Reflections on PRSA Conference and upcoming Homeland Defense Risk and Crisis Conference

Just returned home from speaking at the PRSA International Conference in Detroit and now preparing my comments for my presentation at the Homeland Defense Journal Risk and Crisis Communication conference in DC on Nov 3. A few reflections.

The PRSA conference struck me as a strong contrast to the conference in New York a couple of years ago with Donald Trump as the keynoter. It was one of the most disgusting displays of arrogance, chauvinism, ego, and all the distorted values that too many in our profession and nation were pursuing at that time. The world has changed since then and maybe it is a reflection on that that the opening session on Sunday noon at the conference in Detroit started with an absolutely marvelous concert of gospel music by the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Detroit’s gospel choir. They received a standing ovation after nearly every song.

The keynoter was Craig Newmark of Craigslist. Aside from a bit too much partisan politics mixed in for my taste, Craig’s message was simple and clear: live your life in a way that does good–and you will do well. When taking actions, think first about how you would like to be treated if the roles were reversed. Yes, the good old fashioned golden rule. Craig’s job–he is one of many customer service reps at Craigslist. He answers hundreds of emails from users helping them solve their problems. The humility and rejection of greed and pride he demonstrated were in absolute and stark contrast to the pride, arrogance, lust and overweening ambition of Mr. Trump. Congrats to PRSA for an outstanding conference!

Another speaker whom I unfortunately missed was Mitch Albom–one of my favorite writers. In penance I suppose, I picked up Albom’s latest bestseller “For one more day” at the Detroit airport. I’m sure the guy in the seat next to me thought this guy dressed up like a business person next to him must have been nuts since I blubbered my way through a good part of the book. And when I got to Chicago for my flight to Seattle I called my mom to see how she was doing. Those of you who have read the book will understand.

I think the 120 or so who went to the presentation by Pat Philbin and his former associate Aaron Walker will be talking about this for months. Pat is the former head of external affairs at FEMA and Aaron Walker was the director’s press secretary–both caught up in the Oct 2007 “fake news conference.” (disclosure: Pat now is our Senior Vice President). It was a most lively, spirited and heart-felt discussion. I think everyone came away with a strong sense that we live in a world in which reputations and lives can be destroyed in an instant, sacrificed on the altar of compelling headlines and higher ratings. I think what was also learned by many PRSA members is how quick even those of us who are in this business are to believe what we read or see in the news. There was a sense of shame that we ought to know better.

My takeaway from this was similar to the contrast between Trump and the Gospel Choir and Craig Newmark–it comes down to character. In this case, honest mistakes made by smart, hardworking communicators of exceptional integrity. But taken down none-the-less. But their character showed through–and ultimately there are few things more valued or honored.

Oh, and by the way–my presentation focused on the risks to building trust in an era dominated by instant news and the drive to build audiences at anyone’s expense. If interested, you can download my very visual presentation by going this page on the PIER website.

And if you are interested in a great conference talking about mega trends in risk and crisis communication for the 21st century, I think there is still time to sign up.

Chemical Safety Board Videos–take the opportunity to learn

Here’s another guest blog submission from Neil Chapman: (note–Neil is in London so he uses UK spelling)

The lesson is – learn lessons

If anyone works for an organisation where accidents can occur and they own an iPod, they  should subscribe to the video casts from the US Chemical Safety Board. No iPod, then just  visit the CSB’s on-line video room. Its library of safety films makes for compelling viewing. Nearly all of the films contain a good-guess simulation of what the CSB believes occurred leading up to an accident they have investigated, depicting how the tragedy likely unfolded – usually leading to death and destruction.

In a recent press release ‘CSB Investigators to Examine Scene of Fatal Ohio Oilfield Explosion’  chairman John Bresland says: ‘Our team will seek to determine if there are similarities between the accident in Ohio and previous cases involving welding in the vicinity of flammable storage tanks.” A previous case that occurred June, 2006 in Mississippi is depicted in one of the safety videos, ‘Death in the Oilfield.’ The implication is that lessons could have been learned and perhaps the later accident avoided.

Sifting through the CSB’s video library shows just how unpredictable we human beings are. The seemingly obvious may be far more complex when it comes to accidents. However it can take a thorough investigation to piece together the tragic story of what went wrong – and even then there may be unanswered questions.

The CSB offers many safety lessons to learn, and some communications ones. They help explain why organisations are tempted to ‘hunker in the bunker’ in terms of communication when accidents happen. In those early moments there are usually few facts about what or why the accident has happened on one side, yet on the other too many reputational risks and the potential to get things very wrong.

But communicators know that saying nothing has the potential to make events even worse. No comment is a comment in itself. It says whatever the audience wants it to mean; uncaring, guilty, callous, inept, untrustworthy …the list can be long. What it doesn’t say is ‘ cautious’, compassionate, concerned. It doesn’t say ‘trust’ nor does it say ” while we may not know the cause of an accident for a time, we are anxious to learn any lessons  and will share those to ensure others can learn them too and perhaps prevent another tragedy.”

The lesson is: take the opportunity to learn as many lessons as possible, particularly from others. Take a look at the CSB videos for one.

