Al Jazeera’s big audience in Oregon and Vermont–and more fascinating media facts

Who’s tuning into the New York Times? To the Onion? To FOX, or MSNBC? Forbes worked with Bitly to dissect where media audiences reside for many major news outlets. And since we now have such disparity of perspective and political leaning, this media map says an awful lot about the orientation of the media audience in each state.

There are some surprises and some expected results: FOX News is particularly strong in Mississippi and Alabama, no surprise. But North Dakotan’s appear to love MSNBC–surprises me. My own state of Washington loves the New York Times (no great surprise) but it also appears to provide the biggest audience (online anyway) for the Wall Street Journal. Not only do North Dakotans love MSNBC, it seems they are fans of The Onion as well, as much as Wisconsin.

While Oregon and Vermont light up the screen for Al Jazeera, its interesting to see that Alaska, Washington, New Mexico and Texas also have an affinity for the channel. May have to do with military presence, at least in Texas and Washington. Don’t recall any big Army bases in Oregon and Vermont, however.

How to combat the “pink slime” attack?

Beef Products Inc. (BPI) is in a fight for its life because of the labeling of their beef product as pink slime and the fear and outrage generated by Jamie Oliver, ABC News and others, including Food Inc. It will be interesting to watch how they try to recover. Seems a pretty steep challenge given the widespread news reports and the epithet “slime.”

Here’s one example of what they are doing. It’s a video on YouTube showing their response to the way they were treated by the producers of Food Inc. For personal reasons I won’t comment further, but let you be the judge.

Would love to hear some crisisblogger readers comment on how BPI should react–other than saying that now is too little and too late.

“Pink Slime” vs. 100% beef–crisis destroys a company and thousands of jobs

Can social media and “black hat” mainstream media destroy jobs and a company unnecessarily? That’s a central question for those involved in crisis management. Clearly, the answer is yes, which is why those of us involved keep saying: prepare now.

Beef Products Inc. (BPI) is the company at the heart of the “pink slime” debate. I’m not sure if Jamie Oliver coined the term “pink slime,” but if he didn’t he certainly sparked the widespread interest in this product. From the huge and predictable reaction, given the sensationalist nature of Oliver’s presentation, in social media, the story leaped to the front pages by a further sensationalist report particularly by ABC News.

What is “pink slime” and why the outcry? It is beef trimmings that has been treated with ammonia hydroxide gas to eliminate harmful bacteria such as e.coli. Oliver’s complaint is about the beef trimmings and in this video of his TV show he holds up gross-looking pieces of beef and suitable disgusting audience reaction when he mentions that this in your school food. I wish that Oliver would be honest and also show the ingredients of much of German and Italian sausage that he no doubt thinks is among the greatest food on earth (and on that subject I would agree). But he is selective, sensationalist and fundamentally dishonest in my mind.

But he got the reaction he wanted. By showing selective ingredients he suitably disgusted the audience. But then he opens a locked cabinet to reveal “all your household chemicals” including a bottle with a skull on it to show it is poison marked “ammonia.”

(screenshot from Jamie Oliver’s presentation on pink slime)

And, of course, that’s the killer because why would you eat anything treated with a chemical that has a skull on it and needs to be kept safe from children in a locked cabinet?

I’ve always enjoyed Jamie Oliver and think a lot of him as a chef and entertainer, but I find this treatment of “pink slime” disgusting and irresponsible. But, never to miss an opportunity to create fear and outrage, ABC jumped on the story (remember ABC was the primary “investigator” behind Toyota’s “software” problems that turned out to be bogus. Never did see an apology or acceptance of responsibility from ABC and Brian Ross on that one.) Because of the now near panic created by the sensationalist TV entertainment and news stories, the retailers reacted by pulling the product from the shelves, schools refused to provide beef products that included “pink slime,” and pressure was put on government regulators for failing to do their job. No doubt we have our “white knight” legislators already rewriting the rule book on beef products to eliminate pink slime from the marketplace.

