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Is your crisis communication plan really digital first?

This post by O’Dwyers announcing that H+K Strategies (formerly Hill & Knowlton) has officially declared that digital public relations and marketing communications is now the backbone to any organization’s communications. O’Dwyers is quite snarky in their comments about this “announcement” by H+K. It’s obvious they say, and that H+K is clearly outdated by even having to tout their digital savvy.

While it is true that some agencies, like Edelman, have long established credibility in digital comms, what O’Dwyer ignores is the fact that most organizations, even some of the most powerful and sophisticated in the world, still do not really get this. Almost any crisis communication plan I look at is still “media first.” That is, the primary focus of the plan is preparing for and delivering info and messages to media outlets.

I have to say I’ve been beating this drum for almost fifteen years now. When I created PIER in late 1999 I was really frustrated that most of my prospects–very smart, experienced communication folks and executives–didn’t really understand why a cloud-based communication management system was necessary. (By the way, PIER is now owned by WittO’Brien’s and I have no involvement.) That’s basically why I wrote Now Is Too Late, because I needed to think through and be able to present the rationale for digital-first communications. I say digital first, but I don’t really mean that. I’ve always believe in stakeholder first, with digital being the unprecedented means to communicate and interact with key stakeholders–those people who hold in their heads perceptions that determine your future.

So, H+K, congrats. Yes, you’re coming a bit late to the party. But its the pioneers who get arrows in their backs (ahem, Edelman and Walmart tour anyone?) And you still have much work to do to convince clients that salvaging a reputation isn’t about handing out press releases to the assembled crowd.

Seattle Pacific University Shooting–and the powerful words of a reluctant hero

I’m a very proud alum of Seattle Pacific University. I’m also a former faculty member and dad of another proud alum–our daughter. So the shooting struck very close to home. I commented on this, from a crisis and emergency communication standpoint over at emergencymgmt.com, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Instead, I just want to amplify the message sent by Jon Meis, the building security monitor who pepper-sprayed the shooter and tackled him when he paused from his rampage to reload his shotgun.

Here is a photo of the young hero.

Screenshot 2014-06-09 14.33.46

I’ve commented here recently about the linkage between crisis response, communications and character. I can say with great gratitude and pride that the character of SPU, which I know well, shined through with power and beauty through this event.

Jon Meis is one example of that character. He represents a student body and community who would understand deeply and share every sentiment he expressed in his remarkable statement. The fact that he is trying to avoid the accolades, attention and even money being thrown at him demonstrates that actions speak louder than words, even the incredibly power words and sentiments he is expressing.

Here is Jon Meis’ statement:

To my brothers and sisters at Seattle Pacific University, and my brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the nation and the world,

Words cannot come close to expressing the tragedy that occurred this past week on our campus. Like everyone else, I would hear of these horrible events on the news, but go home knowing that it could never happen to us. On Thursday, my life changed. I was thrown into a life and death situation, and through God’s grace I was able to stop the attacker and walk away unharmed. As I try to return to a normal life in the aftermath of this horrible event, I pray above all things for strength for the victims and their families. While my experience left me in physical shock, I know that many people are dealing with much greater grief than I have experienced, and in honesty I probably would not be able to handle myself right now if I had personally known the victims.

I know that I am being hailed as a hero, and as many people have suggested I find this hard to accept. I am indeed a quiet and private individual; while I have imagined what it would be like to save a life I never believed I would be put in such a situation. It touches me truly and deeply to read online that parents are telling their children about me and telling them that real heroes do exist.

However, what I find most difficult about this situation is the devastating reality that a hero cannot come without tragedy. In the midst of this attention, we cannot ignore that a life was taken from us, ruthlessly and without justification or cause. Others were badly injured, and many more will carry this event with them the rest of their lives. Nonetheless, I would encourage that hate be met with love. When I came face to face with the attacker, God gave me the eyes to see that he was not a faceless monster, but a very sad and troubled young man. While I cannot at this time find it within me to forgive his crime, I truly desire that he will find the grace of God and the forgiveness of our community.

I would like to truly thank the responders who secured the building and the medical staff who looked after myself and those who were injured. After being in this situation myself, it is even harder to imagine what it would be like to have a job where one’s life is willingly put on the line every day. To our police, emergency responders, and armed forces, you have my greatest respect.

I am overwhelmed with the incredible generosity that has been showered upon me. It has been deeply touching to read the comments online and realize that my actions have had such a strikingly widespread effect. Moving forward, I am strongly requesting that any future donations be given to the victims through Seattle Pacific University.

