Jonah Lehrer’s sad fall and the powerful lesson for communicators

I’ve been a fan of sorts of Jonah Lehrer, the 14-ish looking writer from Wired and more recently The New Yorker. His book Proust was a Neuroscientist was a great and informative read–highly original I thought.

A few weeks ago there was a kerfluffle about Lehrer and plagiarism. It was self-plagiarism that was the accusation in that he was using his own material and selling it multiple times. Now I didn’t take this too seriously as one could see it as efficient if not quite ethical. So I bought on kindle his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Another good read but I was troubled. Knowing in the back of my head about accusations of plagiarism, it seemed Lehrer was going out of his way to justify stealing content from others as part of the creative process. Here’s an example regarding Shakespeare:

“But Shakespeare didn’t just read these texts and imitate their best parts; he made them his own, seamlessly blending them together in his plays. Sometimes the literary approach got Shakespeare into trouble. His peers repeatedly accused him of plagiarism, and he was often guilty, at least by contemporary standards. What these allegations failed to take into account, however, was that Shakespeare was pioneering a new creative method in which every conceivable source informed his art. For Shakespeare, the act of creation was inseparable from the act of connection.”

Lehrer says earlier: “He [Shakespeare] never stopped stealing from Marlowe.”

Lehrer, it seems, fashions himself sort of a new Shakespeare who is pioneering a new creative method. Because yesterday he resigned from his new position at The New Yorker because of allegations that he made up a lot of the stuff he wrote about Bob Dylan in this book. He has admitted to making up quotes and then when questioned lying about the sources of those. Even his admissions seem full of contradictions and untruth.

It is ironic that the major theme of Imagine about creativity is the collaborative process, the use of many sources, the interactions between people. But Lehrer clearly has lost his way. Somehow he seems to think that his gifts in writing, storytelling and crafting good and valuable explanations for how things work justifies his taking shortcuts and, well let’s call it what it is, lying.

He is wrong, and while I am very sorry to see such a talent wasted, until and unless he comes to grips with a fundamental ethical and moral flaw all the talent in the world means nothing. Good luck getting another book published, or getting suckers to read it and believe anything in it.

Is there a lesson for crisis communicators here? I think so. Credibility is everything. No amount of good your organization is doing can justify deception or anything less than full, open, transparent honesty. You might be saving the world, you might be rescuing the lost, you might be feeding the starving, you might be on the path to nirvana–nothing matters if you aren’t telling the truth. Lehrer, of course, is German for teacher. Let Jonah be your teacher on this.




Answering some basic questions on crisis communication

Todd William, CEO of Reputation Rhino, has implemented a pretty smart marketing strategy. Engaging crisis communicators participating in a discussion board on LinkedIn to answer some basic questions about crisis communication. Then, I assume he will use their answers, on his website to build a knowledge base and credibility.

I decided to participate in his email survey and since I went to the trouble of answering his questions, I thought I’d share these thoughts with you.

1.              What is crisis communications?

All organizational communication should have an underlying goal of building trust and credibility with external audiences. Crisis communication is part of that process but unlike routine communications which is pro-active, crisis communication is in response to a sudden event that poses severe danger to the organization’s reputation and is reactive. But crisis communication, in a time of engagement and hyper-connectedness, is becoming more like proactive communication except the volume, urgency and engagement levels are much higher because of intense external audience focus.

2.              What are the biggest mistakes you see people and companies make when dealing with the media?

Biggest mistake I see is being too media-centric. We can’t seem to get off the old ways of thinking. The media were always there to allow us to communicate one-way to our key audiences. Those are the people whose opinion about us matters most for our future. But today’s technology and audience expectations allow us to communicate and engage (two way) with them directly. When we do that, our dependence on the media to convey our messages becomes much less importance—which is a good thing, given the proclivity of the media to heighten emotion in this time of intense audience competition. Media outlets are still important, but as one of many audiences and their tendency to use the story for their own needs to attract audiences needs to be continually monitored and reporting errors brought to the attention of your direct audiences.

3. How important is social media to your reputation management strategy?

Very nearly essential. Social media are important for several reasons. It facilitates direct engagement with key audiences with media involvement. It provides for the interaction that is required today. It is where many of your important audiences are and it is important to communicate according to their choices, not yours. But, it is also the first place journalists get the news that they amplify to their audiences. So if you are not there and communicating at hyper-network speed, you will likely be out of the story. All this can be done with websites, email, text messaging and other digital communication channels, but social media is already there, so use it.

4.              What is the first thing a company should do when there is a PR disaster?

Implement their carefully prepared plans and preparations. Their plans should incorporate these elements which I’ve included in the OnePage Crisis Communication Guide: event notification, initial statement, assessment, team activation, workflow. It is essential to start providing information within minutes after most sudden events. That can only be done with careful preparation including establishing in advance the contacts with and methods to communicate directly with your key audiences.

5.              How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputation?

They need to focus on building trust and understand that trust depends on two things: doing the right things and communicating them well. The most important thing in crisis communication is not what we say, its what we do. Trust is based on character, the character of the leaders which are most clearly demonstrated in what actions are being taken. Communicating well means engaging with audiences (including engagement around the actions) so that they understand clearly what the organization is doing.

