Valuable lessons learned from the I-5 bridge collapse PIO

So you are picking your kid up from a soccer match, driving down Interstate 5. Suddenly, the bridge you are about to drive over, like you’ve done a thousand times, falls into the river. There are cars and people in the river. But, you are a communicator, a member of the incident management team. You find the just-established command post, the Incident Commander recognizes you and suddenly you find yourself the official PIO for the biggest news story of the moment.

Something quite like this happened to Marcus Deyerin. I had high interest in this story because, as I explained in my posts on, this is MY bridge–I only live five miles away and cross it nearly every day. Like 71,000 others. And I have known Marcus for several years as a communicator for a local government agency. So it was with strong interest I followed this story even though I was in California when the bridge went down.

Marcus is sharing his very important lessons learned about being the initial PIO for this event in two blog posts on Jim Garrow’s terrific blog “The Face of the Matter.” (Here’s the link to the second post.)

If you are a communicator and could find yourself in this kind of situation where suddenly you are tapped to be the voice of a response a good part of the world is tuning in to, you may want to pay close attention to Marcus’ lessons learned.

White House in crisis: any lessons here?

A few years back a former press aide in the White House told me every day in the communication office was a crisis. But these days, the crisis management activity has to be a bit higher than normal. While I approach this political topic with fear and trepidation it is arguably the biggest crisis communication exercise going on today and I think it has some lessons for those who study how crises are handled.

So, here goes.

1. How individuals or groups respond to a brand or organization depends on their starting point.

I’ve heard from both sides on the Obama crises. One friend said he was the most maligned president in history, maligned by the press. Others, of a more Fox News bent, simply have a happy face when talking about these latest issues. That is very important from a crisis management standpoint. How you or your organization fare in a crisis depends largely about the reputation equity you currently have. Are you in an industry (like Big Oil) that is generally distrusted and disliked? Then that is going to bear greatly on the reaction to a spill. Have you had a series of high profile difficulties that undermined trust? That is going to play a big role. Or, do you have years of solid relationship building with key stakeholders with many who trust and respect you? The recent ExxonMobil spill in Arkansas resulted in people on the street waving placards. But, as one nearly unbelieving reporter told me, these were people supporting ExxonMobil. How could that be? I told him it was probably due to a good job the company did in communicating and building support in the community for a long time. Reputation equity in the bank can pay big dividends when it is needed most. This is Obama’s greatest hope–he has a vast constituency of strong supporters who give him the benefit of the doubt in nearly every situation. It will take a lot to erode that and from that perspective he is innocent of involvement in these activities and is being persecuted by political enemies and an unfair media.

2. Classic crisis management activity in play.

There are lots of examples of how the administration’s communication team is playing the various situations–Benghazi, AP records seizure and the IRS targeting of conservative groups. The IRS case is potentially most damaging if it were to be linked to the administration. So here there is a case of outrage, separation from any responsibility, sacking of those involved and promises to make sure this can’t happen again. The other issues seem to be less in play and that too seems strategic in that the farther they appear from White House the better. Keep the Benghazi problem in Clinton’s State Department and the AP issue in the Justice Department. But, there are problems with this…

3. Guilt by culture

It is one thing for a CEO to say “I had no idea such egregious behavior was going on,” another thing to successfully avoid any blame. So here is the real problem with these crises. I doubt very much that anyone will find any evidence linking approval of these problems directly to the White House. That does not make the White House innocent of them. There is the issue of course, that these are the people on their team and they were the ones who vetted them for wisdom and judgment. But there is something deeper and that has to do with culture. I’ve been around DC enough to see that people in high administrative positions have one thing on their mind: how do I keep my job? And the answer to that by keeping to what the boss or bosses or ultimate boss would want me to do. Their judgement if the values, priorities, decisions of the highest leaders determine their ideas of what is right and wrong in various circumstances. Here is where my bias comes in. I was involved in the Gulf oil spill communications and had a near front row seat watching this administration take charge of all communications relating to the spill. They kicked BP out of any communication role, put twenty-somethings in command authority over the seasoned communication professionals because those twenty-somethings had the direct connection to the White House. They firmly implemented firm orders to not allow any communication to go out without White House approval and then embargoed it for an hour after approval to allow them to control the message. Summarily fired a seasoned government communicator for telling the truth to the media as to who was in control of media access issues–he told the press it was the White House, but the story they wanted was that BP was controlling. That was my limited exposure to the culture. Add one more thing. In talking to some high level government officials I was told that no administration they had seen before (going back to Bush I) was anywhere near as micromanaging as this one–particularly as it related to controlling the message. Admittedly, this is scant evidence and only my personal experience. But if it is the case, then these three seemingly unrelated problems are endemic, part of the culture, and the actions taken with higher levels of acceptance than is being presented. If that is the case, we are seeing the beginning of a very significant problem for this administration.

The more important lesson (if I am right and I hope I am not), is that culture matters. The tone set at the highest levels are interpreted throughout the organization and used as a basis for making decisions at that level as to what is acceptable or not. A recent discussion about crisis communication raised the question about the most important thing in crisis management. I and others replied: character. Character at the top determines culture and culture influences (does not control) the actions of nearly everyone in the organization. That is the most important lesson of all.