I am grateful for the prayers and support coming from our home city and afar. In these next few days, weeks, and months, please continue to pray for everyone in the Seattle Pacific community. We serve a truly awesome God and I firmly believe that it is through Him alone that we will find the strength to heal from this tragedy.

Jon Meis, Student, Seattle Pacific University

Tesla provides classic example of how to head off bad news

If I had a top ten list of PR models, it would be Tesla and Elon Musk. He got a bum review in the New York Times and his damage control strategy was to demonstrate that the reviewer was less than honest. I thought no way could he win that battle. He did. The US government, typical of government-by-headline, launched a safety investigation against the cars after a battery fire caused lurid news stories. What did Tesla do? Used the opportunity to make it clear to the world just how safe their cars actually are. Lemons to lemonade. (I blogged on these stories earlier–just enter Tesla in the search on this blog).

Speaking of lemons, a “Lemon Law” lawsuit was about to be filed against them, presumably for failure to address a customers concerns. Do they meekly wait for the news headlines to hit, then say, we are very sorry we failed to meet this customers expectations and will do better next time? Heck no. They scewer the guy and his slime ball attorney (I’m making my judgment on this attorney strictly on the basis of the information provided by Tesla.

I would consider their blogpost on this lawsuit to be a classic in aggressive reputation management. It should be must reading for everyone in PR in my humble opinion. (By way, I just asked my broker to buy some Tesla stock. I like how they operate when facing trouble.)

Chevron’s publication of community news causes a stir

“You are the broadcaster,” or “you are the publisher” has been a favorite theme of mine since 2002 when the first edition of Now Is Too Late was published. It is the recognition that the Internet provides the opportunity for those making the news to go direct to audiences and circumvent (to some degree) the traditional media. Media, after all, are intermediaries, and not always so friendly to those making the news. So, go direct.

Chevron in Richmond, California (near San Francisco) launched a community newspaper called the Richmond Standard. According to Chevron’s PR agency leader, the paper was established to fill a void left by the demise of a local newspaper. However, the launch has created a mini-storm of controversy.

This story in O’Dwyer’s notesMM criticizes Chevron for “continuing a disturbing history of using propaganda disguised as news to promote its corporate efforts.”

Apparently there are a number of other publications in Richmond but they tend toward the “progressive” end of the spectrum. And they don’t like Chevron getting in the publication business one little bit: Andres Soto of the Richmond Progressive Alliance puts it more bluntly. “Richmond Standard is a pseudo online newspaper to try to counteract info that’s coming out in La Voz, the Pulse and the Bay View. It’s part of their mass propaganda campaign to try to influence the democratic process in Richmond.”

Reminds me a lot of my hometown. It had (still has) a number of independent publications that were openly and stridently on the left side of the political divide. Even the daily was seen as left-of-center by a very left-of-center populace. Working with a business-oriented group on the other side, we launched a publication called Better Community Solutions. Holy moly, what a stink that was. The attacks got ridiculously personal even though our approach was positive and non-emotional. Of course, the fact that the funding for our publication came from business interests meant to those attacking it that it was tainted by ugly profits regardless of anything wise we may say.

But the question here isn’t one group or the other wanting to stifle the voice of those holding different views (that’s a big topic in itself.) The question is is Chevron’s move a good idea?

I believe it is. Those opposing Chevron and its refinery in Richmond will object to anything and everything said by the company. A community newspaper could become an important and valuable vehicle as a platform for community discussion on important issues. But the success of this, ironically, depends on Chevron not using it for propaganda purposes, not being overtly or heavy handed in any way in promoting its position on specific issues. You can say, then why do it?

The opportunity was well stated by one resident of the community in this article by newsamerica: “It’s obviously an outlet for Chevron by Chevron, but as long as that’s clear—and I think it is—I don’t see a problem with it.” Hunziker said he sees a need for more balance in the papers currently circulating. Unlike Smith, who sees Chevron as the loudest voice in the room, Hunziker said he feels bombarded by progressive messaging. “Most of the yelling is being done on the far left. I think it’s important that people in the center start standing up.”

Stakeholder engagement is and should be a top priority for almost any organization with public license to operate issues (which means almost everyone). Funding and running a community newspaper is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but may be a valuable part of an engagement strategy mix. It will be interesting to watch how long this paper lasts and how it evolves.

Harvard study says BP’s “greenwashing” paid off

I greatly object to the obvious bias in this report on the value of “greenwashing.”  According to Wikipedia “greenwashing” is “spin” and deception.

