Is cancer a crisis? If so, here’s some great news.

We’re very grateful that the dreaded “C ” has not invaded our family at any close range. But certainly, when it happens, it is a crisis of the highest magnitude. I’m suggesting this to try to bring some crisis relevance to a very interesting short film.

Called “Bringing Light” the film reveals a new discovery from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. Remarkably, Dr. Jim Olson has discovered that toxin from scorpion venom has a unique property of finding and attaching to only cancer cells. By attaching “molecular flashlights” to the toxin and injecting it in a patient’s bloodstream, the tumor and only the tumor are lit up. Brain surgeons have the ability to only remove the tumor and minimize any collateral damage by removing health tissue.

The three minute documentary on this discovery is part of a documentary film contest and is a semi-finalist. If it makes it through the next round, it will be featured at Sundance. Which would be a really big deal to the producers of this little gem–including our son Chris Baron.

OK, so this post isn’t about traditional crisis management or communication. And it is promoting our son’s incredible work. So, I’m sorry.



“Go to jail jobs”: justice or a reflection of society?

I remember a number of years ago I heard an oil refinery plant manager refer to his job, and others like him as “go to jail: jobs. He meant that if things went horribly wrong on his watch, he would likely go to jail. He expressed concern that the emergence of criminalization of accidents in this industry would impact recruitment of talented leaders.

Today the New York Times published an editorial calling for the Obama administration to vigorously prosecute executives of BP for criminal offenses: But nothing would be more important now than a vigorous effort by the Obama administration to pursue the remaining penalties under federal environmental laws.

The laws of the land should absolutely be upheld. And the palpable anger of so many in the public toward BP during and after the spill may be satiated somewhat by seeing big oil executives in chains. But there are nagging questions in my head about what is happening here, and the idea of “go to jail” jobs.

I’ve had these questions for many years as one of the first major events I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline disaster of 1999, resulted in several going to jail, including the general manager of the pipeline company. He was guilty of not properly reading the results of internal inspection data which showed “anomalies” in pipeline wall strength. One of those anomalies ended up at the point of failure when a series of otherwise completely unrelated problems (computer glitches, combined with valve issues) caused a “hammer” or surge of pressure in the line, which ended up failing at the weakest point. Two young boys and a young man tragically lost their lives. I knew at least some of the parents of the victims. And I also got to know the general manager who ultimately went to jail for their deaths. I know his broken heart over the tragedy, his decency and humanity. He was a person who made mistakes that proved to be horribly costly. But he was no criminal.

In the case of the manslaughter charges against the BP executives, their fault is based on “result of a failure to properly interpret pressure tests on the well that might have foretold the explosion,” according to the NYT report.

My nagging question is this: aren’t there a lot of jobs where misreading data or misinterpreting warning signs are bad and can cause a lot of harm? Have you ever made a serious mistake in your work? Now, maybe the difference is that if you screw up or if I screw up, people’s lives will not necessarily be lost or huge environmental havoc caused. True enough, but you cannot read an account of warfare without realizing that the misjudgments of commanders in the fields costs a great many precious lives. I can see that military personnel should be protected against “go to jail” jobs because their work involved much inherent danger, putting men and women in harm’s way for a good cause. And because if we did this to our military leaders, whoever would want to become one. But, as one plant manager said, the process of “boiling oil,” which is what they do at refineries is inherently dangerous. It puts men and women in harms way, and some anyway think it is for a good cause–keeping our world running.

There are lots of other jobs that if mistakes are made, even tiny mistakes, can cascade into fatalities. It is well known that lots of people get sick in hospitals. Those sterilizing equipment or doing laundry or providing patient care may be responsible through errors, carelessness, negligence. We don’t have manslaughter charges filed for these. Those making computer chips could conceivably make tiny mistakes that could cause massive failures–maybe even bringing an airliner down. I suspect that chipmakers would not be happy to have their jobs classified as go to jail jobs.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying at all that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico in April, 2010 isn’t worthy of the most serious scrutiny and application of the law. I’m just raising a question here. How do we as a society decide which human errors are subject to the charge of manslaughter? It is so easy today to demonize the powerful companies and people who run them. But, in this process, so evident in our popular culture and media, are we doing harm to ourselves? And, more importantly, is it just?

Just asking the question.

Seattle Police Department’s “press release” called best ever

So marijuana is now legal in Washington State, thanks to the recent election. And the Seattle Police Department thought it a good idea to communicate about what that means and set some proper expectations. Hey, police departments issue press releases all day long, don’t they? So why did this one get national attention so that it showed up headlining todays “PR Daily?” And how often is it that tweeters applaud police department missives–especially about law enforcement matters?

