Chick-fil-A: a discriminator or victim?

The New York Times ran this story about accusations by the gay rights community about discrimination at Chick-fil-A.

This is a difficult, dangerous issue not just for Chick-fil-A but many companies and organizations. Social/moral issues like this are powder kegs with strong feelings on both sides. As a result, it is very dangerous for any company or organization to be caught in the crossfire between people who have strong feelings either way.

Dan Cathy’s message on vimeo was right on target in my mind. He addressed two accusations made against the company. One, that it discriminates against gays or is “anti-gay” and second, that the donation of one of their independent operators of free sandwiches to a pro-marriage (non-same sex variety) organization in Pennsylvania demonstrates that Chick-fil-A as an organization supports anti-gay causes. I believe he did a good job of addressing both of these by emphasizing their treatment of all customers and by pointing out that their operators support many community organizations.

The accusations against the company, and therefore the controversy, is clearly unfair and unsubstantiated. I believe the New York Times, as they are wont to do whenever possible, is using this story to provoke rather than inform. This quotation in my mind has no place in a story like this:

“But Douglas Quint, a concert bassoonist who operates The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck in New York during the summer, said he believed that people should make informed decisions about their food.

“It literally leaves a bad taste because I know the people who are putting this food in my mouth actively loathe me,” he said. “I’m all for freedom of religion, it’s just that I know where I want my money to go and I don’t want my money to go.” ”

What I object to is repeating the comment “[they] actively hate me.” The reporter and editor know that no evidence was provided to validate this accusation. But the strange thing about news these days is that accusations can be made with impunity with journalists believing their only obligation is to report the accusation accurately. However, the company in its response would most likely be required to support with data any information it offered in rebuttal. This tendency was well document in Jack Fuller’s (former publisher of Chicago Tribune) book “What is Happening to News.” The sad thing is even though the comment is offered by someone without basis for making so serious an accusation, by it appearing in the NYT it takes on validity.

The real issue here is not gay rights because there is no valid accusation presented. The real issue is that Chick-fil-A has a legacy rooted in Christian values–and that is blood in the water to a substantial portion of our society, including many in the media. That is what the company is on trial for here, not its position  on gay rights.

I think Dan Cathy did well in his response to emphasize the way the company values and treats all employees and that they support a wide range of community organizations. He may also want to emphasize more that independent operators decisions do not necessarily reflect the company’s position. But clearly, the word will go out to operators to be careful about contributing to organizations that may provoke the gay rights community. Beyond that I think Chick-fil-A should monitor it closely but not go further in response. If further response is called for I would advise them to call into question the New York Times coverage of this, for validating unsupported wild accusations and even using this story to provoke a controversy. The ground of the controversy should be shifted to where it belongs.

Taco Bell–false advertising or a victim of a publicity-savvy lawyer?

I was asked by a reporter for Ragan to comment on the Taco Bell lawsuit alleging false advertising about meat in the company’s products. Here’s a sample of the news coverage about this lawsuit. Taco Bell, again a little late for the initial news reports issued this statement on their website:

“At Taco Bell, we buy our beef from the same trusted brands you find in the supermarket, like Tyson Foods. We start with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef. Then we simmer it in our proprietary blend of seasonings and spices to give our seasoned beef its signature Taco Bell taste and texture. We are proud of the quality of our beef and identify all the seasoning and spice ingredients on our website. Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later — and got their “facts” absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food.”

Greg Creed
President and Chief Concept Officer
Taco Bell Corp.

Here was my take on this as a reputation crisis:

eing somewhat by nature skeptical of enterprising attorneys, particularly those who file class action lawsuits in search of a class to represent, I see this primarily as a very effective marketing ploy by an attorney. If they were serious about addressing concerns with Taco Bell and serious about false advertising, the right and ethical thing to do would be to approach the company first and only seek the kind of publicity they got if and when they could get no answers or satisfaction from the company.

