What? BP a winner?


Most would be surprised that BP these days could be a winner at anything, particularly anything related to PR or its reputation. Nevertheless, this article on Forbes.com puts BP near the very top of the list of companies leading the way in web-based communications. Written by David Bowen who prepares the Financial Times Bowens Cragg Index of corporate web effectiveness, points out that effectiveness in the web arena does not necessarily translate into overall communication effectiveness nor a spotless reputation. But, in this age of growing reliance on digital communications of all sorts, being effective in this area is a vital part of corporate communications management:

If you want evidence that a group’s website is now its most important
communication channel, go back to the spring and summer of
2010 and the Gulf of Mexico. BP made a hash of its reputation on
television, an outlet it could not control. It did well on the web because
it did control that channel and because it understood how to use
it. BP and others at the top of the Index are mature users of online
communications. Large organisations – in business or not – can learn
much from studying them.

I’ll let you do a detailed study of the Bowens Cragg Index to determine the criteria used and how BP could end up looking so good. (full disclosure–BP a client for whom we provided web communication technology and services so you can understand my satisfaction with this). Whether you agree with their conclusions and their criteria or not, this kind of in-depth analysis is incredibly helpful in understanding the landscape of web communication as it exists right now.

One important question Mr. Bowen deals with is the future of websites. With all that is happening in the app world, smartphones, social media, etc., is the corporate website already a Model T? I agree with Mr. Bowen’s assessment:

Corporates websites will not die. Unlike what some have said, they
will become more important in absolute terms. But they will be suns
at the centre of a group of planets with names such as Facebook,
Orkut, YouTube and Twitter, and satellite apps on Android, iPad
and iPhone. These last are not even based on web technology, so our
terminology may have to change.

Indeed, I used to refer to web-based technology or web communications. I find that shifting to the less precise but more inclusive “digital communications.” Whatever we call it, it seems to get more interesting, complicated and challenging every day.


Comcast flap over FCC commissioner provides crisis vulnerability lesson

Since I was asked to comment on the flap involving Comcast and pulled (then restored) funding for a small Seattle non-profit over a critical tweet, I thought I’d share some thoughts here. Washington Post ran a story on this because it involves a Republican member of the FCC board who ruled on the Comcast/NBC merger, then recently announced she was going to work with Comcast as a lobbyist.

Someone from the Seattle-based Reel Grrls, which runs video camps for girls, tweeted that they were aghast at the actions of the FCC commissioner. And a local executive, who I assume had authority over dispersing locally designated contributions, reacted in anger and sent Reel Grrls a message that Comcast was withdrawing the $18,000 per year they contribute to the camps.

Comcast is the big (often disliked) cable provider in this area and Lynnwood is about 45 minutes from my house, so this is especially interesting.

Here is a situation that crisis communication pundits have warned about for some time regarding the new crisis vulnerabilities due to the internet and particularly social networking. Essentially I see it as a story of a Comcast regional executive not understanding how his actions can affect the whole company, indeed the brand. It’s easy to understand his pique. It’s easy to understand his not really thinking through the implications of his action. I’m assuming that he had the authority to make decisions about local funding which would be typical for a company like this with strong local presence. He just didn’t expect that his action in pulling funding would go viral and put Comcast in such a negative light.

He saw the tweet from Reel Grrls,  it ticked him off. His first thought was to “punish” them by withdrawing funding. He never had the second thought about if someone is going to tweet about what they see as a conflict of interest between government regulator and a giant corporation, what they might do in reaction to the pulled funding. Comcast was right to restore the funding and apologize. I would question their statement about “unauthorized action of our employee.” I’m guessing it was authorized based on local authority to contribute to local causes. If that is the case, I think it is a mistake because while it helps separate the company from an employee who made a bad decision, if it is not honest it undermines their credibility.

The real lesson here is about the new vulnerability. I think senior executives in companies like Comcast should take your report and analysis on this and forward it to all their employees with the message: Please think through your actions before taking them. Understand that virtually everyone you deal with has the ability to communicate with hundreds, thousands and millions. Be aware of sensitivities. Use common sense and know that everything we do as a company is fully transparent.”

