Promoted Tweets offers way to fight bad press–Chesapeake Energy shows how

For those frustrated by negative and unfair stories in mainstream media, the emergence of the Internet and social media has offered some hope. (See my post on why it may make sense to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel). Of course, the media doesn’t like this, and people who agree with the negative article don’t like it either, as BP found out when in some difficult circumstances (prior to DWH) they bought search terms on Google to direct traffic to their website where viewers could see the truth, or their version of it anyway.

Now Chesapeake Energy is demonstrating a new way of fighting back against negative press: buying tweets. The New York Times did a story on the natural gas industry and the Chesapeake CEO was not pleased. But what do you do? Pick a fight with the big ink buyer? No, go to promoted tweets and buy your way into top searches.

Nieman Lab explains in the above linked post: The company bought Promoted Tweets on search terms like the hashtag #naturalgas and the Times’ primary account @nytimes. Search for either one of those terms and you’ll see the top tweet features a link to CEO Aubrey McClendon’s rebuttal. (The company is rotating multiple tweets in the promoted slot.)

To understand how this works you need to understand the power of the hashtag in Twitter. It is the way to organize the information found in now billions of tweets. To be able to buy your way to the top of the tweets of any hashtag is either sweet or very frustrating, depending on your point of view.

I fully expect there will be many who are angered by Chesapeake’s move to inject itself by paid means into the conversation about natural gas and the NYT story. But others, who are frustrated by the kind of coverage that media often gives stories like this will be glad to see another option emerging for going direct to audiences and blunting the power of even the mighty NYT.

Social media history is made: Pope sends first tweet

It is appropriate that on the same day that I finished Diarmaid MacCulloch’s monumental A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, that the Pope would send his first tweet. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be a ghost tweet! It is also appropriate that the tweet was used to direct followers and retweeters to the new Vatican news website. This papacy is showing considerably more technology savvy than that of Pius XII who made St. Clare of Assissi the patron saint of television.

(By the way, I highly recommend the book.)

Is Google the Internet’s brain? Or, how to cut through the noise

In trying to get a grasp on what the Internet means for communication and information sharing, I keep coming up with the analogy of a nervous system. If all the people in the world constitute the “body,” the Internet has quickly evolved into performing a similar role in this body as it does in other bodies. It has senses, receptors and nerves. A toe is stubbed in, let’s say South Africa, and depending on the severity of the stub, the whole body groans in pain.

Looked at this way, the “body” that is the current mass of humanity alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century has gone through an “inflationary period” of evolution. Where before, we had the nervous system more akin to a slug or an earthworm, with only humongous inputs having any real impact on us (I’m talking mass media here), now, the slightest input from billions of receptors can be relayed around the globe in synaptic time.

But, I’m thinking we have evolved a pretty sophisticated nervous system without too much of a brain to make sense of it. That suggests to me we are in a pretty early stage of evolution. I don’t know exactly how many receptors I have in my body connected to my senses. I do know that I can smell a wide variety of things, see multiple things going on, feel pain or other inputs throughout my body, taste the smallest distortion in my morning coffee and do all of that at the same time. The inputs coming from all the nerve receptors are nearly continuous, and if my brain didn’t have the ability to quickly filter out the noise from what I really need to focus on, I’d be in big trouble. Chances are I’d just go into some kind of shutdown to avoid all the noise that didn’t make sense anyway.

In one way, that’s where we are today. The biggest challenge in emergency management related to the explosion of social media and how it is being used in disasters and emergencies is how to filter all the noise coming from hundreds or thousands of receptors and “nerves” and turn it into actionable intelligence. We have the nervous system, but do we have the brain power we need?

This article from New York Times made me think about this nervous system/brain/global body analogy. I haven’t spent a lot of time on the “content farms” it refers to and frankly, was not aware of the likes of Demand Media, but I’m intrigued about how many people are trying to capitalize on the noise that is today’s Internet. The idea seems to be to figure out what search terms people use, take advantage of Google’s algorithms to drive people to your site where you make money by delivering eyeballs to your paid advertisers. Not all that results from this is junk, of course. Many bloggers, for example, are doing essentially that and providing a lot of worthy content. But, the kind of meaningless, robot or semi-robot generated content that Virginia Heffernan is referring to contributes to the noise.

