A big anniversary for Agincourt–the battle, not the company

I get a kick out of the looks I get when say the name of my company, Agincourt Strategies. Huh, why Agincourt? There are a few who get the historical reference but the meaning intended is not usually clear.

Today is the 598th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, or Azincourt in the French spelling. And boy wouldn’t I love to be there for the re-enactment they are planning of shooting a thousand arrows into the air at once. The sidebar on the linked story tells the history very well, but in brief, Henry V of England in 1415 invaded France to enforce his claim to the French throne. The decisive battle was at Agincourt on October 25. Thousands, some say as many as 30,000 French mounted knights from all around the realm came out to defeat the rag tag, sick and hungry English. But Henry had a secret weapon–the longbow. He strategically arranged his 600 archers to pour their fire into a low and narrow area on a sodden battlefield, where the French knights would have to cross to get at the few English mounted knights. The French came roaring across the field, into the mud, and were met by a volley of arrows like had not been seen before. The arrows penetrated armor and the fallen knights and horses created a horrific pile onto which additional thousands of French knights followed. More were killed by being stampeded and asphyxiated in their armor than died by arrow or sword.

OK, so I love military history. What does this have to do with a communications training and consulting business? The application of new technology, skillfully and strategically applied can change the world. And, in the case of crisis communication and reputation management, can protect and enhance reputations even when facing all the power arrayed against your reputation in the form of both traditional media and online attacks.

Two things are needed: The appropriate technologies. The right strategies.

I think it apt.



The three simple reasons why crisis communication efforts fail

Prepping for a webinar presentation next week for the oil and gas industry, I’ve been going back to some of the basics of crisis communications. Why do crisis communication efforts fail? Indeed, what constitutes failure? How is the success of a communication effort measured?

Seems to me the primary measure is on reputation–which translates to brand value, closely related to share or company value. That’s measured by those who have a stake in the company, sometimes called “stakeholders.” A communication fail occurs when there is an “unnecessary” loss of reputation, trust, brand value and/or share value. The “unnecessary” is necessary.

There are some events that are going to result on loss of trust, reputation, value. Spewing oil into water for three months without being able to stop it is a big reputation problem–but not necessarily a communication failure. Having your high profile CEO caught in highly embarrassing behavior is not a communication failure, but its impact on reputation, brand, value will be determined to some degree by the communications. Failure, is largely, the inability to meet the expectations of those important to your organizations–expectations both in your organization’s actions and behavior in response to the problem and failure in how the event and the response is communicated.

In trying to encapsulate what I learned in writing many plans for large and small companies and government agencies, I came up with 19 reasons why plans fail. Some of these reasons came from suggestions from folks like you, so if you have some additions I’ll add them to later editions.

So what are the three biggies in failure?

Speed. Direct Communication. Honesty.

If you don’t meet the expectations to tell what happened and what you are doing quickly, others will tell it and you will fail. There is not much time, moments really, to establish your voice and role and trustworthiness in an event.

If you allow others such as the media (who do not necessarily have your best interest at heart) to tell your story to those important to you, do not be surprised if what they say is not exactly how you would say it. And do not be surprised when those important to you are offended that you did not consider them important enough to talk to about your problem.

Honesty. Honestly, do we need to say more? How much trust will you offer someone who doesn’t seem to recognize the harm that has been done to those undeserving of it. How much grace will you extend to those who apologize but with such mealy-mouthedness to make it meaningless? How much patience will you grant to those who don’t keep you fully informed of every bit of information that matters, the good, the bad and the truly ugly.

It’s really not that difficult, is it?

Except to actually meet those expectations given the reality you have to deal with.


Should you respond to nasties online? Walmart’s new approach

One thing that has become all too transparent with social media and the Internet is that there are an awful lot of ugly, nasty people out there. And when they can hide behind anonymity they can get real ugly. That reality has driven a whole new class of reputation crisis. But left many with the question of what do you do when the uglies, nasties and digital mob start creaming you online?

My sense is that the standard answer (certainly mine has been) is that it doesn’t make sense to respond to any and every gratuitous attack. Monitor, monitor, monitor and if it looks like some accusation is getting legs then respond. However, I continually am surprised by the remnants of the old Mark Twain comment (I think it was Twain) who said never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. While that refers to news, because of the impossibility of determining a meaningful distinction between new media and old media, it also applies in some thinking to online attacks as well. Particularly if the attack is coming from someone with a large following.

The old saw about buying ink by the barrel must be balanced against another old say: a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. Walmart, it seems, is signing up to that idea with a new policy of not allowing gratuitous attacks online to go unchallenged. This digiday article on Walmart’s social media reputation SWAT team gives a very interesting insight into how Walmart deals with the 60,000 comments online about the company.

