Dealing with fraud after an incident

It’s a sad commentary on our world that when a few have been hurt by mistakes and have received generous compensation for their troubles from a responsible company, that a whole lot of morality-challenged folks decide to try and take advantage of the generosity by making false claims of injury. I experienced this a number of years ago in dealing with a large-scale event involving fatalities. There were people who came forward with all kinds of ludicrous claims of emotional distress, false claims of property damage and the like. The worse was when one of the employees in the emergency management office–an employee hired to help deal with crisis events–sued the company because of emotional damage from having to respond.

A recent event illustrates the point. A few people were affected and the company was clear about the process of making a claim and how to be compensated. Then the false claims start coming in. One of the problems is the media coverage. The media interest is heightened because real people have been hurt by real mistakes. The automatic assumption is that anyone else who makes claims are indeed victims–and the story goes on instead of ending in a few hours or days. That makes it tricky for companies to deal with the fraudulent claims. These same people with the moral sense of a toadstool but who are savvy enough to know what leverage they have with the heightened media interest, will certainly not be above screaming loudly to the press that the company wasn’t keeping its promises about compensation, the company is just playing a PR game, the company says one thing and does another, they were treated rudely, they are having to sue, etc., etc.

What to do? As this company is doing. Carefully investigate all claims. Communicate continually that the company will promptly and quickly compensate all those who have been impacted. That’s all good, but I do think you have to be able to go one step further. If the phony victims leverage their media opportunities, the company has to be willing to state that fraudulent claims are common in these situations, the company investigates each claim carefully to both make certain that fully and complete compensation is made to thereal victims but those unscrupulous few who seek to take advantage of the situation will not be compensated.

By the way, based on my experience, depending on the situation you might expect to deal with twice as many fraudulent claims as real ones. I’d love to hear from others on this–does your experience correspond?

The "post mass media" world reference

Finally! I started using the term “post media world” in about 2000. The initial book title for Now Is Too Late was The Post Media World–but my publisher rightly talked me out of it. I have wondered why that term didn’t gain some currency. It appears that maybe that is starting. Here is a reference to a PRSA Professional Development seminar with the title: “The Naked Brand in a Post Mass Media World.”

I have to admit that post mass media may be a little more descriptive and accurate because technically the “new media” are still media. But there is a great difference and that is the opportunity they offer for one on one as well as one on many and many on one communications. We could also say I suppose that our ears, eyes, nose, mouth and all senses are “media” in that they mediate information, our understanding and experiences of the world. But they are certainly different as media than NBC News or the Wall Street Journal.

I must be getting too philosophical here–come to think of it, that’s just what my publisher said.

More instant news lessons from a recent crisis

Wrapping up from a Memorial Day weekend crisis event and wanted to reflect on a few lessons learned. It’s not appropriate to go into too many details but it did involve extensive news website, newspaper and broadcast coverage in a major market.

When the event happened, the reporters either did not try or could not immediately reach the appropriate media contact person for the main company involved. But the ran a report based on comments from a spokesperson from another company involved that were completely erroneous and, if left unchanged, could have quite serious consequences for the business of the main company.

Despite the clearly erroneous report, and despite the knowledge that the information the person provided was clearly in error, the reporter would not correct the statement because it would have meant contradicting the quotation that was a lead in their story. However, we could not get approval from the authorities within the main company (our client) for our 14 hours to correct the misinformation. It seems clear in retrospect that they did not see the urgency, the communication managers involved in the company did not have the standing or willingness to push the business manager responsible for clearing the statement, and the attorney involved either was largely unavailable, unaware of the consequences or didn’t care. Not sure.

We were able to put a corrected statement out noon on Memorial Day–but we had confirmed the correct information 10 pm on Sunday night. All morning on Memorial Day all major news outlets ran the incorrect information. The corrected statement did nothing to stop the damage because by early afternoon the outlets were onto some other story.

Herein lies the problem. Approval processes, legal reviews, and complicated bureaucracies are simply not geared up for the instant news world. They apparently did not see the critical difference between getting an approved correct statement out by midnight versus noon the next day. This is old world thinking at best–when news evolved in days and hours, not minutes and seconds.

An essential problem is that even if communication managers understand the implications and risks, if those who are responsible for approving information and therefore timely release don’t understand it, communicators have little choice but to sit back in frustration and anguish while the precious time ticks by. I think this means that communication managers have a huge task in front of them to help educate their leaders to the realities of the post-media, instant news world so that they are all on the same page relating to speed.

