All posts by gbaron

When is it TMI?

I’ve noticed a major strategy issue emerging in some recent crises I’ve been involved in. When is addressing issues and concerns in your statements providing too much information?

For example, eliminating the potential source of a food borne illness. Saying something like: “The illness is not linked to this source because of …”  Or, “we have eliminated the possibility of the accident being caused by…”

The disagreement in strategy relates to the belief that it is best to say as little as possible. People may not have even considered that source or cause, or those observing might not have even know that that was food was served or that situation existing to possibly cause an accident, so why bring it to their attention? It is a very good point and I can see the danger of doing so.

However, my philosophy has long been to identify the potential questions and address them in your statements as much as you possibly can. This does two things: communicates openness and transparency. More important, it reduces the questions that have to be answered. If some media outlets (or stakeholders) ask a question about it and others don’t, the reports are going to come out mixed and likely inconsistent. That undermines trust.

Managing a large volume of inquiries is one of the biggest challenges in a major crisis and most plans that I’ve seen to not adequately prepare for it. Providing consistency of responses and insuring information discipline is another big problem. Both of these are addressed, in my thinking, by providing answers to potential questions in the published statements.

No doubt there are circumstances where raising an issue is going to cause considerably more harm than the benefit gained. But, in general I’ve seen there is an unwarranted reluctance to address touchy subjects even when it is clear the question will have to be addressed.

But, would love to hear your thoughts on this.

The three basic crisis communication strategies

While I mostly talk to company, agency or organization leaders about crisis communication and reputation management, sometimes the reputation in question belongs to an individual.  You don’t have to be a celebrity to have potential for reputation disaster.  Individuals whose name is attached to the business or profession they are in, in other words where their name is also a brand, are particularly susceptible. Search engines and the long memory of the internet make the problem so much greater. Yesterday’s newspaper is already in the garbage and yesterday’s TV report is already in the ether along with all past reports, but on the Internet they are retained presumably for ever, and always accessible at the touch of a Google button.

A recent conversation reminded me of how the Internet has changed reputation management and how it therefore changes the response. The really big question when dealing with media coverage of bad news about a brand (personal, corporate or otherwise) is whether or not to respond, and if so, how far and wide to push the response. The basic rule is: don’t make it worse. You can make it worse by bringing the bad reports to the attention of others who might otherwise have missed the 11 pm news. Maybe it will all just go away. Or, not.

There are no hard and fast rules for making a decision on whether to respond or not, but the three basic communication strategies I’ve incorporated into the OnePage Crisis Communication Plan are useful in helping to make a good decision. The three strategies are Reactive, Semi-Proactive and Proactive.

Reactive involves creating a Holding Statement, Standby Statement or other such name. It is not intended for release, but to provide to reporters or others asking about the situation should media reports arise or social media interest trend upward. It provides your version of the events or story, including if appropriate an apology and explanation of what you are doing about fixing whatever went wrong.

Semi-Proactive is a minor or discreet public release of your story. If you have a website it can be placed in a quiet position, not hidden, but not blatantly visible. It could be included in a Facebook account, but not advisable as Facebook and certainly Twitter I would consider distribution tools, essentially push communications rather than pull communications. If you do use FB or Twitter for the semi-proactive I would have a very gentle headline leading to a more detailed document posted publicly elsewhere. The idea here is to post publicly so that no one can say you are hiding, but not in a way that calls attention to it. If reporters call and ask for your statement, you can say, I posted my comments publicly several hours/days/weeks ago. It shows openness and willingness to communicate but, if handled right, does not draw unneeded attention.

Proactive, as it suggests, is aggressively distributing your story or information. Sending via email. Broadcasting through your social media channels. Distributing releases. Dominant position on your website. YouTube video. Whatever. But again, there are nuances here. Decisions still have to be made about how far and wide to go. The general rule I try to follow is to closely monitor the track the story is taking in the media and social media and try to stay one step ahead. Underlying this whole strategy is the fundamental principle that if there is bad news, it should come from you, not someone else.

