The crisis of 2009–some "happy" new year thoughts

Today we say goodbye to 2008, and for many that comes with little regret. Unfortunately, it also comes without the usual anticipation for a clean start and solid hopes for a new year. The world is very much in a funk, with fears, uncertainty and maybe even despair.

Let’s look at this from a crisis perspective. In this case, we can put ourselves in the position of victims of a crisis like a major storm or natural disaster, or a devastating implosion of a company we have counted on for our future and livelihoods, or a fisherman who sees his future destroyed by a massive oil spill. Frankly, I haven’t looked at crisis management from a victim’s perspective very much and so this crisis may help many of us in crisis management to get more of a sense what it feels like and what victim’s expect and need.

Here are a few thoughts–but with a tip of the hat to Dr. Vince Covello, who is widely recognized as a leader in risk communications and speaking to people’s needs when they are caught in circumstances that overwhelm them.

Here are three things I want to focus on that I think all victims of a crisis desperately need: Strong leadership, simple messages, reason to hope.

Leadership.

We need strong leadership we can count on. Much research has demonstrated that leadership in a crisis determines the outcome. Not just in making the right decisions, but in demonstrating credibility and character. In our current global crisis, it is clear that the problem is bigger than President-elect Obama, the entire world needs leadership and we are not in this alone. We have seen how the crisis and his response to it has dramatically changed Prime Minister Gordon Browne’s fortunes. I suspect that either one individual, perhaps President Obama, or  small group of world leaders working together will emerge and we will pin our hopes on them and their character and actions. Visibility, strength, confidence, decisiveness, sensitivity, trustworthiness–all these are critical in our leaders now and if the ones we count on disappoint us, the crisis will deepen. President Bush and FEMA leadership demonstrated the downside of this in Katrina. Mayor Giuliani demonstrated the upside of this in 9/11.

Simple Messages

Dr. Covello has made it clear through much research that in a crisis, victims cannot absorb the typical amount of information they normally receive. Their brains are too filled. Adrenalin may be the culprit but in times of high stress we need very simple messages. It seems clear that this one of the keys to Obama’s success in his campaign. Change we can believe in was simple but powerful given the circumstances. And circumstances or the context of the message mean as much as the message itself. Sure, there is much to talk about in this crisis like all others. But the message from the response (the leaders) needs to be simple, consistent and to the point. In my mind it has to be related to restoring confidence. It is almost back to the simple message of Roosevelt–the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Demand–people buying things–is the engine on which our economy runs. Unfortunately, even buying things not needed and that is something that seems to be fundamentally changing right now. But if someone doesn’t buy a whole lot of things real soon, the engine will not only sputter but stop. Somehow the leaders need to convey the message that they are doing what is needed to restore confidence so that it is safe to invest, consume, and buy stuff.

Reason to hope.

Sure, the endless news hole of the media needs to be filled with all kinds of meaningless analysis about what has gone wrong and why, plus endless stories of more doom and gloom. And it is the media’s job (and delight sometimes it seems) to fill us up with all the evidence of how things are going from bad to worse. But we desperately need reason to hope. Not phony pollyanna hope, but a reasonable, rational idea of what it is going to take to make us believe in the future again. Victims of natural disasters need to see that through their pain, grief and dislocation that somehow, some way, life will return. There will be laughter and joy again. There will a time of looking forward to the future. Yes, life will likely never be the same and in some ways that may be a good thing. Resetting values, realization of our dependence on each other, re-examing the consumerism that lies at the heart of our system, focusing on the things that are truly important vs those things we only thought were important. That’s all good–so the reason for hope can’t be simple return to things as we have known them. We need to see that the new world we are entering is going to be a better one–more real, maybe more simple, maybe more authentic, more about family and relationships and caring for each other. I’m hoping our major cultural purveyors–tv, news, movie makers, video game makers, software developers, etc., can catch a vision for a post-crisis world that is changed but is significantly better. More soul, less shallowness. Ah yes, hope springs eternal.

May you have a blessed new year.

Neil Chapman Guest Post: "Grandma Thinking" or why corporations don't adopt social media

Here’s another intriguing guest post from Neil Chapman, direct from London:

Grandma thinking

As a long-time fan of the For Immediate Release podcast (Twice weekly commentary on public relations and technology by Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson), there are lots of lessons for crisis communicators. And recently there has been some great discussion around how much leeway organizations should be given when it comes to learning about social media.

Then Shel Holtz wrote about the discussion on his blog – ‘We’ve embraced social media. Why hasn’t everybody else?’ He makes a great case for counseling patience. I confess I felt chastised. I need to have patience with my aged mother. As much as I try to persuade her, she just won’t adopt technologies that make communicating via the net cheaper, easier and more effective.

