Accountability? Media and politicians need to be held accountable.

Chris Gidez, head of crisis comms for Hill & Knowlton raises an excellent question in this post on Bulldog. Where is the accountability?

He provides some excellent examples of the treatment that Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda received at the hands of Congress. Members of Congress had decided on the results of the investigation well before it was completed, apparently accepting the media’s judgment about Toyota’s accelerator problem rather than waiting to find out the truth.

He then raises a similar question about Taco Bell and the recent widespread coverage of an apparently bogus lawsuit about the quantity of meat in their meat.

Toyota, Taco Bell, Enbridge (see previous posts), BP–I would guess Goldman would be part of this list if we had a little more inside information. Politicians and the media form an effective team in either generating reputation crises, or fanning flames of outrage to turn a relatively minor problem into a disaster. I have long seen these battles in terms of white hats and black hats, with the white hats always starting out on the heads of the accusers, and of course, the purely objective, innocent media who are only there to “report the facts.”

The truth is, and these recent events are showing it, that the black hats rightfully belong on the false accusers, be they lawyers, reporters/editors/publishers/producers/ too eager to attract an audience with a juiced-up story, or politicians looking for headlines at the expense of innocent people trying hard to do their jobs.

Not sure how it can be done, and I hate seeing people fall back on the court of law, but somehow there needs to be more accountability in these kinds of situations. The best way it seems is to bring these examples to the public’s attention and let them judge for themselves who can be believed and trusted.

Would major media actually lie just to juice a story?

Trust in the mainstream media continues to decline but recent major crisis events show that it is not learning from the mistrust it has earned. Instead, more and more alarming examples of how intentionally dishonest major media outlets can be in their desperate search for eyes on the screen.

After I blogged about Toyota and the government investigation that exonerated them, I received a very interesting email from a reporter from Michigan. Speaking about the July Enbridge oil spill in Michigan she said:

I caught CBS News lying to Enbridge’s PIO about the contents of a letter that had been sent to the CEO at the company’s headquarters in Canada, but not yet received.  I caught our Congressman (who had been doing some serious grandstanding) who didn’t do his homework on an MSDS which contained impossible data.  Just a couple of days ago, I caught a local online media outlet publishing a story with a sensational headline that was backed by nothing in the article except an unattributed statement, which stirred up a tremendous amount of controversy and was seized on environmental groups in Canada as being true.

Catching CBS lying is a serious accusation. On her blog she provides the relevant details. But there is more. She tells about the brouhaha over an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). Reporters and politicians used an obviously incorrect data sheet to scare the bejesus out of the public saying it called for mandatory evacuation.

She is also provided a very cogent assessment of the problem and the high cost that is paid:

You [the media] are still objective if you produce horribly biased and inaccurate stories as long as they are trashing whomever has been decreed the “bad guy” (big/medium/small/related to oil = fair game) and it’s okay to present the unsubstantiated stories of “victims” as facts.  It doesn’t matter if you destroy the reputation of a good company with a good safety record in the process, as long as they are responsible for a bad thing, they are fair game.  I also learned that all it takes is for one data point to change, and the whole story changes.

That is Enbridge. What about Toyota? I wrote here in my last post suggesting that after the federal investigation exonerated Toyota’s electronics from the acceleration issues, that the media and Sec. LaHood owed Toyota an apology. Yeah, OK, I’ve seen pigs fly over recently, too. But I wasn’t the only one with that reaction.

Bloomberg Business Week journalist Ed Wallace brings this message home, focusing once again on CBS News. The federal findings exonerating Toyota were clearly a huge disappointment to the news media (let alone the plaintiff’s attorneys who sniffed off the results with an attitude that said: federal government, who are they? what do they know?). CBS was not willing to let the story just die, so they trotted out one of the sensational stories that kicked the crisis off, replaying Mark Saylor’s frantic 911 call. But Sandra Hughes, the CBS reporter, neglected to say that the Saylor case had been resolved and it was due to a faulty floor mat installation. This is extreme dishonesty.

Crisis communication expert James Donnelly provides even more examples of how the media completely distorted the Toyota story, and like me, believes some very loud apologies are in order.

I want to know, why does our society permit a system that for the pursuit of profit, one industry can cost another industry billions without penalty?

