Talk to the media, or not?–O'Donnell battles national media

Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party candidate for VP Biden’s Delaware senate seat, has been the latest national media sensation, or victim, depending on your point of view. Ironically, on a national “news” show, Hannity’s America, she announced she would no longer give the national media any time.

I got some enjoyment watching Anderson Cooper and Gary Tuchman huff and puff about this–with Tuchman saying that this was like Cuba or Iran, or some other oppressive regime that was trying to control the press. Couldn’t really believe he was saying that. She is not the government, she’s a candidate. It is still her option whether or not to talk to the press. But clearly any candidate saying they will not deal with the national media is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

My question is this: at what point does a company under the kind of infotainment attack we have seen repeated so often in the last while just decide they will not talk to the press? That sounds like a really dumb question to most PR folks and crisis managers who continue to think that reputation management is about media relations. Increasingly it is not.

Here are a few reasons why it is not:

- Some use social media instead of mainstream media for announcements–evidence: Amazon’s announcement about acquisition of Zappos.

- with 300 million citizen journalists running around with all the electronic news gathering equipment they need in their pockets, plus the ability to almost instantly create a “channel” that can rival a major network, who is the media anyway?

- isn’t your focus really those people whose opinion about you matters the most for your future? If so, your interest in the media is only insofar as it is impacts or influences those people. And if you can go direct to them and tell them your story straight, why the heck would you trust that important job to someone whose interest is not your reputation but only in building an audience even if it means using your reputation as a tool?

- reputation management is about taking the right actions, doing the right things, aligning your behavior with the values and expectations of those people who matter the most. Communication is the vehicle that both helps build organizational understanding of those expectations and values and the means by which the right actions are conveyed. What does the media have to do with this all important process? In many, if not most cases, they are a hindrance to it. Recognize it, plan for it, and take action to deal with it.

The huffing and puffing of Cooper and Tuchman notwithstanding, O’Donnell has to ask the question of whether dealing with the national media will help her get elected or not. Personally, I think her loud pronouncement was stupid. It would have been smarter to go about her business of meeting with and interacting with the voters and if that left her little time to respond to the media swirl, that is understandable. No point in waving red flags.

Thinking about resilience

I suppose this is a bit like sausage being made but at 30 some thousand feet on another too-soon business trip had a little time to think about my presentation coming up for the PRSA International Conference in October. My topic is “Reputation Resilience.” I wanted to take a look at why some companies seem to come through crises pretty well and others seemed to be destroyed by them. This topic was prompted by two things. One is the marketing positioning I helped develop for my employer which focuses on organization and community resilience. The other was reading the book “The Unthinkable” by Amanda Ripley.

Resilience, as I recently wrote in some advertising copy, is all about strength. In fact, it seems it is about ultimate strength. Anyone can survive and look good in good times. It takes a survivor to come through the bad times looking good. And the worst the bad times, the greater the test, the higher the risk, and the more honor so to speak in surviving. As I thought about that, in this year of mega-corporate crises as NYT and Washington Post like to comment on, it is very relevant to talk about and think about corporate resilience and reputation resilience.

The thing that really struck me about Ripley’s book is the personal aspects of survival. Of course, that is what her book is all about–why some people survive disasters and some don’t, whether it is just pure luck or not. Her thesis is it is not always just luck. Some people survive because of who they are, how they react, how they think about things, how they prepare, and ultimately what their personality and character are all about. Some people freeze, become paralyzed. Some people freak out and go running off in all directions at once. Some seem quiet, calm, other-worldly. I remember a friend telling me about his time in the Navy and the ship’s captain. When things were happening that he didn’t think were being taken seriously he would scream and yell and get everyone focused. But when a real emergency hit, he was the center of calm and rationality. A true leader it sounds.

If people are more resilient based on character, personality and values, what about a company or an organization? We used to talk a lot about corporate culture, but is the culture one that will help an organization endure the worst that life can throw at it, or will a much-vaunted culture that thrives when things are groovy serve to help defeat a company or organization when things really hit the fan?

