Has social media increased trust in mainstream news?

It’s not news that American news consumers don’t think much of the media’s news reporting. I’ve seen a number of studies and they all hover around 20% trust in the news. That’s a whopping 80% who say they don’t have much trust. Those numbers were confirmed by a study commissioned by Craig Newmark of craigslist fame and published on his site craigconnects.org. The survey results are neatly presented in this infographic published on that site.

The answer–by more than 2 to 1 the respondents said social media has a negative impact on news coverage. 17% said positive, 34% said negative impact. I find that fascinating and would love to understand the reasons why so many think it is negative.

An even more important and interesting question asked of the 1001 and survey respondents was what factors do they consider most important in news coverage. Here’s the summary:

– Speed (first to report the story) 6%
– Free 8%
– In-depth analysis 23%
– trustworthy 49%

The remaining percentage was refused to respond or don’t know.

I have a feeling this is one of those survey questions where people’s behavior doesn’t match the way they answer the question. If that were the case, only truly responsible news outlets would be getting the audience. The fact is, ratings show that other factors are critically important including speed, emotional content, compelling story telling, striking visuals, etc. As much as I am critical of today’s news coverage (as any frequent reader here will recognize) the people running these channels are not dumb–they are giving people what they want.

Trust is somewhat of a slippery concept as we can see in the extreme partisanship of news coverage. Where some would say they trust Sean Hannity others would say they trust Rachel Maddow. Trust has an awful lot to do with our starting point, not some sort of objective measurement to which we can all essentially agree. The fact that the study shows greater trust in mainstream media among Democrats than Republicans may simply be an indication that the mainstream media for a long time has been more aligned with Democratic ideas and values than that Dems are inherently more trusting than Republicans.

Before I go wandering off into politics here, let’s bring this back to crisis communication. The opportunity here is huge for those who understand that increasingly they are the broadcaster. That means the inherent lack of trust in media, and in social media, can work to the advantage of official communicators BUT only if their organization and leaders understand that nothing is more important than protecting their credibility. That means being completely and unflinchingly honest. It means that telling everything is as important as telling the truth in what you do tell. That’s where it gets hard, but trust is built when you willingly and openly disclose the ugly truth, even when–no, especially when, it really hurts.


Wired’s list of big news stories broken by Twitter

No big news for most of the readers here, but Twitter is where news happens today. I had the rare privilege today of delivering that and related messages about our changing world of crisis communication today to 22 CEOs of electric utilities. I think there is a pretty strong sense among this group that we live in a much faster, more dangerous world as far as trust and reputations go.

For those who don’t yet get the connection between news today and what happens on Twitter, this story from Wired is a good place to start.

Apple’s CEO shows how to handle a media-caused crisis

I’ll admit it. I’m an Apple fan. I’m writing on a huge iMac, with four other Apple products nearby. And yes, I own some stock, but purchased recently unlike my much smarter children who bought it a long time ago. So I’ve been watching Tim Cook, Job’s replacement, very closely for clues to what Apple’s future holds. And particularly the simmering crisis over working conditions.

The accusations looked serious, and they are serious. But, increasingly it looks as if the accusations are once more about reporters and editors looking for attention-grabbing headlines at the expense of hard-earned reputations rather than telling the truth and giving the whole picture.

The article in the Jan 26 edition of The New York Times is clearly intended to produce shock and awe. The headline: “In China, Human Costs are Built into An Ipad.” The article starts with a horrific explosion with words like: eruption, fire, noise, twisted metal pipes. It gets worse as it tells the story of victims of the explosion where people were polishing ipads:  “His features had been smeared by the blast, scrubbed by heat and violence until a mat of red and black had replaced his mouth and nose.”

Then, Apple is introduced as the cause of this mayhem:

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing.

It’s no secret to Crisisblogger readers that I detest this kind of reporting, particularly from The New York Times which has such a rich journalistic tradition. This kind of approach one would expect from an extremist worker’s right advocacy organization engaging in propaganda and polemic. But to have it come masquerading as journalism from one of the most esteemed publications in the world is bothersome. I’m not even talking about the facts here, I’m talking about the style clearly intended to generate outrage. Bring in the facts, which we are beginning to see are quite different from the portrayal in this story, and it becomes even more troublesome.

