What the… Goldman outlaws bad language?

Gosh darn I hope this is a trend. DailyDog reports that Goldman Sachs is banning bad language from internal emails. I’ve been talking about “toxic talk” for some time now and believe that the cursing, swearing, foul language combined with the vitriol and hyper-partisanship that characterizes so much of social media and blogs is damaging. Damaging to the people who participate, damaging to the ones they intend to damage, but most of all damage to the soul of our communities and society. I’m glad Goldman is taking this position and I hope it is not merely, as DailyDog suggests, part of their effort to clean up their image. It’s not that I would be dismissive of this step in helping clean up their image. I would rather it be done because it is a healthy, right thing to do.

Reminds me of a research project I did years ago for the construction industry. In much better construction times than these they were faced with a severe shortage of young people entering the field. This despite paying probably the highest starting wages of any industry. So I did some research among high school students as to their interest in construction as a career. I found that the biggest obstacle to considering the industry was their perception of the people in the industry. Who wants to invest their lives with people they find disgusting. They referred to the leering and catcalls directed at young women from construction crews. They referred to the filthy, unkempt appearance. And they referred to the bad language. My recommendation was to train workers to treat the public with respect, train them to treat each other with respect, wear uniforms and improve physical appearance, and ban swearing. This advice went over about as well as a toad in a punchbowl. Oh, I also advised they do some PR and advertising showing some of the outstanding young men and women who were happily making construction a career–that part they liked.

Some no doubt are attracted to the profane, testosterone environment of the trading floor. But, our world is changing. We’re tired of the kind of free for all environment, greed and excesses that are at the heart of the financial mess we are in. Cleaning up the language isn’t going to change the world. But, like continually scrubbing graphiti off the subways in NYC, it just may be the tipping point to begin removing some of the toxicity of our discourse and society. I hope there are many others who follow Goldman’s example.

A Fire Chief's advice for social media "newbies"

Bill Boyd, Fire Chief for Bellingham, WA, is becoming a well-known friend to crisisblogger readers. I’ve included several guest posts from him, particularly appreciating his perspective on crisis and emergency communications from an Incident Commander’s perspective. But Bill is eager to jump in and learn about the emerging communication technologies, if anyone who is a friend of his tweets will know. He considers himself a bit of a newbie on social media, but it’s not true. He’s pretty advanced in his use (puts me to shame, that’s for sure) but more than that, his insights into common sense approaches for public officials as well as private communicators are exceptionally valuable. I gratefully publish his thoughts:

“Newbie” Social Media tips for emergency response folks

Like many other of my middle aged emergency response colleagues, I am still trying to get a grip on how this whole social media (SM) thing works, and how to use it to communicate inside and outside my organization.  But, it is like trying to pick up a jellyfish with one hand.  It slips through your fingers and plops back down onto the beach coming to rest in a different shape.  Navigating the morass of evolving SM tools, self proclaimed experts (which I am clearly not!), skeptics and snake oil vendors can be pretty frustrating. My first emergency responder media blog posting generated a lot of interest and questions about how SM works and how it can enhance communications.  Truthfully, I am still trying to figure it out too.  But, I thought I would share a few things that may help others in the emergency response world take the first steps in enhancing their communications strategies.

Use today’s most popular SM sites. Twitter and Facebook seem to be the rage right now, and major news organizations have integrated them into their operations, exponentially increasing their visibility and reach.  But, stay agile.  It wasn’t too may years ago that MySpace was “it”. But, its popularity is plummeting like the glide path of a toolbox.  While I predict Facebook and Twitter will be around for quite a while, social media tools will come and go.  Don’t become entrenched.

Download a SM aggregator. A SM aggregator is program (typically free) that allows you to manage your various social media subscriptions, favorites, bookmarks, posts, etc..  This is important to do if you have more than one active SM account.  Although there are dozens of similar applications out there,  I use TweetDeck, a tool that allows me to set up columns of individual tweeters I follow. Each column tracks a tweeters message thread.  I can easily edit/comment and retweet to my followers.  HootSuite is another tool, which appears to have more organizational capabilities, and doesn’t require downloading client software onto your computer. But, given my unsophisticated and newbie status I have yet to try it out. Be careful if you use a SM aggregator to post messages.  If you set up your account to tap into a wide range of SM sites that mix business and social uses, your messages may be misunderstood, or worse, appear inappropriate for posting on the site you link to.  Allowing a post that says “Man, did I tie one on last night” on your LinkedIn profile as you are in the middle of job search will make you look like an idiot.

