Category Archives: Crisis Communications

Is news now conversation?

I had an interesting conversation/interview with David Bain of Digital Marketing Radio–the podcast available here.  As you learn in media training, you are never sure the “sound bite” the interviewer will use. You can talk for an hour, but find one comment gets highlighted.

In this case, I have no complaints. I was uneasy talking about digital marketing as I am far from an expert on all things SEO, social media for promotion, so-called “content marketing” and all that. Folks will laugh when I say my favorite digital marketing tool is a blog–I’m so 2005.

However, giving credit where credit is due, the thought of news as conversation came from son Geoff, busy developing a “conversation management” tool. It wasn’t the first I heard of this concept, but maybe first time I really pondered it.

It’s true I think. We live in a global water cooler. Someone with something interesting to say, or some first hand view of a high interest topic (such as plane crash or police victim) starts the conversation, sharing what they know or simply their thoughts. (Amazing how often their thoughts consist of little more than four letters, starting with an f.) That is just the start. Folks around the water cooler start to chatter. They get loud, that draws more folks. Everyone’s got an opinion, even if it is just to twitter on about what someone else has said. Someone listening in has a loudspeaker. They get on that and soon a much bigger crowd has gathered. The noise is deafening. Some of it good and important stuff, mostly just chatter, repeats, or more f words. And so it goes…

The conversation goes on until people tire of it (quickly it seems) or there is another conversation of higher interest on a nearby water cooler. We hear a loudspeaker going off next to another water cooler and get drawn there. We look around and there are all kinds of water coolers many of them filled with noisy people.

So, sometimes you just want to shut it off, go find a quiet corner in Starbucks and have a grande. But, no, that’s another water cooler.

 

The biggest crisis comm obstacle: high level ignorance

There are a great many challenges to overcome to prepare a sizable organization for crises, emergencies or reputation disasters. But one seems nearly intractable: the ignorance of those in high places. The very ones who will make the big decisions when push comes to shove. The lawyers, the CEOs, the regional execs, the Incident Commanders, the chiefs, the directors, the presidents.

If the ones who call the shots during a response do not understand the water they are swimming in, the effort is doomed–despite all the preparation that communication and public relations leaders may put in place.

A week or so ago I had the privilege of presenting to the Washington State Sheriffs and Police Chief’s association training meeting. Chief Bill Boyd and I were to give a four hour presentation to these law enforcement leaders. Bill did the bulk of the work on the presentation, but had a medical emergency and couldn’t present with me. One item he had gathered for this really hit me–and those present. The Boston Police radio message from the Incident Commander on the scene just after the bombing occurred included the calm but clearly adrenalin-filled IC’s details on what actions the police on the scene were taking. Then he said, “And I need someone to get on social media and tell everyone what we are doing.” That’s correct. One of the top priorities of this Commander was to inform the public of police actions and the way to do that he knew was through the agencies social media channels.

The fact that this is a police agency who gets it at the highest level was made clear by the incredibly effective use of Twitter Boston Police made during the subsequent manhunt. The video I prepared called NanoNews presents their success and the surprising reason behind it.

Despite an understandable reluctance to dive headfirst into digital communications, I was very pleased to see the effective use of these tools by many law enforcement agencies in Washington State. And was thrilled that about five or six chiefs signed up for Twitter during the training and several came up and said, proudly, “I just did my first tweet!”

The last couple of days I’ve had the opportunity to present virtually to a number of communication leaders around the globe. I was struck again by the savvy of these communication leaders about the challenges they face, a savviness these seems far too often missing from those above them. Global communicators face many or most of the same problem as those in North America, but the good old USA seems to have an extra burden: lawyers. I was pleased to learn that lawyers in at least some other countries seem to have a far better understanding of the need for communicators to get information out fast and consequently willingness to allow some freedom and trust. In the US, this seems to be far less likely.

The issue of gaining senior leadership’s understanding of the need for speed, for freedom to use the channels that today’s media and audiences are demanding, was brought to light in one discussion. A major event that happened in one country demonstrated to the lawyers, Incident Commanders and senior leaders what happens when communication is not allowed to flow. Social media became filled with a narrative negative to the responders. That story was never challenged by those responding. The senior leaders asked: why are they allowing this happen?

Bingo. Lights went on.