But, this is the kind of bad publicity, litigation-based risk that many companies face in our litigious society. Clearly the attorney filing this has received a lot of press attention. But, it doesn’t seem to be generating a huge amount of social media buzz. Will it hurt the company? It likely will if the attorney’s claims prove to be absolutely true, regardless of whether it qualifies as false advertising. We don’t want to be told we are getting meat when it is mostly filler and spices. However, Taco Bell has drawn a very clear line in the sand. In their statement they say: Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later — and got their “facts” absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food.”

If the lawyers got it absolutely wrong then the damage to Taco Bell may be minimal and probably more than made up for all the free press using their brand. But, like Roger Clemens, his absolute denial about wrong doing ended up destroying his credibility. Again, the battle is all about credibility. Some will look at this like I do and doubt the attorney. Many will judge Taco Bell guilty as charged based on the mere accusation.

I do like the fact that Taco Bell in their statement said they are suing the attorney for the false statements. That gives the impression of confidence in their claims that what the attorney is saying is completely false. But, it also raises the stakes in the credibility game. It is something I have advised clients in the past. If they have opponents, competitors or lawyers looking to make a name, who are abusing the legal system for their own gain, I think one of the best things to do is to use that same legal system against them.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Worst case for Taco Bell is that this triggers a cascade of complaints against them, all of which will be well covered by the press given this story. But, they may find that the coverage also helps bring their brand to the forefront and if they don’t lose credibility by what they say or do, it may blow over and even help them.

Going beyond that initial analysis, I’m asking myself the question what would I do if I was the chief reputation management advisor to Taco Bell?

The first question I would ask is: how could this get worse? A common mistake is to deal with the crisis at hand without thinking through the cascade effect of most crises. This lawsuit is blood in the water to the sharks in the media looking to attract eyes to their stories. I’m guessing right now that a number of them are scouring all possible sources for consumer complaints against Taco Bell so they can build a case for the company as “rogue,” “irresponsible” and demonstrating a pattern of deception and blowing off customer concerns. It is in the nature of today’s media to create the “black hats” that make their stories dramatic and compelling. Certainly, a quick look at Twitter conversations about this shows that a number of customers are quick to conclude that the lawsuit’s claims are absolutely right.

Assuming it could get worse, what can Taco Bell do? I think they sent the right message with their statement. They will vigorously defend their reputation. By stating they are taking legal action they are attempting to turn the tables and presenting themselves as the victim. Again, my bias is such that I believe they are, but if they are not, if the claims are accurate and Taco Bell ends up apologizing, agreeing to change their meat recipe then their credibility is damaged greater by this aggressive response. It is risky, but not if they are absolutely certain of their position.

But that statement is not enough. If this situation looks to get legs in the media or social media (and monitoring is job one right now), then they better be ready to move really fast. They will need to aggressively communicate these key messages (not in these words): They are the victim of nasty false claims by an attorney looking to generate business. Their meat products are what they say they are. They have kept millions of customers happy for XX years and are committed to complete customer satisfaction.

They need to be prepared to communicate those messages in the mainstream media (through both paid advertising and aggressive efforts to get interviews), and through social media. They need to engage their critics directly, positively and firmly. Above all, they must protect their credibility as if their future depends on it, which it does.

Of course, to move fast, they have to prepare now. The real judgment call will be their assessment of the traction this is getting and whether by over-reacting they exacerbate the negative publicity. Their should be no judgment call at all in preparing to act fast and hard.

The media was wrong about the spill, but don’t expect an apology

Remember the old Aesop fable of crying “Wolf!” Shout an alarm a few too many times when there is no reason for it and pretty soon, no one will believe you. That’s pretty much common sense. But, the news media today, in their desperate attempts to attract audiences are exaggerating, embellishing, emotionalizing and over-hyping the stories they cover all the time.