That’s why the attempt by Google with Panda is so interesting. This game will go on for a long time. But that is not what fascinates me. What is significant is the continual effort of Google and many others to organize the world’s information. We have a body, we even have nerves. Now, we desperately need a brain. We are the Scarecrow in search of the Wizard. Google along with the others trying hard to catch up or surpass Google in organizing the world’s information is already providing that. But it is rudimentary compared to what is needed. And it seems the faster the capability grows to filter and find meaning, the faster the nervous system expands into new and unpredictable directions–making it that much harder to keep pace. Think, for example, of the new AR Drones flying around with two cameras on them. Imagine the data if they were all linked and available on the same network–oh, wait, they are. Imagine what we could see and experience through everyone’s flying these machines around. Imagine where we could go. We have the receptors, the central nervous system, the spinal cord. We really need a brain.


Don’t argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel–or should you?

It’s been one of the standard tenets of crisis communication, PR and media engagement: never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. The point is, of course, you can’t win. They control access to the people whose opinion matters, and they can always have the last word.

There are several important corollaries to this basic rule: Don’t run from the media when they come calling, don’t try to get a correction to egregiously wrong stories, don’t ever suggest that they anything but upright and disinterested.

All of these are based on the perspective that they are powerful, and you, without the same power to reach the masses have to treat them with deference and respect. It’s wise counsel in a situation where non-power deals with power. But, I see increasing signs that this kind of deference is changing–and the reasons for it are clear.

There is the unprecedented attacks of Sarah Palin against the “lamestream media.” Let’s agree to not get into personal assessments of Palin and her presidential prospects. But let’s agree that it is quite remarkable for someone with aspirations to the highest office to make one of the primary elements of her campaign attacks on the media on whom she presumably depends for her political future. She also includes (inadvertently or not) her own employer Fox News in her attacks on the lamestream media.

But, it is not just Palin who is tweaking the media. The White House press corps is getting more and more exercised over the diminishing access that the Obama administration is offering. Even the Afghanistan draw-down announcement was limited to a single print pool reporter.

I’m reminded that for some announcements the Obama administration limited itself to its social media outlets, that the President now has about 9 million followers on his Twitter account (surpassed only by Lady Gaga I understand), and that companies like Amazon have ignored the media making major announcements directly through social media.

That, of course, provides one important clue why the old rule about arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel may no longer apply. Social media and the Internet provide the opportunity to connect directly with the people who matter rather than relying on the media to mediate the message. Why would you rely on someone to tell your story when you can tell it directly and particularly when they have demonstrated that they are not necessarily going to tell it in the way you would like it told.

That’s the second reason why this starts to make sense. Media reports have become increasingly emotion laden, more blame oriented, and more focused on provoking rather than enlightening in the recent past. (These aren’t my assessments alone–Jack Fuller re emotion, Pew re blame game, and Economist re provoking). As one outlet after another has fallen by the wayside, those who are left are fighting for their lives and the only way to survive is by attracting audiences. Anything that helps them do that is eagerly accepted–and that causes a lot of problems (do Toyota’s accelerator problems ring a bell, or how about the reports that oil will reach Europe, or that Japan radiation will dangerously hit US?)

Third, related to both of these, is the fact that today’s media is not trusted. They receive lower scores in public trust than any other industry–including amazingly Big Oil. So while their heightened competition causes them to increase distrust in the politicians, people and organizations they cover, their own trust level declines. That’s why it is pretty darn safe for Palin to attack their credibility–it conforms to much of public opinion. It’s why Obama does not risk much of a political backlash when reporters gripe bitterly about restricted access.

The implications for crisis communications are pretty significant. If you do master the art of social media and direct communication, the options before you widen. Including the option of saying to the mass of satellite trucks that have gathered: everything we have to say is on our incident website or our Facebook page.


What CEO’s need to learn from Tony Hayward

Every CEO with serious crisis risk must want to sit down with Tony Hayward, the ignominious former BP CEO, and ask him: What the H happened? This blog post from speedcommunications may be the closest CEO’s may get to that opportunity. And the lessons learned here should not be missed.