 

 

I was wrong about Twitter. But watch out for Meerkat and Periscope

We’re always looking for the next big thing, aren’t we. Not exactly like venture capitalists, but techno-driven changes in the past two decades have so radically transformed communications and crisis communication that we wonder what will hit us next.

When Twitter came out, what was that 2006?, I quite blithely prognosticated that it would be short lived. Who would want to know what kind of latte you are sipping and with whom? Now Lady Gaga has 45 million followers and some crisis plans have to include the possibility of Lady Gaga saying something bad about them. Twitter is THE necessary tool today for media management, particularly in an emergency or crisis–a shift that started with the crash of USAir into the Hudson.

So, we naturally keep our eye for the next big thing. Bill Boyd has declared that Meerkat and Periscope are the next big thing. More specifically, widespread use of real time video sharing. (Of course, I’m protecting myself against false prognostication by putting the burden on the Chief.)

Why will this be big? I go back to 2010 during Deepwater Horizon. Congressional leaders discovered that BP had a steady stream of video flowing from the ROVs at the bottom of the gulf. Those real time videos showed the oil and mud streaming from the wellhead. They told BP to make those available to the world. My former company, handling web technology for both the government and BP at the time, was asked to set it up. It was very popular. At one time there were twelve different live video streams being broadcast, including from helis and skimmers and wildlife rehabilitation centers. The cost of bandwidth was astronomical. But millions watched transfixed.

I included the possibility of having to provide live video feeds in crisis plans I did following that. I tried to prepare clients for the potential high cost should Congress decide they needed to show the world what was happening.

That was, what, five years ago? My goodness, instead of staying up all night working on the technology to supply those feeds, you just pull up Meerkat or Periscope and start broadcasting to the world.

I won’t get into the details of Twitter’s attempt to kill Meerkat and which app is better. Lots of coverage on that. What I will point out is that this brings citizen journalism to a new level. It is truly citizen broadcasting, in real time, all the time.

Awhile back, reflecting on the Boston Marathon manhunt and how people were sharing information in real time in a variety of ways I did a video called “NanoNews.” It’s not a good name for this new phenomenon of real time news. It’s hardly tiny. It’s huge. But 2 billion people carrying smart phones starting to broadcast their little picture of the world, well, maybe nanonews does fit.

It certainly adds some major risks, including to the issue of verification. On the other hand, there are likely to be big benefits as well. For example, TheePharoh is the now famous tweeter who told the story of Ferguson police gunning down an unarmed black man including photos of Brown lying on the ground. He told the story as he saw it no doubt. But if that act had been Meerkatted or Periscoped might we have seen a different picture? Could we have seen what the justice department did–that it was an act of self defense?

I think this is going to be big. But, don’t ask me, ask Bill.

 

Wendy’s GoPro Driven Ride with Lettuce–this is how food producers should roll

I love this video from Wendy’s. Thanks to the now almost ubiquitous GoPro, we take a ride with romaine lettuce from the farm to the Wendy’s table. It’s short, entertaining and doggone effective marketing.

I’m working more and more with food producers these days, who actually have a lot more in common with big oil than they can even begin to realize. Farmers and food producers of any size or scale (except for those part timers who decry the fact they can’t make much money raising organic produce on their five acre patch) are facing a widening gap between producer and consumer.

Consumers of course want the incredible green revolution benefits of exceptionally healthy and low cost food. But their skepticism about health and production methods is growing–fueled I believe by the alarmists who have much to gain fomenting unreasonable fear (including most media). The response to this is not to stick their heads in the sand but to realize that we live in a new age of transparency. That transparency extends to how our food is made and delivered to us.

That’s why I really liked what McDonald’s Canada did a few years ago when they got complaints about the difference between the photos of burgers vs burgers delivered over the counter. It’s why I really like this Wendy’s video.

