Murdoch crisis analysis missing critical element: character

You know a story is getting old when the analysts start analyzing the other analysis. This is what happens with TV punditry, and now I am engaging in it related to the Murdoch News Corp crisis.

I’ve seen several commenters lately highlight different aspects of this crisis and how the Murdoch’s are responding as lessons for crisis management. But one element is missing from all the blogs I’ve seen which is the issue of character.

Character and the public’s perception of the character of the central characters are at the heart of any reputation crises. This was highlighted for me, first, by a study coming out of Oxford in the 1990s that analyzed crises from the standpoint of share price. It showed that the key element that people were looking at in a crisis is the behavior (actions) of the lead players and whether or not those actions were the ones they wanted and expected. The second was Peter Firestein’s excellent book called “Crisis of Character” in which he linked the character of the CEO and the senior leadership to the formation of crises and effective response to them.

What is character? We know what it is, but find it hard to define. We know it has to do with right and wrong, with moral stance, with value systems, with unselfish behavior. In an earlier book (Friendship Marketing) I connected the trust that customers must develop for loyal business relationships to the sense they had that the company (that is, the people from the company who can make decisions) will act on their behalf even if it may not be at that moment in the company’s best interest.

I believe character and the public’s perception of it is what has made the myth and legend of the Tylenol crisis which is still held by many to be the best example of crisis management. Why? Because, despite the fact that the contamination was a criminal act done by a bad person outside the company, by voluntarily recalling every bottle and repackaging them for safety the company demonstrated that their concern was for people’s safety more than for the high cost of the recall. In other words, the public saw the company leadership sacrificing their own interests on behalf of the public’s, and did so voluntarily. That, they saw, was character. That demonstrated that at the top there were people you could trust. (Side note–I think it a bit of a myth given that Tylenol simply implemented a plan for recall that anticipated contamination from within the company–a crisis that hit them earlier in which they acted poorly due to lack of preparation–but that’s another story.)

So what does this have to do with Murdoch? Everything. I’m quite certain that neither the elder nor younger Murdoch will be found to have known about or personally authorized the phone hacking. But they hired, supervised and held accountable the people who did know about it and possibly who ordered the hacking and paid for it. You cannot tell me that when you hire and direct senior people you don’t have an idea of what lengths they will go to do their job. The Murdochs are responsible for creating a culture that both demanded the kind of media scoops that are virtually impossible without walking the line and occasionally crossing over it in terms of right and wrong, legal and illegal. They are also responsible for hiring and supervising the people who had the willingness to cross the lines of moral and legal behavior. The Murdoch’s may not be guilty of crimes or immoral action. But they are certainly guilty of creating and sustaining a culture where this kind of behavior could emerge.

Since I believe this is at the heart of public outrage over this situation, what can the Murdoch’s do? When you have violated the public’s view of right and wrong behavior you have the choice of arguing over it, or accepting it and saying you are sorry. The public thought a big company like BP should have had the technical ability to first keep a wellhead from blowing up and then, if it did, to be able to fix it quickly rather than letting it spew oil for months on end. They were right to believe that and BP should have (and did) apologize profusely for that failure to meet reasonable expectations. The public believes that a company like News Corp ought to be managed so that senior leaders will know the difference between right and wrong, legal and illegal but that proved not to be the case. The Murdoch’s message should be simple: “we are responsible for creating a culture where these things can happen. We are very sorry for this, we know we have failed the public trust, and we will do what we need to to clean house and firmly establish policies and operating principles that will put public trust above all else.” They haven’t done that. I’m quite certain the lawyers won’t let them do that. But I do not see that anything less can ever make a real difference. And now, of course, is too late.



Why too much armor can kill you

Here’s some new information about how the French likely lost the battle of Agincourt despite outnumbering their English foes by somewhere between 6 and 10 to 1.

I know you think I’ve totally lost it now. This is a crisis communication blog and I’m talking about an obscure battle in 1415. Hold on, there is a connection.