One concern I have is that companies will react to this kind of threat by trying to consolidate decision-making at HQ, including things like local community contributions. That would be a big mistake. Better to hire good employees and help employees they have understand these vulnerabilities.

What should Comcast do now? Monitor. They apologized, restored funding, and blamed a rogue employee. I question that last part, but they should continue to say it is not Comcast’s policy to punish those groups we may disagree with by pulling their funding. We are sorry that message was conveyed by this action and we are working to make sure all our employees and executives understand our community contribution policies.

How can Apple get by with breaking PR rules?

PR pundits (like me, I suppose) like to try and convince people that there are certain rules that have to be followed to be successful. One of those that I know I have tried hard to push is the importance of transparency. Let me quote myself and plenty of others about this: There are very few secrets in this internet world–look at Prince Harry in Afghanistan. Given this, if you have bad news to tell, tell it yourself rather than letting someone else tell it for you, ending up making you look like you are hiding. Hiding or covering up comes close to being the unforgivable sin of the social network world as well as mainstream media–particularly if you are covering up something that is harmful to people.

So those are kind of the rules or conventional wisdom of transparency. Burson Marsteller and Facebook are both facing pretty serious consequences for their recent issue regarding efforts to plant stories about Google’s supposed privacy problems. The real problem for both of them was trying to do things under a cloak of darkness–for obvious reasons. I doubt that those who have lost trust in them fault them for trying to manipulate negative media coverage against a competitor. Nothing new here. But to be unwilling to divulge the identity of a client behind the effort, that violates the transparency rules. And for Facebook to make accusations through this means rather than in the open light of day violates the transparency rules as well.

So, how can Apple get by for so long being probably the least transparent major company? And does the fact that they recently catapulted to the most valuable brand on the planet give a lie to the relatively recent conventional wisdom of the value of transparency?

The CEO of PRSA, Rosanna M. Fiske, takes on this difficult question in her guest editorial in Ad Age. I wouldn’t agree that Jobs’ communication style is a faux pas–I think it is who he is. And that I think is the main point. There is authenticity behind Apple’s lack of transparency. It is real because Apple has been the embodiment of Steve Jobs with all the insanely greatness about him and all the arrogance, bullying, self-assuredness that he demonstrated.

There are certainly understandable reasons why Apple cannot be as transparent as is expected of so many others. The competitive battles they are in require a pretty significant level of stealth to maintain their clear competitive edge in the rapidly changing world of personal computing devices. Look at how fast already the knock-offs show up and how hard competitors work to maintain feature parity and sometimes even make an effort to leapfrog. Secrecy is vitally important in their business and I think that those who appreciate their products and their innovation understand and respect that.

But it does go deeper because I think it is connected to the persona of Mr. Jobs. Him telling a student doing a research paper to stop bothering them is neither surprising nor necessarily damaging. It’s Steve, for goodness sake. And because the company has allowed itself (as if it had a choice) to become so closely tied to Mr. Job’s character, personality and unique capabilities, it is neither surprising nor offensive. It’s not the way other companies behave because they are not run by Steve Jobs, a person who has become an icon for innovators and great creators across all industries.

There are some important lessons here. One is the role of character in organization leadership. This was brought stronger to my attention by Peter Firestein’s outstanding book on crisis communication called “Crisis of Character.”

The other is to see how the personal voice is emerging in corporate and organization communication. Shades of Naisbitt’s Megatrends and “high tech high touch.” As our conversation gets more and more technology-dependent, conversely we need that conversation to be between us and another real life human being. If I want to talk to a vaccuum cleaner manufacturer, I don’t want some anonymous call center nobody to talk to me, I want a real person who has real human qualities and who maybe can do something. Today is the day of CEO as communicator, on a remarkably personal level.

This reality was borne out by research done by the University of Missouri about the human voice in social networking conversations. “There is great value in using a human voice when communicating and developing good relationships with the public,” Hyojung Park, a doctoral candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism, said. “Perceptions of relationships with an organization seem to be significantly more favorable when the organization’s social networking page has a human presence rather than an organizational presence. Levels of trust, commitment, and satisfaction from users all appear to be positively affected by the use of the human voice in social media.”

