When does it make sense to challenge erroneous media stories? A new strategy emerging.

I’ve seen the interchange often. A CEO or senior executive gets steamed by a negative story in the media. “Call the reporter! Call the editor, call the publisher!” they order their PR folks. And then the ultimate threat–“Call the advertising department, I’m canceling all my ads!”

The normal and expected response of the rational and experienced PR manager is to say, “Calm down, it really wasn’t so bad, and you’ll only make it worse by responding.” The ultimate argument always comes down to: “You don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

That’s conventional wisdom. But, is it right? Particularly, since the organizations who actually buy ink by the barrel are going out of business rapidly and those who are left seem to be getting by with as little ink as possible? What should the policy be about challenging inaccurate, misleading, or distorted media reports–including blogs.

I would like to challenge the conventional wisdom–with some caveats. There are times when it makes sense and times when it doesn’t–and it’s not easy distinguishing those. But a few factors to keep in mind:

– A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.
In the absence of any challenging information, incorrect information will stand. So, if someone says you are a liar and you stand their meekly without response, it doesn’t take too many times for those observing this to think, well, if he wasn’t a liar he certainly would have said something by now.

– The media herd mentality.
We’ve seen in almost all major news stories a sort of media herd mentality. You would think the competitive media environment would foster diversity in coverage, yet over and over we see a “me too” kind of reporting, sort of like the Hollywood sequel thing in hyper-time. So when a story hits that is juicy and attracts attention you can be quite sure that it will feed other outlets as well as social media sites for a while.

– Collective intelligence. The social media world is usually right about the facts. That comes as a surprise to the many who have been told that “you can’t believe anything that’s on the internet.” Maybe not at first, but through “collective intelligence” factual errors and errors of omission or spin are usually frequently corrected. It’s how wikipedia works–accuracy comes not from a single highly credible source, but multiple sources with multiple perspectives who contribute, contradict, correct and converse.

– Coverage is about conversation. Media stories are far more dynamic and involve much more interactivity today. Today there is a level of interactivity between what happens on our TV sets and what happens on the internet. We used to talk about convergence–between old and new media, between mainstream and social media. The convergence is virtually complete so a major news story stimulates conversation as online conversation stimulates major news stories.

In the Gulf Spill, as I mentioned here before, anyone involved in the spill was horrified at much of the inaccurate, infotainment oriented news coverage. Truth be told, I strongly encouraged spill communication leaders to take a much more aggressive approach to addressing some of the extreme examples of erroneous coverage. It was not done, and only now are some of the more extremes being revealed and discussed. But public opinion is essentially fixed permanently in part based on some poor and irresponsible reporting.  The problem was that those who had access to the facts and the truth, for various reasons, were unwilling to confront those who were running fast and loose with the truth.

What did I advise? I suggested a section be put on the response website (both BP and DeepwaterHorizonresponse.com) that would be called “Fact Check.” In this section, the blatantly incorrect or over-the-top media stories which led to public misunderstanding or confusion would be challenged. It would say, “XYZ Cable Channel said this, but the facts are…”

I’ve done similar things before in very difficult issue battles and saw it make a remarkable difference in media coverage. The reason is simple. It’s all about credibility. People will believe what they read and see if they see nothing that contradicts it. A lie becomes the truth. But when confronted with contrary information, all but the most jaded will say: “Hmm, I wonder who is telling the truth here?” If it is clearly demonstrated that the media story or blog is out to lunch on the facts or their treatment of the facts, their credibility is called into question. A serious reporter, editor or blogger cannot have their credibility questioned–not for long anyway.  Which means, if they understand that you are willing to challenge them on their reporting and that you will be completely fair, accurate, respectful in doing so, they will double check next time to make certain what they are saying is the truth and is not misleading. Failing to do so risks embarrassment and loss of credibility.

Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, the nation’s largest public utility, is one of those agencies that is frequently the subject of media reports and even more of blogs. Not everything written or reported is accurate. They recently implemented the “Fact Check” section on their newsroom website which does as I describe (full disclosure–DWP is a PIER client). Here’s what it looks like on their site:

I think this is done right, respectfully and I know they are fully committed to communicating the truth and maintaining credibility.

I said there were some caveats and maybe they go without saying:

– be credible — the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

– don’t heighten an issue unnecessarily–here is where the judgment call really comes in. Some things are better left untouched. But any issue, any false report, any irresponsible attack must be monitored closely to see if it is getting legs.

– be nice–there is some sage old advice that still works well: “a soft answer turns away wrath” and “be good to those who hate you” and “do unto others…” Don’t let your anger and frustration about unfair accusations and stories translate into your responses.

– know when to quit–I can see some of these “fact check” discussions going back and forth, each accusing the other of being dishonest. You have to know when to leave it lay. Another piece of advice I like: “When you wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.”

Tiger Woods, BP and you(?): It’s tough digging out of the pit

When you observe the hulking wrecks of once vaunted reputations, like BP and Tiger Woods, it makes it very clear why protecting a reputation is so important. Because rebuilding one once it has been trashed is extremely difficult.

Tiger’s position atop the pedestal of athletic achievement was almost unmatched. Last November 27 it all came crashing down when his Cadillac hit a tree and a golf club hit him. Actually, it started before that but that was the decisive moment. BP’s reputation, sullied as it was by previous events, was still solid as one of the world’s leading companies, until April 20. Even the new Oil Spill Commission working paper which is actually overall quite complimentary of BP’s remarkable efforts to contain the well will do little to improve their reputation which must be near the bottom of corporate reputations right now.

As Tiger nears the one year anniversary of his collapse, it is clear he is on a mission to try and recover at least some of what he has lost. But, given this ABC News report, the effort looks doomed to fail–or least not deliver the hoped for results.

Having discussed strategy recently with an organization facing reputation challenges that are close to pit-like, I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking about what can be done when you are in the pit. Part of the problem is that being there may not be your fault, or all your fault. You may be there unjustly–something I talk about a lot in relation to today’s media coverage focused on gaining audiences through exaggerating the problems as well as the nasty social media atmosphere of toxic talk. But, ultimately whether you got to the pit through your own problems or by false accusations it hardly matters. It is, as they say, what it is.

Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about when faced with deep and potentially organization-ending reputation challenges:

– Be bold. It is not the time for half measures, for quasi-steps. You need game changers, actions and messages that demonstrate that you get it and are doing something about it.

– Make common cause with your severest critics. Yes, this fits under the be bold category. There are those out there who are unrelenting in their criticism. They are the ones the media will go to for all their juicy quotes and they usually have their own selfish agenda such as getting elected or keeping on the front page. But, go to them. Openly, publicly and say “Help us get this right. We need you.” Look what a dilemma that will cause for them. If their demands prove unreasonable to the observing public, their credibility is diminished. If you substantially meet their objections, and they continue to harp, same thing. You put the onus on them when you agree with them that they are right and you are wrong.

– Be humble. Humility isn’t a virtue we often see displayed in the actions and messages of the high and mighty. To admit that you need help, that you are willing to listen and engage, that you accept the need for thorough change–these are not the expected responses of powerful people or brands.

– Authentic actions. Actions taken for show, for messaging, for positioning will only come back to bite. The more the actions are clear that they issue from the very heart of the leaders and the core of the company the better they will be. But they must be sustainable as the severest critics will be watching intently. They must be real, they must be substantive, they must be sustainable.

-Go direct. For goodness sake, don’t let others carry your change message for you, particularly the media. I’d like to see one of these entities in the pits say “we’re not going to talk to the media anymore because, you know what, we can talk directly to the people who really matter.” Today we have incredible resources to identify and engage directly with the people whose opinion about us matters the most, be are stuck in an old world of thinking that it is only the media who generates opinion. Admittedly, they remain very powerful. But you can go direct to those who matter most and in doing so can and should directly confront when the media, bloggers or politicians are saying things that are clearly unfair or untrue.