The 2010 gulf oil spill is certainly proving to be one more of those instances where we can clearly show that the media did us and themselves no favors in how they covered the story. There were experts I heard from in the first few days of the spill, when it was still believed to be major but not catastrophic that about 60% of this kind of crude would evaporate, and microbes would eat much of the rest. I don’t recall any of those experts being interviewed. Instead, when then CEO Tony Hayward tried to create some perspective even when it was clear that the amount spilled was huge, he was pilloried in the press by attempting to diminish the impact. He wasn’t really, just speaking the truth. But, an important lesson here for others is don’t speak the truth in the height of an event like this if the press can use it to discredit you for attempting to minimize the event. They do not take well to anyone–even someone in the know–who contradicts their efforts to proclaim the highest level of doom and gloom.

Now, of course, the reality is hard to deny. Take this quotation from a New York Post article published this weekend: But it’s now clear that, as Dr. Judy McDowell of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute told this page last August, “The oil spill [has] definitely [been] blown out of proportion.”

But even in this article, appropriately titled “Apocalypse Not” the New York Post blames the over-hyping on the “greenies.” Here’s their opening to the article: So much for the environmental Apocalypse of 2010, or whatever it was that the greenies took to calling last April’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill.

I haven’t gone back to check what the New York Post’s coverage looked like during the event, even in August when Dr. McDowell made her statement. But, what I observed during the event is that all the media walked in lock-step on the meta-narrative as to how desperately bad the situation was and how desperately evil a company BP is. That still is very much the common public perception, despite a quiet article or two like this one to help correct the record.

What is most disheartening to me in all this is that during the event, according to the Pew Research on the media coverage, the public was overall quite satisfied with the coverage. I have a hard time squaring that response with the overall trust in the media which is at an all-time low and lower even than Big Oil. How can the public be both satisfied with their reporting and believe they can’t be trusted?

I want to see media coverage improve, no question about that. I’ll blog soon about an excellent book on this topic called “What is Happening to News” by Jack Fuller, former publisher of Chicago Tribune. Given his analysis I’m not sure I see a lot of hope for major outlets to improve. Yet, I see signs of hope–for example, The Economist does an outstanding job of news coverage and news analysis in an in-depth, responsible way, and last I saw their numbers were increasing substantially in the US. They are also keeping up with the the times in terms of iphone and ipad apps–I now read my Economist on my ipad about as much as I read the paper magazine.

The way for media to improve, however is not by haranguing the media as I am wont to do here. It is by educating the public about the nature of news coverage and what can be expected from them–particularly cable news which is in my mind nearly the worst culprit in the kind of sensationalized, over emotionalized coverage. The most effective way of influencing the style of coverage is through consumer choice.

With that in mind, go back and see what news media you were using during the big spill and square that up with the real story that is now finally emerging. If all you saw from your favorite outlet was hype, more hype and fear-mongering, choose a different channel. Only then will we get the journalism we need for our nation, world and communities to work well.

Strategy “coherence:” an interesting Booz study

This study of executives and strategy by consulting firm Booz and Company provides some interesting insights–valuable for PR and public affairs leaders as they help their organizations develop strategy. But it also has some interesting implications for crisis communication strategy.

Here’s a summary from the press release: Most execs (52%) don’t feel their company’s strategy will lead to success; two out of three respondents admit that their company’s capabilities don’t fully support their strategy; only one in five (21%) are fully confident they have a right to win; and the majority (64%) agree that their company has too many conflicting priorities.

Too many conflicting priorities. Guilty!! The study shows that a lot of executives are frustrated and that frustration comes from have too many conflicting priorities and not focusing on what the organization (or they) are truly good at. Having done strategy development for a wide variety of organizations for over 30 years, I can say it is much easier to identify this problem in someone else or some other organization than your own. As a consultant I heard over and over again, “Yeah, but you don’t understand, yeah but, yeah but…” Then one time I hired a consultant and he told me exactly what he saw and I said, it’s really clear to you isn’t. Yes, he said. I said, “yeah but, you don’t understand…”

I believe Booz is right on target to focus on the issue of “coherence.” One thing they didn’t include which I have found from years of working with business owners is that coherence in strategy also means aligning personal goals and motivation with business goals and motivation. To have to the two in conflict leads to friction, which as we know causes heat while slowing down motion. The best way to eliminate that friction is through coherence–aligning everything that is important to you to the greatest degree possible. Again, easier said than done. but I’ve seen people and organizations apply this to great effect.

