“Whole New Game” video–my effort to explain social media impact on crisis communication

Everyone knows that social media and Internet have changed the rules of crisis communication. But as listen in on conversations about this it occurs to me that many don’t seem to understand the depth of the change. I tried to address this with the social media graphic which I published here earlier. I received many positive comments on this and requests to reprint. But I felt the graphic needed some explanation. I’ve tried to provide this explanation in a new video I just released:

“Whole New Game” video on Vimeo

“Whole New Game” video on YouTube

Not into video? Here’s the bottom line. Crisis communication is about informing the public about sudden events representing great risk to you and/or your organization. But, how the public gets that information has dramatically changed. The vital information used to flow from event > response > communicator > media > public. No longer. Now it goes:

event> public (those closest) > media/public/communicator/response > public

OK, that’s the problem. I can’t make sense out of it in a simple illustration. But the key points are the public finds out quickly through digital networking (whether they are online or not), the media finds out this way too, then they expand its reach often with an attention-getting agenda, their coverage furthers the interplay and it becomes a complex dance or conversation of observations, facts, comments, agendas, and rumors. Where does the communicator fit in? Ah yes, that is the question. And more on that in future videos.

I’d be very interested in your reaction to this video and whether or not this form of content is valuable to you and your organization.


Occupy Rage–what it means for crisis management

It is like a slowly simmering pot, ready to boil over at any moment, this Occupy Wall Street enigma. It seems to defy any analyst explanation and those who do try to interpret the meaning of the protest agree on only one thing: there is no simple, coherent message coming from the thousands who continue to gather in major cities around the world.

Anger and frustration without a clearly defined rationale has its own message. It is deeper, more sustained, and potentially more dangerous than the anger caused by a clearly defined offense. That is one thing that is concerning to me about this protest. It has more in common with anger of Germans in the 1930s and the anger of the youth of Paris a few years ago, than it does the anger of the protesters of my generation in the late 60s and early 70s. The fact that it simmers adds to the concern.

There is a connection here to the issues of crisis management and crisis communication. One thing I have been talking about for years is the growing animosity to any person or organization with a profit motive as well as any person or organization that is perceived to have substantial power. I don’t know exactly where this animosity comes from. I do think our education system has failed to instruct the last couple of generations about the realities of economics, about the value of free markets, about the role of entrepreneurs and innovators in creating the incredibly wealthy and comfortable world many of us live in. I also think the media has much to account for in creating attitudes that see nearly every business executive as evil. But certainly, those caught in major scandals such as Worldcom and Enron also carry a high responsibility for the growth in animosity against the business world. Hollywood seldom treats executives or the powerful very sympathetically–the latest to highlight the villains is Margin Call based on the financial misdeeds that are blamed for our current economic malaise. The timing for this film couldn’t be better since it is the Wall Street villains who seem to be a primary focus of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The problem that this raises in crisis management is the mistaken belief of many leaders that they start a crisis at ground zero. They think their job is to protect the good reputation they have and not allow the crisis to weaken it. They think the audiences that matter are reasonably objective and have some degree of willingness to see the company’s point of view and give some credence to all the good things they are doing. The fact is that almost any major company or organization or government entity starts from a deep hole when they enter a crisis. Some, of course, more than others.

For example, if you are a major oil company and you have a big spill, you should recognize that you enter a public environment with exceptionally high negative scores on the trust meter. You have very little credibility. A high percentage of the audience already believes what the media will quickly and inevitably conclude: that you put profits above people. Does this make a difference in what you say, how you say it, and what your actions are? It sure as heck should, but most recent events demonstrate that this is not really understood or accepted.

This does not just apply to oil companies. Again, almost any for-profit entity is painted with this brush, the fear and loathing of the powerful extends to almost every major organization and government entity. If you have any question about the facts about this I suggest you carefully review one of the many studies being done today about the decline of public trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer remains one of the best.

When I look at the young people continuing to gather in major cities around the world, I see this simmering anger. I am concerned about what this means for our world because if the economic conditions continue to deteriorate, this anger and frustration will only grow. I am sickened and disheartened by those politicians of the populist bent, including some very high placed, who are playing and will play to this crowd, further intensifying the fault finding against those who are in business. Of course, many in the media (especially Hollywood) will see opportunity to continue to play up the villains that this over-simplified melodrama performance requires.

CEOs and senior executives who are concerned about their reputations–their own and their companies–should look at the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon for what it means for their next crisis. The anger is simmering. Try real hard not to be the next target. But, if despite your best efforts you find yourself the target of this simmering anger, understand that you are but a symbol of the evil that many have come to see in the world of business and power. You must approach this crowd and this situation with more humility than you ever thought would be necessary. And you had better be prepared to borrow others’ credibility sooner than later as yours will be limited at best.


Are we losing perspective on reputation crises?

I receive several email newsletters on public relations issues and business crises are among the favorite topics. Pitches for blog posts from authors or PR pundits frequently focus on the reputation crisis of the day. Commenting and reporting on reputation crises is getting to be like the news business itself–it’s all about immediacy, and if it isn’t lurid enough, or big enough, or juicy enough, we tend to try to make it that way. I’m writing as a crisis comms pundit myself, so this is a big of navel gazing.

