The hardest part of communications

Reflecting on some of the most recent crises I’ve been involved in as an advisor, I asked: what am I really contributing?

I concluded by far the most valuable contribution was an outside perspective. Looking at the event and issues from the viewpoint of the customer, the stakeholder, the reporter, the victim, the detached observer. It is often very difficult for even the best communicators who are deeply embroiled in a problem to maintain that outside perspective. It’s the main reason why I think it is probably essential that your crisis communication plan include a qualified person completely outside your organization.

I worked on a plan for a major oil company a few years ago and saw in their plan the role of a Communications Advisor. In their case, it was intended for a specific PR expert who had a strong relationship with the President. But, it struck me as such a good idea I have built that role into almost every plan I have worked on since then. The responsibility of that person is to maintain a 30,000 foot view, maintain contact with stakeholders outside the organization, and represent an honest, objective and uninformed perspective.

I say uninformed because there are always so many good reasons to not do what is needed. We can’t do this because our lawyers say we can’t, because we had such and such problem in the past, because the union leaders would have a hissy fit, because senior management doesn’t like so and so–whatever the reason. They are powerful obstacles but the outside perspective says: it doesn’t matter. It has to be done.

I’ve often said being a consultant is the best job for someone like me because I have so little to lose. Sure, I can get fired, but after about three plus decades I’ve gotten some confidence I can get another gig. I don’t have my future tied to relationships within the organization, to political sides, to protecting anything. Therefore I can be honest, even undiplomatic (which seems to come too naturally to me).

The hardest part of communication is taking a three foot jump from your skin to that of the person or people you are talking to. If you do look at the situation with their eyes, all the “yeah, but…” excuses melt away. All the obstacles that look insurmountable become hurdles that must be bowled over.

The purpose of suggesting this is not to sell my services or even other crisis consultants (I’m plenty busy enough right now, thanks very much). It is rather to point out that the first thing you learn in your very first communication class should be learning to think like the one you are communicating with. But, as foundational as the”you attitude” is, it remains the biggest obstacle to effective communication and the very hardest part of this job.

 

 

Benton County (WA) PUD demonstrates what is expected in admission of error

Admitting you messed up and hurt someone or something is one of the biggest dilemmas in crisis communication. Your lawyers are screaming you can’t do it because its an admission of guilt and will kill you in court. The public is thinking–let’s see what these folks are made of. They messed up and now they won’t accept responsibility or are trying to blame someone else. The media, of course, plays the blame game right from the start and any attempt to duck it almost automatically assures the black hat treatment.

That’s why it is so refreshing to see when the legal concerns are brushed aside and someone just comes out and says, yep, we screwed up and we are really sorry.

That’s the story that is told by Dave Statter of Statter911 about Benton County, Washington, Public Utilities District. A young firefighter almost lost his life because linemen from the district checked the scene, didn’t see a live line, and cleared it for firefighters to enter. The firefighter went into ventricular fibrillation but was rescued by his fellow firefighters and is fine.

I’m guessing (and I certainly hope) that this firefighter understands that the linemen and the District are very sorry, that mistakes happen. ¬†But the sad part about a story like this is that he is likely already being contacted by plaintiff’s attorneys with all kinds of promises about how much they can get him for this accident. The same plaintiff’s attorneys who for years on end have supported candidates who fight tooth and nail to prevent legal reforms that would enable agencies and organizations and doctors to apologize when mistakes are made and not have the apology used against them in court. British Columbia has such a law, some states (Colorado I believe) has a law relating to medical malpractice, and I wish it could be the law of the land.

Would make seeing this kind of apology a lot more common. But, I applaud Benton County for doing the right thing and sincerely hope they do not have to pay for it in court.

 

Harvard study says BP’s “greenwashing” paid off

I greatly object to the obvious bias in this report on the value of “greenwashing.” ¬†According to Wikipedia “greenwashing” is “spin” and deception.

The real point and value of this study about the impact of BP’s pre-spill advertising on its sales and reputation after the 2010 Gulf oil spill is that building reputation equity makes a huge difference when you encounter a major crisis. This is an extremely important point. Not because it supports buying expensive advertising, but because it supports the value of working hard to build reputation and trust before an event.

I call it reputation equity and liken it to a bank account. It’s a fund of goodwill and positive perceptions that will be extremely important when/if you ever face a major reputation crisis. In my other blog at emergencymgmt.com, I suggested that my emphasis in 2014 would be building that reputation equity and suggested some ways to start thinking about that. This report provides academic credence to that position and further encouragement to continue to focus on that part of crisis communication.

Crisis communication is primarily about preparation. If you’re not prepared to deal with it and communicate effectively, it’s almost a matter of just stick your head down and ride out the storm or succumb to it (like Freedom Industries in WV). But preparation is not just about putting a good plan together, creating message maps and all that–those are extremely important of course. Preparation is above all , analyzing your risks and redoubling efforts to prevent bad things from happening and then, working hard to build the trust in your key stakeholders that will be essential if/when you do face a problem.

This study doesn’t provide any information on the relationship building with key stakeholders that I think is the core of a reputation equity effort. But it does show that working hard to communicate who you are with the public prior to an event happening can pay off big time when the big event happens.

About “greenwashing.” I can understand why many believe that BP’s ad campaign “Beyond Petroleum” was deceptive. In one way it was. I don’t think it communicated, as I see with other oil companies such as Shell, that alternative and renewable energy sources are one part of the mix and that petroleum would continue to be essential. But I think this is judging the past from the perspective of the present. Even just a few years ago we were facing “peak oil” and renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal were the future. Nuclear was even getting a new look. Then fracking happened, and Fukushima and now nuclear is once again off the table and the US (amazingly) is set to become an energy exporter–at least until the rest of the world starts getting serious about natural gas. When the Beyond Petroleum campaign started I believe it was aspirational and forward thinking telling the world what BP was and that it was going to be about far more than oil. Is that greenwashing? For some, no doubt, but I think the researchers doing this study are showing their bias. It’s noteworthy that their own conclusion is that the government needs to get involved in investigating environmental claims made by companies.

Yeah, right. Because we little people are too stupid to see through the “greenwashing.” Give me a break.