Category Archives: Crisis Advice

A bad story is coming out…now what do you do?

You got a call from a reporter asking for your comment about an issue you were afraid might see the light of day. So, you know they’re onto it and going to run something.

This is a fairly common situation and unfortunately for PR and crisis comms consultants, this is often when you get the call from the client. No time to lose, but what is the strategy?

My thoughts on this were prompted by PR Daily’s post today on “Five Ways to Respond to Bad Press Before the Story Runs.” I have great regard for Brad Phillips, who wrote the post and the book: “The Media Training Bible.”

Now, if crisis communications was still just about managing the media, four of Phillips’ five suggestions would be perfectly right. But I think we passed that time some time ago. This is the age of the Internet, of direct engagement, of social media, of multiple channels and the more direct the better. This is the age of you are the broadcaster. This is no longer the age of begging and pleading with the media to get it right, and as Elon Musk showed, this is the age when it does make sense to enter a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

So New York Times is going to write a story and you know its not going to be pretty. Now is the time to tell your story straight ahead to those people who matter most to your future. Tell the unvarnished truth. Did you screw up? Fess up. Is the reporter twisting the facts to conform to a pre-conceived narrative (nah, never happens). Then say where things went wrong.

If you don’t have a way of directly reaching those most important to you (phone, email, text, social media) in time to beat the NYT’s press schedule then you should fix that critical problem right now, because, as they say, now is too late.

I’ve been beating this “you are the broadcaster” and “go direct” and “be fast and be first” themes for, oh about 14 years now and most of the time I think, jeez enough already, they get it. But then I see this or talk to a client and realize that while the world has changed, the basic thinking about crisis management has not changed nearly as much.

So, the drum beat continues.

Can cyberattacks improve your reputation?

Think Target and the hit it took when hackers stole the private information of millions, requiring many to update credit cards and the like. It’s a disaster that most executives believe will happen to them–not if, but when. So, that makes it even more amazing to find out that most executives think, according a study published in the Economist, that two thirds of CEOs think a good response to such an attack will enhance their reputation.

PRNewser from mediabistro reporting on the Economist story notes that while 66% think they will come out of such an event smelling like a rose, only 17% surveyed say they are “fully prepared.”

Hootsuite, perhaps the best social media management and monitoring tool that I know of, today experienced a hack attack in the form of a Denial of Service attack. One client emailed me Ryan Holmes’ response. The CEO of Hootsuite was fast, empathetic, transparent and almost completely on target. (Only thing missed in my mind was an apology, but perhaps he felt there was nothing to apologize for and he may be right).

A couple of things stand out to me in this new arena of crisis communication:

- CEO’s seem to get the idea that fast, transparent communication can actually enhance a reputation even when customers/stakeholders have been hurt

- There seems to be quite a gap between the confidence displayed and the level of preparation. That is surprising. I would think the confidence would come after preparation, not before.

- The reality (certainty?) of this kind of crisis seems to be quite well accepted.

Now, we will see how it all turns out. My prediction: Another Target-type hacking will occur and the press and social media pundits will be better positioned to blame the company. “They knew it was coming but did not take the steps they needed to to prevent it–it was profits above people all over again.” Then, the crisis communication game really begins.

Oracle’s media access policy in serious need of updating

Shel Holtz blogged today about Oracle firing of social selling executive Jill Rowley who claims she was fired for giving an unauthorized interview to AdAge magazine.  Shel suggests, and I agree, that there seems to be more to this story than an errant interview.

But it raises once again the issue of media access. What’s your policy? Having reviewed dozens of crisis communication plans in the last few years, I have yet to find one that conforms to what I believe is the norm following the media access controversy during Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Here’s what happened as I understand it: Reporters went out on the beaches and where spill response activity was happening and tried to interview responders. They were told they were not to speak to the media. The media understood this to be another of evil BP’s efforts to stifle and cover up–despite the fact that BP was not running, nor involved in the public communication effort at this time. It was the White House dictating media access policy. But when one veteran Coast Guard PIO tried to clarify that it was White House policy, not BP, he was promptly sacked. Pressure grew to the point where National Incident Commander Thad Allen issued a media policy carried by all PIOs (which is how I saw it). It said, again as I recall, the policy is to provide maximum access with minimum delay, consistent with safety and with not interfering with response operations. It further said that all responders are authorized to speak to the media providing they restrict their comments to their own area of responsibility.

Previously I had heard from Coast Guard PIOs that Allen as Commandant of the Coast Guard had implemented that policy for the entire Coast Guard. One senior Coast Guard official, given the White House’s desire to control the message, expressed doubts whether that policy would continue to stand. I suspect, but do not know, that it still stands in some form, but with the understanding that the leash is pretty tight.

Given all this, I have advised everyone I know to look at their media access policy in this light. Recognize first of all that if you have the media’s black hat on, there will be heightened sensitivity to any and all indications of cover-up, controlling the message or lack of transparency. When one of your employees responds to a reporter’s question with “we were told by top management we can’t talk to you” that is blood in the water to the shark.  If you do hold to a spokesperson only policy, then make certain you include in your refer and defer training (employee training on how to respond to reporter questions by referring to authorized spokesperson) use of a better response. Such as, “I’d love to help you with that, but I just don’t have the information you are looking for, so let me help you find the person who can answer that for you.” This is a little tough when all the reporter wants is an emotion-laden visual response when he/she asks the question: “How do you personally feel about this tragedy?”