6.              What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?

Do their jobs. If it is directly related to managing the response, then work hard to help the company recover. If not, continue to work and support the company through word and action. Not many understand that the old policy of deferring to spokespersons doesn’t work well any more. Employees participate via social media and social media policies need to reflect this reality. Reporters will interview anyone they want and are eager to use policies against employee’s commenting as evidence of lack of transparency. So media policy for employees today should be that they are free to talk to the media but their comments need to be restricted to their own area of responsibility and not speak for the company. They should also be trained that reporters may be actively seeking those who would demean the company and that participating in that may threaten the company’s future and therefore their own self-interest.
7.              What can companies do to better prepare for a public relations crisis?

  1. Conduct a thorough risk assessment, preferably using a risk matrix positioning potential events into categories based on likelihood and impact.
  1. Prepare a plan or carefully evaluate their plan for suitability based on today’s very different communication demands.
  2. Include the four Ps in their plan: policies, people, plan and platform—all are essential.
  3. Keep the plan simple—preferably one page like the OnePage Guide.
  4. Address critical issues in the plan including response level triggers, initial statements, frequent and continuous updates, speedy approval processes, and use of digital channels for direct communication.
  5. Base the organization structure on proven, scalable structures like the National Incident Management System’s Joint Information Center Model which provides additional benefit of enabling coordination with government responders.
  6. Thoroughly evaluate and train the team who will respond using realistic drills and exercises.


Oh, yes, my bio:

Gerald Baron, CEO of Agincourt Strategies, is a 30+ year veteran of public relations and crisis communications, is best known as the creator of the PIER System, the global standard for crisis communication management technology. He consults with, conducts training and writes communication plans for government agencies and major global corporations. He’s the author of Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News and the OnePage Crisis Communication Playbook.




Is crowdfunding journalism the answer? Could Kickstarter save our news?

The recent major media goof ups (CNN-FOX on Supreme Court, then ABC News and Brian Ross on the Colorado shooter) has me thinking more and more about a better model for professional journalism in the future. We need journalists, desperately. We need their expertise, judgment, fairness and story-telling gifts. But we are suffering from having those things which they offer us high-jacked by the intense competitive pressure.

I suggested on this blog that one way is non-profit journalistic endeavors. Not sure about it, but this item today in gigaom caught my eye. Kickstarter is the wildly successful means of providing start up funding–crowdsourcing investment funding. A friend of mine who is deep into angel investing said this approach is dramatically changing the angel funding picture.

Could journalism be funded this way? What biases and pressures would result that would lead to the similar results we have now? I’m not sure, but I am sure that, like our health care system, what we have in the major media today is seriously broken without having a clear idea how to fix it.


A letter to an unborn daughter

I thought about trying to make a connection here to crisis communication. Such as saying (as I believe) that raising a family is the biggest most important job anyone can do and the fact that so many are ill-equipped to do it, failing miserably, constitutes one of the greatest smoldering crises of our day). But I won’t do that.

I’ll just introduce this amazing, wisdom-filled letter by telling you a bit about the author. Ryan is a former employee at my PR firm. Hired as an intern, he quickly demonstrated some remarkable abilities–great people skills, strong project management, terrific work ethic, a strong sense of what is right from a PR and communication standpoint, and, as you are about to see, an unusual ability to write simple, compelling sentences.

My wife Lynne and I had the privilege of having dinner with Ryan and his very pregnant wife, Jennifer, a couple of nights ago. Ryan recently completed a course of study at Oxford and now is on to Duke. He will be joined in Durham by his wife and new baby girl, Emma, soon after she is born–in a couple of weeks if all goes to plan.

All of you who are parents, take this wonderful wisdom to heart. If you are a grandparent now, as we are, send it on to your kids and pray that they show this kind of wisdom and insight. And, if you care about our world, help everyone who cares about it see this.


a letter to emma

Posted on 


hi there, princess. it’s me, ryan. your dad. the one with the lower voice who you hear every once in a while when you’re trying to nap. or when you’re in the middle of your water aerobics routine.

you’re not far away at this point. very soon you’ll be joining us here, in the world, rather than reclining in the warmth of your mother’s womb. and we can’t wait to meet you.

we’re getting things ready for you here. picking out clothes for you to wear. setting up your bed. and tucking away plenty of fuzzy blankets. the world is getting ready for your arrival.

and i know you won’t be able to read this for a while yet, but i wanted to take the time to write you a note. i thought i’d give you a heads-up on the world that’s preparing for you, so you can prepare for it.

now, i haven’t been here for long–less than 30 years, at this point–and i’m far from having things all figured out, but i have been here long enough to take note of a few things. and so i thought i’d scratch them down for you, hoping one day they might be helpful for you.

some of this may be helpful right away. other bits will likely not be helpful until years later. and the rest, well the rest may not be helpful at all.

and if, for some reason, it turns out that none of this is all that helpful by the time you’re old enough to read it, i apologize. but know i’ve given it my best.

your mother

to start, i thought i’d tell you a few things about your mother. you’ll be spending a lot of time with her, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know her for yourself, but i’ve known her for some time now. more than 10 years, i guess. so i have a bit of a head-start, and i thought i’d give you a few pointers.

first, and most importantly, the thing you should know about your mother is that she has been waiting for you for a long, long time. in fact, you should know that you are your mother’s dream come true. it may not always feel like it, particularly when you get to the age of 13 or so, but it’s true. ever since i’ve known your mother, she’s dreamed of welcoming you into this world.

and so, on those more difficult days, never forget: long before you showed up, your mother dreamt of holding you in her arms. that will be true whether you’re 16 months or 16 years old.

