Seaworld's online response is impressive–building trust with social media

The Orlando Sentinel pointed out how SeaWorld is using online media to respond to the media and public reaction to the death of one of it trainers by a killer whale.  The organization’s blog demonstrates both the opportunity and the risks of using these very open, transparent and interactive channels for communicating. Unfortunately, those with strong feelings about using trained animals for entertainment purposes take full and insensitive advantage of these opportunities to press their agenda. What communicators need to do is to prepare the organization’s management that this is exactly the sort of thing that will happen and while it needs to be monitored and not get out of control, showing this willingness to participate and provide a venue for that discussion is very important today.

This example is timely related to a mashable article that Mr. Malley forwarded to me, about building trust with social media. While I consider it still much more art than science, there is no doubt that social media is an increasingly important means and opportunity for organizations to build trust. But if science helps us understand the reasons behind what we intuitively sense is right, it is more than helpful.

One very important point made in this article is the value of speed. Responsiveness as seen in speed of response is critical when dealing with text (not having advantage of personal interaction). Here is the relevant quote:

Olson finds that when only text is available, participants judge trustworthiness based on how quickly others respond. So, for instance, it is better to respond to a long Facebook message “acknowledging” that you received the message, rather than to wait until there’s time to send a more thorough first message. Wait too long and you are likely to be labeled “unhelpful,” along with a host of other expletive-filled attributions the mind will happily construct.

Stephen M. R. Covey wrote the Speed of Trust, and now here is more evidence that speed and trustworthiness are related. This is so critical to understand because I keep running into communicators and their bosses who think that you can’t get out with anything until you have it absolutely right and complete. Having it right is critical, but you will never ever be complete, so you have to go with what you know right now. It is SOOO much better to say: “These are the facts that we can confirm right now, these are things we know are being said and reported but we cannot confirm that they are facts, but as soon as we verify them we will let you know.”

But, but, but, you say, that doesn’t read like a press release. Exactly.

Tiger, Toyota, Austin Plane Crash, Olympics–too much to discuss

There’s just so much going on to talk about and so little time–particularly with a brutal travel schedule lately. But, some of this stuff is just too good to pass up. So here are some quick takes.

Tiger. Rich Lerner of The Golf Channel did a great job of reviewing how the media covered the Tiger’s story and apology. The coverage, punditry, comments end up saying more about us as a culture and our media environment than Tiger. For my part, the criticism against Tiger for so tightly controlling the circumstances is stupid. Throwing himself into the rough and tumble of the kind of questions he would get, now that would be stupid. I think he did well, but as I saw in  a comment from Nick Faldo, it’s all about the actions now. He’s got a long way to earn back what he has lost. Like every major crisis, he and the golf world will never be the same for this. But, one hopes and prays, that a new Tiger will emerge that will earn and deserve our admiration and respect. Time will tell.

Toyota. More headlines of problems–now steering it seems. It causes one to wonder how a company that for many years made cars that were above average in safety and reliability could in one or two months go completely in the toilet. Well, I don’t believe the reality is there. I think this is what happens often when things go bad. Additional scrutiny causes additional problems and things pile up. Now the media-shy chairman is preparing to face a highly skeptical and go-for-the-throat Congress. Secretly I wish that Mr. Toyoda would ask the members of Congress this question: How can you be credible as watchdog of the public interest when you have a dog in the hunt? How can the American public take you seriously when your president has more to gain from our problems than anyone else on earth? I still am amazed that the media has not focused more on the inherent problems of mixing the roles of corporate ownership and protector of the public interest. That continues to me to be the fascinating undercurrent in this Toyota saga. (I note that Washington Post included a reference to this conflict but in the context of a story about Toyota spending money to buy off Congress–sometimes these guys just can’t get off the tried and true story lines. Tiresome.)

Austin plane crash. I will be sharing more details soon of direct involvement in the communication around this event. But what was most fascinating is seeing the way in which Twitter in this case drove the mainstream news as well as the situation awareness of the responders. Instant news is no longer about reputation management. Instant news via the internet and the latest incarnation of internet use we call social media is forever changing the game of response management. I blogged on this on emergencymgmt.com about how DHS was monitoring social media around the Olympics in fulfilling its mandate to provide a common operating picture and situational awareness. It was absolutely fascinating to watch this story unfold, particularly being part of the process.

Virtual communications

The last couple of days have very much put into practice many of the things I’ve been talking about here for a long time. Having been directly involved on public communicatio in a major, fast breaking news story I can draw a couple of conclusions: 1. virtual communication response works very well. A team distributed in various locations can indeed support an on scene PIO.
2. News today is indeed driven by social media and Twitter in particular. Monitoring social media is now critical for the response manager’s situation awareness– as I discussed recently on emergencymgt.com crisis comm blog.

