Tag Archives: Building Trust

Love, marriage and crisis communications–some anniversary thoughts

Today is our 40th wedding anniversary, so naturally it leads to me to think about what love, marriage and life together has to do with crisis communication. A lot I think. And not just because there are plenty of crises in any marriage and communication or the lack of it is often the major cause of such crises.

Though some dispute the statistics, about half of marriages don’t survive–which makes 40 years very much worth celebrating. I’m going to suggest that the primary reasons why some do are very applicable to crisis communication, and for that matter any relationship.

Crisis communication, despite what too many think, is primarily about relationships. The all-important relationships between your company and organization and its most important stakeholders. Trust and respect are key elements of that relationship. What customer will stick with a company, what investor will maintain investment, what donor will contribute, what employee will eagerly produce without those two critical ingredients. Crises are crises mostly because they threaten the trust and respect that the important relationships hold in the leaders and the organization. That’s why whether or not an organization survives a crisis is primarily based how key stakeholders view the character of the leaders–are they worthy of continued trust and respect?

So what creates and maintains trust and respect? I’m going to suggest two things that also result in long, healthy marriages: love and commitment.

Let’s start with commitment. When you enter a marriage, particularly at a young age (we married when we were both 21) you have no idea what the future holds. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Or, in the thoughts of so many, until we grow apart, until we no longer share similar passions, until one or both of us get ugly, until we find our “soul mate.” There are so many reasons to question our promise of commitment–what were we thinking?! But, given the many challenges to a lifetime of togetherness commitment is essential. I’m grateful to our strong faith background and our absolute belief that we are held accountable to our Maker for the promise we made and to the sacred nature of this relationship–because that is a bedrock for us of that commitment.

There is no such absolute, unchangeable, unbreakable bond in a business relationship. But, commitment still matters. Every customer, every supplier, every employer, everyone who enters into a relationship with you, your company, your organization has a question not far below the surface: how committed are they to me? Will they stick by me when the going gets tough? Am I just a dime a dozen as it seems so many believe? Am I as a customer interchangeable with a million others? If that is what those in a high-value relationship to your organization believe, loyalty will be limited and the damage from any crisis will likely be permanent and lasting. There are so many ways to demonstrate commitment in a crisis (as well as in day to day operations); in fact, crises provide some of the best opportunities to demonstrate commitment. In the midst of a crisis, leaders of the organization should continually ask themselves: “Is this action I am taking or the message I am sending going to be understood as rock solid commitment to those important to us?”

The second critical element of trust and respect is love. I am a very fortunate man. My wife is not only stunningly beautiful–even more so with the grace only years of living and loving can give, she is also intelligent, incredibly gracious and friendly, and a lover of all things beautiful. (In other words, so unlike me in so many ways!) Despite my great fortune–and great wisdom–in choosing whom to marry, there are times when love is more than just the outpouring of a hormone-charged heart or a grateful soul. There are times when love means sacrifice–self sacrifice. One of the greatest, and most difficult teachings of my faith is that the Leader of our movement sacrificed himself for his followers and we are charged to do no less as marriage is taught as a model of the relationship between our Leader and his followers. Dying to self is a message at most faith-based marriages, but one that seems lost today on most in the audience and far too often among those saying their vows as well. Understandably–our very lives and culture rebel against the idea that I should give up what is important to me to the sake of someone else, even if that someone else is as close to me as my heart.

But let me give you an example of what I mean about self-sacrificing love in crisis communication. Ask almost anyone for the best stories of crisis management and the Tylenol crisis of 1982 with Johnson and Johnson will certainly be near the top of the list. Despite the fact that the seven people who died were victims of an unknown person who contaminated Tylenol capsules after they left the factory, Johnson and Johnson halted production, recalled all 31 million bottles of Tylenol in distribution (valued at $100 million) and advertised nationally to prevent anyone from consuming any acetaminophen until they were assured of safety. In other words, Tylenol took very aggressive action, at incredible cost to themselves, to protect the public despite having no part in the cause of the deaths themselves.

