Tag Archives: New York Times

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.

 

PR industry going to take a hit with Ketchum’s Russian love-fest

In case you missed it (or are missing it as it happening now) Ketchum is taking a lot of heat for pitching (or writing–depending on who you talk to) an op-ed piece from Russian President Putin on Syria. Here’s a snippet from the op-ed in which the Russian president presumes to suggest that American intervention is causing the world to perceive we rely on brute force and have given up our democratic principles:

“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

I’m not going to discuss the merits of the comments supposedly written by the Russian President himself–who is no doubt loved around the world for his rejection of brute force and his fierce support of democratic principles.

Ketchum has earned $23 million in fees over the past few years by serving the Russian government. They have been very successful in writing and pitching op-ed pieces for this client in many publications. This should be a coup (so to speak) for them in getting this kind of placement in the New York Times at this time of national and international debate on this subject.

The controversy already surrounding this op-ed and Ketchum’s role in it is going to stimulate much debate. One issue is globalization vs. national loyalty. This issue arises in all kinds of economics venues, but now we have in public affairs. Many of the leading PR firms are global, some with non-US ownership. Of course, many leading companies are owned by people from all over the world. Does national loyalty and concern for the nation’s interest come into play in making decisions like this–or is this “just business.”

I love the PR industry and deeply believe in the value that it offers clients and society as a whole when done properly. That is with professionalism, competence and integrity. But this one hurts. And I think it is going to hurt all of us in this business, not just Ketchum. Money talks, no doubt. The Russians are paying mightily and it looks like they are getting good service. But it is going to look very much like to the greater percentage of red-blooded Americans that whoever is running Ketchum cares a whole lot more about Russian rubles than American scruples. No doubt one of the biggest challenges to integrity in our business is the fact that we are usually paid to say what we do. That means our words are often suspect with the question underlying it: what would you be saying if this company (or country) weren’t paying you?

I hate the term flacks. It suggests that PR folks will advocate for anyone and say anything as long as their money is good. There is too much truth in the claim. But now Ketchum has given a great many people who may not love our profession as much as I do reason to think we are all a bunch of flacks. Ketchum, I’m disappointed.

 

Keep on talking–is New York Times doing news right?

The hacking of the New York Times website, and presumably others, by the Syrian Electronic Army, has a lot of people talking. In talking to a great client and friend about this the comment made was that New York Times doesn’t seem to want to talk about this. Nothing on their website (now that it is back up) about this issue.

I googled the story and found the New York Times had an article on it two days ago, August 27, in their media and advertising section. So, of course, they would say “we covered that story.” And they did. But what it means is if you are now coming to the story, or if there are new developments, or if you want to dive deeper you have to go to their search section, or much more likely, google it.

Maybe that’s the only way. But it seemed to my friend, and to me, when something is being talked about in other media so much that it would be a bit more visible on their website. It’s like companies in crisis not having any reference to the highly visible issue on their site–they look oblivious, head in the sand, hope it will go away. That’s kind of how New York Times looks–and why not? Why highlight an issue that doesn’t make them look good–is their security that bad?

That comes to the dilemma we face in crisis communication. We want an issue to go away, but we need to be transparent. As Jim Garrow points out in this excellent post about “Bite-Sized News” that most new viewers today are looking for “snackable content.” And lots of frequency. (By the way, I’m not pointing to Jim just because he says some very nice things about me here!)

For crisis communication we’ve learned some important lessons in the last while:

– keep on talking–even when news media go on to the next big story, it doesn’t mean those affected have lost interest. Keep on talking.

– Update frequently–even if you don’t have anything new to say, you can still say that, but those interested will keep checking back.

– Provide “snackable content”–bite-size chunks of news, but you still have to offer the full meal deal to those who want it, which is why Twitter and your website have to work together

New York Times may not be in full-scale crisis, but the hacking thing is a crisis of sorts. They are acting in exactly the same way companies in crisis mode too often act: put out the occasional or maybe one time press release and consider the job done. There, we communicated, now leave us alone. Doesn’t work. Keep on communicating, let us know what you know, give us updates, offer in-depth details and just a headline. That’s not asking too much.

 

Tesla wins–John Broder and I both have black eyes

This is a follow up to my earlier post about Tesla Motor’s CEO Elon Musk and his battle against the New York Times, specifically John Broder and his negative review of the Tesla Model S.  Initially I applauded Musk for violating the sacred rule of “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” believing as I do that the web changes that rule. But, I criticized Musk for his emotional tone and personal attack and believed that Broder’s calm and very factual-sounding response was winning the day and the argument. So did most others it appeared.

But, the facts win out. My main point in the previous post was that these battles always come down to credibility: who can be believed and trusted. I still think Musk was out of line in his tone and approach. He would have been far more credible to be less emotional and just stick to the facts. But, it appears now that the facts have won out.

Here is what NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said:

My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote above, although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.

Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.

In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.

While this is quite straightforward, I must say that most of her blog is pretty mealy-mouthed. It attempts to take a middle ground and would have been much better for her to say Broder did not live up to the paper’s high standards of journalistic integrity and we apologize.

As mealy-mouthed as it was, Musk and Tesla are certainly claiming victory and it is right they should. 

