Category Archives: crisis blog

Can you blog your way out of a crisis?

There is more and more discussion about using blogs as a crisis management tool. Steve Phenix, a smart blogger for certain, sent me an email with his promotional message for blogging during a crisis–using his PR firm. And he used his own reputation crisis as an example of how it works. First, here’s the story about how he got caught in a rather dumb publicity stunt by a client.

His email message (unfortunately, he didn’t provide a weblink) said this:

Bad publicity, I’m sure you know, is just plain bad for your client’s business. And here’s some scary facts to consider, according to a recent survey [PDF]:
62% of searchers click on a first page results
90% click on a result within the first three pages
So basically your clients are losing money the longer bad news remains on Google’s first few pages. And guess what? The client probably blames your agency for the bad news even appearing in the press. The good news is that only 10% of searchers are willing to click past the third page.

But the question is, how is it possible to move negative press down in Google rankings?

With the rapid, cataclysmic changes affecting the PR industry–with economists saying that recession is here (WSJ), news outlets laying people off and going bankrupt, while according to We Media/Zogby Interactive, “nearly 70 percent of Americans believe traditional journalism is out of touch, and nearly half are turning to the Internet to get their news”–blogs are becoming more and more the best way to communicate client messages.

In fact, blogs are the ideal tool to contain a crises. And that’s where Phenix Public Relations comes in.

I know blogging works because I employed my own blog to halt a potentially career-ending crises five years ago and have successfully used this tactic with many other clients ever since.

Briefly, here’s the details:

I had a client out of the Netherlands that pulled an April Fool’s Day joke on the Wall Street Journal, plus Reuters, AP, USA Today, Variety and many others. When the European media began calling at 4 AM Texas time, I immediately fired the client and began calling every U.S. reporter who had covered the story or even thought about it.  I endured a two-hour interrogation from a WSJ deputy editor who wanted to know what I knew and when I knew it. I even wrote handwritten letters to all the reporters.

Ultimately, my company and I were held blameless and suffered no immediate no damage to our reputation. However, soon I noticed that when you googled my name, this disastrous episode was all over the front page. There was blood, alright. I couldn’t take the chance that potential clients would see these stories and read too fast and never see how well we handled the crisis.

I was very worried that my career was finished till I read an article that blogging can help drive negative news down on Google. Until then I just played around with blogging, but with my financial future at stake, I got serious with my experimentation. Long story short, if you google my name now this negative story is very hard to find.

Here’s why blogs — or rather OUR blogs — work to contain a crises:

Here’s Steve’s companies site, Phenix PR. 

I have another, much closer to home example of how blogging can help address a personal reputation crisis. Our current (for PIER Systems) Senior VP in Washington DC got caught up in a Washington dustup, as they say, and this extensive blogpost by Kami Huyse did more than just about anything to set the record straight.

No, you can’t blog your way out of a crisis. But as anyone knows who has been caught in a major crisis, what happens online matters a lot. What shows up in Google is both an indicator of trouble and trouble itself. Blogging is one absolutely critical way to address the comments, questions and problems head on. Talk directly to those who are trying hard to influence others with their very limited information and perspective. And in the process, help at least balance out the data on the Internet that shows up in Google searches.

Dealing with video–the biggest challenge ahead for crisis communicators

Someone asked the question if videos and their widespread publishing had been as pervasive when George Bush was at Yale as it is now, would he be president? The presumptive answer is no. That he would have been caught in the act and his embarrassment broadcast to the world to such a degree that he would be unelectable.

Well, George escaped those days while he was in college, but we are not escaping the impact of video today. This article from the the IndyStar highlights the dilemma that a great many companies and organizations will face soon if they haven’t already confronted it: unauthorized communication from or about the company over which they have no control and which can quickly and easily be put in the hands of thousands if not millions.

The ubiquity of video creation and instant publication via YouTube or other video sites represents a huge challenge for communicators. Here are my quick suggestions in determining the policies and strategies needed to deal with it.

1) Understand the situation. CEOs and organization leaders absolutely need to know what is going on here. Like the instant news world itself, the growing role of blogs in forming reputations and opinions, leaders cannot lead if they do not know the landscape. This is the fundamental principle of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It is all about intelligence–situational awareness and the smarts to know how to act on it. CEOs today (most in their 50s and 60s) cannot be expected to be conversant in the world of YouTube, Facebook, etc., and that means it in incumbent on todays’ communication managers within an organization to take the lead in providing that intelligence. Tell you the truth, I am a little sick of hearing PR people talking about “getting a seat at the table.” What they need to do is start leading their organization in understanding and adapting to the new world of public information and they will find themselves at the table without even trying.