The real point and value of this study about the impact of BP’s pre-spill advertising on its sales and reputation after the 2010 Gulf oil spill is that building reputation equity makes a huge difference when you encounter a major crisis. This is an extremely important point. Not because it supports buying expensive advertising, but because it supports the value of working hard to build reputation and trust before an event.

I call it reputation equity and liken it to a bank account. It’s a fund of goodwill and positive perceptions that will be extremely important when/if you ever face a major reputation crisis. In my other blog at emergencymgmt.com, I suggested that my emphasis in 2014 would be building that reputation equity and suggested some ways to start thinking about that. This report provides academic credence to that position and further encouragement to continue to focus on that part of crisis communication.

Crisis communication is primarily about preparation. If you’re not prepared to deal with it and communicate effectively, it’s almost a matter of just stick your head down and ride out the storm or succumb to it (like Freedom Industries in WV). But preparation is not just about putting a good plan together, creating message maps and all that–those are extremely important of course. Preparation is above all , analyzing your risks and redoubling efforts to prevent bad things from happening and then, working hard to build the trust in your key stakeholders that will be essential if/when you do face a problem.

This study doesn’t provide any information on the relationship building with key stakeholders that I think is the core of a reputation equity effort. But it does show that working hard to communicate who you are with the public prior to an event happening can pay off big time when the big event happens.

About “greenwashing.” I can understand why many believe that BP’s ad campaign “Beyond Petroleum” was deceptive. In one way it was. I don’t think it communicated, as I see with other oil companies such as Shell, that alternative and renewable energy sources are one part of the mix and that petroleum would continue to be essential. But I think this is judging the past from the perspective of the present. Even just a few years ago we were facing “peak oil” and renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal were the future. Nuclear was even getting a new look. Then fracking happened, and Fukushima and now nuclear is once again off the table and the US (amazingly) is set to become an energy exporter–at least until the rest of the world starts getting serious about natural gas. When the Beyond Petroleum campaign started I believe it was aspirational and forward thinking telling the world what BP was and that it was going to be about far more than oil. Is that greenwashing? For some, no doubt, but I think the researchers doing this study are showing their bias. It’s noteworthy that their own conclusion is that the government needs to get involved in investigating environmental claims made by companies.

Yeah, right. Because we little people are too stupid to see through the “greenwashing.” Give me a break.

 

Intriguing social media book offered free

“The Age of You” is an analysis of social media and a connected world by Norwegian writer Stein Arne Nistad. I met Mr Nistad when he interviewed me for an article in a oil industry publication. He invited me to review his work pre-publication and I was pleased to offer a comment on it.

This is a fresh and intriguing analysis. Right now, in addition to being available for sale in the traditional channels, it is also being offered as a free download pdf.

I encourage you to have a look–better yet, buy it.

What the Top 10 Crises of 2013 Can Teach us for Tomorrow

What good is history if we refuse to learn from it? Taking a few minutes to look back on crisis communications in 2013, I first wondered if there were any really big things that happened. I mean we didn’t have a Gulf Spill, we didn’t have a tsunami-radiation disaster, we didn’t even have a superstorm–unless you were in the Philippines. Then I saw the Bloomberg list of the top 10 reputation crises of 2013 and had to agree it was indeed a scandalous year.

And there’s my first observation: when high-flying careers (like Paula Deen), impeccable business leaders (like Jamie Dimon) and the world’s most powerful government legislative body (US Congress) have reputation crises at the level we have seen this year, and it doesn’t even seem like any major disasters happened, well, you kind of have to wonder what is going on.

I do wonder what is going on, and what it means for 2014 and beyond. Two things seem certain, but they strike me as a bit contradictory:

1. The screaming will continue.
2. The wise will become innocuous.

Is there any doubt the level of attention-saturation we all experience? We have gained such unimaginable access to information, knowledge, entertainment and experiences through the converging technologies of networks and smart devices. But we have not gained one moment of time. There are still, as far as I know, still 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour. But what we pack into those days and hours in terms of experience, entertainment, knowledge and information has exploded. Don’t you want to shout some time: Stop! Just stop! But we can’t, we don’t, we won’t. The flooding of our senses and mental capacity will continue. More and more studies are making clear that emotion is the key to breaking through the clutter–not reason, not logic, not prosaic facts. The smart ones, meaning those who depend on learning these things for their futures, have figured this out some time ago. Hence the emotion-packed stories that grab us on the news, info sites and YouTube.