In a crisis situation, strategy becomes extremely important. Effective strategy always starts with a clear definition of goals. Stephen Covey did us all a big favor by helping us focus on the “end in mind.” I’ve come to use “definition of winning” as the best way of describing a goal. As a leader, you have in your mind a picture, a feeling, a sensation of what winning in any situation is like. But if you are like most you don’t do a good job of describing that picture or that feeling to others. This is different than objectives which are measurable, clearly definable–a scoreboard. But when a team or coach thinks about winning, they don’t just think about what the winning score on the scoreboard looks like, they think about the feeling of winning, the applause, the attention, the euphoria, the experience of winning. We do the same with our personal and business or organization goals, we just don’t articulate them that way.

The other thing we don’t do is ask the other people who are intimately involved with achieving those goals what their definition of winning is. What is truly important to them? It is all too common to have very different definitions or pictures of winning, and if that is the case, someone is going to be disappointed, or worse, not everyone will be pulling in the right direction. So the boss, CEO, or executive needs to not only understand his or her definition of winning, but needs to understand the reality of the other key players and then work to get as much alignment as possible. Sometimes that alignment is not possible, which means inevitably something must change. I think the intuitive sense of the pain of this very real potential is what keeps most from pushing through to this level when developing strategy. Hence, incoherence is almost certain.

In the midst of a crisis, sometime during the whole rush of things, the senior leaders need to get together, look each other in the eye and say, “how does this thing end?” Whether you are a BP, Goldman, Toyota, or a mom and pop business that just found out a trusted bookkeeper has robbed you blind, you need to take a little time to think about the end in mind. In any major crisis, the event itself will change you and the organization. But everyone who crucial to working through the situation needs to have a pretty clear understanding of what is winning in a very difficult situation.

Developing it with the coherence that the Booz study talks about by focusing on what is truly at the heart of your organization is the start. Articulating it clearly and powerfully to those playing key roles in achieving that end is also important. Then, continually holding that vision of winning in front of everyone, even during the darkest days of attack and disappointment, is essential.

I believe communicators have a very important role to play in this during a crisis. They are not the CEO but they can help the CEO and other senior leaders understand how important it is to develop and clearly articulate that vision. They need to and are well positioned to help gather the various pictures of winning from the key players–after all as communication professionals their skill in eliciting input from others should be put to good use. Finally, it will largely fall to them to guide the process of communicating that vision to all the players on whom the success of it rests.

The importance of this is why I start all the crisis communication plans I work on with clear policy statements. While the actual vision of a company or organization coming out of an event will vary based on the event itself, it is quite possible to articulate clear policies to guide decision-making by everyone during an event. Some executives try to organize a response to a crisis by focusing all decision-making at the top. This really doesn’t work well for most organizations in daily life and certainly not in crises when things move at lightning speed. But by having clear policy statements based on a clearly articulated vision for what the end looks like, gives everyone a solid basis on which to make critical decisions.

Apple CEO’s leave a predictable, preventable crisis

Anything that would cause stock to lose from 3.5% to 7% of value would probably be considered a crisis in most business circles. When Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs announced a medical leave of absence the overseas markets responded with an initial 7% dip in Apple share value. (Was it intentional to announce the leave on a holiday weekend?) When the markets opened today, the stock initially dropped nearly 7% but as of this writing has regained about half.

I’ve long found it ironic that Apple, which is so beloved by the truly geeky crowd, has been so secretive when transparency and openness is one of the highest values of the social media-geeky crowd. The two didn’t fit. I’ve just assumed that as long a Apple keeps creating “insanely great” products and keeps defining what is cool today, there will be lots of forgiveness.