This story from today’s Daily Dog is instructive in the change in tone on this major crisis. Daily Dog tends to buy the mainstream media’s line on almost every crisis I have seen including Toyota, BP, Netflix, etc. (I’ve commented on that frequently here, seeing that as surprising for a publication that serves the PR industry). Here is the Dog’s assessment: “Looking to get in front of the story, Apple enlisted the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct an audit of the Foxconn facilities — and the resulting report has quickly broken a PR mountain down to a molehill. “

As usual, the story of worker conditions in China are far, far more complicated than the NYT’s and the hundreds of thousands of protest signers will allow. For one thing, there is the overall disparity in working conditions between the US and the rest of the world. But, it is because of companies like Apple that that disparity is rapidly decreasing. USAToday has comments from several on this controversy, including this from Tim Worstall of Forbes:

“It is precisely because Apple manufactures in China that conditions for manufacturing workers in China are getting better. Better at a rate never before seen in human history. And if we were to be realistic about this, instead of spouting nonsense, then we would recognize this basic fact. And it is that last which is the most important fact about it all. Far from a boycott of Apple products being the best way to better conditions at the manufacturing plants, it is the purchase of products from such plants which is, as it has been for the past few decades, making China a richer and better place. Boycotting Apple for better Foxconn wages and conditions is like having sex for virginity. Entirely counterproductive and exactly the wrong thing.”

And David Pogue, the highly regarded tech writer for NYT, has a far more nuanced view of the issue than the propagandists behind the Jan 26 NYT article: “Nobody wants to see workers exploited, and if Apple can pressure Foxconn to clean up its act, it should. Apple is the poster child for the conditions at the Foxconn factory. (But) Apple isn’t the only company that builds electronics at Chinese factories. The truth is, almost all of them do. … What assurance would the Apples and Dells and Panasonics have that if they forced their Chinese contractors to adopt American-level wages and conditions, their competitors would all do so simultaneously? That’s the part that the protests are missing. Is Apple supposed to be the only company that takes on the costs of improving conditions? Are the protesters seeking a world where an iPhone costs $350 and a competitive Android phone costs $200? … The issue is complicated. It’s upsetting. We, the consumers, want our shiny electronics. We want them cheap, yet we want them built by well-paid, healthy workers. But apparently, we can’t have both.”

The question here really isn’t how bad much of today’s media reporting is, but how to deal with it if you find yourself in the crosshairs of this kind of reporting. Tim Cook was angry and the reports of his reaction made that clear. That’s good if you can stand on solid ground. But the best thing he did was to bring in an independent auditor and to commit to monthly reports on working conditions. He made it clear that Apple has high standards, that it audits, that it is a positive contributor to improving working conditions. But he didn’t leave that to his and Apple’s credibility alone. He brought in an outside auditor for credibility and vowed to make results transparent.

Certainly, there are those now who want the original accusations to be upheld, and who now are trying to discredit the Fair Labor Association as an independent auditor. Which brings us to the basic point and something important for crisis manager’s to understand: the position you take on a story and controversy like this says more about you and your perspectives than about what is being said. There are those who find globalization a great evil, who believe that the very high standards for environmental protection and worker protection that we, as the richest country in history, have adopted should not be compromised one bit by others who do our manufacturing for us. They will find nothing but evil in Apple (and Dell and HP and, and, and all the others who manufacture in China or other countries with cheaper labor than the US. They will discredit those who counter there already fixed opinion.

But, my take on this is also clearly biased as I mentioned at the outset. Biased by my positive view of Apple, by my belief that globalization results in reduced poverty and improved living standards around the world, and belief that media stories like this one are driven more by intense competition for eyes than for a genuine desire to inform.

Dealing with a crisis like this drives us back to the old political strategy of “saints, sinners and saveables.” There are those you will never convince (sinners), there are those who you have with you regardless of the story (saints) and then you have those who could turn in either direction (saveables). The most effective strategy is aimed at the saveables and to prevent as much as possible them moving more and more into the sinner category. I think Tim Cook’s reaction to this very significant crisis demonstrates that strategy and also gives me more confidence in the future of Apple than before the crisis.


What do you do when employees disparage the company on social media?