Farmers, processors, distributors and retailers–take note. People are watching. The way you do things matters more than ever. And it will be seen. Either by you, or by some hidden camera that creates a viral video. If you don’t like that idea, show it yourself. And if you cringe thinking about what others might think when the see it, then rethink your processes while you have the time.

Great lessons on rumor management and how to apologize

Two of my favorite bloggers, Tony Jaques in Australia and Jonathan and Erik Bernstein from California, had excellent posts and two of the most important topics: rumor management and apologies.

Tony tells the story of a hepatitis A scare in Australia that got linked to a frozen berry product.  The company out of an abundance of caution as they like to say, voluntarily recalled their product without verification their product was the cause. From there as you will see the media did their thing and the company apparently did not do enough to correct the misreporting.

The lesson is clear: a lie (or error) repeated often enough becomes the truth. The only way I know to deal with this is to loudly, clearly over and over and over tell the truth and correct the misinformation.

On the topic of apologies, the Bernstein’s rightly congratulate Anthem on their excellent apology following the hacking of 80 million members’ data. The Bernstein’s analysis is spot on as usual, but what struck me is what the company was offering to help assure peace of mind. Plus the fact that the CEO empathized clearly noting that his personal information was part of the hack.

It’s not enough to simply say you’re sorry. You have to say what you are doing to prevent it from happening and most of all communicate that you truly understand how those impacted feel. Not an easy job but well done by Anthem.

 

Papa John’s Pizza vs. Iggy Azalea on Twitter

Friend, client and crisis communication manager for global oil company, Tom Mueller sent me this analysis which he shared with his colleagues:

Papa John’s Pizza learned a lesson recently in managing brand via social media after one of their staff delivered a pizza to Australian rapper/model Iggy Azalea on Grammy Awards evening.

When the delivery guy recognized Iggy and realized he had her mobile number, he then shared it with some friends and family, who immediately took to texting the star. She complained to Papa John’s via Twitter, only to have the company send her a joke in reply, saying “don’t bounce us” – a play on one of her song lyrics.

Iggy (@iggyazalea) has 4.2 million followers, many of whom retweeted her further comments critical of the data breach and the company’s apparent lack of security around its customers’ personal information, including credit card data. Papa John’s eventually got smart and realized the brand risk they had incurred, probably after receiving thousands of tweets raising concerns about their company.

Iggy, for her part, was very disciplined in her criticism and did not get emotional about how the firm had treated the breach, nor about the tone of its response to her personally. She wanted answers about how the company was protecting customer data; essentially she became an advocate for Papa John’s customers around the world. Some fans urged her to sue or to demand free pizza for life. She responded that she doesn’t mind paying for pizza. Her last tweet on the issue said she wasn’t interested in a lawsuit, just wanted responsible answers from the company – and was in touch with them now.

While there is a place for humor in communications, that approach must be carefully managed with the customer’s concerns foremost in those considerations. Papa John’s missed the mark on this one.

[Great analysis and advice, couldn't agree more Tom. I think one of the challenges here is that many companies understandably use younger staff members, digital natives, as front line of their social media team. This makes sense on the one hand. On the other, they may lack some of the judgment that comes with a few gray hairs. I suspect this happened here as one with plenty of gray hairs and definitely not a digital native, I wouldn't have caught the "bounce" joke.]

 

Broadcast journalism appears to be accelerating its death spiral

There are some outstanding examples of responsible journalism, and reading Francis Fukuyama’s book on political decay reminds me how important quality journalism is to provide accountability in a democratic (or any) society. But two recent examples where I was somewhat involved leave me disheartened–to say nothing of the tragedy of one of my favorite journalists, Brian Williams.

