What should Toyota do? Advice from the Ford-Firestone experience.

We were very fortunate to spend an hour and a half on a webinar this morning with Jon Harmon, author of the book Feeding Frenzy, and the crisis communicator in the middle of the Ford-Firestone crisis (for you young folks, this occurred in 2000). Jon’s phone was ringing away with reporters calling to ask him what he thought about Toyota’s problems with the huge recall and shut down of production–no doubt the biggest reputation challenge in the auto industry since the Ford-Firestone problems ten years ago (barring the meltdown of course). Jon will be interviewed on CNBC shortly, but you can get the scoop here.

I asked Jon during the Q&A session on this webinar what he would say to the CEO if he had a seat at the table of executives as he did at Ford. He said, “I would ask them first if they are doing enough? Are they doing all they can to protect the public? What about Lexus–they are keeping that out, but should they be looking at that too?” Then he said, “they should ask the question ‘what are people most worried about?’ and ask how we are addressing their concerns. We need to be clear about how we are addressing them.”

What struck me about Jon’s comments, clearly coming from the voice of experience, is how they well they mesh with the basic message about trust that we talk about all the time. Trust, we say, depends on two things: doing the right things, then communicating about them well. Jon is very right in advising that they first be concerned about the realities of protecting the public. No amount of posturing or spinning will compensate for decisions that don’t go to the fullest extent possible in addressing real safety concerns. But, if they are doing all those things, they need to be very aggressive and very clear about the actions they are taking. Jon talked about all the Twitter chatter and social media activity around Toyota and no doubt most of it is pretty ugly. I was interviewed by CNN Money a few days ago for my thoughts on Toyota’s reputation and I haven’t seen any of my comments showing up. They probably won’t because I did not quite see this as the blow to Toyota’s reputation that the current media hype is making it.  I related their reputation problems to a bigger issue of becoming the world’s largest and dominating auto manufacturer–an achievement that puts a huge target on them and certainly for the media as well as those who hate all things big and powerful. That is a more challenging issue long term for Toyota. However, the current spate of safety issues, recalls, accusations and negative reporting don’t help in that overall battle one bit.

I’ve asked Jon to contribute a guest post on crisisblogger and hopefully he’ll have time to do that. In the meantime, go out and get a copy of Feeding Frenzy.

Apple hype and why it matters to you

I know, you’re into crisis communication, reputation management, emergency response and all that stuff. So what does watching Apple computer have to do with you? Quite a bit actually, and for several reasons.

1. Apple is the leading technology innovator–particularly in mobile computing. Yesterday the company announced a stunning 40+% increase in profits. And Steve Jobs has promised, scarily it seems, even better in the future based on new products coming out. Apples innovation with laptop computers spurred lots of competition, but its innovation with the iphone has been even more disruptive. Certainly there are some very good non-Apple options out there, but ever notice how much they try to look, feel and quack like the iphone?

2. Apple is blending work with fun. Nothing new here in many ways because so many other industries are doing the same. Wars are being waged with joysticks just like Nintendo of old. The news media like news magazines and primetime programming are looking more and more like entertainment TV (what after all is reality TV?)–with a more or less complete blending of information and entertainment. But, was exactly is an iphone, or a tricked out MacBook Pro after all? Is it a game machine, a communication device or a serious work computing machine. All three, all at once. That has very significant implications for those who provide information to the masses. Masses which I’ve noticed along with the expanding forehead, are getting increasingly young. What form will public warnings and emergency information take in the future? Today I advise news websites and crisis websites to be structured like the major online news sites. And they are very good at blending compelling information with all kinds of entertainment and commercial messages.

3. Apple is trying to save content providers. Someone I know and respect and knows a heck of a lot more about this stuff than I ever will told me this morning that all the hype about the big Apple announcement tomorrow was really about Apple saving the world. The world of content providers. How quickly we forget that until Apple made iTunes a fabulous success and the biggest seller of music and digital content, the big issue was that musicians, filmmakers, tv folks and everyone who provided entertainment was going to disappear into the internet world of everything free. Now, it seems, we happily pay 99 cents for all kinds of things including billions of things we load on our iphones called apps. What the heck was an app before this? A half-eaten apple? Every rock group and audio book producer should get on their knees three times a day and thank Daddy Jobs. Now, my Apple and pop culture guru is telling me that what Apple did for entertainment, he may just do for more news and info content (I know, false distinction between that and entertainment, but you know what I mean). If Daddy Jobs got with Rupert and the fine folks at NYT to solve the dilemma how to get paid for putting all that good content online, he will be having lots of people bow to him three times a day. The tablet computer, which we will know much more about tomorrow, just may combine the Kindle, the iphone, the laptop plus maybe the workout capabilities of the Wii into a single, lightweight device that we will all find irreplaceable. Or it may just be another wildly successful profit making technology disrupter. We’ll soon see.