Don’t get sucked in. SM tools are great for enhancing gathering an dissemination of information during an emergency.  But, they should not be the focus of your information distribution.  You need to have a wide range of tools available, including web sites, 3rd party emergency notification systems that contact the public via phone, email lists, sirens, procedures for door to door “knock and blocks” and emergency alert system access.  SM is simply another way to get the message out.  The great thing about SM is it allows you to evaluate how well the message has been understood and if was effectively communicated and distributed.

Determine your SM identity.  I must admit, I am struggling with this one. SM gurus are preaching about the need to identify your “brand” before launching into the SM world.  I took the “ready, fire, aim” approach.  I am slowly migrating my messaging towards my main interests and personality traits; Connecting with the community I serve on a personal level, sharing important safety and incident information, promoting my college Alma mater, and disseminating crisis communications and fire service information. Determining your brand can be difficult, unless you already work for a company that has a defined brand and values system.  If you work for an organization that has mission/value statements or a defined strategic vision, evaluate these statements and how your personal interests and passion can help sustain your SM messaging efforts.

Don’t be afraid to steal followers.  By this I mean find someone interesting on a SM site, then take a look at the profiles of those who are linked to the same person.  Chances are they share similar interests, professional contacts and information links.  Start linking and following those folks too.  It’s a great way to quickly build your list of contacts.  Also, share their posts if they have something interesting to say.  They, and others who learn from the post will appreciate it.

Don’t type stupid stuff. As soon as you hit send, your message is out there and can be spread around the world in a heartbeat.  Public officials (me included) must be strategic and careful in how we share our emotions, opinions and perspectives.  SM messaging is almost too easy.  At times I have wished they had a pop up “nag box” that would remind me – “Hey Dim Bulb! Do you really want to say that?”  Some no-brainer topics to avoid;  slamming your employers-including the citizens you serve, sexual/ discriminatory statements or jokes, confidential business information (including information that can be tracked back to help identify a medical patient).

Let them know you are human.  Some of the largest Twitter accounts belong to individuals who not only share important and relevant business information, but also provide insight into their personal lives; their family triumphs, tragedies, milestones and personal interests. Along with fire and emergency services related content,  I sprinkle in my feelings and activities unrelated to my work.  Followers seem to enjoy the levity and insight, and it often results in two way exchanges about life in general.

I will continue to share my lessons learned in this ever changing environment.  Given what I have learned so far, I do not ever think I will be a SM expert.  But, I’m going to have a heck of a lot of fun trying to get there!

Washington Post: "Crisis PR–PR's evil twin–can't keep up" Is it true?

This is a very intriguing analysis by Matthew DeBord in the Washington Post, titled: How crisis PR hasn’t kept up with the turbulent times.

His overall point is that the Internet has made it impossible for the $700 an hour (are you kidding me??) crisis PR people to avoid destruction in a crisis. What used to work, a call to Burson Marsteller or Sitrick and Company, just doesn’t work anymore.

Here’s his summary: The lesson now for companies that screw up is that you really have no chance: The currents are against you from the get-go. The courts of Twitter and online video sites, along with Facebook groups that deplore the transgressions, will overwhelm even the most elaborate crisis battle plan. The profession, quite simply, is at a crossroads. And it isn’t in a position to ride out the bumps, because it’s up against the kind of high-altitude turbulence that can shred the airframe.

Here is where I think he is right:

1) Crises of the nature of a 90 day plus endless spill are beyond PR strategies–this crisis is not just about BP’s PR failures (there are those aplenty) but about the fact that if there is this kind of damage to the environment and to people’s lives and you are the one (right or wrong) standing in the crosshairs, it just ain’t going to be pretty.

2) Speed matters–the Internet along with other instant news technologies means that it is virtually impossible for large companies (and highly bureaucratic ad-hoc response organizations) to react fact enough, and slow response is a killer.

3) Social media is playing a huge, if not the largest role, in the way in which today’s crises play out, and social media will play a huge, and perhaps dominant role, in how organizations respond. In this DeBord sees the potential salvation for crisis PR–I think that is too simplistic.