– Borrowed credibility–I’ve promoted this idea for some time and frankly, am surprised that it isn’t more widely adopted by those in deep holes. It seems forced on them by circumstances usually and then it is often too late. If your company, your agency, your leadership loses credibility, the game is largely over. It is the most important thing you have. You can’t fight the battle without credibility, it’s like engaging in business with a zero bank balance and no credit. You have to get credibility and if it means borrowing it from someone else, you have to do it. So ask yourself, who has credibility in this space, with this audience? Who will step forward on my behalf and say, hey, what’s going on here is wrong, you’all have to take another look. Sure, it is risky for the person doing that and may be hard to pull off. But, when in the pits, it is one of the few proven strategies and must be attempted at the highest level possible.

If you look at Tiger and BP from this perspective you can evaluate whether or not these would work. Tiger needs someone with immense credibility in the golfing and athletic world to step forward and say, alright all you guys, I’ve talked to him, he understands, he gets it, he’s on the right path, he’s working as hard as he can so get off his back. Arnold? Jack?

BP suffered from the loss of credibility of Tony Hayward and have made great progress with Bob Dudley who has yet to seriously lose the credibility he has. Yet, a longtime insider to BP could not possibly bring the same level of credibility that someone from the outside. I’m not saying that this borrowed credibility needs to assume a specific position with the organization–it should probably be avoided. If you are indeed in the pit, anytime someone gets a card with your logo on it, their credibility flaps away. But being in the position of a citizen advocate, an oversight committee, an ombudsman, an observer and honest reporter of actions can be even more valuable.

If you’re a bit discouraged by this it is probably a good reminder to think about just how tough it is too recover a reputation that is severely damaged. And that is a great reminder to do everything possible to keep it.

My customer service “crisis:” further comments

Now that I am back home, enjoying the beautiful snow in Bellingham, have a full tummy and a good night’s rest, I can look back on the “flight from purgatory” with a little less emotion. I much appreciate the comments made about my outburst.

I certainly agree and should have made more clear that I have absolutely no issue with the airport making the decision to close given the conditions, or the pilot making that decision. It clearly was the right and safe thing to do. My comment about that was the passengers were commenting quite loudly that if they didn’t have the mechanical problems, we would have made it in plenty of time. But when the announcement were made about the landing in Pasco there was no apology, no recognition of their contribution to the discomfort and inconvenience and no explanation of why they had to land all the way across the state instead of somewhere like Seattle or Paine Field in Everett where transportation to Bellingham would have been much easier.

My whole complaint with this airline is about communication. And the reason I write about this is not to try and do damage to them, but to draw lessons of value to communicators and crisis communicators. Trust is built on two pillars: right action and effective communication. They took the right actions–I’m glad they didn’t fly with a busted airplane and I’m glad they didn’t try to land in a snowstorm (the landing we had into stiff and bumpy north winds was scary enough). But their communication was consistently inadequate and that is the only thing that constituted a customer service problem or a crisis here.

(By the way I should have mentioned they did provide us with juice and donuts while waiting in Pasco. As you can tell, my mood is better now.)

In short, here is what they did wrong:

– No recognition of their part in the diversion.

– No information as to why Pasco.

– No information about what their plans for us were.

– Incredibly poor gate announcements with a speaker system that made it impossible to hear, which I mentioned caused confusion that almost erupted into a fight.

– Very poor handling of customer complaints resulting from their poor communication

– No empowerment or training of employees at front line to handle a customer issue.