the second thing you should know about your mother is that she likes her sleep. i tell you this because, if you want to earn some major points with her someday, let her sleep in. and then bring her breakfast in bed (preferably pancakes with chocolate chips). she’ll smile at you with the kind of smile that stole my heart years ago if you do.

thirdly, you should know your mother sees things in black and white. and i love that about her, mostly because it’s very unlike me. if you want to have a long conversation as you think through things, you will find i’m the man for the job. but if you don’t have time to waste and you just want a straight answer, you’re probably better off asking your mom. she’s a straight-shooter.

the last thing i’ll tell you about your mother is that she likes gerber daisies, peanut butter and chocolate (especially together), fuzzy socks, and puzzles. she does not like bananas, spiders or feet.

i could go on, but that should be good for now. i have a few other things i want to tell you that i hope might be helpful.


perhaps it’s good i started with your mother, because the next bit isn’t quite so nice.

you see, the thing is, emma, you’re being born into a world with a lot of wounds. i’m very sorry to say it, but we haven’t been very good to one another. the people who came before us weren’t very good to each other, either. nor were those who came before them.

and so what you’ll find as you move through life is a lot of brokenness. and hurt. you’ll find people have a hard time trusting one another. you’ll find people getting frustrated over things that really shouldn’t matter all that much. you’ll find people saying mean things and generally acting pretty ugly to one another a lot of times.

but don’t take it personally. it’s not about you. it’s about all of us. and the pain we share.

you didn’t create this pain, but you will be born into it. just like all of us. and like all of us, you will be asked to carry an overwhelming amount of this pain. more than seems fair. more than you can bear.

i’m very sorry about that, but my hope is that you may be able to help do something about it. in fact, my hope is that your life may be lived in such a way that you might help to heal it from the inside out.

now i know that seems like an awful lot to ask of you. and i know you’re probably asking yourself how you are possibly supposed to help heal the wounds of this world that has been broken and hurting since long before you arrived.

my answer? with love.

and yes, i know. i know that sounds terribly idealistic. i know it is sounds so simple. and it is. but it isn’t, at the same time.

you see, if you want to make a difference in this world, emma, if you want to help heal the brokenness and the hurt, you have to love.

love those who show you love. love those who don’t. love those closest to you. love perfect strangers.

and no matter how useless or thankless it seems, keep going. not to be noticed, not to be rewarded, but simply because you believe in it.

mother teresa, a woman who left us before you got here, and a woman who not only believed in love, but who embodied it, has this great quote where she says,

“do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. what we need is to love without getting tired.”

i hope you find a way to love like that, emma. without getting tired. if you do, the world will be better for it.


now i know it’s a little early for me to be talking to you about work. don’t worry. for the first 18 years or so of your life, we’ve got you covered. (and probably for a while after that, the way things are looking at the moment).

but eventually, there will come a time when you have to start thinking about what it is you want to put your hands to. we all do. here are my thoughts for when you begin to think about this.

when it comes time to consider what it is you’d like to invest your time doing, don’t over-think it. instead, trust your heart. you’ll find, as you go through life, that you like certain things. you’ll also find you dislike other things. you’ll find there are things you’re pretty good at. you’ll also find there are things you’re not so good at.

if you can, find a way to combine what you enjoy doing with the things you’re pretty good at. if you can do that, this world will not only reward you for your work, but you will find that the world will be rewarded by your work.


another thing you’ll find in this world is that everyone has questions, and everyone is looking for answers. people want to know why we’re here. they want to know where we’re going. and they want to know what happens when the curtain of this life comes tumbling down.

you’ll find, as you go through life, that people offer a lot of different answers to these questions. you’ll find some people who say their answer is the right one. and you’ll find others who say all answers are right, just as much as the next one.

we’re going to spend a lot of time together, you and i, so you’re going to find out very early on what i believe. and you’ll probably even be influenced by my beliefs. but i’m honest enough with myself to admit that there will come a day when you start poking around to find the source of Truth for yourself. when you do, here are three things i hope you’ll think about.

first, when you’re considering whether something provides answers for life’s great questions, ask yourself, “does this help make sense of what i know about the world around me? or, instead, does it sound like something someone would make up, out of some sort of wishful thinking?”

secondly, and order is important here, ask yourself, “is this aesthetically pleasing?” what i mean by that is, when you’ve found something that you think makes sense, ask yourself if it’s actually attractive, as well.

and then, lastly, after you’ve done all that, ask yourself, “does it make a difference with the pain and the hurt of this world?”

i say order is important because if something simply doesn’t hold water, in the first place, then don’t bother with how much you’d like it to be true.

but, if you find it seems reasonable enough, in light of what you know of this world, then go on to ask how it satisfies your taste for beauty. when you hear it, does it make you smile? does it make you smile uncontrollably? while not necessarily a guarantee of Truth, beauty seems to be an awfully good indicator of it.

and then, when you’ve done all that, ask yourself whether it actually makes a difference with the brokenness of this world. i can’t imagine Truth suggesting we run from the brokenness and pain that surrounds us. i can only imagine Truth healing it. any offer of truth that doesn’t do something to heal the pain and hurt of this world is too thin to be True.

i think what you’ll find when you’ve really considered things, emma, is that Truth is both intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. you’re not likely to find that all of your questions are answered with a watertight solution, but if any attempt at an explanation for our questions does not satisfy both of these requirements, and if it does not then actually attempt to make a difference with the brokenness of this world, be careful how much you trust it.