What is seldom discussed is how this very commendable reaction by Johnson and Johnson came about. According to a study of crisis communication out of Oxford in the early 1990s, prior to 1982 Tylenol was contaminated but by a worker in a Johnson and Johnson factory. While I do not believe there were deaths involved, it became clear that the company was ill-prepared to deal with such an eventuality, so they put in place a detailed recall and public communication plan to deal with a factory contamination crisis. This was the plan they implemented in 1982 when the contamination was not their fault. They behaved in their actions as if it was their fault, assuming all the costs, all the liability, all the “blame” when in 1982 they were indeed the victims as well. The result was an exceptionally high level of trust and respect because the public and media saw in their actions self-sacrificing love. They knew it was costing the company a ton of money, but the company acted as if the money didn’t really matter when people’s lives and safety were at stake.

I don’t want to take anything away from Johnson and Johnson’s actions or motives by suggesting they benefited from a plan that made them look really good. Because they key point is that is what the public–that is what we–want from any company who values us. We want them to show that they are willing to do just about anything for our sakes. Those are the people we trust.

Crises are the opportunity to show true character and there can hardly be better definition of true character than someone willing to give up really big things for the sake of another. In fact, it is basically how we know what love is. That’s the part of love that Hollywood tends to miss and is far too lacking in our daily lives and marriages. I admit, it is far too lacking in my own relationship with my long-suffering wife. But I also know that the solution to any issues in our relationship is not “fixing her” or looking elsewhere, but looking to where I need to go to release and let go so that I can love better and more completely.

Perhaps you think this is “too soft,” too “airy fairy” for real crisis management. After all, a businesses primary responsibility is to stay in business–and that sometimes means making decisions against those who expect different from us. True enough, that there are often conflicting demands and necessary compromises. But, whenever the leaders forget that trust and respect among key relationships are the primary issues at stake, and they forget that commitment to those people and self-sacrificing love are required to build and maintain that trust and respect, then you can see the ugly results of crises gone bad. Such leaders are among those likely to be casualties of the event, and the future of the organization depends on those responsible recognizing that early and replacing such leaders.

With that, I’m off to celebrate!


Crisis management–putting your ears to work

I’ve been talking for some time about the rapidly growing role of monitoring as a critical part of crisis communication. Also been saying in presentations that social media and the online conversation is where so many people are going to get their information. That crisis communicators need to understand at best they will participate and the days of control over the information flow are over.

Being involved in a fairly major event in the past week has brought these lessons home. We are using a variety of means to monitor what is going on–everything from PIER MediaTools to view and clip media including broadcast, to Google Alerts, to Twitscoop.

A few quick observations.

1) Media monitoring shows a tremendous amount of media activity but a lot of it is from the fact that media are now major players in social media with their news websites. All print media as well as broadcast use their news sites heavily which makes for a lot of traffic, frequent updates, and a tremendous amount of linking by interested viewers via their blogs and Twitter accounts.

2) Local is global. This is a fairly localized event with only a smattering of national media attention, but the conversation is global. Those interested (or passionate) about topics involved are going to be jumping into the conversation heavily and will keep it going as long as it of interest.

3) People learn from each other. It’s fascinating watching the online conversation and see many of the same news stories or comments showing up over and over on different sites. It’s one of the reasons this monitoring is so important because invariably some get the facts wrong and unless the correct information is readily available or the wrong info is quickly challenged, it does not take long for it to become accepted. The only saying about a lie repeated often enough becoming the truth takes on new urgency in the viral world of social media because it can be repeated a hundred or thousand times in mere minutes or hours.

4) The conversation was always there–but now you can hear it. That is something that really strikes me about a big change in communications and crisis management. All major events stirred lots of conversation–dinner table, office chat, in bars and restaurants, wherever people gather. Except now they don’t gather to have conversations, they do it by text, tweets, blogs, comments, all kinds of social media. And that means you can listen in on a lot of those conversations. Sometimes it seems its like the roar of too much conversation in an overcrowded bar. But if you focus in a little, you can hear fascinating things. And these can give you great insight into how things are turning, what the concerns are, what questions need to be answered, what information is going sideways, etc. In other words, the conversation will drive the communication response as much or maybe more in some cases than the events of the response itself.

5) Participate–not control. It’s is still very difficult for most response leaders and those who have been in public communication for a long time to really grasp this. In this world of heightened conversation, you don’t control the information. At best, you participate. But you do this by providing a continuous feed of of relevant, up to date information about what is going on. You can’t participate if you insist on sticking to a one press release a day strategy. And you can’t participate by putting all your eggs in the press conference basket–as important as it is. You participate by being the best, most reliable source for what is really happening. Then, you will find, as did in this incident, that soon your website will be given shortened url and sent around the twittersphere and blogosphere as the fastest, most relevant source of what is going on.