– No visible attitude of concern for impact on passengers of the delay and diversion problems

– No apology

– Inadequate compensation for the problems

I am convinced that underlying this is a serious cultural and management issue. After reading two books recently (hope to do reviews on both as they are very worthwhile) about the character and culture of organizations and how that relates to trust internal and external, I am focused on the organization’s cultural impacts on external reputation. I am quite certain we didn’t accidentally get a group of employees who clearly didn’t know how to handle a challenging customer service situation. We were in the hands of a company who sees their job as ferrying the most people possible the cheapest way possible to Las Vegas and making money at it. So be it. That is their focus, that is their mission, that is their business model. I just don’t want to pay the price for that again. God bless competition and free enterprise–we can all choose to get what we want and are willing to pay for.

When is a customer service problem a crisis?

First, a warning. I’m in a pretty bad mood right now. I’m sitting in an airport gate in Pasco, WA instead of home where I belong. My flight from LAX to Bellingham last night was delayed by two and a half hours because of mechanical problems. Another flight of this airline leaving about this time from LAX on this airline were delayed for mechanical problems. Having two planes have to be flown in as replacements back to back is a little disconcerting.

It was almost impossible to hear the gate announcements about boarding, which were infrequent and remarkably unprofessional. Since this airline, now undoubtedly the worst in the world including the Third World, has a policy of mixing open seating with extra cost
paid seats, the missing gate announcements caused confusion, anger and near fisticuffs in the row across from us. The flight attendants were obviously not empowered or trained to resolve the dispute so the gate agent came on board and through sheer rudeness made everyone feel even worse.

So now we are over two hours late. Missed our ride from the airport. But, it gets worse. We were just about to arrive in Bellingham when the pilot comes on and says the snow in Bellingham is forcing them to land in Pasco. Pasco? Where the heck is Pasco? Why not Seattle where transportation to Bellingham would be easy? Pasco is on the other side of the state, a seven hour bus ride from Bellingham. Is there an explanation? No. Is there an apology? No. Is there a recognition that if they didn’t have another of their now completely predictable mechanical failures, the snow in Bellingham would have been no problem? No.

The pilot did say they would get us more information when we landed. And that was the worst of their broken promises. There was not one single piece of information provided by anyone from the airline. We heard from someone talking by cellphone to a parent in Bellingham waiting to pick them up that we would be put on busses for the seven hour ride. Did I mention it is now about midnight? The only way we figured out what we were supposed to do was when a taxi showed up and said he was to take us to the Red Lion. He had no other info, and neither did the very nice but suddenly overwhelmed desk manager at the Red Lion.

This morning we were told to go back to the airport because the flight to Bellingham would leave at 10. More horrendous lines and when we get to the ticket counter for boarding passes we are offered a $50 voucher for a future flight. Not a single apology through any of this. Nothing to indicate from anyone involved that this is anything other than the normal way they do business. I believe it may be the case.

While in LA I was working with a client on risk and emergency communication messaging. Much of our work was about how to communicate empathy and concern in action and message. Dr. Vince Covello and Dr. Tim Tinker are the experts in this and I take my lead from them. In an emergency or crises, clear simple messages are critical and so is showing those impacted that you understand what is happening to them and that you sincerely care. While on this trip I’ve been reading a book about building high trust in organizations. There are too many lessons here to recount in this post.

I’ve quoted Brian Humphrey of LAFD before when he commented that during hurricane Katrina the people in the Superdome were dying for a lack of information. I am so struck and amazed at the patience and goodwill of the vast majority of these people around me in this flight, if not from hell, then purgatory. But, they and my wife and I deserve so much better from this company. It is painfully clear the disrespect that they have and have shown to us consistently. Not in their poor maintenance but in their abysmal communications.

My wife asked who can we write to? No one I responded. My comment was based on the clear behavior of everyone of their crew, from pilot to gate agents. No letter to senior management could possibly have any meaning. This is an airline built and run to feed people to Las Vegas by offering ridiculously low prices and then dinging you at every opportunity through “priority boarding,” paid seats that cause near fights, outrageous baggage fees, etc. My $79 one way ticket turned into a $250 round trip without even blinking. Their flights are jam packed and they have been expanding quickly using this formula.