and one more thing, while we’re on this topic: there are going to be many, many people who disagree with you once you’ve arrived at a particular position. and plenty of them will be much more intelligent than you.

don’t let that bother you. but don’t shut them out, either. listen to other people’s questions. go deeply with them, and allow them to critique your ideas, as you do theirs.

but at the end of the day, when you still have questions and their arguments still scratch at the back of your mind, don’t believe or disbelieve something simply because of what others say. believe in what you think to be true and beautiful because of what you know of the world around you. at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that will provide a solid foundation for anything you hold to.

a handful of thoughts

i’m sorry these final thoughts don’t fit into any neat categories, but here are a handful of thoughts i wanted to share with you before i go.

there are an awful lot of things in life we don’t get to choose. friends is one exception. i hope you surround yourself with great friends.

i hope you surround yourself with the kind of people who love you enough to tell you the truth, even when it hurts. and if it hurts you to hear, know it hurts them to say.

if you’re hurting or struggling or lonely or confused, and you find yourself feeling like you’re the only one, remember, you’re probably not. there’s an awful lot of us. because of that, there’s someone who has likely been where you are who can help.

growing up, my grandpa (your great-grandpa) used to say, “if you see something that needs to be done, go ahead and do it. don’t wait to be asked to do it.”

i think that’s a pretty good rule. except if it’s your mom’s things left out. if that’s the case, know they’re probably there for a reason and don’t need to be picked up. trust me on this one.

i mentioned this previously, but you’re going to find things in life that you’re pretty good at. i realized i should also tell you, you’re going to meet people who are better than you at whatever that might be.

don’t let that get you down. do what you cannot not do, and do it in the way only you can.

and on a similar note, remember that we’re not likely to always be the best, the smartest, the fastest or the strongest, but we can always choose to work the hardest at whatever it is we do.

one thing you’ll come to learn is i married your mother, in large part, because she has one of the biggest hearts of anyone i know. i love that about her. i also inherited a big heart from my parents, which means you can expect to have one yourself.

two warnings about that: first, guard it. be careful. you will find your heart often leads you to love people in a way that they might not always return. and that can hurt. others aren’t always going to love as you do, and expecting them to can lead to disappointment.

at the same time, be careful you don’t guard your heart so much that you don’t allow others to feel its warmth in a way that makes their life better. that is, after all, the reason you have it in the first place.

as a girl, and later as a woman, you’ll have the temptation to believe that you ought to be defined by your body. i hope you don’t. i hope you know that you’re so much more than that. cs lewis, an author who has helped me out a lot, as you’ll come to learn, once wrote, you aren’t a body, you have a body. you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. and i think there’s a lot of truth in that.

on a similar note, one thing i hope you learn to avoid is allowing others to determine your value. what i mean is, know you are worth more than what others might think of you. or not think of you. you see, living to please others is like starting a race that has no finish line. if you can avoid this, you will save yourself an incredible amount of time, energy, and hurt.

at the same time, know that the greatest experiences in your life will come from the times you put others before yourself. they’ll come when, in one way or another, you were serving another. it seems counter-intuitive, i know, but that’s how it goes.

you’ll also find, as you go through life, that the most rewarding experiences will come from the greatest challenges. i wish it weren’t the case, but it seems to be a universal truth. knowing this, in advance, can help when you’re facing those challenges.

and, lastly, when life brings you to a point where you simply don’t know what to do, when you have to make a decision and you have no idea how to move forward, imagine yourself having to explain your decision to your future son or daughter one day (when you’re much,much older). that’s what i did with you, long before you arrived, and it helped me with some of my most difficult decisions.

see you soon

well emma, you’ll soon be making your way into this world. and we’ll be here waiting for you. like friends and family at the airport after a long flight. we’ll be wearing smiles, and we’ll be crying. well, i will be. your mom claims not to cry when she’s happy.

but here’s the thing, princess, no matter how dark this world will seem at times, know that you never have to go it alone. not ever.

when this world is overwhelming, when pain and fear is so great you want to run and hide, i want you to know this: your mother and i are here for you. and we love you. we love you with the kind of love that doesn’t make any sense. we loved you before you entered this world, and we will love you long after you arrive. we will always love you, with the kind of love that doesn’t get tired.

and at the end of a long day, a difficult month or even year, when you still have questions, you’ll find me waiting. patiently. you’ll find my lap to crawl in and my ears attentive. and when you’ve grown too big for my lap, you’ll still find my ears patiently waiting. and then, as now, i’ll give it my best.

see you soon, princess.


your dad

The media’s disregard for reputation at heart of “speed journalism” problem

I think Dave Zurawick of the Baltimore Sun nailed it with this analysis of Brian Ross and ABC News’ mistake involving tying the Aurora, Colorado mass murdered with the Tea Party. Yes, the need for speed today is driving the increasing very serious mistakes made by major media outlets. David Westin, former head of ABC News highlighted this problem, beginning with the fiasco of the coverage of the Florida election of Bush-Gore in 2000. Things have gotten worse.

I have no doubt that every day there are numerous examples at the local to national level of errors of journalism because of this need for speed. But some are more serious than others. As my friend Dave Statter pointed out, the mistake by CNN in 2009 about a Coast Guard exercise on the Potomac that they reported as a terrorist attack. There is a cascading effect to this kind of story as Dave pointed out to me in an email:

In that case the wrong information took on new meaning when the FBI shut down Reagan National Airport. Many other news organizations said “Well if the FBI is doing that it must be true.”