In one example a large local TV station investigative team did an “expose” of a large housing development project. On their teasers and headline for the story, on air and in the online version, they claimed the development was a “cancer cluster.” Now that will get attention. It’s a big claim, and surely needs some substantiation to support it. There was none. They used a community gadfly, well known for her animosity to the local officials because they kicked her out of an office for non-payment of rent, and she uses her blog to attack community officials for any reason. In this case, she accused them of not protecting the public against this development. The only other substantiation offered was an interview with one neighbor (an elderly woman) who said it seemed there was a lot of serious illness in their neighborhood. That, this team considered, was sufficient evidence to tell an audience reaching into the millions that this development was a cancer cluster.

The other involved a screaming headline that was sure to draw attention for its claim about conspiracy. Yet, when you read the story or saw the content of the broadcast report, there was absolutely nothing in their story the justified the accusation. And of course, if someone were to complain, they would point to their story and said, well, we never said those things. And, someone else wrote the headline. Bull.

I’ve long said the media trades on fear, uncertainty, doubt and outrage–FUDO. This is what is used to attract eyes and therefore the price of advertising. Admittedly, these are two extreme examples but I could provide others, and anyone who has been in this business for a while could likely provide many more.

Where will this end? Just how low do viewer trust figures have to go before editors, producers, publishers and reporters understand they are killing the goose? I suspect it will take considerably more. And while I would hate to see it, probably some legislative action to reduce the bar set against defamation and libel.

The one major case, involving “pink slime” has beef producer BPI suing ABC News for $1.2 billion (yes, billion). Despite numerous attempts by ABC to have the case thrown out local and state supreme courts have denied those requests and the case moves forward. I suspect a settlement will occur, but personally I wish it would go to trial and would get much more media attention than it has already. I do not presume to judge the outcome, but holding Diane Sawyer and Jim Avila to account for their scaring the bejesus out people calling a safe product “pink slime” would have some benefit I believe.

In the meantime, unjustified and outrageous media stories are a major risk for many organizations and government agencies. It is so important to remember that these investigative teams must come up with these stories to keep their jobs and to keep their audiences. That means you must prepare to respond.

I can virtually guarantee you that the old method of responding to this which included these options doesn’t work:

- threaten to pull advertising
- threaten to sue
- ask nicely for a retraction or opportunity to respond with similar story

The only thing that I have seen work is a “Fact Check” response where you calmly, without emotion, point out the errors. Digital communications including your news site, your website, your social media presence, your email lists, all provide great opportunities to point out the problems. The issue, as I have discussed here even in the last post, is credibility. The more responsible ones will be concerned about their credibility.

Most, unfortunately, will be more concerned about ratings.

How is Brian Williams NOT like Pete Carroll?

OK, I’m still in mourning over our Seahawks defeat in the Superbowl. Somehow getting there two years in a row–a feat few in our area ever dared dream of–is tainted by one play.

So that’s kinda how Brian Williams and Pete Carroll are alike. Both have had fantastically successful careers, rising to the top of their profession and being counted among the very best of the best. Both made huge mistakes in front of millions–mistakes that cause us mere mortals to shake our heads in wonder, with even a bit of pity. How have the mighty fallen!

Brian Williams’ mistake will likely not only cost him his job, but like Dan Rather, his place in the pantheon next to the place of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrows. Pete Carroll’s mistake will be remembered and talked about, but will likely not diminish much his stature as one of the truly great coaches of our time.

Why? Credibility.

Credibility is gold. It is the currency on which reputations live or die. It is the one thing no person, no organization, no government can afford to lose and expect to be effective. I made that point as strongly as I could in Now Is Too Late, and suggested that if you find yourself in a position where your credibility is lost, you only have two options: give up or borrow someone else’s.

Brian’s credibility was severely damaged by the revelation of being less than honest about his Iraq experience. It was destroyed by his inept explanations that have been denied by the witnesses present.

Carroll’s credibility as a supreme coach, tied closely to his competence and success in winning games, was and is severely tested by the decision to pass the ball rather than let Marshawn run it in. His response was different: he accepted full responsibility. (The fact that Russell Wilson attempted to also take full responsibility leads me to have more pride in the Seahawks in defeat than I could in victory.) There is considerable reason to believe that it was offensive coach Darrell Bevell who made the fateful call. But it really doesn’t matter as Carroll has taken full responsibility. If he had made even the slightest effort to shift the blame to Bevell, his credibility would sink like gold in a pool. Or turn to lead. Like Williams.

