Goldman Sachs leaves the lights on–uh oh, new crisis

Fake photos from Sandy are circulating all around. I got one the other day sent to me by a friend who clearly did not know it was fake (the one of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).

The Atlantic has an excellent (and frequently updated) story on fake photos including which ones are real and which ones fake.

But the story caught my eye because of the image of one building standing alone, brightly lit in Manhattan, while the others around are dark. Of course, the building owner would have had to have it equipped with its own back up power, which it did. Smart, no? Not if you are Goldman Sachs. And that’s who is in that nicely lit up building. Suddenly, what looks like foresight will be and is interpreted as another symbol of greed, of Wall Street excess, of not caring for the huddled masses yearning for power while the pin-stripe types keep at their work stations raking in the billions.

Sure enough, having the lights on has stirred up controversy.

Issue of fake photographs (and videos for that matter) is of increasing importance to crisis managers. Note–BP in the midst of much bigger problems had to answer why a graphic designer digitally manipulated a photo to put activity on all the monitors in an emergency center. Interestingly, I was participating in a large BP drill when I introduced into the JIC the idea that photos could be appearing on the web showing oiled birds in contradiction to the current claims–photos purported to be from the drill spill, but actually from an unrelated event. This kind of inject needs to be part of every crisis drill in my opinion.

Fake photos, doctored photos, real photos that send unintended messages. Geez, will the vulnerabilities never end?


Sandy media coverage seems too much about politics

Natural disasters usually highlight the still critical role that TV plays in informing the public. Cable TV still leads as the primary source of news, with the Internet close on its heals and apparently closing fast.

I’m not sure, but I’m thinking Sandy, still beating up parts of North America, will accelerate the change. I tried to watch the news, switching between a few different channels. But got frustrated with what seemed to me to be the obsession with analyzing the politics around the event. Yes, I do know, we are in the final few days of a presidential race, and yes, it is very important to me like most others. But I don’t really want every news report about the storm to turn into whether President Obama or Gov. Romney is most likely to gain. Nor do I want, when lives are at stake, to hear the endless pundits (including those often posing as reporters) to be analyzing every word spoken by either candidate as to whether or not they are heartlessly trying to take advantage of the situation for their personal gain.

At least when I go to the Internet for information about the storm, I can choose whether or not I want it to be about politics or the storm. I may be alone in turning off the TV for this blatant politicization, but if I am not, it will only further accelerate the change to digital communications for news content.

A Monster reputation crisis–for the entire energy drink industry

Energy drinks have become huge business. From Five Hour Energy on Jim Furyk’s cap to Red Bull skydiving from the heavens, their marketing is among the most visible. But if I was in that business, I would be nervously preparing my crisis plan right now. They have a Monster problem heading their way.

Monster is the leading company in this space with 39% market share. Ironically, their company used to be Hansen Natural, a drink you see in the store but that has a decidedly health-oriented sense about it. But the FDA just released a report linking five teenage deaths to their energy drink, The New York Times did a story on the report, and on Friday parents of a 14 year old Maryland girl filed a lawsuit against the Corona, California company following the death of their daughter. She died, apparently of cardiac arrest after consuming two 24 ounce cans of the drink in two days.

I went to Monster’s website to see how they were responding. Nothing. Nothing but the loud, garish, youth-oriented screaming graphics. Interesting to think how a crisis response about deaths of teenagers can be handled on a website like that. Makes a strong argument for a crisis site that has a bit of a more sober look to it.

The news report include buried deep some rather bland denials from the company saying they are not aware of any deaths linked to their product, and, more problematically, saying the teenagers in the FDA report had underlying health issues. Oooh, dangerous ground there. First, where is the empathy? Second, if that is the case that drinking this is dangerous when you have certain conditions, where is the legal disclaimer.

Here is what will happen next. This company, and Red Bull, and all the others will quickly face a slug of lawsuits. We will start seeing on our favorite reality shows new ads from class action kind Jim Sokolove new ads saying: “If anyone in your family ever drank or even got near someone who drank one of these energy drinks (long scrawl of brands) and ever got sick or died, then call right now because you may be entitled to compensation.”