How the crisis is driving changes in how companies communicate

The economic crisis, as a NYT article pointed out, is essentially a crisis of trust. Organizations of all kinds, particularly finance, insurance and those gov agencies now intervening, are under intense scrutiny and the actions they take operate on an instant news scale. Yesterday the market swung from 400 points down to 400 points up. Every minute counts in this hyper-freaked out environment.

I long for a voice on the national stage–no, global stage–to say with strength, confidence and credibility that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But it is not likely to happen. That is something we–the 6 billion of us–will have to figure out for ourselves.

What it means now is that the old rules of communication about financial matters go out the window. The staid rules of Wall Street are gone forever I think. Quarterly reports are as dead as the news cycle. The only thing that matters now in this instant financial news world, is maintaining a constant, steady, relevant and gold-standard credible information flow.

The question I have is, are the investor communication folks, the lawyers, the accountants and C-suite execs–plus regulators–aware of this urgent new need and can they respond? If you don’t know what I mean–how do they feel about a very transparent, very real daily blog?

The $440,000 ill-timed retreat

OK, I have to comment on this. It’s all about trust, you know. When the taxpayers are moaning and groaning about huge government bailouts of private companies and fearing greatly that the big time executives will just run off with multi-millions of taxpayer dollars, it is really really really stupid to do anything like this retreat. Oh, I’m sure it was planned well in advance. And it is an incentive tool I’m sure for high producers. And they probably deserve the kind of luxury treatment for their outstanding performance. Doesn’t matter one whit. The only smart thing to do under the circumstance would be to kill it, delay it or find some other way to recognize the performance.

Here’s further info from PR Week.

Did they think no one would notice? Did they think no one would care? It’s about transparency folks. You can’t hide in this environment, you can’t do things to violate the public trust. I’ve been saying for some time we live in a time of public franchise–the public ultimately gets to decide if you deserve to stay in business. But when the public, as in taxpayer, now has bailed you out, or owns stock in you, the day of public franchise has just gotten a whole lot more intense. Could be a good time for crisis managers and reputation management experts.

Here's proof positive–you can reduce the media onslaught

I’ve long said during my conference presentations that the very best way to reduce the onslaught of media calls during a major event is to push, push, push. Provide all those who ask (and those you think might ask) with a steady, continuous flow of information means the volume of calls will go down. Evidence? I’ve talked to crisis communicators using our crisis communication platform and they have told me it is true. But here is stronger evidence.

As unbelievable as it sounds, a columnist from a local Houston area newspaper loudly praised the efforts of Houston area public officials. Columnist Cheryl Skinner complimented the officials (by name) for keeping up a steady flow of information during the storm and the recovery:

And, I mean steady! Day and night the e-mails with the latest closings, recovery reports, health hazards and anything related to Hurricane Ike and recovering from the storm were sent in volume.

For the media this meant being able to pass on the information without hours of searching for someone to talk to.

That’s the part that is critical. They didn’t have to search–which saved them time and effort and made them look better. Plus, they didn’t ghave to pick up the phone and try calling 20 different people. Just imagine how many phone calls that saved.

For a more complete story about the Fort Bend County Public Information website, here’s the scoop.

Neil Chapman on trust and the financial crisis

I’m very pleased to present a guest comment by a good friend, crisisblogger reader/commenter and a true crisis communication expert. Neil Chapman lives in London and is a top level communication manager for a global company. He sees the loss of trust in our major institutions as a major threat to communicators and CEOs concerned about building and maintaining trust for their organizations in these unsettling times:

Americans are angry at Wall Street over the financial crisis. Here’s a reaction http://tiny.cc/c2cCJ from  the other side of the world – individuals who feel duped by banks in Singapore that sold them financial structured products they believed to be protected deposits. The story is told by The Online Citizen – a community of Singaporeans (http://theonlinecitizen.com/). It brings the crisis down to the level of ordinary people.

If truth is the first victim of war  then trust must be one of the early victims of the current financial crisis. Trust in banks, trust in politicians  and, I would argue, trust in companies and the economic system in general. When people’s cynicism meters are in the red zone, it spills over into other areas. If that is happening then it is a long-term issue crisis communicators will have to deal with. The next time a corporate crisis impacts people because of someone’s greed or incompetence, I suspect you will see an even greater level of distrust and anger directed at  the managers who ‘were asleep at the wheel’, the regulators ‘who should have seen it coming’ and the politicians ‘ who once again failed to protect the ordinary citizen.’

I would argue that trust-building just got harder for all of us.

Neil

How instant news can impact share price–Apple and the false heart attack report

I just blogged again about citizen journalism and how the mainstream media is adopting citizen journalists as part of their news crews. They are not careful to check the facts–and that is a huge risk for any organization who might find itself in the news.

Today, Apple stock took a 10 point hit this morning based on a false “i-report” on CNN. A citizen “journalist” reported that Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, had a heart attack. It was false and the stock soon recovered.

But, CEOs all around the world ought to be having semi-heart attacks about this danger. How fast will organization respond to a false i-report? Do you think you can count on the CNNs to get the story straight before it appears on their website? Not a chance. The only protection is putting in place the policies, people, plan and platform to respond.