Legal vs PR–the BP trial highlights the conflicts between two competing courts

So BP is on trial and the news headlines are filled with stories about former BP executives testifying about the company’s putting “profits above people.” This situation highlights the often-discussed conflict between the court of law and the court of public opinion. And the often-discussed conflict between lawyers and PR folks.

The CEO and leadership of the company must make the decision when these two forces collide. Clearly Bob Dudley and the BP board have decided that winning in the court of law is more important than winning in the court of public opinion. Let’s look at this decision because as a PR person, like I suspect most PR people, my inclination is to think: how stupid can they be? Why encourage all the old outrage and hatred against their company to resurface? After spending an unbelievable amount of money to convince everyone they are doing it right in restoring the gulf after the spill, why waste the goodwill that that money was intended to generate by allowing this trial to scratch the scab off all the old wounds?

But, things are not so simple. And as we PR folks often accuse the lawyers of only looking at it from the legal perspective, we can be accused of only looking at it from the reputation perspective. According to one estimate, there is at least $17 billion at stake in this trial. 17 billion–that’s enough to pay the federal deficit for–wait, we won’t go there. 17 billion is a lot of money for even a company the size of BP. A CEO has to take numerous factors into consideration, including share value, responsibility to shareholders, and the long term future of the company. A major point of this trial is assigning blame, so there is also the consideration that when all is said and done, blame will be shared (as it has so far in the court of law far more than in the court of public opinion) between Transocean, Halliburton and others. So there is reasonable hope that a positive outcome in the trial will not only save billions, but help the public understand this was a complex event with multiple causes and multiple points of failure.

I think there is another reason why its more rational to proceed with this trial than first glance suggests: ExxonMobil. The shadow of the ExxonValdez lingers, but has been much diminished by the BP spill. You may recall that Exxon’s CEO took great heat for not showing up at the spill. BP CEO Tony Hayward, intent on not making that mistake, made the mistake of showing up too much until he was caught in an unfortunate comment. Funny thing–that comment is now tied to his name so the headlines read: Tony”I want my life back” Hayward. This is so ridiculous. But after the Exxon headlines died down then CEO Lee Raymond took a very strong anti-reputation position. It’s well known in the industry that his view was “people may hate us but they are going to keep buying our product.” So he set about continuing to build a company that would be the envy of everyone else in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and share value. He did. ExxonMobil recently regained its position, which it lost relatively briefly to Apple, as the world’s most valuable company. While many who buy its products may still have a lingering distaste over the ExxonValdez, the shareholders may be happy that the company didn’t waste too many dollars and too much effort on convincing everyone what a nice company they are.

The upshot: sometimes do we PR types make too much out of reputation? Oh my goodness, I feel like a heretic just asking that question. But, Jim Lukashevski (I’m using phonetic pronunciation rather than actual spelling which I can never get right) has made a career out of teaching PR folks to gain a seat at the table of organization leadership. One of the best ways they can do that is demonstrate they can think like a CEO and not just have a knee-jerk PR reaction to everything.

The BP trial is right now a PR disaster. That doesn’t mean Dudley and the others were wrong to refuse to settle. Time will tell.

Did you hear about DKNY’s big crisis about using unauthorized images?

Wow, this is a big one. Looks like DKNY was negotiating to buy some images from a prominent photographer, they didn’t agree on a price and the next thing you know these unpurchased images showed up in a DKNY store window! Big problem, right?

No, not really. And the reason you may not have heard of this “crisis” is because it was identified quickly, and quickly and smartly addressed. It did show up in PR Newser but by the time anyone, including the fast-on-the-draw PR newsletter, the issue was already resolved. 

And that’s the point. It could have been big. It wasn’t. (I almost feel bad for helping to bring it more attention). And the reasons why?

– the issue was identified quickly
– an apology along with a reasonable explanation was offered
– they backed it up with a $25k payment (which seems to me way more than reasonable given the inadvertent error that caused the problem)
– the offended person, the photographer, was quite gracious (even though I think his $100k donation suggestion was a bit over the top–good thing he didn’t suggest it go to him)

This is how a lot of crises should be handled. Probably many more are than we realize because they are dealt with before they come to our attention. When they are handled this way, we need to recognize the success and emulate it. Great job DKNY pr team!



Obama the “puppet master”? What White House communications can tell us about the change in public communication

This story from Politico is very enlightening. The headline is this: mainstream media power is rapidly waning and the Obama administration understands and is taking full advantage of the change.

I avoid politics here, but politics and crisis communication are closely linked. As one former White House press aide told me: every day in the White House is a crisis. The level of media and public focus is unrelenting, and the stakes are high.

President Obama states flatly that his administration is the most transparent ever. The White House press corp couldn’t disagree more. Here is a quote from the Politico article:

“The way the president’s availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace,” said ABC News White House reporter Ann Compton, who has covered every president back to Gerald R. Ford. “The president’s day-to-day policy development — on immigration, on guns — is almost totally opaque to the reporters trying to do a responsible job of covering it. There are no readouts from big meetings he has with people from the outside, and many of them aren’t even on his schedule. This is different from every president I covered. This White House goes to extreme lengths to keep the press away.”