4) Most of yesterday’s crisis PR thinking doesn’t work well in this environment. Particularly when it is focused on spitting out the occasional press release or putting up a press conference and thinking that your job is done.

But overall, DeBord’s analysis is too simplistic. Using the examples of BP and the spill, Toyota, Tiger Woods, Al Gore and Stanley McChrystal, he comes to the conclusion that all the PR expertise in the world can’t prevent the damage and destruction left in the wake of a major public crisis. The problem is that our situation in crisis PR is much more complicated than that.

Starting with the loss of trust. From Congress, to the president, to the major industries, to almost anything big, powerful and in the news, we Americans tend not to trust. Big Oil is derided and hated, with only the media as an industry having a lower trust rating. We don’t trust CEOs, PR folks, lawyers, and reporters. With this kind of environment, when someone is accused loudly, frequently and vehemently of doing actions that undermine what little trust there might be, is it any wonder that we believe the accusations? Why is no one asking the question as to why we are experiencing this historic loss of trust? What are the causes?

I think these are important contributors to this loss of trust:

- Bad behavior made known.  I don’t think for a minute that behavior at the corporate or government (church or education or anything else for that matter) has suddenly gotten a lot worse. I think the level of people doing bad things has probably stayed pretty much the same through most of our few ten thousands of years of human history. But the big difference in this “information age” is that bad behavior is very hard to hide. The truth will out and it is often ugly. We have probably more rules, regulations and ethic standards than ever, but we also have unprecedented ways of sharing information about bad behavior. And our interest in these things is very high, particularly when we feel we are victimized by it.

- media competitiveness. There have been times in our history when the political attacks and venomous punditry in our media was likely greater than it is now, in fact at one time (during President John Adams administration) it was extreme enough to result in one of the worst pieces of legislation in our history, the Alien and Sedition Act. However, we are not that far behind in terms in the kind of journalism we have today and this is more than evident in the examples that DeBord mentions. It is not surprising that as a journalist he does not include the hype-negativity and attack journalism as part of the problem with crisis PR. The fact is that mainstream media is fighting for its life and their very difficult job is to gain attention for without that they die. No readers or viewers, no ratings, no ads, no revenue. As I commented in my previous post, this phenomenon was elegantly described by an Economist columnist when he said the media (referring to British media) cultivates provocation rather than analysis. Yes, it is very much their job to provoke. Provoke or die. Get attention or die. And if McChrystal’s, or Gore’s or Woods or Hayward’s or Toyoda’s lives and careers are destroyed in the process, well, “and so it goes.”

Education. I am intrigued by the cultural values of our educated young people. Every generation brings new thoughts, ideas, priorities and visions to the world. There is much positive in the generation of new young leaders emerging from our universities. But it is also true that they are remarkably anti-business and to a large degree anti-big and powerful everything. They don’t trust a lot. That is based more on personal observation than a detailed study, but challenge me if you think me wrong. I visited a university class a few years ago and asked what they thought of oil companies. Though this community is surrounded by four refineries and many in the community make their living in the oil industry, the students were almost universally angry and bitter about big oil (again, well before this spill). Their level of passion was stunning. Where did they get this? Then I remembered a study done by an economics professor that showed at any university in the nation, the chances of a student getting a professor with a positive attitude toward business, toward free enterprise, toward anything remotely conservative in the humanities departments was almost nil. We have developed a very ideological and nearly one-sided education system when it comes to important issues of economics, business, politics, religion, etc. Perhaps a legacy from the 60s and 70s, this overwhelming bias in our higher education (I suspect is goes into lower education as well) likely plays a very significant role in the development of attitudes in our young people relating to business.

- social media and “toxic talk” — Everyone of the situations DeBord mentions included a tremendous amount of social media chatter. Certainly the spill did and that continues. But the chatter is dominated by voices that are exceptionally strident, vengeful, angry, and hate-filled. There is a cultural phenomenon at work here as well. I would have to ask the question as to how some have all the time for this and is there a connection between these kinds of attitudes and the people who spend so much of their lives living in a social media world. Regardless of the causes, the impact is very predictable. Imagine you went to a cocktail party and all you heard was angry people spouting off against BP, or Toyota, or Al Gore. You turn this way and you get more of the same, you turn that way and it is even angrier. Would not come away from this thinking that there was rationale behind this passion and rage? The toxic talk that dominates our political blogs and so much of social media is toxic. It’s toxic to those who supply it and those who simply observe. The toxicity feeds the extremes the media needs to go to compete. Social media and mainstream media play off one another in a fascinating dance of interaction. But if it is your reputation at the heart of the discussion, this toxic talk becomes not only dangerous but deadly.