Certainly there are other differences. Football, after all is just a game (yeah, try telling that to Seattle right now). Being nightly news anchor means you have exceptionally strong pull over public opinion which can have huge consequences for the nation and world. One mistake was a question of judgment, the other a question of character. There are big differences alright. But the primary lesson remains the same:

Credibility is gold.

CEOs and their communication leaders must understand that nothing, nothing can be allowed to disrupt their credibility. Battles for public opinion most often come down to the question as to who can be believed, who can be trusted. Aristotle was right when teaching about rhetoric that the three basic appeals in persuasion are logos, pathos, ethos. Logic, emotion and the appeal to the person–credibility of the speaker. Of the three, he was clear that the most important was ethos. Yet, how often don’t we see credibility being tossed aside like it doesn’t matter. Even more, how often do we see individuals, companies and organizations fail to protect their credibility against attacks. This is why I highlighted Elon Musk and Tesla’s aggressive response to a negative New York Times review and US government safety investigation.

And how does one build and protect credibility: tell the truth, all the time. Don’t be like Brian.

 

 

 

 

Is Marshawn Lynch a PR genius?

Somehow, it seems appropriate. The guy getting absolutely the most attention from the media in this Superbowl ramp up is Marshawn Lynch. Why? Because he won’t play their game, at least not the way they think it should be played.

He’s obligated by his NFL contract to talk to the media. Now where did that obligation come from? The media one would suspect. They want unfettered access to the players. So, when Marshawn gets the big fine for not living up to this part of the deal, who goes along. Sort of. He first answers all questions with the same response: “Yeah.”

Then, he ups the game at this pre-Superbowl media day by answering all questions with: I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” I was watching “His and Hers” on ESPN last night and they were furious. But they spent probably 20 minutes talking about guess who? Not outspoken Richard Sherman, not deflategate, not Belichick and his propensity to break the rules. No, they talked about Marshawn Lynch. Same with the print news coming out of media day. What was the story: Marshawn Lynch.

Now, I might conclude that he is doing this because he is painfully shy, hates the media, or doesn’t know the first thing about brand building. Or he could just be a complete jerk.

But after seeing this commercial for Progressive featuring none other than the non-spoken Marshawn, I’m starting to conclude the guy is the smartest PR guy in football, if not in the world. (And Kenny Mayne’s got to get credit for making this happen). Now I could still conclude that Marshawn is just a jerk, but not from what I’ve heard. In fact, it was our son Chris of BaronVisuals who helped shoot the Lynch commercial–not he’s not the guy seen behind the camera (I’m not that old) he’s behind the actual camera. And he tells me Marshawn is for real.

What does this mean for crisis communication? That one should answer all the questions the media through out at you with “Yeah”? No. But what it does suggest is that not playing their game the way they want it played can sometimes, in the right circumstances, and done right, really pay dividends.

OK, this post was just my backwards way of slipping in a comment about the SuperBowl. Hey, I’m from the Seattle area. How about those Hawks?

Honda receives record fine, but the real story is truly frightening

The big news is that Honda paid a record fine to the federal government. The stories link this $70 million fine to failure to report “more than 1700 deaths and injuries” in its vehicles. Are you kidding me? This car  company killed or injured 1700 people and no one knew about it? You would think this would be the story of the decade.

The truth is, this is not at all the truth. And underlying this little reported story is the real story: a story of huge new crisis risk facing companies doing business in the United States. The risk is the unwarranted criminalization of business for the purpose of raising government revenue.

If you are a business owner or executive of almost any size, please look carefully at this chart developed from information provided by the Economist:

Economist chart fed fines.001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That hockey stick growth is the rise in government fines against US companies. The cover of the August 30 edition of the Economist featured “the criminalization of American business.”

