Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

 

 

Bezos Buys the Post–the Amazoning of News?

Lots of folks are weighing in on Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s founder and 25Bn rich guy) buying the Washington Post. I’m reading the comments on the Washington Post feed–fascinating.

There seems to a sense of dawning of a new day of journalism in a lot of the comments. Almost a sense of relief that maybe there is hope for journalism yet. That if anyone can see how to make journalism work in a time of social network, crowd-sourced news and nano news, it is someone like Jeff Bezos.

I like this comment from Matthew Ingram of GigaOm: “The next few years could be a fascinating time to be in the newspaper business, if only to watch someone like Bezos remake it from the inside out.”

And of course there are the skeptics who ask what any tech guy, no matter how smart, might know about real journalism.

If it indeed does happen as many expect that Bezos will take a creative new approach emphasizing high volume, low margins, attracting lots of customers without as much regard for margin as typical (he more or less invented the attract a crowd and figure out how to get them to pay later model), if indeed he Amazonizes the Post and from that the news business, then this day will be seen as momentous in journalism history. I somewhat suspect he will. But, my guess, unlike many of those so dedicated to “journalism” as in “traditional journalism done only by professionals” is that he will find a way to harness the power of crowd sourcing. No doubt there will continue to be those who can make a living providing other people the information they are looking for. Some may even be considered and called journalists. But the future of news is harnessing and leveraging the vast information sharing that is going on right now and that will only continue.

How Bezos will make that a profitable venture in the very heart of traditional journalism will be fascinating to watch. Over course, I could be completely wrong. Maybe he’s tired of revolutionizing the world. Maybe he just thought: Hmmm, I got an extra $250 million burning a hole in my pocket. Should I buy a sports team like my buddy Howard Shulz–hmm, that didn’t turn out so well. How about a newspaper? Yeah! In Washington DC! Yeah!

WWMT investigative reporters in Michigan expose legal system corruption

Salmon fishing in Alaska is not exactly a likely place to contemplate what happens to our society when a basic institution like our legal system becomes corrupt. If citizens cannot count on fair and equal treatment when going to court, we will soon tire of this thing called civilization. It’s like going to a ballgame knowing the scoreboard will favor one side.

But I spent quite a bit of time contemplating that because of what I found out was going on in Western Michigan–Van Buren County to be exact. Frequent readers will know that I often complain quite bitterly about the melodramatic reporting typical of local TV investigative reports. But the “I-Team” of Kalamazoo’s WWMT came across a story about possible corruption in Van Buren County’s legal system that has certainly earned them my appreciation and I hope earns them a Pulitzer.

Below are the links to the first three investigative reports. As I write this, I am waiting eagerly to view the fourth which could be the incredible climax to this amazing story.

WWMT I-Team Van Buren County 1

WWMT I-Team Van Buren County 2

WWMT I-Team Van Buren County 3

Here’s the gist of the story.

A business man in Grand Rapids loaned the owner of a storage container business $700,000. After three years of trying to collect on the loan, working with his brother-in-law (Bob Baker) he went to court. Judge Hamre in Van Buren County awarded them the right to repossess 600 steel containers and sell them to recover their money. The defendant then hired some high-powered Van Buren attorneys, and the judge promptly rescinded his order and lowered it by nearly half.

Baker and his attorneys protested. They are in a neighboring county and held a conference call with the judge who had the two defendant attorney’s in his office, while Baker and attorneys were in the other county on the phone. The phone call from their standpoint was not-productive. But, instead of hanging up, they left the conference phone on, and much to their amazement, realized the other side–the judge and two attorneys–had left their conference phone on as well.

The judge and two attorneys in his office began talking about Baker and the attorneys in vulgar language (“f— d-heads” if you want to know). The judge told the attorneys he was not going to give them what they wanted. And they continued on holding this very clear “ex partee” communication–strictly illegal and highly unethical.

Baker and team promptly asked the judge to recuse himself, citing verbatim the discussion they overheard. The judge refused and the three in one way or another denied that the conversation occurred. Amazingly, they got the County Prosecutor involved who issued criminal arrest warrants on trespassing and assault charges against Baker and his attorney Don Visser presumably for their actions during the repossession attempt. Baker had videotaped the repossession and if anything it showed the other party’s aggression. Baker’s charges were dropped but Visser’s still stand as of this writing.

All of this has been carefully reported by the I-Team. Now, you might reasonably wonder why the I-Team was so confident in confronting the 17 year veteran of the bench and two attorneys with considerable influence in this area. After all, what would keep Baker and team from making up the whole conference call conversation? One thing: Baker had a tape recording of the call. And the judge and attorneys didn’t know it.

The tape has been turned over to the judicial review authorities and the bar. It was also turned over to the I-Team which explains their aggressive and confident reporting. But they have not, to date, revealed to the judge, the two attorneys, nor the prosecuting attorney the existence of the tape. While the judge recused himself on bogus reasons, he just announced that he is retiring from the bench almost immediately. The two attorneys have completely denied the allegations and instead have come out swinging against Baker and Visser. Their denial is filed with the court and, if my understanding of law is correct, may very well face perjury charges–let alone what the bar association may say or do. As for the Prosecuting Attorney, when he willy nilly files criminal charges at the behest of a couple of attorneys, well, there’s something fishy here as well.

Now that this has come out publicly, Baker says he has heard from many in the legal community who have said that something is rotten in Van Buren county.

You may wonder why I have so much interest in this story. First, assuming this all plays out as it looks, the I-Team has done a great service. While I am often very critical of the “black hat white hat” reporting, I am also grateful for this kind of investigative reporting which can if properly used speak truth to power. They clearly understand what is at stake here which is why they have already done four investigative segments on this story.

And the other reason? Personal connection. Bob Baker is my cousin, someone I used to babysit when he was a rambunctious kid, and my fishing buddy in Alaska. Good luck to you Bob and team. Thanks for having the courage to help keep our system clean.