What the Top 10 Crises of 2013 Can Teach us for Tomorrow

What good is history if we refuse to learn from it? Taking a few minutes to look back on crisis communications in 2013, I first wondered if there were any really big things that happened. I mean we didn’t have a Gulf Spill, we didn’t have a tsunami-radiation disaster, we didn’t even have a superstorm–unless you were in the Philippines. Then I saw the Bloomberg list of the top 10 reputation crises of 2013 and had to agree it was indeed a scandalous year.

And there’s my first observation: when high-flying careers (like Paula Deen), impeccable business leaders (like Jamie Dimon) and the world’s most powerful government legislative body (US Congress) have reputation crises at the level we have seen this year, and it doesn’t even seem like any major disasters happened, well, you kind of have to wonder what is going on.

I do wonder what is going on, and what it means for 2014 and beyond. Two things seem certain, but they strike me as a bit contradictory:

1. The screaming will continue.
2. The wise will become innocuous.

Is there any doubt the level of attention-saturation we all experience? We have gained such unimaginable access to information, knowledge, entertainment and experiences through the converging technologies of networks and smart devices. But we have not gained one moment of time. There are still, as far as I know, still 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour. But what we pack into those days and hours in terms of experience, entertainment, knowledge and information has exploded. Don’t you want to shout some time: Stop! Just stop! But we can’t, we don’t, we won’t. The flooding of our senses and mental capacity will continue. More and more studies are making clear that emotion is the key to breaking through the clutter–not reason, not logic, not prosaic facts. The smart ones, meaning those who depend on learning these things for their futures, have figured this out some time ago. Hence the emotion-packed stories that grab us on the news, info sites and YouTube.

We will not see a decrease in the cacophony in 2014. Which means that the emotion-laden screaming will continue and even increase. I include in this screaming the outsized reaction to violations of the most prized cultural values–as seen recently in the Justine Sacco and Phil Robertson stories. Paula Deen herself might be considered part of that screaming. Look back on the crises of 2013. See how many are related to a horrendous howl that some offended soul or group set off, and how the howling mob so quickly formed.

Crisis avoidance for 2014 is about recognizing this screaming mob and the hair-trigger reactions of far too many of us.

And that leads to the championing of the innocuous.

Note this item from Jamie Dimon. The directives are to be very aware of what you write in your emails, and any other form of communication. Now the NSA is monitoring–to what degree who can say. Given the aggressive regulatory actions in some industries, or just the hair-trigger screaming mob, everyone has to be very much aware of problems that can be caused by not thinking through what is said.

It used to be we could say what was on our minds. It used to be politically incorrect comments did minor damage because they were not spread to millions in moments. It used to be people could make crass, coarse, even bigoted jokes without losing everything. It used to be people could be people–the good, the bad, the ugly. Now, there is too much risk, too much exposure. They are still people–they still say stupid, hurtful, offensive things. But now, because of instant amplification, those stupid, hurtful, offensive statements can destroy their lives and billions of other people’s dollars.

So, here comes the innocuous.

Will we look back and see in this the beginning of blandness, of carefully considered conversation where everyone thinks first before saying what they really think? Sure, I’m advising it because it make sense, it’s wise to avoid the career ending tweet or casual comment that can be misquoted or taken out of context or twisted (see what happened to Steve Martin).

While it’s necessary advice, I mourn what has happened to our world. The comments of Sacco were ill-advised to say the least. She was joking. The horrible comments and criticism she received does not seem to be considered ill-advised and they were not joking. The reaction was far more mean-spirited, ugly and hateful than the offense, but where is the backlash against the backlash?

A couple of thousand years ago an angry crowd, reminiscent of today’s digital mob took a woman who had violated the cultural norms and even the law and presented her to a man that many had come to consider a great teacher. The punishment for the woman’s offense was severe–death. Death by stoning. They asked the man what should be done with her. He said: Let those who have never made such mistakes, done foolish things, said things they regret, been hurtful to others–let those throw the first stones at her.

I say to those who crucified Justine and Phil: throw your stones only if you too are without sin.



Justine Sacco, Phil Robertson and the end of 2013

The year 2013 winds down with two crises that make me sad for the state of affairs in this grand country and world. Justine Sacco was  PR director for InterActive Corp, which owns the Daily Beast, Vimeo and other hot Internet properties. She isn’t anymore. She made one too many outrageous comments on her personal Twitter account just before boarding a plane and the s-storm that resulted on social media erupted into typhoon-force before she even landed. Next day, she was fired, and all traces of her had been removed from IAC websites.