It so happened that at about the same time I was working with a client on exactly one of these crises. I can’t reveal details because of the threats made by federal officials against my client. But believe me when I tell you that they paid a huge fine for doing absolutely nothing wrong–a claim supported by other government officials involved in the case. Then the agency fining them aggressively promoted a press release claiming the fine proved their guilt when the settlement was negotiated under threat. If the company didn’t agree to the settlement they would face a court case that if they lost would have destroyed them. When the company tried to set the record straight in the media, explaining it was a settlement done for business reasons, the agency official threatened them with possible jail time.

The Economist article points out the billions in fines against banks like BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and others.

Add to this the $1.2 billion fine against Toyota related to the safety recall. You may remember that the federal government (while a major investor in GM) famously said the only place you should drive your Toyota was to the repair shop. This was after a series of highly publicized accidents where the media accused the company of faulty electronic systems and slow recall. After NASA investigators got involved, all the accidents were shown to be driver error or faulty installation of mats–none related to the supposed Toyota problems. But, still, the federal government extorted $1.2 billion from the company. What for? Well, like almost all agreement as the Economist points out, the reasons were kept confidential as part of the settlement.

Why? Why is this happening?

If the dramatic increase cannot reasonably be attributed to a sharp increase in corporate misbehavior, then what? The head of the Department of Justice, Eric Holder, announced that the agency’s efforts resulted in over $8 billion in revenue for the US government against a cost of operating the agency of just $2.8 billion. That excellent return on investment was for 2013 and will be dwarfed by the much larger number for 2014. The Economist reports that the return on the False Claims Act enforcement net the Department a twenty to one return. State and local agencies who participated in settlements, such as Google’s settlement of $500 million for allowing internet users to advertise prescription drugs from Canada, have gone on spending sprees. It’s not surprising that Mark Rosekind says the Department of Transportation will seek to increase the maximum fine for violations or extortion such as this to $300 million. He needs to keep up with the massive amounts of money flowing into agencies like the Department of Justice and he can’t do that on paltry $70 million fines.

Is it any wonder that the Economist, which has endorsed President Obama in each of his presidential elections, called this administration the most anti-business in memory.

If you think this new risk of your own government turning against you unfairly and without justification, you should consider the “hot goods” case involving berry farmers.

In late July 2012 the Department of Labor investigated three blueberry farms in Oregon. Using a formula they established they decided the farmers were in violation of the fair labor law. Their formula showed the farm’s pickers picked more than the formula said they should so therefore they concluded the farm hired “ghost workers.” They had no proof other than the formula. To enforce the law, the Department invoked the “hot goods” provision and notified wholesalers that the fresh blueberries could not be processed. “Hot goods” allows the government to hold the product until the issue is resolved, but of course, when the product is highly perishable you could win the argument and lose the farm.  The Department offered a way out: agree they had violated the law, sign an order saying they would not contest the findings even if it proved they were innocent, and pay back wages and a large fine. Two farms ended up paying out more than $240,000 to get their blueberries back in time to avoid ruin.

But, despite the fact that the agreement said they could not fight it or appeal, the farmers did, and they won. The courts agreed that they were coerced into a settlement and agreement of wrongdoing by the Department of Labor and ordered the government to pay the money back. As of this writing, the government is still fighting the courts and refusing to pay. And as in the other cases, may be looking for ways to punish the farmers who had the temerity to challenge this extortion.

For complete details on this sad situation, read this.

Bad behavior by business owners and leaders needs to be punished. Laws and regulations need full compliance. Enforcement is a very important part of the accountability in our system. But, these actions by our government agencies cannot be included in justified enforcement. This is what happens when the government, feeling justified by a backlash against big government, resorts to bullying and extortion to raise funds and generate left wing applause. It represents one of the most significant, frustrating and frightening new crisis risks facing business in a long time.