Dominos explains its response to the YouTube video crisis

Tim McIntyre of Dominos Pizza explains in the PRSA Strategist article how Dominos responded to the video posted by a couple of idiotic employees on YouTube. This event helped deliver the message to corporate leaders better than almost anything I can imagine how vulnerable they were to the lack of good sense inevitable in their employee base and how social media and “going viral” represents a new and unprecedented threat to their brand value and reputation.

McIntyre does an admirable job of explaining what happened from an inside perspective. It all sounds good and reasonable but as I was reading I was thinking about my criticism of Dominos at the the time as well as every other crisis communication pundit–they were too slow. McIntyre here clearly isolates the reason what slowed them down. And in the process he highlights one of the most critical elements of crisis management: how do you assess the potential damage and how do you prevent your response from creating more damage?

On Wednesday, we learned that Domino’s as a search word had surpassed Paris Hilton for the first time ever. So that got mainstream media’s attention. We were still communicating to YouTube, communicating to these other Web sites, communicating via Twitter. And even at a million views, we were thinking, “This is fast, but there are 307 million people in America. There are a lot of people who don’t know about it; let’s focus on talking to the audience that’s talking to us.”

So they focused on trying to deal with those who were aware of it while not creating more awareness. Or, as he discusses later, cleaning up the mess in aisle five without closing all the other aisles in the grocery store (an analogy). The problem was that he didn’t really count on the viral nature of social media and how quickly it can spin out of control. Here is his answer to the question of what they could have done better in those first 24 hours:

Two things we didn’t anticipate. The first thing we didn’t anticipate was the pass-along value, or the pass-along nature of this particular video, because there was a lot of “Man, you ought to see this going on.” And the sheer explosion of interest from the traditional media. In fact, the writer for USA Today who contacted me first sent me an e-mail. The body of the e-mail said, “This is the e-mail you did not want. Please call me.” And that’s when I knew that we were going to be accelerated and we needed to take a more aggressive stance about reinforcing the message that we didn’t do this; this was done to us. (NOTE: THE EMPHASIS WAS MINE)

Here’s McIntyre’s very valuable advice about crisis communication today:

If there’s a crisis happening in the social media realm, or if there’s a fire in the social media realm, there’s a segment of the population that wants you to put on a microphone and a webcam and describe what you’re doing as you’re doing it. They want you to describe how you’re putting out the fire. And that’s an interesting phenomenon.

Absolutely right. That segment is big, powerful and very influential–and it now includes much of the media. So strap on your webcam and start talking–nonstop! It’s just not about press releases anymore folks–its about continuous 140 character updates with lots of video and images. It’s not about accuracy (heresy!!!) it is about what is happening right now and what you know right now.

McIntyre’s conclusion (and these may be the most important pieces of crisis advice you will get all year):

That would include responding on our Web site a little bit faster, hitting the Twitter community a little bit faster and talking to senior leadership a little bit faster.

The new crisis management emerging–and it works

This post from Bulldog Reporter is one of the most encouraging I’ve read in a long time. It demonstrates the dramatic change that has occurred in organizations in building fast response methods to averting potential crises.

I just finished reading another WWII history book–this one called “Scramble” by Norman Gelb about the Battle of Britain. For those not up on this history, this was the battle between the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and the RAF or Royal Air Force of Britain. Though outnumbered 3 -1, the heroic and hurriedly trained RAF pilots took such a toll on the German fighters and bombers that Hitler had to cancel his plans for an invasion of England. Truer words were never spoken when Churchill said “never in the history of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few.” Or something like that.

But, the secret to their success was really in their intelligence gathering and their superb organization. Radar was a new invention but they deployed it effectively along with ground observers. They also decoded the German’s military radio signals in a very secret operation called ULTRA. They used these various early warning signals to identify the size, direction and altitude of the incoming raids. Based on this, using their great operational control method devised by Air Marshall Dowding, they directed their overstretched fighter resources to where they could do the most good. Although knocked to their knees, the Germans could never land the knockout punch and Hitler in frustration turned his focus to attacking the Soviet Union.