The upshot? BPI has shut down all but one of its plants, and is now going on the “offensive” to try to recover its brand, its product and its reputation.

But, another strange thing is happening. News reports are now coming out suggesting that the product isn’t necessarily bad or harmful and the company may have been wronged.

What’s the truth? Yes, the “lean, finely textured beef” that has now become labeled as pink slime includes bits and pieces of beef. But, as the label states, it is beef. And the deadly chemical ammonia hydroxide? Turns out it is a natural chemical found in beef, but a small amount is added to what is already in the beef in order to destroy harmful bacteria.

I blogged yesterday about the Culture of Fear. This shows how entertainers like Jamie know how to play to that, and how reporters and producers know how to attract audiences by heightening fears. It shows how crisis normally start in social media or from videos posted on YouTube and rapidly gain momentum both from amplifying messages in social media and mainstream media. Each step of the process heightens the fear and outrage. It shows how companies, understandably sensitive to their own business, respond at the first sign of consumer reaction and pull the product, further amplifying the message that this stuff must really be bad.

I want to throw open the window, say I’m mad as hell and won’t take this any more! When will we come to our senses and realize that we are being played like a violin?

There are three big lessons from this sad story:

1) We’re only at the beginning of a very disruptive reevaluation of our food. It’s going to be painful. And ultimately, it may signal the end of affordable food. I worry about those who, unlike Jamie, can’t afford food using only the most pristine ingredients and processes.

2) Transparency and disclosure are essential. BPI, like all other food manufacturers, had better come clean and fully disclose what they are doing. It’s better to do it in advance. Don’t wait for new labeling laws. If you are hesitant because you think people won’t understand and buy your product, you may have to change what you are doing. The fact is, people are getting very concerned and if what you are doing is right and good, then tell people. If not, change it now while you can and are not forced to close your plants or business because of this kind of overreaction.

3) Prepare. Sorry BPI, but you should have been prepared. Coming out on the offensive now is far far too late. Yes, a massive response was required given the legs the Jamie Oliver hit piece generated. But, this is a warning to all food manufacturers: you may be next. Your product may be “slimed,” given a disgusting name and the chemicals and processes used may be fodder for an attention hungry entertainer or reporter (not sure of the difference these days). You’d better be ready for a massive effort to counter the fear mongering and outrage-hyping that is certain to come about other food products in the very near future.








The culture of fear and the attention economy

This video from a conference in New Zealand feature Microsoft Research professional Danah Boyd is, I think, a very important contribution to our understanding of our media and social media world.

Similar to the book “What is Happening to the News,” Ms. Boyd points out the connection between a supersaturated information world and the emergence of fear as the primary tool to break through the clutter. She says (approximate quote):”the more stimuli that competes for your attention, the more likely fear will drive your attention to them.”

Relating to my discussions on chemophobia, food safety, environmental disasters, brake problems on cars–there is a very strong built-in bias to create maximum fear by anyone who is competing for your attention. Headline writers whether they be from NYT, HuffPost or my blog, all work exceptionally hard to capture attention. You’ve got less than two seconds to do it. Viral video studies have shown that the key is visceral emotion–fear works wonders in that regard. So any journalist, editor, broadcaster, or blogger worth their salt is going to get very good at writing the headlines and focusing on those elements of a story that maximize the fear factor.

This is so significant for crisis communicators. When the TV cameras show up, when the reporter calls, when the blogger is digging up a story, what do they really need from you? They need something that will help them either create new fear or heighten existing fear. Yes, a generalization, but not such a broad one.

What does that mean for crisis communication? In short (and much more needs to be said on this): go direct to your audiences and two, be prepared to do all you can to counter the fear, uncertainty, dread and outrage that is the natural consequence of covering important stories today.

How the media create irrational fear–an interview with Jon Entine

I blogged recently about Jon Entine and his book “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” Following that I had the opportunity to interview Jon via skype and record it. I’m presenting that interview to you in the hopes that it will aid understanding of how today’s media’s need to attract audiences can be harmful. Not just to reputations, as we talk about here frequently, but even to our health.

