Category Archives: Damage Control

Roger Clemens and the San Francisco Zoo

I’ve been on vacation for a week with my lovely wife in very rainy Palm Springs so hence my hiatus from this blog and also perhaps, hence the strange congruence of Roger Clemens and the San Francisco Zoo. What they have in common is both fighting reputation challenges in a fairly aggressive way.

The zoo of course is facing the issue of a fatal mauling by one of their tigers who escaped its enclosure. They have suggested that the tiger was probably provoked by the actions of the teenagers attacked. This has received a vicious and somewhat predictable response by Mark Geragos, the celebrity defense attorney hired by the families of a couple of the teens. He accused the zoo of blaming the victims.

Clemens, of course, is fighting for his reputation as a result of the Mitchell report on illegal drug use. The evidence against him comes from his trainer. Clemens is vigorously denying any improper drug use and saying anyone who says otherwise is a liar. He has been on 60 minutes, in blogs, major news reports–all over.

Both are what I might call new wave efforts at reputation management–attempts at moving the black hat that has been placed on their heads and doing so by suggesting that the black hat ought to go on someone else’s head. In my book, Now Is Too Late2, I advocate this approach in the most serious and extreme reputation situations. Why wait for the extreme? Because it is highly risky.

Of the two examples, the zoo in my mind has done it better, more tastefully, and with greater credibility. Geragos, for all his supposed brilliance, has only helped publicize the issue and therefore bring to people’s minds the possibility that the boys might have some culpability. And while Geragos is characterizing their effort as outrageous and extreme, the truth is the document he refers to is very quiet and modest in its suggestions–very much unlike Geragos’ accusations against them. And his motive is clear–he would like to assassinate character with impunity while anyone suggesting that they might have the right–even politely–to do the same is met with indignation and outrage. I find that quite entertaining.

On the other hand, Clemens has come out with bombast, righteous indignation and undisputable denials. If he is completely and absolutely 100% innocent and he can demonstrate that with little room for doubt, his demeanor will be seen as appropriate and justified. If not, it is clearly a case of the lady protests too much, plus a complete and utter lack of credibility probably forever. Lying quietly and with dignity is one thing–doing so at the top of one’s lungs is quite another. The flashing eyes of a former president denying his inappropriate behavior with an intern comes to mind. Once you have seen those eyes, it is hard to forget and particularly when such indignation has been demonstrated to be intentionally fabricated.

If you are accused you must defend. That is increasingly clear. And you must do it soon before the lie that is the accusation becomes the truth through incessant repetition. But in your defense you must be absolutely beyond reproach–in what you say as well as how you say it.

OK, a few thoughts about 2008

Like most, I can’t resist doing a little prognostication.

I won’t pretend to be nearly as insightful as some others who have clearly thought about this more than me. Here are Sally Falkow’s thoughts about trends to watch in 2008. 

I don’t look for anything startlingly new. But I do look for a whole lot more of the same and that is very significant. I remember Bill Gates saying a few years ago that when looking at the future in technology, next year won’t seem to change much but when you look back over five years, you see massive change. I think in 2008 the basic trends that are currently underway will deepen considerably, and those really add up to very significant facts of life for those involved in public relations and crisis communication.

Authenticity–last year I declared 2007 the year of authenticity, and we have seen many of the battles around reputation and crises relating to whether or not a person or organization can be trusted. In numerous conversations I had in 2007 with communicators it became clear to me that while communicators are struggling with this, their bosses, the senior execs of major organizations are not yet anywhere close to understanding what this instant news, everybody has a right to know everything all the time world we live in really means to them. I think many more will come to understand the basic rules of credibility, openness, honest and transparency in 2008 and that therefore this movement will accelerate. But, most will continue to pretend that the old ways and old rules apply. So, many if not most of the crisis communication challenges faced by professionals in 2008 will center around the resistance in their organizations to be authentic.

Wired–I just got an iphone. For one reason, the technology that we provide can largely be run by this kind of mobile device, and what can’t be, we will address. The point is that the wireless world we live in further accelerates the need for speed and the opportunity that speed brings. So, the instant news world continues to accelerate and the ability that communicators have to deal with also increases. If you are not getting yourself thoroughly mobilized, you may find yourself bogged down in a too little too late world.

Media madness–Falkow’s post includes an interesting article by Jeff Jarvis on the continuing decline of mainstream media ad base. This will accelerate without yet any clear answer to how the giants with billions invested can remain vital in a world based on smallness, directness, and minimal cost. Many won’t. Yet I think new models of journalism, information processing, credibility proving will emerge. Because as mainstream media gets more and more crazy with their coverage in efforts to build and hold declining audiences, the need for people to find those sources they can trust will also accelerate.