There are many who will disagree with me on this one, but I deeply believe the great tragedy in this country called Ferguson is above all the tragic consequence of a failure to communicate. And that is no doubt because of the ignorance of the senior police leaders in Ferguson. An ignorance of the news environment they live in, an ignorance of their own community and the sensitivities and need for information. The narrative of the shooting of the young African-American man was seized by those who witnessed it and saw what they saw. Others, who testified in the grand jury, saw things quite differently. But it was only one story that was told, one story that was believed, one story that drove the community to take action.

I don’t presume to know the truth, the full story. But I do know that when untruths are repeated often enough, retweeted enough, network-effected enough, they become the truth. Failure to counter at least to indicate that things are not always what they seem, can be disastrous.

Would the world we live in today be a little different if the Ferguson police leaders understood the world we live in today? I think so.

 

Uber’s “God View” shows more power means more responsibility

In case you haven’t seen, Uber, the controversial (for taxi companies anyway) new contract ride service, is in trouble. Seems they have a way of knowing where everyone who uses their service goes. It’s available to those inside the company. It’s called “God View.”

Obviously there is considerable power in having such a God view. As Lord Acton reminded us, there is a corrupting power related to power. All it would take would be for someone not using their head to use it for bad reasons. Buzzfeed broke a story about the New York executive for Uber using the God View to track the movements of a reporter and others. One other executive said that Uber might use the tracking information to smear reporters who wrote critically of the company. He, of course, apologized and admitted saying that was “wrong.”

Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking to a group of almost 200 Sheriff’s and police chiefs. Big data is getting to be big news, big opportunities, with big concern. There is no question that big data which is now being made available to law enforcement to provide “threat scores” including any questionable or threatening social media post, will be an important enhancement to law enforcement. But, given revelations like the NSA activity and the increasing awareness of the loss of anonymity, a backlash against big data and its use is already evident. No doubt, it will grow.

Companies like Apple, Google–even Uber–are amassing personal data of amazing detail and complexity. We need companies and executives who commit to “do no evil” as Google famously has done. More than that, we need leaders who don’t just say it, but do it.

There will be legislation–as so many seem to think rules fix all problems. Legislation alone won’t. We need people and leaders to understand the corrupting nature of power and have the moral strength to resist. When they don’t, as with these Uber folks, the public reaction should be swift and decisive.

I’m thinking that Uber’s reaction of now publishing its privacy policy is far too little and too late. It should have revealed the existence of God View earlier. It should severely limit the people who have access to it rather than making so widely available in the company. It should have a strict policy for when God View would be used and publicly disclose that. It should have an outside, respected panel responsible for approving any use of it. Overkill? Maybe, but if not the result may be market kill. Any more such revelation of abuse of God View may seriously damage rider’s willingness to use Uber. Suddenly, taking a taxi for many looks like a safer bet.

Tim Cook, Ted Bishop, the invisible Ebola czar and other random thoughts

Lots going on in our world of crisis communication, but as I’ve been busting it getting a big project done for a client (series of 18 training videos on global crisis communication), I haven’t had much time to comment, let alone think about some of these things.

Ted Bishop, former president of PGA. He was stripped of his job, his title and all the privileges (considerable) of being a former president of the Professional Golf Association. He must have really, really screwed up. Well, yeah. He tweeted a somewhat thoughtless comment. Jumping into the post Ryder Cup discussion, he derided Brit golfer Ian Poulter who derided commentator Nick Faldo who had criticized Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia. What was his so highly offensive tweet? He called Poulter a “lil girl.” Ouch!

Obviously a good lesson here: think before you tweet. Another lesson: outgoing presidents probably shouldn’t tweet at all. Another lesson: opinions of any kind need to withstand the ire of the lowest common denominator hyper-sensitive among us. What do I think of this? This is a microcosm of what is happening in our world–and I find it disgusting. The level of what is acceptable and unacceptable is getting so ridiculously low (except for rude, lewd, and nasty language which seems to be almost universally acceptable) such that freedom of expression is being killed in the court of public opinion. Should he have said it? Probably not. Did the PGA–and the media who are all over this as indication of the “diversity problem” in the PGA–over react? Well, you know my opinion by now.