The convenience of flying direct from Bellingham is a big advantage. But not nearly enough to risk flying with them again. Good luck to you Allegiant.

By the way, it is now 10:45 am. If you decide to send out a search party, start looking in Pasco. Oh, and my question about when is a customer service problem a crisis? One answer is when a complaint like this goes viral. (hint hint) But for the about 200 people stuck here in Pasco, this is a crisis we won’t soon forget.

Marketing Daily’s comments on Carnival, and industry impact

Comments from Crisisblogger on the Carnival Cruise lines communications ended up in this Marketing Daily article today.

It’s a good article with some good comments (not referring to mine of course) and shows the linkage between crisis communication and marketing. That in itself is an interesting issue. Marketing folks, of course, would want the story to go away as quickly as possible. To highlight it more on the website as I suggested might seem counter-productive to marketing. But the issue overall is the brand and its perception. As one commenter on the post noted, 3000 people on the ship are going to be telling their stories and they won’t be pretty. The company has to be fully engaged in the post-incident story telling.

I think there was a more important marketing issue missed, however. And that is the impact on the whole industry. An incident like this affects everyone in the cruise business and almost to the same degree. Unless they can show that they are immune to the kind of problem that Carnival experienced, the same questions raised in customers’ minds apply to every other cruise line. While its relatively straight forward what Carnival needs to do both during and after an event, what should the others do.

I think an important lesson can be taken here from the oil industry response to the gulf spill. All others understood their own vulnerabilities and the questions that would be asked, specifically of deepwater drilling. They put forward a solution very quickly–a billion dollar fund to dramatically improve the entire industry’s ability to respond to a Macondo-type event.

While I am not suggesting that the Carnival situation has anywhere near the same impact on the cruise industry as Macondo has on the oil industry–particularly Gulf and deepwater drilling, the troubles of Carnival will definitely impact the industry. Because these crises are not just a single-player issue, the solutions need to involve the entire industry. I suspect nothing like this will be done. More likely the reaction will be to keep their heads low, hope and pray that no engine room fires happen to them.

What’s abuzz in the PR industry? Top 10 from PRSA Conference

I attended the 2010 PRSA International Conference in DC last month along with about 2000 or more of my fellow communicators. That’s means probably about 90% of communicators did not attend, but they (probably you) may be very curious about what was discussed there. What’s happening, what’s shaking, what’s going down?

I didn’t take the time to try to distill three days of impressions into a nice neat summary, but I’m very glad someone else did. Linda Welter Cohen of The Caliber Group did a great job of distilling the top ten lessons learned from this conference. I think she really nailed it.

From a crisis communication standpoint, she focused on the need for speed and for preparation because of the need for speed. Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to say for ten years (Now Is Too Late?). But, ten years ago when I talked about the instant news world, I really couldn’t have imagined exactly how instant it would become. I mean, now it is instant instant. Airline accidents will be visible in real time–as the coverage of the Qantas flight showed. Mine rescues will be seen as it happens with live video. If there is a well spewing oil a mile beneath the surface, no problemo, we’ll send some ROVs down there with cameras and have the whole world watch. A plane flies into a building in Austin, and fifty people stand outside watching the flames sharing them in real time with their cellphones/cameras. We have a fully equipped army of reporters out there right now with HD ENG (high definition electronic news gathering) equipment.

Has it changed our world? Absolutely dramatically. But the vast majority of PR people I know cannot get their minds around this. They cannot adjust to a, pardon the expression, paradigm shift that signals the old ways of doing things don’t work. And if they don’t get it, imagine the isolated CEO who, somehow understanding that it is more scary out there than ever, doesn’t really comprehend what it will mean for him or her when it really hits the fan. When Tony Hayward on BBC tells the world BP was woefully ill-prepared for the kind of media treatment they got, every leader of every major organization is saying to themselves if not outloud, there but for the grace of God go I.

