Mayor Bloomberg should applaud Subway for shortened sandwiches

Subway is being sued because apparently some “footlong” sandwiches have turned up to be only 11, or maybe 11.5 inches. The firestorm started with a picture posted on Facebook in Australia of a footlong alongside a tape measure that showed it to be 11 inches. Americans, however, not content to complain to the company or via social media, launched a $5 million lawsuit against Subway’s parent company.

My thought? New York’s Mayor Bloomberg should look into this to potentially add footlongs to his banned foods list. Maybe even give Subway an award for helping fight obesity by providing less food than footlong buyers think they are getting.

Seriously, Subway’s response of saying they are redoubling their efforts to make certain of consistency across all franchises is OK, just OK. I think they could have gone farther to say for example that they conducted their own investigation and found that 89% (or some such figure) were at least 12 inches and they are putting new policies and programs in place to insure 100% compliance. They will even provide a public report on their findings after the new policies are in place. Something like that.

UPDATE: Some great suggestions showing up in the comments. An additional one via email: Subway could offer a half inch sandwich for free to anyone who thinks they got cheated. Gosh, so many ways for Subway to turn this into a positive.



State of the art of sentiment analysis and why important for crisis communications

So you’re sitting in your crisis communications operations room, crafting and distributing messages intended to honestly tell the story of your disaster, or, for the PR cynic, put lipstick on a pig. The real question is, what are all those people thinking out there? How are they feeling about your organization, the job that is being done, the messages being received.

Understanding that the success of the response is largely tied to the summation of these opinions and the long-term effect of them, it becomes very important to have a good handle on what people are really thinking. The greater emphasis on interaction and engagement improves this because the communicators are actually talking with those folks or engaging them via digital communications .

Sentiment analysis is vitally important. It’s important to journalists as well as part of their job is understanding and reflecting how people are responding to events and issues of the day. This report from Nieman Lab gives a good idea of how journalists deal with the issue of sentiment. Where many have relied on pundits, or supposed representatives of a group, there is increasing emphasis on statistical sentiment analysis using algorithms to review social media conversations. But, as you will see in this article, these systems are far from fool proof. Just like us humans.


Trust keeps falling–most think our leaders are liars

Only 18% of people trust business leaders to tell the truth–globally. And less than 50% of people trust businesses to do the right things, even less for government. These are some of the findings of the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer--one of the most important studies in communications.

There are lots of stories out in PR newsletters right now about these findings and what they mean. Here is Bulldog Reporter’s take. Here is the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Here’s the PR Daily story. It’s important to note that while there was some significantly declines, there were also some signs of modest improvement.

What I’m focusing on is the strong belief that most are liars. Think about it for a moment. Most crisis plans include putting the CEO or some other senior business leader out there in front of the cameras, on YouTube or wherever and telling what is going on and what the company or organization is committed to doing about it. If there are 100 people in a room watching your CEO talk, 82 of them are saying either to themselves or out loud: Liar, Liar!

The chart from the Edelman slide deck below (link above) shows who is most and least credible. Think about this. NGOs are the most trusted institutions, academics or technical experts from your organization are far, far more trusted than CEOs. So are regular people, people like yourself.

So, when credibility is on the line (and when isn’t it, particularly in a crisis) who should you have speaking for you? In my book Now Is Too Late I talked about the concept of borrowed credibility. I commented that the crisis communication game is primarily about credibility particularly when there are black hats and white hats involved. It’s a game you cannot afford to lose. But, say you lose all credibility–fairly or unfairly. Your CEO or Chairman becomes the equivalent of a Tony Hayward or Lance Armstrong. Then what? You have to borrow the credibility of others. You have to find those who have high credibility among your target audience and have them speak on your behalf. Of course, if they have high credibility it is because they have proven themselves to be people of character and honesty. They will not be co-opted. That’s a good thing because if someone with high credibility starts speaking on behalf of a seriously damaged organization, the first thing they are going to have to say is that they have not been co-opted, induced, forced or any way gotten involved in a way that damages their credibility.