Tim Cook? Big headlines, all over the news, Mr. Cook comes out of the closet. Nieman Labs is among those saying what a glorious moment this is in journalistic history. Yet, they raise an important point. Wasn’t this known a long time ago? I doubt that Cook’s coming out was a big surprise to most in the tech world. And for that matter, most of the Apple community. Which brings up the point, when is news news? Apparently only when the major news media decide its news. Not really. This was non-news as well known as it was and yet there are so many pretending that it is news. Which means of course, that while a great many leaders still think about PR as “managing the media” there is very little management left. The conversation about Cook and what it means for the CEO of one of the most important and powerful companies in the world to be gay has been going on for a long time. It’s nice to have Mr. Cook join the conversation finally.

The Ebola “czar” and bungled crisis communication. Had a chance to discuss this briefly with my friend and social media expert Patrice Cloutier. Patrice, Bill Boyd and I collaborated on a project a couple of years ago with a major municipal public health agency helping them train staff and operationalize social media monitoring.

Now the media stories are filled with how confusing and contradictory the various messages about Ebola are. Well, of course, the media’s got to write something that will get people fired up. But, they are making an important point. When the fears first started hitting the US, particularly with Dallas, the CDC’s Tom Frieden was the face of the CDC and de facto face of the federal government and the health community. Yes, there were some glitches, but overall he was effective and we knew where we could go with the best available information.

Here comes this administration, obviously feeling the pressure. Like he did in the gulf oil spill, Obama took control of communications and since then it has gone to heck. Like it did in the spill. He dismantled the Joint Information Center operation, put twenty-something White House operatives in charge of communications and required that the several hundred highly experienced communication experts sit around while the WH had to approve and politicize all the information coming out of the spill. How do I know? I was there. While he used every opportunity he could to kick BP’s “behind,” it became clear that while the government was posturing, it was up to the company and its experts to put an end to the endless gushing. Did public trust in government go up as a result? No, and just when it was most needed.

The CDC is the nation’s best resource in a situation like this. He stripped them of their voice and credibility just when it was most needed. (I almost laughed out loud when I saw that CDC announced a rapid reaction team and the next day the news report that said Obama ordered the CDC to put in place a rapid reaction team. Shades of the spill communications all over again (remember the ridiculous posturing around dispersants?)

So he does he have for the face of Ebola? An appartchik as someone has said. Admittedly, Ron Klain is not twenty-something, but what are his credentials compared to a Dr. Frieden, or almost anyone from the CDC? And, where the heck is he? For being asked to be the face it seems all anyone has seen is his backside. As Krauthammer said, he is in self-quarantine.

Ok, I’m being curmudgeonly and overly harsh. I’m sure the PGA, journalists covering the Cook story, and Mr. Obama and Mr. Klain are all doing their very best. But, we have to take our lessons where we can.

And today’s lessons:

1. Come on people, let’s not overreact to one little questionable comment on Twitter and ruin a guys life over it.

2. Be careful what you tweet–don’t call big time golfers lil girls.

3. We live in a hypersensitive environment, one in which there are a great many who stand to gain from fanning the tiniest spark into a giant firestorm. (Makes you want to just buy a small farm and move out into the country, doesn’t it?)

4. In a crisis, especially a crisis characterized by irrational fears fanned by the flames of media trying to buy eyes, a calm, consistent, credible voice and message are essential. (And Mr. President, it doesn’t have to be you in every case.) If I get one wish from this is that the CDC and not the White House communications operation, will once again become the voice of best available information on Ebola and any future health crisis.

The $25 billion (probably) avoidable crisis

Like most crisis observers (pundits) I didn’t really think of the PIMCO problem as a crisis. I was a little more interested in its affect on my portfolio. But the financial services firm has seen an outflow of investor dollars of $25 billion since the crisis hit in September.

What would cause investors to pull $25 billion in invested funds? Would seem a cataclysmic event. Indeed, it was. PIMCO founder and investment manager Bill Gross left to join a competitive firm, Janus. Since then, the fund Gross is now managing jumped $66 million in September.

PIMCO is clearly fighting for its life with new announcements daily of major investors pulling out. This is a crisis.

The key questions are: what caused it and could it have been avoided. Knowing as I do that the way things look inside is always a lot different from outside, I should hesitate to jump in. But, I haven’t before.

