Apparently, if you hire a crisis communication expert it’s a sign you’re desperate

I’da thought online media sites like mediabistro wouldn’t typically act like mainstream media editors–but here’s one great example.

Mediabistro’s PRNewser pokes fun of Sony for hiring a crisis communications practitioner as its new head of communications. This makes it an “act of desperation.” Give me a break.

I worked in marketing and PR for probably at least 20 years before I got seriously into crisis communication. Crisis communications is very much like all other communication activities except in at least some cases there is extra seriousness, significance and speed. To me, and I suspect many others like me who have experience in a broad range of communications, crisis communication is attractive because it is exceptionally challenging. Not to everyone, I’m sure.

An emergency room doc is an expert in trauma, but he can still dispense antibiotics if you need them. Seeking out such an expert for wider ranging services does not constitute an act of desperation. Sounds like a smart move to me.



Keep on talking–is New York Times doing news right?

The hacking of the New York Times website, and presumably others, by the Syrian Electronic Army, has a lot of people talking. In talking to a great client and friend about this the comment made was that New York Times doesn’t seem to want to talk about this. Nothing on their website (now that it is back up) about this issue.

I googled the story and found the New York Times had an article on it two days ago, August 27, in their media and advertising section. So, of course, they would say “we covered that story.” And they did. But what it means is if you are now coming to the story, or if there are new developments, or if you want to dive deeper you have to go to their search section, or much more likely, google it.

Maybe that’s the only way. But it seemed to my friend, and to me, when something is being talked about in other media so much that it would be a bit more visible on their website. It’s like companies in crisis not having any reference to the highly visible issue on their site–they look oblivious, head in the sand, hope it will go away. That’s kind of how New York Times looks–and why not? Why highlight an issue that doesn’t make them look good–is their security that bad?

That comes to the dilemma we face in crisis communication. We want an issue to go away, but we need to be transparent. As Jim Garrow points out in this excellent post about “Bite-Sized News” that most new viewers today are looking for “snackable content.” And lots of frequency. (By the way, I’m not pointing to Jim just because he says some very nice things about me here!)

For crisis communication we’ve learned some important lessons in the last while:

– keep on talking–even when news media go on to the next big story, it doesn’t mean those affected have lost interest. Keep on talking.

– Update frequently–even if you don’t have anything new to say, you can still say that, but those interested will keep checking back.

– Provide “snackable content”–bite-size chunks of news, but you still have to offer the full meal deal to those who want it, which is why Twitter and your website have to work together

New York Times may not be in full-scale crisis, but the hacking thing is a crisis of sorts. They are acting in exactly the same way companies in crisis mode too often act: put out the occasional or maybe one time press release and consider the job done. There, we communicated, now leave us alone. Doesn’t work. Keep on communicating, let us know what you know, give us updates, offer in-depth details and just a headline. That’s not asking too much.


Beginning of the end of nasty anonymous comments?

Arianna Huffington announced that Huffpost is moving toward eliminating anonymous comments. This is remarkable given the high level of commenting activity on the popular news site.

It is well known and often remarked about how the civility of our society has been degraded by the Internet–well, not the Internet, the amazing number of people who are rude, nasty, impolite, over-opinionated, and downright ugly. I read a recent academic paper (sorry, lost the reference) which linked the quite dramatic loss of trust in government in part to the sheer nastiness and extreme partisanship of our online conversation. I was conducting a workshop yesterday when one participant commented that the Internet created essentially a global small community which is true, but, unfortunately this quaint little town we live in called the Internet seems to have been overtaken by the most vulgar, inarticulate and cynical citizens of the planet.

(Do you have any idea yet how I feel about the Internet nastiness?)

That’s why I heartily welcome this move by HuffPost as well as the rapidly emerging trend of requiring users to sign in using their Facebook or Twitter accounts. It simplifies sign-ons and does make it a bit harder to hide, although Twitter to best of my knowledge still allows people to hide behind anonymity (such as @theeviltweeter).