Of course, more recently we had both CNN and FOX reporting in error the Supreme Court overturning Obamacare. I watched in fascination the night Bin Laden was killed as CNN repeatedly stumbled over themselves reporting every little snippet of information they got when they got it–much of which turned out to be false.

As Westin points out in Exit Interview, the mainstream media has paid and is paying a high price for this in loss of trust. And that is a pretty bad thing for our society. Is it any wonder that young people turn to Comedy Central for their news instead of mainstream media? (This CBS News report from 2009 shows that nearly as many under 30 get their news from Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live as from the major news sources–but, then again, can you trust what CBS tells us?)

But what is so compelling about the Zurawick analysis is not the hyper-competitiveness of the media in being first with the news, it is the clear disregard for the hard-earned reputations of the ones they cover. That is what irks me so much about so much news coverage. Look, I understand it. They are trying to survive and to survive they have to get eyes on the screen and to get eyes on the screen today they need two things: immediacy and emotion–fear, uncertainty, dread and outrage work good. So they pump up the emotional content of any story. And let the chips fall where they may.

I believe (many will disagree with me here) that BP’s much-discussed PR failures are much more a result of this (besides spilling millions of gallons of oil in the gulf in full view of the world without being able to stop it.) Even more clear is the billions in shareholder value lost and stellar reputation of Toyota lost for this careless disregard for reputation. There are many more examples I could cite, including the reputations of friends who found themselves attacked because by framing a story in a certain way it attracted audiences. A lot of good people are getting hurt all the time by this problem.

If this is true, what’s to be done?

I’d like to suggest three things.

1) Rumor management. If you are in the story, you already know that a lot of what will be said will be untrue. Not just on the Internet, but in the mainstream. I have a hard time understanding the reluctance of so many to take misreporting head on. “Fact Check” section should be on the front page of every major organization’s on-line press room and should be used aggressively to counter every significant error in the mainstream and online media sources.

2) Go direct. The one thing I keep shaking my head at is the continuing dominance of “media centricity” in crisis communication plans, in discussion boards on crisis communication, and in the training I see. Crisis communication is NOT about the media. Let me repeat, crisis communication is NOT about the media. It is about connecting directly with those relatively few people who matter most for your future, and working with everyone who has the capability and interest to amplify your message. Does that include the media? Yes, but only as one of many–and only with the understanding that their amplification is not for your benefit but is primarily there to serve their desperate need to attract eyes.

3) Support a new media future. I am a dyed-in-the-wool free enterprise capitalist. But, I have come to believe that the commercial, competitive model for trustworthy news is broken. I’m not totally convinced as I believe there are some news sources much more trustworthy than others. I am a fan of the Economist–even with their strong integration of fact and opinion and their disdain for some values important to me. And I consider NPR a more reliable source than others–despite my discomfort with taxpayer dollars being used for news. But I tend to believe that subscriber-based or broad-based non-profit funding may be a better model. I’m not convinced that I or anyone has the answer to the news of the future and it is a fascinating time to watch all the experimentation, but like health care, I’m very convinced that what we have is not what we need without necessarily knowing what will serve us better. I suspect I am not alone in that.

I’m reminded again of what David Westin said about the news we have. We get what we want. The highly unreliable and untrustworthy news media we have today is because that is what the news consumer apparently wants. That’s determined by ratings  and the ability to sell ads. If we want something different, we have to act–first by choosing carefully what we use for news and second by actively supporting better alternatives, whatever those might be.


Aurora Colorado tragedy highlights best and worst of news today

The terrible tragedy and heartbreak playing out in Colorado provides an invaluable lesson for crisis and emergency communications. It shows in many respects the best and worst of what news has become today.

I just blogged over at about the role of twitter and viral video in immediately telling the story and how news media coverage jumped in, joining in the conversation and amplifying the message. I would consider this the best of our new news world in that eyewitnesses including those actually participating in the event become the news tellers for the rest of us. Everyone who then conveys it on to others becomes part of “the media.”

The media, for its part, curates and presumably corrects and verifies. This verification and curation process, in addition to the massive expansion of the story by traditional media like ABC News ought to serve the public’s interest in getting accurate information and a truthful perspective. But, it’s not working that way. Brian Ross stepped all over himself and has given ABC News the reputation of a National Enquirer by connecting on air the alleged shooter and a person by that name in Aurora, Colorado listed on a Tea Party website.

Now, we all have biases, and one of my strong biases as a long time critic of news coverage is that Brian Ross should have been fired a long time ago. Not for mistakes like this, but for his either fundamental dishonesty or terrible investigative reporting–he is the one I hold responsible primarily for the unfair destruction of Toyota’s reputation around the supposed software glitches that claimed lives. I never saw him apologize, nor ABC, when it later became clear by investigation that the victims were not what they said and the problems with acceleration came from incorrectly installed floor mats, not software and not Toyota’s now widely believed profits before people philosophy.

Ross and ABC News did a great disservice that is much deeper than poor reporting. One of the worst things about today’s news is how every dad gummed little thing gets politicized. So many in the digital lynch mob want to turn everything into a left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative political issue. There is nothing that we know of so far that I have seen that was political about this shooting in Colorado. But now the hyper-partisan have every reason to weigh in and spew their often hate-filled ideas.