So, who is right? Perhaps both. And the difference is the Internet, digital communications, social media, and direct engagement–all the things we talk about here.

I remember clearly early in the president’s first term when he announced a press conference, not by a media alert, but through social media alone. Having seen first hand during the Gulf Oil Spill the way in which this administration demanded and took full control of the communications about the spill–much to the dismay of some of the government communicators and certainly BP–it is clear that the directive from the top is to control, manage and manipulate. That is certainly consistent with Politico’s analysis.

The lesson for crisis communications is quite clear. The old game was “media management,” which in my mind was always an oxymoron. I can no more manage the media than I can manage the moon. Now the game is direct communications. That means knowing who is important to you, establishing on-going channels of communication, directly engaging, being responsive, quick to catch and correct rumors and misinformation. Where does the media fit in this? Reporters are one of the important audiences–but with their own agendas and own motives (ratings). They are far less important than most in crisis communication continue to believe. They do so, I believe, because “media management” is what they know, and is to some degree “easier” than all that work of direct engagement.


Tesla wins–John Broder and I both have black eyes

This is a follow up to my earlier post about Tesla Motor’s CEO Elon Musk and his battle against the New York Times, specifically John Broder and his negative review of the Tesla Model S.  Initially I applauded Musk for violating the sacred rule of “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” believing as I do that the web changes that rule. But, I criticized Musk for his emotional tone and personal attack and believed that Broder’s calm and very factual-sounding response was winning the day and the argument. So did most others it appeared.

But, the facts win out. My main point in the previous post was that these battles always come down to credibility: who can be believed and trusted. I still think Musk was out of line in his tone and approach. He would have been far more credible to be less emotional and just stick to the facts. But, it appears now that the facts have won out.

Here is what NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said:

My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote above, although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.

Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.

In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.

While this is quite straightforward, I must say that most of her blog is pretty mealy-mouthed. It attempts to take a middle ground and would have been much better for her to say Broder did not live up to the paper’s high standards of journalistic integrity and we apologize.

As mealy-mouthed as it was, Musk and Tesla are certainly claiming victory and it is right they should. 

Other major news outlets are careful to make a fellow media outlet look bad, but tend to confirm that Broder messed up.

Very important lessons here:

1. If you are going to go after someone who buys ink by the barrel, you better have your facts straight.

2. The natural tendency of the news media is to defend themselves and assume their conclusions are unassailable. Ms Sullivan makes it clear it was the high level of public pressure generated by Mr. Musk’s attacks that prompted her to look carefully into this.

3. Tone matters–I and others gave the win earlier to Broder based on our sense that he was being factual and not emotional while Musk was attacking personally and with emotion.

4. A question remains: did Musk help himself or hurt himself by making such an issue out of this? Now far more people know about the impact of cold weather on Tesla’s performance, about the challenges of not having enough charging stations, and the picture of the car on a tow truck is in far more minds than likely would have been. Would it have been better for him to more quietly make his case on his own website, within the trade publications and to all those interested in his vehicles–quietly undermining the bad review rather than blowing it up into a major controversy. Personally, I think so.

5. But Musk has done much to bury the old saw about those who buy ink by the barrel, and that is the biggest lesson for both professional journalists and those they cover. I suspect anyone else who does a review on Tesla (or any other car for that matter following this) will do a better job of taking notes and being able to defend themselves if they decide to give a bad review. And, that is a good thing.

Media training note: hiding under your desk is NOT an effective strategy

Sometimes we in this business think everyone gets the basics of crisis communications–like never hide from or turn your back on the media. But even substantial businesses, like Roberts Brothers, a prominent St. Louis real estate firm, clearly have not gotten the basics.

I suspect this video posted on a PR Daily report will serve many media trainers very well in making an important point. It’s hilarious–and sad. When an investigative reporter from a local TV station showed up at the company offices while following up on a complaint from a property owner about a dangerous tree, the receptionist hid under her desk for over 30 minutes instead of buzzing the reporter into the reception area. You see her pop up from under the desk every once in a while to see if the cameras are still there. Yep, they are, and still rolling.

The finally send someone out, He’s wearing a Security jacket (good move, send a Security guy out to talk to the press). He’s unbelievably unhelpful and rude, slamming the door on the reporter’s face (who remains calm and professional throughout). Then, perhaps getting some advice from a PR person probably also hiding under some desk, the security guy comes out with a changed attitude.

This story via crisis expert Chris Syme and Mr. Media Training Brad Phillips, will serve as a great training aid. Plus, it will provide encouragement to any in the media training business that, sadly, there is still much work to be done.



Elon Musk of Tesla and John Broder of New York Times duking it out over review

This is sort of like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Not a pleasant thing to watch, but hard to take your eyes off of it.