But, maybe we should be thinking far in advance about who has credibility and should or could be speaking on our behalf in a crisis. Again in Now Is Too Late I talked about putting reputation equity in the bank–you may need to cash those checks. One of the best ways to do that is by making friends with those you may need to rely on in a crisis. Let’s say you are a company with some past environmental conflicts. To have a leading global or local environmental group and leadership engaged with you in getting your act together, being open and honest with them about what you are doing, getting their help in thinking through some of your dilemmas just may pay huge dividends when push comes to shove. Sure, could be very risky because I’ve had one who when it did come to shove turn on me and my client taking full advantage of my openness to hurt us. So, I am suggesting you think about it with some real caution.

The point is clear–in this environment of lack of trust, we need to think about the best ways to build credibility for our organization in times of crisis. To do that, we need to be very realistic about the environment we’re operating in.


Lance, Oprah, Manti T’eo–a weird dishonest world we live in

The last couple of days make me think we are all living in a reality show. Maybe one of those candid camera shows and we are waiting for the “reveal.” Are you kidding me?

-Lance Armstrong–hero to millions, cancer survivor, amazing athlete, founder of a foundation that inspired millions to “live strong,” is nothing but a scheming, pushy, bullying liar who used the courts of law to fiendishly pursue enemies and pretend to be innocent. But, we as a society love to see our icons fall of their pedestals and crash into a million tiny pieces so even though everyone knew he was confessing (finally) and that he is a serial liar of almost the worst sort, the crowd still wanted to see him wiggle around in front of us.

– Oprah Winfrey–desperate to save her $300 million she invested in OWN, and perhaps more important, her reputation as a failure-proof entertainment impresario, “stoops” to feeding the hungry crowd the spectacle of Lance admitting to the world that he’s not worth all the attention he’s been getting. My question: what did she have to offer Lance to get him to help her rescue her failing network?

– Catfishing–a new term to me, but apparently a common activity on the internet of pretending to be someone else to pull cruel, inhumane tricks on other people, such as Notre Dame football stars, and through them, the whole university athletic program.

Manti T-eo, the newest reality TV star and football player who now even the smartest of our journalists can’t figure out if he’s the victim of or perpetrator of fraud, or both. Clearly, even if he is the victim of catfishing, as right now appears to be the case, he is also no victim as he has been caught lying repeatedly about “seeing” his girlfriend and being with her. He may be a victim of cruel hoaxters, but he is far from innocent himself.

This is all too bizarre. There is one common theme to all this. Lying. What strikes me is that the interest shown in these stories show how conflicted we as a society tend to be about the issue of telling the truth. We live in a time where honesty, transparency, truth-telling are held as nearly ultimate values. We are appalled at the sheer degree of lying that someone like Lance Armstrong participated in for many years. He told Oprah he did not think what he was doing was wrong, bad, cheating, or anything like that. In the meantime, he is treating others like dirt and forcing them into similar behavior. This man seems to have no character–yet we seem to be fascinated by him. Oh, the books and articles and blog posts and movies about to come. If he is the scum back he professed to be, why can’t we just leave him struggle with his legal problems in peace?

And catfishing and computer hoaxes. I heard one commentator on the ABC news clip linked above saying in effect this is a natural result of the anonymity of the web–as long as we can hide behind our screens people are going to do that. Yes, but in a time when we demand such an incredible level of honest and transparency from everyone else? What is going on here?

So, we hate lying, we hate liars, but we are endlessly fascinated by them. And the very people who are so outraged by the lack of transparency of the big and powerful are in some cases making a mess of other people’s lives by misusing the anonymity of the web. Maybe I’m the one confused, but this is just not making sense to me.


When reputation attacks get personal–the Chief shows the way

Chief Bill Boyd (he’s a former fire chief, but he’ll always be “Chief” to me) is one of the few I would call on if I found myself under attack. That’s why it was an honor that I would be one he would call when a nasty personal attack appeared online about him.