The famed secrecy around product launches and strategies is clearly part of the personality of Steve Jobs. And that now causes Apple, the company, the shareholders, the employees and also its customers, some serious issues. Jobs is unusually linked to the company as its heart and soul. Indeed, one of the greatest stories in recent business history is how Jobs lost a board fight and was replaced by John Scully as the company emerged from its entrepreneurial beginnings into a large concern needing professional management. But Scully bombed and Jobs returned. His return demonstrated to the world that a company like Apple needs and depends on a visionary leader who, although a pain in behind to work for and with according to personal conversations with people who worked directly with him in those early days, will continue innovate and insist on creating truly breakthrough products.

But this story, combined with Job’s health, plus the famed secrecy is what creates the crisis now. What is Apple’s future? I’m guessing the reason the stock didn’t tank further is there is hope that this is very temporary and Jobs will be back soon. Apple has not made it clear that they may have other visionary talent to carry on the Job’s tradition. Tim Cook, the COO and now acting CEO, is not well known I don’t believe and I’ve never heard any commentators say anything other than he is a good executive. Scully was an outstanding executive. That’s not what Apple shareholders and loyal fans (including me) are hoping for.

There is a veil of silence around this leave of absence. There is great patience because of the loyalty, but that patience will wear thin. Apple in a crisis, a completely predictable and preventable one. How they manage the emerging story of Job’s health problems and future will say much about the future of one of the most successful companies in recent memory.

Update: I just read this post from Business Insider which is parsing Job’s email to employees to deduce that they do not think he will be coming back. This shows again how a paucity of information will lead to all kinds of speculation, parsing, and tea leaf reading. But the message also reminded me, we are talking about a real person here. Steve Jobs is more than a meal ticket for employees and a golden egg laying goose to the millions of happy shareholders. He’s a human being who may be in yet another battle for his life. Which leads one to the question–will he regret not spending another day at the office? No doubt he sacrificed much for the success of his company and his own legacy. Let’s hope he has peace and contentment in the personal choices he has made and in the relationships he has invested in that are the real measure of a human life.

The Tucson massacre, social media and political rhetoric

A few quick comments about the tragic events in Tucson and the strange direction it is now taking.

First, a note on social media in this event. This event, like most all major erupting news stories particularly since the Hudson River plane crash way back in early 2009, is played out primarily on the internet and particularly social media. I’m quite surprised by the observations of some who point out how wrong Twitter and therefore some of the major outlets got the story initially. This story from “lostremote” talks about how Twitter got it wrong, with many reporting that Congresswoman Giffords had died. Well, of course. The old story of emergency and crisis communication is that initial reports are almost always going to be wrong. It’s just in the old days, those initial reports took a lot longer to get out so there was more time to correct them before they traveled the globe. Now, reports right and wrong travel the globe in milliseconds and those initial reports go much farther much faster. What is more interesting is 1) how quickly in this social media environment of “collective intelligence” are the mistakes corrected 2) how major news outlets like Reuters and NPR got it wrong–precisely because they are getting their news now primarily from Twitter and other social media and 3) how the news outlets handle their corrections (Reuters removed their tweets while NPR corrected them with better information later and left the old ones out there–personally, I think NPRs approach will win the day.)

What fascinates me even more about this story is the way it is being politicized. I guess we have to get used to the idea that everything today is going to get politicized. When man bites dog these days, it is not only news but fodder for the endless commentators to decide whether or not the man or the dog was the Republican or Democrat and what societal stresses caused the man to behave in this way, and hidden motives there were for the dog not to bite back.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows how I feel about the political rhetoric today and how damaging and destructive it is to our public discourse, and particularly to the environment of distrust that pervades everything. I was so disheartened to see the term I have used for this kind of talk here, “Toxic Talk” being co-opted by a new book which denounces the rhetoric of the extreme right. Yes, much of the talk from the right is toxic. But as someone who has lived in a community during the Bush era that was dominated by left-oriented hate-filled language I firmly believe that both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of the phlegm that pervades our discussions. What has been more disheartening to me than anything is the degree to which this kind of talk–with a vulgarity, hatred and crudity not found even on FOX or MSNBC–almost dominating political talk on the internet among our young people.