This is one more of a continuing series of video interviews with interesting thought leaders and crisis communication experts. I encourage you to add your name to the email list at as I will be sending out notices when valuable new training and education tools like this become available.

View video on website.

10 minute edited video

Full 45 minute discussion


Ft Hood shows how to manage a global town hall meeting

One of the most interesting stories I’ve come across in a long time is how Ft. Hood, I believe the nation’s second largest army base near Killeen, Texas, managed a global town hall meeting featuring live discussion with their global community.

The Army III Corps commander stationed at the massive army post said he wanted to do a  town hall meeting that would involve the entire base’s community. That means 350,000 soldiers, family members, retirees and others connected to the base. Including about 8000 personnel deployed in Kuwait and Afghanistan. That’s a tall order. But Chris Haug, Chief of Media Relations at the base, and Christie Vanover, Chief of Command Information and Social Media Manager put it all together, and in late January the town all meeting was conducted. Unlike the town hall meetings the base commander would do the past, with officers gathered in a hanger, this one involved over 100,000 of the bases’ community listening in and over 2200 actively participating with questions or comments.

How did they do it? It was definitely a multiple-channel, multi-media, integrated communications exercise. It involved a live satellite broadcast feed picked up by local Texas TV broadcasters and even by Al-Jazeera enabling deployed soldiers to participate. It involved live webcast streaming, internet radio, Facebook, Twitter, email, telephone and the bases PIER site. In fact, I’m quite proud to say, PIER was the tool used to integrate the various channels and particularly effective in allowing over 50 Subject Matter Experts, many of whom were in other locations, to actively assist the Commander in answering questions in real time.

If you have a community you need to connect with, if you are really getting the message about engagement, then you will definitely want to learn more about this. And O’Brien’s and PIER, are sponsoring a webinar featuring Chris Haug and Christie Vanover who will let you look behind the curtain to see exactly how all this was done. I’ll be facilitating the discussion and would love to have you participate.

This is a really unique opportunity to learn some cutting edge application of today’s communication technology, so pass this invite along and let everyone you know who might be interested know about this webinar. The webinar is Thursday, March 29 at 1 pm CDT. Here again is the link and registration. The webinar will be recorded so send me an email at if you can’t participate and want a copy of the recording g.

Interest in Pinterest–an expert close to home

Pinterest, as most now know, is the fastest growing social media site–ever. That means it is relevant for crisis and emergency communication under the theory that you have to go where your audiences are. Pinterest’s audience is still over 80% women and some would describe it as a shared scrapbook–I wouldn’t, but some would.

When KING5 News, the leading TV broadcaster, decided to do a story on Pinterest they found a real expert in Seattle on it. Someone who uses it, loves it, and knows how to leverage its functions to expand the reach of their blog. None other than my daughter Ashley (Baron) Rodriguez. We watched her on TV last night as she explained to the Pacific Northwest just what Pinterest is and what it is good for. If you’ve been around crisisblogger very long, you probably already know that she is one of the top food bloggers in the world (not according to me, but according to Times Online of Financial Times London). Her blog Not Without Salt is gorgeous, filled with spectacular photos and of course great food which she creates.

Sure, I’m proud. But this also reveals one of my secrets of keeping up on this social media stuff. I’ve got three top experts in the family so I don’t have to go far to get the scoop on the latest.

Goldman PR crisis–Round 27

Does it seem to you that Goldman Sachs has sort of an unending PR crisis? The latest involves a London-based executive, Greg Smith, who quit the company rather publicly by having his resignation letter published as an op-ed in the New York Times. That strikes me a little odd–does NYT publish resignation letters from disgruntled employees routinely or was this some sort of special case? I’m guessing the news potential was too great to pass up.

The news nose knows it, and the letter and op-ed went viral, as they say. Why? This article suggests some reasons. I’m thinking it has a lot to do with the general distaste left in the mouth of most relating to fat cat Wall Street bankers, plus the continuing PR disasters that seem to haunt this once highly respected firm. How have the mighty fallen.

