Here's why the media's investigative reports make me angry

Certainly a lot of investigative reports are valuable, perform an important service. But far too often they are far more harmful than helpful. The harmful part is driven by the media’s need to entertain, which they do by creating a white hat/black hat story regardless of the truth.

Like many farms, Randy Adkin’s blueberry farm uses migrant workers which are housed in camps–about 250 of them. Farm labor was plentiful this year and Adkins turned away over 1000 adults looking for work. Normally the children of the migrant families attend a state-supported day care, but Michigan’s economy was in the tank so no day care and no summer school program for the kids. So the migrant families had to supply their own daycare and some brought their kids to the field with them. It is not a practice Adkins supported, but much to his regret, he did not do enough to stop it.

I just want to mention a side note here. I grew up in berry picking area and every summer since I was about five years old I would go and pick berries. First with my mom, then when about nine or ten, on my own with my brothers. We would ride our bikes, pick berries, eat a whole lot and earn a little money for candy, school supplies, etc. It was where most of us around here learned what work was all about. But some enlightened do-gooders decided that child labor was a throw back to bad old days of the industrial revolution and now it is illegal for anyone under 12 to work. Sure, there is some value in that, but my gosh don’t we go overboard.

Back to the Adkin’s farm. Some college kids said they were doing a documentary on how blueberry farms work and shot video of the children in the fields working alongside their parent. They turned it over to authorities and the media. The Department of Labor stepped in and levied fines. ABC News ran a big story with Chrlie Gibson and Brian Ross who were suitably shocked and dismayed at the shameful exploitation of child labor by this berry farmer.

But of course, that is not enough. The big image-conscious companies who marketed the blueberries, Meijer, Kroger and Walmart all suspended business with the farm. As the editor of Food Grower News points out, Walmart’s righteous indignation was especially galling since they have become the behemoth they are largely on child labor in China.

As a result, every farmer in the nation was scurrying to make certain that not a single child any where near age 12 was to be found any where near their fields. Is that a good thing? Certainly not for the strapped migrant families. Beyond that I’ll let you be the judge. The Department of Labor of course looks good because they did their enforcement thing. The big companies protected their image because they told the world they won’t stand for this kind of brutal exploitation of child labor. ABC can feel quite good because it was definitely a white hat black hat story that played well to the credulous masses.

The sad thing is the truth escaped the agendas of all those involved. And that is something that every American ought to care deeply about.

Top PR Blunders Involve Social Media and the Internet

Fineman PR out of San Francisco has published its top ten list of PR blunders for 2009. I did some analysis of some of the items on the list at emergencymgmt.com, but I just read this interview with Fineman PR head Michael Fineman and his advice is definitely worth passing on.

Here are a couple of gems: “Social media and the whole online space have changed the dynamics of communications. In our society today, you have to understand that anything you say on the record can go out millions instantly. You can’t underestimate the power of that—and you have to understand that you need your own communications to help offset any negativity you experience on the Internet.”

On the importance of Googling: Fineman says that, too often, “The only way people look for your business is by Googling you. If they come up with negative links, it’s not good.” This is the exact reason, Fineman says, that “organizations have to tell their story well on the Web.”

What’s the biggest mistake in social media use in crises?

“Slow response time. In the case of Dominoes, for example, you can’t allow a video that ugly to go on for two days without responding. Ultimately, Dominoes eventually handled it effectively. But the images they allowed to run online for two days without any response did a lot of damage. They underestimated the power and impact of YouTube.”

The only area I disagreed with Fineman was in his reference to having a webmaster as part of your crisis team. The webmasters for the most part come from IT and respond only to IT managers. For the most part in my experience they do not have the sense of urgency, the chain of command, or the mentality to truly be part of a crisis response team that has minutes to respond, not weeks. Communication technologies are very available today to give non-tech savvy communicators the full power of the internet, including managing content instantly, distribution of content in multiple modes, managing interactions and inquiries, and monitoring everything out there in traditional and social media. Communicators should demand nothing less because it is essential to meet the demands that Fineman so eloquently expresses.

Is Toyota going the way of GM?

I was intrigued by a couple of major media stories about Toyota. Today there is this story from US Today saying that Toyota’s reputation may need an overhaul following the latest hit–a major safety recall. It identifies a string of problems that the world’s largest automaker has experienced in the recent past. This follows last week’s cover story in the Economist in which the major challenges Toyota faces are examined in some detail. The story starts with the chairman and grandson of the founder revealing that he has been reading Jm Collins’ book “How The Mighty Fall.”