While your organization may not be Walmart in representing such a juicy target, if you have concerns about what may emerge online a study of Walmart’s approach is very worthwhile. This article gives a great behind the scenes look. The key difference in Walmart’s policy is this:

The internal mantra at Walmart: No free shots. This is a shift. Up until about a year and a half ago, Walmart took a passive approach to its critics on social media. It used social as a media relations tool to push out messages when it was convenient to them.

Social media is primarily about engagement. I see many approach it with old media thinking–that it is one way. Social media is two way. Sort of like talking to people. You won’t get much respect if in your conversation with others you just talk, talk, talk and never recognize that your conversation partner might have something to say.

What if you are like Monsanto, and in a battle you can’t win?

There are some battles that you just know can’t be won. Monsanto is in one of them–the GMO name-calling battle. I’ve had a few client situations where the reputation situation is so ugly, that any conventional strategy is quite hopeless. In one, a few years ago, I said you need a game changer. You need a way to push a restart button and clear the past away. They did and the change was remarkable.

But what about Monsanto. Things are so bad for them, that even the PR newsletters commenting on them can’t spell their name right. I live in Washington State and the GMO labeling issue is on the ballot. As NPR pointed out, it is certain to pass. Food in Washington State no doubt will soon need to be identified as GMO or non-GMO.

What is so fascinating about this issue is that anyone who has seriously looked at the fundamental concern, which is consumer health and safety, has to conclude that there is zero scientific evidence for any concern. Zero. None. All the more remarkable given how hard are working to find the slightest amount. Even famed food authority Michael Pollan, in an NPR interview, stated that the scientific evidence does not suggest any danger. But, he also pointed out that this debate is really not about safety. He says it is about transparency.

I am all for transparency. I stated in a Capital Press interview that in this era any ag producer or food processor needs to look at how what they are doing will be viewed by the public and consumers if it is made clear. If it can’t be defended, they had better change it, because whatever is untenable to the public will come out. I believe in transparency.

But this is not really about transparency. Because slapping words or in this case three letters on something that has become so distorted and misunderstood in meaning is doing no public service. Why not just put “radioactive” on it, and the nuclear symbol? The anti-GMO forces, with the too ready compliance of the headline-hungry media, have so tainted those three letters that putting GMO label on food is to call it poison.

It’s not about transparency because as Pollan pointed out, and was confirmed to me by those who oppose GMOs, the science doesn’t matter, transparency doesn’t really matter. This is about big companies, powerful corporate interests, and most specifically about Monsanto. This corporate giant is wrongly seen as having a monopoly on GMOs and ruthless in their protection of intellectual property (see Food Inc.). That’s why the anti-GMO forces can’t win this battle. It’s not really about GMO, food, safety, or transparency. It is about the animosity that so many–particularly the younger set–feels toward corporate agriculture and food production. The GMO battle is a litmus test for whether or not you support the local movement, reduction in chemicals in foods, the small guy vs the huge guy.

Monsanto can’t win it. The pro-GMO folks can’t win it because they are fighting the wrong battle. They can’t seem to try to bring some scientific sense to this discussion without being accused of cozying up to corporate greed. That’s the nature of this battle.

To me, this is an archetype of the kind of “state of fear” situation that destroys, rather than helps. The vaccination scare is another example. I have little doubt that many young lives have been hurt by the irresponsible activism of some and the inherent danger in our media system when chasing ad dollars is more important than providing the truth.

How will we be hurt when we lose the GMO battle? In Washington, how can we not see an increase in food costs and a reduction in food choices? Who wants to prepare labels for one state? Who wants to manage distribution with this kind of ad hoc labeling requirement. Pure nonsense–and for what reason? Science? No. Fear mongering by those who profit from creating irrational fears. Much worse, is the danger that public fears about GMOs will limit our ability in the future to produce the many times greater food output needed to meet demand by 2050. In that case, people will starve and food costs will become a much higher portion of living costs, with the poor being hurt the most.

Monsanto, and the rest of you in this business. Your lack of transparency, of lack of attention to the rising concern about this, your lack of public education around this important issue is where the blame really lies. It’s too late for you to try to address this. But others who are concerned about our food supply–and about how nonsense like this can take such a firm hold–they must step up now.


Why crisis communicators should pay more attention to video

I’ve flogged this horse before, but this new info graphic from istock (and video version of it) reminded me of the importance of video on the web.

Imagine it was 1994 and we were having a conversation about crisis communications. You said to me, “You know, this Internet thing might be big. I think crisis communicators ought to look at how this thing called a ‘web site’ might help in a crisis.”