But to turn the hideous actions of a deranged young man into attacks on Sarah Palin as CNN did last night is hypocritical to the extreme. While pretending to be talking about the problems and dangers of extreme politicization and bare-knuckled attacks, they do the same thing just strikes me as distasteful and disgusting. I haven’t watched FOX in response so I can only imagine what is going on there.

At the same time, I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Jack Fuller, the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The book, “What is Happening to News” takes the approach not of attacking the news purveyors (as I have done here so often) for how they have destroyed journalism, nor does he blame the news viewers whose ratings determine the behavior of the media outlets. Instead, the culprit is our over-messaged environment and the impact that it has on our brains as we process information. I won’t say more because I am in the early part of it. Applying neuroscience to understanding today’s journalism is potentially very important way of understanding what is going on.

Whatever the cause may be, and however hypocritical the news media’s navel gazing about the vitriolic political rhetoric may be, it is a good discussion to be having in our world. Like so many other things, I think we may look back and see that the level of disgust about how we talk to each other has been steadily rising. Then this sick kid from Tucson does his thing for reasons of his own, and suddenly it becomes the trigger to spur a much needed national discussion. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking however that this is about the sick kid. It’s about us, and what we need to do to make this world a little friendlier, more positive, more trusting place to live.

Band of Brothers leader Dick Winters dies

I know the news right now is consumed with the tragedy in Tucson. That’s one of the things about living in the global village–everyone is focused on and discussing the same things. But the rest of the world does go on and I just want to note the passing of Dick Winters, the WWII company commander and major made famous by the 1992 Stephen Ambrose book “Band of Brothers” and the subsequent HBO mini-series of the same name.

It’s well known that we are losing these great men and women everyday. These are the people who created the future we now enjoy. I know that Winters was one that was truly inspiring to me and may very well have contributed to my inclination to get involved in capturing the story of some of these great men. The book I wrote “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald” about P-38 pilot Joe Moser has been very well received and based on the number of notes and letters Joe and I continue to receive, we know it has also served as an inspiration for many.

Because of that book I have gotten involved in producing a documentary about the 168 Allied flyers sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Last night I watched the rough edit of Jump Into Hell and was just so grateful that we were able to do in-depth video interviews with about six of these survivors including, of course Joe, and Colonel Phil Lamason, the New Zealand bomber pilot who served as the men’s commanding officer during their horrible time at the hands of the Gestapo and SS. Lamason and Winters were definitely cut from the same cloth–as were so many others.

It is easy, through the mist of time, to overly romanticize and glamorize these men and their exploits. Yet, their character and courage in a time of great fear and stress, when in a sense the whole world hung in the balance, is worthy of our most profound gratitude. Thank you Dick, Phil, Joe, Easy, Ed, Don, Chat, Jim and all the rest.

Is the BP “black hat” fair?

There is a difference between perception and reality. That is intuitive, and public relations people have often said “perception is reality.” That’s because what people think (their perception) matters much more than what is. The goal of reputation management is largely about aligning perception and reality when the perception is bad.

What do you think of BP? If I were to ask the average person on the street or the average reporter what they think of BP, the following words would probably be used: evil, rogue company, uncaring, irresponsible, unusually careless, self-centered (“I want my life back” and yacht racing). There is no question that the primary story coming out of the spill is that while all major corporations tend toward the socially irresponsible and evil, BP, sort of like Enron, personifies the worst of what’s wrong with big, global companies.

The National Oil Spill Commission findings contradict that perception. The relevant quotation from the Wall Street Journal article is:

The blowout “was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again,” according to a chapter of the report released Wednesday. “Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.”

I do not anticipate that this finding will do much if anything to resurrect BP’s demolished public image. The only thing that will do that is continued effort at restoring the Gulf and operating well. As someone who was involved to some degree in helping BP communicate during the event, this report replays some of the anguish I and others felt during the horrific beating the company was taking this summer. When asked about BP, one word is not likely to come to mind for most people: victim.