No doubt Chairman Toyoda has plenty to worry about. But, as I commented here a long time ago, his biggest worry from a reputation standpoint comes from his success. Strange thing about this time and culture–we like winners, but we don’t really like big, gigantic winners who keep on winning. Certainly part of that is our media pattern of following the rise of someone or some organization as they battle the giants, but as soon as they get to the top and topple the giants, the deconstruction begins. In some cases, like Tiger, the deconstruction is aided mightily by their own misdeeds. It is not just media, however. Our cultural values tend to distrust and dislike anything too big and powerful. We don’t like monop0lies or anyone that smells like one. We don’t like teams or companies or celebrities who simply dominate. I said here before that Microsoft finally emerged from under the cloud of its success when it became clear that its dominance was no longer assured with Google coming on strong. Now Google faces the very real problem of their famous corporate slogan turning on them and biting them on the backside. As they get increasingly powerful, more and more will see evil in every move they make.

Toyota has its problems, no doubt. They’ve made mistakes. But having a big safety recall over floormats that slip over accelerators and having the media conclude that this is a sign they need a reputation makeover identifies their real problem. They are the big dog. They’ve got a target on their back. They have tens of thousands of journalists, bloggers, and others beside competitors, who would love to help lower them a notch or two.

Communicators and executives at Toyota have a tough challenge. Above all they need to “walk humbly” while the company continues to innovate, put their kaizen strategies to work, and strive harder than ever to lead.

Leave it to a pastor to write one of the best crisis response messages I've seen

My son-in-law who lives in Ballard (neighborhood of Seattle) sent me this link. It contains one of the best crisis response letters I’ve ever seen.

The situation: a church operated homeless shelter was the scene of a violent crime, one shelter guest stabbed another. The shelter operates in a friendly community. The degree of sensitivity and concern expressed by the pastor to the neighbors suggests that neighbors near the shelter may have been concerned about having a homeless shelter in the neighborhood and the impact on their safety. So, the stabbing was a serious crisis.

I’ll tell you a few things I like about this response, but I’d love to hear from you–whether you agree that it is as good as I say it is and what you like or don’t like about it.

1) Tone–It is clean, simple, straightforwad, never sappy, but conveys a great deal of sensitivity, concern for everyone involved, and appreciation for the responders.

2) Direct acknowledgment of their concerns–”we nevertheless deeply regret the disruption of our neighborhood security”

3) Granting neighbors their rights–”We affirm that, as neighbors, you have every right to a secure street.” He doesn’t go down the path of challenging this, even in-directly, by saying something that hey, these homeless people have rights, too. He just simply acknowledges their key concern and their right to that concern.

4) Places the incident in context–this is tricky, but beautifully handled: “this is the first incident of violence with a weapon in the ten years of our active ministry with the homeless.”  This heads off those who would say that it is a big risk because these things are happening all the time. Later in the letter he re-emphasizes this point by calling the incident
an anomaly.” Also he places the event in context of events outside of their control: “with this economic downturn, the streets are becoming more desperate and despairing.”

5) Explains what’s been done for neighborhood security: “As you know we have recently added a paid Security Officer that monitors our Saturday Soup kitchen.”

6) Takes advantage to explain (promote) their mission: “It is also a matter of moral concern: we acknowledge that feeding folks and housing folks is not enough. What is needed is transformation of character, and reorientation of desire, along with a restructuring of our economy.”

7) Seeks their support: “At Trinity we desire to move beyond charity into relational ministries of transformation. It is a long road, and difficult work. We acknowledge our dependence on your good will, and we take very seriously our responsibility to provide neighborhood tranquility.”

The other point that should not be missed is that he is not only sending that letter to neighbors but making certain the media (including new media such as the Ballard news website) got the information and distributed it. This may be the biggest lesson of all. I imagine there were those who said, “What!? Why not just let it go quietly? Why tell the whole world about this? Why alert people so directly to our primary vulnerability? Are you crazy?”

Crazy like a fox. If I was a neighbor and got that letter, I’d be tempted to call them and ask if I could volunteer.

Great job, pastor! And thanks Gabe.

