Hazmat for Toxic Comments — A Guest Post by Dave Statter

Dave Statter is a very well-known blogger on fire and EMS issues at statter911.com. I’ve linked there a few times and appreciated him commenting here. Not long ago, he commented on a post about blog comments. I really liked what he had to say and asked if he would prepare a guest post on the topic. Here is some great advice for anyone who engages in blogs or any form of social media. If you haven’t encountered toxic talk yet, you certainly will.

Hazmat for Toxic Comments
You’re a jerk. You hate volunteer firefighters. You hate career firefighters. You’re a racist. You suck. Everyone should boycott your blog.
Those are some of the printable negative comments I received in the first months of STATter911.com. The blog features fire and emergency medical services news focusing on the Washington, D.C. area where I am a TV reporter.
As the comments trickled in, after starting the site three-years-ago, it became clear I was not immune to the toxic thoughts that plague every website with an open public forum. This virtual vitriol was usually directed at a fire chief or some other public official mentioned in one of my stories but readers were also taking aim at the messenger.

Nasty comments were not something I had given much thought to as a new blogger. In fact, most of the 16,000 plus comments you’ll now find on the site are not vicious. They’re usually just opinions on a fire department policy, the actions of a fire chief or tactics used to fight a fire. But on the blog — like news websites everywhere — there are people emboldened by anonymity who go a step further. They are on the attack. They target the subject of a news story, the blogger and the people who comment. And they do it in a very personal way.

Some top emergency management officials in the country tell me how much they enjoy STATter911.com but can’t stand the comments about themselves or their colleagues. There are also firefighters, paramedics & public information officers who constantly complain about a negative tone in the comments section. I agree with them when it comes to the personal attacks. My lofty goal is a respectful exchange of ideas that doesn’t focus on personalities. I know… I’m dreaming.

My guidelines are simple. Any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (plus a few he failed to mention) will always prompt me to hit the reject button. I do the same when posters decide to be reporters, presenting new “facts” I can’t verify. But going beyond these limited rules seems a slippery, subjective slope for a free speech advocate like me. I always challenge those complaining about the comments section to give me workable guidelines that don’t smack of censorship. No one has met that challenge. Like me, they soon realize one person’s view of “crossing the line” is very different than the next.

I have no magic formula to fairly and successfully weed out those comments. But if toxic words on an Internet forum are directed at you — and your reputation is on the line — I may be able to help. Consider what the readers said about me. How do you respond when you are called a racist jerk who sucks? First, you need to know I’m fair game on my blog. If comments meet the language test, they’re posted. But the negative comments went beyond STATter911.com. My reporting had become a topic of conversation among firefighters on thewatchdesk.com. FYI: No language filter on that site! Friends in the news media and the fire service urged me not to engage the Statter-haters. They believed it would only make things worse. But I had reputation management in mind. My own. I wanted anyone who Googled Dave Statter to get both sides of the story. It became a bit time consuming, but I responded to each attack. Still, watching others go down in flames trying to defend themselves on anonymous forums gave me pause. Like a hazmat team dealing with a toxic substance I knew to proceed with caution.
I needed a set of rules for this on-line reputation management. They’re now my personal SOP and I believe they work.

•    I never attack the attackers.
•    I try to get beyond their emotions and point out the facts behind the
issues.
•    I explain the why and how of what I do.
•    I challenge the writer, in a firm but nice way, to back up their claims with
facts.
•    I make a maximum effort not to sound defensive.
•    I try to infuse a self-deprecating sense a humor into my responses.
•    If I find valid points within the emotional rhetoric it’s acknowledged and
corrected.
•    I thank them for reading my blog and taking the time to write.

My goal, then and now, is setting the record straight and telling my story. I’m not looking for love.

When I started fighting back three-years-ago the first replies were often worse than the original toxic comments.
I stood my ground. I repeatedly asked for the facts behind their emotion. Instead, I got something different.
A small number of these overly passionate writers actually thanked me for the response. They understood my point of view and respectfully disagreed. One or two went further. They began an email dialogue and soon became sources for future stories.
When the toxic writers didn’t change their ways, the community often joined in. Forum readers told the offending poster they should put up (the facts backing their point of view) or shut up.

In the end, the flame throwers couldn’t provide any real facts to support their positions. In virtually every case, whether the rest of the community responded or not, the attacks stopped. A few returned for a second or third round in reaction to a new blog story. After getting the same type of responses from me they disappeared.