I chose Agincourt for the name of my new consulting company because, aside from having a nice ring to it, that battle represents how new technology, skillfully and strategically applied, can achieve the near impossible, change the course of history and turn losers into winners. I saw in the story of the English longbow and a small group of English archers defeating the cream of French knighthood a similarity to what I was attempting to do with the crisis communication technology I developed when implemented with the appropriate strategies.

This story just may upset that nice, tidy picture. It says, in effect, that the battle may not have been won so much by the new longbow technology and the skillful application of it by King Henry IV as it was lost by the French being overburdened with too much armor. The story reports on scientific research done on how much energy was expended when wearing the huge suits of armor, often weighing over 100 pounds. As much as I want to hang onto the story of strategic application of technology I think there is great truth in what this article reports–particularly when you know that the battle was fought in rain with a horrible muddy field.

So, what does this have to do with crisis communication and winning and losing? While I still think that the right technology applied with the right strategy is key to winning, I have also seen that most crisis communication battles are lost by employing too much armor. Clearly CEOs have become very concerned about their crisis vulnerability. This study by Burson-Marsteller shows that many CEOs expect to have a crisis in the near term. So they tend to pile on the armor. CEO or senior management decision-making over all response details. Approvals required from multiple levels in the organization before release. Legal review over everything. It’s all understandably aimed at protecting the organization in a time of great risk. But like the French knights, many organizations find that complicated management processes, burdensome approval processes, legal and financial reviews will bog them down and make it impossible to win the war.

Looking at a crisis from the viewpoint of a medieval battlefield, the enemies are extremely nimble. Whether those “enemies” be the media, activists, competitors, aggrieved former customers or employees–all these have freedom to communicate without restriction. Very few companies and organizations are that nimble. The technology, including the crisis communication management technology, is designed to make them very nimble, but if the processes are burdened down with the heavy armor of top-down restrictions, no technology can compensate.

The French army did not understand that the nimbleness of the enemy, despite their small numbers, combined with the horrid mud conditions meant that all the protections they put in place would kill them. Senior management must understand the same applies today in the battle for reputation and a future we call crisis management.



Lost Airmen of Buchenwald film world premiere

I’ve had many delightful, meaningful experiences in my 29 years in professional communications, but nothing compares to the experience Saturday, July 16. This isn’t about a crisis–at least not a current one–so I’m diverging from crisisblogger fare for a moment.

As some of you know, I wrote a book on a WWII fighter pilot who, along with 81 other Americans and 167 other Allied flyers were designated “terrorists” by Hitler and sent to Buchenwald, the infamously brutal concentration camp for execution. The book was called “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald: the Joe Moser Story.” The book has sold very well and I’ve had the privilege of speaking with Joe Moser at countless events–he is turning 90 soon and still doing very well.

A couple of years ago I was contacted by a filmmaker in California who was starting a documentary on his grandfather. Col. E.C. Freeman, who happened to be one of those American flyers in Buchenwald. Mike Dorsey, the filmmaker, agreed to expand the scope of the film and I would help find investors for the film–hence my title Executive Producer. The world premiere of “Lost Airmen of Buchenwald” was held at Bellingham’s historic Mount Baker Theatre, to a sold-out crowd of 1500.

Joe Moser, the 89 year old P-38 pilot, and Mike Dorsey were joined on stage by Ed Carter-Edwards from Ontario, Canada, a fellow airman/survivor of Buchenwald. I cannot begin to tell you what it meant to me to have the packed audience of 1500 give these men a standing ovation. Nor to have Ed tell us the next day at brunch that this was the best day of his life–a man who holds many prestigious medals including the French Legion Medal of Honor–the highest honor given by the French government. I do not think there were many dry eyes in the house and mine are not dry now as I write this.