I will not go into the BP examples–that would take a book in itself. Other than to say that CBS was one of the better reporters of the story according to public information officers working the spill that I talked to. CNN brought coverage to a new low in my mind, and one of the most important reasons was Anderson Cooper’s delight in Billy Nungesser, James Carville plus a few other hotheads who would say the most outrageous things about BP and the responders.

I do think it is important for us as citizens who care about our freedom, democracy and institutions that we start paying more attention to the abuse that is happening. I am preparing a post on an outstanding book I recently read on this topic called “What is Happening to News.” I’ll be providing some relevant quotations from this book by Jack Fuller, former publisher of the Chicago Tribune.

We have lost something very important in this country–real journalism. Yes, there are stellar examples of it still existing. But too much of what parades as real journalism is simply audience seeking at desperation levels–and as we are seeing more and more, with blatant disregard for the truth. We must fight this for the sake of our future, but as crisis communicators, we must understand this situation and drastically decrease our reliance on the mainstream media to communicate key messages.

Trust takes another hit, and Toyota “crisis” shows why

The 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer is out and once again, it doesn’t look so good for public trust. Suffice it to say, public trust is down from last year, and the US is again a third or fourth world country when it comes to public trust.

But I won’t take the time to analyze why. Not when the news today provides such a compelling example of why we have a crisis of trust in this country. To avoid repeating myself, here’s what I posted on Emergency Management:

Toyota must be feeling relieved and exonerated after a month’s long study by the US government including NASA (NASA?–don’t they have other things to do?) showed that the much publicized accelerator problems were not what people (lawyers and the media mostly) said they were.

I have to admit to feeling some exoneration as well. I blogged quite frequently about the Toyota problems which I felt were much over-hyped by the media. The worst in my mind though was the role the US government played in the media attacks–the low point coming with Sec of Transportation LaHood saying that the only place people should drive their Toyotas was to the repair shop–or something  like that.

Now, he is the one announcing the government’s non-findings. I want to know where the apology to Toyota is. His statements were completely out of line and how can one not think they were motivated by the fact that the US taxpayer, under the leadership of LaHood’s boss, had invested heavily in GM, Toyota’s main competition. I for one am grateful that GM is doing great and on the road to health. But I would not feel so great about it if I thought that the bully pulpit of the position of chief regulator of transportation had been abused to protect that investment.

My concern here is not just Toyota, but what has been a clear message of animosity to business and industry in the past few years. The heaping of outrage on BP from the position of the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, a structure supposed to provide pure, non-political response information was one thing. But the ante was upped by EPA’s non-collaboration and treatment of Enbridge in the Michigan spill. Then recent activities by BOEMRE, the replacement to the much-maligned (by the administration) MMS, indicates that it is their policy to be very aggressive in communicating not just a watchdog position against industry, but a junkyard dog position.

This does not bode well for crisis communication for any industry that is regulated. Watch out–the political winds are such that winning politically means throwing you under the bus at any and every opportunity. It is precisely this kind of treatment (of BP in particular) that led the Economist to comment that the administration is striking a very strong anti-business tone. I do believe that the mid-terms have modified that, but the underlying instinct I’m quite certain, remains strong.

But the other important lesson from the Toyota “crisis” is media treatment. I read about the exoneration of Toyota from the LA Times Breaking News email alert. So I went back to the LA Times to see what they said about the accelerator problem. This article, from last November, is exactly the problem.

Note first the headline:”Data Points to Toyota’s Throttles, Not Floor Mats.”

I want to ask what data, whose data? Where are they getting this data? But does the story answer that? But, instead of presenting the hard facts like the headline suggests, the story starts feature-story like with a heart-wrenching victim story. The poor victim removed his mats but the truck still sped up uncontrollably and now the truck is useless to him. Five paragraphs into the story we get to the data:

But accounts from motorists such as Weiss, interviews with auto safety experts and a Times review of thousands of federal traffic safety incident reports all point to another potential cause: the electronic throttles that have replaced mechanical systems in recent years.

“Thousands of incident reports.” What were those NASA scientists doing? Ignoring the data? Who could not conclude reading the LA Times story that Toyota was not completely guilty. Not only of building bad cars with out of control accelerators, but hiding the evidence from the public. That is the story line and who is to doubt the LA Times, New York Times, CNN and all the rest.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that the recalls that Toyota issued were not valid. I am saying that the news media hyped the problem, came to conclusions, assigned blame and then stood back and looked at the wreckage. I don’t see any mea culpas coming from them based on today’s report.