I was asked by Matt Wilson of Ragan PR Daily to comment on the American Airlines trouble with a presumably now former flight attendant who mocked the company and senior executives in YouTube videos he clearly meant to go viral.

The American Airlines and Starbucks stories reminded me of a local one that I was going to comment on a couple of months ago. My own Congressman, Rick Larsen from Washington State fired three young staffers after they tweeted some ridiculous things including calling their boss and idiot. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/reliable-source/post/rep-rick-larsen-fires-three-staffers-over-crass-tweets/2011/12/08/gIQAIM6DgO_blog.html
Clearly this is a new risk for organizations including government agencies, non-profits and corporations. It’s not new that employees complain about their jobs, disparage their company or bosses, or use their complaints to entertain others. The risk is in the fact that these antics are now so easily spread through the internet and so easily picked up by the media. It is also true, as the Larsen staffers saw, that even though they tried to disguise who they were through using pseudonyms and non-work accounts, these things are not difficult to uncover, and virtually impossible to remove once they get beyond the original post.
But companies and organizations walk a rope here. To appear to be too rough on kids just having fun runs the risk of acting like “the man.” Yet, to allow the kind of disparaging, damaging “entertainment” as the former flight attendant engaged in is to send a signal that such activity will be tolerated, and that will further encourage those so inclined to this kind of activity.
One other element that adds to the problem. When you have a video that goes viral, as clearly the flight attendant from American intended, it can lead to wonderful new opportunities. For example, the guy who created the fake BP twitter account which drew far more followers than BP’s real Twitter account announced after his identity was revealed on national TV that he was going to go into the business of poking fun of global corporations. And Dave Carroll, one of the most well-known song writers of recent time due to his massive hit “United Breaks Guitars” is now a hot speaker and expert on customer service. http://socialmediatoday.com/paulsimon/441272/united-breaks-guitars-made-dave-carroll-customer-service-celebrity-video-interview
What this means is, employees like the flight attendant probably are not going to be too influenced by the fear of getting fired. In fact, the instant celebrity status of going viral means they have a whole new world of career opportunities. It seems quite clear that Mr. David has an entertainment career in mind.
Which leaves companies like American Airlines (and almost everyone else) in a difficult position. I believe it is essential that organizations of all kinds have clearly written social media policies which make termination a given for publicly embarrassing, disparaging or showing disrespect toward the organization, its leaders or any employee. I do believe that Mr. David should be terminated although a backlash on this is almost certain to be generated on the internet. American should simply communicate that showing respect for others, including employees and executives, is a core value of the company and those not able to share that value simply are suited for the company.
But the real lesson from this incident, like Starbucks and Rep. Larsen, is that these things are going to happen. Now is the time for every organization to think it through. First, what are its policies. Two, have they been clearly and repeatedly communicated. Three, how will they respond when a violation occurs and Four, how will they explain their actions to the world that builds trust and respect rather than loses it.

Oregonian opens curtains on devious PR behavior

This is the kind of press report that drives me buggy. The Oregonian reporter Jeff Mapes, on Oregonlive pulls the curtain on the horrible goings on an Oregon PR firm that dares to help a chemical company defend its product.

First, let me be clear. I don’t know whether the accusations against atrazine are legit or not and I am certainly not involved in this controversy in any way. I have no dog in this hunt.

According to Mapes the PR firm “has come under scrutiny” for its role in defending the herbicide atrazine which is being criticized as a public health threat. What is this scrutiny? Is the scrutiny anything beyond that which the Oregonian itself is doing? The role of the PR firm was unveiled, as if a deeply held secret, by the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch. The subtitle of this site, prwatch.org is “reporting on spin and disinformation since 1993.” I’m just hazarding a wild guess here but any PR firm that shows up on that site is going to be judged guilty of spin and disinformation automatically. I get the impression that anyone advocating a position in opposition to the beliefs of the “Center” is going to be accused of deviousness and dishonesty. But, never mind that, says Mapes. These people uncovered the dirt.

The article from this completely unbiased source identified the work the PR folks did in looking into who the reporter on Huffington Post was who was writing several stories about the dangers of atrazine, a weed killer. The research showed that the writer of these stories had ties with the Tides Foundation which helped fund the Huffington Post Investigative Fund and also worked with Bill Moyers.