Anonymous comments represents a dilemma for organizations wanting to use interactive tools during a crisis or emergency. It makes it harder to verify online information that could be important for emergency response. It makes it more challenging to determine actual sentiment. It poses the dilemma of whether or not to delete comments or end a nasty thread, thereby entering into the conversation in a controlling way which is anathema to the digital mob. What is particularly great about HuffPost requiring actual identities, if they indeed do this, is it may turn into a trend and certainly something organizations experiencing the nastiness to also eliminate anonymous comments with the statement that HuffPost does it.



NanoNews—understanding the new news environment

Struggling with what comes after “instant news,” I’ve tried to come up with a way of describing the dramatic change in real time information sharing that was powerfully demonstrated in the Boston manhunt. For better or worse, I’m using “NanoNews” to describe it.

I created a video in lieu of an in-person presentation I was invited to make at the National Capital Region’s Social Media in Emergencies conference. That presentation was just concluded so now I’m sharing this with you.

In 2001, when I wrote the first version of “Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News” I used the term instant news to help communicate that news cycles were gone, that as fast as news helicopters could get overhead the news of your event or disaster would be live on the air. I was thinking of the ubiquitous breaking news as well as the already emerging trend of sharing information via the Internet—at that time primarily through email.

But compared to the “instant news” we have today, “breaking news” corresponds more to snail mail. It’s practically dead and gone, and not just through over-use. When millions are tuned into the police scanner chatter broadcast live through Ustream or converted into a Reddit thread using websites like Broadcastify or scanner apps like 5_0 Scan, it’s obvious that breaking news can’t keep pace. By the time even the fastest news crews get the information from such sources, and relay it, it will be minutes old—and minutes old is unacceptable when you could have real time information.

Nano News is almost certain to grow. Mobile smartphone use continues to grow. Over one billion worldwide and a hundred million in the US.  That number will grow. And though they are called “smartphones” telephone use is actually quite small and diminishing—this report shows how these devices are actually used.

In the video I suggest that this widespread use of mobile devices to access events of interest constitutes a form of teleportation. Your senses, your ability to experience, is transported to the scene through the ever increasing use of real time information sharing usually from the “crowd” or non-professional sources.

The implications for emergency and crisis communications are immense. I was quite surprised to see a new study from PwC, which according to a press release of August 8: “more than half of the respondents – 57 percent – do not officially use social media as a crisis management resource.  For companies that have begun integrating social media into their crisis management efforts – Facebook and Twitter cited the most often – not all are seeing improvement in their capabilities. Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents are modestly leveraging it as a tool, but not necessarily seeing improvements in their capabilities, whereas eight percent of respondents believe that social media has become an enabler for their organization to proactively identify and respond to crisis events. “

That is quite stunning to me—raises a question as to whom within the organization the questions are addressed—IT?

In the video I made several observations which generated some comment and discussion with the group gathered in DC. One is that today in crisis communication you can NOT be fast enough. Only if facts or details are completely hidden (almost impossible these days) can you really control what goes out and when. If you can’t provide the relevant information what can you do? You can make sure what is said and gets traction is correct. Rumor management is job one. And it requires great speed, which means that Twitter is the numero uno media management tool. It’s not the only tool to use to be sure. But if you want the media and most informed public to know the truth, you better know what is being said and be very quick in correcting false information.

It seems the biggest issue confronting communicators is approvals. We had some valuable discussion about that during the conference and I was quite pleased to see that the separation of incident/response facts from organizational messages seems to be taking hold. Not everything to be released needs the same level of approval. As one pointed out, it requires trust in the PIO—but also a clear understanding prior to the event about releasable facts vs. key messages requiring approval—and the vast gray area between.

The experiment in presenting and discussing with a crowd across the country through Hangout went very well I thought (I’ll have to hear from those who were there). I think this will be far more common in the future. As is the case with these events it was helpful for me to learn from those who are practicing this stuff every day. But the discussion only confirmed that NanoNews is a vital reality and it is one that progressive communicators and emergency management leaders are coming to grips with—and that is good news.