I will provide more details about this event and behind scenes communication when I don’t have to do it from an iPhone in an airport.

Rumor Management–Fake News is a tricky reality

Add this to the topic of rumor management–dealing with fake news, that is rumors that swirl around possible breaking news. Here’s an article that gives a compelling recent example. It’s now pretty much common understanding that the media, desperate for declining audiences on which their revenue is based, relies on immediacy to attract eyes on the screens (TV or internet). That’s why Cable and local TV channels now have an almost continuous heading of “Breaking News” overlaying their talking heads because they want to convince you it is happening right now, if you blink you will miss something critical and most important you won’t find something more immediate anyplace else. After all, what is more immediate than right now? That’s what I’ve been wondering for a while. How will they improve on right now? Well, the future. Seems pretty obvious now. The aforementioned article may just presage the style of news to come. “We’re working on a story right now that will blow your socks off, we can’t tell you what it is about, but here’s a little hint (salacious detail inserted here) and we can’t even confirm that we are doing a story, but…”

The concern for reputation managers and crisis managers is obvious. I’ve been saying for a while now that the job of crisis management has been changing from being the first source of the information (virtually impossible in all but invisible crises because citizen journalists and those with some info or opinion will almost always beat you with the story) to rumor management. Because when they beat you with the story and the info that you have and want to share, you have to make sure what they are saying is true and accurate. Rumor management means absolutely being on top of what is being said on the internet and responding very quickly and often very aggressively.

Perhaps now is a good time to once again bring up the issue of trust. This article further comments on the Edelman Trust Barometer which I’ve commented on here before but highlights some of the reasons why trust is such an issue. Here’s a quote:

The barometer also noted the credibility of TV dropped 23 points and radio news and newspapers were down 20 points between 2008 and 2010.

One needs only to look at cable news to see why — breaking news on CNN has a tendency to be gossip repeated on Twitter. The rumor mill has taken over journalism. Part of the reason for the increase in popularity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert has been their willingness to say, “Can you believe the shit the mainstream media is shoveling?”

Toyota's crisis–just how real is it?

Tell you the truth, I have a hard time evaluating the Toyota crisis. Certainly it is one of the biggest corporate reputation crisis of all times. One of the truly global brands, one of the most admired companies in the world, the world’s leading auto maker, the undisputed kingpin of manufacturing efficiencies or “lean manufacturing” is now wallowing in the dirt in agony with some PR pundits asking out loud if the brand (like Firestone) needs to be killed.

I really don’t get it. So I went back to see if I could find just how serious the safety issues are. What I found was some pretty bad accidents attributed to accelerator issues. Admittedly, I haven’t dug deep to see the statistics. But what I saw was a lot of very typical fear-motivated reports such as these they carry dramatic lines and dramatic photos but seem remarkably short on facts. Here’s the blotter from ABC News and in my view only helps cement Brian Ross’s reputation for dramatic story telling–perhaps at the expense of the truth.

I very much respect Jim Lukaszewski (luke-a-shevski Ithink) and Jon Harmon and here is their take on the subject. Crisisblogger readers will recognize Jon because I recently hosted a webinar with him talking about his great book on the Ford Firestone crisis called Feeding Frenzy. There is no doubt that this is a corporate reputation crisis of almost unmatched dimensions. But what I can’t really tell why. Possible reasons:

1) The safety problems with Toyotas are every bit as serious as the huge coverage and government focus warrant.

2) Safety problems are real but overblown and Toyota’s lackluster response contributed to the current crisis.

3) Safety problems are way overhyped but its too good a story to miss for the media who was tiring of Haiti, and great news for the Obama administration (Mr. LaHood being on point) because the worse Toyota does, the better GM does and that will make the president’s investment in GM look brilliant.

Number 3 would make me a conspiracy theorist and a cynic ( I lean more toward cynicism than conspiracy theories) so I’m going to with a combination of number 2 and number 3. Maybe some reader will point me to overwhelming factual evidence that the 9 million or so cars that have been recalled have safety problems far beyond any other vehicle on the road. If so, I will readily grant that perhaps Toyota deserves the treatment it is getting and maybe even deserves the corporate reputation death it is being threatened with.

From Toyota’s perspective, none of this really matters. The public believes right or wrong that their vehicles are dangerous. So dangerous that our transportation secretary doesn’t seem certain if they should even drive them to the dealership or junkyard. Perception, as they say in this business, is reality. (That was one of the biggest public misstatements I’ve even seen and why he has not been excoriated for that I don’t understand.)