Skype, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Flickr …… She would feel so much closer, in touch and aware of what her children, grandchildren and even her great grandchildren are up to.

Heck, she would have regular updates, virtual collaboration and better information at her fingertips almost instantly. Social media tools have a lot going for them and it sounds pretty good to me.

You would think she would get it! So, what’s her excuse? She’s in her 80s, and most of her life has been lived without this stuff. OK, maybe I should understand and have more patience.

But what I fail to understand is when I hear of corporations not adopting the same tools, particularly when it comes to crisis planning.  What could their excuse be?

It’s as if shareholders, politicians, regulators and customers – even employees – should and will cut the  same slack to well-paid, professional  managers as my 80 year old widowed mother. I just don’t think they will.

Neil Chapman

One more comment from crisisblogger: I recently came across information about Shel’s latest book (the guy is amazingly prolific!) called Tactical Transparency. I ordered it and expect you will be hearing more about this on this blog. But don’t wait for my review–order one yourself.

Christmas greetings from crisisblogger

We’re sliding into the quiet days of Christmas, then into the new year. Being buried under one of the biggest snowstorms we’ve had in many years provide a little extra time to think about the meaning of this season.

They say Christmas is for children and it certain seems the case around here. My wonderful wife Lynne and I are blessed with seven grandchildren–the oldest is five. And they are all in town for the season, including a couple granddaughters and their parents in our home. Sure, sometimes it gets overwhelming but what a wonderful gift and blessing. Like many of you, the economic conditions are causing plenty of stresses, strains and uncertainties–and I am one who takes these things far more seriously than they deserve. But the bright happy faces of the children as they gather with their cousins, see the lights on the tree, and open their gifts is a reminder that life goes on and with great joy when you can see the world with the eyes of a child.

It seems to me that the pall that hangs over everything relating to our economic woes have some significant benefits. While it is very bad news for retailers, I have a sense that this year for many people the focus will shift a little away from all the glitter and gifts to thinking about things that really matter. Family, friends, good times together, and love. I just finished reading a book titled “Same Kind of Different as Me,” which was a wonderful thing to read during this season. A simple but powerful story of the unlikely friendship between a homeless, violent ex-con and a wealthy art dealer from Dallas. A friendship created by the wife of the art dealer who demonstrated unconditional love in such a powerful way to break down the walls of a former sharecropper and 10 year inmate of one of the worst prisons in America.

I could wish for nothing better for you this Christmas than to read that book and have it open your eyes and heart as it did mine. For those suffering fear and uncertainty, it is a reminder that with strength and courage we can survive anything. And for those of us who have become too accustomed to the luxuries and comforts of life, it is a reminder of the great poverty that we experience when these things cut us off from loving and serving others.

If you find yourself afraid of what this next year will bring, despairing of life ever returning to normal, I encourage you to find a new normal. A new way of living and thinking that makes a whole lot more room for those around you who truly need you and the love you have to give.

Merry Christmas to all you, and blessed peace in the new year.

More examples of social media nastiness–Chris Brogan and Kmart post

Although this controversy that erupted on twitter about Chris Brogan and his sponsored KMart post is over a week old (that is a lifetime in this business) it highlights the issues I raised in my previous post about Engadget.

This little controversy is especially interesting because it involves someone very well respected in social media, how it works and how businesses can participate. In fact, Chris Brogan I found out through his post about this issue is writing a book called “Trust Agents” which obviously deals with the tricky subject of building and maintaining trust in this social media world. Then, he finds his own credibility under severe attack.

His comments titled “Advertising and Trust” do as good a job as I can imagine in giving insight into the very dangerous waters of social media. His explanation of all that he has done to be fully transparent is telling. Full disclosure. And yet, as he discovered, full disclosure is far from enough for many in the social media crowd. What this problem seems to highlight more than anything is that one of the primary cultural values of many of the most outspoken in the social media world is that business, money, profit, and making a living are bad things. They are extremely sensitive to the corrupting power of money. And that makes the whole effort of social media marketing especially tricky. It makes the whole problem of building trust in the social media world when you are a for profit business almost mission impossible.

Engadget tries to cope with the nasty side of social media

Engadget is one of the very popular websites/blogs that reviews the latest electronic gadgets. It’s very popular with the gadget set and has lots of viewers and commenters.

I’ve been working on a draft of an article for a major PR publication about incorporating social media into communication plans, particularly into crisis communication plans. And one of the points I try to make is that it is necessary to understand the social media culture. For some of us, it is almost like going into a foreign country with its own language, traditions, values, norms. There are some serious dos and don’t in this culture.