While the comments she made are indefensible, I find it ironic (and very sad) that the vitriolic attacks against her are not causing the outrage that her comments. One tweeter suggested her problem was watching too much Duck Dynasty.

Which brings me of course to Phil Robertson and the decision of A&E to suspend him from the wildly popular (and wildly wild) show Duck Dynasty. Here’s the irony: much of TV and virtually all of reality TV has devolved into the modern day equivalent of Barnum and Bailey’s freak shows. The more outrageous and extreme the behavior the better TV and ratings apparently. Duck Dynasty has developed a vast audience because whether it is shooting all kinds of animals, building duck blinds out of RVs hosted high into the trees, or eating coon poop instead of berries, these people are not the common ordinary Chicagoans or New Yorkers. They’re different. And its good to be different except when you say something that is deemed to be politically incorrect.

I won’t comment on the substance of either Sacco’s tweet or Phil Robertson’s GQ interview–those are readily available by reading the links.

The irony of political correctness is that while our cultural values honor diversity in nearly all things, political correctness is there to ensure uniformity of thought and action in certain highly selective things. I vote for diversity and recognizing that people have a right to their opinions regardless of whether or not I agree with them. In this regard I consider the over-reaction of the Twittersphere and A&E to be unAmerican and unhealthy for our future.

I suspect many will disagree.

And so 2013 ends with powerful lessons about crises and crisis avoidance:

1. Think before you tweet.

2. Understand the current cultural values and understand that if you say anything publicly that violates those values even to a minor degree, a storm will almost certainly ensue.

Along these lines I note that Chip Wilson has resigned his position with Lululemon. Another casualty.


The three roles of social media in crises

We all (most anyway) know that social media and digital communications play a primary role in creating, expanding and responding to crises today. But it all seems sort of a mishmash, so I found these comments from Dallas Lawrence very helpful in distinguishing the three roles that social and digital media play:

First, social media is an instigator. Were there not a social platform that allows us to send out our every thought, or record every stupid thing that happens, the crisis wouldn’t have occurred.

The next role is that of accelerant. A similar crisis may have happened 20 years ago, but it would not have metastasized so quickly without social media. So Lawrence stresses we must be prepared to act immediately instead of waiting and seeing.

The third and most important role social media plays is extinguisher. We can use social media effectively before, during, and after a crisis to mitigate the damage, and in some cases actually eliminate the crisis.

Lawrence, a newly minted school board member, and corporate communications officer for Mattel, spoke at a conference in DC last week and BurrellesLuce recorded his 14 tips on social media in crises in this article.

One additional comment about those roles. Lawrence rightly points out that organizations in crisis can and should use social media to help extinguish the crisis. But it should also be pointed out that social media often extinguishes crises on its own. False information, agenda-based attacks, acceleration of real but small problems can all be easily amplified on social media. But others not related to the organization but who have an interest in truth, justice and the American Way can also respond and extinguish. It’s an important reminder that collective intelligence does often work effectively to clarify, correct and protect.

Now its FOX News doing the coverup

This one cost them $8 million. That’s to keep a former PR executive from publicly disclosing his complaints about FOX News. He was a top aide to Roger Ailes when Ailes was president of the news organization.

Eight million is a lot to pay to someone to keep them quiet. My question is what was so horrendous that either he threatened to disclose or they were afraid he might? You wonder that too? So, let the digging and speculation begin–it already has. The whispers are about “financial irregularities.”

I really don’t understand this strategy. Do they think they can succeed in hiding it, now that there is a lot of blood spilled in the water and all the sharks in the neighborhood are smelling it? Is it some kind of legal protection? Would the damage from a legal settlement be worse than the world wondering what kind of shenanigans are going on behind the scene that they are so desperate to hide?

I understand I have a completely outside perspective and no doubt, inside things are far more complicated. Not long ago, I was privy to some facts about an organization that was being roundly criticized by crisis experts for their inept handling of a significant public issue. I wanted to call them or write them and say, wait, you don’t understand, there’s more to this than that. I suspect there is a lot of that going on behind the scenes at FOX. But, the real point is, it really doesn’t matter. Not from a reputation management standpoint. Perception is still reality and it the reality is, FOX looks like they are hiding some pretty stinky stuff.