Given that, I think PR Daily News missed a key point in their otherwise valuable reflection on this latest crisis and what it means for crisis managers. They report that Goldman’s response to this latest hit was to say “we disagree.” Here’s the quote:

“We disagree with the views expressed, which we don’t think reflect the way we run our business. In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.”

Now, that is cautious, reasonable and I’m sure reflects the view of management. Unfortunately it does little to help Goldman’s increasingly severe reputation crisis. I believe it is one of the key functions of communication managers in an organization to deeply understand and represent the viewpoint of those outside the organization–particularly those who matter most to the future of the organization. If that is the case and a dose of reality were injected into the discussion about how to respond to the unhappy, loudmouth ex-employee I would have said: “You know we think this guy is out to lunch and clearly wants to hurt us. But, we’ve been hit by many accusations including some that proved to be fairly well established as fact. We need to approach this with uncustomary humility. We need to show that we are clearly examining ourselves to see how we match up with the values and expectations of our customers, potential customers, and stakeholders. Therefore, I suggest we issue as statement such as: ‘Mr. Smith’s accusations are hard-hitting and painful, particularly at a time when we are carefully reassessing the true values of Goldman Sachs. While we believe he is fundamentally wrong on some of the key issues, particularly that we don’t care about our customers, we are taking this criticism to heart. It is valuable, if painful, input that deserves our attention and we will use it to continue the soul searching that is necessary for us at Goldman Sachs as we look to a healthier, more respectful future.'”

OK, maybe I’m the one out to lunch. What do the rest of you think? Did Goldman’s flat rejection help them in their increasingly tenuous reputation management challenges?



Tweet or not tweet in a crisis–good advice, bad headline

I was sent this article (thanks Chuck!) from Business Insider that has the headline “The Best Thing to Do in a Crisis is Stay Away from Twitter.” I was intrigued because this is exactly the opposite advice that I and others that I know whom I consider experts in this field have been teaching and preaching.

I suspect that the article will get a lot of circulation because a number of more traditionalists in crisis communication and PR will glom onto the headline without reading the story and say, “See! I told you! Using social media in a crisis (or any time) is a bad idea!”

James MacGregor, the author of the article, does indeed suggest that social media is not the panacea that is often suggested. He says:

“…we are so often besieged with assertions that crises are effectively managed (or, perhaps, can only be managed) through massive applications of social media (only a few years ago, it was massive applications of traditional news media). We don’t think so. Judiciously deployed, social media can be powerful tools. But in many circumstances, social media are more likely to cause or worsen a crisis than they are to prevent one. And once a crisis has arisen, the best remediation is likely to be very old-fashioned— direct, simple, helpful and, above all, personal.”

No doubt that social media can cause or worsen a crisis, if not used well. And that is what he says:

“Used judiciously, social media can sometimes forestall a crisis. Used foolishly or maliciously, social media can provoke a crisis, or turn it viral. Once a crisis does erupt, social media has considerable potential to make it bigger, uglier and faster-moving.”

OK, he says use social media judiciously. He doesn’t say don’t use it. But then he makes the strong case why you need to be aware, monitor and use it during a crisis. He talks about how people will find out first about a crisis through Twitter and how YouTube will enable them to see it, and how blogs will “drown out mainstream media.” His solution to this new reality:

“There’s a corresponding litany of things you can do to prevent or deal with all this: Learn how and when to tweet yourself. Make and post your own videos. Hire a social-media monitoring service. Hire a search-engine-optimizer…”

That doesn’t sound to me like the advice supposedly encapsulated in the headline.

But he also suggests that you can cause a problem with Twitter (I agree) and that once a problem is caused with Twitter you can’t fix it with Twitter (hmmm, not so sure about that). He says:

“You are very unlikely to defeat a Twitter-formed perception with more Twitter. All that happens is more public visibility is given to the dispute about the first perception.”

