What advice to give those involved in reputation wrecks?

Yesterday I was interviewed by NPR for a program airing this weekend about PR and reputation problems caused by racism. It’s always good for someone who helps others prepare for media interviews to do a real one themselves to bring some lessons home. I wasn’t too happy with the interview despite having prepared by thinking through key messages.

In case you catch the story, and some of what I said is included, here is how I intended to answer the question.

1. It’s always about credibility.

While there isn’t a denial, or he said/she said in this case, people are still looking at Paula closely to see if she is to be believed. No doubt trust and respect for at least some has been shaken by revelation of her past attitudes and behavior. Now they are looking to see if she is telling the truth and can rebuild trust. Sincerity is everything. Sadly, I think Paula is very much lacking in this right now with bungled apology, standing up the Today Show, a rocky performance there, and as far as I know, no real action taken–just words. Sincerity and credibility, like all things trust related, are judged more by actions than words.

2. Admit wrong and fix it.

Speed is essential in responding to such a situation. Speedy response often requires identifying the risks in advance and preparing to respond. Deen and company did not do that although the risks following the deposition should have been very obvious. Yes, she admitted wrong, in goofy sorts of ways, but sincerity demands serious action. As we have seen over and over again, the public is at once highly sensitive to character flaws–particularly where dishonesty and lack of sincerity are involved–but also very forgiving when they perceive genuine remorse and commitment to change.

3. Direct contact with key stakeholders.

The news is filled with stories of corporate sponsors abandoning Deen. This could have been anticipated. In this case, direct communication that included an apology and a clear plan of action to address the wrong may not have been enough. Brands are very sensitive to negative press and reputation wrecks (see next point). However, the overall lesson is that the most important people to communicate with in a crisis are those whose opinion about you matters most for your future. If you let the media control the storyline, the results are predictable. Managing the firestorm means engaging with these important people at earliest possible opportunity, finding out from them what they see as needed or expected and responding quickly with firm action.

4. Understand the climate.

This is the only issue that I discussed with the reporter. The  the cultural climate determines the nature and degree of reputation crises in many respects. We see it everyday (eg. Chick-fil-A CEO was back in news today for posting a “sad day” tweet about Supreme Court decision re gay marriage). We have a high level of political correctness (determined largely by major media positions on social/political issues), and also a great deal of pluralism or diversity. Some issues demonstrate deep divisions: homosexuality, abortion, gun control, energy policy, etc. On some issues there seems to be a strong social consensus: child abuse, porn, molestation, sexism, racism–and gay rights issues are quickly moving into this realm). The impact on reputation is determined in part by where the issue fits on the continuum of consensus vs. division. But it also depends on the passion and social engagement of those on one side or the other of the issue. So the seriousness of the reputation wreck and strategies for recovery are based on an analysis of the climate as well as how the story has been covered so far.

5. It’s about character.

Ultimately, reputation is about perceived character. For companies and organizations, its about how the public perceives the character and integrity of the leaders. For celebrities, its about their perceived character. Paula Deen has a significant problem because the deposition revealed a significant gap in who people perceived she was vs. who she was revealed to be through the deposition. If she has a chance of recovery it will be based on how people perceive her character in dealing with this gap. Understanding this focus on character is critical to reputation crisis prevention, as we discussed on The Crisis Show the other day. Those responsible for organization reputation have to take very seriously the character and integrity of those who represent and make decisions for the organization.

So, can Paula recover?

Seems she’s taken a major step in retaining Judy Smith, a well-known reputation “fixer” who is also African-American. At the same time, hiring someone with such profile in working with major reputation problems (Marion Barry, Michael Vick and so on), leads one to question sincerity of anything coming out now. I don’t think Deen’s situation is nearly as bleak as a Lance Armstrong (whose character problems seem so deeply embedded and the gap between perception and reality so stark). Some would say Tiger’s reputation has recovered. While Forbes proclaims Nike’s sales increase a success for Nike hanging with Tiger and demonstration of his reputation recovery, I would say every tournament in which his petulance, impatience and self-absorption are so obvious is judged in light of his past behavior. If Paula does recover, it will be like Tiger’s I suspect. Never again will she enjoy the level of adulation she once did, nor the level of sponsorship.