But, in retrospect, I must admit that in this case I didn’t follow my own strong advice about being too media centric. We could have communicated privately to customers of this company (a relatively small group of industrial customers) to let them know the media reports were incorrect. We could have done this without official approval from HQ because it was very much in the purview of local management to do this communication. But, we on the communication side were so focused on the incorrect media reports, we simply didn’t recall and act on this simple but important step. One more example of crisis communicators being too media centric–in this case, me.

UCLA Emergency Manager's view on the need for multimode notifications

I was absolutely thrilled to come across this post by David Burns, CEM(r), Emergency Manager with UCLA. It shows the growing awareness of the limitations of SMS text messaging–it simply is not the panacea that so many in emergency management in universities seemed to think after Virginia Tech. Mr. Burn’s listing of the different modes of communication used today is more comprehensive than anything else I’ve seen.

Here are his comments as posted to the IAEM Discussion board:

People nowadays are connected to wide variety of technology to share and
gather information:

- they listen to the radio (AM and FM), including NOAA weather alerts;
- they listen to satellite radio (XM & Sirius;
- they use social networking sites (friend’s lists);
- they listen to podcasts;
- they use the Internet;
- they watch television (cable, over-the-air, and satellite);
- they text each other and receive text messages (SMS);
- they listen to amateur radio and public safety scanners;
- word of mouth, etc.

Our alert systems need to be just as diverse, flexible and adaptable to
the means by which people receive and exchange information.  With the
incidence of campus violence becoming a popular subject, college campus
administrators and campus emergency managers are looking to improve how
they communicate with their campus communities.   Because funding is
always an issue, especially in the surge of an economic slowdown, money
is the driving issue.

The solution in improving communication is money-based as in where do
you get the biggest bang for the buck?   In the year that has passed,
many SMS text-messaging vendors misrepresented the real-world
capabilities of text-messaging system to many of the folks who purchased
a product.   Now they have a resource, but with extreme limitations and
a broad definition of what successful delivery is? – from minutes to
hours.

Every resource we have in our mass notification arsenal all have
limitations.   Anyone who relies on just one single system is probably
foolish to believe that any one resource can be the “end-all, be all”
resource for a community as diverse as a college campus.   In fact, I
would suggest that you are actually increasing your risk and liability
for litigation by reliance on any single system.  Money drives this
logic, as people “settle” for what they can afford, knowing it will not
work, but are willing to roll the dice to have something tangible in
place, something to deflect potential criticism.

I spoke with a Virginia Tech administrator in June 2007, two months
after the massacre.  The one thing that I heard, and have listened to is
to “never settle for what you can’t afford.”   Their after-action report
was clear; many of their systems became overwhelmed because of the
tragedy as a result of geography (rural – limited capabilities), limited
systems, network and system bandwidth limitations, coupled with
worldwide demand for information is recipe to bring any local system(s)
crashing down.

SMS is only one resource.  It has severe limitations.   Use of SMS has
increased significantly over the past 5 years, especially in the past 14
months.  Technology advances make many systems obsolete within a couple
of years.  If everyone is using a system, increased use increases the
likelihood of failure in an emergency.

We currently use a SMS/text resource on our campus.   66% of the
students have refused to sign up despite regular marketing campaigns,
meaning that investment in such systems have limited success.   SMS
nationwide is rejected by the students themselves based on a 30% percent
sign-up average.   This issue alone makes the use of SMS limited in its
success by the sheer apathy of the student community itself.

We currently utilize 15 independent system resources to alert students,
faculty, and staff of an emergency on campus, and have yet to achieve
100% coverage because of the number of systems people are attached to or
not attached to on a daily basis.   We will continue to add resources to
increase our outreach.

Be well,

David S. Burns, CEM(r)
Emergency Manager

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Office of the Associate Vice Chancellor
General Services / Emergency Management Office

USC Annenberg Public Relations Generally Accepted Practices Study

Professor Jerry Swirling, Director of Public Relations Studies and the Strategic Public Relations Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication alerted me to the new USC Annenberg PR study out.

Here are the highlights:
1.                  Maintain a higher than average ratio of PR budget to gross revenue (GAP PR/GR Ratio).
2.                  Report directly and exclusively to the C-Suite.
3.                  Optimize the C-Suite’s understanding of PR’s current and potential contributions to the success of the organization as a whole.
4.                  Establish an effective social responsibility strategy for your organization.
5.                  Establish an effective digital-media strategy for your organization.
6.                  Establish an effective issues-management strategy for your organization.
7.                  Optimize integration and coordination of PR/Communications, both within the PR/Communications function, and with other organizational functions.
8.                  Encourage highly ethical practices across the organization, beginning with communication.
9.                  Encourage the organization-wide adoption of a long-term strategic point of view, beginning with communication.
10.              Encourage the organization-wide adoption of a proactive mindset, beginning with communication.
11.              Encourage the organization-wide adoption of a flexible mindset, beginning with communication.
12.              Optimize the integration of PR and reputational considerations into top-level organizational strategies.
13.              Measurably contribute to organizational success.