Read the blog post (it is a blog post, after all, not a “press release”) and decide for yourself.

Having recently taught a series of classes for a client on writing for the web, I was intrigued. I wanted to see if it conformed to the key principles I was espousing. First, picture your audience. Who is Jonah Spangenthal-Lee writing to? You might say, to everyone, but that would be wrong. It is clearly to those most interested in the details of enforcement. Admittedly, in Seattle, that is probably a good percentage of the population. But the style is very personal (eg., “…also, you probably shouldn’t bring pot with you to the federal courthouse (or any other federal property).”

Second, address “what’s in it for me.” What’s the benefit here? The benefit to the target audience is clear–staying out of trouble by clearly understanding the enforcement surrounding marijuana in the immediate aftermath of the election. And the writer gets that benefit right into the headline, creatively as well: “Marijwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use in Seattle.” Aside from the creative made-up term, simply putting the words “Legal” and “Marijuana” communicates benefit to this target audience.

Third, be clear on your purpose. Spangenthal-Lee nails this one as well. It’s to inform, clear and simple. He makes that purpose clear in the headline and the opening. And while he has some tricky ground to cover (the fact that the feds still may enforce even while WA state won’t) he informs with clarity and singleness of purpose.

Fourth, use the right voice. And does he ever get this right! It shows he knows who is audience is, and that an informal, personal, direct, and creative approach will work best. Could this have been officious? Yes, that’s what we would expect. but that would not be the right voice for this audience. The best part of his blog is the Q and A. Here’s an example of voice: “What happens if I get pulled over and I’m sober, but an officer or his K9 buddy smells the ounce of Super Skunk I’ve got in my trunk?”  It’s pretty clear he has a very concrete idea of who he is talking to, what is most valuable information for them, and the kind of language and style that will most effectively communicate.

Fifth, be brief. Hey, this is a long post. And we are told we only have seconds–but for those looking for this information, I suspect they will hang around. But, when he needs to be brief, he certainly can be:

“SPD seized a bunch of my marijuana before I-502 passed. Can I have it back?


This, my friends, is how you write for the web today. And not just the web.


Fake tweets during Sandy continue to reverberate

During Big Storm Sandy (they can’t seem to agree on a name), I blogged on the fake tweets, and how they were picked up by major news outlets. Can’t resist this post-script, wherein CNN, the very network that spread the fake tweets far and wide, is castigating (appropriately) the now called-out tweeter. It’s ironic that the CNN story points out that the Twitter community questioned the tweets, but fails to point out that CNN did not question the tweets before sending them out.

Sandy will prove a watershed event for the use of social media. There were plenty of good examples and bad examples, but there can be no disputing the essential role that digital communications and social networking play in disasters of all kinds and sizes. One sad reality is that there are bad, disgusting people out there, who for whatever reason decide to increase the misery of the world. Mr. Tripathi turns out to be one of those. But a deeper lesson is once again the self-correcting nature of Internet communications. If enough people are participating, the truth will come out, sooner than later. It’s in the nature of the instant interactivity. That instant interactivity does not apply to broadcast media where people are sitting in their homes, watching it, without really having the opportunity to say, wait, that’s not right. That’s why the burden is more on the broadcasters to get it right. And once again they failed.

What is saddest and most frustrating to me, is how they continually refuse to own up to their failings. The report the apology of the Mr. Tripathi for causing so much additional anguish. Where is CNN’s apology for doing the same?



Election Reflection

No, don’t worry, I’m not going to gloat, mourn or add to the millions of words of post-election political commentary. This is about crisis communication and what we can learn from the election.

Entertainment is Everything

First, what struck me during this election is the truth of Neil Postman’s observation. We are entertaining ourselves to death. Cutting through the clutter of 3000 to 20,000 marketing messages aimed us at every day, having 24/7 access to all the world’s information at our fingertips means that grabbing attention is both exceedingly difficult and necessary if you live or die by an audience. It is hard not to see the election as a kind of Roman spectacle where the gladiator competitors bloody and bruise each other viciously, eagerly, gleefully for the cheers of the crowd. At the end of the contest, we are the emperor in the stands with our thumb up or thumb down. And sadly, the decision seems to made mostly on how much damage one did to the other. I used to run political campaigns and one of the first big lessons I learned, way back in 1978, is that voters vote against candidates, much more than for candidates. So, we have the necessity in a campaign of driving the other into the ground. And we as observers seem to kind of enjoy it. Yes, there is the talk about the horrible partisanship and nasty campaign ads, but they work. And, it seems we enjoy it too much.

