Category Archives: corporate blogging

Netflix price increase brouhaha: unnecessary outrage amplified

Thanks to Matt Wilson of Ragan Communications for getting me to think about Netflix and the tempest they created with a bungled service change announcement:

Did Netflix just throw their entire franchise away by bungling a price increase announcement? As I write this “Dear Netflix” is one of the top trending topics on Twitter and the comments on Netflix’s own blog post about the price increase makes it clear that their customer base is not happy and may well be a former customer base.

What went wrong? And how could this have been avoided?

First, I think it is important to understand that the lens of social media does not necessarily reflect reality very accurately. While it appears that Netflix is in deep trouble over this, I’m not certain this is the case. At the same time, the social media reaction also colors the response of others who may not be so exercised over this.

As Netflix customers we also received the email notice about the price increase. My wife relayed it to me and we briefly discussed that this seemed excessive and whether or not we would continue. But when I looked at the online comments my very moderate negative reaction became more like outrage. Yes, how could they do this to me, a loyal customer! Not only that, I found out what others were turning to as alternatives.

So not only does social media reaction tend to give a distorted picture of reality, it tends to feed the outrage. All the people who are upset are telling why they’ve wanted to cancel Netflix for a long time—like limited selection, not having the latest and greatest, etc. What may be worse they are informing those watching the discussion as to the alternatives and creating a sense that this is where the herd is heading next.

Summary:

1)     Social media outrage gives false picture of reality. I doubt that the reaction we see on social media right now is at all representative. I doubt that Netflix’s customers overall are reacting as strongly as it seems by looking at the comments. That means in an event like this you have to keep your cool, not over react, and keep an eye on the big picture without allowing the lens of social media which gives a distorted picture to cause a distorted response.

2)     Social media outrage feeds outrage. While the picture may be distorted, the outrage reaction amplifies feelings. My moderately negative reaction is much deepened when I look at how others are reacting. We certainly have seen this in other events including the Gulf Spill when outrage fed outrage. That’s why these reactions or over-reactions are still very dangerous and very important to avoid and deal with.

3)     Social media greases the skids of change. By that I mean it makes it much easier for me as a customer to consider alternatives. Those who are angry are telling me all kinds of reasons for dissatisfaction with Netflix—reasons I never had before. Plus, they are telling me where they are going. Redbox is going to see some big increase in business, just like some hosting companies did after Godaddy’s CEO stepped on himself over the elephant shooting business. Social media tells people why to be unhappy and creates a herd mentality relating to where they are going now.

So, what went wrong and how could this have been avoided?

1) Explain yourself. Their email explaining the change was pitiful. Here’s how its starts: “We are separating unlimited DVDs by mail and unlimited streaming into two separate plans to better reflect the costs of each. Now our members have a choice: a streaming only plan, a DVD only plan, or both.

Your current $9.99 a month membership for unlimited streaming and unlimited DVDs will be split into 2 distinct plans:”

Their blog post does much better but still comes across as incomplete and perhaps less than completely honest. It starts out this way: “First, we are launching new DVD only plans. These plans offer our lowest prices ever for unlimited DVDs – only $7.99 a month for our 1 DVD out at-a-time plan and $11.99 a month for our 2 DVDs out at-a-time plan. By offering our lowest prices ever, we hope to provide great value to our current and future DVDs by mail members. New members can sign up for these plans by going to DVD.netflix.com.”

Once I understood what they were doing, unbundling their service, I realized that my price was actually going down because I will use only the streaming service. But, when we got the email we discussed cancelling because it looked as if they were doubling the price overnight.

2) Involve your customers. It is hard to believe that a company like Netflix, born on the Internet, would do something like this without involving the social media crowd. Something like this should not be sprung on an unsuspecting customer base. Politicians call it raising a trial balloon, but social media makes it very easy to engage customers in big changes like this. They could have said, hey, we’re thinking about doing this, what do you guys think? Here are our problems and challenges, if you were in our shoes, what would you do about it? That would have smoothed the way, given them important information, and created defenders of those people who participated.