The pictures below can help you get a sense of the joy and meaning of this occasion. We have received a number of wonderful comments on the film’s Facebook page from those who were at the premiere. By what means the most to me is to know that the incredible story of what these brave men endured in the name of our freedom is becoming known. That these humble, old gentlemen are finally receiving the honor, recognition and appreciation for all they did for us–even while knowing that they are accepting this recognition on behalf of so many who never had this opportunity to share their story.

We hope to have DVD’s available for sale soon and perhaps some theatrical screenings. If you get a chance to see the film, don’t miss it.

Lost Airmen of Buchenwald survivors Ed Carter-Edwards and Joe Moser at film premiere
The premiere crowd of 1500 just before the house lights go down
Fighter pilot Joe Moser and crisisblogger on stage at the premiere
Joe Moser and film producer-director Mike Dorsey at premiere

The Wall Street Journal’s crisis–how do you report on your boss being in it deep?

It’s like a train wreck in slow motion, the Rupert Murdoch crisis. The crash seems to go on and on and on. Now FBI is involved, and every Murdoch-owned entity will be put under the microscope.

This is not just a crisis involving the now defunct News of the World, nor even Murdoch and his empire. This is a crisis that affects all of journalism itself, particularly tabloid journalism. But what about Murdoch’s crown jewel, the Wall Street Journal? That venerable institution cannot escape this without more scrutiny and a close eye on how they deal with this.

With that in mind, they made big mistake number one with today’s article on Murdoch’s handling of the crisis. The article, which quite clearly serves as a voice for Murdoch’s public statements regarding the comments. Even with that, it seems to reveal a soft touch on the crisis that is not typical of the publications treatment of other companies in deep doo doo, such as BP.

In the story, son James acted without error and with adequate speed. No reference is made to Rebekah Brooks (other than in a photo with son James), an omission that is startling. And as for the accusations of former Brit PM Gordon Brown, Murdoch says Brown “got it entirely wrong” and suggested his attack was motivated by the fact that Murdoch endorsed his opponents in the last election.

Obviously, the reporter and editor are in a quandary. How do you report fairly and accurately on your boss when his empire and legacy are at risk? It’s definitely a no win. Seems they might punt by saying–“read about the problems elsewhere.” I realize that’s not an answer either, but publishing such pablum about the crisis only highlights their connection to the empire and draws them into the crisis deeper.


Netflix price increase brouhaha: unnecessary outrage amplified

Thanks to Matt Wilson of Ragan Communications for getting me to think about Netflix and the tempest they created with a bungled service change announcement:

Did Netflix just throw their entire franchise away by bungling a price increase announcement? As I write this “Dear Netflix” is one of the top trending topics on Twitter and the comments on Netflix’s own blog post about the price increase makes it clear that their customer base is not happy and may well be a former customer base.

What went wrong? And how could this have been avoided?

First, I think it is important to understand that the lens of social media does not necessarily reflect reality very accurately. While it appears that Netflix is in deep trouble over this, I’m not certain this is the case. At the same time, the social media reaction also colors the response of others who may not be so exercised over this.

As Netflix customers we also received the email notice about the price increase. My wife relayed it to me and we briefly discussed that this seemed excessive and whether or not we would continue. But when I looked at the online comments my very moderate negative reaction became more like outrage. Yes, how could they do this to me, a loyal customer! Not only that, I found out what others were turning to as alternatives.

So not only does social media reaction tend to give a distorted picture of reality, it tends to feed the outrage. All the people who are upset are telling why they’ve wanted to cancel Netflix for a long time—like limited selection, not having the latest and greatest, etc. What may be worse they are informing those watching the discussion as to the alternatives and creating a sense that this is where the herd is heading next.


1)     Social media outrage gives false picture of reality. I doubt that the reaction we see on social media right now is at all representative. I doubt that Netflix’s customers overall are reacting as strongly as it seems by looking at the comments. That means in an event like this you have to keep your cool, not over react, and keep an eye on the big picture without allowing the lens of social media which gives a distorted picture to cause a distorted response.