Engadget, who lives and breathes in it, is clearly struggling with how to deal with two very strong aspects of this culture. One is that it tends to be very nasty and ugly. The rage that apparently so many mostly young people feel is barely below the surface and it comes out in almost everything they say. It is shown in incredible levels of disrespect, vulgarity, cynicism and name calling. I think those who act this way would be surprised to have it called out because to them it appears to be perfectly normal. It is the way they talk, if not in their daily lives with their friends and family, then it least in their online personas.

The second element is complete openness and transparency. Anything that is seen as an effort to restrict the completely open, unfettered expression of personal opinion is deeply offensive. Anything that is less than completely honest and transparent triggers that rage.

Engadget is trying to navigate this stormy water with a post about the Verizon Storm that apparently created a storm of nasty comments. Here is there reaction, and then the commenters reaction to that.

Nice review of Now Is Too Late in EducationPR blog

Just have to share this very nice review of my 2006 book in the EducationPR blog. The review was written by Paul Baker and his blog is now on my blogroll.

The disastrous shortcomings of FEMA during the early stages of Hurricane Katrina resulted from its leader’s failure to manage during a time of crisis. His weakness as a communicator, his discomfort in facing harsh criticism, and his questionable credentials all played into the story of abject failure reported by the media. As goes the person at the top, so goes the organization.

Now Is Too Late 2 offers this and many striking examples of how leaders fail and succeed in communicating on behalf of their organizations.

Your company may not be subject to the risks and responsibilities of an agency the size of FEMA, but you do have a reputation to protect. And crises happen on large and small scales.

Gerald Baron writes this book for communicators, whether CEOs or PR professionals. He writes mainly about crisis communication, but this meaty book includes the wisdom of practice in several areas, including maintaining healthy relationships with reporters, keeping up with technology, and knowing all your publics and the influentials in each one.

Writing from years of experience as a communicator and consultant, Baron says the most enlightened communication managers make themselves the first and best source of news. Long before a crisis strikes, they put in place processes that will allow them to very quickly gather and distribute needed information.

In fact, he writes that the primary message of this book is speed. That’s because technology has allowed people around the world to get information immediately and to engage in decisions that affect them.

Baron discusses how to prepare a crisis communication plan that effectively weaves together effective people, policies and technology. The single objective of a plan should be to protect,  or to build, public trust in your organization through accurate, timely information.

Make sure you have already identified the people whose perceptions are vital to your company’s current business and future health. Whether global or local, Baron says, the basic principle remains the same:  A relatively few people carry the present and future value of the organization around in the perceptions they hold about the company.

Nixon and Frost and the blending of history and entertainment

The Smithsonian is one of the very few magazines I read and I came across this intriguing article by James Reston Jr in the email teaser for the latest issue.

One of my favorite topics, as any regular crisisblogger reader will know, is “infotainment.” As the mainstream media industry tailspins into history, its adoption of entertainment forms to grab and hold audiences is increasingly desperate. The implications for crisis managers is as significant as the head in the sand response to this that pervades public relations.

Some say that journalism is the first draft of history and journalism is again in my opinion driven primarily by the need to build audiences and therefore by entertainment values. But what about entertainment and the later drafts of history. This article is very interesting in that regard. In part because of the obvious lack of concern of the playwright for the facts. No doubt he is right–he is after all writing a play which is entertainment and not primarily history. Mr. Reston, on the other hand, deeply concerned about history, has much less concern than the playwright about entertainment values.

This is the challenge that plays out everyday in the editorial offices of mainstream media (and for that matter, in the minds of those millions of bloggers who also try to build audiences). What is more important–the truth, the facts, balance, objectivity, fairness–or to get people to actually pay attention. There is a crucial difference here: the playwright is clearly and unabashedly in the entertainment business. The historian/researcher is clearly in the history business. But what about journalists. All would be right with the situation at hand if they would just come out and honestly say–”hey folks, somewhere along the line our jobs changed. We are now entertainers. Sure, we’ll try to slip some facts and truth in there when we can, but first and foremost we have to get the biggest audiences we can or we will be out of business.” Actually, as the recent bankruptcy of Tribune company showed, they may be out of business anyway.

Guest post: Neil Chapman on the Buncefield explosion in UK

Here is another guest post from Neil Chapman from London. Critical issue addressed: the dangers of speculating on cause.

Sometimes the obvious takes time to sink in.

It’s just past the third anniversary of the Buncefield explosion in the UK. It’s also the length of time it has taken government-appointed investigators to pull together their final incident report. I was reading their conclusions and recommendations, searching out lessons for crisis communicators.

Background to the event is that around 6am on Sunday December 11, 2005 a series of explosions led to a large fire that destroyed much of the Buncefield Oil Storage and Transfer Depot located about 18 miles north east of London and close to Heathrow Airport (one of the world’s busiest international airports). The airport received half its fuel from Buncefield. On that crisp-sky day a huge pall of black smoke, visible by satellites, hung in the air. The explosions were heard in Holland and France.