Apple has had a very human voice as the face and heart and soul of the company. Because we see Jobs as human, it seems easier to accept his warts and deficiencies than if what came out from him and Apple as seen as a corporate message. I do think this is why Apple’s secrecy and Job’s “faux pas” have not hurt the company despite the clear violation of the values of its core market.

Three lessons: 1. Character counts. 2. Put a human face on your organization no matter how large. 3) Authenticity counts more than transparency.


Facebook, Google, Apple and thoughts on the road

In case you haven’t noticed I haven’t been very faithful with posts here lately. That’s because my wife and I enjoyed a nearly three week road trip. We drove the country coast to coast from our home north of Seattle to Charleston and Orlando for speaking engagements, then back home again. We saw 23 states and weather ranging from snow to blistering heat to a dark, scary thunderstorm in San Antonio. We survived an fire alarm in a hotel that had us standing on the street for an hour surrounded by fire trucks and survived a scary near-accident. We drove in comfort and economy enjoying our new Lexus CT200h with its 42 mpg zippyness.

Home again and time to turn thoughts to what is going on in the world of crisis communication and PR. There is much of course. Still a lot about Bin Laden, about social media in emergencies particularly in Japan, and then there is the Facebook, Google and Burson Marsteller fiasco.

First, having met and listened to Mr. Burson give a presentation a couple of years ago I really feel for him. It would be a shame if his reputation earned by a lifetime of stellar service and modeling of public relations built on integrity would be sullied by this event. Somehow I can’t help feeling there is more to this story than what we are seeing.

Clearly the fact that they were unwilling to divulge their client is a serious ethical problem. It’s hard for me to understand how two apparently savvy professionals thought they could manipulate coverage while hiding the company paying them. What else is hard for me to figure out in this is that Facebook fired them. Sure, like Chrysler its the safe way of distancing yourself from a contractor when the contractor screws up. However, as this Wired article points out, Facebook cannot come out of this looking like the victim. My question is issues like privacy and security are pretty technical and the “information” about Google’s supposed privacy problems had to come from Facebook. So the two PR pros end up looking duped by Facebook into thinking there was a problem there when apparently there really wasn’t. So, the Burson Marsteller staffers look to be the victims of Facebook manipulation rather than the perpetrators.

Regardless of what lies behind this sordid affair, the lessons are too obvious. It comes back down to the basic issues of transparency and honesty. If what you are doing cannot stand the full light of day, then you better ask yourself what your life will look like when it does come into the full light of day. I kind of hate to think that the fear of getting caught is a motivator for right and ethical behavior but I’d rather it be that way than to rely entirely on the moral character. Somehow, that seems to keep failing us.

But, I do think there is a deeper issue here. Apple has recently come under attack for storing users location information on iphone and ipads. When asked for a comment about this I noted that technology providers today face a bit of a dilemma related to using data generated by their customers. On the one hand, all that information provides a basis for some of the most powerful technologies–technologies that we benefit from and are essential in winning the high stakes innovation game. But often those advances depend on mining the ever increasing stream of data that is being created.

I benefited greatly from the navigation system in my CT200h including the warnings that would frequently come up about heavy traffic on my route or an accident up ahead creating stop and go traffic. How do they know that stuff? How can systems know traffic status on essentially all major streets and freeways across the nation? In this case, they must be tapping into data sources provided by state’s departments of transportation. When you start thinking of all the possible uses for the data being generated by the billions of people using smartphones and pad computers it is truly mind-boggling. This issue of collecting, mining, and applying that data for useful purposes will not quickly go away.

Prediction–there will be many more battles about privacy, security and application of user generated information to come. It’s a tricky road for technology providers and ultimately users will have to decide how much they are willing to share and what they will give up by limiting access.


Bringing perspective to the Toyota crisis–Atlantic article

Congratulations to Atlantic magazine for attempting something that is exceedingly important for everyone concerned about reputation management. Their article “What Was Really At Fault for the Toyota Recalls” on May 1 attempts to analyze the situation and assign blame for the frenzy that was Toyota’s worst crisis and one of the most important reputation crises of the past decade.

