Category 5 coverage for a Category 1 storm–crying wolf is dangerous

The media coverage of Irene is a classic example of crying wolf. For those not familiar with the Aesop fable, a shepherd boy out in the field with the sheep cried “wolf!” to the villagers because he thought it was fun to see them come running to protect the flock. But he discovered that after a few times of false alarms they ignored the warning. So when the wolf did come, it feasted on the sheep because of the shepherd boy’s stupidity.

Crying wolf is dangerous. But it is almost inevitable when the media has demonstrated that there is no higher requirement than getting ratings. Over ten years ago a reporter from the largest regional TV station in our area told me that it was an embarrassment to him as a reporter to see how storms were covered. They’d send the reporter out to the windiest spot they could find, like a bridge with flags flapping in the background, they’d put a bright yellow rain coat on the reporter, have him bend against the wind and talk about the big storm. He told me there were ratings meters in the station manager’s office and they could see the ratings jump with the public fears about the big storm.

As this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer points out, Irene was a deadly storm with 18 deaths and that the media plays a vital role in the warning the public to take the dangers of a major storm very seriously. But it also points out that “some cable anchors were still reporting that Irene could strike New Jersey and New York as a major hurricane long after his team determined that it clearly was weakening.”

That’s not just mistaken or poor reporting. That’s intentionally lying, that is crying wolf. The author of the article, Will Bunch, also very succinctly nailed the reasons behind this kind of media coverage: Ratings, journalist careers, and political opportunism. (Anderson Cooper, it is pointed out, was offered his primetime anchor spot after his spirited coverage during Katrina.)

What bothers me is the same forces are at work in coverage of crises and human-caused events such as oil spills. That trifold motivation–ratings, careers and political grandstanding–play into overheated media coverage of events, particularly when human error or negligence plays a role vs. acts of God or nature such as Irene. Of course it is in the media’s interest to create the impression that every inch of beach is covered in oil, that complicated series of decisions were caused by greed or incompetence, that the fancy software in your car can cause it to¬† behave like the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s in the politician’s interest to feed on the fear and outrage created by this kind of coverage to be the white knight and propose legislative or regulatory solutions to the problem.

Sometimes, I sort of feel like I am crying wolf in continually harping about the problems with news coverage today. Many seem to think that it is quite normal, to be expected and really not so bad. There are outstanding examples of tremendous journalism. But, is there any doubt that the overwhelming inclination of major media outlets in today’s hyper-competitive environment is to put ratings above responsibility? Survival is at stake. The problem is that as the coverage of Irene makes clear, lives are also at stake. The article above points out, what happens when a Category 5 storm hits and people don’t respond because every Category 1 storm before that has had Category 5 coverage? They won’t evacuation, they won’t prepare, they won’t respond. We know that perfectly good reputations and careers have been destroyed by this kind of ratings-first coverage. We may soon find that more than careers have been lost.

Hurricane Irene–who to trust for good information?

Here is a great visual guide for the best sources of information about Hurricane Irene about to hit the coast as I write this.

SMEM (Social Media Emergency Management) map

To all who lay in Irene’s path: our thoughts and prayers are with you. Be safe.

Spending time with WWII vets

This isn’t about a current crisis. On the other hand it is, because we are losing our WWII vets by the thousands–last I heard it was 2000 every day. My wife and I were incredibly honored to be able to participate in a reunion of the 474th Fighter Group. Of the 1500 men who once made up this proud 9th Air Force unit, about 30 were able to attend the reunion in Thousand Oaks, California. We spent three days with these men–all in their late 80s or early 90s–and their families. It was, to say the least, a remarkable experience.

We who have not shared their lives during the war can only imagine their thoughts recalling those days. There can be no doubt however of the bond that is created when men share such deep, life-changing experiences. The tears come quickly and easily to such men. Some still wave away the questions with an off-hand “I was just doing my job.” It seems few if any understand how desperately those like me want to enter into their lives and memories, to try to draw from them the meaning of those harrowing days, what it was like to lose friends and comrades day after day, then climb into those frozen or overheated cockpits and do all over again what they had to know would eventually take them down.The 474th lost 80 pilots killed during the war–that’s an awful lot considering there were about 150 pilots in the unit at any one time.

Hang around these guys for a few days and you understand more than ever before what this country means to them and, I think, what it should mean to all of us. I sit out looking at my beautiful garden, in peace and security, with freedom to choose almost anything I wish, freedom to think any thought, take almost any action, say what I want, worship my God openly and without restriction. It could have been so different. It still may be so different. But what I and we have now is directly a result of what these brave, humble, irrepressible men did.