One last note–what to make of Paula’s surging book sales? Does this call into question this analysis of her reputation problems? I don’t think so. It’s a reminder of that old truism dating back to early days of publicity: “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.” She is enjoying a surge of awareness–perhaps curiousity–coming out of all the news coverage and social media chit chat. Long term, its reputation that matters, not mere publicity.


“Snackable content:” great way to describe digesting digital comms

I just saw a 15 second video that purported to explain exactly what PR was. Got me thinking about how one of the key attributes of good communicators today is the ability to simplify info down to the smallest possible nub. We are exposed to something like 30,000 messages a day so we don’t have a lot of time or patience for long form content–unless we are hungry for it.

That’s why I really like this term “snackable content” which is ascribed to “social media trailblazer” Ekaterina Walter.

Hmmm. Snackable. As in delicious. Something that sounds good right now. Something I know won’t fill my appetite for a good, substantial wholesome meal, but it won’t spoil it too much either. Something that I can do on the fly while I’m doing half a dozen other things.

Mobile phone users (and who isn’t) are said to use their phones over 150 times a day. That’s one heck of a lot of snacks. Of course, this is one of the problems of our obese culture–we snack constantly and then still eat big meals.

But, I’m wandering from the point. If you are creating content–which you most certainly are in a crisis–think about snackable content. Make it quick, easy, attractive, with plenty of salt and sugar. But, don’t forget you still have to serve up the big meals for those who go beyond snacks and require something more substantial.


Paula Deen lesson: where there’s smoke, there ain’t necessarily bacon frying

The Paula Deen story is another sad tale. I tend to want to wait a bit for these things to play out before trying to decipher the lessons to be learned. But my friend and colleage Bill Boyd on his blog– typically more focused on emergency (government) communications– has some great insights (plus entertaining writing) that I just had to share.

This story bears similarity to Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan, Reese Witherspoon and a number of others. Aside from the fact that they are all celebrities, I would say that most of these crises were inevitable–they had to happen. Why, because they are crises of character and we live in an age of transparency. Bad things are going to come out–its almost inevitable. Lance thought he could cheat for a long time and bully his opponents because he thought he was untouchable due to his remarkable story and success. Tiger thought he could cheat as well.

M.L. King, Jr said the day would come when we are judged not by the color of our skin but the content of our character. It seems perhaps that day has come. Paula is a great cook and an endearing personality–but she revealed some of her true nature and that part is pretty ugly. Apologies, no matter how badly bungled in editing, come across as pretty weak when you say that saying some things is totally unacceptable when you have done it for years.

Character does matter today. I’m grateful that we still live in a world in which rich, interesting people with loads of celebrity talent can’t just do and say anything they please without paying a price. The real lesson of crisis management in these stories is really to boards and senior leaders: be vigilant about the people in whom you place your trust. I mentioned on the crisis show the anecdote from former GE CEO Jack Welch interviewed by David Feherty on the Golf Channel. He told about golfing with one of his senior execs when Jack caught him cheating–just a little, like kicking his ball for a better lie. Jack fired him. If he couldn’t trust him to play the game straight, how could he trust him with the reputation of his company. That’s a guy that understands character.


Discussion on “The Crisis Show”

Last night I participated in a discussion on “The Crisis Show” with Rich Klein.  David Van from the DeWintern Group in Australia, a reputation management expert, was also a guest.

It was a very enjoyable discussion about the SEC statement saying they would not (always, maybe, let’s obfuscate a bit) any longer settle with companies without an admission of guilt. We also talked about the spat between Men’s Wearhouse and founder/pitchman George Zimmer. You might enjoy listening in on these discussions.

In addition to the enjoyable conversation, I found it very interesting that there is essentially a TV show conducted globally using Hangout on Air. Technology today is making it remarkably easy for someone without years of technical training to mount their own show and air it for the world to see. Of course, securing an audience of any size is the biggest challenge–one we have to remember our friends in the media business face every day and night.