There are ways to prepare. But nothing will work without some very serious soul searching on the part of organization leaders about things like transparency, management of legal issues, social media policies, media access policies, public engagement into their business and response management to unprecedented levels. These are tough tough things. That’s why I think it will take a few more reputation melt-downs before the really tough issues get addressed in board rooms and C-suites across the globe. But it will happen. Because this kind of instant news world is not going away.

Carnival Splendor–how they doing?

Since I was just asked by Ragan Communications for a few comments on the Carnival Cruise crisis, I’d thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

1) Crises like these have almost as much impact and risk for all major players in the industry as they do on the company involved. I suspect many are fielding questions about safety, fires on boards, how prepared they are, as well as having people cancel cruises out of fear of something similar happening. Not just Carnival but every cruise line needs to communicate about what happened, what went wrong, why it had such a huge impact on the passengers, and what changes are being made to prevent this. Even die-hard cruisers, (like may parents) have to be shaken a bit by the stories coming off the ship. I did a quick check of Holland America (my favorite line) and Princess. Neither had anything on their website about it. You might think, well, why would they, it’s not their event and they shouldn’t be seen as piling on the competition. Right. But their passengers and the media have questions for them–like are their ships different so that what happened to Carnival won’t happen to them. Are they any better prepared, etc. An FAQ about the incident as it relates to them, without any finger-pointing, seems to me to be appropriate and helpful for the future of the industry–let alone their business.

2) Media coverage changed significantly once the ship came in cellphone range. Before it was info from Coast Guard and the company, after, the coverage shifted to those who were most upset and would say entertaining things, like how bad it smelled, rotten food, etc.

Let’s be very clear about what to expect from the media in an event like this: they are competing for your eyes. To get that they are not going to focus on those passengers (probably vast majority) who are putting up with the discomfort with grace and patience. Simply not entertaining. But if they find some person who is truly outspoken, passionate, p-d off, or someone who’s health or mental state has been negatively impacted, that’s where they are going to go. Is it because they are mean and nasty? No, its because they are doing their job and trying to stay alive. But that reality makes it very difficult for Carnival–and all the other cruise lines. Because you cannot avoid the impression that this event is a complete and utter nightmare for everyone–and all cruisers take this risk.

3) Carnival seems to be engaged with Twitter, less so with Facebook. In my mind they need to keep up almost a continual chatter on Twitter given all the discussion going on there now because a review of the conversation doesn’t appear to include them. Can’t really do a tweet or two every hour or so and really be part of the conversation. They could do a better job of really engaging with their passengers and the Twitter community. Similar to my comments below about their statement, their tweets and Facebook wall comments are in the old-fashioned press statement mode that just looks jarring in the social media world. It’s cold, impersonal, even slightly legalese. It’s what you expect out of a PR department and frankly, the social media world has almost no patience or sympathy for it. Communications people need to understand the dramatic culture shift that has occurred. Having PR people use Twitter with the same language they’ve learned to use over the years is like watching a monk enter a sports bar–there’s just something jarring and disquieting about it.

4) A statement on the website was posted but it is almost invisible and when you open it, the message is pretty disappointing. A lot of facts but not much empathy. Finally you get to an apology from the CEO. Good job on explaining what they are doing to make it right–it seems the very least they could do. But the message should start with a much much stronger message of apology, of empathy, of recognition of the discomfort and anxiety they have caused.

There is very little to suggest in that statement that they have any real recognition of the revulsion that most are feeling when hearing about the smells, having to clean toilets, rotten food, endless sandwiches, sleeping on the deck, etc. These are filling the news reports but the company response seems focused on the bare facts of passengers, time of arrival, offer of another cruise, etc. Something really important missing here.