The new crisis management depends on using today’s radar–social media. Monitoring it closely, and then with organization aimed at near immediate response, moving exceptionally quickly to assess the problem and respond. As the post demonstrates admirably, it works. Many crises can be averted if the problem is dealt with soon enough. The Institute for Crisis Management has reported consistently that 75% of all business crises are “smoldering” in the sense that an issue exists that could erupt into a crisis and if it does, it is usually because the issue is not dealt with soon enough.

It is very encouraging to see major corporations adopting the “Distant Early Warning” and fast response methods that have proven so effective in the past. I just blogged about the increase in trust in business. Hmmm, maybe there’s a connection.

The JIC and Snopes

I’ve got a few friends who keep sending these jokes and internet messages–you know, the kind that say send this to five gazillion of your friends or something really bad will happen to you. Very often the messages include urban legends–like the one I got the other day about cell phones causing popcorn to pop. Very convincing. Had links to videos showing these people putting three or four cell phones aimed at a few kernels of popcorn. They made the phones ring and wait, wait, yes! the corn started popping. Of course, the comments on the email trail sounded very concerned–if this is the kind of radiation these things put out, no wonder people are dying of brain tumors from cell phones!

Well, I went to snopes to check it out and sure enough, along with the legend of cell phone cooking eggs, there was the legend of popcorn. False. Snopes is a wonderful thing. I advised my friend who sent this to me, as I have advised several others, before passing these things on it is good to check them with snopes. Saves some real embarrassment.

What does this have to do with the JIC?

I’m up to my eyeballs in writing EPIA (Emergency Public Information Annex) including detailed JIC plans. If anybody believes in the JIC and its value I do. But I am concluding that as much as we try to put in place the processes that will allow the JIC to put out emergency information to the public very fast, it will never be fast enough in this world. The media and the informed public will ALWAYS go to the most immediate information. That’s exactly why Twitter is so popular right now. Nothing beats the immediacy of someone who just saw a plane crash and is tweeting and twitpicing the image. Even the fastest JIC can’t beat an eyewitness with a text message or a video. So if you can’t beat or even meet the speed of news about an incident, and the mass media and a good part of the public will go to whoever has the most up to date information, will the JIC even survive? As I have said repeatedly recently to clients and in presentations–be fast or be irrelevant. Is the JIC destined to irrelevancy because it can’t match the speed?

I don’t think so. I think the answer is snopes. Crisis communicators and emergency management PIOs (Public Information Officers) have always struggled with the inherent conflicts between speed and accuracy. The conventional wisdom has always been accuracy above all. It make sense because credibility is everything–lose that and the game is up. But the public and media operate on immediacy–speed trumps all (I date this to the 2000 elections and it has only gotten worse since then). Snopes focuses on accuracy. It is THE authoritative source on urban legends. While the inaccuracy of information on the internet is generally known and accepted, sites and services like snopes exist to create some sense of security that the truth can be known. Mainstream media are struggling with this as well and while tilting toward speed, some are thankfully very concerned about maintaining their credibility.

While I think that speed is still terribly important for the JIC, accuracy should trump all. I believe that only completely verified information should be approved and released BUT in the meantime, PIOs should be communicating what is known at that time. Rumor management becomes one of the most important–and may eventually become the primary–tasks of the JIC. Because when a major incident is happening it is completely certain now that a lot of people (citizen journalists if you will) will be providing immediate information. Some of it true, some of it false. The media and the public need someplace to go to verify the facts. They need, in effect, a snopes for the response. Someplace to separate rumor from truth. Those inside the response should have access to the most relevant facts about the event and the response. That is the job of the Situation Unit.

But the process of identifying rumors, checking facts, verifying the information to be released and then getting timely approval for the release of it is critically important. Evenif the JIC is not first with the information, if there is too much a time delay between the initial faulty or unverified reports and verified information, the JIC will still quickly become irrelevant.

Speed and accuracy–still the drivers. But the dynamics of social media are definitely changing the rules of the game and how it is played.

Beyond social media–getting back to basics

I confess, like most others in public relations, I have been completely caught up in the whirlwind around social media and its impact on public relations, marketing and crisis management. But once in a while you have to step back and say what is really important here? How does this fit in the bigger picture of business and organizational momentum and even beyond that, to personal life issues?