For those unaware: NYT Broder took Tesla’s much-touted electric car for a test drive and ran it out of juice. Had to be towed. Wrote a pretty nasty review. Musk (a celebrity entrepreneur) CEO of Tesla who had courted the review responded on Twitter by calling the review a fake. Strong words. He presented evidence that Broder did not follow the instructions and mis-reported the ride.

OK, a classic. The review is powerful–in this case, powerful bad for Tesla. But who got it right? And was Musk smart in challenging the paper–you know the old saw: never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

Well, without looking at it, I was pulling mightily for Musk. The press does get it wrong more than occasionally, and that old saw about ink by the barrel has been put out to pasture. Because anyone with a smart phone and Twitter account has the power of the biggest press in the world.

Above all, this little train wreck demonstrates one fundamental truth of all controversies being played out in the public: it’s about credibility. It’s about telling the truth. It’s about honesty, transparency, full disclosure. When one says right and the other says wrong, usually someone is going to end up looking bad.

Well, it looks like the credibility battle may very well go to Broder and the New York Times. (Dang!)

Broder, now under an attack from Musk that could be as damaging to him and his reputation as a journalist as his negative review was to Tesla, responded with just the right tone, and with clarity and honesty (it seems anyway).  Musk, it appears, is continuing to accuse Broder of falsifying the information, providing charts to back up his claims, and leveling some pretty nasty personal attacks on Broder.

What does all this mean for crisis communication.

I think most in public relations would take from this the lesson that it is still pretty foolish to attack a reporter (especially from a publication that buys as much ink as the NYT) for a bad review–as it definitely draws attention to the review.

I still believe if the reporter got it wrong, seriously wrong, undeniably provably wrong, that it is a good thing to make a lot of noise about it. But, note the caveat. I’m not sure yet how this will play out. Broder may indeed have not been fully honest in the review and in his explanation (there are some questions like–did you really pick up your brother in Manhattan and give him a ride and did this play into your loss of battery power). But I think Musk did not pass the undeniably provably wrong test.

These battles are about credibility. Trust measures show that both CEOs and reporters have very little initial credibility–but the edge would go to the reporter. So the CEO or accuser of bad reporting had better be on very very solid ground when making big accusations.

One other thing that bothers me–Musk’s tone. Broder’s tone in contrast is quiet, straightforward, non-emotional. That is so important in credibility. Musk’s tone is that of an aggrieved victim–angry, emotional, over the top in personal attacks. Even if he is right, he would be so much more credible with a less emotional tone. There is a time for righteous indignation, but damn, you better be righteous.



Training for social media crises can create social media crises

Let’s face it, almost anything we do these days seems to be able to go bad when exposed to the whole world. As I’ve said many times before, social media and digital communications is a two-edged sword: a more powerful tool than ever before to deal with crises and a whole raft of new crisis vulnerabilities.

Take University of Michigan athletics for example. They decided to do some training for their athletes about the dangers of social media. Understandable. It’s clear that many, and its seems especially younger users, often don’t think about the potentials when they tweet or Facebook something. With the Mant Te’o fiasco at Notre Dame, every university administrator must have had cold chills thinking about how the reputation of their institution rested on the wisdom of 18 year olds and what they put on their social media sites. So UofM did some training.

They used their outside contractor to friend or follow the athletes. Then, confronted the athletes with what they discovered on their sites. Some of it apparently was not what the athletes wanted anyone associated with the University to see. However, a blogger heard a presentation by the athletic director and seems to have misunderstood the training. He tweeted and wrote a blog post that said UofM was “catfishing” its own students. I had never heard of catfishing until Manti Te’o showed up. Apparently it is common. Catfishing is when someone on social media pretends to be someone they are not. Social media makes this rather easy. ESPN picked up the blogger’s report and put out a news story that UofM was catfishing its own students.

PLEASE NOTE: social media crises often start when someone says something stupid or wrong on social media and the mainstream media pick it up, and without verifying, amplify it to their audience, often with extra juice intended to attract audiences, which then goes viral and the whole world (including me) starts talking about it.

ESPN got it wrong, the blogger got it wrong. No catfishing, said the university. Just checking up on what their athletes are saying and doing on social media.

But, it got me thinking. I’ve been looking at a powerful tool for conducting social media training exercises developed and offered by one of the top PR firms in the world. (More about that tool later as I delve into this a bit more). But, it occurred to me what risks there might be in conducting drills and exercises. I have warned clients more than once that when they do their risk or vulnerability assessment, including ranking them, be aware of what that will look like when an event happens and attorneys require all their documentation. “Ah, they knew just such a thing would happen and did nothing about it.” These were headlines coming out of the Superdome power outage fiasco. That is one great danger. But merely trying to prepare your organization for big problems, such as product contamination, or an oil spill, can be twisted and turned into nastiness.

Here’s something I’m considering adding to the vulnerability lists of clients: Negative media reports and social media attacks for the training and preparation you are doing to deal with negative media reports and social media attacks.

This world gets stranger and stranger.