Some of you might think I’m a Toyota lover–actually I drive a Honda and my wife drives a Mercedes. I don’t work for Toyota and never have. But as a commenter on reputation crises, this one has me befuddled. The outrage seems to go far beyond anything rational. The recalls, apologies, more recalls, production halts, emergency fixes–albeit just a step behind the ideal–are all right out of the crisis management playbook. But still, the doo doo seems deeper and deeper for this company.

My advice to Toyota–keep doing what you are doing. Try to keep thinking ahead. Imagine, as it hard as it may be, the worst case scenarios that may still lie ahead. Try to get ahead of any bad news. Report all the bad stuff yourself. Keep apologizing and keep up the messaging you have in place. Get back to making great cars because you got to be number one for a good reason. Don’t lose heart. This storm will take a long long time to pass–just think of all those hungry trial attorneys now advertising to all your good customers–but it will pass. And how you conduct yourself now will impact your share value and your brand value for many years to come. Hang in there.

How not to do crisis management–LCEC takes on Fox 4

Media trainers and crisis managers alike take note: some of the best ways to learn is to watch others mess up. Lee County Electric Cooperative provides some pretty painful lessons–and they do it on video.

I’m usually pretty sympathetic to large companies and organizations being attacked by sensationalist media stories. And I’ve advocated from time to time that sometimes you just have to take the media rascals head on. LCEC demonstrates how not to do it and what the consequences can be when you try and fail. As someone once told me, never get in an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Of course, ink is not the worry these days.

It is interesting that this mainstream media news story (video) began with a Facebook page called LCEC Sucks with under 10 fans. That was enough for Fox 4 to do a news story on the people who hate LCEC. Of course, all of my readers would know that the right way for LCEC to respond to this story would be:

1) Directly contact the 10, including the guy who launched the Facebook page, hear them out and see if they could resolve their gripes.

2) Get their own Facebook page and communicate clearly what they were doing to address each customers concerns and state their side of the story where appropriate.

3) Thank the TV reporters for bringing this to their attention, communicate that keeping customers happy was a top priority and tell them what they were doing to address any concerns.

They didn’t do that of course and went from snooty to snarky in a hurry. If you wait until about 4 minutes into the interview you will see the smiling PR person for LCEC make the case that having to deal with this issue and annoying reporters is making customer’s rates go up. Oh boy. I wonder what more important thing the head of PR is supposed to be doing than trying to put out a major reputation fire?

Then it gets worse because the organization decides to take the matter up the chain, to the station manager and threaten to go the station owner. Of course, Fox 4 was thrilled with this and make public to everyone the not so veiled threats if they didn’t improve their coverage.

If you are looking for some good video to show in your next media training session, unfortunately, LCEC provided some pretty good material. If you’re looking for a good case study for discussion about how to deal with negative media reports, this provides some good material.

Oh, not to be piling on, but one other big mistake. Since today this story got major play in the PR industry via Ragan’s PR Daily where I picked it up, I was quite certain the organization would be taking full advantage of their website to tell their side of the story. Sadly, it is very clear on their site how I can pay a bill, but absolutely nothing, nada, zero about this now national story.

Blog comments–a good thing or bad thing?

When blogs first came out–say about 10 years ago–the ability to comment and enter into a conversation was one of their strongest suits. Now, the internet is dominated by this kind of conversation and interpersonal interaction–but as this Mashable comment points out, comments on blogs may be more controversial than ever.

Personally, the biggest problem I have on crisisblogger is from spam comments. While WordPress does a pretty darn good job of catching most spam, the nasty spammers keep finding ways around it. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen this kind of activity greatly increase with spammers using normal sounding names and nice and complimentary comments. While the spam catchers can’t catch the nuances, the comments are so silly and stupid and vapid that the spammers stand out pretty clearly. I delete them as quickly as I can.

But that is not the real problem with comments on blogs. If you engage in online conversation at all you soon discover what I call Toxic Talk. That apparently is why Engadget is suspending blog comments. Frankly it is incredibly tiresome. I go to my local newspaper The Bellingham Herald and it seems that the majority of people who take the time to comment on stories are mean, nasty, cranky, politically extreme and snarky. It seems the younger the group, the more politically-oriented the blog, and the more the subject lends itself to strong feelings (global warming, Apple computer, religion) the more heated and ugly the discussion is.

What to do about it? First, resist the temptation to get down there with these kind of people. As I learned a long time ago, when you wrestle in the mud with a pig, you both get dirty but the pig enjoys it. Second, monitor and police your comments. Hey, your site (blog, social media or interactive website for crisis or daily use) is your site, its your home, your castle, your turf. You can make the rules and you can enforce them. In the four years or so since I’ve had this blog I’ve only booted a couple people off for violating one of my strict rules–treat everyone with respect. No personal attacks and everyone has a right to be heard and responded to respectfully. Violate that and you’ll be treated like a spammer. Third, understand that there still is value in the interaction. I think Engadget is wrong. Yes, it is tiresome and annoying. Make rules, stick with them, but don’t discount the value of the conversation.

