Is crisis communication going the way of the dodo?

Dodo, as in bird. The one that went extinct in the seventeenth century. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately so don’t think this is just a manipulative ploy to get crisis communicators interested in reading this. I really do believe the ground is shifting under our feet and crisis communication as it has evolved in the past decade or so is on its way out.

In a nutshell here is why. Because as companies and organizations shift from a mass mediated engagement with their audiences, to a far more direct engagement, crisis communication becomes simply a part of the on-going, direct conversation that they have established with the people important to them.

Imagine this first on a small scale. Let’s say you are a company with a hundred customers. They are all you have and all you ever will have. You discover that you can converse with them directly–by phone, in person, by email, Facebook, whatever. And so you have that on-going conversation–about anything and everything of interest to them and the services or products you provide them. Price changes, new models, little problems with scheduling, and so on. Then something goes wrong. The conversation continues, with the only real change is that there is an increase in the volume of interaction and the necessity for speed in addressing areas of concern. So you have a product recall–you let them know in a big hurry, you tell them what happened and why and what you are doing to take care of them. For a service company, let’s say a top-level account manager suddenly dies, you do the same thing. Talk to them, each and everyone personally, directly, openly, honestly–like they were real people.

What about the media? In this small scale case, who cares? Remember, you are already talking directly to the only ones who really matter–your present and future customers. If they trust you because you have established your golden standard of credibility, what can the media do to you and your relationship with them?

Sure, you say, but how does this scale up to large, mega-global corporations? There the media attention will be far more intense and their ability to influence the opinions of others much greater. Yes, true, but the media’s impact will be determine largely by whether or not  you have previously established a conversation and a relationship of trust with the people who matter most to you. In other words, if you could communicate with everyone directly who was important to you and your future, the impact of media inflammation about your problem would be minimized.

The truth is, that ability is getting closer all the time. The more you engage in on-going conversation with those who are most important to your future, the less impact the negative stories in the press will have. Providing–and this is big–providing you have earned their trust through credible, open communication.

Organizational communication is becoming more and more like an on-going conversation. In a crisis, the event that occurs becomes the dominant topic of conversation. But it is just seen as a continuation of the conversation–faster, more intense, more important–but not substantially different from the day to day conversation you have been having.

The biggest obstacle I see to this happening in a natural, easy way, is the silos that are inevitably created in organizations. The ones conducting the day to day conversations are not the crisis management people. It’s the sales, marketing and public relations people–often those at the lowest levels. They have their hands on the marketing distributions, the Facebook and Twitter accounts, the conversations coming through the Call Centers. Crisis communicators, on the other hand, still rely on their traditional tools: media releases and press conferences, and to some degree the corporate newsroom. We saw this in the Qantas/Rolls Royce situation where Qantas did a pretty darn good job of getting crisis information out via website and traditional media, while their Twitter account continued to offer fare discounts and promotions, oblivious to the way thousands or millions were using Twitter to find out about the engine problems.

I wish I had captured it, but I remember an article about President Obama’s upcoming 2012 election campaign and their planned reliance on social media with the intent of circumventing much of the mainstream media. I’ve blogged before about major organizations not even including MSM in major announcements due to the effectiveness of social networks. I do not think we are far from the day when some companies or organizations will simply refuse to talk to the media in the midst of a major crisis. That seems to violate all the rules of crisis management today: “Never say no comment!”  But whether that hurts them or helps them will depend largely on the on-going conversation they have with the people whose opinion about them matters most for their future.

Crisis communication as we have known it is still with us, but I’m counting dodos and they are getting fewer.

Secretary of state lauds Al-Jazeera, rips US media

Youch. If I was sitting in the chair heading cable or network news programming, I’d be a little unsettled after hearing what Sec of State Hilary Clinton just said about me.

The AP article is worth the read, but here is the relevant quotation:

“Like it or hate it, it [Al Jazeera] is really effective,” Clinton said. “In fact, viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it is real news.”

“You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news that is not providing information to us, let alone foreigners.”

Fox News president Michael Clemente appears puzzled. He said he found her remarks “curious.” Maybe some of Fox News’s problems is they’re not hiring the sharpest tools in the shed to run things. Nothing curious about it. She’s saying it like it is. The other networks and channels, perhaps wisely, are reserving comment.