I’ve been at the marketing, business development, strategic planning, public relations and crisis management game for over 30 years. I look back over the more-than-wonderful experience I have had of working with executives and leaders from small one person shops to executives of some of the largest corporations and government agencies in the world. And I will tell you that experience that there is one word that is far and beyond the most important word in defining success: relationships.

We live in a high tech world the scope of which I could never have imagined in the late 1970s when I ended my college teaching career and began my business career in communications and software. But John Naisbitt was absolutely right when he connected high tech and high touch. The more we move into a technology driven world, he said, the more there would be demand for the personal interactions that lie at the heart of commerce and all of life. The business of living and the life of business is about people. That is equally true of government agencies. When things work well you can invariably point to a remarkably small number of very high value relationships that operate at the heart of that success. When things don’t go well, it is because those key relationships are weak, broken or missing.

I say remarkably few for a reason. In 1997 I wrote a book–now out of print–called Friendship Marketing which focused on this issue of strategic relationships. I did informal research in talking to literally hundreds of businesses–frequently at conferences where I was speaking and asked them this question: How many relationships does your business absolutely depend on so that if you were to lose one of them it would cause you to lose sleep at night. I won’t keep you in suspense. I came to a magic number and that number is 6. Sure there are examples where the number is more than that–but it always, always ended up being a number that was shocking to the person providing the information because of how small it really was.

The meaning for the marketing and business development strategy that I advised was simple. If you depend now on a very small number of key relationships and you know that if you grow to ten or 100 times your current size, you will still depend on a remarkably few very important people, who might they be? You can identify them. By name. You can find them. You can find their contact information. You can find where they go to dinner, play golf, go to church. These people are reachable. Some easier than others obviously, but the point is you can find them and identify them. The power of this for marketing is absolutely immense and I can tell you stories of how that concept played out in marketing strategies I recommended.

But this is about crisis management. I always start in talking with a client about their preparations or their response capability by asking: who are the people whose opinion about you matters most for your future? For a federal agency, that answer may very well be key members of a Congressional committee who decides on agency funding. More to the point, it probably comes to key staff people of the Senators or Congress members who sit on that committee. For a non-profit it probably comes down to key donors and those who influence the key donors. For a business it certainly includes critical customers but also shareholders, key managers, their families, regulators, and perhaps leaders in the community where they operate. It is usually not difficult to come up with a list of 50, 25 or even 6 people who really matter a lot to the future.

The fact that this kind of strategy does not typically play into public relation’s peoples thinking about crisis preparation continues to surprise me. The mantra I have been repeating about crisis preparation is this: fast, direct, transparent. When I say direct, I mean DIRECT to those whose opinion matters most of the future of the organization.

Social media? Important yes, but I am believing it is more and more a huge distraction from the real business of building brands and reputation management which is far more effective and fundamental. The real business is identifying those strategic relationships, evaluation the value they place on you and what you do, and doing all you can to strengthen that relationship even while you define the key relationships you need for your future.

(By the way, I want to thank my wife for helping me pull back a bit and focus on what is important here. I love you hon.)

PRSA Podcast–crisisblogger discusses realities of instant news and social media world

Eric Schwartzman recorded an interview with me at the PRSA conference in Detroit in late October. I recently spotted it posted on the PRSA site. Here’s the link if you want to hear my basic spiel.

Does trust really matter?

I submitted a blog post to PRSA’s exciting new blog ComPRehension about the importance of trust.

Would love to hear from crisisblogger readers about the role of trust in an organization and the value placed on it by senior management.

PRSA Teleseminar on Building Trust

I am very pleased to have been invited by the Professional Development group of PRSA to present my presentation “Building Trust in Media Maelstrom” as a teleseminar on May 1. This is similar to the presentation I did at last year’s PRSA International Conference that appeared to be very well received.

I’d love to have you join us on the call so if interested, here is how to register.

As the teaser for this seminar, PRSA says those who attend will learn:

The two essentials of building trust.
The three drivers of today’s communications and why ignoring them is a recipe for failure.
The four critical steps of crisis communication planning.

If you are a frequent crisisblogger reader, you can probably identify each of these items. In fact, I’ll send a free copy of my book Now Is Too Late2 to any crisisblogger reader who correctly identifies the two, three and four “secrets” referenced above. Hope to see you on the call.