By having a single small line on their website it really communicates the wrong message. I don’t think you want to have it completely dominant or an incident specific site totally replace it, but it has to not look like you are minimizing the event. An incident-specific website with much much much more detail about what is going on is critical, and a link on the main site to that incident site should be much stronger and more visible. Plus a big message on there that says: We are really really sorry.
5) John Heald’s blog–this is the best part of their communication so far. John is the cruise director and apparently carries on an on-going conversation with his passenger/clients through his blog. It’s almost too bad on his blog he has to distance himself from the official voice of Carnival. This is the kind of thing that should be official from the company. It is warm, human and honest. I do really like the fact that he is pointing out the reality of media coverage “big hair reporter talking to Mr. Angry”. While it is dangerous of the company to highlight the probably vast majority of passengers who were taking it all in good spirit, John can do that here more freely. If I was heading up communications for Carnival right now I’d say, John, go at it. The more he does and becomes part of the conversation the better for Carnival.

6) There are some ways that Carnival should pick up on some of John’s messaging. Their official statement should have been much warmer, personal, apologetic and mostly appreciative of the good graces of the thousands of passengers who endured what they put them through. They should really emphasize that against the totally expected torrent of media reports showing the most angry and vindictive.

My Daily Dog op-ed: Should PR publications be more analytical of media coverage?

While at PRSA I happened to run into Jim Sinkinson, the publisher of Bulldog Reporter’s Daily Dog online newsletter for the PR industry. It’s my understanding this is the leading online newsletter for PR folks with over 25,000 subscribers. I know I read it every day.

But as someone involved in a number of reputation crises, most recently BP, I have long been troubled by their take on the news coverage about the PR battles these companies face. It struck me that the normal approach was to take all the media reports at face value and then step up the outrage a notch or two. That’s what I conveyed (as sweetly and graciously as I could, which is probably not much) to Mr. Sinkinson. He very graciously said he would talk to his editor about it and I promptly received a very kind invitation to share my views with an op-ed piece.

Not only did they accept it, but today they ran it as the lead. Clearly the story line is and will continue to be that BP completely botched the PR around this event. And I agree they made some serious errors in both strategy and execution. But as I mention in my Case Study and in the numerous briefings I’ve been providing on the spill communications, there are seven major reasons why BP’s reputation has taken such a pummeling. Only the seventh has anything to do with their mistakes. The other six have to do with the kind of environment a company like BP operates in.

There is a great danger in C-suites and in the offices of PR and PA leaders to think that BP’s problems were totally of their own making. It may be comforting to think that way with the presumption that your organization’s leadership, or your decision-making, would prevent the kind of reputation melt-down that BP experienced. But, a head stuck in the sand may feel falsely protected as well. The reality is, the other six reasons would impact you similarly. BP could have done everything perfectly–indeed, they did much that was right–without substantial change in the reputation fix they are now in.

Clearly, the best way to plan to protect a reputation in today’s rough and tumble media/social media environment, is to make sure if you have a well 5000 feet below the surface that it doesn’t blow up, you don’t kill or hurt people, and if things do go very wrong, you have ways to stop the flow and clean up the mess very very quickly.

“Profits before safety” Is this dog bites man, or man bites dog story?

One of the most predictable story lines of any major accident involving a major corporate player is the headline: “Company Puts Profit Before Safety.” It is as expected in crisis communication as “Congressman calls for new rules” in the wake of any human-caused crisis. So, if it is so common, why is it news? It’s a “dog bites man” sort of story, isn’t it?

If it is common, then the opposite: “No evidence found of money before safety” in an investigation would be big news, wouldn’t it? Not so apparently. At least in the case of BP. Wall Street Journal is running a story that says a BP spill investigator, has found no evidence of sacrificing safety for profits. Yes, mistakes were made, but apparently out of misjudgments and not out of demand to save money.

If you were to ask ten people on the street if they think BP sacrificed safety for profits, my guess is about 9.4 would say, “absolutely!” So, when you have a story that so confounds conventional wisdom, wouldn’t it be logical to think that Anderson Cooper would think it newsworthy or that the NYT might consider it part of the news that’s fit to print?