The crisis was caused by Bill Gross leaving. It could have been avoided by:

1) keeping him from leaving

2) keeping him (or any other single individual) from building an individual brand and reputation separate from the organization brand and reputation

3) managing the departure better

After reading the Wall Street Journal report detailing his departure it is very clear that him leaving was no great surprise. He apparently isn’t the nicest man in the world, or his co-workers didn’t have the awe and respect for him that investors apparently do. So if things were going sour, how could it possibly be that he left with so little preparation and with such devastating results?

There are so many powerful lessons in this event that I’m sure there will be books coming out. As crisis pundits we tend to look at the cyber breaches, the active shooter incidents, even tornadoes and earthquakes to prepare for. In the world most of our clients live in, things like key people leaving are real world crises that cause worry and possibly devastating results. I know I am learning from this to include key departures on almost any list of risks to evaluate and prioritize. One of the greatest benefits of risk analysis and prioritization is to say: if this thing could kill us, what are we doing today to make sure it doesn’t happen. Good crisis preparation results in best crisis prevention.

So, have a look right now. Do you have superstars in your organization? The key question is–where do the essential relationships lie? For PIMCO, it was clear they were with Mr. Gross–and that meant the entire organization was very vulnerable. Steps can be taken right now to 1) make sure the superstars stay 2) spread the key relationships around other leaders 3) if a superstar is getting antsy, don’t wait until he/she jumps ship to try to rescue the relationships. Attack their antsyness, or prepare your customers right now for their potential departure.

 

BuyPartisan app and the risk for reputation damage

It’s getting more common for businesses and organizations to get in hot water with consumers by taking positions on hot political-social issues.  Komen Foundation stumbled on funding for Planned Parenthood related to abortion, Chick-fil-A for comments made by its CEO against gay marriage. More recently Panera, Target and Chipotle made news by asking customers not to take guns into their stores, thereby jumping somewhat into the Second Amendment debate.

Most companies and organizations have attempted to tread lightly on controversial political and social issues because of the natural desire to sell products or services rather than sell a position. If they have been involved in political activity it is as quietly and discreetly as they can. Now BuyPartisan is making that almost impossible.

The app is simple: scan the barcode of a product you are considering and the app will tell you who owns it and the political inclinations of the makers based on their political contributions. Starbucks (no surprise to us who live in or near liberal Seattle) gives over 80% of its contributions to Dems. As Stephen Colbert demonstrated on his show General Mills leans Republican (understandable he says since its run by a General), and Kelloggs is balanced.

Transparency is a great thing and I’ve been and continue to be an optimist about the longterm value that increased transparency is bringing to our lives. But transparency combined with the excessive partisanship, toxic talk, abusive disrespect and lack of willingness to even listen to the other side represents a worry to me. Boycotts against companies or organizations can operate with unprecedented speed and power due to the internet and social media. Often these are based on completely false bases as one boycott I have been somewhat involved in demonstrates.

I point out the BuyPartisan app as a sign of our times and a new risk of reputation problems to companies. If your organization contributes to political candidates or causes or has owners, senior managers who do, I would urge you to add a backlash against such contributions to your risk analysis. It’s something else to prepare for.

The real consequence of this will not be more reputation crises. It will be the decline of willingness of companies and leaders to participate in our nation’s leadership through political activity. If I was a comms director for a company right now, I would hope the record of the company and its leaders is one of giving equally to both sides. The pressure will be on to give with an eye to what the crazies on either side will do with the information. Here is where transparency, due to hyperpartisanship, is hurting us.

And that’s too bad. Transparency isn’t the problem. The hatred, disrespect and animosity to those with whom we disagree is.

 

Fake spokespersons find it easy to prank the media

As if crisis and emergency communicators don’t have enough to worry about. In today’s instant news world, without the care journalists once showed to get it right, it’s becoming increasingly common for fake spokespersons to prank the media.

Imagine the nightmare–your organization is in the middle of a major news crisis. While you are working hard to get your authorized spokesperson prepared to go live on national or regional TV, your TV monitor shows a live report going on with someone posing as a spokesperson for your organization.

Think it won’t happen?

1. Asiana Airlines accident: A “trusted source” provided Fox affiliate  KTVU a list of names of pilots on the plane which crashed short of San Francisco’s airport. The names included Captain Sum Ting Wong, and Wi Tu Lo–among others. The names were read on the air by the news anchor.