How can someone else's crisis become yours? Ask Accenture.

One intriguing aspect of today’s crisis management is that when something bad happens to someone else, it normally causes some very big ripples. For example, after Virginia Tech the problem of notifying students of a shooter on campus became a nightmare for every university president in the country. A great many had to stand up in front of local TV cameras and answer the question: How will you let your students know if there is a shooter on campus? Most didn’t have good answers. They do now.

In dealing with a food industry client recently, we became aware of a local TV news story that impacted a similar grower in another part of the country. But all it takes is for a story like that to go viral or get national coverage and all the local outlets plus bloggers will be asking the question–could the same thing be happening next door?

Tiger’s crisis would appear to be Tiger’s crisis. But it is a different kind of crisis for Accenture. And as this NYT story shows, a very, very expensive one at that. My quick blog post from an airport in California showing an Accenture poster showed why. Let’s consider the implications of this for a bit. Here are my predictions:

- major companies will be far more reluctant to tie their marketing to a superstar in the way that Accenture has. Tiger looked as safe a bet as you can possibly imagine, but look at him. It is too risky to tie your brand to a brand that you don’t control and that you may think you know, but you really don’t. The implications for this for endorsement deals and major corporate sponsorships is immense. The “Tiger Effect” will cost lots of celebrities millions and millions of dollars (sorry, something I can quite tear up over).

- All companies with major celebrity sponsorships are in an evaluation stage. Everyone tying their brand to another is a little nervous. Funny that Larry King had Donald Trump and Dennis Rodman on talking about the impact of Tiger’s fall on sponsors. Very ironic really. I haven’t seen a ton of companies throwing millions at Rodman lately, or even the Donald. With Rodman repeating over and over that he’ll be fine as well as trying to enforce his own celebrity status, the message kind of backfired in my mind.

- Crisis managers will be taking a look at this as another example of crisis vulnerability. The truth is there is a lot of collateral damage when you have an implosion of the size and scope of Tiger’s. A lot of people get hurt besides his family. It’s an important lesson for executives and crisis managers.

How can you know when somethings going viral? Bitly is helping

For Twitter users and other social media types, bitly is the well-known tool that helps you shorten big long urls or webpage addresses into something much shorter that will fit on a tweet. Now bitly is offering another invaluable service based on all the data that flows through its system. It can show you which videos are hot right now.

Why is this important? Ask Dominos–and if you have to ask why, look at yesterday’s post. How will you know if some competitor, opponent, disgruntled employee, unhappy customer who knows how to write cute songs has posted something on YouTube or Vimeo. And how will you know if it is gaining traction and getting tweeted and retweeted by millions. Bitly will make this easier.

This is just one more example of the flood of new capabilities being offered almost continually that allow communicators to monitor what is happening on the internet. My post yesterday on Emergency Management about top PR blunders discussed the fact that blunders occur when people don’t know what is going on out there, and most of all when they don’t think about how what they are doing will look to others when it does hit the social networks.

Listen, listen, monitor, monitor.

Dominos is one company that learned its lesson

Dominos Pizza is one company that has appeared in the presentations of many of us so-called experts in social media and crisis communication. But in a bad way. It was one of the most vivid examples of how companies can be caught flat-footed in a major reputation crisis that is driven primarily by social media. In this case it was dim-witted Dominos employees posting disgusting food preparation videos on YouTube–which of course went viral with millions of views in hours. Dominos did a good job of crisis management–for the old world. They simply were not prepared to deal with a crisis in the social media world, but were well prepared to deal with it in the traditional media world. Result–they failed.

This story about Dominos engaging food bloggers on an area of great vulnerability to them (the fact that their pizzas rank near the bottom in taste tests) is an example of understanding the new world of social media. Imagine a few years a PR executive proposing this strategy: “Our product is ranked really low in taste so I’d like to go to the people who are the taste arbiters for most of the rest of the world and who seem to really disparage us and open ourselves up to them, encouraging them to comment to all their followers about what we are doing.”  “What!? Are you nuts? Let’s buy some ads and emphasize how fast we deliver.”

We keep saying today communication is about engagement, transparency, responsiveness to the interaction with customers. That’s true of marketing and true of crisis communication. Congrats, Dominos. In my view anyway, you’ve gone from an organization that doesn’t get it to one that does.