Thanks a lot for making that a lot easier, ABC News. Since I expressed so much respect for the former president of ABC News, it will be interesting to see how the new president deals with this very big black eye.

Penn State now listed among crisis communications top lessons learned

I look back and see moments in time where some of the most powerful lessons of crisis communication have been registered:

Tylenol recall by Johnson and Johnson–lesson–be proactive and show you care more about your customers than your bottom line

US Air flight ditching in the Hudson–the power of Twitter and smart phone pics to tell a story quickly

Virginia Tech–the need to warn those in your care of imminent danger using current technology

Arthur Andersen–what happens when you let the lawyers run your crisis communication operation (you win in court and lose the company)

Now there is a new one to add and one of the most powerful and important crisis communication lessons ever:

Penn State–what happens when you are institutionally blind to a problem and hope that it goes away.

In retrospect it is hard to understand that the blindness and moral ineptitude exhibited by Paterno and the university leaders in the Sandusky case could have been so pervasive in a great university. As this Wall Street Journal article asks, why would not even the janitors who witnessed the crimes against the vulnerable not step forward?

Many are asking, as a friend of mine did in prompting this blog, would it have made a difference if a woman was in the halls of power? An intriguing and important question. But my sense is that the overriding commitment to football and football success would have eliminated almost anyone from sharing that power unless that shared that commitment. That is a great strength of an organization like Penn State or Apple, where certain values are shared with an almost religious conviction. But, as we have seen, there is great danger in that.

There are really two terribly important lessons from this great American tragedy (I can see the movies now). One is the potential for this kind of institutional blindness that enables presumably good people to look past unimaginable horrors because of what they consider “the greater good.” This is the story of so much evil, not just Penn State. So many good German soldiers, for example, participated in things they knew to be wrong for the greater good of the Fatherland. Nazism and Hitlerism are easy marks. There are a great many examples closer to home. The scariest people on earth to me, whether they be on the far right or the far left, are those who are so convinced of the goodness, rightness or moral purpose of their cause that they feel it justifies anything to support it–including killing, torture or, in this case, turning a blind eye to the destruction of innocent young lives.

The other lesson is even more obvious. We in crisis communication keep saying: if you have bad news, be the one to bring it forward. If you don’t, credibility and trust will be damaged or destroyed, perhaps unalterably. So much better for you to tell the world what you have done wrong, or your organization, than to wait for a reporter, a whistle blower, a competitor or activist. That is primarily the lesson of Penn State that will be used in board rooms and C-suite offices for many years to come. And that is a great benefit to those concerned about building trust.

The conversation goes like this:

CEO or Corporate Attorney: We absolutely can’t say anything about this, it will destroy us.

PR person: But we have to, because it is all but certain to come out and when it does from someone else it will appear that we have been hiding it.

CEO/Atty: You said, “all but certain,” that means there’s a chance it won’t. Why create a problem that doesn’t exist and may not?

PR: Because if it does come out, the problem will be many times worse.

CEO/Atty: Yeah but, it may not come out.

PR: OK, hide it, It’s your funeral.

(Alternate ending:

PR: You’re right, we could ignore and maybe it will go away. But look at Penn State. Will the end of your wonderful career be written like that of Joe Paterno?

CEO: You’re right. Call the Wall Street Journal.)

POSTSCRIPT: Just saw this excellent post by Richard Levick, one of the tops in this business, on Fast Company.



What? The Internet creates “a new age for truth?”

Last night I was watching TV and there was a commercial that exploited the common view that you can’t believe anything you get from the Internet. The credulous young woman who trusted the Internet left the scene of the commercial on the arms of the most ugly, obnoxious boyfriend who she met on the Internet because he was a “French model.” “Bonjour” he says to the other guy, in wry, self-conscious style. The message is clear and plays to cliche: don’t trust anything you get from the Internet.

There’s much to be said for that, as once again I checked snopes this morning when I got another one of the frequent political emails forwarded by friends or family. In 2001 in the first edition of Now Is Too Late I wrote about the emergence of what I called “truth filters” as highly credible sources we would go to check the veracity of what we are being told. They have indeed come to pass in sites like FactCheck and Politifact for politics in addition to snopes and others. I suggested mainstream media might move into that role, and here I was quite wrong as most have decided that speed is more important than accuracy, leaving it to others or the Internet to sort out the truth.

That’s why this article from Nieman Lab called “A New Age for Truth” is so intriguing. Craig Silverman, author of “Regret the Error,” writes:

‘Never has it been so easy to expose an error, check a fact, crowdsource and bring technology to bear in service of verification.’

Wikipedia is a great example of crowdsourcing fact editing. The Internet as a whole, social media in particular, plays a very important role in helping us get the facts straight. For the simple reason that when someone states something as fact, and someone else hears it, is in a position to know it is wrong, says that it is wrong and why they know it to be wrong, factual errors can be corrected with remarkable speed.  And often, the perpetrator of the error is treated quite rudely in the process, which brings social pressure to bear on making sure you got it right.

While I think this is all good news for getting the facts straight, the over abundance of information and misinformation out there also has a dark side: rumors and their easy acceptance. This article treats this subject with great wisdom. Quoting Dartmouth College researchers, Silverman:

“Unfortunately, available research in this area paints a pessimistic picture: the most salient misperceptions are typically difficult to correct,”the pair wrote on the Columbia Journalism Review’s website earlier this year. “This is because, in part, people’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. When we encounter news that challenges our views, our brains may produce a variety of responses to compensate for this unwelcome information. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective and can even backfire.”