First, Twitter and other social media have been shown to be remarkably self-correcting and you can be part of that process. But he says in effect a firestorm on Twitter may require more than Twitter to be put out. Yes, as he says in this article–it is a multi-channel world and we must operate in those multiple channels. Sometimes you have to use more than Twitter including as much direct communication as you can, as he points out, in order to defeat a firestorm on Twitter.

And that seems to be his real point because I agree completely his four summary points:

1) Go direct 2) Answer the question first (in other words, deal directly with what people want to know) 3) Be short be simple (he refers to the 140 character limit 4) Be pre-emptively good (actions speak louder than words).

Great advice. But doesn’t go direct also mean using the same channels that at least some in your audience are you using including social media?

Altogether, Mr. MacGregor in my mind is sending very mixed messages about using social media and the potential for damage. In that he is completely correct. But the headline gives no mixed message at all and consequently it does a severe disservice to Mr. MacGregor and his advice. The Business Insider editor takes pains to point out the headline was written by O’Dwyer’s. Clearly it was written to attract attention ala “Man Bites Dog,” but it is irresponsible, misleading and will do harm to those who will jump on this advice they see in it.






New study evaluates crisis principle #1: ‘fess up fast and honestly

In this study published in the Public Relations Journal, Jo Robertson asks the question: Does it really help for an organization in a crisis to self-disclose bad news and do it quickly?

In this academically-oriented report, she, (I assume she because Jo and not Joe) first shows that while “talk early and confess completely” is a well established maxim of crisis communication, there has been little other than anecdotal or case study support for the idea. No thorough analysis.

In the author’s words, this is what this study attempted to establish:

This study sought to determine whether there is validity to the assumption that a
company in crisis should release all potentially damaging information immediately rather than wait to see whether the information is discovered. Research questions included:
What are the ramifications for a company in crisis that withholds damaging information which later comes to light? Does releasing all damaging information proactively shorten negative press attention regarding the crisis?

The research methodology was based primarily on survey responses submitted by journalists in the WA DC area. The author looked at nine different crises involving both government and private companies, from 2003 to 2006.

The conclusion?

There is now research to support what until now has been only assumption with regard
to the potential damage that could be incurred by withholding information. Rather than
assuming information needs to be shared forthrightly, we now know the consequence of
withholding information will be more media coverage, keeping negative information
longer in play and raising the odds of reputational damage. Withholding information
which later comes to light can not only cause additional media attention, but that media
attention may be even greater than the attention initially generated when the crisis first
Ninety-five percent of journalists surveyed said they would be more suspicious of a
company if they found that the company had withheld critical information, or tried to
cover it up, than if the company had released the information proactively. Nine out of
ten said knowing that the company had deliberately withheld information would cause
them to dig deeper and harder for additional incriminating information. And an
overwhelming majority (98%) of journalists say the fact that the company had tried to
withhold information would prompt additional coverage.
If all information is released when the crisis first breaks, journalists estimate their
coverage of crisis stories could likely be over within the first 24-48 hours. However,
when additional information comes to light – even as early as one day after the crisis
genesis – the number of total stories increases. More damaging, though, is that the
total number of stories is more spread out – increasing the length of time the story is
kept “alive” and company reputation can continue to suffer damage. Also, subsequent
attention is often more pronounced and more damaging than the initial spike of media
attention. And since stock value remains low throughout the time period of most intense
negative media coverage, allowing damaging information to seep out gradually can slow financial recovery.

Phew! I’m glad that more objective research (however limited this study may be) confirms what seems very common-sensical. So, if you as a communication manager need to convince corporate attorneys, your CEO or Exec Director, or the senior team that releasing bad news early is a good idea, you’ve got something more than the universal advice of communication experts to rely on. For that reason, this report is invaluable.

But, here’s where I think it is very incomplete. This deals only with media coverage, which as most are slowly coming to realize, is playing a less and less significant role in crises and reputations. What about the new dynamic of social media discussion about crises on reputations? If anything, my sense is that this dynamic increases the need for speed and full disclosure. But, that’s just my sense. We need an academic like Dr. Robertson to validate that.