There were three potential bad guys in the Atlantic story. Toyota, the media and the federal government. Anyone who has read my take on this story knows that I think Toyota was pretty much the innocent party here and the real bad guy is the media and the politicians who once more responded to media provocation rather than the facts. Mr. Cole, writing for Atlantic, still appears to assign a significant portion of the blame to Toyota demonstrating how their quality had slipped in their pursuit of becoming the number one automaker in the world.

In February 2007 I published a post warning about the danger that Toyota faced as it headed toward being number one. I referenced Microsoft and Wal-Mart as examples of those who are honored and admired as they are climbing to the top, but once they get there, we  and the media love to take them down. Jack Fuller talks about this in his book “What is Happening to News” as it relates to celebrity coverage and how journalists seem to enjoy taking down the powerful.

So, I find Mr. Cole’s assessment that Toyota’s quality problems were a major contributor to the crisis. Their quality was still at or near the top, they seemed extraordinarily quick to issue safety recalls (and so even more so now), and while they may have responded a little slowly in hindsight, no one could have predicted the maelstrom they suddenly found themselves in.

Generally, I think the Atlantic article is a very helpful assessment. I think he is too defensive of the media and I think he downplays the obvious motivation that the administration had in piling on Toyota given its competition with the Government Motors–Mr. LaHood’s boss had a lot at stake in this game. I think Mr. Cole doesn’t give enough attention to the role of social media, even though he identifies the YouTube video of the well publicized Saylor crash as a major contributor. And I think the main thing he missed was the tremendous incentive we have in our society to creating this kind of problem for the benefit of trial attorneys. Plaintiffs attorneys have far more influence on the kind of hyped-up media coverage we see in this situation–if you have any doubt read the book about the Ford-Firestone crisis.

Toyota paid an extraordinarily high cost for the innate desire in our culture for a big crisis. We all pay a high price for that. And every organization out there with high brand value has to look at this and ask: are we next?

At EMI-SIG conference and realities of connected world

So I just get done speaking at the EMI-SIG conference (that’s the Emergency Management Institute-Special Interest Group part of DOE and NNSA) on how our world is changing related to social media news, Deepwater Horizon and the like. I check my email and get an email from a friend saying he’s been following my talk on Twitter. Seems someone was live tweeting (#EMISIG) from the audience.

Sometimes its scary how connected we all are.

The global village reaction to Bin Laden’s death

We’ve talked a lot about social media use in disasters, but the targeted killing of Osama Bin Laden is one of the first global news stories after social media has gained its prominence in sharing news. So it is interesting to watch its various uses. It is also interesting to see that the major news stories of some of the mainstream news media is about how social media was used to first announce the death (apparently an early tweet from Keith Urbahn who talked to a well-placed news producer. His tweet, I’m guessing was pretty speculative but turned out correct). Here is the NYT take on it, and the LA Times–both focusing a lot of coverage on how social media is being used as part of this story.

Actually, it appears the first word of the event came from tweets from a Pakistani IT consultant who lived near the Bin Laden compound. He tweeted about helicopters overhead, a big bang and gunfire. This confirms something we have been talking about for some time. As much as President Obama would have liked and certainly tried to control the news, eyewitnesses using social media will most certainly be first. It is virtually impossible when an event is visible at all to the public, even in Abottabad, Pakistan, to control the news. And the mainstream news media scrambles to keep up, report what is on the Internet and still try to play by the info control rules that the “official sources,” in this case the White House are trying to enforce. It was certainly interesting watching that play out on NBC, CNN and FOX last night.

As I write this the focus is on American’s celebration. But what I wonder about is the reaction of the rest of the world, particularly the Arab and Muslim world. A quick review shows a fairly muted response, some suspicion of whether the claims of his death are true, and some celebration in the Arab world.

The most profound meaning of the Internet as a means of enhancing communication around the globe is the facilitation of the global village. This event can show the global village at work as we can listen in on and participate in conversations with others whose views are very different from our own. It’s my hope that we use this important technology to increase our understanding of each other and that mutual trust and respect increases with this unprecedented communication capability. Not everyone in a small town is expected to agree or get along all the time. But most everyone senses when living in a close-knit community, that overall is better if we follow the advice that as far as it is possible with us, to live at peace with all.