In case I lost any crisis communicators in this technology meandering, here’s are the points: 1) mobility will drive our lives and that means how we do crisis communication. If you can’t do everything you need to do with that little device in your pocket real soon, you will be as out of date as the mouse. 2) news and where we get it will change. It already has, but most in crisis communication seem to not realize it. Something tells me, tomorrow it will change a lot more. 3) those of us like me (unlike my much smarter guru) who didn’t buy Apple stock when the market crashed and it was under $100 bucks are going to be even sadder than we already are.

THIS JUST IN: My guru confirms the hints about tablet relating to content (also suspicion of link between table and iphone operating systems) McGraw Hill CEO gets the jump on Apple.

You're Invited–Listen to the inside story of the Ford Firestone crisis

I’d like to personally invite all crisisblogger readers to a webinar with Jon Harmon this Thursday. Jon was the lead public relations person for Ford during this crisis, the first big crisis of the new century in 2000, and one of the biggest business and reputation crises of all time. He had a front row seat to this devastating crisis which set Ford on its heels, ended an over 100 year business relationship, and permanently ended one of the most revered brands in tires. Jon has written an outstanding book on this called Feeding Frenzy and this Thursday you’ll have the chance to listen to Jon tell his story. There will be time for some questions and interaction.

By the way, Dave Fleet took my advice and got the book. Here is his review–I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Webinar: Feeding Frenzy with Jon Harmon

Sponsored by PIER Systems

Time: 2:pm ET, Noon CT, 11 a.m. PT

We will send you an invitation to join the webinar. To register click here.

How news is done today–press releases or social media?

I find this juxtaposition very interesting. It sounds contradictory but look deeper and I don’t think it is. One report shows that the vast majority of journalists today use social media to prepare their stories. The other says that the press release is far from dead but may be more important than ever.

First, journalists and social media. This report says that the vast majority of reporters today use a variety of social media tools to prepare their stories: 89% use blogs (remember blogs, used to be we all talked about them), 65% use social networking sites like Facebook and Linkedin, 61% use wikipedia and 52% use Twitter or other microblogging tools.

Then there is this fascinating study from Pew Research looking at how news is generated and covered today, with an indepth look at the Baltimore market. It seems to counter much conventional wisdom regarding the decline of traditional media and particularly the oft-repeated (including by myself) statement that the press release is dead. It shows that most stories originate in traditional media, that despite the significant growth in news outlets most stories (83%) are repetitive, and that traditional media are embracing multiple forms of new media.

The report stated:

As the economic model that has subsidized professional journalism collapses, the number of people gathering news in traditional television, print and radio organizations is shrinking markedly. What, if anything, is taking up that slack?

The answers are a moving target; even trying to figure out how to answer them is a challenge. But a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which takes a close look at the news ecosystem of one city suggests that while the news landscape has rapidly expanded, most of what the public learns is still overwhelmingly driven by traditional media—particularly newspapers.

One analyst of this report suggested that the decline of reporters and the urgency of immediacy in coverage means that the traditional press release is perhaps more important than ever as strapped reporters and editors are more likely to take prepared releases, images, B roll, etc.  I think there is real truth to that but my take from the combination of these reports is that the best media relations strategy is to use short bursts of immediate information to alert reporters, then detailed fact sheets accessible via web link. Writing those in a form and format useable by your target media is a good idea in addition to a bulleted fact sheet.

There is much to learn from both of these reports. One thing is certain, how the news media collects and reports the news has changed dramatically and that means the methods use to provide them the information to report needs to change as well.

The future of Twitter–two different takes

David Carr of the New York Times wrote on January 1 an article titled “Why Twitter Will Endure.” Then, today, came this report showing a steady and probably accelerating decline of Twitter usage.

So, is Twitter here to stay or has it reached its peak and already is on the decline?

For the record, I stated here a number of months ago (to loud guffaws from some) that I thought Twitter would disappear, but that what Twitter brought to the world would never disappear but prove a permanent change. What Twitter brought was the integration of various forms of instant communication including micro-blogging, text messaging, seamless distribution via web, email, text, etc. It has proven to be a highly effective means of instant communication with groups of people with whom you wish to communicate, or to audiences who have an intense desire to know what you have to say or track your every move (ala Ashton Kutcher). But, as I predicted, that functionality of exceptionally easy and fast distribution of messages to “friends” or people who connect via a network is rapidly be adopted in a variety of ways. One of the fastest growing in the emergency communication field is Nixle. I recently talked with a PIO from a large metropolitan police agency who said she would never use Twitter because of security and reliability issues but is happy with Nixle. The platform we provide (PIER) has provided Twitter functionality for a long time, but fully integrated with other modes of communication.