Next will come the politicians who will demand investigations and following that, new legislation. If they are weak-kneed they will simply ask for disclaimers and disclosures. But, if they are like New York Mayor, they may either call for a ban, or for legislation that says you can only buy it in four ounce cans and it is illegal to consume more than one four ounce can in a 24 hour period.

And right now, every enterprising reporter in the country is looking for examples of heart problems in young people somehow linked to energy drinks.

OK, so my social commentary is kind of taking over this very significant issue. The point is this: One, energy drinks are in for a rough ride. Two, don’t be stupid and fight against disclosures of ingredients. Three, for goodness sake, express some concern for those who may actually be hurt by using these products. Four, get pretty serious about looking into potential health risks, particularly if they are related to specific underlying health conditions and if so, get very aggressive about warning potential users of the dangers. Five, get ready to communicate and no more so than on social media because that’s where your key consumers are and more importantly, that’s where opinion is going to formed about these issues. (As I write this, Twitter has numerous stories going on about the FDA report, including from major news outlets like LA ABC news affiliate which is clearly working on a story. However, Monster Energy’s twitter page is tweeting along with marketing energy that suggests its tweeters may have had one Monster 24 ounce too many themselves.)




McDonalds (Canada, any way) gets transparency right

You may remember back in June there was a bit of hubbub over Mcdonald’s Canada answering very transparently a question from someone about how and why they doctor the advertising images they use to sell hamburgers. They did a great job on video of walking through the photo shoot process–and dispelled a lot of myths and cynicism along the way.

They are continuing in this vein with this new video about french fries. A McDonald’s supply manager (clearly Canadian with his pronunciation of words like pro-cess) answers questions about whether McDonald’s fries are really potatoes, whether or not they are formed or cut, and why there is so much salt on them. The video walks us through the whole french fry process from farm to customer. In the pro-cess, answers from customers are provided, offering reassurance.

Certainly there are those out there who don’t think anyone should eat fried foods. And so they will say, look at all that horrible frying. Well, if you don’t like fried foods or french fries this video isn’t going to convince you otherwise.

The point is that here is a lesson for the entire food production industry. Be transparent. If there is any part of the way you do things that will not stand up to this kind of video presentation, you had better start changing it now. Because while McDonald’s is featuring a pleasant looking supply manager (who maybe has eaten a fry or two too many, just like me), a video about your process may wind up on YouTube without you doing it or knowing about it. So much better for McDonald’s to be telling their own story, even if some won’t like it.

Great job McDonald’s Canada.


Bodyform shows how to respond to a viral negative rant

It’s pretty well understood now by most in business that social media has created additional vulnerability: someone gets mad at you for good reason, or not so good, and if they are clever enough or if lightning strikes, their rant can go viral and cause a genuine crisis. The big question is, how do you respond?

United Airlines showed how not to when Dave Carroll saw his guitar smashed by baggage handlers. He turned a very negative experience into a bash-United song that went viral, created a new career for him, and gave people like me something to talk about for a long time.

Now, there is a new example to show, but in this case, it is one of the best examples ever of a response to a social media rant. I put it up there with Taco Bell’s brilliant response to the ridiculous lawsuit over their “hidden” beef. They placed ads saying: Thank you for suing us.

This time it was Bodyform, a make of maxipads, who was victimized by an outrageous rant on their Facebook page. A rant that quickly went viral with 40,000 likes in 20 hours (please note: 20 hours–that’s how fast these things go!)

Now, how would you respond? There is a tightrope here, thar be dragons everywhere. Take this quiz–set your own strategy before reading further and seeing the brilliant response of Bodyform.

I can’t describe it, so you will have to watch the video. Stay to the end, it’s got sort of a smelly kicker.

Here’s what I like about it:

– it fits the culture–that sly sarcasm that exposes the silliness of the complaint will resonate well with the digital mob

– medium and message match–they not only use the medium of social media, they do it in a way that totally conforms to the values of the crowd

– the “CEO” “apologizes” therefore demonstrating transparency, honesty and humility. In the process, she can hardly help making those of us who teach the “right way” to respond wriggle just a little bit, along with Richard of course.