I stood up to the school yard bullies and won. Very different than grade school where they took my lunch money.
Still, this technique may not work for everyone. Here’s why:
You have to check your ego at the door and need a thick hide. If you’re easily offended and can’t respond without sounding defensive, don’t engage the enemy. You will be dead meat. My experience is they’ll sense your weakness and pounce harder.
It’s important to find someone you trust to monitor your responses. They can let you know if you’re wandering outside the guidelines. My monitor was a fire service friend who gave very good feedback.

I no longer hear from any of the bullies on thewatchdesk.com. I searched the site while writing this and found it has been a long time since anyone made me the target of a toxic comment.

On STATter911.com the traffic has more than tripled, but the attacks against me have dramatically decreased.
My experience is telling your own story in this very specific way solves a few problems. It neutralizes even the most toxic comments. It puts the facts on the record. It also sets a tone. Attacks on your reputation won’t go unchallenged. And along the way you may earn a little respect.

Now, if we could just get everyone who writes online to focus on the issues and not demonize those they disagree with. Still dreaming.

Reputation crises and political impact–Goldman and offshore drilling

There is almost always a link between major reputation crises and politics as I’ve written about in Now Is Too Late. It certainly was true in the first really major disaster I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline explosion, and it certainly is of two major crises events going on right now: Goldman Sachs and the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig event. Goldman’s problems will influence significantly the very important national debate on financial oversight. The Deepwater Horizon event will influence the debate on energy independence and expansion of offshore drilling.

Which means, of course, that the crisis managers involved in working these two humongous issues right now, will have a very significant impact on the long term decisions that elected officials will make in these two arenas. We talk about the importance of Supreme Court nominations because they will affect big decisions for years. Have we ever thought about executive and communication leadership in that way, thinking about how well they do their jobs may influence public policy on issues as important as what are the constraints government should put on greed, and how aggressively should we pursue energy independence?

A few thoughts on Goldman Sachs. Would they be aggressively pursued by the SEC if they had not had the gall to be so stinking successful in an economy and political environment that suddenly sees huge profits and executive payouts as a form of treason? I don’t want to downplay any illegal activity and it sounds like they may very well have done some things quite wrong–particularly related to providing disclosures to investors. That is serious stuff and if guilty I hope they receive the full measure of the law. But the Economist headline was right: Greedy until Proven Guilty. Greed is out. Frugalness and self-sacrifice when it comes to earnings is in. Part of this is because we love those who work hard, try to get to the top against insurmountable obstacles, but no sooner do they stand on the mountaintop alone and we start throwing stones, eagerly awaiting their fall. (I’ve blogged on this about Toyota long before they fell from the mountaintop.) Goldman’s problems with public opinion and reputation emerged well before the SEC investigation. They may go the way of Arthur Andersen who died not because of legal problems (which they won) but because they became so tainted in the public’s eyes that the stink attached to them infected anyone they did business with. It was the loss of customers that killed them. Goldman faces very much the same risk. If they don’t aggressively remove the stink, no one concerned about their reputation will want to get too close.

Stories are emerging now about BP’s reputation as it relates to the Deepwater Horizon event. (Full disclosure, BP is a client) Whether that is fair or not will be for the media and the public to decide. BP leased the drilling rig and is working exceptionally hard, as a member of the Joint Information Center for the response, to communicate aggressively, quickly and effectively. But, BP’s reputation, the reputation of the oil industry, the sentiment of people impacted by this event and the environmental damage will all factor into the discussion to come about the risks and benefits of deepwater drilling. Obama has announced his support for expansion. That support may be at risk if the outcry rises about this event. That’s why what those people involved in the response and the communication about the response are doing is so important. It’s also why it is important that the entire industry be involved in open, honest, rational debate about this event and its results. The tendency of the industry is to duck and hide and say, well, we produce oil and whether people like us or not they keep buying it. There are those in the industry who point to Exxon and say despite the reputation hit they took, they continue to be one of the most profitable, respected, investor-preferred companies around. No question that ExxonMobil is exceptionally well run. But there is no question that the reputation hit they took continues to cast a pall over the company and the industry. The cost to all of us as consumers of fuel products is much higher directly as a result of the careless attitude Exxon exhibited during the event and in the years following it. Higher because of regulation, because of lack of public support for anything perceived as favoring the industry, and because the industry continues to be a favored target (certainly in Washington State) for punitive taxes. All those add to energy costs which you and I pay. So I get angry with the industry communicators who say, see, it didn’t matter that Exxon’s reputation got hurt. Wrong.