The acceptance or rejection of facts or messages is primarily determined by the pre-disposition of the audience. The great communication theorist Lazarsfeld talked about the “canalization of belief” (grad school is a long way away so I may have this wrong). He said it was far easier to confirm existing beliefs than it was to change those beliefs. “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.” The Internet contributes to this canalization because there is simply so much out there that if you want to find facts, people, organizations, research, polemics to support your ideas, no matter how far out and crazy, you can find them. Did you know there are 3000 members of the Flat Earth Society?

Job one for almost everyone in crisis and emergency communication is rumor management. If you are the “official” voice you have to be and be seen as the one place people can go to get the truth. But, as this very important article points out there are two things you need to be aware of: if you make the slightest slip-up on the facts, your credibility will be hurt, damaged or destroyed in the blink of an eye and two, if the rumors about you conform to the audiences pre-conceived ideas about you, you are going to have a devil of a time overcoming them.

If that isn’t an argument for addressing audience pre-conceptions that are negative to you or your industry, right now, before an incident, I don’t know what will convince you.


Former Head of ABC News’ “Exit Interview”—honest revelation of challenges of journalism today

Readers of my book (Now is Too Late) or my blogs will know that one of my most persistent recurring themes is today’s news business and what that means for crisis communication. While I’ve been accused of being harsh on major news outlets, I continue to be convinced that one of the underlying reasons for failures in crisis communications is the lack of understanding of how the news environment has changed.

Reading David Westin’s outstanding book, “Exit Interview” has simultaneously confirmed my serious concerns about today’s news while greatly increasing my admiration, respect and appreciation for the many journalists (like Westin) who work so hard to do their best in midst of enormous change and challenge.

In summary, here are some of the major concerns I’ve expressed over the past twelve years or so:

–       the business of news is business, which means getting eyes on the screen or ratings. The preference will almost always be to cast a story in the way that gets the most attention rather than presenting the facts, the truth, or the complicated nuances of events.

–       Because news is entertainment and competes against entertainment, it adopts the entertainment forms of simple story telling or melodrama: white hats, black hats and maidens in distress—which is almost always some form of public interest (health, safety, security, etc.)

–       Fear and gut-level emotion attracts audiences like nothing else—combine these factors and if you are the source of the trouble, you have a big black hat on with your faults presented to maximize emotion and outrage

–       Reporters don’t usually come to you looking for the truth—they have a story in mind and they have a role for you to play (usually not one you want to play) and they will do all they can to get the quotes or footage that helps them tell the story they want

–       Despite these inclinations mainstream journalism today continues to serve a vital public interest and good journalism needs to be lauded and protected. BUT, because of the inherent conflict and inclinations and because of the readily accessible option of going direct to your key audiences, organizations that continue to rely on the traditional media to convey their information and messages are putting themselves at great and unnecessary risk.

Two of the best books I have read about today’s news business have come from the professional journalists at the highest levels who have recently left the business. The first one was Jack Fuller’s “What Is Happening to News?”, by the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune and former president of the Tribune Company. The latest is David Westin’s “Exit Interview.” Westin led ABC News for 14 years and prior to that was the president of the network.

Those fourteen years saw some of the greatest change in public information since Gutenberg and Westin, a lawyer and former law clerk to Justice Powell, found himself leading arguably the top news organization in the nation during those ground-shaking days. His chronicle is honest, heart-felt, revealing and disturbing. I cannot help but feel simultaneously that it is a great tragedy to see the professional news organizations we have depended on be so decimated by all the Internet-related forces, and at the same time wish for their speedy demise because of how they are being forced to respond to these challenges. Strange, and it doesn’t make sense.

I am conflicted at many levels because of this book. ABC News has been near the top of my list of news villains. Two quick examples: Brian Ross, their vaunted investigative reporter was the one who drew the attention to Toyota’s safety problems focusing on software systems and making national martyrs to profits out of supposed crash victims. The victims he highlighted turned out to be a frauds and the software issues were finally dismissed by a NASA-led investigation. Billions of dollars were lost. Toyota’s reputation was possibly permanently tarnished. But I never saw Ross apologize or accept any responsibility for his reportorial mistakes. There is no accountability. The second example is Jim Avila and his “pink slime” story, which highlighted the controversy created by Jamie Oliver in calling a completely safe and healthy beef product by a catchy name and suggesting its health risks. Again, thousands lost their jobs, the impact on beef and beef products quite severe, investors severely harmed by attention-getting but less than fully honest reporting (IMHO). No accountability.

But Westin makes me much more sympathetic to the situation of these journalistic “stars.” He obviously is sensitive to the severe criticism that many have and continue to lay on mainstream news: “But if we are going to hope for improvements in our news media, a good starting point is gaining a deeper understanding of how major news organizations work, as seen from the inside.”

And that’s what he provides. We see the sausage being made through his eyes and experiences. In the process, I gained some real sympathy and understanding for the extreme pressures and conflicts that are part of their everyday experience.