I’ll admit, I looked at the first item and rolled my eyes–here are PR people trying to figure out how to get more PR budgets. But then I started digging into the research a little more and it is pretty fascinating. One of the key differences between big companies and smaller companies is whether or not the PR or Communication head reports to the C-suite. When they do, budgets are bigger–that makes sense of course. But there is evidence that there is considerable growth in C-Suite direct reporting versus previous years.

I was wondering why that is. Maybe I’ll have to ask Prof Swerling for his perspective on that. My own bias suggests that CEOs have witnessed the increased frequency of CEOs losing their jobs primarily over reputation issues. And they have seen how the reputation and view of the virtue and character of the CEO is related to the company or organization’s reputation. There is little doubt, as much as those of us in crisis communication might whine about it, there has been tremendous growth in C-level awareness of the need for crisis preparedness and reputation management. I suspect that an increasing number of CEOs, simply by watching the news at night, have decided they want a top-notch communication professional by their side when it really hits the fan.

Anyway, lots of statistics here for certain, and I imagine it is true here what they say about numbers in general–twist them hard enough and you can get them to say anything you want. But this is an invaluable study for those in PR to understand how the profession is viewed, how it is changing, and how to make it work more effectively in your organization.

Child welfare officials in Texas in trouble over sect seizure

I’m no advocate of wild and crazy polygamist sects–but in my mind they are less danger to our society and future than hyper-aggressive, media-driven government officials who get carried away in trying to enforce the current view of moral standards. The Texas polygamist sect controversy has bothered me considerably. Long before the news came out about an Appeals Court overturning the seizure I worried that this was one more sad example of government officials responding more to media frenzy than reality.

Now, I recognize that it is possible that poor innocent children were being horribly abused–in that case I am grateful for laws and officials enforcing those laws to protect the innocent. But it could also be that the media in their increasingly desperate quest for ratings and ad sales have grossly exaggerated the danger and the risk to the children. But because it plays all over (incessantly, nauseatingly) on the likes of Greta Van Susteren, MSNBC, CNN Headline News–officials feel they must respond or the outrage created by the hyped up media coverage will rebound on them.

There is a completely predictable pattern here which I talked about in Now Is Too Late: an event happens in which people may or may not be at risk, the media covers it with the primary focus being on getting ratings, the officials interpret the exaggeration as public outcry and respond, the response is all out of proportion to the actual risk, we have new laws and regulations that further restrict our lives and cause additional unneeded costs–all because the media needs ratings. I don’t know how to fix this problem. I’m hoping bloggers can help–and here’s one blogger that is trying.

The moral (and economic) value of saying you're sorry

I’ve always believed when you screw up you should say you’re sorry. Forgiveness is usually generously given in light of a completely sincere acceptance of responsibility and repentance. When I ran for state senate in 2004 one of my key goals was to improve access to doctors in our state by working to change the medical malpractice legal system, and one policy I wanted to work hard to implement was the ability for doctors and hospitals to say they are sorry without such a statement being held against them legally. Such measures are in place in states like Colorado I believe and have been proven to be effective in reducing lawsuits and associated costs.

This article from New York Times suggests that this message is getting around–slowly and over the objections of trial attorneys. Here is strong evidence of the economic value of saying your sorry. Trial lawyers as a group would be well advised to change their tune and support this effort if they do not want to be perceived as caring only about their ability to take cases to court and win big settlements.

But there is more than economic value at stake here–there is moral value as well. How would you feel as a doctor knowing you had made a big mistake and caused a lot of pain and cost to the patient. Your sorrow in making that mistake would be compounded many times over by having to follow the policy of denial and defense. Yet that is the position we have put doctors and hospital administrators in. Repentance is cathartic, healing and restorative–especially when accompanied by forgiveness on the other end. We have been preventing those in the caring professions from experiencing this because–sorry I have to say this, because of trial lawyers’ greed.

The lesson for CEOs and crisis communicators ought to be clear. Your lawyer’s understandable first instinct when something seriously has gone wrong and your organization is responsible is to deny and defend. But if people or the public good has been harmed, the very best approach is to admit responsibility, communicate sorrow and regret, demonstrate you are painfully aware of the pain this has caused others, explain how you will do better, and ask for forgiveness. It’s good for your soul. It’s the best thing for your organization’s reputation and trust level. And, as this article demonstrates, it’s likely to best for your bottom line too.