The point for crisis communicators regarding this kind of technology is that knowing how to use it, having some practice and experience with it may prove extremely valuable when the world is paying attention to you when you least want it. Being able to have your senior leaders speak even if they are around the globe, participate in live chat if you choose, or record it and post it on your website could be invaluable.

I know that Rich has some very interesting and worthwhile guests on his show which airs live every Wednesday at 7 pm EDT, but it is also posted on his website and on Google+. Just search “The Crisis Show” and you’re sure to find it.

Transparency, privacy, national security–let the great debate ensue

We knew it would come to this. Those cheerleaders for openness in all things, transparency, full disclosure (including me) sooner or later would run into the problems associated with it. Today our government is being wrenched with the question of privacy of citizen information. The president talks about striking a balance between national security and right to privacy. But who is to decide what balance should be struck? And how can broadbased surveillance be effective if everyone knows the formula for choosing whose activity will be monitored and whose not?

In the news business, similar questions are being raised. This is beyond the tracking of phone calls to try to stop security leaks (and damaging political leaks). Connecticut just passed a law that makes it illegal to make public previously available photos, images, audio reports relating to any homicide. News media will no longer be able to show much about homicides in Connecticut:

The bill as approved exempts photographs, film, video, digital or other images depicting a homicide victim from being part of the public record “to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim’s surviving family members.”

One can understand the sensitivity of Connecticut since this legislation is a direct result of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But, does this overreach? What the heck will local TV do when they can’t show images and videos involving homicides?

Personally, I avoid local TV because they seem obsessed with crimes, particularly crimes against children. But, since they measure the success of their offerings hour by hour, no doubt this kind of coverage is what their audiences demand. And if the public demands it, how will it work to make it illegal?

The royal family couldn’t keep the fact that Prince Harry was sent to Afghanistan, despite the full cooperation of all the news media. Some blogger in Australia provided the world the information. Will passing a law keep these images from the public? Or did the Connecticut legislature handcuff the local news media, giving one more huge advantage to the anonymous social media hack who gets his/her hand on the graphic image or video?

Is Snowden a hero or traitor? Does disclosing the widespread personal surveillance going on in our government constitute an act of patriotism, or as President Putin seems to suggest by his generous offer of asylum, an act of treachery?

These are difficult questions, but some of the most important facing our world today. The mere reality of a complete connected world with minimum of government censorship means that transparency is a reality, in many cases, a very uncomfortable reality. I for one, opt for freedom. But freedom demands responsibility, and we can be assured that there will always be some yahoo that acts irresponsibly. That’s where laws come in. Unfortunately, like Connecticut’s well-intended law, the irresponsibility of a few leads to a loss of freedom for all. Ah, yes, a balance must be struck.

What does a “nano news” weather forecast look like?

I’ve been having some fun defining nano-news (my best try for what comes after instant news). Nano news as I’ve discussed here is realtime information sharing from the source–from the scene, the front-lines or by real time sharing of police scanners and the like. Unfiltered, unprocessed, unapproved–but almost as fast as quantum entangled particles–or at least the speed of light.

But, what does a nano-news weather report look like? Had to laugh when I saw Jim Garrow’s posting of a weather report billboard. Captures the idea of nano news far better than I can explain.


Is “Breaking News” a lie?

Now this is intriguing. WDRB Fox affiliate in Louisville put out a promo for their news by very straightforwardly addressing the “deception” at the heart of much of today’s news coverage. I love it. Calling Breaking News a lie, an advertising ploy, a trick. The video says “breaking news is seldom actually breaking and often isn’t even news.” They further say they never use that term and believe “the relationship you have with your television station shouldn’t begin with a deception.”

Then it provides some guidance for viewers to help them evaluate news coverage by asking three questions: Is it important to me? Is it really breaking? Is it even news?

