What’s your image and video plan?

Frequent visitors here may have noticed a recurring theme in the past months: the importance of videos and images as part of communications overall, but specifically here crisis communication. I’ve pointed out the stunning statistic from Cisco that says that in 2010 30% of internet time was spent watching video, but by 2013 that will 90%. We’re getting close to 2013 so we’ll see how that prediction turns out.

Right or wrong, online content is turning into video just as video (TV, films, family movies and the like) are found online. But, in a time when most crisis plans seem to be stuck in the Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite era of pumping out some snazzy press releases and doing a press conference or two, considering how video and photography fits into your crisis communication plan seems like three steps ahead. But it’s not.

Bill Salvin takes on this subject and does a great job of providing practical advice on why it is important and what kind of policies to put in place regarding images. (not sure I completely agree on the Instagram thing as I think this photo service now owned by Facebook is more about easy sharing than doctoring photos.)

Arsenic rice scare–justified or another example of media scare tactics?

I subscribe to Foodsafety.gov and was curious when I received an alert from the FDA about arsenic in rice. It would obviously be significant if the FDA discovered some health risk in one of the world’s most common foods. Instead, I found strong reassurance including the 20 year testing history, how many products they have tested and are in process of testing (1200 different rice products), and exactly what the arsenic levels are (in cooked rice 6.7 micrograms or millionth of a gram–which is the highest found so far).

For the FDA to do this kind of proactive reassuring and given their language in the release that recognizes consumers are concerned about this matter,  here must be some concern so I googled rice and arsenic. Here I found this story just out from ABC News’s Jim Avila. Having just read the FDA report on their extensive research I was stunned (actually really realled p-off) to hear the anchor say that the FDA was out with a report “similar” to a Consumer Reports report which said rice products had “worrisome levels” of arsenic. Please pay close attention to the headline of the ABC story, the words used to lead into the story, and the titles on the screen–all clearly design to scare the beJesus out of us who may eat some rice. Jim Avila says “now a troubling warning to limit how much rice we eat…”

Both the Avila report and the text of the online story say that the FDA is going to issue warnings: “Today, the FDA will announce it has concerns about rice and arsenic and is studying the issue, but in the meantime recommends a varied diet. Consumer Reports calls for more.”

This is so misleading regarding the FDA’s report to constitute outright lying in my mind. The FDA report says very clearly that there is no evidence to date that supports a change in diet: “Based on data and scientific literature available now, FDA is not recommending that consumers change their consumption of rice and rice products at this time, but that people eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of grains.” Avila jumps on this recommendation that people eat a balanced diet to support his totally unsubstantiated claim that the FDA is issuing some kind of dire warning.

Avila, quoting the Consumer Report study, says rice gets more arsenic because it is grown in water. Oh boy, this issue is going to provide much fodder for environmentalists who will claim as I’m sure they already are that vast increases in arsenic levels in the atmosphere is poisoning our water and now our rice. But the FDA seems to anticipate this argument. It first states that arsenic is a naturally occurring substance (hmm, don’t think I saw that in the ABC story) but it also comes from human activity:

“Human activities also add arsenic to the environment. They include burning coal, oil, gasoline and wood, mining, and the use of arsenic compounds as pesticides, herbicides and wood preservatives.

FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels in rice for more than 20 years. Its analysis thus far does not show any evidence of a change in total arsenic levels. The change is that researchers are better able to measure whether those levels represent more or less toxic forms of arsenic. 

So, while our ability to detect arsenic and determine toxicity has dramatically improved in 20 years, there is no evidence that the amount of total arsenic has increased. That is a very relevant fact that just somehow never made it into the Consumer Reports or ABC story.

I don’t work for any rice related clients. I have no dog in this hunt other than the truth. My bias and purpose is that these kind of profit-centered media scare tactics are extremely dangerous to all of us, including our health. The fact is, rice like corn, is a miracle of nutrition that sustain a great many including those who may not be able to afford higher priced substitutes. Now, thanks to Avila and Consumer Reports, when those mothers feed their children it will be with unjustified fear. I get angry about that.

I see so many commercials on TV for those attorneys jumping on any and every medical or pharmaceutical product where they may be a case or two of someone getting some side effects. A class action is sought. Why not a class action against this kind of unwarranted fear mongering? Certainly a great many are getting hurt by it–and I don’t mean the rice producers. I mean those who will now decide it is dangerous to eat rice based on this kind of dishonest reporting. This new report by Jim Avila comes close to matching his egregious reporting on pink slime, which just landed ABC News with a $1.2 billion lawsuit. At some point I’m hoping that the ratings and profits gained by ABC News and Disney (ABC’s owner) with this kind of fear mongering will be balanced by some big legal payouts. Much better would it be to see its ratings decline because of the news viewers distrust based on this kind of dishonest reporting.

One more thing. I just watched a program on TV about longevity. I had heard before that the island of Okinawa is famous for having more centenarians than anywhere else. The have the population who live the longest in the world. It’s in their diet and hardwork, we are told. Their diet? Mostly rice.


Now we’ll find out who really creates slime–Beef Products Inc. sues ABC News

Remember the “pink slime” story? There have been few news stories in the last while that so got my goat as this one. First New York Times dubbed this 100% beef product “pink slime”, then celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got in the act and through outrageous demonstration showed that this product was actually poison, and then Jim Avila of ABC News jumped on the band wagon and did stories on this horrific stuff being fed to us and our kids in our innocent hamburger.