If this analysis is correct, what can crisis PR people do about it? How to advise clients? What strategies might be effective?

Mr. DeBord quoted Ira Kalb from USC: For PR firms, the key is to get back to focusing on trust. “One you’ve lost trust, you’ve lost just about everything,” Kalb says. “You can’t put spin on it. You’re dead if the public thinks you’re spinning.” Kalb stresses that it’s important for companies caught in the crisis spiral to propose solutions.

I’ve repeated this mantra for many years: trust is based on two things–doing the right things, and communicating about them well. I see no reason to alter from this basic approach. But the underlying lack of trust in our culture, and the extremely powerful forces that by their nature are determined to undermine trust when you are caught in a major crisis make building trust exceptionally challenging.

While it may be tempting to cast about for new ideas and new strategies in this kind of environment, I think the answer is in the basic things that work because, well, they are just the right things to do:

1) Make sure as much as you can that everyone in your organization makes choices that are in the best interest of serving all those impacted and understand that without trust your organization dies.

2) When actions taken by those in your organization clearly violate that trust, expose it, apologize for it, fix it and try to prevent it in the future–and do all these things out in the open as much as possible.

3) When you are responding to a big problem (like a recall or an endless spill) stay focused on clearly communicating what you are doing to solve the problem and what you will do to prevent it in future. Don’t get distracted by the endless attacks, rabbit trails, and so-called experts the media will trot out to try to destroy your credibility.

4) Effective communication means challenging lies, rumors, poor reporting, and misstatements of facts. You can’t allow lies to be often repeated and go unchallenged. In all major events a sort of meta-narrative evolves that all media seem to get locked into (Katrina–Bush failed, Toyota–no concern about safety, BP–rogue company run amuck). Accept the truth it it, apologize, but when the attacks are unfair, inaccurate and simply wrong they need to be challenged.

5) Engage, engage. Yes, social media is one place to engage, but not the only place. It is difficult to engage positively given the toxic talk, but essential. And the more personal and direct the engagement the better. Public meetings, face to face, phone calls, direct email–all these and more are critical especially when focused on the opinion leaders and those whose opinion is most important to your future. This may not be so visible to the media-consuming public and the media will not pick up on the positive outcomes of these engagements, but over the long term this is where the battle will be won or lost.

Vacation musings–it's a beautiful, ugly world

If it seems crisisblogger has been quiet lately it is because I was enjoying an absolutely wonderful family vacation in the San Juan Islands. When you combine the delights of spending time with your beautiful wife, three grown children, their wonderful spouses, and seven angelic (usually) grandchildren all under the age of seven, along with the majestic beauty of the San Juans, what can be better? The weather was great, and we were successful on two out of four whale watching adventures in my little boat.

What can I say, other than it is a beautiful world and if we have eyes to see it we can catch glimpses of Eden through the veil of this life. However, the veil is there and while the vacation gave some respite from thoughts about crisis management, BP, the Gulf Spill and all that, it also provides some time to get perspective. And the perspective I have on the overall situation is that it is a beautiful, ugly world.

There are few things uglier than the sight of millions of gallons of dirty oil spewing into water inhabited by so many good things and on which so many people depend. To think that this tragedy is caused by ordinary people making bad mistakes makes it more painful for all of us to endure. Our natural reaction is anger, frustration, rage. The spewing forth of this anger matches in ugliness that which came from a mile deep. But there are some differences. The investigation into the spill will no doubt get focused on a few key decisions that had they been made differently would make all the difference. But the spewing forth of vitriol that has accompanied this is not the decision of a few, but of millions. And it is fed by the economic necessity of our desperate media whose only response to the hyper competitive environment they are in is to find a flame of anger and fan it to the greatest extent possible. This too is great ugliness.