3) Offer to grandfather those who want it to stay the same. For many, the change may be good and well accepted. But for those who strongly object, offering to grandfather for even six months would ease the anger. But they probably would have figured that out if they had involved the customers in the first place.
The upshot: Netflix will survive just fine. Competitors like Redbox will see some gains but will only really see long term if they offer significant added value and communicate it aggressively. But this will cost them, in loyalty, in brand value, in loss of customers—and from my perspective, unnecessarily because of failing to either understand or think through carefully the implications in the era of social media amplified outrage.

Follow up to Chrysler–great blogging

While I was critical of Chrysler’s response to the inadvertent F-bomb tweet, I have to hand it to them for their response to this as seen on their corporate blog. I noted in my first post that my headline suggested they fired the errant tweeter but I quickly changed this assuming (correctly) that since this was an agency employee Chrysler could not fire and likely would not ask the agency to do so.

Here is their blog post by Ed Garsten, which goes to some length to explain their reaction was appropriate given the sensitivities raised by their high profile ad campaign.

A couple of comments–while this is a good response, it shows how important the initial reaction was. Their biggest problem in my mind was saying their account was compromised. Those initial responses and first moments or hours after something like this are so important, but how did you get the information, the perspective, the strategy right when things are still unfolding. We are simply going have to learn how to buy some time without making things worse, I think.

Second comment. Doesn’t this all strike you as a bit of a tempest in a teapot? So someone posted a comment to a wrong account. It happens. I think the real reason this is getting so much attention (headline stories in two of the top public relations blogs/newsletters) is because it highlights the vulnerabilities of reputations in this new era of direct engagement. Black Swans popping up out of the blue. Things going sideways before you can slide the “slide to unlock” button on your smart phone. The priority on speed in response. The challenges of big organizations being nimble enough to nip these things in the bud. Social media policy and how to enforce it. These are the real issues and they are near top of mind for many concerned about reputations. So, while this may be a small thing made big, it is an excellent example of the new challenges and vulnerabilities.

We learned much from Taco Bell’s “thank you for suing us response.” Now, we are learning from Chrysler–both dangers and effective strategies.

Taco Bell–false advertising or a victim of a publicity-savvy lawyer?

I was asked by a reporter for Ragan to comment on the Taco Bell lawsuit alleging false advertising about meat in the company’s products. Here’s a sample of the news coverage about this lawsuit. Taco Bell, again a little late for the initial news reports issued this statement on their website:

“At Taco Bell, we buy our beef from the same trusted brands you find in the supermarket, like Tyson Foods. We start with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef. Then we simmer it in our proprietary blend of seasonings and spices to give our seasoned beef its signature Taco Bell taste and texture. We are proud of the quality of our beef and identify all the seasoning and spice ingredients on our website. Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later — and got their “facts” absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food.”

Greg Creed
President and Chief Concept Officer
Taco Bell Corp.

Here was my take on this as a reputation crisis:

eing somewhat by nature skeptical of enterprising attorneys, particularly those who file class action lawsuits in search of a class to represent, I see this primarily as a very effective marketing ploy by an attorney. If they were serious about addressing concerns with Taco Bell and serious about false advertising, the right and ethical thing to do would be to approach the company first and only seek the kind of publicity they got if and when they could get no answers or satisfaction from the company.

But, this is the kind of bad publicity, litigation-based risk that many companies face in our litigious society. Clearly the attorney filing this has received a lot of press attention. But, it doesn’t seem to be generating a huge amount of social media buzz. Will it hurt the company? It likely will if the attorney’s claims prove to be absolutely true, regardless of whether it qualifies as false advertising. We don’t want to be told we are getting meat when it is mostly filler and spices. However, Taco Bell has drawn a very clear line in the sand. In their statement they say: Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later — and got their “facts” absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food.”

If the lawyers got it absolutely wrong then the damage to Taco Bell may be minimal and probably more than made up for all the free press using their brand. But, like Roger Clemens, his absolute denial about wrong doing ended up destroying his credibility. Again, the battle is all about credibility. Some will look at this like I do and doubt the attorney. Many will judge Taco Bell guilty as charged based on the mere accusation.