When asked what he would have done differently, he states it clearly: “What would I have done differently? I would have had more of the senior team around me to handle communication with the media.” While the person in overall charge of the business should face the media music, that music is now so loud and persistent that one man alone cannot handle it.

On preparing in advance: He said: BP wasn’t sufficiently well prepared with communications processes and resources to handle what happened, and it showed. It was an unprecedented incident, but better planning was needed.

The point I would like to make however, having worked with BP on preparations as well as many other similar companies, they were far better prepared than most. Except for cutting back considerably on their communications and emergency response staff as part of overall corporate leaning efforts, they did take crisis communications more seriously than most other oil companies and far more than most other major corporations. Yet, it was far from enough.

Another key point: managing expectations: But one standout point was the need to ensure expectations are managed when the entire world is watching. This referred specifically to the ongoing efforts to cap the leak on the sea bed, during which the understanding of the degree of testing and due process required to be successful wasn’t nurtered as it could have been. That led to most people assuming that BP was throwing the kitchen sink (not literally, obviously) at the hole in desperate bids to plug it, rather than had a clear and proven process for successful resolution.

Media coverage. I would next expect Mr. Hayward to take the media to task further than his reference to “vicious.” But he does make the very telling point that there seems to be a huge gap between the media’s treatment of an event like this and how the public perceives that coverage. The blog post said: He said most people in the UK shake his hand and say they believe the media coverage and US Government’s intervention was over the top, while he told of a visit to New York City late last year when Americans approached him to say much the same.

What has social media done to crisis communications? In his words, the “viral media” created an immense burden on the communication team, on top of the impossible-to-meet demands for information from conventional media. At its height there were 50 people at BP working around the clock purely on countering “inaccurate” information being posted on Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms. It was a social media storm the likes of which the world had never seen before and hasn’t seen since. For the team trying to manage it, the pressure was immense and the tide impossible to turn around.

Bottom line: Crisis communications as a way of life: It was the mother of all ways to pinpoint that the people at the very top of businesses need to be not only in the media glare in the event of a crisis, but that they must make communication capabilities and process part of the organisation’s lifeblood at all times.

If that last sentence starting with the “people at the very top of business” was printed and posted on the wall outside of every senior executive’s office, we would be well ahead.

Declining trust, crisis management skills and more errant tweets

Too much going on to keep up with. Here are three valuable items–completely unrelated. Each of them worthy of far more comment than I can provide right now.

Trust in corporations continues to decline–particularly among influence leaders.

I try and document all the information on the status of trust in our major institutions as it continues to be a primary interest of mine. But I have a hard time with much of the analysis offered by media outlets–including this time by Daily Dog. I believe that the horrendous pressure media outlets (old and new media) are under to generate eyes on the screen leads them to focus on blame, fear, outrage and extreme emotions. Daily Dog participates in this same pattern (see previous posts about their treatment of BP, Toyota and others). If our main information institutions find profit in undermining the trust of the big and powerful, can we trust them to analyze this loss of trust? I think the answer to that is found in the lack of trust found in the media–considerably lower than the corporations they so eagerly attack.

Crisis leadership skills–a much needed capability these days. This fortune/cnn report highlights some of what is needed to be successful in managing crises. It is critical to understand crisis leadership skills and I would think that boards hiring new CEOs or executive directors would evaluate the prospects from this perspective. The best analysis of what it takes to be a successful crisis leader I have seen is from the Coast Guard’s Incident Specific Performance Review prepared by professionals involved in the Deepwater Horizon spill and with the experience and point of view to comment. I have been including this outstanding list in some of the crisis plans I’ve been working on.

Finally, here’s one more sad story of an errant tweet costing a marketing firm its biggest account. I think a lot more companies are going to lose their clients and a lot more employees will lose their jobs for this kind of thing. It’s almost in the nature of the beast. Here you have a medium that is intended for quick, easy almost thoughtless sharing of the inane among friends. But, it is so easily spread to people for whom the messages were never intended, it can last forever, and can mean something entirely different. The ease of it, and the common usage, is a deadly trap. I like the explanation provided here–it was an emotional reaction out of frustration. But that is precisely the danger particularly in a crisis. It is so easy when seeing what others are saying, or observing how things are going, to express personal frustrations with these channels that seem merely intended for personal conversation. The consequences can be excrutiating. I would advise that you put a big red sticker on your computer, particularly crises, that says THINK BEFORE YOU TWEET!