Media Centricity in crisis communication

Frequent crisisblogger readers will think I sound like a stuck record on this topic. But I continue to see too little evidence among communication professionals including crisis communication experts that they understand the post media world.

There is no question that media coverage can have profound impact on public opinion and whether or not the organization or organizations involved in a response will be trusted. However, that impact is directly related to the degree to which the organization(s) communicate directly with those affected. Let me put it this way–if in a disaster response you have received prompt, efficient and caring support above and beyond what you expected, what would your opinion be? And if you then or saw on tv those responding were slow, uncaring, inefficient and generally bad people–would that change your opinion? Not likely.

The web is still the most powerful opportunity for direct communication. Add to that email, mass notification capabilities, RSS feeds, blogging, twittering, youtube, flickr and all the other new means of getting your message out directly, there is simply no reason that I can think of to put your information eggs exclusively in the media basket. Experience has proven that the very best way to positively impact media coverage is to tell the truth yourself and directly. Still, most crisis communication plans have media engagement as either the sum total or 90% of the effort. Until they treat reporters as one of many critically important audiences, we will continue to operate in a world that disappeared a few years ago.

Post Media Crisis Management

I was just looking at the link to PR News’ new Crisis Management Guidebook so I must first admit I haven’t ponied up the $400 for the book nor have I read it. But a quick review of the table of contents suggests that one of the key lessons of crisis management today may not be adequately addressed: direct communication. Media relations is still a critical element of effective crisis management. But far too many think it is the only element–in fact, they tend to equate media management with crisis management. The emphasis is on spokesperson identification and training, media messaging, press conferences, use of online press rooms, etc.

All this ignores the very clear reality these days that the media has one primary role to play and that is to alert the broadest audiences that there is an issue that they may have an interest in. They do this in a way that serves their ends first of all–which is to build an audience for the purpose of ratings and ad rates. But once the world has been told the story in usually the most cursory fashion, they move on. What they leave behind are assemblages of the highly interested–the critical audiences on whom you will depend for years to come.

The overwhelming trend in crisis management is fast, direct communication. Virginia Tech demonstrated this need more than anything in that it made clear the expectations that urgent and critical communication needs to be direct and via the fastest possible means. To continue to operate in a way that suggests this never happened and to think that we still live in the same media world we did 20 years ago is to think like the Civil War general who lines up his troops in vast columns to attack well placed Gatling guns. An exercise in suicide.

That all being said, I hope this new guide gives due attention to the ever increasing need for direct communication with critical audiences. If not, it is old before it is even out.

Disaster communications in China–and some lessons learned

The natural disasters in Myanmar and China stagger the imagination. The scale of human suffering–all too much of it needless because of mindless, heartless men who only think of themselves and maintaining their power–is gratefully unimaginable–I say gratefully because I think if we truly grasped it I’m not sure we could live or function.

I was sent this link by one of our staff people (thanks Ana!) about the only website in China that was providing information. It is a fascinating study in how people rely on the web for communication.

Some critical lessons here for those involved in crisis communication and emergency response.

Planners tend to separate communication as in public information from the response itself. Anyone who has been through a real event knows this is not realistic. If those responsible for providing fast accurate information are doing their job (and not hindered too much by incident commanders) that information serves not only the public but a much broader group including the responders themselves. The China site provides an example of that as to how the information it provided helped guide resource deployment.

In any substantial event there is an insatiable thirst for information. And the void will be filled. In this case, not an authorized or planned voice for the event at all. In your case, if you do not provide the information for the event don’t be fooled into thinking that no one will. Information abhors a vaccuum, and an event insures a vaccuum. It will be filled. That is why it is critical for those responsible to be prepared very quickly to fill that void or the ability to do that may very well be forever compromised.

Crisis capable websites are a must. Seems few planners of major events understand this. I am amazed at the lack of realization that if you are the source of information for a major event, your website will sustain millions and millions of hits. The China site went down frequently. The special web system used by the forest service specifically for handling communications in large scale fires could not handle the traffic during last October’s California wildfires and crashed frequently. The standard now is likely to exceed 20 million unique visits a day and could be considerably higher. That takes some serious horsepower–particularly if you are using that crisis site to deliver images and videos–an increasingly stringent requirement for effective crisis communication.

China is going through an industrial revolution and an information revolution as the same time. We have been observing the world’s most populace country and one of the most ancient civilizations concentrate 250 years of development in a decade or two. This story about a sole news website attempting to meet the global instant news world demands demonstrates first how far they have come, and second, how far they have to come.