain. Like discussed before, observing political coverage is like relativity theory in action and your or my agreement or disagreement with Neal Gabler’s assessment of media coverage of McCain will likely reveal our own biases more clearly than his (although his seems obvious–but then that reveals mine, right?) The point is this: when a successful strategy is identified and it is quickly copied. I predict a rough ride for the media in this election with continual claims of media bias and unfair coverage as a core campaign strategy. The lesson for PR folks and crisis communicators seems increasingly clear. It is now more acceptable than ever to challenge media coverage when you are under attack. Make sure you have solid basis. And remember, that how the readers or viewers react depends more on their existing biases and perspectives than it does on the coverage or the attack on the coverage. Tricky stuff.

Can you blog your way out of a crisis?

There is more and more discussion about using blogs as a crisis management tool. Steve Phenix, a smart blogger for certain, sent me an email with his promotional message for blogging during a crisis–using his PR firm. And he used his own reputation crisis as an example of how it works. First, here’s the story about how he got caught in a rather dumb publicity stunt by a client.

His email message (unfortunately, he didn’t provide a weblink) said this:

Bad publicity, I’m sure you know, is just plain bad for your client’s business. And here’s some scary facts to consider, according to a recent survey [PDF]:
62% of searchers click on a first page results
90% click on a result within the first three pages
So basically your clients are losing money the longer bad news remains on Google’s first few pages. And guess what? The client probably blames your agency for the bad news even appearing in the press. The good news is that only 10% of searchers are willing to click past the third page.

But the question is, how is it possible to move negative press down in Google rankings?

With the rapid, cataclysmic changes affecting the PR industry–with economists saying that recession is here (WSJ), news outlets laying people off and going bankrupt, while according to We Media/Zogby Interactive, “nearly 70 percent of Americans believe traditional journalism is out of touch, and nearly half are turning to the Internet to get their news”–blogs are becoming more and more the best way to communicate client messages.

In fact, blogs are the ideal tool to contain a crises. And that’s where Phenix Public Relations comes in.

I know blogging works because I employed my own blog to halt a potentially career-ending crises five years ago and have successfully used this tactic with many other clients ever since.

Briefly, here’s the details:

I had a client out of the Netherlands that pulled an April Fool’s Day joke on the Wall Street Journal, plus Reuters, AP, USA Today, Variety and many others. When the European media began calling at 4 AM Texas time, I immediately fired the client and began calling every U.S. reporter who had covered the story or even thought about it.  I endured a two-hour interrogation from a WSJ deputy editor who wanted to know what I knew and when I knew it. I even wrote handwritten letters to all the reporters.

Ultimately, my company and I were held blameless and suffered no immediate no damage to our reputation. However, soon I noticed that when you googled my name, this disastrous episode was all over the front page. There was blood, alright. I couldn’t take the chance that potential clients would see these stories and read too fast and never see how well we handled the crisis.

I was very worried that my career was finished till I read an article that blogging can help drive negative news down on Google. Until then I just played around with blogging, but with my financial future at stake, I got serious with my experimentation. Long story short, if you google my name now this negative story is very hard to find.

Here’s why blogs — or rather OUR blogs — work to contain a crises:

Here’s Steve’s companies site, Phenix PR. 

I have another, much closer to home example of how blogging can help address a personal reputation crisis. Our current (for PIER Systems) Senior VP in Washington DC got caught up in a Washington dustup, as they say, and this extensive blogpost by Kami Huyse did more than just about anything to set the record straight.

No, you can’t blog your way out of a crisis. But as anyone knows who has been caught in a major crisis, what happens online matters a lot. What shows up in Google is both an indicator of trouble and trouble itself. Blogging is one absolutely critical way to address the comments, questions and problems head on. Talk directly to those who are trying hard to influence others with their very limited information and perspective. And in the process, help at least balance out the data on the Internet that shows up in Google searches.