The best policy and one I consistently advise, is to adopt Admiral Allen’s policy of maximum access with minimum delay, consistent with safety and no interference with the response.  Every employee or contractor is a spokesperson–but with the restriction of limiting what they say to their own area of responsibility. That is where much of the focus of media training should be today.

 

Crisis wisdom from Richard Nixon

Dartmouth professor of corporate communications, Paul Argenti, wrote an interesting and useful blog on Harvard’s HBR Blog on crisis communication. Specifically, it looks at GM’s CEO Mary Barra and how she is dealing with the inherited crisis of the current ignition switch recalls.

This is a concise and very useful summary of the key crisis communication principles–some of which I saw put to use to very good effect recently on a situation where I was a close observer.

At the very end, Professor Argenti quotes Richard Nixon from his famous Checkers Speech.  Nixon:

 “The easiest period in a crisis situation is actually the battle itself. The most difficult is the period of indecision—whether to fight or run away. And the most dangerous period is the aftermath.  It is then, with all his resources spent and his guard down, that an individual must watch out.”

Not sure truer words about crises have been spoken.

 

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.

 

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?

 

The three simple reasons why crisis communication efforts fail

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

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

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

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

So what are the three biggies in failure?

Speed. Direct Communication. Honesty.

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

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

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

It’s really not that difficult, is it?

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

 

Why crisis communicators should pay more attention to video

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

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

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

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

Video for crisis communicators? Here are some suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

-

NanoNews—understanding the new news environment

Struggling with what comes after “instant news,” I’ve tried to come up with a way of describing the dramatic change in real time information sharing that was powerfully demonstrated in the Boston manhunt. For better or worse, I’m using “NanoNews” to describe it.

I created a video in lieu of an in-person presentation I was invited to make at the National Capital Region’s Social Media in Emergencies conference. That presentation was just concluded so now I’m sharing this with you.

In 2001, when I wrote the first version of “Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News” I used the term instant news to help communicate that news cycles were gone, that as fast as news helicopters could get overhead the news of your event or disaster would be live on the air. I was thinking of the ubiquitous breaking news as well as the already emerging trend of sharing information via the Internet—at that time primarily through email.

But compared to the “instant news” we have today, “breaking news” corresponds more to snail mail. It’s practically dead and gone, and not just through over-use. When millions are tuned into the police scanner chatter broadcast live through Ustream or converted into a Reddit thread using websites like Broadcastify or scanner apps like 5_0 Scan, it’s obvious that breaking news can’t keep pace. By the time even the fastest news crews get the information from such sources, and relay it, it will be minutes old—and minutes old is unacceptable when you could have real time information.

Nano News is almost certain to grow. Mobile smartphone use continues to grow. Over one billion worldwide and a hundred million in the US.  That number will grow. And though they are called “smartphones” telephone use is actually quite small and diminishing—this report shows how these devices are actually used.

In the video I suggest that this widespread use of mobile devices to access events of interest constitutes a form of teleportation. Your senses, your ability to experience, is transported to the scene through the ever increasing use of real time information sharing usually from the “crowd” or non-professional sources.

The implications for emergency and crisis communications are immense. I was quite surprised to see a new study from PwC, which according to a press release of August 8: “more than half of the respondents – 57 percent – do not officially use social media as a crisis management resource.  For companies that have begun integrating social media into their crisis management efforts – Facebook and Twitter cited the most often – not all are seeing improvement in their capabilities. Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents are modestly leveraging it as a tool, but not necessarily seeing improvements in their capabilities, whereas eight percent of respondents believe that social media has become an enabler for their organization to proactively identify and respond to crisis events. “

That is quite stunning to me—raises a question as to whom within the organization the questions are addressed—IT?

In the video I made several observations which generated some comment and discussion with the group gathered in DC. One is that today in crisis communication you can NOT be fast enough. Only if facts or details are completely hidden (almost impossible these days) can you really control what goes out and when. If you can’t provide the relevant information what can you do? You can make sure what is said and gets traction is correct. Rumor management is job one. And it requires great speed, which means that Twitter is the numero uno media management tool. It’s not the only tool to use to be sure. But if you want the media and most informed public to know the truth, you better know what is being said and be very quick in correcting false information.

It seems the biggest issue confronting communicators is approvals. We had some valuable discussion about that during the conference and I was quite pleased to see that the separation of incident/response facts from organizational messages seems to be taking hold. Not everything to be released needs the same level of approval. As one pointed out, it requires trust in the PIO—but also a clear understanding prior to the event about releasable facts vs. key messages requiring approval—and the vast gray area between.

The experiment in presenting and discussing with a crowd across the country through Hangout went very well I thought (I’ll have to hear from those who were there). I think this will be far more common in the future. As is the case with these events it was helpful for me to learn from those who are practicing this stuff every day. But the discussion only confirmed that NanoNews is a vital reality and it is one that progressive communicators and emergency management leaders are coming to grips with—and that is good news.