2. LADWP water main break near UCLA. A fake spokesperson for the LA City water department carefully explained to the LA ABC News affiliate that the huge break was caused by someone throwing a cherry bomb into the toilet, or taking a really big dump. The live anchors were somehow not alerted by the name of the spokesperson: Louis SlungPue.

3. Napa earthquake. Blog reader Larissa sent this link to a CNN Anchor getting pranked by a fake police department PIO by the name of Adam Sure. His explanation for the cause of the quake related to Howard Stern’s backside tipped them off.

The Gawker article references other times that live news reporters got pranked by calls including posing as eye witnesses to the Malaysia Airlines crash.

This trend may have been sparked by the outrageous success of the fake BP PR twitter account that became a big hit during the 2010 oil spill. Here’s a list of the funniest lines from this fake account.

And that’s the good news. Folks like “Adam Sure” and “Louis Slung Pue” are pranking the media for the fun of it and to see if it can be done. Their intention is the challenge and the humor of it. Once they deliver their punch lines and reveal themselves, the game is up.

But, what if someone posed as an authorized spokesperson for the police or emergency management or your company with the intention of doing harm to you or the public? What if they provided plausible advice that would be dangerous? What if someone posing as a power utility spokesperson said under the circumstances given the wide-spread outage and extreme cold it is advisable for people to use their barbecues inside for heating? What if someone posing as a spokesperson for a manufacturing company with product safety concerns in the news announces incorrectly a global recall of all 10 million products and consumers should return them to their stores?

The above examples should provide enough indication that given the lack of care and editorial caution demonstrated by the media, plus their obvious gullibility, that such scenarios are not beyond the realm of possibility.

What can you do?

1. Make sure your local news outlets know you well and have a list of your authorized spokespersons. Send them this blog or the examples I provided and let them know, that while you trust they would show more caution than these examples illustrate, you want to help make sure that they don’t end up on YouTube as the next victim.

2. Include fake spokespersons and fake Twitter or Facebook pages in your list of crisis scenarios. They are secondary crisis–an often ignored category of crisis events that pile on the initial crisis. Know what you will do in advance. What will your organization do if confronted with a BPGlobalPR twitter account? Sue? Threaten legal action? Ignore? Plead with them to stop? Think it through and establish a policy and strategy so you don’t have to be chewing up precious time in the middle of a crisis trying to figure out this one. Same with fake spokespersons. Have a statement in hand ready to put on your website alerting folks to the fake announcement.

3. Add a Fact Check section on your news website–now. Don’t wait for false reports. Best practice today, I’m convinced, is to be quick to accurately correct the record when the news channels, blogs, social media or others get the facts wrong–by error or intention. However, be very careful! Don’t do like this police agency and wrongly attribute the social media report of an offensive bumper sticker on a patrol car to the person sending out the picture. Make sure you get your facts right the first time when correcting someone else’s mistake!

 

Maneuvering in the age of hypersensitivity–thoughts on Edelman and others

What will be the impact of trying to communicate in a hyper-sensitive world? Will communications from companies, organizations and individuals become so cautious, so lowest common denominator that we will lose the vitality of honest expression and open debate?

That’s the question that comes to me as I read about the firestorm around Edelman’s post following the suicide of Robin Williams. How can such a thing create such protest? Can anyone say anything without ticking someone off enough to light the fire?

The fact is we are more connected to anyone and everyone than ever. The power of the word–written or spoken–increases with the exposure and the network effect dramatically increases the exposure. So, certainly there is greater opportunity than ever to find someone who doesn’t like what we say. And they also have the power of the network effect. Add to that the natural attraction we all have to expressed rage (note today’s media) and the advantage goes to those most p-d off.

The trouble with this is in part made clear by PR Weeks blogger, Steve Barrett, who in the article on Edelman’s blog, raises the question about whether PR companies should work for big oil, big pharma or big finance. Give me a break!

Sure, there are a lot of people out there, particularly the digital mob, who hate nearly everything big and powerful and who would love to see a world without big oil, big pharma and big finance. They don’t give a thought how’d they’d keep the lights on or power to the socket that juices up their smartphones that enables them to express rage against the ones providing that power. And when they get sick and really need that pill, seems they don’t think to evaluate their narrow-minded perspective. These may not be the folks who when their start-up gets going need some serious underwriting, so they can be free to trash big finance.