I’m reading Peter Firestein’s excellent book on Crisis of Character and I will write more about that soon when I finish it, but I think it has a lot to say about corporate resilience and reputation resilience. It seems he would agree that there is a link between character and resilience, and certainly would agree that there is a link between the values and character of the leaders and the culture they create. One of the biggest challenges leadership in any organization faces is how to inculcate the core values they hold as critical to the organization’s future throughout an organization that may be global and have employees in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

But, if resilience is the ultimate measure of an organization’s strength and organizational character will have a lot to do with surviving when things get tough, the task of building a culture based on the right values is of the highest importance.

More on this topic as I wrestle through some of these issues. And your thoughts on this much appreciated.

The link between reputation and company value–BP shows the high cost

Public relations pros often deal with the question as to how to get CEOs to pay more attention to the vital role of reputation management. Some CEO’s seems to inherently “get it,” and others, often financial-metric driven, have a harder time understanding the link because they don’t see an obvious connection between investments in reputation management or protection to the all-important quarterly results.

Crisis expert James Donnelly pointed this out in a recent post referencing a Forbes article which suggested we may be entering an age of reputation management. But, if anyone doubts the stunning impact of reputation loss on economic value, all one has to do is look at BP. One of the highest value and most respected (albeit hated by anyone who thinks hydrocarbons are evil) companies, has dropped out of the list of the 100 most valuable brands as a result of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. This according to brand valuation expert Interbrand.

I suspect that BP will be used for many years by anyone pitching PR services and particularly crisis preparation services to senior leaders. And well they should be. But I do have a fear. I’m afraid the pitch will be: See what happens when you don’t do good PR? Your reputation will go to heck and your brand value will be destroyed.  A much better pitch in my mind would be: There are some problems that even great PR can’t fix, so if you have any chance of doing some really serious damage to people, their futures or the environment, let’s look first at minimizing the risk of those bad things happening, and then let’s look at how to respond effectively if some really bad things do happen.

Burson Marsteller study validates the importance of a "go direct" crisis comm strategy

A couple of years ago I presented at a major conference on crisis and risk communications and several of the highly respected speakers talked about the need to “partner with the media” in communicating with the public about major events. My under the breath reaction was: good luck with that.

Since I got engaged in this crisis and emergency communication business fulltime over ten years ago one of my strongest beliefs has been that we need to first of all focus on direct communication to those people who are most impacted by an event and those whose opinions about us matter most for our future. One of the reasons for that firm belief was my experience in trying to “partner with the media” and the disastrous results that sometimes, very often occurred. In fact, I would have guess that about half of all efforts were disappointing if not outright infuriating.

Now the highly respected firm of Burson-Marsteller has documented this experience. This, in my mind, is one of the most important studies to come out about media relations in general but crisis communication in particular. I would advise a careful look at this study. I haven’t looked at the mechanics of the study so can’t comment on the way it was done and how solid it is, but I can tell you that it conforms to my own experiences.

For those who want the headline version, if you send your important messages to the media, at best you can expect 50% consistency with your message and what the media actually does with it. But that is better than what happens with it in the blog world, where the consistency drops down to less than 40%.

The implications are clear and should be part of every PIO and emergency manager’s information strategy:
1) Go direct–plan ahead of any event to communicate directly through email, phone, text, website, whatever to the public, impacted citizens, elected officials, investors, customers, fenceline neighbors–anybody who is important to your future.
2) Rumor management — you now know that when you send it to the media and into the social media world is almost certainly will turn into something different than you intended. That means communication is not about sending it out and letting it takes its course, it is a continuing process of distribution, correction, challenging false reports, and providing continuous updates.

Here’s the bottom line: So many think that public information management is about sending out a press release and the job is done. That is hopelessly naive and that approach is guaranteed to cause great disappointment and quite likely loss of trust–and maybe loss of job.

How the media game is played–without accountability

I know I’m starting to sound like a stuck record relating to my analysis of how the media operates. I also realize that most of the rest of the world has moved on from the Gulf Spill and has a serious and very understandable case of spill fatigue. But, the lessons continue and for me one of the most important is looking at how the media covered this event and what it means for building trust in future events.