Zhu Zhu Hamsters and GoodGuides–when accuser becomes accused

In many if not most reputation crises there is an accuser and an accused. The media thrives on this because of the melodrama implied with the public good being the “maiden in distress” that the guys wearing the white hats are fighting for against the guys wearing the black hats. Round one almost always goes to the accuser because the media have an inherent interest in creating or conveying a dramatic story and that means someone or something must be at risk.

But the game is ultimately about credibility or who is to be believed. A winning strategy for the accused (black hat) is to turn the game around by accusations against the accuser and if successful the colors of the hats are switched. It all depends on whether the accuser is completely solid when it comes to credibility. This game (actually very serious business for those involved) has been played out to a T with the Zhu Zhu pets crisis.

GoodGuide, a consumer guide website with as far as I can tell, a very solid reputation, reported that Zhu Zhu pets were over the federal standards for tin and antimony. Big crisis for the company Cepia which manufactures the toys. No question about white hats and black hats.

Turns out GoodGuide was wrong in that they were using a different and apparently less stringent testing method than that required for the federal standards. The Consumer Product Safety Council verified that the pets met the federal standards. Now headlines (LA Times and US News) around the country are proclaiming “Zhu Zhu Pets are Safe.” And if you Google the related terms, unlike a couple of days ago, the biggest returns are proclaiming the safety.

Now it is GoodGuide that is offering a retraction, a very weak apology (we screwed up but really didn’t screw up too bad), and refusing comment in the news reports. Who has the black hat on now?

From Zhu Zhu’s position it is still a crisis coming at a most critical time for their sales. If they can keep the positive headlines going for a little while (personally, I think I’d advocate supporting that with some big ads showing the news reports), then it may actually turn out to their benefit in sales. Longer term, I can’t see how it can anything other than help them because they now have the added advantage of being victimized by someone supposedly speaking in the public interest who did them great harm.

As for GoodGuide, they had better start doing a lot better job than I see right now in dealing with this. A consumer guide service lives and dies on its credibility and it has been seriously, seriously damaged by this in my view. They havae to restore confidence. One thing it seems they must do is provide immediate assurance that they will now and forever more use the required evaluation criteria before coming out with their big headlines.

The consumers ultimately win in this. In part because I hope reporters and bloggers eager to jump in on the bad news story of another dangerous toy will stop and ask a question or two like, what testing criteria did you use, before they announce to the world that kids are going to die because of a toy like this. Second because it is a good thing for consumers to understand that the objective consumer guides are not necessarily perfect and without fault or bias themselves. Buyer beware, including when buying consumer advice.

Ron Livingstone's social media war

Crisis communicators know that social media has opened up a whole new area of risk or vulnerability. Major organizations have been waging war on the internet for several years now, but each new step forward in social media seems to increase the potential dangers. Here is a disheartening example of what one brand/celebrity is facing. Ron Livingston (I’ll admit I’m a fan because of his portrayal of the Intelligence Officer Nixon in Band of Brothers), is an actor with a reputation to protect. But he seems to have a determined enemy. Unfortunately one who is social media savvy. His weapons are repeated submissions to wikipedia and fake Facebook accounts. The accusation is that the married Livingston is in a gay relationship with a specific individual.

Assuming it is a demented person with an axe to grind against the actor, what is he to do? In this case he is suing to stop the detractor. Since the submitters to sites like wikipedia are anonymous, the suit may force wikipedia to divulge the name–an interesting conflict in itself.

Like most others that I have followed in crisis management, I have argued that filing suit should be the last resort. In this case it seems appropriate. The main reason is that if Livingston wants to protect his reputation he cannot let the smear stand and take on a life of its own. He could sit back, monitor and see if it gets legs. I suspect he has done that already. But if it does, then what can he do? He needs to let the world know that the attacks are false and malicious and he needs to defend himself. He can go on his website, twitter, facebook and all that and say that, but he needs it to go bigger than that, viral, comments on blogs like this one, media attention. How do you get that? File a lawsuit.

I don’t know about the legal merits of the case, whether he wins or loses or what is gained if he does. But I do believe that in this case filing a suit shows he is intent on protecting his reputation, letting the world know what the truth is (it better be the truth when you use this strategy or you are toast forever), and not about to let a scumbag get by with that kind of behavior. I’ll be watching for this one, Nixon.

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