This is especially true in today’s crisis communication. Your stakeholders and publics need a multitude of ways to communicate with you and let you know how they are feeling. New social media such as Twitter and Facebook facilitate that to a greater degree than ever. But don’t let the noisy, uncouth toxic talkers allow you to plug up your ears from those who have something valuable to say, and don’t let them put you in a corner of someone who isn’t interested in diverse opinions.

Others are waking up to the US gov conflict of interest re Toyota

The US has big stake in GM. Toyota is GM’s big rival. Toyota has a product problem. The US government is the safety regulator and watchdog. The US government piles on Toyota–makes big news, sales crash and GM profits. Everyone’s happy. Not me. I complained about this stinky mess–an unintended consequence of Obama’s decision to bailout the company–in my last post. I have been stunned, absolutely stunned that there is no media coverage of this very clear and potential credibility busting conflict. But, now it appears that is starting to come.

Here’s one example. Note that this article starts putting the Toyota problems in context–something the headline crazed media refuse to do and can’t be expected to do. But the more the US government piles on Toyota, against this context, the more unfair it will be and appear and the more backlash there will be on the US ownership of GM. My advice to President Obama: decide what is a better and more appropriate role for the US government–watchdog and protector of the citizens or owner of a company in a highly competitive market. You can’t be both!

Toyota faces government scrutiny–from its competitor!

I try to avoid politics as much as possible, but I have to admit to being very squeamish about the government taking a controlling interest in GM, now known in some circles as Government Motors. So many reasons for concern–like choosing factories to close on political grounds rather than business rationale, but now here is a big one. The government is now going to “investigate” Toyota for its safety problems. And there is talk about civil penalties and maybe all kinds of other punishments. Maybe the government should eliminate Toyota from the US marketplace–they have the right to do that. Already the concern about Toyota (overhyped or not, I’m not sure, but I lean toward the over-hyped view) has resulted in a double-digit dip in their sales. Who has to gain from this? Why the government, of course! Or, maybe I should say taxpayers. So US taxpayers have to gain from Toyota’s problems. What impact does this have on media coverage? Aren’t reporters taxpayers too? Conversely, what would the reporters interest be if the same safety issue faced Government Motors (maybe should be changed to Taxpayer’s Motors)? Would reporters and editors be as tough?

The more I think about this morass, the more disgusted I get. But, if I was on Toyota’s side of this issue, I would see government involvement in GM as a potential huge benefit in dealing with the reputation issues involved. They need to find a way to ask the question of whether or not they can expect fair treatment from Congressional hearings when the members they are looking at are not just representing the public’s interest, but GM’s interest as well. Oh, wait, representing GM’s interest is representing the public’s interest. What a stinking mess.

The biggest loser in this may not be Toyota–it may very well be the credibility of our government. As if they have any more room for loss in public trust. But will we trust them to treat Toyota fairly when they have much at stake in making it look like they made a brilliant decision in supporting GM? They now face the same problem that corporations have in defending their reputation against government attack–the profit motive. Young people in particular have the view that if there is a profit motive, it trumps everything and anyone with any money at stake cannot be trusted to do anything other than protect their investment or ability to profit. Now our government is in that position. What a stinking mess.

Social media saving lives in Haiti–but what does this mean for responders?

No doubt Haiti will be studied for years for all aspects of emergency response, including public information. There are so many ways that the country was ill-prepared for this disaster. And one of them was public communication. There already have been a number of stories how social media has stood in the gap for those able to use it, but this story from a Coast Guard public affairs officer about social media saving lives is very interesting.

I commented on this on emergencymgmt.com earlier today because this issue is of strong interest not just to us in crisis communication, but anyone in response agencies including fire, police, emergency management, etc. Why? Because responders have to be increasingly concerned about the growing use of social media as a means of calling for help. This is a huge issue. Liability? What happens when someone calls for help but no one in the fire department is listening on Twitter–or whatever channel the victim chooses? What if they are listening, but don’t respond? Will lives be lost as a transition is made? How many legal actions regarding liability will ensue? And how will the media treat this–certainly the story at some point will be, a responder knew but didn’t respond because the call didn’t come through 9-1-1.

I believe that the use of the internet as a near universal means of connecting and communicating is almost inevitable, and that means an internet version of 9-1-1 is inevitable. But, adopting this will not be easy and many questions raised in the meantime. This will be an interesting change to watch.