Learning from clients

Last week I spent a few days meeting with clients in the LA area. Again, I feel so fortunate to be able to work with top level communicators of major agencies and organizations. Once in awhile I feel like I contribute a little to their thinking about their communication challenges, but mostly I just learn so much from them. I see a big part of my job in my work with PIER and on this blog to share these learnings so they can be of benefit to all.

I am seeing a steadily growing awareness of the instant news world and the impact of social media on the work that public affairs and media management professionals have to do. But I am also seeing a continuing and perhaps growing gap between the communicators who are trying to adapt their policies and plans to meet the demands for instant and direct communication and their bosses who tend more to operate in the old world of mainstream media domination, slow news cycles, and little to no interaction with key audiences.

One comment from a client was telling–”I’m having a problem with how fast we are able to get info out.” Despite appropriate approvals for distribution, the very quick distribution of vital information was catching some in the organization by surprise. And some of these people don’t like to be surprised.

It is critically important–and something I have come to emphasize a lot in my presentations recently–is that communicators who do “get it” need to continuously work with their superiors to help them understand the new instant news and social media realities. The organization’s leaders will make the ultimate and most important decisions about communication and they can only make informed decisions if they are, well, informed. Don’t expect them to read this or sit in on teleseminars about the changing world of information–that is up to you.

Secondly, while you need to keep the approval process as simple and streamlined as possible, you also need to be aware of the need in some cases to stage information so that you don’t catch important internal audiences by surprise. At least if you can avoid it. Even a ten minute heads up may be much appreciate and help them understand in advance what you are doing. It may even give them a chance–if there is sufficient reason–to yell hold the press!

Another observation. I’ve had some interesting discussions with communicators about the fact that in this day “you are the channel.” It is something I talked about at length in Now Is Too Late, but in this post-media world, audiences go where they will for information and often choose to go direct to the sources of information rather than through intermediary channels such as the media. That means your website plus the push communication you do becomes the direct channel to those who are often the most interested and most impacted by what is going on. That is a tremendous advantage. Tell your story directly. Don’t put it in the hands of those whose primary agenda is to build an audience–often at your expense. You are the channel. It is great to see progress in thinking at some very high levels.

"Paying close attention to the conversations online:" J&J and Motrin Moms

It’s 9:45 Pacific Time and in another couple of hours I’ll be doing a PRSA teleseminar on Social Media and Crisis Communication. And then this pops up–the Motrin Mom controversy around a Johnson & Johnson ad. According to the story in PR Week, an online ad created a storm of controversy because it suggests that mom’s carrying babies are in pain–relieved by Motrin of course.

Such a storm online that it was surpassed in traffic only by Christmas and Obama.

Oh my goodness. Admittedly, I’m not a mom, but I’m having a dickens of a time trying to discover what all the outrage is all about. And that is the real point here. Are we actually so hypersensitive that anything that strikes us as a little wrong or insensitive creates a backlash of anger, accusations and acrimony? What has happened to us? I am coming to the conclusion that this is one of the serious downsides of the social media phenomenon–a topic I hope to delve into a lot more in the future. Either we have become remarkably intolerant, just a PO’d generation, or else the desire of bloggers and commentators online is so great to create audiences that the slightest provocation is used to create an avalanche of outrage.

The media–intent as they have been on creating outrage to attract audiences–has never been this successful at creating such a storm in such a short period of time for so little reason.

But J&J is absolutely right in their response. Apologize. Show empathy. Admit what they did wrong. Correct it, try to make it right and validate the legitimacy of the response. They are right to do all that. It should be up to the rest of us to raise the question of what the heck is going on here–even while we advise our clients to do just what J&J is doing.

The most telling line of this story should be on the bulletin board of every PR person today: “One bright spot is that we have learned through this process – in particular, the importance of paying close attention to the conversations that are taking place online.”