I encourage you, as the days slip by, do all you can to talk to a vet, get them to tell their stories (as difficult as it may be) and pass on what you know to be the truth of the high cost of freedom to your children and grandchildren.


What is the future of news? Media “mavens” tell the future

Business Insider talked to a group of media “mavens” about the future of news. I think the selection of who is an “expert” today is interesting of itself, and a related story about the top ten brands to be big in the future gives even greater insight into Business Insider’s perspective.

Prognostications on the future of news are very interesting because the opinions vary so much. We are obviously in a time of great ferment and change and those who have much at stake in this game tend to see things going their way. For example, Steve Fowle, publisher of a local news tabloid sees a big future in web offset printing (different kind of web).

I also found it absolutely fascinating that Janis Krums is one of the media “mavens” interviewed. Janis Krums, you may recall, was the Florida tourist who happened to be on a ferry in the Hudson River when Flight 1549 crashed in front of him. He snapped a twitpic and made a quick tweet which became the tweet that woke up the media to the value of Twitter as a police scanner of global proportions. Now he is a new media consultant. Ah, the power of the new media to create instant brands and instant experts!

I found the comments of Mark Cuban and Jason McCabe Calacanis most intriguing and in my mind, most on target (shows my perspective). Cuban said,

“I think the future of news is the branded curation of news.

We currently tend to follow big branded entities and aggregators, the NY Times, Huffington Post, Fox News or MSNBC, etc. I think big brands will continue to do fine. However I think the fastest growing segment of the news business will be individuals who create a brand around their name and a niche about which people trust them to educate or entertainment them. John Doe on the best salads in NY. Sally Doe on the local school board. As these niche news individuals gain any momentum or scale, they will be bought or licensed by the big news groups and integrated into bigger sites.”

And Calacanis, a serial entrepreneur from Silicon Valley said:

“The Future of News is video from experts. The age of journalists–and simple “writers”–having exclusive control of the news flow has ended. Vertical experts are now either going direct to consumers or being syndicated in online properties. Text-based content is moving to video due to internet-enabled TVs, iPads and user preference. The difference between an expert on video and a journalist in video is stunning. Journalists can look very uninformed when speaking on video, but experts shine when speaking off the cuff–for obvious reasons.”

Branded curation of news and the shift to self-broadcasting using video. If this is right, public relations experts and crisis communicators need take note.

Another proud dad post

If you’ve been watching TV at all in the last couple of weeks, there’s a very good chance you saw our lovely daughter Ashley. She is featured in a TV commercial for Finish dish detergent which was filmed at our home. It was quite an experience for all of us–in part because the New York advertising agency team who came across country to do the filming hired our son Chris as one of the cinematographers. Ashley writes about the behind the scene experience including being filmed by her older brother in this blog post.

He, as some of you know, has been rapidly building a career as a top-notch cinematographer on a number of well-known reality TV shows and documentaries. Now, doing some producing and developing TV series of his own.(Did I mention his prime-time Emmy nomination for cinematography?)

Ashley was selected based on the popularity her now even more well-known food blog, Not Without Salt. Her numbers, of course, put crisisblogger to shame–but its OK because I am more than compensated with plenty of parental pride.

In the meantime, our other son Geoff is following in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps by forming his own web software development company called Decapoda Digital. That’s after seven years of contributing greatly to the success of the world’s leading web system for managing crisis and emergency communications–including service as webmaster at the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill.

Of course, as proud as I am, I must take the greatest credit for doing such a good job of choosing their mother. Lynne and I just celebrated 38 years of marriage and it does get sweeter all the time. Thanks Hon!

Greatest Movie Ever Sold–fingernails on the cultural blackboard

Morgan Spurlock may be emerging as the biggest social critic of our time. First, he did Supersize Me about our fast food culture. Now, his take on our advertising infested world is “Pom Wonderful: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

Why Pom Wonderful? Because he got them to pony up and pay $1 million for the rights to be the marquee brand on this film. And its a film about product placement. But the real joke, to him at least, is that over 500 companies turned him down for product placement in this film. Seventeen brands agreed. The joke of course is that these companies would be happy to pay for placing their brands in movies, but when the movie points out to the audience that they paid for it, suddenly it isn’t worth doing, or its embarrassing, or just plain stupid as some of them say in the trailer.

Did Pom Wonderful do the right thing by being the big sponsor here? I doubt I’d be mentioning there brand other than for a crisis if they hadn’t. We’ll see, maybe it will be a crisis.