This was “infotainment” at some of its worst, and the price paid was high. Beef prices did jump for a bit, schools refused to buy hamburger using the product known in the industry as “lean, finely textured beef,” and grocery stores took it off their shelves. Meat processors had to shut down and the main producer, BPI, laid off over 650 workers.

Now, they are fighting back with a $1.2 billion (yes, billion) lawsuit against ABC News. The legal standard for libel and defamation is exceptionally high, and I am grateful for that because protecting a free and open press is vitally important to all of us. Consequently I think that BPI has a big hill to climb. But I also think that ABC is going to have to answer some tough questions. I only regret that Jamie Oliver was not named as I thought his behavior on that show was inexcusable (see crisisblogger story linked above for link to his show YouTube).

Let me be very clear here. I have no problem with people deciding they don’t want lean, finely textured beef in their hamburger. I have no problem with full disclosure and food companies saying exactly what’s in the food. I have a huge problem with labeling a product with a name like slime, picturing use of ammonia in maintaining food safety as some dubious chemical practice when ammonia itself is present in beef and a normal part of making tons of food products like ice cream. In short, if you are going to tell a story about something like a beef product you don’t like, you better tell more of the story than was told here and you better be careful about how you lead your audiences by false characterizations. In other words, for God’s sake, be honest. There is plenty of bad stuff being done by bad people to tell the truth about it. Don’t go around making it up and then pretend you are a responsible journalist.

BPI was horribly ill-prepared to respond to the crisis as so many in food production are. But I for one am grateful that they are going to try and hold ABC to account for the damage done.



Does anyone else think the administration’s attacks on BP over the top?

Sometimes I think I’m the only one in the world willing to once in a while defend BP. And yes, I’m sure it has something to do with knowing a considerable number of the people who work there who without exception in my opinion are some of the nicest, most honorable, most competent people I know. (Disclosure–yes, BP has been a client for crisis comms technology) Sometimes, particularly after the spill, it has been hard to watch some of the unintentional self-destruction such as the recent problems in Chicago. It’s been particularly hard to see far too much evidence of being thoroughly “lawyered-up.” It was also a little painful (but appropriate) for Richard Edelman in his recent presentation on PR strategy to the Board of Penn State to say we are not going to advertise our way out of this, ala BP.

All that being said, I am astonished, stunned and yes, infuriated with the latest from this administration regarding the legal case of the federal government against BP. As I have written about frequently on this blog and in my case study on the Gulf Spill, the Obama administration took the tack of using all options at his disposal, including the government response structure, to heap blame on BP and inoculate the administration. The fallout and damage from this in the oil industry and the 20 year tradition of “single voice” communication and partnership in response will be felt for many years to come.

But, the administration is not done yet. In shocking language, the Department of Justice appears to either be taking an over-the-top approach to extracting every possible fine dollar from BP, or simply further inflame public outrage.

Here’s a sampling from a Reuters story:

“The behavior, words, and actions of these BP executives would not be tolerated in a middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a suburban mall,” government lawyers wrote in the filing on August 31 in federal court in New Orleans.

The heart of the accusations appear to be a mis-reading of a critical pressure test–an error according to the government (but missing from headlines) attributed to both BP engineers and Transocean. “That such a simple, yet fundamental and safety-critical test could have been so stunningly, blindingly botched in so many ways, by so many people, demonstrates gross negligence,” the government said in its 39-page filing.

Hmmm, clearly these government lawyers know a lot more about interpreting data from highly complex instruments than the engineers.

But, is this kind of language and treatment normal? Not reading a lot of these filings, I couldn’t say, but one former environmental prosecutor said: “The department’s latest filing ‘contains sharper rhetoric and a more indignant tone than the government has used in the past,’ he said.”

As if this is not enough, Daily Dog, as it has frequently in the past, does its best to pile on BP (and basically any other major organization on the hot seat).

Clearly, BP’s reputation is in tatters. It is in the worst possible situation in which the political assessment of almost any elected official or wanna be is that they win by attacking the company, and lose by doing anything to defend it. Same, one might think, for any journalist interested in a career. You can win by showing how evil this corporation, you can’t by writing about anything that shows maybe they are people doing their best in horrible circumstances.

How did all this happen? How can one of the biggest, most respected, organizations–one who holds the future of millions of British pensioners in its hands, how can it fall so far, so fast? One can look at the sequence of bad news events: Texas City refinery, Alaska pipeline corrosion, the gulf spill, the Chicago bad gas and conclude, this is one messed-up organization. If that is so, it is a huge lesson for any corporate giant swallowing up others and trying to digest them into a cohesive entity with a distinct culture.

I think it is more than BP’s problem. The entire oil industry shares to varying degrees the deep hole that BP finds itself in. It was created in part, by the industry burying its head in the sand post ExxonValdez as to the importance of building public trust and respect. As one industry leader is said to have said: they are going to buy our product whether they hate us or not, so why bother?

Because the industry did not bother to build value in stakeholder’s minds, BP is paying a high price. Imagine if the government were to use similar language in a federal prosecution against a company it felt was held in high regard by the public. Say the government attacked Apple for a major mistake or not caring sufficient for its workers? Would such language in a law suit be used? Big oil is an easy target to attack, not so easy to defend. There is an issue of political calculation and essential fairness here. Before cheering the government on, give a thought to those good people who keep you supplied with the fuel products and energy you need to live the life you choose.