“Pah, fooey,” I would say. “Why would anyone need that? Everyone knows that crisis communication is about putting out press releases and handing them out to the waiting press mob outside the door.”

If getting a website (for marketing, PR or crisis comm) was big then, think about video in those terms now. Video is rapidly becoming the language and format of choice for virtually all communications. It’s one reason I decided to get into video education and training. And why I started using video for my own marketing efforts (see my YouTube channel if you are curious). I even made this hoky video way back when I was starting to show video production could be quite simple.

Video for crisis communicators? Here are some suggestions:

– have simple, easy in-house production capability to create short videos of your CEO or key spokesperson conveying key messages in a crisis

– create high quality videos for background purposes so that when the world’s attention is suddenly on you, you can point them to good information well presented about your organization

– use video and online training to train your crisis communication team on how your plan works and to train them on very specific roles and workflows (I’ll show you some examples if you are interested)

– think about developing “message map videos” in addition to the message maps or templates you have for your high likelihood/high impact event scenarios

– have the capability in-house to quickly and easily create simply voice and title videos using b-roll that you have readily at hand

If there is interest in this topic, I’d be happy to put together a webinar on the kind of simple video production for crisis communication that I’ve been talking about. Be sure and let me know either by commenting here, or shooting me an email at gerald.baron@agincourt.us.


Twitter takes one more step toward news

As of now, 2013 we still have an Internet world which includes a social media world, and we have a TV world. Sure, there are crossovers–like Netflix and Hulu and all the stuff that now comes with your Apple TV (enjoyed a terrific documentary last night on the Smithsonian Channel on Apple TV).

Those different worlds are quickly colliding, and Comcast’s announcement of a strategic partnership with Twitter adds momentum to the collision. Starting next month, when you get a Tweet referencing one of Comcast’s NBCUniversal TV shows, a little icon will appear on the bottom that says “See It.” Click on that and you will automatically be taken via your device (presumably smartphone) to the TV show in question.

Sure, right now it is a clever way for Comcast to grab some of Twitter’s users and get them on their shows. But these things are incremental changes that lead to big changes.

Already Twitter is the primary media management tool for crisis communication. Huh? Say what? Yes, Twitter is the number one, most important, most efficient, most effective, best practice way to get important content to the media when it is hitting the fan. Why? If it isn’t obvious to you, one look at Fox News’ new “News Deck” newsroom ought to convince you that Twitter is the most important news gathering device since the notebook was invented (I’m referring to the paper one you digital natives). News starts, grows, expands, amplifies on Twitter. So if you have news, or you want the news first, you need to be on Twitter.

Twitter, starting out as a way for those digital natives to share what Starbucks they happen to be sitting at and what kind of latte they were sipping, has become a most critical news discovery and sharing device. But Twitter is hardly the point. As my good friend and colleague Patrice Cloutier repeatedly points out, it is all about social convergence. That is, the bringing together of powerful mobile devices with powerful sharing technologies with the vast interconnectedness that the world now experiences. Add to that social convergence one more element: TV. It all becomes blurred, mish-mashed. But what emerges is critical clear: news happens at nano-speed and in stunning visuality and comprehensiveness. And that’s exactly what crisis communication needs to be.


Stormpins, or at least the tweeter for Stormpins, sent me this link following my post here. The recent PEW research on generational differences in news does not bode well for traditional news. All the more reason why the kind of convergence evidenced by this Twitter-Comcast partnership portends the future of news.

On Writing Styles and the Importance of Influence

A recent road trip afforded my delightful bride of 40 years and I to engage in a pursuit which seldom has had occasion to deliver us such fruitful reward: we listened to an audible book on tape. The book by our great fortune and which is the point of this dubious commentary on writing style was called “Pride and Prejudice” by the remarkable novelist of the early nineteenth century, Miss Jane Austen.

The point, if you have not yet adequately secured it, is that listening for hours to the witty, insightful and delightful dialog of Miss Austen, I’ve noticed, has had quite an influence on my writing style. Writing, as one of the best books on the subject taught in its title, is thinking. Because of living in the manor homes of late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century England for so many passing hours, I have discovered to my surprise, chagrin and sometimes embarrassment, that my very thoughts, silent though they be, are charged with the timbre and nuances of a language that seems long buried by the hurry, passions and banal expressions of the language of our day which seems to so eagerly descend into the sewers which had likely not been serving those romantic homes.

OK, enough of that (although I’m finding it difficult to stop it.)