I haven’t seen the movie and it may be awful, but something tells me its going to do quite well. In part because Spurlock seems to be pretty good at PR himself. Giving a TED talk seems to me to put yourself in the upper sphere of intellectual contributors today and here is Spurlock on TED talking about corporate transparency.

I can see the link but I don’t think Greatest Movie is really about corporate transparency as he wants to position it. It is more about how commerce and particularly promotion of products is all pervasive in our culture and how it operates on a sort of willing suspension of disbelief. Pull the curtain back on the wizard and he becomes very uncomfortable.

I’ve made my living for most of my career in the marketing, advertising and public relations business. The film concept fascinates me, creeps me out and makes me think about becoming a small farmer. (Hmm, maybe I can grow potatoes and sell them to McDonalds for french fries.)

Google PR–self-driving car accident and Microsoft tiff

I know I’m getting too cynical, but today Google is in the public relations news on two fronts. First, is their quite public and, according to what I read, increasingly embarrassing tiff with Microsoft over patents. I don’t know enough about the hairy details to comment, but what I can see from the commenters is that Google appears to be taking a bit of beating on the reputation side. That’s the problem with a “do no evil” corporate slogan–it’s so easy to point to the hypocrisies.

Second, is the little fender-bender car accident of their somewhat famous self-driving car. They outfitted this Prius with all kinds of gear that allows it to drive regular roads without humans. Apparently, according to the story, its been pretty darn successful with it logging 160 million miles (huh, one car?) without drivers. But, now this fender bender. Google is quick to point out that the accident occurred when the car was being driven by a human.

Wow, what a way to make the point about the safety of computer-driven vehicles. But, even better. If the Microsoft tiff is causing unhappy headlines, complaints from Google supporters, wouldn’t it be great if there was a great distraction–like having your self-driving car have an accident–with a human driver!

OK, I’m getting too cynical. No one in PR would be that devious. Or, maybe, that smart.

Character and Values: where marketing and crisis prevention meet up

I commented on the News Corp/Murdoch saga by pointing out the paucity of comments about the underlying issue of that crisis: character and values. Then this article appeared in Bulldog about the role of ethics in building brand loyalty.

I may not be that clear on the fine distinction between ethics, morality, character and values, but it is clear from research and from intuition that consumers take into account their perceptions of whether a company is “good” or “bad” when making decisions. The Bulldog article focuses on a company’s goodness or badness related to its environmental stance, its relationship to the community and “its terms of operation,” which I assume mean its behavior toward its employees, competitors and other markers of ethics.

This area of character and values is where marketing meets up with crisis prevention. As Peter Firestein pointed out in his book “Crisis of Character” crises often spill out of the ethical/moral/character issues of senior management. But it would be a mistake to think that this is a PR, or “spin” issue. Authenticity is key and cannot be overstated. I remember working with a company on a green marketing initiative and I advised unless they, the company owners, were personally committed to a strong environmental posture they ran the risk of customers seeing the green initiative as window dressing. Like children, consumers are not easily fooled. Action must issue ultimately from the heart and soul and conviction of those making those decisions. To operate with the intent to create an impression or right perception rather than out of the impulse of character and values is to risk the good that could come from it turning into further harm. A telling example is the ill-fated “Beyond Petroleum” initiative. Ultimately, it was doomed and became another reason to heap on BP because the investment that an oil company is able to make in non-renewable sources is dictated more by market forces than it can possibly be exclusively by the commitment of senior management no matter how sincere they may be. Such is the reality of publicly traded companies and the competitive market for investment.

Public relations professionals have a very important role to play in this issue of character, values, ethics and corporate behavior. First, they need to help senior management understand that ultimately the company’s reputation will be based on public perception of their character. A crisis event displays that character in action like no other activity. Second, they need to help the senior leadership and entire company understand that crisis prevention is both possible and essential but it is based on everyone in the company having a common understanding of doing what is right. Third, they need to study intently and deeply understand the values and priorities of the public and the marketplace. Because perception about these things has to do with an alignment of values. If your marketplace does not think highly of hunting elephants, then for goodness sake, don’t trumpet the fact that your CEO gets quite a kick out of “protecting African villagers by thinning the herd” (Mr. Go-daddy CEO). I’m not saying that you should simply mimic the values of your core audiences because that would not be authentic. But if there are serious differences in the character, values and ethical stance of the CEO and senior leaders with the people whose opinion about the organization matters most for its future, then a problem is all but inevitable. And as a PR manager, the best you can do is point out that issue.

As I think about this, there is a simple and very powerful guide to all this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.