2)     Social media outrage feeds outrage. While the picture may be distorted, the outrage reaction amplifies feelings. My moderately negative reaction is much deepened when I look at how others are reacting. We certainly have seen this in other events including the Gulf Spill when outrage fed outrage. That’s why these reactions or over-reactions are still very dangerous and very important to avoid and deal with.

3)     Social media greases the skids of change. By that I mean it makes it much easier for me as a customer to consider alternatives. Those who are angry are telling me all kinds of reasons for dissatisfaction with Netflix—reasons I never had before. Plus, they are telling me where they are going. Redbox is going to see some big increase in business, just like some hosting companies did after Godaddy’s CEO stepped on himself over the elephant shooting business. Social media tells people why to be unhappy and creates a herd mentality relating to where they are going now.

So, what went wrong and how could this have been avoided?

1) Explain yourself. Their email explaining the change was pitiful. Here’s how its starts: “We are separating unlimited DVDs by mail and unlimited streaming into two separate plans to better reflect the costs of each. Now our members have a choice: a streaming only plan, a DVD only plan, or both.

Your current $9.99 a month membership for unlimited streaming and unlimited DVDs will be split into 2 distinct plans:”

Their blog post does much better but still comes across as incomplete and perhaps less than completely honest. It starts out this way: “First, we are launching new DVD only plans. These plans offer our lowest prices ever for unlimited DVDs – only $7.99 a month for our 1 DVD out at-a-time plan and $11.99 a month for our 2 DVDs out at-a-time plan. By offering our lowest prices ever, we hope to provide great value to our current and future DVDs by mail members. New members can sign up for these plans by going to”

Once I understood what they were doing, unbundling their service, I realized that my price was actually going down because I will use only the streaming service. But, when we got the email we discussed cancelling because it looked as if they were doubling the price overnight.

2) Involve your customers. It is hard to believe that a company like Netflix, born on the Internet, would do something like this without involving the social media crowd. Something like this should not be sprung on an unsuspecting customer base. Politicians call it raising a trial balloon, but social media makes it very easy to engage customers in big changes like this. They could have said, hey, we’re thinking about doing this, what do you guys think? Here are our problems and challenges, if you were in our shoes, what would you do about it? That would have smoothed the way, given them important information, and created defenders of those people who participated.

3) Offer to grandfather those who want it to stay the same. For many, the change may be good and well accepted. But for those who strongly object, offering to grandfather for even six months would ease the anger. But they probably would have figured that out if they had involved the customers in the first place.
The upshot: Netflix will survive just fine. Competitors like Redbox will see some gains but will only really see long term if they offer significant added value and communicate it aggressively. But this will cost them, in loyalty, in brand value, in loss of customers—and from my perspective, unnecessarily because of failing to either understand or think through carefully the implications in the era of social media amplified outrage.

Good News, Bad News, Ugly News of the World

It’s a little like watching a massive storm brew, bluster and then explode in front of you. The revelations of private investigators for a major UK newspaper illegally hacking into all kinds of mobile phone voice mails is the explosion that is only part of the massive storm brewing in global media.

I was listening to BBC on satellite radio the other day talking about the scandal that has brought down a 168 year-old newspaper. The BBC reporters interviewed a number of people on the street. What they said quite consistently was, this isn’t shocking, we kind of expect this kind of behavior from journalists, we don’t believe a thing they say anyway. This attitude is actually quite strongly reflected in the trust measures of the last few years, at least some of them which show that the mainstream media rank as the lowest of all industries in public trust. Lower than lawyers, lower even than Big Oil.

The real problem I have, however, is the gap between what people believe and what they say they believe. People don’t believe what the media says when one of two things happens: when they know facts to the contrary and when what the media says fails to correspond with existing prejudices. If they have no inside or other knowledge of the facts and what the media says is consistent with their viewpoint about the subject, we (we are all media consumers) tend to accept quite willingly what is presented.