Social Media–airline bungles while the LA Fire Department soars

The use of twitter by Brian Humphries of the LA Fire Department in reporting on the recent wildfires has the social media and crisis communication world, well, a twitter. For good reason, it is one of the most stunning examples of adoption of social media and instant news world methods to report on what is going on. Speed, directness and transparency–a great example. Here’s the twitter website with his postings which shows he is using it not just for major events like the fires, but everything that is going on.

Humphries and the LA Fire Department were one of three organizations cited at the recent Risk and Crisis Communications conference in DC. Michael Dumlao from Booz Allen Hamilton pointed to them as well as the US Coast Guard and Red Cross as government “champions” of social media. I was pleased to see that two of our clients made the list. Well, we’ll have to work on LA Fire Department.

On the other hand, some airlines are having a bit of time in the social media world. This article from the Economist talks about the problems British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have had with employees saying bad things about their employers, or worse, their employer’s customers. Ah, speed, directness and transparency–a two edged sword.

It is clear that government agencies and leading companies and organizations have to come to grips with the rapid emergence of social media. As Dumlao asked during the conference: What is your wikipedia policy?

New Study shows Emergency Managers slow to understand communication changes

If there was one overwhelming theme at the Nov 3 Risk and Crisis Communications conference in DC it was that the world of information has changed and that those involved in communicating with the public have to change with it. So obvious, but so desperately unresolved. Here’s a new study from the University of Kansas which quite plainly says the people most responsible for communicating in major events don’t get it. This study comes from the Firestorm Inc newsletter–worth getting.

One thing I and others I talked to were stunned about at this conference in DC and that was the very old and outdated thinking about the media. There was much talk including from some very respectable media folks speaking about the need to partner with the media–by which they mean the old media. Now, I agree that building relationships with the diminishing breed of old style journalists is still very important and that you have to communicate your information and messages to the media in an event. But partner? I tried to point out in my session that the media’s overwhelming concern, understandable in the crisis they are in, is to build an audience. They do this by fault finding, placing blame, and heightening the public’s sense of fear. That is their job. Yes, they can convey important messages. But in this era of instant news, social media, Web 2.0 and all that stuff, most people expect to get critical information directly–via website, emails, social media sites, blogs, YouTube, text messages, phone messages, alert devices, etc.

As Neil Chapman points out in his comment about his participation in this conference–an outstanding contributor I might add–is that we who are in communication have an urgent task. We have to educate those who will make the critical decisions about what is going on. They can’t live under a rock any more. They have to wake up to the realities of Twitter, Facebook, instant news, media infotainment and all the rest. After a major event they will understand it much better. But by then, it will be too late to build trust.

Policy-making in DC on Risk and Crisis Communication

What a privilege to play an active role in one of the most important conferences around risk and crisis communication. Booz Allen Hamilton working with Homeland Defense Journal put together a conference for top-level communicators and policy makers in Washington DC on Tuesday. Nearly 200 participated. I was fortunate to be a presenter and the moderator of an outstanding panel that included Neil Chapman, a top communicator for BP in London, Butch Kinerny, head of communications for FEMA’s Mitigation Directorate (I kidded him that it would take a good communicator to explain that title), and Michael Dumlao, a very impressive young social media designer with Booz Allen Hamilton.

We heard from General Russel Honore, the Army general charged with leading the Katrina response, and Dr. Vincent Covello, the nation’s top expert on Risk Communication.

As crisisblogger readers will recognize, I talked about the need for ever faster, more direct and more transparent communication as we move more completely into a world of 140 character headlines, twitter feeds from all over, 300 million on-the-scene reporters, etc.

There is no question that government agencies are struggling mightily with the sea change underway–and I don’t just mean the election that was just concluded. It is the even more massive change in how the public gets information, how they process it, how they participate in the process.

I have to say and perhaps it is not surprising, but some of the most insightful analysis and comments of the entire session came from the youngest presenter–Michael Dumlao. He made it very clear that to continue to think in this environment that you can “control” the information is simply ludicrous. You only have one decisiosn to make–do you participate or not. Some will conclude if they cannot control it they will not participate. Too bad for them. He also asked this stunning question of all these government agency leaders and communicators: What is your wikipedia policy?

What a great question.

What is yours?