The value of bashing media coverage

Can’t resist another lesson learned from this increasingly interesting political season. Sen. Clinton took a strategic risk and violated many standard PR principles by attacking press coverage of her campaign vs. her opponent. It’s risky because the press doesn’t like to be criticized, particularly by someone they are scrutinizing. In fact they laughed it off–but the Clinton campaign kept up the pressure and the pot boiled over when Saturday Night Live ran the sketch hilariously illustrating the Clinton camp’s view of the difference in press scrutiny between the two. Suddenly there was a huge switch. You could feel it. I challenge a communication student to do a study comparing the press coverage of the two campaigns and see if the SNL sketch will indeed prove to be the turning point.

Now Sen Obama is in a fight for his reputation and political opportunity. It is a legitimate issue and a legitimate concern–but I also suspect and believe that the piling on of the press on this issue is in part motivated by some sense of guilt they feel–prompted strangely by the combination of direct attacks and the SNL event–about their biased coverage.

Observing bias is a little like explaining the theory of relativity–what you see says more about your position as an observer than the reality of moving bodies. In other words, if I now say I think the media coverage of the Rev Wright issue is biased against Obama, those who disagree will try to point out that I only take that view because of a positive opinion. Certainly the Clinton camp is not seeing the coverage of the Wright issue as  biased–only fair and balanced so to speak.

Clinton has proven one important point–there comes a time when your reputation is at stake to turn on the media and focus the attention there. But it remains very risky and you need to be almost as desperate as she was. Plus, it helps to have the producers of SNL on your side before you do it.

The MSG "state of fear" case study

How many of you are still convinced that eating MSG will kill you?

Read this story from the New York Times.

I read the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, so I had a heads up about what MSG is all about. It is essentially “umami,” which means it tastes really darn good, and the same stuff discovered by a great French chef from which so many sauces are made from searing meat in a hot pan.

But, we all live in a continual state of fear–created in large part in my humble opinion by the fact that scary reports–regardless of their origin or credibility–are almost certain to sell newspapers and glue eyes on tv sets. How many are going to sit around for a story with the headline: Your Food is Safe.  But, hinting at something you use everyday or might find readily in a Chinese restaurant is “reportedly” dangerous, now that will get attention.

It seems every day we are presented with more stuff to be afraid of. Study after study after study and most of it completely contradictory. I just keep asking people to remember that this stuff is presented by people who need to get and keep your attention in order to keep their jobs. And doing that is getting tougher and tougher. And for crisis managers–well, that’s why we keep so busy these days.

The Spitzer story and the media

My job here, as I understand it, is to help communicators look at the media and public information environment that we live in and adjust crisis communication strategies accordingly. And how the media is dealing with the Eliot Spitzer story provides an outstanding case in point.  The news is that one of the most powerful politicians in the nation who built a reputation based on prosecuting white collar criminals, crooks and bad guys, turns out to be one of those kind himself. That’s the news. What is not news is who the heck this prostitute is, who her brother is, what she does for a living, and any of that nonsense. But, guess what is all over the news right now. News coverage is about wives and whether or not the stand by their man in these circumstances. Parade out the psychologists and lets dig into the relationship these poor women have had with their fathers that leads them to these kind of creepy men and why they are so stupid as to stand there with grim looks on their faces while the public humiliation is broadcast to the world.

Then, lets interview (by the way–I’m talking about Anderson Cooper 360 last night because this is what was “news” on his vaunted show) the brother of the prostitute. Let’s find out what kind of person she is–and along the way, let’s laugh about the argyle NY Yankees baseball cap he has one. Let’s show a bunch of pictures about her and see just what kind of attraction she might have offered to make the governor risk everything.

It’s disgusting. Why people aren ‘t flooding the switchboard of CNN (plus all the other channels that mimic or outdo this junk) and letting them know we want news and not National Inquirer programming.