We will not see a decrease in the cacophony in 2014. Which means that the emotion-laden screaming will continue and even increase. I include in this screaming the outsized reaction to violations of the most prized cultural values–as seen recently in the Justine Sacco and Phil Robertson stories. Paula Deen herself might be considered part of that screaming. Look back on the crises of 2013. See how many are related to a horrendous howl that some offended soul or group set off, and how the howling mob so quickly formed.

Crisis avoidance for 2014 is about recognizing this screaming mob and the hair-trigger reactions of far too many of us.

And that leads to the championing of the innocuous.

Note this item from Jamie Dimon. The directives are to be very aware of what you write in your emails, and any other form of communication. Now the NSA is monitoring–to what degree who can say. Given the aggressive regulatory actions in some industries, or just the hair-trigger screaming mob, everyone has to be very much aware of problems that can be caused by not thinking through what is said.

It used to be we could say what was on our minds. It used to be politically incorrect comments did minor damage because they were not spread to millions in moments. It used to be people could make crass, coarse, even bigoted jokes without losing everything. It used to be people could be people–the good, the bad, the ugly. Now, there is too much risk, too much exposure. They are still people–they still say stupid, hurtful, offensive things. But now, because of instant amplification, those stupid, hurtful, offensive statements can destroy their lives and billions of other people’s dollars.

So, here comes the innocuous.

Will we look back and see in this the beginning of blandness, of carefully considered conversation where everyone thinks first before saying what they really think? Sure, I’m advising it because it make sense, it’s wise to avoid the career ending tweet or casual comment that can be misquoted or taken out of context or twisted (see what happened to Steve Martin).

While it’s necessary advice, I mourn what has happened to our world. The comments of Sacco were ill-advised to say the least. She was joking. The horrible comments and criticism she received does not seem to be considered ill-advised and they were not joking. The reaction was far more mean-spirited, ugly and hateful than the offense, but where is the backlash against the backlash?

A couple of thousand years ago an angry crowd, reminiscent of today’s digital mob took a woman who had violated the cultural norms and even the law and presented her to a man that many had come to consider a great teacher. The punishment for the woman’s offense was severe–death. Death by stoning. They asked the man what should be done with her. He said: Let those who have never made such mistakes, done foolish things, said things they regret, been hurtful to others–let those throw the first stones at her.

I say to those who crucified Justine and Phil: throw your stones only if you too are without sin.

 

 

Twitter takes one more step toward news

As of now, 2013 we still have an Internet world which includes a social media world, and we have a TV world. Sure, there are crossovers–like Netflix and Hulu and all the stuff that now comes with your Apple TV (enjoyed a terrific documentary last night on the Smithsonian Channel on Apple TV).

Those different worlds are quickly colliding, and Comcast’s announcement of a strategic partnership with Twitter adds momentum to the collision. Starting next month, when you get a Tweet referencing one of Comcast’s NBCUniversal TV shows, a little icon will appear on the bottom that says “See It.” Click on that and you will automatically be taken via your device (presumably smartphone) to the TV show in question.

Sure, right now it is a clever way for Comcast to grab some of Twitter’s users and get them on their shows. But these things are incremental changes that lead to big changes.

Already Twitter is the primary media management tool for crisis communication. Huh? Say what? Yes, Twitter is the number one, most important, most efficient, most effective, best practice way to get important content to the media when it is hitting the fan. Why? If it isn’t obvious to you, one look at Fox News’ new “News Deck” newsroom ought to convince you that Twitter is the most important news gathering device since the notebook was invented (I’m referring to the paper one you digital natives). News starts, grows, expands, amplifies on Twitter. So if you have news, or you want the news first, you need to be on Twitter.

Twitter, starting out as a way for those digital natives to share what Starbucks they happen to be sitting at and what kind of latte they were sipping, has become a most critical news discovery and sharing device. But Twitter is hardly the point. As my good friend and colleague Patrice Cloutier repeatedly points out, it is all about social convergence. That is, the bringing together of powerful mobile devices with powerful sharing technologies with the vast interconnectedness that the world now experiences. Add to that social convergence one more element: TV. It all becomes blurred, mish-mashed. But what emerges is critical clear: news happens at nano-speed and in stunning visuality and comprehensiveness. And that’s exactly what crisis communication needs to be.

UPDATE:

Stormpins, or at least the tweeter for Stormpins, sent me this link following my post here. The recent PEW research on generational differences in news does not bode well for traditional news. All the more reason why the kind of convergence evidenced by this Twitter-Comcast partnership portends the future of news.