Clearly, from Mr. Mapes point of view, a PR firm doing background research on the people who are attacking a client’s products is a very bad thing. Other devious activities of this PR firm included having one of the manufacturer’s scientists work one or ghostwrite a chapter on atrazine included in a 2011 book written by John Entine of the American Enterprise Institute. The book is titled “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens the Public Health.”

The Mapes article concludes by addressing how much the PR firm got paid for their work. The fact that that amount is not known and the firm’s refusal on general policy terms to talk about work done for specific clients is added onto the pile of deviousness.

Sure, I’m overstating the tone of the article. But who can deny what Mr. Mape’s viewpoint on all of this is. The writer of the Huffington Post article and others raising questions about atrazine are never questioned as to their motives or biases. But, anyone working on behalf of the company to counter or address the questions raised about the product are subtly described as dishonest, devious, and untrustworthy. Come on.

What writers like Mapes and the Oregonian editorial staff need to come to grips with is that open debate and exposure of the important public health and safety issues is important. Debate implies two perspectives, both of which need to heard and evaluated. Why do they only want one perspective heard or treated as honest and trustworthy? I raise this issue because it is not limited to the Oregonian, but resides in much media coverage and certainly in internet discussions as well. We want to limit discussion to those whose opinions or perspectives we already agree with. That’s natural, but when this level of bias is demonstrated by a supposedly respectable media outlet, it needs to be called out.

If it can be shown, which it clearly was not in the Mapes article, that the PR firm engaged in dishonest or devious tactics, then it should be identified and their concern about PR tactics should also be our concern. But Mapes’ problem is simply that someone, a local PR firm at that, should be hired by a Swiss company and actually make money on defending their product. Everyone in honest PR should be concerned about this kind of obvious bias.

Why I think most are wrong about the Komen Foundation’s “mistakes”

I’ve really been struggling with this one. Something is amiss here. I’ve read lots and lots of comments from PR and crisis communication practitioner’s about how badly Komen screwed up their PR and crisis communications. Some even seem to think that Founder and CEO Nancy Brinker’s swept back hair and somewhat haughty demeanor in her response interview are to blame for this crisis.

I think we have to get real here. This is about a deep cultural divide in our nation. This is the same problem that Lowe’s ran into when it decided to sponsor a TV show about American Muslim’s, then changed its mind. Everyone seems to be seeing these crises as screw-ups in PR. And while I agree that given the nature of today’s hyper-networked world and how these things can spin out of control PR professionals need more than ever to be at the table when these decisions are made, I think we are missing the key issues by focusing on them as PR disasters.

1. Our nation is deeply divided on important social issues.

The Susan G. Komen, like the Lowe’s issue, and numerous others I could point out are esssentially about important social issues today: abortion vs. pro-life, gay rights vs. traditional family values, unfettered scientific research vs. right to life issues, and on and on. These can be seen as liberal vs. conservative, progressive vs. reactionary, religious vs. secular. Any organization getting caught up in the middle of these very volatile issues will find themselves in no man’s land. They will get caught in the crossfire between two deeply impassioned warring camps. One of the big mistakes that crisis pundits are missing is that Komen was already embedded in this no man’s land by funding Planned Parenthood. PP is a red flag to the bulls of the pro-life movement. PP, according to Wikipedia, is the largest provider of abortions in the US, performing 330,000 in 2009, generating income of $165 million dollars. Now, I realize I’m talking mostly to people who are not on the pro-life side of the debate. But just imagine for a moment, that you are one of the majority of American’s deeply concerned about abortions and even consider (like our courts do) that taking the life of an unborn baby is murder. That makes PP responsible for 300,000 murders in their eyes. And the $165 million blood money of the worst kind. Please understand before you react to this perspective. I am only pointing out that a very large number of Americans have a visceral reaction against Planned Parenthood and this reality likely played a significant role in the discussions at Komen about what to do about their PP grants.