I hope if you are an organization leader or a person charged with crisis management and communication responsibility, you will think about the link between reputation crises and politics. Because what you do to build or destroy trust will likely impact all of us. You have a heavy responsibility.

Blippy's Crisis Response–classic too little too late

Ragan.com asked for a few comments about the Blippy crisis which was published today on Ragan’s widely read newsletter. For those interested in the quick take: Blippy is a social media startup where users are asked to share their purchase histories by providing credit card information. The idea being that “collective intelligence” in consumer choices can help users make more intelligent buying decisions–such as which restaurant to go to. But you have to share your credit card info. And Blippy messed up a bit and some users credit card information ended up on Google searches. Sadly, it happened the same day Blippy got some nice PR in the New York Times. Unfortunately, their initial response was flippant and anemic. They did a much better job three days later, but, again too little too late. My comments published on Ragan included the observation that making decisions very early on when a problem first emerges is not only critical, but often excruciatingly difficult.

Oil platform disaster highlights some key lessons

The Deepwater Horizon oil platform 41 miles off the coast of New Orleans in the gulf is a disaster of major proportions. It’s looking increasingly like 11 men have lost their lives–the search goes on as I write this. But crude from the deep well is apparently continuing to gush from the incredibly deep well. Indeed, this half a billion dollar platform was one of the most technologically advanced in the world, digging farther off shore and deeper than almost any other.

This is an event that affects far more than the two oil companies involved. (Full disclosure, both PIER and O’Brien’s, our new parent company, are both actively involved in the response). This event will likely significantly impact every oil company with drilling and exploration operations and it may impact the nation’s increased willingness to drill for oil offshore to increase energy independence. Questions will arise about safety, about environmental risks, about response capabilities. They will focus around the critical issues of what could have been done better to save lives and the environment.

Just like other major events like this, there is a tendency for those on the sidelines to stare in wonder at the spectacle. Instead, those who are even peripherally related to this event need to go into action mode now. When the horrible shooting occurred at Virginia Tech, the local airwaves and national media were filled with stories about the lack of capability of our nation’s education administrators to protect those under their care with better warning systems. Every university president had to face questions from parents, from local media, from students and faculty about what was in place to notify students and if the answer was nothing, then why?

A crisis like the oil platform disaster operates like throwing a stone into a quiet pond. The closer you are to the stone hitting, the more disturbed the water. But ultimately it affects everyone in the pond.

Who you hurt matters, as does your size–U of Missouri research

I found this research by University of Missouri about differences in public reaction to crises interesting. What causes a bigger negative reaction in the public–when something an organization does hurts someone outside the organization or inside? Does it matter to the public if an employee is hurt, or a customer? It does, of course. The victim outside the company or organization gets more sympathy than the one inside.

Does it matter if the organization in question is big or small? Absolutely. The bigger and more powerful you are perceived, the more quickly you are blamed and the more accusations of responsibility are given credence.

What does it mean for crisis communicators? Well, as I just mentioned in a training class I was teaching last week, there is a big difference in a crisis where you perceive your starting point to be. If you or your senior execs think that you are at a neutral starting point in public perception when an ugly situation hits, and your goal is to keep at neutral or above, you deal with the crisis in one way. But, what if you are starting the crisis from the perspective of a deep hole–that you are not neutral but public perception is already very negative, how does that impact how you deal with the crisis? Quite a bit, I would think. It would show itself in the degree of effort you would undertake to address the issues, the proactive communication you would do, the investment made in getting your messages out. The problem is, most organization leaders perceive that they are starting from a positive or neutral position. What they don’t realize is that for most of the public, if they are seen as big, powerful, rich, profitable–they are already starting from a deep hole. When the reporter comes to interview your CEO, head of Big Oil, the audience (and reporter) isn’t likely thinking, oh good, here’s a person helping make sure I’ve got fuel to burn in my tank. They’re thinking, here’s a greedy, fatcat, despoiler of the environment who would do anything to turn a buck.

Now you know that if you are big, powerful and you hurt someone outside of your organization, the hole you are in may be a lot deeper than you thought.

