Tag Archives: crisis communication

Attack your attackers? Amazon adds ammunition to the argument

One of the most controversial issues in current public relations and crisis communication thinking is the issue of dealing with attacks from the media. I have run into this several times in the past year in work I have been doing so I know it is very much a live issue.

The non-confrontational answer: 1) remain focused on telling your positive story 2) don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel 3) don’t elevate a story beyond what it is making the situation worse by drawing more attention to it or drawing it out into a longer crisis

The confrontational answer: 1) A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth 2) reputation is based on credibility and if the attack has serious weaknesses in facts or truth it is necessary to point that out 3) its a black hat/white hat world and and accusation (naturally white hat) will stand unless thoroughly refuted and the black hat placed on the accuser

There is no doubt that I tend toward the second answer more than the first, with this caveat: it is very much situation dependent.

While I think the great majority of PR thinking is still based on the first one, I see more and more evidence of the second approach being used and to good effect. I’ve commented here earlier on a couple of examples of Elon Musk taking on his critics both in the federal government and in the New York Times. Now we see Jeff Bezos taking on the New York Times on the issue of the work culture at Amazon.

It’s a huge issue. Amazon’s rep took a huge hit with the piece by the Times. Was it fair? You decide. Does it give more credence to the non-confrontational or confrontational approach. Which is best long term for Amazon’s reputation? Would it have been better for Bezos and his comm team to let the issue die quietly, or would it have continued to fester? Is his response sufficient to overcome the evidence presented by NYT. I see all these as ultimately about credibility–given this, who will emerge as the winner?

I’d love to hear other thoughts on this. Because it is a question I face almost every day being actively involved in issue and crisis management where the question is far from academic.


Is news now conversation?

I had an interesting conversation/interview with David Bain of Digital Marketing Radio–the podcast available here.  As you learn in media training, you are never sure the “sound bite” the interviewer will use. You can talk for an hour, but find one comment gets highlighted.

In this case, I have no complaints. I was uneasy talking about digital marketing as I am far from an expert on all things SEO, social media for promotion, so-called “content marketing” and all that. Folks will laugh when I say my favorite digital marketing tool is a blog–I’m so 2005.

However, giving credit where credit is due, the thought of news as conversation came from son Geoff, busy developing a “conversation management” tool. It wasn’t the first I heard of this concept, but maybe first time I really pondered it.

It’s true I think. We live in a global water cooler. Someone with something interesting to say, or some first hand view of a high interest topic (such as plane crash or police victim) starts the conversation, sharing what they know or simply their thoughts. (Amazing how often their thoughts consist of little more than four letters, starting with an f.) That is just the start. Folks around the water cooler start to chatter. They get loud, that draws more folks. Everyone’s got an opinion, even if it is just to twitter on about what someone else has said. Someone listening in has a loudspeaker. They get on that and soon a much bigger crowd has gathered. The noise is deafening. Some of it good and important stuff, mostly just chatter, repeats, or more f words. And so it goes…

The conversation goes on until people tire of it (quickly it seems) or there is another conversation of higher interest on a nearby water cooler. We hear a loudspeaker going off next to another water cooler and get drawn there. We look around and there are all kinds of water coolers many of them filled with noisy people.

So, sometimes you just want to shut it off, go find a quiet corner in Starbucks and have a grande. But, no, that’s another water cooler.


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.

The risks of one spokesperson

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

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

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

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

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

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



The hardest part of communications

Reflecting on some of the most recent crises I’ve been involved in as an advisor, I asked: what am I really contributing?

I concluded by far the most valuable contribution was an outside perspective. Looking at the event and issues from the viewpoint of the customer, the stakeholder, the reporter, the victim, the detached observer. It is often very difficult for even the best communicators who are deeply embroiled in a problem to maintain that outside perspective. It’s the main reason why I think it is probably essential that your crisis communication plan include a qualified person completely outside your organization.

I worked on a plan for a major oil company a few years ago and saw in their plan the role of a Communications Advisor. In their case, it was intended for a specific PR expert who had a strong relationship with the President. But, it struck me as such a good idea I have built that role into almost every plan I have worked on since then. The responsibility of that person is to maintain a 30,000 foot view, maintain contact with stakeholders outside the organization, and represent an honest, objective and uninformed perspective.