I do like the fact that Taco Bell in their statement said they are suing the attorney for the false statements. That gives the impression of confidence in their claims that what the attorney is saying is completely false. But, it also raises the stakes in the credibility game. It is something I have advised clients in the past. If they have opponents, competitors or lawyers looking to make a name, who are abusing the legal system for their own gain, I think one of the best things to do is to use that same legal system against them.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Worst case for Taco Bell is that this triggers a cascade of complaints against them, all of which will be well covered by the press given this story. But, they may find that the coverage also helps bring their brand to the forefront and if they don’t lose credibility by what they say or do, it may blow over and even help them.

Going beyond that initial analysis, I’m asking myself the question what would I do if I was the chief reputation management advisor to Taco Bell?

The first question I would ask is: how could this get worse? A common mistake is to deal with the crisis at hand without thinking through the cascade effect of most crises. This lawsuit is blood in the water to the sharks in the media looking to attract eyes to their stories. I’m guessing right now that a number of them are scouring all possible sources for consumer complaints against Taco Bell so they can build a case for the company as “rogue,” “irresponsible” and demonstrating a pattern of deception and blowing off customer concerns. It is in the nature of today’s media to create the “black hats” that make their stories dramatic and compelling. Certainly, a quick look at Twitter conversations about this shows that a number of customers are quick to conclude that the lawsuit’s claims are absolutely right.

Assuming it could get worse, what can Taco Bell do? I think they sent the right message with their statement. They will vigorously defend their reputation. By stating they are taking legal action they are attempting to turn the tables and presenting themselves as the victim. Again, my bias is such that I believe they are, but if they are not, if the claims are accurate and Taco Bell ends up apologizing, agreeing to change their meat recipe then their credibility is damaged greater by this aggressive response. It is risky, but not if they are absolutely certain of their position.

But that statement is not enough. If this situation looks to get legs in the media or social media (and monitoring is job one right now), then they better be ready to move really fast. They will need to aggressively communicate these key messages (not in these words): They are the victim of nasty false claims by an attorney looking to generate business. Their meat products are what they say they are. They have kept millions of customers happy for XX years and are committed to complete customer satisfaction.

They need to be prepared to communicate those messages in the mainstream media (through both paid advertising and aggressive efforts to get interviews), and through social media. They need to engage their critics directly, positively and firmly. Above all, they must protect their credibility as if their future depends on it, which it does.

Of course, to move fast, they have to prepare now. The real judgment call will be their assessment of the traction this is getting and whether by over-reacting they exacerbate the negative publicity. Their should be no judgment call at all in preparing to act fast and hard.

Carnival Splendor–how they doing?

Since I was just asked by Ragan Communications for a few comments on the Carnival Cruise crisis, I’d thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

1) Crises like these have almost as much impact and risk for all major players in the industry as they do on the company involved. I suspect many are fielding questions about safety, fires on boards, how prepared they are, as well as having people cancel cruises out of fear of something similar happening. Not just Carnival but every cruise line needs to communicate about what happened, what went wrong, why it had such a huge impact on the passengers, and what changes are being made to prevent this. Even die-hard cruisers, (like may parents) have to be shaken a bit by the stories coming off the ship. I did a quick check of Holland America (my favorite line) and Princess. Neither had anything on their website about it. You might think, well, why would they, it’s not their event and they shouldn’t be seen as piling on the competition. Right. But their passengers and the media have questions for them–like are their ships different so that what happened to Carnival won’t happen to them. Are they any better prepared, etc. An FAQ about the incident as it relates to them, without any finger-pointing, seems to me to be appropriate and helpful for the future of the industry–let alone their business.

2) Media coverage changed significantly once the ship came in cellphone range. Before it was info from Coast Guard and the company, after, the coverage shifted to those who were most upset and would say entertaining things, like how bad it smelled, rotten food, etc.