Love, marriage and crisis communications–some anniversary thoughts

Today is our 40th wedding anniversary, so naturally it leads to me to think about what love, marriage and life together has to do with crisis communication. A lot I think. And not just because there are plenty of crises in any marriage and communication or the lack of it is often the major cause of such crises.

Though some dispute the statistics, about half of marriages don’t survive–which makes 40 years very much worth celebrating. I’m going to suggest that the primary reasons why some do are very applicable to crisis communication, and for that matter any relationship.

Crisis communication, despite what too many think, is primarily about relationships. The all-important relationships between your company and organization and its most important stakeholders. Trust and respect are key elements of that relationship. What customer will stick with a company, what investor will maintain investment, what donor will contribute, what employee will eagerly produce without those two critical ingredients. Crises are crises mostly because they threaten the trust and respect that the important relationships hold in the leaders and the organization. That’s why whether or not an organization survives a crisis is primarily based how key stakeholders view the character of the leaders–are they worthy of continued trust and respect?

So what creates and maintains trust and respect? I’m going to suggest two things that also result in long, healthy marriages: love and commitment.

Let’s start with commitment. When you enter a marriage, particularly at a young age (we married when we were both 21) you have no idea what the future holds. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Or, in the thoughts of so many, until we grow apart, until we no longer share similar passions, until one or both of us get ugly, until we find our “soul mate.” There are so many reasons to question our promise of commitment–what were we thinking?! But, given the many challenges to a lifetime of togetherness commitment is essential. I’m grateful to our strong faith background and our absolute belief that we are held accountable to our Maker for the promise we made and to the sacred nature of this relationship–because that is a bedrock for us of that commitment.

There is no such absolute, unchangeable, unbreakable bond in a business relationship. But, commitment still matters. Every customer, every supplier, every employer, everyone who enters into a relationship with you, your company, your organization has a question not far below the surface: how committed are they to me? Will they stick by me when the going gets tough? Am I just a dime a dozen as it seems so many believe? Am I as a customer interchangeable with a million others? If that is what those in a high-value relationship to your organization believe, loyalty will be limited and the damage from any crisis will likely be permanent and lasting. There are so many ways to demonstrate commitment in a crisis (as well as in day to day operations); in fact, crises provide some of the best opportunities to demonstrate commitment. In the midst of a crisis, leaders of the organization should continually ask themselves: “Is this action I am taking or the message I am sending going to be understood as rock solid commitment to those important to us?”

The second critical element of trust and respect is love. I am a very fortunate man. My wife is not only stunningly beautiful–even more so with the grace only years of living and loving can give, she is also intelligent, incredibly gracious and friendly, and a lover of all things beautiful. (In other words, so unlike me in so many ways!) Despite my great fortune–and great wisdom–in choosing whom to marry, there are times when love is more than just the outpouring of a hormone-charged heart or a grateful soul. There are times when love means sacrifice–self sacrifice. One of the greatest, and most difficult teachings of my faith is that the Leader of our movement sacrificed himself for his followers and we are charged to do no less as marriage is taught as a model of the relationship between our Leader and his followers. Dying to self is a message at most faith-based marriages, but one that seems lost today on most in the audience and far too often among those saying their vows as well. Understandably–our very lives and culture rebel against the idea that I should give up what is important to me to the sake of someone else, even if that someone else is as close to me as my heart.

But let me give you an example of what I mean about self-sacrificing love in crisis communication. Ask almost anyone for the best stories of crisis management and the Tylenol crisis of 1982 with Johnson and Johnson will certainly be near the top of the list. Despite the fact that the seven people who died were victims of an unknown person who contaminated Tylenol capsules after they left the factory, Johnson and Johnson halted production, recalled all 31 million bottles of Tylenol in distribution (valued at $100 million) and advertised nationally to prevent anyone from consuming any acetaminophen until they were assured of safety. In other words, Tylenol took very aggressive action, at incredible cost to themselves, to protect the public despite having no part in the cause of the deaths themselves.