I say uninformed because there are always so many good reasons to not do what is needed. We can’t do this because our lawyers say we can’t, because we had such and such problem in the past, because the union leaders would have a hissy fit, because senior management doesn’t like so and so–whatever the reason. They are powerful obstacles but the outside perspective says: it doesn’t matter. It has to be done.

I’ve often said being a consultant is the best job for someone like me because I have so little to lose. Sure, I can get fired, but after about three plus decades I’ve gotten some confidence I can get another gig. I don’t have my future tied to relationships within the organization, to political sides, to protecting anything. Therefore I can be honest, even undiplomatic (which seems to come too naturally to me).

The hardest part of communication is taking a three foot jump from your skin to that of the person or people you are talking to. If you do look at the situation with their eyes, all the “yeah, but…” excuses melt away. All the obstacles that look insurmountable become hurdles that must be bowled over.

The purpose of suggesting this is not to sell my services or even other crisis consultants (I’m plenty busy enough right now, thanks very much). It is rather to point out that the first thing you learn in your very first communication class should be learning to think like the one you are communicating with. But, as foundational as the”you attitude” is, it remains the biggest obstacle to effective communication and the very hardest part of this job.



NanoNews—understanding the new news environment

Struggling with what comes after “instant news,” I’ve tried to come up with a way of describing the dramatic change in real time information sharing that was powerfully demonstrated in the Boston manhunt. For better or worse, I’m using “NanoNews” to describe it.

I created a video in lieu of an in-person presentation I was invited to make at the National Capital Region’s Social Media in Emergencies conference. That presentation was just concluded so now I’m sharing this with you.

In 2001, when I wrote the first version of “Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News” I used the term instant news to help communicate that news cycles were gone, that as fast as news helicopters could get overhead the news of your event or disaster would be live on the air. I was thinking of the ubiquitous breaking news as well as the already emerging trend of sharing information via the Internet—at that time primarily through email.

But compared to the “instant news” we have today, “breaking news” corresponds more to snail mail. It’s practically dead and gone, and not just through over-use. When millions are tuned into the police scanner chatter broadcast live through Ustream or converted into a Reddit thread using websites like Broadcastify or scanner apps like 5_0 Scan, it’s obvious that breaking news can’t keep pace. By the time even the fastest news crews get the information from such sources, and relay it, it will be minutes old—and minutes old is unacceptable when you could have real time information.

Nano News is almost certain to grow. Mobile smartphone use continues to grow. Over one billion worldwide and a hundred million in the US.  That number will grow. And though they are called “smartphones” telephone use is actually quite small and diminishing—this report shows how these devices are actually used.

In the video I suggest that this widespread use of mobile devices to access events of interest constitutes a form of teleportation. Your senses, your ability to experience, is transported to the scene through the ever increasing use of real time information sharing usually from the “crowd” or non-professional sources.

The implications for emergency and crisis communications are immense. I was quite surprised to see a new study from PwC, which according to a press release of August 8: “more than half of the respondents – 57 percent – do not officially use social media as a crisis management resource.  For companies that have begun integrating social media into their crisis management efforts – Facebook and Twitter cited the most often – not all are seeing improvement in their capabilities. Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents are modestly leveraging it as a tool, but not necessarily seeing improvements in their capabilities, whereas eight percent of respondents believe that social media has become an enabler for their organization to proactively identify and respond to crisis events. “

That is quite stunning to me—raises a question as to whom within the organization the questions are addressed—IT?

In the video I made several observations which generated some comment and discussion with the group gathered in DC. One is that today in crisis communication you can NOT be fast enough. Only if facts or details are completely hidden (almost impossible these days) can you really control what goes out and when. If you can’t provide the relevant information what can you do? You can make sure what is said and gets traction is correct. Rumor management is job one. And it requires great speed, which means that Twitter is the numero uno media management tool. It’s not the only tool to use to be sure. But if you want the media and most informed public to know the truth, you better know what is being said and be very quick in correcting false information.

It seems the biggest issue confronting communicators is approvals. We had some valuable discussion about that during the conference and I was quite pleased to see that the separation of incident/response facts from organizational messages seems to be taking hold. Not everything to be released needs the same level of approval. As one pointed out, it requires trust in the PIO—but also a clear understanding prior to the event about releasable facts vs. key messages requiring approval—and the vast gray area between.