The implications for crisis communication is all too clear, yet, seems strangely invisible to so many in this business. Entertainment in its most basic form is about good guys and bad guys fighting over something valuable. It’s valuable because we value it. Bad guys threaten what we all value, good guys work to protect it. Now, let’s say you have a problem. Bad product, environmental spill, accident where people are hurt, even fatalities. If this is cast in a good guy-bad guy mode, who do you think you will be? And how will you fare when to get those all important audiences, those telling your story need to make it compelling, exciting, aggravating–they need it to bleed.

Today, it seems we tend to see everything as a movie, as a story. The more neatly packaged, the clearer the distinction between good and evil, the good guys and bad guys, the more satisfying. Think about it as you prepare.

Debates and sound bites

One thing struck me about the campaigns was the importance of the debates. And there is an important lesson for crisis communications. All through the campaign we saw the candidates mostly through media and social media formats. And these are almost very short clips of things they’ve said, usually framed by the perspective of the channel presenting the clip. It is hardly unbiased, nor is it a very complete and comprehensive picture of what the candidate was actually saying. As they say about statistics, torture a sound bite long enough and you can get it to say just about anything.

But the debates were different. We saw them talk, engage, express themselves, respond with emotion, think on their feet and in some rare moments, almost be themselves. What a joy it was to be free of the six second clip and sound bite. We got a much clearer picture of who these people really were and what was important to them.

For crisis communication it means that if you entrust your message primarily to the reporters and video editors who will reduce your important messages into six to twelve seconds, and frame it in the way they way (see point above), then you are exposing yourself to great danger. Especially because it is so easy to communicate in much more debate style. I mean in every event going forward, you need to be prepared to put your CEO or other key spokespersons on video, blast them out on YouTube, do a longer form interview. The framed sound bite, standard fare in crisis communication, should be avoided. Instead, since you now have direct access to the means of giving a far more complete picture using video and other means, why would you not?

Mountains out of mole hills

The election is over and there is one big thing I am celebrating: the election is over. We have been inundated with hours and hours of news/infotainment/pundit talk and with all those hours to fill and the desperate need to come up with something fresh, everyone is on the look out for the issue of the moment. It’s bloody hard for the candidates to stick to message when everyone is looking out for the slightest grammatical error, for a candidate to misunderestimate something. So we have these issues popping up that have little or no substance but become the big story of the day. The flubs and gaffes take center stage–because there are too damn many center stages to fill. So when Tony Hayward flubs and says he wants his life back (who wouldn’t in those circumstances), he gets hung up on every tree the 24 hour networks can find. Too often I saw candidates joining in the mole hill game: Big Bird and Benghazi come to mind. These were distractions from the big campaign issues and their key messages–and they didn’t help them.

For crisis communicators, it is important to understand that particularly for crises that go beyond the one week wonders, this tendency to fill the endless TV hours with minor errors will be part of the game. The judgment to know when these issues are truly significant and resonate with audiences and when they are mere distractions to be quickly forgotten is a vital crisis management skill.

Feeding the angry beast

There is an awful lot of handwringing (including by me) about the nastiness, the partisanship, the toxic talk that dominates so much of our political conversation and indeed, just about every conversation on the web. But, I believe the fundamental problem in our nation politically is the system that we have that requires candidates to appeal the fringes to get the nomination and then have to swing mightily to the center to win the election. It makes them all look like crooks and liars, and makes it almost impossible for candidates who don’t want to play it this way to even get in the game. I don’t have a solution. But I believe that the vast majority of Americans are people of good heart and good will who do not go in for this kind of anger, outrage and disrespect. The media, pundits in particular, seem to have forgotten that. And too often it seems candidates have forgotten that.

For crisis communicators this means keeping in mind in almost every challenging public issue there are three categories of audience. I tend to call them saints, sinners and saveables. There is a tendency to “play to the base”–the saints, demonize the hard core opponents, “sinners” and forget the saveables. But, the right approach is to focus on those who are persuadable and consider that all but the most extreme “sinners” are also probably saveable if you treat them with dignity and respect.

Media today depend on feeding the outrage that comes so quickly to the surface. They do that for a good reason–emotion is necessary to break through the clutter as Danah Boyd makes clear in this video. It’s tempting in our own communications to take the cue from the media (and I fall into this, too.) But, I think most people are reasonable, not prone to outrage, willing to listen and consider. At least, its pleasant right now to try to believe that.