What is seldom discussed is how this very commendable reaction by Johnson and Johnson came about. According to a study of crisis communication out of Oxford in the early 1990s, prior to 1982 Tylenol was contaminated but by a worker in a Johnson and Johnson factory. While I do not believe there were deaths involved, it became clear that the company was ill-prepared to deal with such an eventuality, so they put in place a detailed recall and public communication plan to deal with a factory contamination crisis. This was the plan they implemented in 1982 when the contamination was not their fault. They behaved in their actions as if it was their fault, assuming all the costs, all the liability, all the “blame” when in 1982 they were indeed the victims as well. The result was an exceptionally high level of trust and respect because the public and media saw in their actions self-sacrificing love. They knew it was costing the company a ton of money, but the company acted as if the money didn’t really matter when people’s lives and safety were at stake.

I don’t want to take anything away from Johnson and Johnson’s actions or motives by suggesting they benefited from a plan that made them look really good. Because they key point is that is what the public–that is what we–want from any company who values us. We want them to show that they are willing to do just about anything for our sakes. Those are the people we trust.

Crises are the opportunity to show true character and there can hardly be better definition of true character than someone willing to give up really big things for the sake of another. In fact, it is basically how we know what love is. That’s the part of love that Hollywood tends to miss and is far too lacking in our daily lives and marriages. I admit, it is far too lacking in my own relationship with my long-suffering wife. But I also know that the solution to any issues in our relationship is not “fixing her” or looking elsewhere, but looking to where I need to go to release and let go so that I can love better and more completely.

Perhaps you think this is “too soft,” too “airy fairy” for real crisis management. After all, a businesses primary responsibility is to stay in business–and that sometimes means making decisions against those who expect different from us. True enough, that there are often conflicting demands and necessary compromises. But, whenever the leaders forget that trust and respect among key relationships are the primary issues at stake, and they forget that commitment to those people and self-sacrificing love are required to build and maintain that trust and respect, then you can see the ugly results of crises gone bad. Such leaders are among those likely to be casualties of the event, and the future of the organization depends on those responsible recognizing that early and replacing such leaders.

With that, I’m off to celebrate!


Bezos Buys the Post–the Amazoning of News?

Lots of folks are weighing in on Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s founder and 25Bn rich guy) buying the Washington Post. I’m reading the comments on the Washington Post feed–fascinating.

There seems to a sense of dawning of a new day of journalism in a lot of the comments. Almost a sense of relief that maybe there is hope for journalism yet. That if anyone can see how to make journalism work in a time of social network, crowd-sourced news and nano news, it is someone like Jeff Bezos.

I like this comment from Matthew Ingram of GigaOm: “The next few years could be a fascinating time to be in the newspaper business, if only to watch someone like Bezos remake it from the inside out.”

And of course there are the skeptics who ask what any tech guy, no matter how smart, might know about real journalism.

If it indeed does happen as many expect that Bezos will take a creative new approach emphasizing high volume, low margins, attracting lots of customers without as much regard for margin as typical (he more or less invented the attract a crowd and figure out how to get them to pay later model), if indeed he Amazonizes the Post and from that the news business, then this day will be seen as momentous in journalism history. I somewhat suspect he will. But, my guess, unlike many of those so dedicated to “journalism” as in “traditional journalism done only by professionals” is that he will find a way to harness the power of crowd sourcing. No doubt there will continue to be those who can make a living providing other people the information they are looking for. Some may even be considered and called journalists. But the future of news is harnessing and leveraging the vast information sharing that is going on right now and that will only continue.

How Bezos will make that a profitable venture in the very heart of traditional journalism will be fascinating to watch. Over course, I could be completely wrong. Maybe he’s tired of revolutionizing the world. Maybe he just thought: Hmmm, I got an extra $250 million burning a hole in my pocket. Should I buy a sports team like my buddy Howard Shulz–hmm, that didn’t turn out so well. How about a newspaper? Yeah! In Washington DC! Yeah!