McDonald’s hoax photos shows self-correction on Internet

If you spend much time on social media you probably saw this picture emerge over the weekend.




Of course it was a hoax. I was asked by Ragan Communications whether or not McDonald’s tweet in response to this was enough to quell the rumor, now swirling rapidly around the Internet. How this was handled shows the self-correcting nature of the Internet and also provides some interesting clues to the value system of the Internet crowd.

The most interesting thing to me about this situation is that the single tweet from McDonald’s was probably enough. According to this gawker report, McDonald’s provided the single tweet, direct tweeted to a couple of individuals and has restated the picture is hoax this morning.

This from the gawker report is instructive:
As I type, the pic’s still being forwarded—though the number of people mistaking the pic as real appears to be dwindling: “Seriously McDonalds” and its innovatively hashtagged version have dropped off the Twitter Trends list, and more and more people are tweeting in relief that the pic is just a hoax. Clued-in folks have helped to clear up any lingering doubts about the pic’s veracity by pointing out that the toll-free number listed on the bottom of the sign actually belongs to KFC. (Maybe McDonald’s should reward these volunteer damage controllers with some coupons for the crisis mitigation help—though whether that would be a valuable offer or not depends on one’s opinions of McDonald’s food, I guess.)

The lessons:

- hoaxes don’t die easily on the Internet, they tend to resurface again and again, and always seem to find fresh believers. This one has been around before as most of the others that I’ve checked on

- While people say you can’t believe what you read on the Internet and social media enables rumors to grow exponentially very quickly, the truth is that the many users of the Internet have a self-corrective nature. What is sometimes called “collective intelligence.” If something goes out and someone else knows it to be wrong, it doesn’t take long for the truth to be sorted out–usually. That’s why it wasn’t necessary for McDonald’s to do a lot more than that single tweet.

- The Internet crowd doesn’t like to be fooled. Someone I know incorrectly announced something on a social networking site that was proved to be wrong. The anger of the participants was amazing, even though clearly it was a simple mistake rather than a vicious attempt at hurting someone. It’s interesting that the gawker article headline is that the hoax angers the Internet (hmm, now the Internet is a person with emotions?) and McDonalds.

- the credibility of a hoax like this and whether it gets legs that represent a serious challenge for a brand has to do with the general attitude toward that brand of the “Internet” (if I can use gawker’s shortened version of the social media sub-culture). In other words, if Big Oil had a hoax like this perpetrated on them, I doubt that it would have been so self-correcting or even that it would have angered the Internet. That probably is the deeper lesson here. In other words, if “the Internet” wants to believe something bad about you, then a hoax like this will not die as quickly as it is with McDonalds. It’s a deeper brand problem than being victimized by a hoax.

Transparency, character and trust–What Rep. Weiner can teach

I’ve hesitated to comment on the Rep. Weiner situation, and not just because I’m afraid I’ll spell his name wrong. The lessons learned about the risks to reputation from the online communication are simply too obvious and very well addressed by others. Techcrunch published an article that discusses much better than I can the realities of “private” communication on channels such as Twitter. Here’s what they had to say among other things:

Techies are fascinated by the #Weiner story because it is the latest train wreck (and cautionary tale) of online communication. Sure most of you aren’t going around sending pictures of your crotches to people, but you’ve probably sent at least one DM or Facebook message or email or text or whatever today that you’d prefer the world didn’t see, because private communication is by definition meant to be private.

I’ve seen some comments lately about the downside of transparency. The upside of transparency is the same as the downside–nothing is invisible. What that simply means is that both the good and bad become accessible. And that means that people have greater ability to make judgments about people, companies and organizations based not on carefully manipulated public images, but on the reality. There is a downside to it in that all of us are ugly and evil to some degree. Transparency sooner or later will make that ugliness visible.

Rep. Weiner’s story has a lesson for us alright: you can fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all the time…etc. I heard someone comment about why Tiger Woods had such a problem when his philandering became public–particularly in a culture where philandering doesn’t necessarily have the shock and horror quality that it used to. Tiger’s problems, they said, were because of the stark difference in his public persona and his true character. I could name a number of sports celebrities where stories about their off-court or off-field activities were an easy match for Tiger’s. The difference was in the image they cultivated.