I’m not saying this to try to defend BP or refurbish their reputation–and I am not working for them or being paid by them. I will not forget that eleven people died, a great many others have suffered great personal loss and the environment was severely and possibly in some ways permanently damaged. That is horrific and the report makes it clear that BP and others are to blame for this.

What I am talking about is whether public perception about BP, its roles, its activities, its culture, its values, is accurate or not. I don’t think it is, and that is a problem for the company but also for everyone else who clearly recognizes that “there but for the grace of God go I.” There is a gap between public perception and the reality of BP and its mistakes.

Could things have been done differently to avoid that misperception? I think so and I have commented about those here before. More importantly, for those companies who have an appropriate sense of vulnerability to the public beating they may take, what can they do to prevent it? Here are a few thoughts:

1) Look inside. Make concern for others and doing the right thing the highest corporate value. Reputation ultimately springs from character and values. The goal is to build trust and now I am more convinced than ever that trust needs to be built from the inside out.

2) Stockpile a solid reputation. You need public reputation equity. If you are not in trouble now, now is the time to put goodwill in the bank. Waste no opportunity, but focus those efforts on those people whose opinion of you matters most for your future.

3) When it happens, react quickly. And that depends on preparation. BP was more prepared than almost any other organization I know. And yet there were fundamental flaws in their preparation.

4) For the sake of your future, defend yourself. Don’t stand idly by while the crowd gathers around with truncheons. For the sake of truth, honesty and trust, be prepared to aggressively defend yourself. Yes, assuming you have screwed up, admit it, apologize, say what you are doing to fix it, do it–but that does not mean you have to sit back and take the lies, attacks, politicization, and mistreatment that will inevitably be handed out. You have a story to tell–tell it and tell it well.

5) Never, ever lose your credibility. What you do comes first, what you say is important and how it is said. When your spokespersons, your face to the public, becomes tainted and loses credibility (which is almost inevitable given the certain beating) you must move quickly to have a credible face to the public. Preparing the leaders you have to be that face is one of the most important things you can do.

And since, it does often come down to “the grace of God”, during all your preparations, pray.

Blending of comms into response–what should it look like?

In my eleven issues for 2011 post, one of the items referred to what I see as the inevitable coming together of external communication and operational response. This triggered this thoughtful blog from James Garrow, who until today I only knew as “Jimmy Jazz.” Have greatly enjoyed the interaction with “Jimmy” on this blog and appreciate his insight on these issues of real importance to the future of NIMS, ICS and response management.

For those not jumping to his blog post (which you should), here is a relevant comment:

I advance the idea that today’s media environment is completely different than the media environment that ICS was developed in. Aside from increasing capacity (see: incorporation of the Joint Information Center, media center and ESF 15), there has been no fundamental change in how PIOs act within the ICS structure. I wonder if the change in how the world interacts with the public information component of modern organized response should necessitate changes in how modern organized response creates and disseminates public information. Has public information become part of operational response?

I’ve talked with colleagues at the local and federal level about this idea, (start ICS) about moving public information out of the Command staff and placing them under the Operations Chief (end ICS). No one thought it was a good idea. They felt that the direct relationship between the Incident Commander (IC) and PIO was vital to speed information releases. But I find that there is already talk in social media circles about how getting social media messages approved by the IC is too slow, so I don’t see how that relationship will continue to be sacred.

For my part I tend to agree with Patrice Cloutier who commented on Garrow’s post that the fear would be loss of PIO influence over Command decisions. If anything, that influence is almost certain to expand. However, I completely agree with James’ observation that the world in which ICS was created does not resemble the world we currently live in regarding public information. Public and political sentiment already is substantially impacting response decisions and will only grow in the future. Communication in this world is not one way linear flow of bare facts. It is a complex interaction, a conversation occurring at multiple levels. That conversation needs to become embedded not just in Command or Operations, but in every element of the response. How to do that will be the big challenge for influential response professionals and policy makers.