Category Archives: crisis management

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.

The risks of one spokesperson

Tony Jacques, an Australian crisis communication expert, makes some good points in this post about smaller companies facing crises.

I certainly have seen that mid to smaller size companies typically lag in preparation. I think there is a sense that because they are not large they tend to be immune. Only big crises kill big companies, but of course that is not true. While the death of a brand to a reputation crisis may not be big news if it is a small company, to those involved, death is death.

I want to draw attention though to one important point of his blog: the missing spokesperson. Just recently I was in a message planning session with a client and a question came up about what do we say about such and such a situation. The answer from the head came back quickly: you say nothing, refer every question like that to me.

It may seem the safest approach, but often it is not. For a number of reasons, but I’ll focus on the obvious one highlighted by Jacques’ post. What do you do when your one and only authorized spokesperson is out of town, on an airplane, or worse in an airplane that has hit the ground with devastating impact.

In best practice planning, every major leadership position in a response plan has at least three and sometimes four people capable of filling the role. That gets harder with smaller companies, but it remains essential. A company with a dominant leader who has difficulty delegating authority is especially vulnerable in a crisis.

The company Tony refers to may very well have crafted a wonderful statement in response to the negative publicity. Doesn’t matter if when the media calls there is no one authorized to deliver it.

 

 

New study on social media impact on journalism–wanna know why media isn’t trusted?

Oh my, a quick glance at this new study by ING on social media’s impact on journalism very quickly highlights a big reason for public distrust of media.

A key finding: Most journalists say social media content isn’t reliable, but 50% use it as a main source of information. Only 20% check their facts before publishing.

OK, let me see if I understand this. You’re a reporter and you are using Twitter or Facebook as your source for a story. You know/believe that what you are finding on there isn’t reliable. But you rush to publish without checking facts. In fact, you publish first on social media where (60% of you anyway) believe that the same journalistic rules don’t apply.

While the study is Europe-focused and uses a small sample, the findings seem to ring true. Faster, faster with less and less concern about accuracy because, well, it can be corrected later. Professional journalism, rather than combatting the inherent problem with crowd sourcing news, is rapidly adopting the worst aspects of it–in fact amplifying the errors. PR Newser notes that PR folks are finding journalists are checking with them less and less to confirm information. Further, despite the fact that journalists recognize the inherent unreliability of social media content, they report they consider statements about a company on social media more reliable than what the company puts out. Again, that shouldn’t surprise us, but, think about it. A company puts out information knowing it has to be very careful to protect its credibility and the journalists they submit to find whatever any Joe says on social media to be more credible!

What about the future? Those responding to the study fully expect more of the same, and worse. Faster and faster reporting, more reliance by them and the public on crowd-sourced news and social media, less fact checking–and presumably, less trust in corporate communications.

What does this mean? To me (no surprise) it means “you are the broadcaster.” As professional journalism comes to mimic and look more and more like crowd journalism, for companies and organizations the emphasis HAS to be on communicating directly through their own channels. The press release was declared dead a long time ago. Seems to me this study might have just buried it.

 

Seattle City Light SEO-boosting contract ridiculed

Seattle City Light has two significant PR issues going, and this is a case of one plus one equals ugly.

First is the action being considered by Seattle City Council to raise the pay of the CEO of the city-owned utility, Jorge Carrasco, to a max of $364,000. He is already the highest paid city official in Seattle but Council is considering giving him a raise of $60,000 per year.

Second, Seattle Times Columnist Danny Westneat, is having a problem with a $47,000 contract signed by Carrasco with Brand.com to burnish its online reputation. Westneat says the goal of the contract was to “buff up” the eco-credentials of Carrasco and to counter some negative online content about the agency thereby creating better search results.

Westneat has several problems with this: Brand.com apparently offered “doctorate level content” but some of the articles showing up looked to be written by an algorithm rather than a person–although I can see a beginning writer churning out such jargon-laden meaninglessness. The other, of course, is the idea that Carrasco would spend utility-rate-payer-city taxpayer dollars on anything related to burnishing his image.

All of this represents a conundrum to me. Reading Westneat’s column, the entire thing looks ill-conceived, ham-handed and downright foolish. And of course, that is what Westneat wants it to look like. But is it really?

Online reputations are a big issue as we as a society in general turn to the internet and what’s on there to become informed. Nasty reviews or negative articles can take a position in searches not warranted by the organization involved or any action. It’s just that outrage tends to attract attention and the internet seems to be a great place to express outrage. Seattle City Light, like any responsible public or private entity, wants to have an online presence that represents reality and not have searches dominated by a few with gripes. So what do you do? The strategy employed by them of countering the negative with more positive is a common strategy. Others, like those in Europe, have turned to the courts and have successfully forced Google to remove content from its searches that they don’t like. The folks asking for removal are demonstrating why this may not be such a good idea.

Having worked with a major city utility for a number of years (not Seattle City Light) I am well aware of how local reporters and news agencies love to demonize such organizations any chance they get. Reasons are obvious: people need power and if provided by the city they get no choice and it gets tied to every other issue or gripe that people have. That means it is rich fodder for columnists and reporters like Westneat. So let’s recognize that they have a hound in this hunt too, and anything that smells like combating the rather one-handed game they play is something they will attack with vigor.

That being said, it seems if City Light wanted to burnish their online image they should not have considered a contract, and apparently particularly with brand.com. Don’t they have some talented young PR staffers who could do some of this? Aren’t there other ways to improve search results? Or maybe they should do like the guy in Europe who tried to kill his family, and ask Google to take any bad stuff about City Light off the search results.

A dilemma indeed.