2) Fight fire with fire. Reputation battles are going to be fought with video and in YouTube (and other sites) land. Know it, believe it. Be prepared to operate there. If you don’t know how to create instant videos and publish them to your sites in minutes or to the video sites, you better learn it and learn it fast. There are a rapidly increasing number of video capture and publishing tools available. One we think is very promising and that our company is working with is called Viditalk (www.Viditalk.com). Check them out.

3) Increase your situational awareness. Media monitoring is much more challenging than it used to be. The reason is the internet of course. Now almost everything that happens either starts here, is focused here or ends here. That is not to say that the mainstream media are not involved, but more and more the stories they cover start on the internet and then they pick them up which then further feeds the internet activity. So your media monitoring now needs to include or even focus on monitoring the internet content. There are a number of companies that are doing a good job of providing this kind of monitoring and some even provide it in one simple package. I just don’t see how any company or organization can operate in this environment without a pretty robust internet monitoring system.

4) Recognize that it is an antagonist world. I will be commenting more on this soon but I received complementary copies of two recent books relating to crisis management (a benefit of blogging!) and while I haven’t read them yet I will and comment on them in this blog. The point is both of them are focused on the antagonist environment we operate in. Why antagonistic? Because of the motives involved. The mainstream media’s overarching motive is to attract and hold an audience–and they do that by entertaining. That is frequently bad news for the people and organizations they cover–just tools in the process of doing their job. Bloggers similarly operate by generating traffic to their sites–controversy, vitriol, exxageration, misinformation, accusations–all play into the game. Activists exist for the purpose of attacking others. Politicians are continually on the lookout for a popular cause of harm being done–real or not–so they can be the white knight riding to the rescue of the victims and victimized public. And perhaps most fearful of all, plaintiff’s attorneys are entrepreneurs whose opportunity to cash in is dependent on finding or making demons out of ordinary companies, organizations and people. I know that is overstating it–but it is a rough, nasty world out there and those engaged in reputation management and crisis management had better understand it.

About the role of blogs in a crisis and technology

At the risk of being circular, I want to point you to two interesting posts at a new emergency managment blog I just discovered (as a result of his comments on my blog). The blog is breakglass.wordpress.com.

First, interesting comments about the need for new and multiple modes of communication from the lessons learned at Virginia Tech. The post is “Technology is not a plan.”

The second is “Reports on the Demise of Blogging are Quite Exagerated.”

Now, I will add this blog to my blogroll.

Blogging still not taken seriously

Of the many lessons learned from participating in a large oil spill drill last week is that many of the world’s top communication professionals do not understand the blog world and do not appreciate its role in the public information environment. Before saying anything that might sound critical of these professionals, let me start by saying the immense respect I have for them and the outstanding professional job they do of open, transparent communication–particularly with the mainstream media.

But, it does seem clear that they continue to live and breathe in a world where the MSM dominates their thinking. There is not the stakeholder first strategy that is frequently discussed here. And there is little understanding of the growing role and importance of blogging in forming public opinion and determining reputation and trust. To wit: the drill exercise did not include any blogging activity as part of the simulation or “injects.” There was no reference to what bloggers might be doing or saying, no consideration of how the communication team would monitor or respond and no understanding of bloggers would be used by the MSM as part of their story development.

In this case, a large oil spill in one of the most pristine and notorious environments in the world, it is my feeling that likely at least 20 bloggers would be posting stories, photos, videos and comments on their blogs starting from the early hours of the event. This information, though understandably from questionable sources, would be used by the MSM to supplement or perhaps even drive their coverage. An oiled bird shown on a blog site could not be distinguished from this event or one that happened in the past. Nor oiled beaches. Information from observation about response activities, injuries and environmental impact could and would be reported by MSM referencing “witness on the scene.” There is no difference in credibility between a witness standing on the shore and one writing in his or her blog.

Yet, when asked about this some of the communicators were very dismissive of blogging. “No one pays any attentions to blogs.” “Everyone understands that blogs can’t be trusted.” “The reporters know better than to use blogs for their stories.” This is what was expressed to me when I questioned the approach. I think they are quite wrong. Bloggers would to a very considerable degree drive a story like this. The voice of the Joint Information Center representing the response team would only be one of many voices that reporters would use to prepare their stories. It is essential that those involved in these kinds of events be able to do real time blog monitoring and have communicators able and ready to review blogs, comment on them, respond quickly on their own websites and communication releases addressing false information, and be able to quickly correct any MSM stories that reflect the misinformation that may be found on blog sites. It is clear after this experience that even some of the world’s best communicators and communication organizations still have a ways to go in understanding just how much and how fast the world of public information is changing.