I’m also saying that Secretary LaHood owes Toyota an apology for the statement he made about driving Toyotas to the repair garage. He not only heaped public scorn and outrage on a company that is looking more and more like the victim, he put at risk the credibility of the federal government as a fair, unbiased and responsible regulator of transportation.

The media’s approach to covering news today has resulted in the lowest trust ratings of any industry–including big oil. Trust in government is at an all time low. Those in media and government need to understand that it is these things that ultimately and unnecessarily end up hurting public trust. Let alone companies like Toyota.

Groupon, Kenneth Cole–politics, ads, tweeting CEOs and other things that create crises

What do Kenneth Cole and Groupon have in common? Both stirred up major controversies through politically insensitive advertising. So the questions raised here are: Why are politically tinged ads so dangerous? Do advertising departments check with PR departments before launching like they do legal departments? And, is this kind of thing just a way to get any publicity?

First, Kenneth Cole. You probably know he (yes, he as in Kenneth Cole himself) attempted to use a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mass protests in Cairo to promote his spring fashion collection. The protest he received via social media, while not quite up to the Tahrir Square standard, was loud and vigorous.

Then there is Groupon and their ill-advised Superbowl ad that highlighted the plight of Tibetans. While decrying the fate of the Tibetans and their loss of culture, Tim Hutton says happily that they still “whip up an amazing fish curry.” Not sure the ad people or Groupon executives (probably 18 year olds if social media entrepreneurship holds to form) thought much about how the Tibetans would react to this, let alone the Chinese which represents a pretty substantial potential market for the coupon service. Well, at least they did.

A few quick lessons for crisis communicators and PR heads:

1) Your CEO can cause you some real problems–be careful about telling him/her about Twitter. Pretty hard to enforce good judgment in using social media among your employees when your CEO or “chief creative officer” does this. I think it might be good advice for senior executives to maybe run their social media promotion ideas by a few others in the organization before pushing the “submit” button.

2) The social media world is a very sensitive place. This may be the more important lesson. Now, I will say that I think both of these attempts at marketing showed poor judgment. But, it is also true when what you do or say is instantly visible to thousands or millions, its pretty hard not to offend someone. Especially if you are going to venture into politics in any way. I certainly learned this in my own business and even though, like most, I am politically interested, I tend to try to stay pretty neutral on political issues here. No sense having someone hit the delete button just ’cause they don’t like my stand on a hot issue. Personally, I don’t like this excessive sensitivity. I think it stands in the way of creativity, free expression, learning from each other and making the world a better place. But I’m not going to change that, so from a crisis management standpoint, it is just better to realize that you want to play with politics in your marketing, you are most likely going to tick someone off–and that can snowball rapidly in the networked world.

3) Are these really crises, or just the new form of marketing? This is perhaps are more challenging and troubling question. Admittedly, marketers face the challenge of getting attention in a saturated world. It is difficult. It’s always worked to push the edges of what is acceptable. The truth is that Kenneth Cole’s twitter account saw a dramatic increase in followers. He did quickly apologize and now he has all those new followers. Groupon’s mistake may be more significant because the Chinese government does run a country, a pretty big country last time I checked, and you tick them off and it doesn’t do much for your business prospects.  But when is bad publicity good business? When does a “crisis” help marketers cut through the clutter?

Might this mean that crisis communication consultants will be brought in to a proposed marketing campaign not just to kill a potentially inflammatory tweet or ad, but to help plan how to first create the crisis, then apologize and recover from it?

I hope not.

Thoughts on our changing public information environment, or how one IC makes me look smarter than I am

Just noticed this blog post by one of my favorite (and best, in my mind) Incident Commander-type professionals. He’s now blogging at http://chiefb2.wordpress.com/, otherwise known as “It’s Not My Emergency.”

To get you used to going to his blog, I’ll just provide this link to his article which is some ruminations on a conversation over Woods Coffee coffee (our local improvement over Starbucks). All I’ll say is if he got all that out of our conversation, I’m a lot smarter than I think. I think he is right on with his conclusions even if I can’t take all the credit for them.