However, former reporter Frank Sesno, is much more outspoken, to the point, and in my opinion right on when he says:

“She’s right,” said Sesno, who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

“Cable news has become cable noise. It was intended to be an opportunity to inform people, and instead it has become an opportunity to inflame people.”

I like that quotation a lot. The opportunity to inform has given over to the temptation to inflame.

There is some very intriguing irony here. Al Jazeera, seen as a propaganda organ for the Arab (translate in many minds: terrorist) world is praised for its news quality. It is the propagandists who are supposed to inflame, not inform. But, we have CBS, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, CNN and FOX all dedicated to informing, right? That’s why we’ve been treated to a non-stop display of a pathetic crumbling star fighting for a few bucks taking up all our air space while in Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Bahrain the world is erupting. It is a sad commentary on the state of our media, an even sadder one on the state of our American minds.

Charlie Sheen, CBS and manipulation

I spent Oscar night in Southern California but somehow the whole Oscar thing seemed to be sidetracked by the show put on by Charlie Sheen. At first, I thought it rather strange that Sheen would go on this media blitz so recently after being “disgraced” for his drug use and treatment. I was hoping the purpose was some sort of effort at redemption and to help send a message about how he was screwing up an otherwise very blessed life and to urge others not to follow his example. Unfortunately, no. It became painfully clear that he was there to put

(sorry folks, didn’t notice that a server error had deleted most of my post. Here we go again)

He was there to put as much pressure on CBS as possible to reinstate Sheen’s TV show Two and a Half Men. CBS, following the announcement of Sheen’s renewed drug problems had cut the last eight episodes. Sheen, who claimed on Piers Morgan’s show that he had “healed” in just a week, went on a media blitz to build public pressure and sympathy for him in support of the lawsuit he filed against CBS.

A few comments from a crisis management perspective. It is amazing that the media outlets such as ABC and CNN would allow themselves to be so patently manipulated by someone like Sheen. Why are they so eager to sign on to agenda like this? Not just because it clearly creates discomfort for Les Moonves, CBS president, and the network. Much more likely it is because of Sheen’s celebrity status and his well known difficulties with the heavy party lifestyle. They were looking to boost ratings by having the troubled star on their show and they were clearly looking for the Barbara Walters moments when Sheen would break down, admit his weaknesses, express remorse for his behavior, accept some responsibility and maybe shed a tear or two. Instead of manipulating him for their purposes, the manipulators became the manipulated as he ranted, gestured wildly, spoke incredibly fast, his herky jerky movements suggesting that perhaps he was not as “healed” as he claimed.

Sheen skillfully focused every question aimed at him back to his agenda of trashing CBS and tried to build sympathy that he was doing this mainly in support of the cast and crew of his show which were financially harmed by CBS’ decision. I didn’t see in any of the portions I watched any sense of acceptance of his own responsibility for the damage created to the cast and crew or to CBS.

For Moonves’ part, he finally responded but, in my mind, pretty weakly. He explained to investors that the decision to cancel was saving the network money, then indicated that maybe the show would come back. Score one for Sheen’s media blitz.

Charlie, in the meantime, apparently has discovered additional financial benefits of mastering media manipulation. He went on Twitter (I thought all celebs were there already) and quickly found his name in the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest to reach one million followers on Twitter, which he did in just over 24 hours.  That got him a pretty sweet contract with Ad.ly which takes advantage of celeb’s popularity to sell products on Twitter. So now when Sheen uses Twitter to continue his campaign against CBS, he can also make some good money at it (although Ad.ly says he is not being paid, yet). The reason, according to Ad.ly’s CEO is that “he’s been getting a lot of coverage lately from traditional media.”

Somehow it seems appropriate given Sheen’s behavior that his first tweeted ad was for Naked Juice, linking to a photo of him with one of his two girl friends, a porn star.

So, if you have a beef against someone, you can just call up the networks and they will give you all the airtime you need. Then, you can parlay that publicity into selling products using social media. But, only if you are a celeb.

As for Moonves, my advice to him would be to take a page from Taco Bell’s crisis playbook. I’d love to see an ad that says: “Dear Charlie, thanks for suing us.”

(Another update–clearly the media are taking some heat for their slathering over Sheen and giving him an opportunity to self-destruct in front of a national audience. It’s raising some worthwhile questions about the proper behavior of media. Here’s a great analysis by Julie Moos on Poynter.