Nah, I don’t think so. Doesn’t fit the storyline that they settled on a long time ago.

Well, I must say hats off to WSJ for at least letting us know about this.Turns out if you are a man and you bite a dog, only the Wall Street Journal will pay attention–especially if you are BP.

Qantas, Rolls Royce, BBC and is Twitter all that important?

Interesting discussion about Qantas and their communication lapses relating to the engine failure. Interesting in part because BBC London just called asking me to participate in their evening news show tonight by satellite uplink to comment on Qantas and more specifically, Rolls Royce and their quickly emerging reputation challenges. (Unfortunately, a speaking engagement and lack of satellite uplink equipped studios in the backwater where I live look to prevent me from participating tonight.)

However, I can still express my opinion about Rolls Royce as well as comment back on the pushback I got on my comments about Twitter. Let’s start with that.

The rather firm rebuttal I got, from such esteemed crisis comms folks like J.D, have to do with the role that Twitter plays. The comments back were in essence that Twitter is not that significant given the relatively small audience and particularly globally. My comment about it being the “fastest and more relevant” was particularly dismissed. Here’s why I think it is: the news media. If the Twitter audience consisted only of people wanting to know who’s drinking what kind of latte at what Starbucks stand, I would agree. But Twitter is the new global police scanner. I was redundant when I said “fastest and most relevant” because in an instant news world where immediacy is everything, fast is only thing that is relevant. You can’t get faster than people sitting on airplane tweeting, or shooting pictures from the hole in the wing why they are still trying to land, or people tweeting images of debris that just landed on their heads on an island. This is where the news media will get their news and they will run with it.

Look back to ancient history–USAirways ditching in the Hudson. The world knew about it via Twitter and twitpic an hour before any word came from the airline.

Qantas’ problems were: 1) news media (Reuters) reported that Qantas reported the plane had crashed. True? Who knows? 2) Qantas denied debris falling at the same time that the news media were publishing photos from yfrog showing residents of the island of Batam holding up debris from the plane. 3) Qantas did not use Twitter to address the rumors and reports. They did get a statement up on their website relatively quickly–and that’s good. But for the news media tuning in to Twitter for the latest updates, Qantas should have been there.

That being said, I also commented that I didn’t think Qantas’ reputation would be damaged by this. They immediately grounded the A380s–good thing. They also found some small oil leaks in other A380 engines. Plus, had another engine problem force a return of a flight a couple of days later, this time a 747, but also with a Rolls Royce engine.

So we turn to Rolls Royce. Tweeting or not, the impact of these engine problems is likely to be serious for Rolls Royce. Stock has already taken a beating on it, as the reports of more engine problems discovered by Qantas hit the news. When a report like this happens, the media (and the public) look for patterns. Is this an anomaly? Are there bigger problems than one engine? The news media and bloggers will dig very hard to find these patterns, a history of problems, because that is the big question the public wants to know. They are asking: am I safe if I fly in a plane with a Rolls Royce engine? Right now, every problem with a Rolls Royce engine is being researched. It is completely predictable that a series of reports will come out showing a pattern of problems, and then we will see ex-employees or “safety experts” being interviewed saying “they were warned but they put profits above safety.” This is simply the pattern. Unfortunately for Rolls Royce, there are some suggestions that problems with the Trent 900 engine are too common. Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner has been delayed, some reports suggesting, because of this same engine.

Rolls Royce appears to be aggressive in addressing this at this stage with reports this morning of “progress being made” in identifying the problem(s) behind the Qantas engine failure. But I sense a rough road ahead for them. Even if their history of engine problems is no worse or even better than competitors. It’s just the pattern of public concern fed by news media “pattern creation” that is their real risk.

What can they do? Do the right things and communicate them well. The right thing is to make double darn sure those fancy new huge engines are safe. And they better tell us everything they are doing to make sure they are safe. They also better be prepared to aggressively defend their safety record, their policies, their culture. But, prepare for the storm anyway.