Let’s be very clear about what to expect from the media in an event like this: they are competing for your eyes. To get that they are not going to focus on those passengers (probably vast majority) who are putting up with the discomfort with grace and patience. Simply not entertaining. But if they find some person who is truly outspoken, passionate, p-d off, or someone who’s health or mental state has been negatively impacted, that’s where they are going to go. Is it because they are mean and nasty? No, its because they are doing their job and trying to stay alive. But that reality makes it very difficult for Carnival–and all the other cruise lines. Because you cannot avoid the impression that this event is a complete and utter nightmare for everyone–and all cruisers take this risk.

3) Carnival seems to be engaged with Twitter, less so with Facebook. In my mind they need to keep up almost a continual chatter on Twitter given all the discussion going on there now because a review of the conversation doesn’t appear to include them. Can’t really do a tweet or two every hour or so and really be part of the conversation. They could do a better job of really engaging with their passengers and the Twitter community. Similar to my comments below about their statement, their tweets and Facebook wall comments are in the old-fashioned press statement mode that just looks jarring in the social media world. It’s cold, impersonal, even slightly legalese. It’s what you expect out of a PR department and frankly, the social media world has almost no patience or sympathy for it. Communications people need to understand the dramatic culture shift that has occurred. Having PR people use Twitter with the same language they’ve learned to use over the years is like watching a monk enter a sports bar–there’s just something jarring and disquieting about it.

4) A statement on the website was posted but it is almost invisible and when you open it, the message is pretty disappointing. A lot of facts but not much empathy. Finally you get to an apology from the CEO. Good job on explaining what they are doing to make it right–it seems the very least they could do. But the message should start with a much much stronger message of apology, of empathy, of recognition of the discomfort and anxiety they have caused.

There is very little to suggest in that statement that they have any real recognition of the revulsion that most are feeling when hearing about the smells, having to clean toilets, rotten food, endless sandwiches, sleeping on the deck, etc. These are filling the news reports but the company response seems focused on the bare facts of passengers, time of arrival, offer of another cruise, etc. Something really important missing here.

By having a single small line on their website it really communicates the wrong message. I don’t think you want to have it completely dominant or an incident specific site totally replace it, but it has to not look like you are minimizing the event. An incident-specific website with much much much more detail about what is going on is critical, and a link on the main site to that incident site should be much stronger and more visible. Plus a big message on there that says: We are really really sorry.
5) John Heald’s blog–this is the best part of their communication so far. John is the cruise director and apparently carries on an on-going conversation with his passenger/clients through his blog. It’s almost too bad on his blog he has to distance himself from the official voice of Carnival. This is the kind of thing that should be official from the company. It is warm, human and honest. I do really like the fact that he is pointing out the reality of media coverage “big hair reporter talking to Mr. Angry”. While it is dangerous of the company to highlight the probably vast majority of passengers who were taking it all in good spirit, John can do that here more freely. If I was heading up communications for Carnival right now I’d say, John, go at it. The more he does and becomes part of the conversation the better for Carnival.

6) There are some ways that Carnival should pick up on some of John’s messaging. Their official statement should have been much warmer, personal, apologetic and mostly appreciative of the good graces of the thousands of passengers who endured what they put them through. They should really emphasize that against the totally expected torrent of media reports showing the most angry and vindictive.

Hazmat for Toxic Comments — A Guest Post by Dave Statter

Dave Statter is a very well-known blogger on fire and EMS issues at statter911.com. I’ve linked there a few times and appreciated him commenting here. Not long ago, he commented on a post about blog comments. I really liked what he had to say and asked if he would prepare a guest post on the topic. Here is some great advice for anyone who engages in blogs or any form of social media. If you haven’t encountered toxic talk yet, you certainly will.

Hazmat for Toxic Comments
You’re a jerk. You hate volunteer firefighters. You hate career firefighters. You’re a racist. You suck. Everyone should boycott your blog.
Those are some of the printable negative comments I received in the first months of STATter911.com. The blog features fire and emergency medical services news focusing on the Washington, D.C. area where I am a TV reporter.
As the comments trickled in, after starting the site three-years-ago, it became clear I was not immune to the toxic thoughts that plague every website with an open public forum. This virtual vitriol was usually directed at a fire chief or some other public official mentioned in one of my stories but readers were also taking aim at the messenger.