Bank of America’s debit card fee kerfluffle. Netflix and their ill-fated business model change and Qwikster division. RIM and their outage problems–did they apologize quickly and effectively enough. News articles talk about drop in share price because of the Blackberry outage such as the LA Times report that share price of RIM dropped 1.1%. Not sure with the volatility of the market that is such a big deal.

What I’m wondering about is are we making too big a deal out of these crises? No doubt the Internet and social media have created greatly increased crisis risk, its increased the speed with which crises evolve, and with the crowd or mob-effect can explode relatively small issues into huge ones almost instantaneously.

Let’s look at some of the ones in the recent past–Dominos and their dumb employees YouTube stunt. JetBlue and its sitting on the runway problems. Even Toyota with the massive recalls and safety issues. Did the big listeria problem keep you from buying cantaloupes? I’m just raising the question here, but are crises like this just becoming commonplace and so losing their impact? Are we becoming inoculated to reputation damage by over exposure? Is it possible that one of the effects of social media on reputations is to increase reputation resilience by making the many crises that seem to pop up over time less significant? Is Bank of America really harmed by all the anger and consumer threats about their debit card fees?

Clearly, the PR profession and particularly those like yours truly who are in the crisis communication business want to think that all these are really big deals. And if the impact of these random thoughts is to take pressure off crisis preparation, then I am doing a huge disservice to all the companies and organizations who are woefully unprepared. But I am wondering if we need to think about crises a little differently.

I remember talking with someone who worked in the press office of President Bush Senior. He said every day was a crisis. That certainly is the case in high profile offices like the president or mayor’s of major cities. Crises in the sense of high public interest, media activity, lots of conversation, potential risk of making the wrong moves–is commonplace in certain offices. And that may very well be what is happening in the social media world. Almost everyday can be a crisis–some far more significant than others. I suspect if you work for a major brand and you are doing your social media monitoring, you are dealing with a dozen minor crises right now, or ones that could erupt into something more major. Is it a crisis if it is a daily occurrence?

I wrote some time ago that crisis communication may be dead. I guess I’m coming back to that theme from a different angle. I said then that if you have an on-going conversation with your key stakeholders, with those people who really matter for your future, then crisis communication is just intensifying that conversation. I really think this is the new world of crisis communication–but only for those who are engaged in on-going conversation.

That seems to me to be the crucial difference. Crisis communication in the older and now increasingly outdated sense is when you need to rely on traditional media to address the concerns and communicate with the people that matter. The new crisis communication to a large degree can  afford to ignore the traditional media essentially entirely because you are already talking directly and engaging directly those people who matter most. If things go wrong, you listen, you respond, you explain, you clarify, you correct the wrong information and you carry on the conversation.

Steve Jobs’ monumental influence on crisis communication

(Slightly modified version of the post on Emergency Management)

The media and Internet are filled with accolades and comments about the passing of Steve Jobs. Few would note his passing in reference to his influence in emergency management. After all, his focus was never on how today’s response professionals do their jobs. Yet, I would like to suggest that there may be no one that has altered crisis communication more than that one man. The only thing to rival his impact would be the Internet itself and it is more difficult there to focus on an individual.

Steve Jobs was first and foremost a culture maker. We live in a far different world today than when he co-founded Apple Computer in 1976. Certainly, there are a great many factors that have come together to make the culture we now exist in, but few had as much impact on it as he did. His uniqueness in my mind lay in his ability to bring together things that were both the height of coolness with great practicality. Almost everyone of his major creations knocked it out of the park in coolness, in visual appeal, in their focus on enabling others to make cool and beautiful creations–but they also knocked it out of the park in power and capability. That combination is what made Apple’s products world beaters. Sure, there was the anti-cool crowd who believed that anything cool couldn’t be that practical or effective. But, Apple’s market share and market cap are proving all the time and in today’s world, coolness and practicality are increasingly essential.

As a culture maker, we have to recognize the expectations of the audiences and stakeholders we deal with in emergency and crisis communication. These include expectations about visual graphics, videos, clean design, simplified information presentations, and–being cool. Yes, there is a difference between the PC/Microsoft culture and cultural expectations and the world envisioned and presented by Steve Jobs and Apple. Microsoft’s continuing and increasingly effective emulation of Apple coolness makes it clear that the Apple culture values pervade. And that means a lot, especially for communicators.

But, as important as Jobs’ impact on culture is, his technology innovation has really changed our world. As my friend Bill Boyd notes with the title of his blog, it’s not our emergency any more. That is a mindshift that has yet to occur to most in emergency and crisis management. We think we own it, control it, run it, and that the results depend entirely on us. Wrong. Those eyewitnesses, those impacted citizens, those customers who participate around the world via the Internet and social media, it is increasingly their crisis. The running of such events is not so much a command and control thing anymore, as much as we talk about and work toward unity of command. Crisis management as we have so clearly seen in multiple events is now a crowd event. Professional responders are collaborators whether they understand that and recognize it or not. Those who will be most effective, in my opinion, are those who embrace this sea change, and learn to work with the crowd in a strong but collaborative manner.