But, as much as I would love to change our media environment, that is not my job. My job is to help you the communicator understand the environment you operate in. Anderson Cooper has one overriding interest: get eyes on the screen. There are few boundaries that will not be crossed to do that. Good taste–yeah right. Legitimate news–uh huh. The question is eyes on the screen and the resulting ad rates that go with those. Cooper’s career depends on it, CNN’s future depends on it.

What is means for you is to first of all, avoid like the dickens anything that they might use to create fear, titillation, disgust or those other human emotions that represent gripping story telling and tv. But, understand what is going to happen if you are caught in it by accident or fault of your own, and prepare now to deal with it. You can’t adequately prepare without fully understanding what will happen. And if you want to see what will happen, fill your eyes with the “news” about today’s prostitutes and the women who stand by their men.

Journalist backlash and spinning out of control–the Sarah Lacy interview of Zuckerman

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerman was interviewed by journalist Sarah Lacy at the SXSW1 conference. Apparently, the interview didn’t go too well. Read the stories: News.com, and mashable.

I have two comments–one, the media can quickly become the story which they should never be. But even as they struggle for respect and audience, their credibility is in steep decline. Look at the Edelman Trust Barometer and it will show you that only the oil industry has a lower trust rating than the mainstream media.

But more importantly, this may be a story created largely by bloggers and tweeters (or twitterers,  not sure of the technical term). Here’s what Michael Arrington from Techcrunch had to say:

Bloggers by the dozens rushed to post something even more scathing than the previous attacks. CNET wrote a gleeful post attacking Lacy (“Sarah Lacy out-and-out bombed”), then, realizing the body still had a pulse, came back for more. Wired was right there beside them, kicking away as well.

Here’s the problem, though: The video of the interview, which became available today, shows nothing but a lively crowd and a long, boring interview. Sure, there were a couple of moments where the crowd yelled out, but that is absolutely normal at tech events these days. How anyone could describe this a “nuclear f–g fail” or “descending into chaos” is absolutely beyond me:

Here’s what I think really happened. There was an unruly group of attendees, mostly at the back of the session, who heckled Lacy (and Zuckerberg) during the interview. A few others joined in as well at different points. The heckling drew Twitters saying that some people weren’t happy with the interview. And then those Twitters spawned new ones, trying to outdo the previous ones. And then the “real journalists” jumped in head first and laid into Lacy, safe in the knowledge that they had Twitter messages to back them up.

What in the world drove these “journalists” to write this nonsense? Jealously over the fact that they weren’t on stage, or over Lacy’s new book? Perhaps they just got caught up in the fun of a witch burning. But whatever drove them to write those articles, it certainly wasn’t journalism. Nor was it professional. And, worst of all, it wasn’t accurate.

So, an experience took on new life when commented on by those who only read comments from those who were there. And that is exactly one of the primary risks for crisis managers in this social media world. The bloggers and tweeters have no accountability or responsibility–but they sure as heck want readers, and being outrageous with your reporting and characterization of events is one way to get them. One outrageouses the next until you have a piling on effect. A mob mentality in the blogosphere. And then “an event” has occurred in people’s minds that bears little relationship to reality.

I don’t know what really happened. But, Sarah Lacy is going to have a heck of a time getting anyone serious to sit down to an interview with her in front of a room full of people.

Governor Spitzer needs some crisis help

In case you haven’t seen the story, Gov Eliot Spitzer of New York has been identified as “Client 9″, caught by a federal investigation into a prostitution ring.

“How have the mighty fallen.” There is something tragic and fascinating watching someone’s life and career disintegrate, but I must say particularly when that person has built a career on moral rectitude and rooting out corruption among the mighty. It is painfully reminiscent of the likes of Ted Haggard, the former evangelical leader caught in horrible moral failure. It is gripping to watch those who hold an elevated position fall, because the higher they are, the farther the fall. But when they have climbed those heights based on a moral message or crusade, the devastation due to moral failings is all the greater.

So, crisis managers, can the Governor survive? And if so, what should his strategy be to try to maintain not only his position, but his moral ground?