Nasty comments were not something I had given much thought to as a new blogger. In fact, most of the 16,000 plus comments you’ll now find on the site are not vicious. They’re usually just opinions on a fire department policy, the actions of a fire chief or tactics used to fight a fire. But on the blog — like news websites everywhere — there are people emboldened by anonymity who go a step further. They are on the attack. They target the subject of a news story, the blogger and the people who comment. And they do it in a very personal way.

Some top emergency management officials in the country tell me how much they enjoy STATter911.com but can’t stand the comments about themselves or their colleagues. There are also firefighters, paramedics & public information officers who constantly complain about a negative tone in the comments section. I agree with them when it comes to the personal attacks. My lofty goal is a respectful exchange of ideas that doesn’t focus on personalities. I know… I’m dreaming.

My guidelines are simple. Any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (plus a few he failed to mention) will always prompt me to hit the reject button. I do the same when posters decide to be reporters, presenting new “facts” I can’t verify. But going beyond these limited rules seems a slippery, subjective slope for a free speech advocate like me. I always challenge those complaining about the comments section to give me workable guidelines that don’t smack of censorship. No one has met that challenge. Like me, they soon realize one person’s view of “crossing the line” is very different than the next.

I have no magic formula to fairly and successfully weed out those comments. But if toxic words on an Internet forum are directed at you — and your reputation is on the line — I may be able to help. Consider what the readers said about me. How do you respond when you are called a racist jerk who sucks? First, you need to know I’m fair game on my blog. If comments meet the language test, they’re posted. But the negative comments went beyond STATter911.com. My reporting had become a topic of conversation among firefighters on thewatchdesk.com. FYI: No language filter on that site! Friends in the news media and the fire service urged me not to engage the Statter-haters. They believed it would only make things worse. But I had reputation management in mind. My own. I wanted anyone who Googled Dave Statter to get both sides of the story. It became a bit time consuming, but I responded to each attack. Still, watching others go down in flames trying to defend themselves on anonymous forums gave me pause. Like a hazmat team dealing with a toxic substance I knew to proceed with caution.
I needed a set of rules for this on-line reputation management. They’re now my personal SOP and I believe they work.

•    I never attack the attackers.
•    I try to get beyond their emotions and point out the facts behind the
issues.
•    I explain the why and how of what I do.
•    I challenge the writer, in a firm but nice way, to back up their claims with
facts.
•    I make a maximum effort not to sound defensive.
•    I try to infuse a self-deprecating sense a humor into my responses.
•    If I find valid points within the emotional rhetoric it’s acknowledged and
corrected.
•    I thank them for reading my blog and taking the time to write.

My goal, then and now, is setting the record straight and telling my story. I’m not looking for love.

When I started fighting back three-years-ago the first replies were often worse than the original toxic comments.
I stood my ground. I repeatedly asked for the facts behind their emotion. Instead, I got something different.
A small number of these overly passionate writers actually thanked me for the response. They understood my point of view and respectfully disagreed. One or two went further. They began an email dialogue and soon became sources for future stories.
When the toxic writers didn’t change their ways, the community often joined in. Forum readers told the offending poster they should put up (the facts backing their point of view) or shut up.

In the end, the flame throwers couldn’t provide any real facts to support their positions. In virtually every case, whether the rest of the community responded or not, the attacks stopped. A few returned for a second or third round in reaction to a new blog story. After getting the same type of responses from me they disappeared.

I stood up to the school yard bullies and won. Very different than grade school where they took my lunch money.
Still, this technique may not work for everyone. Here’s why:
You have to check your ego at the door and need a thick hide. If you’re easily offended and can’t respond without sounding defensive, don’t engage the enemy. You will be dead meat. My experience is they’ll sense your weakness and pounce harder.
It’s important to find someone you trust to monitor your responses. They can let you know if you’re wandering outside the guidelines. My monitor was a fire service friend who gave very good feedback.