Westin (being a great communicator and very effective writer) tells stories. His first big news story was Princess Diana’s death. He was severely tested by Peter Jennings, the star anchor with tremendous clout. Peter did not believe this story rated the kind of coverage that Westin decided on. It raised this question in Westin’s mind: “How much should we listen to our audiences or anticipate what we think they are asking for? In the end, is ‘news’ simply what the people want to see and hear about? Or is ‘news’ a matter of what’s historically important whether people want to see and hear it or not? Do we want those in charge of covering the news to ‘lead’ us or to ‘follow’ us as they make editorial decisions on what (and how much) to report? I found myself struggling with this balance—a balance between what people want to hear about and what journalists think they ought to hear about—almost every day I ran ABC News.”

This runs to the heart of my concerns about news and crisis communication. We cannot deal effectively with the media in a crisis if we do not understand that first and foremost, above all and most important, they are in business to stay in business. That means getting eyeballs. The execs at the highest level are there because they are trained to see in each and every story the opportunity to get eyeballs, beat the competition, and stay in business. Westin is clear about that:

“As I’ve said, ABC News is indisputably a business. It’s also more than a business, but it is a business. So is just about every other news organization of any size or significance in the country today. That means a certain number of dollars have to be coming in to sustain the journalism. That was my primary duty as president of ABC News: to sustain the journalism.”

But Westin and his professionals were also serious about good journalism. The conflict is palpable: “Sometimes our judgment simply isn’t good enough and our vision isn’t clear enough to separate our what truly matters from what is simply provocative.”

The place where getting eyeballs and doing good journalism often conflicts these days is in the question of speed vs. accuracy. Westin discusses this tricky issue in a chapter on the 2000 election and the failures of all major media in predicting a winner in Florida and the US presidency. Westin makes clear the competitive pressure they were under to predict a winner—especially when their competitors were doing so. They also had great and, it turned out, misplaced confidence in their well-developed system for projecting election results: “What really tripped us up was our own hubris combined with an excess of competitive drive to be first.”  The result of their errors and the other major outlets was a dive in public trust in mainstream news, a dive that continues to this day. This issue continues to this day, of course. Most recently with the errors made by CNN and FOX News in announcing the decision of the Supreme Court on the Health Care law. But, some are asking, is speed really that important and why are journalists so focused on this? I happen to think it is pretty important in getting eyes on the screen which is ultimately what the game is about.

I particularly enjoyed Westin’s recounting some of the problems he had with other media covering ABC News. He commented at one point that the most important thing for a journalist is to be subject of someone else’s news story. He experienced first hand the frustration and anger that so many of us have experienced with really egregious reporting in the Bob Woodruff story. The New York Times ran a story of the new anchor’s near-fatal wounding in Iraq claiming in the subhead that sending Woodruff to Iraq was a ratings ploy. The ABC staff in Iraq responded by essentially locking NYT out of coverage of the big story until Westin intervened—as angry as he was.

I wish I could share all of his insights about what the coming of cable news meant then and now, how FOX News in particular upset the foundations of news economics, how partisan commentary now parades for news (along with comic commentary that most in our younger generation treat as real news). FOX and MSNBC became some of the most profitable news operations because in the economics of subscription services, unlike pure advertising revenue, loyalty of a relatively small audience can mean a lot in the share of subscription dollars received. Roger Ailes and Murdock perceived that appealing to a niche and creating affinity-based loyalty could translate into huge profits in the cable world. It shifted how news is done.

Westin goes into considerable detail as to how as the leader of a major news organization he had to deal with the issues of who is a journalist today, and how do you compete against all the news sources including citizen journalists who can provide instant info to millions in year moments using just their smartphones. The cutbacks and change to highly mobile, digital reporting with much reduced crews is telling and one can feel the anguish.

I think the most insightful and meaningful part of this book was Westin’s struggle over facts vs. truth. There is a difference. I appreciated him most in his focus on truth in reporting. It comes through over and over throughout his stories—starting with the President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky saga. Reporters often hide behind the facts to evade the truth. I had that experience many times myself. A reporter would quote an activist about an energy project or a waste facility knowing full well that what the activist was saying about impacts on safety or health was pure BS but they would report it, and even lead with it because, well, they were just quoting the source. And clearly because generating fear gets eyeballs.

Westin provides a telling example of the difference. A presidential candidate in a primary sent him an email, saying that ABC reporters were preparing a report stating that he had twice gone to a private club that banned non-whites. The candidate said, yes he did, it was with his aging parents who were members and he was not aware of their discrimination policies. When he became aware he refused to go. But the story would be presented as demonstrating his racism. Westin discovered that is indeed what his reporters had in mind. He killed the story, not because the facts were wrong, but because they would lead to an inaccurate public impression of racism. This is journalistic integrity that I admire.

If you are as interested as I am in how news is done and how it helps form the opinions of citizens. About how reputations are won or lost in this environment. About how our society builds or loses trust when everyone is competing for their attention. About an over-saturated information environment where the only proven way to break through is through gut-level emotion—fear, disgust, disdain, outrage. Then you will want to read this book.

I’ve thought long and hard about the answer to the journalistic dilemmas today. I have some thoughts I will share later. But I completely agree with Westin’s bottom line. We can blame the mainstream media, the journalists and their excesses and mistakes all we want. Ultimately, we get the government we choose and deserve, we get the media we choose and deserve. The choice is ours:

“I came to understand that public in the end will get the journalism it asks for—that it demands. Even those most serious journalists pay attention to whether they are holding people’s attention. If people want more substantive journalism and less coverage of celebrity scandal, then the answer isn’t to bemoan the state of journalism today but to seek out the great, substantive work being done and turn off the latest juicy tabloid tidbit.”