The story in the New York Times yesterday illustrates an important point. Here are some relevant quotes from this article which is titled: “Gulf May Avoid Direst Predictions After Oil Spill:” Yet as the weeks pass, evidence is increasing that through a combination of luck (a fortunate shift in ocean currents that kept much of the oil away from shore) and ecological circumstance (the relatively warm waters that increased the breakdown rate of the oil), the gulf region appears to have escaped the direst predictions of the spring…And preliminary reports from scientists studying the effects on marshes, wildlife and the gulf itself suggest that the damage already done by the spill may also be significantly less than was feared — less, in fact, than the destruction from the much smaller Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.

First, hats off to New York Times for writing a good news story about the spill. Next–a question: why is zero credit given to the over 60,000 people who worked on this event, often at great personal sacrifice? Certainly, the conditions mentioned contributed to what looks to be a much more positive outcome than was dared hope for, but the prodigious efforts of the responders and response leaders also contributed significantly to minimizing environmental damage. And economic damage–remarkably for example, traffic up and down the Mississippi was not curtailed even with very strong efforts to ensure impacts the spill were not carried upriver.

But my real point is this. NYT like most other media was not shy a bit about highlighting the experts who made these dire predictions. The most serious predictions ended up in the headlines–and why not? Their job is to gets eyes on the pages or the screens of their websites or tv news reports. So for weeks if not months we heard these dire predictions over and over. I can’t recall many examples of reporting at the height of the “fear creation” stage of the response saying, “but we have other experts here who are saying it probably won’t be so bad.”

So, they use these experts–the more dramatic the better–to compete to win in the infotainment game. Nothing really new about that. After all, what did Billy Nungesser and the other loud critics have to contribute to the public’s understanding of the spill and the response efforts? Nothing of substance, but a heck of a lot of entertainment value. What gets me is that when all the fear-mongering turns out to be overblown, I have yet to see a reporter or publisher say “oops, mea culpa, we did a bad thing.” No, it is those same experts who got it wrong. One of them, as I blogged about earlier, admitted he got it wrong. Good for him. But it is not just the experts who got it wrong–it was the media who made much of their fallible predictions. Certainly they can say, “it is not our job to evaluate their viability, we just report what they say.” Yeah, right. But is it the expert’s responsibility when the whole world gets a faulty understanding of what is happening? The experts would say “we just give our educated opinion, which may be right or wrong. We can’t be held accountable for how the news media uses or abuses these opinions.”

Exactly, no accountability. We know who is accountable for the spill, no question there. Who will be held accountable for creating false impressions?

A powerful video for communication training

All you communication trainers including media trainers may be interested in another compelling video for training purposes–on what not to do. This, along with perennial favorites “What are you sinking about?” and “The front fell off the ship.”

Here is a political speech that may go down in the annals of communication history as one of the most passionate–for no apparent reason. Of course if I lived in Stark County, Ohio, I might take local politics serious too.

I’m fumbling with the lesson learned here. I guess it is to make sure your style and message match up. But, don’t worry about the lesson–this is just plain entertaining in a cringing sort of way.

A special day with Iraq-bound soldiers

This is off-topic for crisisblogger readers but wanted to share with you a very special day yesterday. As some of you know, I am a history buff, particularly WWII history and I was privileged to write the biography of a P-38 fighter pilot. What makes his story unique is that after he was shot down he, along with 167 other Allied flyers caught with the French Underground, were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Hitler had declared them “terrorfliegers” and sentenced them to a cruel death. After two months and near starvation they were rescued by the German Air Force and sent to POW camp. Writing this book and going with the now 89-year old hero, Joe Moser, on numerous speaking engagements has been a great joy to me. But yesterday was something special.

We were invited to Joint Base Lewis McChord to address the 62nd Medical Brigade. It was unforgettable to stand in front of about 600 soldiers in battle fatigue and tell them Joe’s story and then have Joe speak to them and answer their numerous questions. This was their last meeting for many of them before two weeks leave and then deployment to Iraq–many for the second time. What meant the most to me was what a young soldier named Pangborn who came up to me after the presentation and said he knew that if and when times got tough for the soldiers in theater they would remember Joe and his story and take strength from it. It meant a lot for Joe as well, realizing that over 70 years after he joined the Army Air Corps he could be an inspiration for today’s young soldiers.

Some days are just worth the living and yesterday was certainly one of them. By the way, Joe’s book is called “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald,” available at most bookstores or on Amazon.

God speed to all you brave men and women. And a special thanks to Frank Cisneros for inviting us and making this happen.