That really struck me during the Gulf Spill. I saw the egregious deceptive media reporting first hand, the enormous gap between the reality of what was happening with the benefit of some inside knowledge and the bulk of media reports. Only afterwards did the exaggerations, agendas and deceptiveness of these reports become more obvious to the astute observer. But, the Pew Research center reported in the middle of all the reporting that the public was overall pretty satisfied with how the media was covering the story. What?!? I couldn’t believe it. How could the public be so blind? How could they think the media reports were accurate when much better information was being presented regularly by Admiral Allen’s briefings and by BP? The reason for this credulousness goes back to my two conditions: not having solid information to counter the media’s assertions and 2) fitting in with pre-established viewpoints. If the media said BP was being dishonest, deceptive, manipulating, stingy, greedy, profit-hungry and all the rest, on what basis would the public question that when it already fit with their notions not only of BP but of every other Big Oil company.

As any crisisblogger regular reader will know, I have strong feelings about today’s media environment and how the pressure they are under for ratings creates such risk for the big and powerful and profitable. (See my rant on Rachel Maddow and ExxonMobil). I do not blame them because they are fighting for their lives and like smart business people of all time and eras, they are giving the people what they want. It’s the people that I have a problem with, because they seem so blind to what the competitive environment is doing to the news business.

That’s why I have to admit to some sort of grim satisfaction with the demise of News of the World. Not only because I think tabloid journalism is one of the worst expressions of our culture but because this hopefully will cause even greater scrutiny among news consumers about how their news is gathered. I know there are a great many honest, ethical, hard working and upstanding journalists and they need to be excepted from this broad categorization. But many of them are caught in a system that is increasingly self-destructive. At some point you have to say I can no longer participate in this. Many have, and I suspect many more will.

What I dread most about this is the gut-reaction of the media and their political-opportunist cohorts who think whenever a problem surfaces the government must solve it. I agree with this blogpost by former TV anchor Larry Kane, who said “The part that really scares the hell out of me in this news scandal are the calls for investigation, not the criminal investigations that are underway, but the official call for panels and committees to “investigate” the media and how it operates. There is a stark difference between criminal indictments for alleged criminal activity and a Prime Minister asking for the news media to be publicly investigated.”

I was also attracted to this article on gigaom that said that what happened with News of the World just might be a good thing. I think he is right, not so much because he thinks it will lead to innovation and a radical rethinking of the news business. I think he is right because it will significantly deepen the public’s already considerable skepticism about the news and hopefully make them more aware of what the current hyper-competitive environment is doing to us.

It’s not the government who needs to investigate this situation and take action to protect the public. It’s the news consumer who needs to investigate and take action to protect themselves by carefully and intelligently choosing their news sources.


Montana puts another nail in NIMS coffin, Plus Google+ and the future of news

A couple of unrelated items. For those whose crisis plans include working with the government response agencies in a Unified Command, or NIMS or ICS response, the action of Montana’s governor today in pulling out of Unified Command is very important. I blogged on this at Emergency Management so won’t repeat myself, other than to suggest that this is the latest fallout of the mistakes the federal government made in handling the Deepwater Horizon (gulf oil spill) response. If the federal government and now state governments don’t take the National Incident Management System seriously and implement it when it is convenient, does it have a future? It’s a critically important question that unfortunately most in the media don’t have the background to ask about.

On a completely unrelated subject, I’m watching with fascination the debate over Google+ and the impact it will have on Facebook. For crisis communicators, this is of more than academic interest. This article from the Nieman Journalism Lab provides an excellent summary of some of the analysis, and particularly on what impact Google+ might have on news coverage.

Whether Google or FB emerge as the primary social media channel that is significant for crisis and emergency communication may not be as important as the functions that Google+ is introducing that may have a real impact on how we do crisis communications. For example–the Hangout feature. Is this the way press conferences will be done in the future? Why not? And town meetings? The “Turtle Talk” event in the gulf spill would be a good example of a Hangout.