I no longer hear from any of the bullies on thewatchdesk.com. I searched the site while writing this and found it has been a long time since anyone made me the target of a toxic comment.

On STATter911.com the traffic has more than tripled, but the attacks against me have dramatically decreased.
My experience is telling your own story in this very specific way solves a few problems. It neutralizes even the most toxic comments. It puts the facts on the record. It also sets a tone. Attacks on your reputation won’t go unchallenged. And along the way you may earn a little respect.

Now, if we could just get everyone who writes online to focus on the issues and not demonize those they disagree with. Still dreaming.

Looking for company Twitter policy statement? Here's Walmart's

Thanks to the ever vigilant, hyperactive social media guru Shel Holtz and his Twitter feed, I’m sharing Walmart’s “Twitter External Discussion” policy statement. Looks like a good one and a useful model to follow.

United stock crash and GM "fact and fiction" site provide lessons

Two things caught my eye while enjoying the Napa wine country. Both involve the rapidly changing world of reputation management and instant news. One, United Airlines stock crashed–going from $12 a share to one penny in a few hours–all because someone posted a six year old news story on a website. It bloomeranged from there (pun intended). I wish I had been on the ball and bought some of that penny stock.

The other story is not as sensational but still significant. GM launched a website aimed at confronting directly the numerous myths, attacks and accusations against the company and how it is meeting its severe business challenges. The website called GMFactsandFiction.com is simply constructed, listing a myth and the GM response. The current lead myth is whether GM is seeking a government bailout.

The point is this–life comes at you fast, as the commercial states. The instant news world seems to keep accelerating in part because more and more of the instant news world starts and lives on the internet. Devastation can be wreaked in minutes, not even hours any more. What used to take weeks to spread now is global at the speed of light. But the evidence continues to mount that most communicators and more importantly, their leaders, are not prepared to respond as quickly as this new world demands. The United story is one example. Were they monitoring the internet? Did someone not notice the old story? How soon after it was posted did United have a rebuttal very publicly posted? Did United have the capability to head off the storm before it gathered momentum by proactively releasing a notice about the false information. Did no one contact the Florida paper and inform them of their stupidity and how their irresponsibility was creating huge damage? In short, were they prepared to go to battle instantly, gather intelligence instantly, and get proactive and on the offensive instantly. Quite apparently not.

Not to say that GM is, just by this website, but it does seem to show that someone at GM understands the dynamics of internet conversation. The conversation goes on, like it or not. It cannot be stopped. And one thing is certain about this conversation–a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. That’s why it is essential for companies at the center of such internet conversations join in on them, have their own clearly identified voice, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS speak the truth and nothing but the truth, and aggressively counter the lies, attacks, myths and misinformation. This is good stuff. I think I will buy some GM stock.

Sarah Palin vs. "the media:" who's really on trial?

All of us who have media relations and public information as part of our lives have to be standing back in amazement at what is going on relating to Sarah Palin and her battle with the media.  The story has quite dramatically shifted, it seems to me, from “is Sarah qualified, and therefore is John McCain’s judgment sound” to “is the media biased, sexist and unfair.”

I just watched this morning the interview of the managing editor of US Weekly by Megan someone, a Fox News anchor. Now, whether you consider the Fox News attack “fair and balanced” or the US Weekly article on Palin (Titled: Babies, Lies and Scandal”) “fair and balanced” probably depends on your political orientation. In fact, that is one of the more fascinating aspects of the varying coverage of the political events by the news channels. An MSNBC poll about whether or not Palin helped the ticket (by far most think she did not) did not say nearly as much as Palin as it did about the orientation of those who watch Olberman and company. Contrast the polls showing on Fox which, of course, show a completely different slant of the viewers.

A few comments:

– As part of the fragmentation and segmentation of media, the old idea of “objectivity” is quickly disappearing. This should not discourage us because “mass media” in the US, dating back to Colonial days, were highly partisan. Publications were created to support political parties and positions. They only really adopted the idea of “objective, non-partisan coverage” with the growth of Associated Press in the Civil War era as a way of pooling reporters. AP reporters were supposed to simply gather the facts from the front, then the individual editorial slant would be applied by the editors. However, the publishers found that readers like the “just the facts” reporting direct from AP and heavily biased reporting lost favor. We are simply going back to those days, but in this era it is a matter of segmenting the marketing, trying to dominate segments in order to survive and profit as media businesses.