Rep. Weiner’s true character is now becoming increasingly clear. Not just in his sadly, sick tweets. But in other online communication that is being revealed. This report in Bulldog reveals Rep. Weiner giving PR advice to one of his online correspondents:

Weiner emailed Lee on June 2, according to “I can have someone on my team call. [Yeah, my team is doing great. Ugh].” Just prior to that, on June 1, Weiner reportedly instructed Lee on the best way to stonewall reporters who were contacting her with questions. “The key is to have a short, thought out statement that tackles the top line questions and then refer people back to it. Have a couple of iterations of: ‘This is silly. Like so many others, I follow Rep. Weiner on Twitter. I don’t know him and have never met him. He briefly followed me and sent me a dm saying thank you for the follow. That’s it.’,” TMZ quotes Weiner as telling Lee, according to a NY Post report.

Assuming for the moment it is all true (and it is far more believable now given the other revelations) Rep. Weiner is a prime example of the “old school” of image manipulation. His comments will give those who think PR is nothing but a game of spin and lies the ammunition they seek about politicians and PR. But, if this is PR, I and most others I know in this business, want nothing to do with it.

The truth about Rep. Weiner and the real lesson here is that we want people in the halls of power to be people we can trust. There might be some forgiveness for clear lapse in character and judgment relating to sending those lewd and disgusting messages–if and only if there was a recognition of how they violated our standards of decency and behavior. There was and is no such admission or recognition. There is instead a message of “I’m sorry I got caught.” But there is no forgiveness nor can there be for the pattern of deception, lying and coverup that is being increasingly revealed. We really cannot bear a person who wants to go on pretending to be one of kind of person when their true character has been so clearly revealed.

That goes to the issue of public trust. Rep. Weiner is fighting hard to keep his seat and his political career. Others who have been cavalier with the truth (a recent president comes to mind) have shown that they perhaps can continue on, but the cloud of uncertainty and mistrust that hangs over them will never be removed, particularly if there is no clear recognition of the violation of trust that the deception represents. We Americans do not trust Congress. There are many reasons for that. But one reason is made clear by Rep. Weiner. Politicians often get their offices because they have outstanding chameleon characteristics. We reward them for their ability to fool some of the people all of the time, etc. But we distrust them when their ability to fool us is painfully revealed.

The new age of transparency reveals character and ultimately character still matters. Let those who willingly and knowingly are manipulating their image, creating perceptions very different from who they are, be warned. Transparency facilitated by the privacy issues of online communication helps put a premium on character. And that, overall, is a good thing.

Capturing how social media has changed communications–a graphic

A couple of weeks ago I published on my blog a graphic illustration I created to try and capture how social media has so dramatically changed crisis and emergency communication. Apparently that graphic has resonated based on the response, including four requests to reproduce it in new books currently being written. Based on this, I put a bit more work into my original graphic and am publishing it here, along with my original post in emergencymgmt. You are free to reproduce this with attribution if you find it helpful:

Social Media Change graphic-Gerald Baron


I’ve been presenting at a number of conferences and webinars recently and for those presentations I wanted to try and capture in as simple way as I could what I understand to be the really big changes in crisis and emergency communications. Everyone is talking about social media and what that is doing to communications as well as response management. But I still find continually a mindset that demonstrates that what is really happening isn’t quite sinking in.

The above illustration is my effort to explain these changes in a single image. Some positive response from people I respect suggests this might be helpful which is why I am sharing it here.

The “Before” picture shows that crisis and emergency communications was a relatively simple, straightforward and linear affair. An event happens (the explosion), a response is organized (the vests) and a press conference is held (or press releases issued). The media asks its questions, then informs the world (the crowd) about what is going on in the event and the response. This is how the vast majority of emergency managers and a fewer, but still a significant majority of PIOs and communicators conceive of crisis and emergency communications today.