Samsung forgot lesson 1: it’s always about the coverup

To err is human. To cover up is…stupid. I thought smart companies like Samsung understood that basic rule. Ever since Watergate, every reporter is looking for a cover up. But, now, since we turned most of the population of 7 billion folks into reporters, there are an awful lot more just waiting for you to hide something you don’t want people to see.

In case you missed it, a Samsung smartphone apparently caught fire. The company demanded proof before replacing, so the guy put the proof in video form on YouTube–just sort of a natural thing for a digital native to do. The company said, OK, we’ll replace your phone if you take the video down, promise not to it again, absolve the company of all legal liability, waive all his legal rights and and and…

What would you if Samsung made you this offer? Right. That’s what he did. Took their response onto YouTube. Now (as of this writing) nearly half a million know of not only the safety issue, but of Samsung’s heavy-handed, highly ridiculous attempt to hide it.

What’s kind of funny about this to me is we are heading toward the end of the year. I was contemplating writing a post about how it seems that most everybody gets it now, crises aren’t what they used to be, maybe it’s time to stop harping on this stuff.

Then, Samsung happens…happy new year.


Defining Success in Crisis Communication and Preparations

Success in crisis communication is a little like defining time. Someone, can’t remember who, said time was something everyone knows but is almost impossible to define. Yet, it is critical to define success for both a response and your preparation for it.

Start with the End in Mind

Steven Covey’s advice is more than applicable. Add to that, think about what failure looks like. Failure means loss of trust, loss of respect, loss of credibility and loss of value. For a business it may mean sharp decline in sales, in share value, in employee retention. For public agencies, it means erosion in public confidence and therefore, threats to the leaders’ reputations including those of the elected officials serving as public overseers. So, the bare minimum of success is avoiding failure–or, in the case of some events, unnecessary failure.

Necessary Failure vs. Unnecessary Failure

What I mean by that is that some events are beyond the best communication efforts to protect against loss of trust and respect. The outrage caused by dumping oil for months into an ocean without the ability to stop is certain even if accompanied by the best of all communication responses. Having an entire city wiped out by dike breaks in a massive storm is going to be devastating to trust in everyone involved, even if communications are perfect. Necessary failure, or loss of trust, is when the events and response, even when fully, completely, honestly and quickly told, result in inevitable loss of trust, respect and confidence. Unnecessary failure is when the event and the response itself do not warrant that loss, but inadequate communication increases the outrage, frustration and confidence in those responding. Windstorms causing massive power outages are good examples when the primary complaints against Southern California Edison and Long Island Power were not about the outages themselves or even the slow restoration times, but the very inadequate communication with those affected. That is an unnecessary response failure.

Success then can be defined as maintaining or even enhancing the organization’s trust, respect and confidence based on both the actions taken by those leading the response and meeting the very high expectations for communication about those actions.

Focusing on the Right Few

Sure, you can take a big scientific survey after the event is over and ask, hey, how’d we do in meeting your expectations for information? And meeting your expectations for responding appropriately? There would be considerable value in that, but the time and expense involved may not be necessary. Because the opinions of a relatively small number of individuals are what really matter. The key question before an event is: who are the people whose opinion about you (your organization) matter most for your future? To the surprise of most, these people are pretty small in number. They may be those sitting on the appropriations committee, key customers, major donors, influential community leaders, industry gurus, trade reporters, stock analysts, irreplaceable employees–if you think about it you can identify them. It is their opinion that really matters. And they are very reachable.

That means in determining perception about the response and the communication, it’s pretty easy to pick up the phone, shoot off some emails, put a quick survey together or just listen to them. Did you meet their expectations for right action and effective communication? If they got the straight story from you–on their terms, when they wanted it and needed it–no amount of bad press or bad buzz is going to tip them over. They may be concerned about how well you are dealing with the bad press, but they will be looking at it from your perspective, not as an  outsider looking in.

How to measure success?

1. Define success as meeting or exceeding the expectations of the Right Few for right action and effective communication.

2. Know those expectations in advance.

3. Let those expectations guide every aspect of your planning.

4. After an event, ask them: did we meet or exceed your expectations?

This is not expensive. It is not difficult. Yet, does anyone do it?