The future of crisis communication–the discussion

My questions and suggestions on the future of crisis communication raised some eyebrows, including at Ragan Communications who is re-publishing an edited (improved) version of my last crisisblogger post. I really appreciate the discussion that ensued on crisisblogger and would like to address a few very interesting points.

Patrice Cloutier and Donald Hamilton both make the very important point that a crisis communication manager (or PIO) have a very important role to play in managing the response. Hamilton puts it this way:

Organizational leaders tend to be operations or financial experts with an occasional lawyer thrown in. Not surprisingly, they do not think like communicators and seldom focus on the fact that the organization’s reputation is ultimately more important than this or that lawsuit, the urgent restoration of production capacity or next month’s stock price.

The crisis communicator’s job is to remind them of this and to assure that authoritative, repeat authoritative, information and context are made available to all relevant audiences with the greatest possible speed.

I completely agree. In training we just completed last week at our office with PIOs and communication leaders from several major organizations, I emphasized this point exactly. The goal of a response is to build trust and it depends on two things–taking the right actions and communicating well. The communicator must help response managers to understand what actions are “right” actions from the point of view of the critical audiences because ultimately they will be the judges of the response and will make the decisions about whether the leaders and the organization deserve their trust.

Commenter J.D. hit the nail on the head: If the crisis manager is one who only shares information, crafts messages and writes releases, then the future has already passed him by. Perhaps a decade ago. And perhaps that was Gerald’s point?

Exactly my point. But I work with communicators, PIOs and leaders of organizations every day where this needs this message needs to be continually repeated. We are still fighting today’s public information battles with old strategies and outdated technologies. Until communicators and their leaders understand how much the world has changed, the same mistakes will be repeated.

The job of the crisis communicator today isn’t so much put out a press release and then do some on camera interviews. It is much more about listening, evaluating, advising, and participating in the swirl of information and discussion about the event.

Is there a future for crisis communication?

That may seem a very strange question, but hold on. The answer may not be as obvious as you think.

Let me ask the question this way: is there a future for encyclopedia writers in the age of wikipedia? It used to be that encyclopedia publishers would engage the skills and knowledge of verified experts to provide the content for everything from how quarks work to the history of the bowling ball.  They needed those experts because there was a demand for the kind of arcane or specialized knowledge that only a few people held and there was economic value in providing a summation of all that kind of knowledge. But, I don’t think there are very many people employed today in writing The World Book (I grew up on that great encyclopedia!) or the Britannica. In part because the knowledge that people seek is so readily available through the internet, and in part because the new form of encyclopedia, wikipedia, has engaged the assistance of millions and millions of experts rather than just a few. Of course, they don’t pay those experts.

If you are quick to say, yes, but the Britannica is to be trusted but wikipedia is not, I’m afraid you are wrong. What this new form of knowledge sharing has demonstrated is something now called “collective intelligence” where individual people may make mistakes, but if enough people participate those mistakes are most often quickly rooted out and corrected. So wikipedia has been demonstrated to be as credible as “professional” encyclopedias.

What does this have to do with the future of public information management or crisis communication? A crisis communicator was needed because crisis events typically involve vital information only available to a few. For example, an industrial accident happens and a whole lot of people want to know who was injured or killed, what the current status of the event is, who is to blame, what is being done to protect people now, etc. There are certainly some events, maybe a lot of them, where much of the vital information is behind closed doors. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that in one way or another, those witnessing the event have access to much if not most of the vital information. And now, for the first time in history, they have the capability and clear willingness to share in what they know. They do it instantly and it is spread and shared instantly.

So, a flood hits the county. Where is hitting, how bad, how high is the water, is it rising, etc. All that info used to come from the emergency response folks. Now it comes from social media–from all those tweeters sharing info about the event from their own little perspective. A broad survey of hundreds or thousands of eye witnesses will pretty soon give you a pretty accurate picture of what is going on. In the meantime, what are the officials doing to get the information? They are busy on their cell phones and radios talking to the people in the field who had to be called from their homes, get in their pickups, try to get to the scene, call in, report, gather the info, prepare it for public release, get approval to release, send it to the media, who broadcasts it to the homes–about four hours after everyone has already gotten everything from the tweeters.