I do expect to see a dramatic increase in TV interviews using Skype, FB with Skype and now Hangout. Sure would save the media a ton of money, give them access to a lot more subjects to interview, and make the whole process of set up to interview to broadcast almost immediate. That makes it in my mind a virtual sure thing. The question is, are you or your execs ready to do a skype recorded interview?

The “circles” and “sparks” functions of Google+ also lead in interesting directions for crisis communicators. Circles is a natural and important way of introducing stakeholder groups and audience groups who share specific interests. Sparks looks like it could be important for tracking what’s trending, what’s happening now and therefore be added to the monitoring process.

One thing is certain–Google didn’t uncomplicate our lives with this announcement. It only gets more confused and challenging from here.

Understanding today’s media coverage–Casey Anthony trial and Rachel Maddow on ExxonMobil

The public doesn’t trust the media. The media works ever harder to destroy trust in just about everyone in order to attract and hold an audience. In the process of trying to attract an audience, they way overstep the bounds of solid journalism and turn shreds of truth into outright lies.

I won’t comment much on the whole Casey Anthony debacle because I intentionally diverted my eyes from the ridiculous obsession of the media with this story. And this blogpost by Debra Caruso captures exactly the problems of media coverage. Why does one murder story out of a thousand on any day become the focus of media and too much national attention? More importantly for crisis communicators is the lesson about the two courts that operate today–the court of public opinion and the court of law. This case makes very clear that the media plays the role of prosecution and judge but usually has little interest in providing the role of defense. This is especially true when it comes to accusing big companies of misdeeds (see Maddow comments below). The ferocity of some in the media who were the worst at this (Nancy Grace comes to mind) demonstrates how far they are willing to go and how much they tend to think that the court of public opinion which they preside over ought to be the only court.

My real issue today, is with Rachel Maddow. Here is the clip of her “news” segment on ExxonMobil’s Yellowstone River Oil Spill. Oil spills are always a very bad thing–for the people impacted, the environment, the company and executive reputations, for the future of energy. But, the news media love them. And Rachel Maddow, bless her heart, has gone so far over the top with this news report that it will serve me for some time to come about what is so bad about today’s news coverage.

(Before going further–full disclosure. ExxonMobil is a client of the company that I founded and am still involved in as an independent contractor. However, I have not personally done work for ExxonMobil, nor advised them on strategy and am not involved in this event.)

1. The Set Up: ExxonMobil’s outrageous profitability.
She sets up the story about the spill by first talking about how incredibly profitable ExxonMobil is. In her world and value system, clearly profits are very bad thing and for a company to be the most successful in the world at generating filthy lucre means they are guilty of anything they are accused of–which is about to follow. Her descriptions of their profitability is, well, over the top with hyperbole: “the closest the world has ever seen to having infinite resources, they have infinite [emphasis hers] money at their disposal ..” and  “you could not mint money faster than ExxonMobil makes it…”

2.  Accusation #1: Incompetence

The set up leads to the accusations, starting with the claim that despite having more money than God “this mess they made of the Yellowstone River seems to be beyond their capacity, outside of their grasp.”

Later she comes back to this incompetence theme by laughing at Exxon for saying: “they are very curious as to what happened at the bottom of the river.” She says they are curious because “they still haven’t seen it.” Obviously, since they have infinite resources, they ought to have drained the river by now or at least got down there and had a look at the bottom of the river. And for all their money (over and over she talks about all their money) all they can do for response is put out 45,000 feet of boom. They can’t even get to the bottom of the river. Incompetent boobs.

Not only that, she says, this is the same boom used by the BP spill, and obviously it didn’t work then and then, with a picture of the Santa Barbara spill, by gosh, its the same kind of boom they used then 40 years ago. She says” “this is the technological level of Exxon’s response,” clearly suggesting that Exxon (did she mention how much money they have) has not progressed in over 40 years. Geez, maybe they should call Kevin Costner.