Government blogging–Houston Metro launches

The Houston Chronicle is reporting that Metropolitan Transit Authority, the public transportation agency of Houston, is launching a blog. George Smalley, the VP for Communications for the agency, and former communications director for Shell Oil is one smart guy, and certainly understands the value of “joining the conversation.”

A blog in this case is particularly appropriate since the agency is in an intense public debate over the development of a light rail line through Houston. Bloggers who are opposed have been having their say for some time and now Metro will be joining in and making certain information is correct, rumors are addressed and the public gets their questions answered.

The Chronicle article indicates that a number of other government agencies are looking to get their own blogs. Great idea. I think they should keep a close eye on what Metro is doing as Smalley and company will no doubt lead the way with appropriate and effective use. (Full disclosure: I think a lot of George because he was one of the pioneer purchasers of PIER, the online communication management technology I created and which is now used by many government agencies (including Metro) as well as leading companies. No wonder I think the guy is smart!)

Best of luck, George with your blog. I’ll be watching.

Bank of America's liability "protection" costs them $14 million and counting

Perhaps you’ve heard the story by now. I heard about yesterday after making a presentation in North Carolina. Clark Howard, the talk show guy who helps everyone save money, had a segment on his show about Michael Shinnick who got arrested by San Francisco police at the behest of Bank of America after trying to cash a check. Shinnick had just confirmed at the BofA branch that the check had funds in it–was proceeds from a bike sale. The police arrested him for trying to pass a bad check and Shinnick had to spend $14,000 of his own money to clear his name, which he did. Bank of America apologized for its stupidity but then added stupidity onto stupidity onto stupidity. They refused his request to cover the costs he incurred to clear his name–citing their liability protection.

The bloggers took it from there and are running wild with it now. (See dvorak.com) It’s all over Digg, etc. But what kicked this anti-BoA backlash into high gear was Clark Howard exposing the mistakes to his nationwide audience. And he suggested that BoA customers withdraw their money from the bank. Well Clark’s head must be swelling because as of 9:30 am CDT on 27th, that count is now up to over $14 million and growing rapidly. There is even a meter on Clark Howard’s website that shows how much has been reportedly withdrawn on a realtime basis.

Howard offered to pay half the man’s legal fees if BoA ponied up the rest, and they refuse. Matter of principle I suppose.

So, crisis managers, how do you handle this one? If this isn’t evidence of the growing power of the blogworld connected to MSM (mainstream media) I don’t know what is. It is a 1 plus 1 equals three equation. Clark alone couldn’t do this. His website helps, but really helps (or hurts depending on your point of view) is the connection with the blogworld that is feeding the flames. Not sure who lit the first spark, but no doubt Howard dumped a gas can on it, but now it is the bloggers and websites feeding the flames. And the meter keeps rising.

Out of curiousity, I just checked the BoA website. Of course, no reference to the Shinnick-Howard situation. Would be crazy I’m sure most people would think. But where is BoA to present their side? Certainly they have a different perspective on this. I suspect they are concerned about the precedent set by not hiding behind their liability protection. And $14 million is just a blink to them. But how big does this have to get before they start talking? And then where do they join in the conversation? Howard is having representatives on his show. Good, but Howard doesn’t like them much right now and is riding a huge wave of power and prestige in bringing them down. So where can they join in the conversation in a more neutral environment?

Anyone have thoughts about this?

Too harsh on Montreal College?

This is in response to a couple of comments on this blog about my harsh judgment about the lack of communication in the early hours after the event by the college administration. I pointed to the lack of participation in news stories and the fact that the website did not have any information about the event–as it turns out probably not for about 30 hours after the event.

The two comments I received are enlightening. One, from what I would say is a member of the public and that commenter, agreed with me. The one who disagreed is from a major university emergency management department. When I make presentations about crisis communications which I do quite frequently one of the main points I make is the gap between public expectations and what those who are responsible for responding think is reasonable. These two comments illustrate this point better than I could.

I have worked with a number of schools and universities on crisis communication issues, including right now helping one of the largest universities in the nation prepare to respond quickly to incidents such as this. It is a daunting challenge. But the reality that has to be faced is that the public and stakeholders such as parents of students, key donors, government officials, etc., expect to hear from the university or school involved in this kind of incident. They expect to hear fast and directly. We live in an instant news world. News helicopters and remote video crews are on scene in minutes. The Coast Guard talks about the Golden Hour. In advising clients, we talk about the first half hour. It is clear that the only way it is possible to respond in a situation like this to meet these ridiculous expectations is to prepare in advance. That’s why my book is titled “Now Is Too Late.” Responding during an event is indeed too late. The response needs to be planned in advance and when it happens, the triggers simply have to be pulled.