Video–again, a trend well underway. Virtually everyone in communications has a long way to go to really adopt video as a key component of almost all communications. But it will happen. I think in 2008 we will see huge growth in the use of video and major new technologies to make it easier and ubiquitous.

Collaboration–not a new trend, but a much greater deepening of a trend already underway. “Plays well with others” has become essential in technology these days. Software has to collaborate with other software as it follows the need for dispersed people, teams, groups to work together. We are more and more involved with something called “interagency interoperability” because of the work we do in local, state and federal government emergency communication. This means that people from different agencies who are used to throwing stones at each other are being forced to cooperate and collaborate. The technology they use needs to support that collaboration, but more than that, the way they are trained, the expectations built, the common processes and procedures, and personal attitudes all need to support this collaboration.

Communication technology–OK, this is close to home since I am in the business of supplying web-based communication management technology. But it is now well known that communicators tend to be technophobes–at least us older ones. That can no longer work. Message development, strategy, etc., now need to go hand in hand with how those messages are delivered. Part of this is the growing realization that we live in a post media world. I’ve been saying this for eight years now, and I continue to be amazed at how the thinking at even the top levels of government and large organizations demonstrates that this idea is yet to be adopted and understood. Communication today is about fast delivery of information to audiences as directly as possible and that is about technology. Communication today is more and more about interaction–one on one, groups to groups, many to many–all of which depends on technology. So, if you are one who puts your keyboard up on top of your desktop so you can make room for real work, be prepared to be trampled. The world of communication is more and more the world of communication technology.

Rackspace does more than hosting right, they do crisis communication right too

After a pretty extensive search, our Director of Technology Cameron recommended that we move our clients to Rackspace, a premier hosting provider. Their “fanatical” service doesn’t come cheap, but we weren’t looking for cheap when our clients depend on us for incredibly reliability and service. We believed they would provide that kind of reliability. Imagine then how I felt when I found that shortly before we cut over to Rackspace, they have a serious outage that affects a whole lot of their customers–others like us who place a premium on reliable service. In a vacuum of information, it is hard to understand how a top-quality hosting provider could actually go down for as long as they were.

But, there is no vacuum of information. Here is their communication with the customers. In tone, in depth, in quality of response, in all respects it is what I would expect and want from a company I need to trust. Good job Rackspace.

More bad news about Continental–mother and child get booted

First it was the infamous “poo” flight with victims displaying their outrage about how they were treated on the Continental trans-Atlantic flight with the bathroom backed up and human waste flowing into the aisles. I was sympathetic to the airline then, talking about how the media were falling all over themselves to get the victims on camera to talk about how horrible this was.

Last night on the local tv news show, another story involving Continental, another victim making accusations certain to generate outrage among the public and potential flyers, and another black eye for Continental. Now, I imagine most of us have been on flights with out of control children and completely out of touch parents and we wish a flight attendant or flight crew would care a little more for the comfort of the rest of the passengers and take some action. It never happens. But in this case, if you listen to the mother, the child only said three words and the mother and baby were booted before the plane took off. I find that hard to believe, but there she is, a nice looking young mother with a beautiful child making accusations that are certain to diminish years of brand building by this company. And no response by the airline other than “we are investigating the incident.”

That’s what gets me about this kind of news coverage and this kind of company response. I want to cheer for the airline because the media loves this kind of gotcha story, but I get frustrated when the PR departments and senior leadership do so little to protect themselves against this kind of damaging onslaught. Much better was American Airlines response when they were accused of racial profiling in the months after 9/11 when a Secret Service agent was kicked off a flight. In that case, they wasted little time in explaining that he was carrying a gun, would not produce identification, was angry and abusive. The issue immediately went away because in such circumstances, who could blame a crew for taking protective action.

Eric Dezenhall in his new book “Damage Control” (I still have to read it) takes the position that typical crisis response is far too namby pamby. I think he is right about this. More important, it is far too slow. Of course, there is no mention of the news story on the Continental website–but where are they going to tell their side of the story. I want badly to hear that this woman has significantly mis-communicated about the circumstances. I want to hear another side. But nothing. So, despite my pro-company/anti-gotcha journalism position, Continental fails. Guilty as charged. I’ll think twice about booking a flight on that airline when another one will get me where I want to go.