For you, Gerald, what I’ve described will be reminiscent of the terrible events in your hometown of Bellingham when the Olympic pipeline exploded killing three young people. However, while the Buncefield incident caused billions of dollars in damage and 40 plus people were injured, thankfully no-one was killed -  a fact the investigators attribute to the time the explosions happened.

The report says the event was caused by the overfilling of a large petrol storage tank, but admits it remains a mystery why the subsequent explosions were so violent that the fires engulfed more than 20 large storage tanks on the site.

“ The main explosion at Buncefield was unusual because it generated much
higher overpressures than would usually have been expected from a vapour cloud
explosion.” Over pressure is the pressure over and above normal atmospheric pressure caused by an explosion, which is itself a rapid release of energy.

I was astonished. Then the lesson for crisis communications hit me. The mantra for spokespeople is: “never speculate on the cause of an event.” I confess that saying: “We don’t know” is sometimes hard to repeat over and over again in the face of a lot of stakeholder pressure. But it would have been the only answer at Buncefield even three years after the event.

The future of the internet: PEW study

Where are things going with the internet. Here’s a summary of a PEW study that is interesting but contains few surprises. Which suggests as much sense as it makes that it will probably be wrong. One thing certain about the internet and zigs and zags its development takes is that it is almost always surprising. I’m thinking the economic conditions will spur some pretty big surprises just because tough times often bring out the creativing in folks.

Quick summary:

1. mobile devices will rule (actually I just heard some amazing statistics about how many access the internet from smart phones already).

2. transparency will increase but it doesn’t mean the nastiness of internet culture will decrease (an increasingly interesting topic to me)

3. voice recognition and other enabling technologies will flourish

4. stuff will still be free and there will be constant battles over that

5. more blurring between personal and work time (oh great)

6. internet underlying structure will be improved but not revolutionized (what, no internet 2.0?)

I haven’t searched the internet for this, but I’m kind of curious how the internet is being used in new and intriguing ways by people trying to cope with their loss of job, financial uncertainty, etc. Anyone have any interesting stories about this?

Blagojevich, Schwarzenneger and the risks of all big stories

I try to see in situations like the Blagojevich scandal the impact for companies and agencies relating to crisis communication. What lessons can be learned? There are many obvious ones here like don’t be stupid, don’t be a criminal, don’t be so arrogant, clean up your language and your wife’s too, get a new haircut and all that. But there is a more subtle lesson and a more insidious danger and it is represented by this story in the LA Times about Gov. Schwarzenneger.

When a big story hits the mainstream media, every local or regional outlet or reporter is looking for the local angle. This is especially true of the story uncovers some sort of danger or risk for the public or a group. When the Virginia Tech shooting occurred and the issue became lack of notification to students, nearly every university or college president got contacted by their local media and had to answer the question: are you prepared to notify students about something going on on your campus. There was a frenzy of contracting with notification companies as university leadership discovered a vulnerability that now could potentially cost them their jobs. Tight budgets stretched and notification providers had a field day.

Look at this LA Times story in a little detail. Is it saying that the Governor is participating in Pay to Play politics? Well, no not exactly. But there is a pretty strong suggestion that what he is doing is somehow connected to the ugliness in Illinois. Look at this comment included in the story:

That’s the way the system works, and it troubles me,” said Derek Cressman, Western regional director for Common Cause, who worked with Schwarzenegger on the initiative and has written a book critical of his fundraising. “The governor, like every other elected official in our state, pays more attention to those people who support him than those who don’t. And those people who support him with big checks get noticed.”

Wow, every elected official in the state of California is tainted by this hint of Pay to Play. People who help keep these elected people in office with their money get more attention that those who don’t. I wonder if Mr. Cressman whose organization I believe is funded by donors, pays any more attention to the major donors to his organization than those who contribute nothing. Somehow he probably thinks that is appropriate for him because, after all, his is a righteous cause, and all politicians care about is staying in office.

Frankly, this article is pretty disgusting in my mind. It makes no accusations other than by subtle inuendo. But in the context of the on-going hypercoverage around Blagojevich, raising any question about the propriety of campaign contributions and how those are secured is going to come across as an attempt to spread the scandal. What is at issue here, is our money-fed political system–good questions to raise, no doubt. But to try to pull others in on the flimsy basis such as presented here is a good indication to me of what is wrong with serious journalism today.

The lesson for public affairs managers and crisis communicators is clear–a megastory will create a feeding frenzy at the local level. And an effort will be made, such as seen here, to paint all with a big broad brush. What reporter wouldn’t want such a juicy scandal spread to his or her backyard? And few apparently can resist the temptation to do what they can to spread it.