As you can see from his blog post about this experience, he quickly discovered that even years of experience in handling some pretty high-profile crisis and emergency communications does not necessarily prepare you when suddenly you are the subject of attacks. His retelling from this painful personal experience is a great lesson for just about everyone and every organization when facing reputation threats.

Some key lessons Bill and I discussed in the heat of the moment are clearly identified in his story but bear repeating here:

1. Stay calm. Be very careful about an overly emotional response.

2. Be careful about elevating the discussion publicly. It is quite normal that the person making the attack has a reputation for this sort of thing, enjoys limited credibility and loves the attention it creates and has a motive for increasing attention on his blog. Hence, the wrestling with the pig comment.

3. Don’t be afraid to confront the accuser. In this case, Bill found his attacker to be more reasonable than expected and after being directly confronted (in a nice way) with the facts, he quickly backtracked, apologized and corrected the record.

4. Monitor, monitor, monitor. An attack like this only is effective if it gets legs. Having someone say something nasty is like the tree falling in the forest. It’s only damaging if it is heard. That’s why you don’t want to do anything to make it more heard. On the other hand, social media gives us an unprecedented opportunity to track the momentum of an attack. Use it.

5. It’s not necessarily good to do nothing. It seems in the past most advice would be to let it die its own death, especially if it doesn’t seem to be getting traction. But, another of my favorite sayings is “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.” That’s the nature of history, and the Internet is the best keeper and distributor of history we have–including false history. It is far better that these attacks were corrected than allowed to stand. You never know what on the Internet will come back to bite you–as many young people doing and saying stupid things on social media are finding out when they hit the job market. Do what you can to get and keep a clean record.


“Native advertising” and crisis communication

Advertising and PR are seen as different disciplines and big organizations separate them even more with their internal silos. But advertising is a very important topic for crisis communication. We’ve seen clients buy sponsored links to draw attention to their crisis website to help counter all the bad reports and bad reporting. We’ve seen companies advertise heavily such as BP did during the recovery phase of the Gulf Spill. And we’ve seen others such as Richard Edelman roundly criticize them for trying to advertise their way out of a reputation problem.

In my view, all forms of communication need to be considered and be part of the crisis communicators arsenal. Online advertising has made things even much more interesting in responding to event. That’s why I perked up when I saw the term “native advertising” referred to in this PR Newser post. Native advertising? Does this have something to do with casinos?

No, native advertising is way of embedding content that looks a lot like the content of a website. Almost like product placement in movies, except as in this example, it is clearly marked as sponsored. Scroll down the page on this website called “the awl” and you should see small headline that designates the sponsored story. Note, not sponsored ad, sponsored story. Turns out this one, through Buzzfeed, is an ad for Parker, the movie.

There’s much to comment on on this very subtle blending of content clearly intended for viral distribution and promotion. But my intent is to bring this to your attention as a possible, but possibly risky, channel of communication in a crisis.

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has either used this form in responding to reputation issues or is aware of any examples from anyone else.


How Twitter became the biggest thing in news–and is getting even bigger

Twitter started as a way for the always-connected crowd to share with their friends the kind of latte they were having and just what Starbucks location they were at. Who gives a rat’s behind? So I fearlessly predicted that Twitter would soon tweet into the sunset.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Four years ago, January 2009, a tourist from Florida on a ferry in the Hudson sent a tweet heard around the news world. And the rest is history. News history, and therefore crisis communication history.

Twitter, and I others soon started preaching, was the new police scanner. It was how the news media got the news and tried to beat everyone else to the punch. More than that, it became a broadcast channel in its own right, with millions using it to find the absolutely latest and virtually any and all subjects.