This is not just my cynical observation and obsession. “Bagehot,” the pseudononymous columnist for the Economist made this comment about the media in his farewell column in the July 3 issue of The Economist. He is referring to British media but what he says about them can be said even more about American media: “The British newspaper business cultivates provocation rather than consideration. The crowdedness of the market mean people feel a need to yell to be heard; for all their virtues, political blogs and the Internet have intensified the competition and the shrillness, making analysis ever more instant and intrusive.”  Provocation rather than consideration–a wonderful but somehow too quiet way of saying what we face in media coverage around an event like this spill.

Bagehot goes on to comment about the British voters. He is a British political commentator so he writes from that perspective but what he says about politicians applies also to business leaders, particularly when caught in the cross hairs of a major crisis: “British voters seem increasingly inclined to think of their politicians as either heroes or (more often) villains. There is little room for honest mistakes or good intentions gone awry, and little sympathy for the challenges of reconciling competing public priorities. The puerile simplicity of some political coverage, Bagehot submits, reflects a broader and worrying immaturity in the way the country thinks about politics and government.”

Again, in such an understated British way Bagehot has captured the ugliness of our world as it relates to this monstrous event. The problem is, of course, I know many of the people involved, both with the US Coast Guard and BP. I have known many of them for years. These are the villains that have been so thoroughly demonized in the press and in the political firestorm that most of you and the public cannot even any longer conceive of them as decent, respectable, intelligent and honorable human beings. This demonizing it is not at all unlike what happens in a war. Having written a book on a fighter pilot who survived Buchenwald, I have become aware of what happens to both the victim and the perpetrator in the process of dehumanization. That is what is happening here. When you turn someone else into sub-human, it not only destroys them, it destroys you. The people of BP are not perfect. But neither am I and neither or you. No doubt terrible mistakes have been made. But I would bet my life no decision was made with any intent to destroy people’s lives and the environment. If I am wrong, I hope it is revealed and the evil is punished. In the meantime, the judgment goes on every day in the media coverage, in blogs, in conversation, in the criminal process, and in a zillion lawyers offices.

I urge you to be cautious in your own judgments about those who have already been accused, tried, and convicted. Remember, it is not only the victim of unjust dehumanization that is damaged in the process. We have enough ugliness in the world without adding to it.

Online Socializing–is it good or bad?

When you are as old as I am and look back on the changes in how communication is done it is completely unreal. OK, I can remember black rotary dial phones (touch tone was a big deal back then) and my first job was at a newspaper company that still occasionally used a hot lead linotype–setting up a newspaper with photo typesetters was really cool technology. Without doubt the movement of interpersonal communication from letter writing, phone calling and personal visits to email, blogging, Twitter, Facebook and all kinds of social media has transformed lives, changed how we interact, revolutionized our culture, and modified our values.

But, is that a good thing? There are some whom I respect immensely who are convinced that it is about 85-90% bad. Others seem to accept any “progress” in technology as an inherent good. I am of the firm opinion that like almost all other ideas and inventions of humankind, it is neither good nor bad apart from the heart and intention of those who use it.

Pew, the authority on all things opinion-related on the Internet, has done a study of what you and millions like you think about online socializing, including what you think it will mean for the future. Here’s their new study.

But, the topline is 85% say the Internet has been a positive force in their social lives and will only become more so in the future. 14% disagree, saying it is negative.

Why negative:

Among the negatives noted by both groups of respondents: time spent online robs time from important face-to-face relationships; the internet fosters mostly shallow relationships; the act of leveraging the internet to engage in social connection exposes private information; the internet allows people to silo themselves, limiting their exposure to new ideas; and the internet is being used to engender intolerance.
Why positive:

Many of the people who said the internet is a positive force noted that it “costs” people less now to communicate — some noted that it costs less money and others noted that it costs less in time spent, allowing them to cultivate many more relationships, including those with both strong and weak ties. They said “geography” is no longer an obstacle to making and maintaining connections; some noted that internet]based communications removes previously perceived constraints of “space” and not just “place.”

So we can now make more friends and acquaintances faster, at less cost, and without regard to geographic location. Yeah, sure, I can see the advantages. But I get tired just thinking about it. Maybe I’ll use my old black rotary and dial a few friends and family members for an old fashioned picnic. We can take the time to look each other in the eye and actually talk.