The poor Public Information Officer or crisis communicator thinks he/she is the encyclopedia writer with everyone breathlessly waiting for the latest release. What they don’t seem to realize is that by the time they get their release out, everyone who doesn’t have a smart phone has been talking to those who do and four different information cycles have already been completed in the time it took to get that one release out. Information is like a flashflood. It will take the route of least resistance. The first water to get there is what matters if you are caught in one. The millions of gallons that my wash over you an hour later is pretty darn irrelevant.

I do believe we are already in an era when the vast majority of vital information of interest to the public is going to come through non-official channels. That includes reputation crises as well as emergency communications. Those of us in crisis communication who think that we are encyclopedia writers and that the world desperately needs our well-crafted and fully approved releases, will soon find that the mountain simply will not come to Mohammed. The wikipedia process of collective intelligence and willing sharing of first hand information will diminish our significance. Will we be unemployed? Not ready to go there yet. But I know what I would say to an encyclopedia writer about his or her future prospects.

Could Guam Capsize? Congress is investigating.

File this on the lighter (or unbelievable side). In this video Rep Hank Johnson (D-GA) is questioning the Navy Admiral about troops in Guam and expresses concerns that with the buildup Guam might capsize. I’m not joking, and the sad thing, apparently he isn’t either.

Advice to those facing Congressional Hearings: Emulate the good admiral here who despite one of the stupidest questions in the world, seems to mostly have kept a straight face and answer it with demonstrating any of the incredulity he must have been feeling. And, if you go to Congress to testify, be fully prepared to answer the most inane stupid questions that you can’t even imagine.

Welcoming myself back from hiatus

Hope some of you missed me…I’ve been gone for nearly a month, vacation, out of office work, and how a grandkid-induced cold. In the meantime, of course the world goes on.

A few quick observations:

The West Virginia mine disaster–our thoughts and prayers are with the families. The news media of course played the standard litany of a long list of violations but then put family members on TV (CNN) who were crying out for information from the company about the status of their husband and father. That is terrible. Crisis managers: sear that picture in your mind. If you don’t immediately communicate with those directly affected you too will be pictured on national TV as not giving a mouse’s behind for the people who should be mattering most to you right now.

Toyota–so the gov slaps a $16.4m fine on the company. It still amazes me that no questions asked by the media about this. GM fining its biggest competitor? Sure, GM isn’t the regulator, but one of GM’s largest shareholders is the regulator. Still strikes me as strange and even more strange to have such little media and public discussion about the obvious conflict of interest when the government owns a player in a highly competitive market that it regulates. In the meantime, I see more signs of Toyota fighting back (attacking USA Today) as well as more hard evidence showing up it appears that they do indeed have some serious issues. so complex…

Tiger–Tiger is back on the golf course and the whole world seems a little more right. Seriously, the only comment I have to make is for those people (including Tiger) who said when this event happened that he only owed apologies to his family. I disagreed. I suggested that when you are a celebrity of this status you live or die on the loyalty and support of your fans, that there is a relationship there that matters, and he owes them one heck of a lot. By his press conference yesterday it appears that he now understands that. His future earning power and place in history will have a lot to do with his fan support. It seems to be there showing how forgiving people can be when there is or appears to be genuine repentance and contrition. So far, the signs that he is indeed humbled, repentant and contrite–but, the first sign of his former arrogance, anger, sense of entitlement and all bets are off.

Corporate reputations. The 2009 Harris Interactive survey of corporate reputations is out.  The headlines about this will tout the “improvement” overall in corporate reputations and the significant change in reputations of some companies and segments (Fords’ is on the rise, most who took bailout money have sunk big time). But I think the most interesting thing about this research is this:

•    Americans who said that Corporate America’s reputation is “Good” rose from 12% to 18%.
–    First increase in 4 years. •    Those that perceive it as “Not Good” or “Terrible” decreases from 88% to 81%.

Now, pay close attention folks. We are thinking here that going from 12 to 18% saying corporate America’s reputation is “good,” while 81% are still saying that corporate America’s reputation is “not good” or “terrible.”

That is absolutely horrifying but nothing new. There are millions of people who work for “corporate America” and while their friends and neighbors don’t think of them as bad, when lumped with their employers, the vast vast majority of people think they are really bad. The implications for crisis management is clear–when it hits the fan, you are already in a deep hole, I mean a deep hole. That puts you in a virtual no-win situation.

When is “corporate America” whoever that is going to understand how much this loss of trust and confidence costs them and do something about it? Are there things that can be done? Absolutely, but first it starts with a good understanding of what is behind this perception of terrible people running terrible organizations.