2. The connection between business and cultural values including social issues is more important than ever.

It might be easy to say that, well, given this divide and the passions involved businesses just need to stay out of social issues. But that doesn’t work, because the sense is growing deeper and deeper that business is more than about making money. CEOs and leaders who do not acknowledge that their business choices affect the world in multiple ways are ignoring reality as well as the deepening cultural viewpoint that social consciousness in business leadership is essential. We see this mostly in the widespread adoption of the green movement, but business policies bear on these other social issues as well. Nearly every company or organization needs to make HR decisions, healthcare coverage decisions, purchase decisions that reflect or can be interpreted as reflecting one side or the other on this cultural divide. My wife has a strong affinity for a brand of candle holders. But that loyalty was shaken when she saw the way they were tying sales of these products to social causes that were opposed to her personal values. The dilemma is we can’t avoid social issue entanglement, but there be dragons there.

3. The internet community or the hyper-networked activists are demonstrating overweening power (dictionary: Showing excessive confidence or pride)

I believe there is something called “the internet.” The internet is not a person, or even a cohesive group. But on a number of important issues lately, the individuals I am referring to collectively as “the internet” has demonstrated immense power. One can say “the internet” was behind the Arab Spring. One can clearly see “the internet” staring down Congress and Congress blinked on SOPA and PIPA. Sen Reid’s actions in trying to push a procedural vote in a hurry seemed to be a message that said: “We’ll show you who is running the country.” But, it was “the internet” who showed him. I attribute “the internet” to Netflix backing down from their Qwikster disaster. Also for Bank of America backing off their debit card fees, Verizon backing off their online payment fees. Lowe’s ran into “the internet” on the issue mentioned earlier and Komen Foundation is battling “the internet” right now.

We can say that this is just social media at work. Somehow I think there is more to it. “The internet” is more than the sum total of people participating on the internet. It is more values driven than that, it is far more politically correct, it is far more homegenous. It is not a reflection of the vast diversity of ideas and viewpoints reflected in our society and it certainly doesn’t operate like that. But it, whatever “it” is, is incredibly powerful, and (I hate to use this word), empowered. It knows its strength now like never before. That is why I think Komen will continue to struggle. Those whom “the internet” has identified as public enemies will not easily be forgiven. They will seek to destroy them. Such is also the character of the online community that fits into this category. That is what I mean by overweening.

4. The internet community most vocal in these events does not represent the rest of the country or even close to a balance.

This is the part that most concerns me. The pundits commenting on the horrible crisis disaster of Komen seem to think that Komen violated some universal American values. As I pointed out above, the decision to remove funding violated the values of “the internet,” clearly, but not necessarily the values of the majority of Americans. But one would not know that the storm the decision and its reversal created.

One other clear example of how “the internet” does not reflect more common American ideas and attitudes. I did a bit of research on Reddit as I became interested in this through my son doing an AMA. I noticed from Wikipedia how Reddit had facilitated contributions to charities with sub-reddits from the atheist community, the Christian community and the Islamic sub-reddit. The effort, in December 2010 raised $200,000 for Doctors with Borders and World Vision (a Christian relief agency). The Wikipedia article noted that the vast majority of contributions came from the atheist sub-reddit. Now, is this because atheists are much better contributors to charities. No, as plenty of reports will show. It does suggest, however, that the atheist community is far more active and engaged on Reddit than the Christian community is. Atheists represent about 10% of the population, where those self-identifying as Christians represent upwards of 70 to 75%. However, if you want to know what “the internet” looks like in terms of hyper-connectedness, values, priorities, political leanings, you can’t do much better than spend a few hours reading the comments on Reddit.

We live in a democracy in which majority rules and some of our most cherished cultural values and institutions are built on the premise that above all we must avoid the tyranny of the minority. But with real power being shown in brute ways by “the internet” I believe we all have reason to be concerned about this kind of unrepresentative tyranny emerging. No doubt “the internet” will disagree with me and all of us instinctively believe that our views, as sensible and rational as they are, are shared by the vast majority of the rest of the world, and so will think I am out to lunch in suggesting “the internet’s” views are not reflective of all Americans.

But I want to raise a flag of caution here. There is much more to these crises than merely violating basic laws of crisis communication as I have seen stated over and over. The problem is much deeper, and if we as communicators can’t or won’t understand that, we won’t be much help in the boardroom when we finally get invited in.