Will Twitter outlast New York Times?

Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder said in a recent press conference that Twitter would outlast the New York Times. Gil Rudawsky of GroundFloor Media reported on this and asked the question in a recent blog post.

I’d hate to make that prediction as I, a very long time ago, boldly predicted that Twitter would soon be gone. I thought people would tire of sharing the particular Starbucks drink they were enjoying which seemed to be the primary point of Twitter at the time (see, the name suggested to me a bunch of meaningless bird-like tweeting). How wrong I was as Twitter has become the driver in today’s news coverage, and one of the most significant news channels currently available. If Mr. Thiel is right, even more significant than the mighty New York Times.

It fascinates me no end that so many in crisis communication seem to have trouble grasping the significance of this change. But I would suggest, as Boston Police showed in their excellent use of Twitter during the bomber manhunt, that Twitter has made public information and media relations a much, much simpler game:

If you do nothing else in a major event other than providing near continuous tweets about what you know and what you don’t know, in 140 character bites, you will still be the communication champ. 


Five Simple Steps to Crisis Preparation

I was asked by a local business publication to do a column on crisis management. Since the audience is quite broad from mom and pop operations to some pretty sizeable industrial and healthcare organizations, the assignment helped me think through the basics.

So here is my take on the most important steps in preparing for a crisis regardless of the size and type of organization.

Five Simple Steps to Prepare for a Crisis


By Gerald Baron, Agincourt Strategies


Even though nearly every day we see a new business crisis happening, most organizations have not prepared to face a major crisis. That’s especially true of online or social media crises, even though that is the fastest growing type of crisis most face.


One reason to take a head-in-the-sand approach, is that many tend to think that crisis preparation is difficult, expensive or even impossible. But, there are a few basic actions any organization leader can take that will go far in eliminating crises from happening in the first place, and help them deal with them more effectively if they do happen.

1. Imagine your worst case scenarios.

Crisis preparation begins with a thorough examination of the kinds of events that can do you in. Might be data loss, maybe a major flood or earthquake, sudden loss of senior leaders, a bad review that goes viral, a product recall, toxic release or illegal immigration problem that hits the news. Prioritize them using a Risk Matrix, evaluating which are the most and least likely and highest and lowest impact. But, don’t fail in imagination. We’ve seen mega-disasters like the BP spill and the Fukushima tsunami in part because planners just didn’t think such worst case events were possible.

2. Take preventive measures.

If you know that an ammonia release could be devastating, you will probably double check your precautions. If you feel vulnerable about customer service, the scenarios may lead you to focus on significant improvements. The devastation of a product recall may be prevented by doubling down on quality control. And so on. The great thing about starting with scenarios and the Risk Matrix is that you know where to start in preventing a crisis. Estimates are that 75% of all business crises are smouldering–there was smoke well before the fire. Your entire organization needs to be prepared to smell the smoke and report it.

3. Character and actions matter most.

A study out of Oxford clearly demonstrated that the impact on share price on a company during and after a crisis was directly related to the perception of the public about the character of the leaders. Actions matter, and the actions that matter most are the ones that demonstrate the leaders care more about how the event is hurting others than how it is hurting them. That’s why Johnson and Johnson’s response to the contaminated Excedrin is still the gold standard of crisis response: they acted as if it was their fault and did a nationwide recall at their expense even though they were the victim of the criminal as well. And its why former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s comments about “wanting my life back” were so negatively received. Actions must be about helping and protecting others. Crisis communication should be mostly about effectively telling the caring actions that the leaders are taking.

4. Know who you need to talk to and how you will reach them.

Far too many think that crisis communication is about dealing with the media. The media are important, however, they are not nearly as important as your key stakeholders. These are the people whose opinion about you matters most for your future. Large customers, major donors, key employees, labor leaders, elected officials, regulators, community leaders–your future may be in their hands.  The media are important only because of how they can affect key stakeholder opinion about you. But, if you connect with those important people and tell them straight up, honestly, openly what is going on and what you are doing, you will earn their trust even if the media doesn’t get the story right. Media are in the business of attracting an audience–these days at almost any cost. Do you really want to trust your future to them with that agenda?

More than knowing who you must communicate with, you must know how you will interact with them. Phone? Email? Website? Social Media? Snail mail? Meetings? All these can be critically important. It is their preference of channels to use that is critical–not yours. If you don’t know how they expect to hear from you in a major crisis, now is a good time to find that out.

5. Prepare key messages in advance.

Any casual look at business crises today will show that the story of many failings is “too little, too late.” Often companies do the right thing, but too late. In today’s instant news world, you have to be able to engage and communicate almost immediately. And the only way to do that is by preparing in advance. When you think through those scenarios, also think through what questions will be asked of you and what key messages need to be communicated. Involving key decision makers including legal advisers in preparing key messages in advance will mean you can move much quicker, with assurance and authority. And that feels real good when it is hitting the fan.

Gerald Baron, former publisher of Business Pulse, is a crisis communication consultant who has worked with many Fortune 100 comnpanies and government agencies from the federal to the municipal level. He writes the Crisis Comm blog for Emergency Management and the blog. He owned Baron&Company, a Bellingham marketing and PR agency for over 30 years and founded PIER System, the world’s leading supplier of crisis communication technology.