Jobs had more to do with that change than anyone. Like millions of others I found out about his death on my iphone. If you don’t use an iphone, the smart phone you do use, regardless of brand, was heavily, heavily influenced by the innovations introduced by the iphone. I write this on my Macbook Pro and read The Economist on my ipad. Yes, I am an Apple junkie like so many others. But you don’t have to be to be using devices created by Apple, because like the smartphone, almost any digital communication device is a follower of Apple products.

I heard Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ co-founder of Apple, talking about his old partner on CNN last night. He said that above all Jobs saw the computer as a communication device. That was his true genius I think. When Apple started IBM ruled the computer world and Microsoft was soon to emerge to empower the masses. But IBM was about number crunching and Microsoft was about enabling business people to use computer power. From the first device, Apple was about making computer technology very simple, very warm and fuzzy and mostly about how people communicate with each other. Communication since then has changed dramatically, including emergency communication. No one has done more to change that than the man we honor today.

How to embarrass the embarasser, or how transparency turns the tables

Say you are a NGO heavily involved in political activity. Someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum wants to discredit you–obviously you are being effective. So they hire a research firm to dig out embarrassing details and the research firm does a massive search for public records, intending clearly to find some tidbit of impropriety between you and your political contacts. Even the slightest misjudgment can make juicy headlines in today’s easily manipulated media environment.

What do you do? How about beating your opponents to the punch, gathering up all the public records and publicly making them public? That’s what LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy) did. This op-ed by the LA Times’ Jim Newton ends up making LAANE and its executive director positively virtuous, while the research firm who requested the records ends of looking pretty sleazy.

Certainly there are those who might say that its all partisan politics–LAANE is pro-union, pro-environment, pro-immigrant rights, etc., and the research firm is known for working for conservatives. For those who would see it this way, the positive report by LA Times only proves their orientation. But, to simplify it this way would miss the point: transparency.

Fact is, the reporter did uncover some little tidbits. It even found that it under-reported the time and money it spent on lobbying on a tax return. I can see the headlines now. It’s the kind of juicy little thing that works so well in today’s. But, since the organization self-reported through this process (forced though they may have been by the public record’s request) the news communicated something entirely different–a minor mistake which was corrected in the next year’s filing.

The lessons here are obvious. Transparency builds trust. If you have something bad to reveal its a heck of a lot better coming from you. And if you are going to try to do a smear job on someone, you better hope that they have something big to hide and that they won’t just open their kimono. Might make you, the intended smearer, look like the bad guy.

Bank of America–could customer anger have been prevented?

Bank of America’s situation is similar to Netflix in that they made a business decision without much in the way of preparation and communication. The Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation is the reason for the increase according to the bank and to some on social media. This amendment limits the fees banks can charge for debit card swipes. A perfect example to me of unintended consequences with regulation aimed at protecting consumers but interfering directly in the best protection consumers can have which is healthy competition. But there is little in the social media discussion that blames the government regulators rather than the bank.

Bank of America is taking the heat big time on social media from this action of raising fees. However, their voice in responding to the criticism has been silenced because their website has been off and many are complaining about the speed of online services. As seems increasingly common these days, public or consumer anger turns into “hactivism,” with one result being the inability of the victim to engage in the conversation or communicate their key messages. Cyber security is becoming a significant crisis communication concern.

Undoubtedly other banks will be adding similar fees. So those many angry customers of BofA may go through the hassle of switching only to find their new bank doing the same thing. The first airline to add baggage fees took an awful lot of heat as well. But the others soon joined in, and without searching it, I can’t remember who the first airline was. Perhaps the same will happen to Bank of America—the consumer outrage will turn to general outrage against banks rather than the one who went first.

I think it will be different in that there seem to be all kinds of ways that banks can increase fees and with a large number of consumers switching accounts as seems likely from the heated comments, the other banks would be wise to hold off on adding the debit card fee, or like Citi bank find another way of adding revenue. So whether the present problem affects the bank longer term rather than a quick blip of customer loss depends on what competitors do and how much animosity against the bank has been built up. Is this the straw that causes mass customer reaction?

No doubt banks have to find ways to increase fees from consumers and the closer the fees are to the costs of doing business, the better. But building understanding of the realities even the biggest banks face, allowing time from the reaction to cool down before taking action, and then making certain you have the ability and actually do engage in conversation with your customer base seems a much better way forward than we have seen with Bank of America. In contrast, their actions and communication seems like the arrogance that Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, admitted to and apologized for.

Given BofA’s other reputation issues, it certainly seems that it would have been in their best interest to let one of the other guys take the lead in this new era of higher bank fees. Sometimes its best of the leader lets someone else take the lead. Pioneers, as they say, often get arrows in their backs.


Bulldog Reporter seems to think that this anger and backlash is all part of the bank’s grand strategy to switch customers to using the more lucrative credit cards. It is surprising to me that Dog, which seems hypersensitive otherwise to social media backlash, would blow this reaction off as some part of a grand strategy.

I also find it interesting that in this post that the bank spokesperson says they are “doing their best to explain the impact.” Hmm, seems their best could have been a lot better.