The fact is all these evil biggies contribute significantly to our world even while their reputations seem to continually decline. Barrett points out that big oil represents as much as 15% of PR spending. I got to say, what is this buying them? If ever big oil and other biggies needed great PR its now. Instead in a publication like PR Week we have the question whether it is wise, or presumably ethical, for a PR firm to even work for them.

It’s my hope the fear of offending doesn’t stop companies and people from speaking out. Next time Edelman’s senior staff thinks about a blog post, and anyone else watching this issue, they will no doubt ask themselves: who will this tick off? Chances are they will work to not be offensive. After all, who needs this kind of trouble. They may even decide not to blog at all on this important topic of mental illness and suicide. And that is not a good thing.

Hooray for those not cowed by the digital mob and their hypersensitivity.

 

What are you doing to train staff and employees of your crisis plan?

A client asked for help in training their construction company employees of their crisis management plan. There were several reasons:
1. To let them know and assure them that the leadership of the company was preparing for all eventualities
2. To help them understand what is needed to protect the company’s future in a crisis so they can understand and support the effort if they are not actively involved.
3. To serve as introductory training for those who may be asked to be trained for specific roles such as in operations, planning, information gathering, distribution, etc.

To assist them with this I created a ten minute video which details the crisis management organization structure, the kind of training key managers were getting to fill their roles, and the priorities of the company in responding: taking the right actions and communicating them well.  At the end of the video the employees are asked to take an online test which will verify that they have indeed watched it and understood the content. Taking this test will be required.

Going through this process got me thinking about the ways companies and organizations are going about training both those who will participate and the employees in general.  I know that training is a big issue for a lot of companies, and I am deep into a video training series for a global oil company that provides details on every role in the crisis communication structure. It is designed for a global audience and should help reduce significantly the costs associated with regular training involving travel, classroom time. I’ve come to be strong believer in the future of video and online training and have learned a lot in the process. For example, keep the videos short (4-6 minutes) and follow up each video with a short online test to solidify the content. Interaction with others going through the content is also important which is why I fully support some level of group training even if using online methods.

I’m very interested in hearing from any of you about what you are doing to bring your team and your organization’s employees up to speed on crisis plans. And if you would like to have a look at any of these training videos being done for clients, with their permission, I’ll share a bit of that with you. Just email me at gerald.baron@agincourt.us and we’ll set up a time to review.

 

Advice to CEOs: Don’t turn your PR over to lawyers

In most crisis situations it is absolutely essential for attorneys and PR experts to work well together. Indeed, in working on plans for organizations I always ask about who their attorney is, whether or not he/she will review releases, and if they are participating in any drills or exercises. In the majority of events I have been involved in I have worked with some outstanding attorneys who understood and appreciated the nature of the partnership and the reality of the court of law versus the court of public opinion.

But there are two situations where I was involved that stand out in my mind where the CEO deferred all PR judgment to attorneys. That was a big mistake. One was because the company involved was a small subsidiary of a much larger company and the CEO of the subsidiary running the crisis believed that his future was more secure if he deferred to the attorneys (corporate attorneys from the head office). That was understandable, if mistaken. (The subsidiary company went bankrupt.)

The other was because the attorney demanded it. Again, there are reasons from the legal perspective. What is said publicly often impacts court action. The legal challenges may very well affect the viability of the business. However, an attorney who demands full control over PR should be a major warning sign and give any organization leader pause.

The issue always is what is in the best interest of the business or organization. Sometimes, no doubt, the legal challenges take precedence. Sometimes, as was the case with Arthur Andersen, you could win the legal battle but lose the company before you even have a chance to go to court. Only the CEO can determine what is in the best long and short term interest of the business.

Our court system is based on the idea that truth will emerge with aggressive representation of both the plaintiff and defendant. Two different views of events are needed and ideally are presented with equal skill. That is the ideal situation in a crisis that involves legal issues–there should be a strong voice advocating for what is best to win in the court of law, and one that advocates with equal ability for winning in the court of public opinion.

To place an attorney whose job it is to represent you in court in the role of deciding what is in the best interest of the company puts that attorney in a conflict situation. Any attorney who demands it should be released. Any CEO who so defers has signaled that he/she does not have the capability of determining the best interest of the company.