Reddit, the internet’s front page, and AMA with an Intervention cameraman

I’ve only been somewhat aware of Reddit. Like a lot of other social discussion site I just don’t have time for all the chit chat and frankly, looking at the vast majority of the chit chat on there, not sure I want to spend a lot of time hanging out with those who do seem to spend a lot of time hanging there. But, lately I’ve become more aware of how important Reddit is to what becomes news, what becomes viral, and what influences public decisions. Reddit is a powerhouse.

That became clear when I followed the story of my friend (actually my son’s friend) Rory who is the guy who rescued the dog in the kayak in Florida. Even though I saw the role that Reddit played in the YouTube video going viral, now up to 1.6 million views I didn’t pay attention to its way of operating and the content of the discussion on it.

Reddit is truly user curated content. Anyone can submit a story or comment. The “redditors” then vote it up or down. The up votes mean that the story or comment rises on the site or in the comment thread. It is democratized news with a certain kind of purity. I say certain kind because the “redditors” are a pretty interesting bunch.

That became very clear to me when my son, the friend of Rory, agreed to participate in an AMA. An AMA on Reddit is “ask me anything.” Well, he actually agreed to an “AMAA”–“ask me almost anything”. Now not everyone can do this. You actually have to be someone where there is some interest when you identify yourself as “IAmA”–or a person of some special interest. Chris Baron is a cinematographer and has worked on numerous TV shows, TV commercials (seen the Ford commercials with Mike Rowe?) and documentaries. His reel and list of credits is pretty amazing (sure, I’m proud, wouldn’t you be?) But his biggest claim to fame, at least with the Reddit crowd, is that he has been the Director of Photography for Intervention and shot many of the A&E series shows in the past six years.

So, with Intervention producer’s permission, Chris submitted an “IAmA” and the discussion about his work there is enlightening. I won’t comment here about how reading some of the stuff he’s been through makes me feel (he told his mother and I a lot but clearly spared us some ugly details). Instead, the application to crisisblogger readers is two fold:

1) pay attention to this culture. The Reddit comments provide an insight into the values, ideas, perceptions, priorities and thinking of this “reddit” culture. As I recently blogged–and before the Susan G. Komen-Planned Parenthood fiasco–brands and organizations that ignore this culture and its values combined with its hyper-networked character do so at their own risk.

2) pay attention to Reddit’s impact on news and your reputation. While I would not claim that redditors reflect general attitudes, I would say that the site and those who live on it have an inordinate impact on both what is covered today and how the news is digested. That means Reddit (and Digg also which used to be the big one) need to be paid attention to. It means that when you are in the news, you are going to want to see what discussion is happening on Reddit, how the votes are going, and whether or not you are front page.

Reddit claims to be the front page of the internet. For a great many, including news outlets, I’m guessing that is not too far from the truth. but, my goodness, does there have to be so much ugliness in our discussions?


Former BP communication manager shares important lessons learned

Neil Chapman is one of the world’s true gentlemen. I got to know him about ten years ago when I was just starting to sell PIER and Neil, in his role as a lead for BP in crisis communication, became one of our best clients, and one of my most valued friends. (It’s one of the great benefits of almost any business, to meet people who come to mean a lot to you.)

Neil, unfortunately, found himself at the forefront of some of the events for which BP is now infamous, including the Texas City Refinery accident, pipeline leaks and corrosion issues in Alaska, and of course, Deepwater Horizon. Neil retired from BP and is now a consultant to primarily industrial companies looking to protect their reputation in the challenging public information environment we find ourselves in. If you believe in the value of experience, married to a genuinely smart communicator who is also someone deeply in touch with the human element involved in crisis events, you cannot do better than listen to Neil Chapman.

Neil lives in northern England these days and I live in the Pacific Northwest so we are on near opposite sides of the globe. But, I took the opportunity that Skype provides of talking with Neil about some of his experiences and recording that conversation for you to share. There is a 14 minute edited version and a 50 minute unedited version. I’ve heard from other communicators, including Jim Garrow, whom I respect greatly, that Neil’s comments are eye opening. I hope you get a chance to review them. If you do, I’d love to hear if you find this kind of Skype interview with leading lights useful. If so, I’ll be happy to continue.

Neil Chapman 14 minute discussion

Neil Chapman 50 minute discussion