– The spectacle of one media outlet attacking another for “bias” is a little humorous and fascinating. Sort of like watching your sisters mud wrestle. Something disgusting about it, but you can’t take your eyes off it either. It’s really funny when they refer to the others as “the mainstream media” as if they are just not part of that at all. It kind of makes your head spin.

– When the public stands outside of this media scrutiny of media, I think we all benefit. One of the greatest challenges we as communicators face is the reality that while everyone says “you can’t believe what you read in the newspapers,” everyone still does. Including professional communicators (witness PRSA’s hyper reaction to the completely out of line reporting on the FEMA “fake” news conference). The more the public gains some skepticism and informed judgment about the motives, agendas and biases of those charged with providing us our news and therefore our perceptions on which we make vital judgments, the better off we all are.

– the role of blogs. I would like to know how many times in the last few days of coverage that the “left wing blogs” were mentioned. Not just on Fox either–although MSNBC and CNN are more likely to just reference “the blogs.” The blog attacks on Palin are to a large degree driving the news cycle. That’s where the mainstream outlets get their fodder, and that’s also where they make judgments about what is relevant and will drive audiences. There is a huge lesson here for those in crisis management. If you still think you should not pay attention to blogs when you are the focus of the news, you have your head in the sand or someplace else. Blogs are the drivers–increasingly every day. Not just because of their own audiences, but because of the tremendous influence over the focal points of mainstream media coverage.

Employee blogs–how lawyers are forcing tightening of corporate policies

Cisco got in trouble over a blog by one of its employees–legal trouble of course. I agree with the Economist who consistently laughs at our litigious system and the high cost we all pay for the abuse of it. I say that without intending any comment on the merits of the case against the Cisco blogger.

Blogging by employees has become part and parcel of the business scene–and a tremendous impetus toward transparency. But, there are risks and dangers. And while Scoble and other leaders of corporate blogging argued for minimal guidance and control by corporate leaders, it seems our litigious society will not allow that to happen for long. I suspect this case and the thousands of others soon to follow will drastically change corporate blogging–much to the loss of all of us.

Our legal system, after all, completely discourages organizations from saying “they’re sorry” when they screwed up. I just heard from a friend about the sad story of his mother who fell off an x-ray table in a hospital as she was dying of cancer. A hospital staff person who turned his back on her and she fell off the X-ray table–seriously contributing to her decline and destroying what little quality of life she had left. Rather than saying “we’re sorry” and explaining in detail what happened which would have satisfied my friend, they instead refused to provide him any records or information about the incident, refused to accept responsibility and refused to discuss it with him. Just following legal advice, no doubt. But because of this excellent advice, he is now considering taking action–all avoidable by saying you’re sorry.

What this has to do with blogging, I’m not sure–oh yeah, stupid lawsuits.

2007–The Year of Authenticity?

It’s always fun to look toward a new year. One of my hobbies is painting so I think of the new year a bit like a blank canvas. It  is ripe with possibilities, but there is a certain apprehension about whether things will emerge as you hope they will. And like painting, it usually takes more effort for the best to come out than you think it will. But as a canvas, the new year mostly paints itself. It’s like working on a canvas in which new colors, forms, shapes, objects are appearing even as you try to do your own thing. The year has a  mind of its own, and the art comes in not trying to control what cannot be controlled but in turning what emerges–whatever it may be–into something beautiful, graceful and meaningful.

Looking back on the changes in crisis communication and the world of public opinion making, I see some fundamental shifts underway. Much of my work in the past six years or so has been aimed at helping clients and communicators understand the accelerating pace of public information. Most it seems to me, still do not understand, the depth and dimensions of the instant news world. So that word needs to continue to go out, but I think there is something even more significant emerging. And it comes as a direct result of the emergence of the blog culture as a powerful force in our society.