The “Now” graphic shows that it doesn’t go that way anymore. An event happens and the first to know about it typically is someone in the crowd. If that someone is using the internet in some form, usually a website we now call social media, they put the info on their site and its spreads through the network to others in the crowd who spread it further and further and further. Some in that crowd are members of the media, who now get most of their information that they rebroadcast from the crowd. They have their network (hey, that’s what we actually used to call the major channels) which reaches a lot more in the crowd.

Along the way, and quite awhile after all this is happening, the response is formed (vests). And after the response is formed, the PIO/JIC/Comms Mgr get busy and start telling about the event (the press conference and press releases). Now they tell the crowd directly through websites run by the JIC or companies/agencies involved and members of the media are part of that crowd. They combine (sometimes) the information from the response along with all the other sources they find in the crowd and do their rebroadcasting.

So the crowd, who is after all, the intended audience for all this information, is not merely the passive audience receiving the information through a mediator (the media). They are fully active in gathering that information, in sharing it and spreading it further. They don’t just take what the media says, but they add their perspectives and opinions which further clarifies (or muddies) depending on your perspective the central narratives or general perceptions about the event. The crowd also shows a great propensity to get involved in the response itself. In some cases, as in Deepwater Horizon, by making 120,000 response suggestions, volunteering, signing up boats for the Vessel of Opportunity program, etc. But also through crowd-sourced information such as crisis mapping and spreading word of urgent needs through those same networks.

This is what Admiral Allen talks about when he raises the issue of public participation. There is not much passive about this crowd anymore.

Clearly in this picture the role of the media has changed dramatically. Their influence and power to form perceptions is still enormous. But they do not have a monopoly on that. They, like other members of the crowd, are participants in a swirl of information and influence. The gather information from that crowd, repackage it primarily on the basis of drawing maximum audience share, and contribute to public understanding or misunderstanding in doing so.

For the crisis and emergency communication professional, these changes are very profound. The most basic is going from a position of controlling the information that goes to the media (at that point, they lose control), to a position of participating. The swirl of information and influence goes on and around and about them whether they participate or not. They do not set the agenda, they do not set the timing, they do not set understandings. But, they can participate and participate in very significant ways.

When I say as I have repeatedly in presentations recently, that the role of the JIC has shifted to being the first and best source of information about the event to one of rumor management, this is what I mean. The official source of information, that is the response itself, has to be impeccably accurate and completely truthful. It must be seen as the final word, the participant in the conversation that has the best and most complete information. Not necessarily the first, but the best and most complete. It must play that role, and this is where I have seen most of these efforts fail in the recent past. They pump out their information as if it is still “Before” but they refuse to counter the plenty of false information out there. Aggressive rumor management is not only the only significant role left for the the official source, it is in my mind a serious obligation. “A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth,” and it doesn’t have to be a lie. It can be media reporting that is seriously off-base, it may be agenda-driven untruths perpetuated on the internet, it may be simple fear-driven inaccuracies. These must be quickly identified and corrected with impeccably accurate information.

Would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts about this graphic and analysis. And, if you think it accurately reflects the new realities, share it with every emergency management professional you can. Because misunderstanding these new realities is certain to cause continuing difficulties in building public trust in major crises and emergencies.

Twitter rules and I was wrong

I said a long time ago that I thought Twitter would die. I was wrong (gosh I hate to say things like that!). I was commenting on the rapid comings and goings of social media channels and fads and while things do change with great rapidity in this business, Twitter has proven that it has a solid place in our information sharing world.

Twitter has become in many ways a replacement for traditional news media. What do I mean? I was talking to a friend in the UK this morning (skype of course) and he told me of an industrial incident near his home. He tried to find out about it through the company’s website, through local news media–nothing. Then he thought Twitter. A quick check and he had all the info he needed.

It reminded me of a story I shared here earlier about another friend and client who heard from a babysitter about police activity near his home. Could find nothing from the news media, and even from the police despite his high connections there. I suggested Twitter. He immediately learned exactly what was happening in real time.

Now Twitter is expanding and improving. They just announced at the All Things D conference that they are offering their own photosharing service. Sucks to be twitpic right now. They’ve improved search, and Firefox is embedding hashtag searches right into the browser.

Twitter as the news source for the world will become even more ubiquitous. Amazing. Walter Cronkite, your replacement is not a new journalist-star, it’s a crazy little online service called Twitter.