There is no question at all, particularly given the complexities of the response as the expert who commented from an emergency management perspective knows very well, that communicating with stakeholders in the first hour after an event is very challenging. But it is necessary. Not because I say so but because the stakeholders have developed that expectation. How? Because the media operates in an instant news manner and the stakeholders understand the capability of internet-based fast, direct communication.

Organizations, including large universities, have significant challenges to communicating with stakeholders in this kind of rapid fashion. But the choice to me seems clear. Either find ways to address those obstacles and get that ability to communicate, or face harsh criticism about the failure to communicate in a way that meets expectations. Not from me, because my view really doesn’t matter. But from stakeholders whose lives are impacted by what happens in the event. It is their expectation and their perception of the institution that determines the long term impact on reputation.

What CEOs know and don't know about crisis management

The Burson-Marsteller research report CEO’s views of crisis management strategies is one of the most interesting documents to come around in a while. Burson-Marsteller Crisis Mgt Study

It is as interesting for what it indicates CEOs don’t know about crisis management as what they do know.  One finding that is very interesting is that it takes 3.2 years for a company to recover from a crisis.  If that isn’t a justification for preparation I don’t know what is–especially when you realize that most crises are “smoldering” in the sense that the reputation damage can be largely averted by dealing with it aggressively early on. Here are a few other key findings about what CEOs think. These are rankings of strategies in order of importance:
— Quickly disclose details of the scandal/misstep (69%)
— Make progress/recovery visible (59%)
— Analyze what went wrong (58%)
— Improve governance structure (38%)
— Make CEO and leadership accessible to the media (34%)
— Fire employees involved in the problem (32%)
— Commit to high corporate citizenship standards (23%)
— Carefully review ethics policies (19%)
— Hire an outside auditor for internal audits (18%)
— Issue an apology from the CEO (18%)

For the most part, it appears that CEOs “get it.” I certainly question why only 18% believe that issuing an apology from the CEO is important–me thinks a blindspot there. But what is truly remarkable and demonstrates a level of ignorance about the instant news world and the importance of the internet for communication these days is this finding:

One of the more surprising findings of the market research conducted by the firm is that only 5
percent of senior executives believe that updating their website can be an effective tool in their crisis
management and corporate reputation turnaround strategy.

I can only conclude from this that either I and a lot of crisis management folks I know don’t get it and place too much importance on using your website for conveying information to the public, or we as an industry have a very very very long ways to go to get the word out to CEOs that their website and all the internet communication technology is critical in emerging from a crisis. Maybe they can even avert some or shorten that recovery time. Seems they’d be interested in the cost savings there.

A blog to feed on

Just want to draw my readers’ attention to a new crisis management blog: crisismanager.wordpress.com. If you are one of thousands already subscribing to Jonathan Bernstein’s long running email newsletter “Crisis Manager” you will know that Jonathan is one of the most recognized names in the crisis management business. And he dispenses crisis management wisdom like few others in this game. OK, I’ll admit, I’m a big admirer of Jonathan and very pleased to be able to work with him on a number of assignments. Please check out his blog and subscribe.

(Of course I’m a little jealous he has 9 comments already on his first posting!)

Iran's President is Blogging

First, here’s the story via Al Jazeera.net. This is amazing–and yet it is not. In my soon to be released book “Now Is Too Late2” the last chapter is titled “The Ultimate Communicator.” It talks about the trend toward the emphasis being placed on the heads of organizations to speak directly to their stakeholders. It is iranic (I mean ironic) that Iran would show more understanding of how important that this in today’s instant news/direct communication world than our leaders. Where is the blog from Michael Chertoff dealing with the latest terrorist threats? Where is the blog from Lord Browne of BP dealing with the pipeline problems in Alaska? And yes, where is our president?

No time for it? How silly is that, when there is plenty of time to prepare for all kinds of press conferences and the like. Why tell your story exclusively through the MSM, mainstream media, when more and more the audiences want and demand that you talk to them direct through the internet. They will catch up, no doubt. But in the meantime, Pres Ahmadinejad (we might learn to spell his name this way) is having his way convincing the blogosphere of the evil intentions of the US administration to him.

More about President Ahmandinejad’s blog once I’ve had a chance to review its 2000 words (yes, he said the next posts would be shorter).