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While clearly this is “an advertising ploy” of their own–and I have no way of telling if their claims of doing real journalism are born out by the facts–I find this approach very encouraging. It shows at least some in the media are concerned about the huge erosion in trust in news coverage. It shows they are willing to directly confront the real issue–which is the length to which news competitors will go to attract an audience and the consequences of those errant strategies. But most important, this kind of message helps audiences take a step back and ask important questions about coverage.

That in my mind is the only real answer to the very serious problems with today’s mainstream journalism.


Defining “nano news”

In a recent keynote presentation I made to an emergency management conference and in a post on Crisis Comm over at emergencymgmt.com I used the term “nano news.” Since it has been referenced lately by others I thought some further thoughts here might be worthwhile.

Webster defines “news” as ” a report of recent events.” “Nano” is one billionth of a second. Nano has come to refer to anything very small. So what is very small news?

In the Boston bombing manhunt one new feature of reporting news came to the wider public attention. This was the quite wide-spread use of police scanner apps, websites like “broadcastify” and linking police scanners to the internet through Ustream. What all of these methods do is the same: they capture the realtime police communications as the responders are doing their job. In this case, hunting down and capturing the remaining suspect in the Marathon bombing.

News media using police scanners to gather information is nothing new. And of course, there are those, some might call them geeks, who make a hobby of listening in on police radios. What is new is the use of the internet and social media such as Reddit, 4chan and Ustream to share that real time police activity with the rest of the world. This is a game changer in several respects.

One, it takes “instant news” to a whole new level. This is getting as close as it seems possible to being one of the eyewitnesses on the scene, except you can be on the other side of the globe. How do you get faster than instant? Nano, I guess.

Second, it is “small news.” It comes in the tiniest bits and pieces. For example, the Redditor who was following a police scanner app reported during his or her continual stream of reports from the police scanner that “we have movement, arm is moving.” This was one of the first indications to the police and simultaneously to the world that the suspect was alive under the tarp covering the boat. A tiny bit of information, but yet so significant to those “on the scene” eagerly watching events unfold.

Third, it is fully unfiltered, unchecked and unreliable. It’s long been said that the first reports about almost anything are bound to be wrong. But when those first reports are not about what HAS happened, but what IS happening, it seems almost more certain they will be wrong. We saw that to tragic effect in the Boston situation, where a police scanner referencing the name of a possible suspect was picked up and distributed widely throughout the internet. One women’s organization with 300,000 Facebook likes put that name out and apologized when it turned out to be a missing student who was found dead a few days later. The apology included the explanation “I’m not a journalist,” as if that excused the distribution of a false report to hundreds of thousands. What the new “nano news” reporters seem to not understand is that they are “journalists” or “broadcasters” in the sense that what they say can and often is distributed to thousands or even millions and they bear some responsibility when the false information ends up impacting response activity or the lives of those involved.

Fourth, related to the above, information true and false can be harmful. It can hurt police or response operations. It can compromise public safety. It can cause untold damage to reputations and cause extreme emotional pain. Because of this, no doubt the emergence of “nano news” will prompt the further use of encrypted radios, but I would guess may also spur legislation. Legislation is often a recourse when people act irresponsibly and most “5-0 Scan kids” as I call them (after the popular app 5-0 Scan) would not consider it irresponsible to simply relay what is on the police scanner. But it can be and often is. When they use their computer to live video a police scanner and share that on Ustream they would not think of the harm they could be causing. But they should.

We have left an era of “processed news.” That is information that is gathered, vetted, verified, compressed, packaged and distributed to a waiting audience. The audience has become the broadcaster and those charged with vetting, approving and packaging are struggling mightily to figure out how to be responsible when they can’t possibly beat the police scanners or the on-the-scene eyewitnesses sharing what they observe on Twitter. As they get closer to nano news themselves, mistakes with potentially huge consequences are inevitable. But, when it is desperately important to us, we can accept those errors are part of the price we pay for getting what we want right now.

Nano news is here to stay. For good and ill.


Just after writing this I read this excellent post by Bill Salvin about using Twitter in the first hour after an incident. He’s right on the money and since Twitter largely created the nano news phenomenon, it is essential that crisis communicators follow Bill’s advice.