The blog world has a culture. No one has dictated it, and no one that I know of has really tried to define it. Yet, I think we all sense that it is there and we know somehow the boundaries of that culture. We have a sense for what the blog world considers right and wrong, just and unjust. One of the fundamental rules not just of the blog culture but the internet itself, is the strong desire to minimize the rules. So while there have been some rule making and enforcing mechanisms, mostly the internet world and blog culture in particular rely on social convention t0 enforce values. And those values I believe are spilling out beyond the blog culture into the broader world of main stream media, politics, business, advertising, and almost all aspects of culture making.

The blog culture values immediacy, that is certain, and that connects it to the instant news world. When bloggers see or hear something of interest, their first thought is to send it to the world. Mistakes can be made and often are made, and then the blogger is mightily flamed and says he or she is sorry. But it does not slow anyone down.

The blog culture values personality. Bloggers have little or no tolerance for the bland, impersonal language of much of the academic, professional and business world. If a CEO blogs, they want not just to see what he or she has to say about the company or its latest products, they want to have a clear picture of who that person is. They want to see warts and all. They want to see emotion.They want to see beyond the screen of packaging and vetting that normally accompanies corporate or professional communication.

The blog culture tends to be impatient and even angry. It doesn’t take much of an offense to set them off and get them to express raw language and raw emotion. There is variation here and you see a more mature and moderating influence coming in, but the rash, angry response still lives and to some extent dominates. Those who live in this sphere and who do not appreciate it learn to have a thicker skin.

The blog culture is highly political. While again it is shifting as more and more people enter this culture, it has been strongly dominated for some time by those whose primary motivation for blogging has been to participate in some way in the political dialog. It is definitely left-leaning, but again changing as more people become involved. But for a great many bloggers, the polarization of left and right and the desire to somehow influence political direction of the nation and the world is a primary part of their online persona and their reason for actively and aggressively participating.

The blog culture despises profit for profit’s sake. I am careful how I describe this because it is rich and complex. There is a strong anti-large, anti-powerful element in the blog world, and that applies not only to businesses but to any person, institution or organization which is large and has strong influence. Bloggers tend to be highly skeptical of any entity which impacts their lives and over which they have little or no control–so some of this extends to businesses. Their criticism of them tends to focus on the profits they generate, but I believe the underlying concern is not the profits themselves but the way in which power is exerted and the perceived failure of the organization to change based on the values and ethics of the critics.

The blog world has high ethical standards and little patience for those who violate them. The essential standard is openness and honesty. And if you are powerful, it includes humility and vulnerability. This is in effect the sum total of the items listed above. The blog world is about authenticity and its absolute disregard for anyone or anything that is less than authentic. People who buy things routinely over the internet do not want to be fooled by a scam artist. To do so is to undermine the whole potential for online economics. To engage in a lively debate or share interesting information with someone, only to find out they have a hidden agenda, a profit motive, or an economic stake in the outcome of that discussion cuts to the very bone of the reason why bloggers spend their time engaging in these conversations. It is vitally important to them, and therefore they will protect the authenticity of discussions with all the vehemence they can muster.

So when I suggest that 2007 may be the year of authenticity, it is not just in the blog world. A previous post pointed to another blog that reported that this year will be the first year when more people get their news online than from traditional news outlets. Last count I saw there were over 60 million active blogs tracked on technorati.  But it is not just the blending of the sidestream and the mainstream that will result in a significant movement toward greater authenticity. It is how the values of the blog world are becoming some of the fundamental values of the rest of the world. We tend to see history as broad sweeps of changes that are not visible while you are in them. But historians find those individuals and specific actions or activities that are both representative of those broad sweeping changes and who help drive them. Who knows who history will credit with the lighting the spark that changed the world’s value system forever. My vote might be Robert Scoble and Shel Israel because of the impact their book Naked Conversations had on me and the understanding it helped me come to about the importance of the blog world in the greater world of opinion making. And from that standpoint, I guess all history is personal. May it be authentic.