The experiment in presenting and discussing with a crowd across the country through Hangout went very well I thought (I’ll have to hear from those who were there). I think this will be far more common in the future. As is the case with these events it was helpful for me to learn from those who are practicing this stuff every day. But the discussion only confirmed that NanoNews is a vital reality and it is one that progressive communicators and emergency management leaders are coming to grips with—and that is good news.


James Donnelly talks about implications of WikiLeaks

James Donnelly, otherwise known here as J.D., is one of my favorite conversationalists here at crisisblogger. He was interviewed by Brian Pittman for commpro.biz about wikileaks and the implications for corporations. Happy to share this interview as J.D. and I (usually) share perspectives on how crisis communication ought to be done.

Well done J.D. and Brian.

Burson Marsteller study validates the importance of a "go direct" crisis comm strategy

A couple of years ago I presented at a major conference on crisis and risk communications and several of the highly respected speakers talked about the need to “partner with the media” in communicating with the public about major events. My under the breath reaction was: good luck with that.

Since I got engaged in this crisis and emergency communication business fulltime over ten years ago one of my strongest beliefs has been that we need to first of all focus on direct communication to those people who are most impacted by an event and those whose opinions about us matter most for our future. One of the reasons for that firm belief was my experience in trying to “partner with the media” and the disastrous results that sometimes, very often occurred. In fact, I would have guess that about half of all efforts were disappointing if not outright infuriating.

Now the highly respected firm of Burson-Marsteller has documented this experience. This, in my mind, is one of the most important studies to come out about media relations in general but crisis communication in particular. I would advise a careful look at this study. I haven’t looked at the mechanics of the study so can’t comment on the way it was done and how solid it is, but I can tell you that it conforms to my own experiences.

For those who want the headline version, if you send your important messages to the media, at best you can expect 50% consistency with your message and what the media actually does with it. But that is better than what happens with it in the blog world, where the consistency drops down to less than 40%.

The implications are clear and should be part of every PIO and emergency manager’s information strategy:
1) Go direct–plan ahead of any event to communicate directly through email, phone, text, website, whatever to the public, impacted citizens, elected officials, investors, customers, fenceline neighbors–anybody who is important to your future.
2) Rumor management — you now know that when you send it to the media and into the social media world is almost certainly will turn into something different than you intended. That means communication is not about sending it out and letting it takes its course, it is a continuing process of distribution, correction, challenging false reports, and providing continuous updates.

Here’s the bottom line: So many think that public information management is about sending out a press release and the job is done. That is hopelessly naive and that approach is guaranteed to cause great disappointment and quite likely loss of trust–and maybe loss of job.

The future of crisis communication–the discussion

My questions and suggestions on the future of crisis communication raised some eyebrows, including at Ragan Communications who is re-publishing an edited (improved) version of my last crisisblogger post. I really appreciate the discussion that ensued on crisisblogger and would like to address a few very interesting points.

Patrice Cloutier and Donald Hamilton both make the very important point that a crisis communication manager (or PIO) have a very important role to play in managing the response. Hamilton puts it this way:

Organizational leaders tend to be operations or financial experts with an occasional lawyer thrown in. Not surprisingly, they do not think like communicators and seldom focus on the fact that the organization’s reputation is ultimately more important than this or that lawsuit, the urgent restoration of production capacity or next month’s stock price.

The crisis communicator’s job is to remind them of this and to assure that authoritative, repeat authoritative, information and context are made available to all relevant audiences with the greatest possible speed.

I completely agree. In training we just completed last week at our office with PIOs and communication leaders from several major organizations, I emphasized this point exactly. The goal of a response is to build trust and it depends on two things–taking the right actions and communicating well. The communicator must help response managers to understand what actions are “right” actions from the point of view of the critical audiences because ultimately they will be the judges of the response and will make the decisions about whether the leaders and the organization deserve their trust.

Commenter J.D. hit the nail on the head: If the crisis manager is one who only shares information, crafts messages and writes releases, then the future has already passed him by. Perhaps a decade ago. And perhaps that was Gerald’s point?