Well done, Bodyform!

And to the Richard’s of the world who think you can embarrass savvy companies like this one, be warned. You may become the butt of your own joke.




Great list of the worst social media reputation disasters

Just had to pass this list along of social media disasters. Could be very handy for you in talking to others in your organization, such as your CEO or Director, as to what can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong with social media.

Had a lengthy interview with a Norwegian publication yesterday (love Skype!) and one question was: is social media a help or hindrance to reputations. My answer was both. It’s sharper than a two-edge sword. It creates all kinds of new crises and vulnerabilities–as this list will make clear. But it also give unprecedented opportunity to communicate and engage directly with the people most important to you.
Even after having the wits scared out of you by this list, I hope you agree that on balance, the new world is better for crisis communications than the old.

The furor over Genetically Modified Corn reveals the activism-media link

My friend and colleague Irv Lipp alerted me to this issue of GM (Genetically Modified) maize (corn) in Europe. Here are the basic facts as I can distill them:

1. A French anti-GMO activist, Seralini, who so happens to have an anti-GMO book coming out this week, announced to the media that he was going to release the results of a scientific study that showed definitively that modified corn and herbicides made rats sicker than rats that ate regular corn.

2. He gave the study to major media outlets in France with the provision that they could not consult other experts before release.

3. The news headlines, as NPR reports, showed up stating: BREAKING NEWS: New Study Links Genetically Engineered Food to Tumors”

4. The story has been widely published.

5. Anti-GMO activists around the world have jumped on the study to push bans on GMO food with apparently some success in France and Russia.

But, as Mr. Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story. The “scientific study” is proving to be anything but scientific. I’m not qualified to go into details about why it is being roundly rejected by groups such as European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but it seems quite obvious that Mr. Seralini and group have cynically manipulated the media into promoting his anti-GMO agenda.

Now, of course, groups that are promoting such foods are on their back feet desperately trying to counter the information (or false information) being so widely distributed.

The real story here is media manipulation. The eagerness of the media to publish a story that certainly will generate a great deal of public interest on a controversial topic plays into the hands of unscrupulous activists. The clever device of getting major media to agree to not investigate the story while it was embargoed should have led them to smell a rat. I suspect many did, but the headline was too juicy to pass up and the do not see their job as in a story like this as validating the claims, only publishing the claims.  The blog “food and drink europe” did an excellent job of analyzing the media manipulation behind this story.

Once again I have to hand it to NPR for an excellent treatment of the story. Their take on it seems to me fair, balanced and accurate. They identify the agenda of the study’s author (at least part of it since they didn’t mention his book coming out), but also point make clear the criticism. They even report that the study may show an opposite effect claimed by Mr. Seralini:

Also, if this experiment truly showed a link between genetically engineered food and tumors, one might expect the rats that ate more of the GM corn to develop more tumors. In fact, the opposite happened. The rats eating a diet of 33 percent GMO corn stayed healthier than animals eating food with a GMO concentration of just 11 percent.

And, particularly unusual for a story of this nature, NPR gives some relevant related information:

“…there’s a deeper reason why scientists like Kuiper give little credence to Seralini’s studies. There’s a saying in science: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For most of the scientists who have been studying the safety of GMOs, it’s an extraordinary claim, at this point, to assert that the current generation of genetically modified crops are harmful to human health.

There’s no apparent reason why that should be true; No one has found new toxic substances in these crops. And the giant feeding experiment that’s been going on for the past fifteen years — hundreds of millions of Americans consuming GMO ingredients — hasn’t produced evidence of harm, either.

It would take a lot more evidence that the results of this study to change their minds.”

The sad facts of this story are:

1) The predisposition of the reader will determine their acceptance of the “science.” Mine predisposition is likely obvious to you.

2) Media scare stories like this have two sad effects: they further destroy trust in the media as a conveyor of truth, and they cause irrational fear that drives irrational public policy.

For crisis communication professionals, particularly those engaged in controversial operations such as making food, the lessons should be clear. This is what the media does, this is how it operates, this is what you have to deal with. Don’t be fooled. However, when NPR calls to do an interview, take the call.