From a media relations and crisis communication standpoint, Twitter has become essential. ESSENTIAL. While many still pooh-pooh the direct communication aspect with citizens, who can argue that with the media using it for searching and reporting the latest that it is essential even if all your focus is on the media? I’ve long promoted the importance of Twitter over Facebook this way, and Jim Garrow and I recently have been having a bit of discussion about that.

Now comes some interesting news that suggests that Twitter is starting to really get that they are a news channel, and not mostly a latte-sharing channel. Twitter is beefing up its algorithm for search by adding an unusual element: humans. Yes, real live people using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, are supplementing the algorithms to provide context. The ReadWrite story tells the details and just what this means.

Here’s the relevance for those of us in the crisis and emergency communication business:

– Monitoring using Twitter just got easier. Those humans are going to make it considerably easier to find the needles in the haystack.

– Growing use for situation awareness. The primary problem for using UGC (user generated content) is the noise to signal ratio. So much noise, so little of value, and how do you separate them?

– Primary media management. The enhanced search will likely mean the media will find Twitter an even more useful tool for reporting.

– Media Schmedia. On other hand, if they don’t will the world care? That’s the real point. This step by Twitter is a big step forward in making traditional media even more obsolete. The ReadWrite headline “”Watch Out CNN” may be overstating it, but perhaps not. I’ve long used Breaking News on Twitter as a primary way of keeping up. I’m suspecting this change will mean Twitter itself is the way to keep up.

Now that I’ve admitted to being so wrong about Twitter and declaring how essential it is to today’s communications, I’ve probably put in motion their demise. Who knows what comes tomorrow. But how can instant be faster?


Health science journalism–don’t just blame the journalists for getting it so wrong

Coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you. Red wine will save your life, red wine will kill you. Low carb diet is the best, low carb diet is dangerous. Most major news outlets feature health science news with information designed to help us choose healthier lives. The problem is, much of it seems contradictory, headlines seem designed to scare us into attention rather than inform us. It’s ironic: the fear expressed by particularly the younger generation about food, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle choices and the like is matched only by their extreme distrust in the media. In other words, it seems the attention-desperate media have been successful in creating a state of fear, even while losing the public’s trust.

I must admit that I have blamed, unfairly it now seems, those attention-desperate reporters and editors. The Columbia Journalism Review has an outstanding analysis of health journalism and why the media most often gets the science news wrong. It’s titled “Survival of the Wrongest,” and in that awkward title is the premise which says that the process of getting science studies published in professional journals leads to bad studies. Studies that make good publication material but are fundamentally flawed. The reporters then pick up on these published studies and run with them compounding the wrong information.

It’s not a problem, says the article’s author David Freedman, of reporters doing sloppy reporting:  “Rather, science reporters—along with most everyone else—tend to confuse the findings of published science research with the closest thing we have to the truth. But as is widely acknowledged among scientists themselves, and especially within medical science, the findings of published studies are beset by a number of problems that tend to make them untrustworthy, or at least render them exaggerated or oversimplified.”

It is the studies themselves that are the problem. Freedman cites Stanford researcher John Ioannidis who, using several different techniques, has determined that “the overall wrongness rate in medicine’s top journals is about two thirds, and that estimate has been well-accepted in the medical field.”

In other words, just because a study is published in a major medical or science journal and has gone through all the peer review and editorial review processes, it does not mean the findings it presents are true. In fact, in two thirds of the cases, they are not.

That is astounding. But it raises a rather profound question. In all the trust studies I have seen it is the academics, the scientists, the experts who are trust above all others. This kind of information knocks the underpinnings out from the kind of trust. Just because a respected scientist says it is true, it ain’t necessarily so. Just because some outrageously expensive professional journal publishes the results, the conclusions are not necessarily right.

Well, I feel a bit better about the media–that is the general media. But, it hardly does much to answer the question “who do we believe? who can we trust?”

Does Freedman have an answer to that overarching question? “My advice: Look at the preponderance of evidence and apply common sense liberally.”

Great advice. Now, what are we to do about the state of fear that has been created by this nonsense?