Exactly my point. But I work with communicators, PIOs and leaders of organizations every day where this needs this message needs to be continually repeated. We are still fighting today’s public information battles with old strategies and outdated technologies. Until communicators and their leaders understand how much the world has changed, the same mistakes will be repeated.

The job of the crisis communicator today isn’t so much put out a press release and then do some on camera interviews. It is much more about listening, evaluating, advising, and participating in the swirl of information and discussion about the event.

Behind the Scenes at the Austin Plane Crash–an exercise in virtual communication response

On the Frontline of a Virtual Communication Response—The Austin Plane Crash

For several in days in February the major news story was the crash of a small plane into a building in Austin, Texas. This is the kind of event that is discussed here on this blog all the time and I was fortunate to have a front row seat of sorts to the public communication and news coverage of this particular event.

The City of Austin, specifically the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is a new client having recently implemented our crisis communication system. While the agency’s website was set up on this platform and ready to roll, the agency’s PIO had little experience in working with the system. To make matters worse she, like several others from the office were in San Antonio for the Homeland Security conference.

I was sitting in a meeting in Houston when I was called out and informed that there was a plane crash into a building in Austin. The initial information we received, not from the City, was that the building may have housed FBI offices. The specter of a terrorist attack was immediately raised. We made contact with the PIO who was on her way back to Austin from San Antonio. We quickly informed her of the information that was being broadcast and that was coming via Twitter. She confirmed some of the information from her sources and we placed an initial statement on the City’s OEM website—from Houston.

For the next day and half we continued in almost continual contact and pushed out a total of nine information releases. Since the city staff were out of their offices and away from their normal tools and systems, they could not push the information to their normal media lists. But we quickly built an up-to-date media list of all Austin media and distributed the releases to them. These were in addition to the almost 400 contacts of Austin area agency contacts and other officials that had been built into the platform.

There were several times during the incident that we were able to report back through the PIO new information that was emerging on Twitter. This information would quickly find its way into the news coverage which had geared up with remarkable speed.

The various agencies from the City of Austin soon formed a Joint Information Center using the OEM site as the focus of new information. News reports began to reflect a coordinated flow of information from the City. Clearly the most significant communication came from the several press conferences held at the scene of the crash and fire. But the PIO was able to maintain the relevant information on the website by calling us from the press conference and we would quickly add and update the information on the site. Plus the agency was able to very quickly and efficiently distribute updates on the fast breaking situation to the media as well as to numerous agency leaders and others in the Austin community.

I say “we” because those involved in supporting Austin remotely during this event included Kevin Boxx, VP PIER Systems and Timothy O’Leary, my colleague at O’Briens’s Response Management. Direct support was also provided by Sandra Salazar, PIER’s Project Manager located in Houston who was at a different location than we were. Geoff Baron at PIER’s HQ in Bellingham, WA also provided direct assistance.

Some key learnings from this event:

–       Austin Police and Fire have received some strong kudos for their fast and effective crisis communication during this event—both from people within the community and from experts outside observing.

–       Virtual communication operation, or the Virtual JIC, does indeed work as has been demonstrated in other events. But this event was particularly telling because of the speed of information flow between the PIO and those on the scene and those operating remotely to keep the updates going.

–       Twitter and other social media are no doubt driving the information about an event of this nature. Reports coming from Twitter were almost concurrent with the event as some early “tweets” were from people witnessing the event as it occurred.

–       Major media use Twitter and other social media as primary sources of news. When you see “reports” or “eye witness reports” in the media coverage do not think it is that they have talked to someone directly but are likely getting it from the many tweets or posts on the internet.

–       The initial reports are virtually certain to be wrong—that is the nature of the internet and witnesses commenting from their perspective and speculating. But it is quite amazing to see how the online community sorts things out and gets to the facts faster than you would imagine.

–       Where it used to be that official sources would be the primary focus of the media’s interest a quick review of the media coverage will show that a primary interest of the media is to talk to eyewitnesses—often those same people who are reporting what they see or know (or speculations) via the internet.

–       PIOs and public officials have to scramble very, very hard to keep up with, let alone try to get ahead of, this kind of instant information coming from so many sources. As the official source of the news about the event, their primary role becomes rumor management—correct false information as it emerges—rather than focusing on being the first with the news.

Congratulations are due to Candice Wade and the team at Austin for a job well done in very difficult circumstances.