How long will it take to get over the press release thing?

Now, I’m not saying press releases are dead. That debate went on several years ago. There’s a time and a place for a press release. But, there’s not much time and place for one in crisis communication. Yet, over and over and over I see plans where everything is focused on getting out a press release. There may be some other things in there, like maybe talking to the community–eventually, maybe even using social media (as long as it doesn’t get ahead of getting out the press release and only if God and everyone below Him/Her approves it).

If you are responsible for your organization’s crisis plan, look at it right now and answer this question straight out: is this focused on the media and getting out press releases or holding press conferences? If so, stuff it in the 1990s files where it belongs and get it updated.

Did the Boston Police hold press conferences during the manhunt? Yep, and some media were there and some of the coverage was carried. But, that was hours after the real story came out and that means hours after much of the media and public interest went away. The media needed those press conference so they could get a little fresh video of the faces involved to add to their story if something new came up. But that’s about it.

So, how was the story told? Two ways: through the rebroadcast to millions of the Boston Police radio chatter. And through the Twitter account of the Boston Police, plus the Twitter feeds of the few hundred bystanders who were reporting what they were seeing during those dramatic moments as the police closed in on the boat where the suspect was hiding. If you weren’t one of the literally millions following these sources directly, then you were one of the millions watching it on TV as the reporters were using these sources to report the news. I was watching Twitter when Deputy Commissioner John Daley tweeted that the suspect was in captivity and the manhunt was over. I waited for about a minute before that tweet was reported on CNN live.

There is still a time and a place for a release–but I would never ever any more call it a press release. Why? Because the media are just one of many important audiences to get it. Call it an information release, or an update, or a situation report, or “Message to All Those Important to Us.” Getting rid of the term press release in your crisis communication plan may be one of the most important things you do because it communicates to one and all–from CEO and Board Chair through all team members–that your job is to communicate to those whose opinion about your organization is most important to the future. That includes the press, but goes far, far beyond it.

Why is this so important? Hey, you live in the age of digital communications and smart phones. Let’s say you invested all of your grandma’s inheritance in XYZ company and you are counting on it for your retirement. You follow its progress as if your future depended on it. You track their Facebook, “like it,” follow their Twitter feed, even take advantage of their interactive website to put in a question or two to their Investor Relations department–which they answer promptly. Then, something goes horribly wrong. Maybe a product safety issue, a recall. Maybe a toxic spill hurting people and the environment. Maybe wrong doing of some senior execs. Panic. What happened? What are they doing about it? How are they protecting your future–you have to know and you have to know now.

So you go to their website. Nothing. You shoot an inquiry into their wonderful interactive Investor Relations website. Nothing. Or worse: they tell you that they are too busy putting a press release together to be able to answer any questions right now. You have no recourse to get the information from the media. It’s all over the place. You check social media but all you see is anti-corporate venom and how XYZ company is now in the Hall of Shame. The media reports are awful, but you are part of the 71% of the American public who believes most of what the media feeds you isn’t exactly the truth. And you think, why on God’s green earth would these smart people trust the media–whose primary job is to attract an audience through fear, doubt and outrage–to tell their story for them? Why, in this age of digital communications, of social media, of Mailchimp for goodness sake, can’t they shoot me an email or put it out on their Twitter account so I know what the heck is going on?

OK, I’m ranting. But I frankly don’t quite get it. From the largest government agencies to most municipal or county emergency management departments, to major utilities and corporations the story is the same: if something goes wrong we have to put out a press release–preferably in the first hour.

Sorry, but if this is your plan, you are going to be disappointed.

Apparently, if you hire a crisis communication expert it’s a sign you’re desperate

I’da thought online media sites like mediabistro wouldn’t typically act like mainstream media editors–but here’s one great example.

Mediabistro’s PRNewser pokes fun of Sony for hiring a crisis communications practitioner as its new head of communications. This makes it an “act of desperation.” Give me a break.

I worked in marketing and PR for probably at least 20 years before I got seriously into crisis communication. Crisis communications is very much like all other communication activities except in at least some cases there is extra seriousness, significance and speed. To me, and I suspect many others like me who have experience in a broad range of communications, crisis communication is attractive because it is exceptionally challenging. Not to everyone, I’m sure.

An emergency room doc is an expert in trauma, but he can still dispense antibiotics if you need them. Seeking out such an expert for wider ranging services does not constitute an act of desperation. Sounds like a smart move to me.