3. The Gross Exaggerations

The mess they made, says Ms. Maddox, is “visible as far as the eye can see.” And this is amply demonstrated by the graphic on the screen that shows a thick blue line running through a good portion of Montana. The graphic along with the mess which Maddox says is highly visible leaves the distinct impression that the spill runs the length of the river and may have devastated half of Montana. Sort of like the reports that said the oil from the Gulf would despoil beaches in England. Then she says that the 1000 barrels of oil that spilled overran the river’s banks and coated everything in sight.

4. Accusation #2: They lie.

ExxonMobil said the spill would not go beyond ten miles, then a day later they said it probably would. Maddow quotes an EPA official saying ‘Oil has been spotted” 40 miles away. Obviously, ExxonMobil lies. Not only that, by an Exxon spokesperson said yesterday that it is unlikely there is any more oil in the water, but aha! Maddow shows a picture (a tight close up clearly not of a river but at best a very small area presumably near a bank) that demonstrates there is still oil in the water this morning! What bald face liars, those  Exxon people. They even lied about no injured wildlife. She counters the Exxon claim that no injured wildlife had been found by reporting that the Billings Gazette published pictures of “soiled pelicans and turtles”–well, she did exaggerate here as well by referring to turtles when the headline visible on the screen refers to a singular turtle. That’s the kind of nit she would pick to prove Exxon lies, if you want to suggest I’m picking nits now. Oh yes, and there are reports of a dead duck. No mention that it might be linked to the spill. Someone just reported a dead duck.

Later, in transitioning to their history she says: “their statement of facts do not square with the facts.”

5. The residents vs. the big giant profit machine.

Oh, this is a favorite of “journalists” like Maddow. She counters Exxon’s statement that no public health risks have been found by presenting a newsclip of a resident confronting the president of ExxonMobil, telling him that two people were in the hospital. “One passed out last night…” and the other was the resident’s wife. And then the resident challenged the executive by saying “I don’t believe you don’t know what’s in the oil and what’s making people sick.” Case closed. Not only is Exxon making people sick, but either the president is too stupid to know what is in the oil or he won’t come out and be honest about the ingredients in there that are making this poor man’s wife sick.

6. Accusation 3: Environmental disaster

Maddox smirks while quoting Exxon as saying they are “fastidiously monitoring” air quality. But while she doesn’t directly attack their claims, instead she quotes another unnamed resident who says “the smell is enough to gag a maggot.” Gosh darn it, she loved that quote so much she made it the title of her whole news report. It’s on a graphic behind her head when nothing else is and small on the screen the entire time–just in case you might miss the point.

7. The tone: pure snark

I understand that Maddox is not Walter Cronkite or even Dan Rather, but for a person on a supposedly news station in a news style presentation to adopt the snarky tone she has is quite appalling. You have to see her obvious delight in ripping apart this company to appreciate the tone, but here are a few lines she obviously enjoyed saying. When challenging the claim to oil being removed from the water, when showing the closeup of oil still there: “that’s oil, that’s water, that’s oil in the water..” And when challenging Exxon’s claim of no injured wildlife she said: “unless bathing in crude oil is a hot new trend among Montana wildlife.”

8. Their history of safety failures.

She starts with showing how they ignored their own safety analysis of the pipe and then reports on supposed safety violations including having out of date records. It is an entirely predictable part of any spill or industrial accident to dig out the safety records and violations. Every company has them and like Rachel has done here, it is quite easy to make the most minor OSHA violation look like the company is completely rogue.