The point is this: we are influence by what and who we surround ourselves with. Our own thinking styles, which translates into how we write, is strongly influenced by what else we are reading and the conversations we are listening to and engaged in. See, Miss Austen would never have allowed that dangling preposition.

This is nothing new. But I read recently how the very vulgar, uncivil and impolite discourse which so troubles our Internets (see, I can’t stop it even if I try), is contributing to the general distrust in each other, in governments, in corporations and almost everything else. Maybe distrust is another word for dislike. Maybe, the kind of interaction (Austen  would have said intercourse, but I think that use of such a word today would be considered impolite and uncivil) that characterizes nearly all discussions is degrading all of us. When I compare the elevation of civility in that day, compared to its degradation today, I can only be glad that Miss Austen is not here to witness it.

I am fascinated by the subject of writing style and how it has changed. Having recently produced a video training series on the subject, I have found myself urging the government writers to whom it was addressed to lower their bar, to become far more informal, to understand and micmic the very familiar, personal and even flippant language that dominates all writing–and especially that found on the the Internets.

I don’t regret that advice–because it is necessary. I only regret that it is necessary.

How long will it take to get over the press release thing?

Now, I’m not saying press releases are dead. That debate went on several years ago. There’s a time and a place for a press release. But, there’s not much time and place for one in crisis communication. Yet, over and over and over I see plans where everything is focused on getting out a press release. There may be some other things in there, like maybe talking to the community–eventually, maybe even using social media (as long as it doesn’t get ahead of getting out the press release and only if God and everyone below Him/Her approves it).

If you are responsible for your organization’s crisis plan, look at it right now and answer this question straight out: is this focused on the media and getting out press releases or holding press conferences? If so, stuff it in the 1990s files where it belongs and get it updated.

Did the Boston Police hold press conferences during the manhunt? Yep, and some media were there and some of the coverage was carried. But, that was hours after the real story came out and that means hours after much of the media and public interest went away. The media needed those press conference so they could get a little fresh video of the faces involved to add to their story if something new came up. But that’s about it.

So, how was the story told? Two ways: through the rebroadcast to millions of the Boston Police radio chatter. And through the Twitter account of the Boston Police, plus the Twitter feeds of the few hundred bystanders who were reporting what they were seeing during those dramatic moments as the police closed in on the boat where the suspect was hiding. If you weren’t one of the literally millions following these sources directly, then you were one of the millions watching it on TV as the reporters were using these sources to report the news. I was watching Twitter when Deputy Commissioner John Daley tweeted that the suspect was in captivity and the manhunt was over. I waited for about a minute before that tweet was reported on CNN live.

There is still a time and a place for a release–but I would never ever any more call it a press release. Why? Because the media are just one of many important audiences to get it. Call it an information release, or an update, or a situation report, or “Message to All Those Important to Us.” Getting rid of the term press release in your crisis communication plan may be one of the most important things you do because it communicates to one and all–from CEO and Board Chair through all team members–that your job is to communicate to those whose opinion about your organization is most important to the future. That includes the press, but goes far, far beyond it.

Why is this so important? Hey, you live in the age of digital communications and smart phones. Let’s say you invested all of your grandma’s inheritance in XYZ company and you are counting on it for your retirement. You follow its progress as if your future depended on it. You track their Facebook, “like it,” follow their Twitter feed, even take advantage of their interactive website to put in a question or two to their Investor Relations department–which they answer promptly. Then, something goes horribly wrong. Maybe a product safety issue, a recall. Maybe a toxic spill hurting people and the environment. Maybe wrong doing of some senior execs. Panic. What happened? What are they doing about it? How are they protecting your future–you have to know and you have to know now.

So you go to their website. Nothing. You shoot an inquiry into their wonderful interactive Investor Relations website. Nothing. Or worse: they tell you that they are too busy putting a press release together to be able to answer any questions right now. You have no recourse to get the information from the media. It’s all over the place. You check social media but all you see is anti-corporate venom and how XYZ company is now in the Hall of Shame. The media reports are awful, but you are part of the 71% of the American public who believes most of what the media feeds you isn’t exactly the truth. And you think, why on God’s green earth would these smart people trust the media–whose primary job is to attract an audience through fear, doubt and outrage–to tell their story for them? Why, in this age of digital communications, of social media, of Mailchimp for goodness sake, can’t they shoot me an email or put it out on their Twitter account so I know what the heck is going on?

OK, I’m ranting. But I frankly don’t quite get it. From the largest government agencies to most municipal or county emergency management departments, to major utilities and corporations the story is the same: if something goes wrong we have to put out a press release–preferably in the first hour.

Sorry, but if this is your plan, you are going to be disappointed.