So I believe one of the reasons not indicated in the Mashable article is the fact that other applications and not just Twitter add-on apps, are incorporating instant communication capability–and some of these are more specifically designed for the user’s intentions. Remember that Twitter was intended to help friends share the kind of sandwiches they are eating and Twitter has pretty well stuck to that model despite obvious need to provide some security and verified accounts. One obvious reason for the design is after getting 150 tweets from somebody you pretty well know what kind of sandwiches they like and the particular form of latte they prefer, so it gets boring.

But I believe that what Carr says is also right: Like many newbies on Twitter, I vastly overestimated the importance of broadcasting on Twitter and after a while, I realized that I was not Moses and neither Twitter nor its users were wondering what I thought. Nearly a year in, I’ve come to understand that the real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice.

Without question the greatest value for many of Twitter is the ability to listen in on conversations (brief ones for sure) that otherwise would not be accessible to them. That can be extremely valuable and if the conversations appear on multiple different platforms and channels, and many of them more private than Twitter, this ability to listen in will be limited. And that would be a shame.

I still think Twitter will if not disappear, further diminish. In part because as far as I know they haven’t figured out any reliable funding model and once their meteoric growth slows (as it already has) then the investment dollars run and hide real fast. But, when/if it is replaced by multiple other tools that do similar or better things, we still will have lost something. Specifically, the ease of listening in.

Preventing PR goofs–let's try thinking

I’ve been doing a little more thinking about the lists of big PR goofs in 2009, then this new one comes along to help start the new year: A billboard association wants to show that people pay attention to billboards so they put a message certain to get attention: “Career women make bad mothers.”

Sure enough, worked great. Lots of attention and a lot of p’d-off moms. Surprise. I guess the question is whether or not the apology they made was sincere or was it all part of the planned campaign. Is the old adage of say anything you want about me but just get my name spelled right still a part of PR thinking? No doubt, getting attention in this hyper-crowded information environment is tricky and requires some creativity. But, does it require you to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater or to intentionally offend and antagonize your audience?

There are two strong beliefs I have that would help make decisions in situations such as this. One, is that ultimately what matters is building and maintaining strong relationships. That’s true of business, careers, government agencies, etc. The second part, and closely related is that character matters. People want to know if you can be trusted, if you have good judgment, if you will operate with their needs and concerns in mind when push really comes to shove. This kind of campaign, and the other goof-ball PR stunts that backfired would fail those two tests. I guess the bottom line here is that if PR is all about getting attention at any cost, this billboard company succeeded. But if it is about building trust with people who really matter to your future, it blew up big time in their face. Lesson learned.

The smartphone–the most disruptive technology?

In discussing or contemplating the future of crisis communication, the focus inevitably turns to the mobile phone. Sort of what Bill Gates said a few years ago about technology. If you look ahead the next year won’t look like a lot of change, but in five years it will hardly be recognizable. Of course, that’s a probably inaccurate paraphrase. But it is clear that the smart phone has resulted in more change than almost anything else, certainly since the introduction of the PC and the internet.

Thanks to frequent crisisblogger reader William, here’s a great summary of the changes brought about by the smartphone. It has already transformed crisis communication. Here’s one quick example. The question often posed for us involved in web-based communication was, what happens in large scale events where power and infrastructure is destroyed. In Hurricane Ike, Houston and region was without power for a long time–some areas for 2 weeks. Yet, during this time and especially during the worst of the storm, internet use was extremely high. The crisis sites we hosted for 12 different organizations took over 14 million hits in a few days. Why? Smartphones. Our staff in Houston, like many others, were using smartphones as their primary communication device. Certainly calling when cell service was available. But texting, and accessing the internet continuously. When the batteries died, they went to their cars and charged them up.

For crisis communicators it is essential to understand that if it is not true already it will soon be true that most will get the info you want to get to them by their smartphones. That’s why text messaging and text-to-voice automated calling have become so important today. Audiences will also interact with you by phone–not just by email, but by text and especially by their preferred social media platforms which are now the most popular apps on smartphones. That’s how they want to communicate with you and they don’t really give a rat’s behind about how you prefer to communicate with them–it’s the nature of audiences and customers. As Burger King taught us, they want it their way.

As important as communicating via smartphones is the need to be able to control your communications via smartphone. Can you access all your contacts via your smartphone? Can you track who is asking questions? Can you develop and send releases? Can you manage your web content and your social media channels via your smart phone? These technologies are now available or soon to be available and if you are not using them, you will find once again that Now is too late.