OK, enough on Rachel. I don’t mean to be picking on her because this kind of reporting, albeit usually not quite as obvious and extreme as this, is increasingly typical today. This is not news, this is entertainment being sold to an audience that already has a strong viewpoint about a company like ExxonMobil. The problem is of course, it is being presented as news. In a way the likes of Maddow, Hannity, O’Reilly and the like are not the real problem because most understand that they are entertainers playing gladly to a crowd who cheers them on like prize fighters shadow boxing against boogey men they create. The problem is how many other journalists from the likes of the major news channels and even highly respected news organizations like the NYT reflect the same mentality and the same approaches. Yes, they are more rational and less snarky, and that makes the impact more devastating because people really do treat their coverage as news.

The cycle will go on. Ratings unfortunately go to the O’Reilly’s and Van Susteren’s and so those hungry for them will imitate. Profits will be further demonized as will the companies who are unfortunate enough to make them. And woe to anyone who has an accident.


Knowing when to hold ’em, and when not to hold back–proactive vs. reactive communications

Something bad has happened. But it hasn’t hit the press. Yet. What do you do? Wait for the hum of helicopter blades overhead (helicopters, yeah, that was so yesterday). Or do you fire a pre-emptive strike and get your story out there before it gets out of control?

That has long been one of the most challenging strategy questions in crisis communications–and it is getting even more complicated in the social media era. As much as I would like, I haven’t been able to duck this question because it comes up in almost every crisis communication plan I write.

One of my answers to this is to make clear there are not two options, but three. The first option, completely reactive, means preparing a holding statement, hope that no one notices the big problem or that it is a busy news day and just wait for the calls to come. Then, switching into a proactive stance depends on how many calls you get and how far and fast the story goes.

The third option, completely proactive says that by all means get your story out there before someone else beats you to the punch and gets it all wrong or makes you look a lot worse than you really are. This is a strong part of the school of thought that says if you have some bad news its an awful lot better coming from you than someone else.

The risk of the reactive is that you will indeed get caught behind, particularly in this time of global connectivity with news traveling at fiber speed. Anyone who has been caught by initial very negative stories knows how difficult it is to dig out that hole.

The risk of the proactive is that you may have created a crisis that might have gone unnoticed, that you drew attention to a problem that might quietly have gone away and therefore you have inadvertently and unnecessarily damaged the organization’s reputation. Most CEO’s and about 99.9% of corporate lawyers involved in these decisions are going to go this direction under the often mistaken notion that it is “safer.”

So, what’s the third option? Putting a statement on your website without distribution via email or newswire.

I did this about ten years ago when I was serving as PIO for an industrial facility. There was a relatively small incident but one which required public emergency response with resulting visibility to the community. There were no media calls immediately even though it went out on the police scanner through local emergency management. I prepared a statement and requested authorization from the Incident Commander to put it on the facilities website. I remember a couple of the managers involved looking at me like I was nuts. “Why would you want to go and tell the world about this?” they asked. No media was calling, no citizens, apparently no attention.

These were the reasons I gave: 1) Given the event, it is more than likely we will get media calls because that is what has happened in the past. 2) When/if they do call I will tell them the I published the information on the website (hours/minutes) ago. 3) That will build trust and credibility with them–we are making something public that they figured they’d have to dig for and we did it before they asked. 4) If I get hammered with media calls or citizen calls, I can simply say all available information is on our website, giving me time, meeting their info requirements, and focusing on our website vs. news websites as authoritative source for information about the event. 5) I start training reporters to check the website first if an event happens which saves me precious time and avoids having to do interviews in which I might say something wrong or they might write it down wrong.

I could give a few other reasons, but that is enough. I did not convince the older managers who still thought I was nuts and was just a publicity hound looking to get a story in the news. But the Incident Commander trusted me, as eventually did the local and regional reporters. Which helped out when there were bigger events.

This is not the solution to the proactive vs. reactive dilemma. The way I deal with it in plans typically is to include a series of questions that help to classify the crisis into one of a few categories. But, having a third option gives you more ways to respond. There are some crisis events that are black and white in terms of what you need to do and how to respond. The tough ones come in shades of gray. With this public posting without distribution option, you have a response that also comes in a shade of gray.