Other major news outlets are careful to make a fellow media outlet look bad, but tend to confirm that Broder messed up.

Very important lessons here:

1. If you are going to go after someone who buys ink by the barrel, you better have your facts straight.

2. The natural tendency of the news media is to defend themselves and assume their conclusions are unassailable. Ms Sullivan makes it clear it was the high level of public pressure generated by Mr. Musk’s attacks that prompted her to look carefully into this.

3. Tone matters–I and others gave the win earlier to Broder based on our sense that he was being factual and not emotional while Musk was attacking personally and with emotion.

4. A question remains: did Musk help himself or hurt himself by making such an issue out of this? Now far more people know about the impact of cold weather on Tesla’s performance, about the challenges of not having enough charging stations, and the picture of the car on a tow truck is in far more minds than likely would have been. Would it have been better for him to more quietly make his case on his own website, within the trade publications and to all those interested in his vehicles–quietly undermining the bad review rather than blowing it up into a major controversy. Personally, I think so.

5. But Musk has done much to bury the old saw about those who buy ink by the barrel, and that is the biggest lesson for both professional journalists and those they cover. I suspect anyone else who does a review on Tesla (or any other car for that matter following this) will do a better job of taking notes and being able to defend themselves if they decide to give a bad review. And, that is a good thing.

Elon Musk of Tesla and John Broder of New York Times duking it out over review

This is sort of like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Not a pleasant thing to watch, but hard to take your eyes off of it.

For those unaware: NYT Broder took Tesla’s much-touted electric car for a test drive and ran it out of juice. Had to be towed. Wrote a pretty nasty review. Musk (a celebrity entrepreneur) CEO of Tesla who had courted the review responded on Twitter by calling the review a fake. Strong words. He presented evidence that Broder did not follow the instructions and mis-reported the ride.

OK, a classic. The review is powerful–in this case, powerful bad for Tesla. But who got it right? And was Musk smart in challenging the paper–you know the old saw: never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

Well, without looking at it, I was pulling mightily for Musk. The press does get it wrong more than occasionally, and that old saw about ink by the barrel has been put out to pasture. Because anyone with a smart phone and Twitter account has the power of the biggest press in the world.

Above all, this little train wreck demonstrates one fundamental truth of all controversies being played out in the public: it’s about credibility. It’s about telling the truth. It’s about honesty, transparency, full disclosure. When one says right and the other says wrong, usually someone is going to end up looking bad.

Well, it looks like the credibility battle may very well go to Broder and the New York Times. (Dang!)

Broder, now under an attack from Musk that could be as damaging to him and his reputation as a journalist as his negative review was to Tesla, responded with just the right tone, and with clarity and honesty (it seems anyway).  Musk, it appears, is continuing to accuse Broder of falsifying the information, providing charts to back up his claims, and leveling some pretty nasty personal attacks on Broder.

What does all this mean for crisis communication.

I think most in public relations would take from this the lesson that it is still pretty foolish to attack a reporter (especially from a publication that buys as much ink as the NYT) for a bad review–as it definitely draws attention to the review.

I still believe if the reporter got it wrong, seriously wrong, undeniably provably wrong, that it is a good thing to make a lot of noise about it. But, note the caveat. I’m not sure yet how this will play out. Broder may indeed have not been fully honest in the review and in his explanation (there are some questions like–did you really pick up your brother in Manhattan and give him a ride and did this play into your loss of battery power). But I think Musk did not pass the undeniably provably wrong test.

These battles are about credibility. Trust measures show that both CEOs and reporters have very little initial credibility–but the edge would go to the reporter. So the CEO or accuser of bad reporting had better be on very very solid ground when making big accusations.

One other thing that bothers me–Musk’s tone. Broder’s tone in contrast is quiet, straightforward, non-emotional. That is so important in credibility. Musk’s tone is that of an aggrieved victim–angry, emotional, over the top in personal attacks. Even if he is right, he would be so much more credible with a less emotional tone. There is a time for righteous indignation, but damn, you better be righteous.

 

 

Trolling, toxic talk and the challenges of transparency

Thanks to Dave Statter of statter911 who alerted me to this outstanding op-ed piece in NYT by Facebooks’ design manager Julie Zhuo about the challenges the tech community faces regarding trolls. Trolls are those mean, nasty horrible creatures that lurk around seeing who they can attack with their slobbering, venomous mouths. In this case, they don’t lurk under bridges and pathways, but they lurk around blogs, news sites and websites, contaminating almost every conversation with their toxic expressions. Yes, you’re right, I don’t like them very much and have written about them a fair amount here under the topic of toxic talk. I think they are a significant contributor to the decline of public trust and the disagreeable atmosphere surrounding much of our public discourse.

As Julie points out, a primary cause for this is anonymity. People will do all kinds of things when their identity is unknown and unknowable that they wouldn’t think about doing otherwise. The Greek philosophers certainly understood this. Trolling, like many evil deeds, would be seriously decreased by making it illegal to reveal who you really are.

But, that runs smack into a primary ethos of the internet. The internet crowd really likes this anonymity and I suspect a great majority of them would fight hard to protect it. And I for one do not believe there is or should be a legal or legislative solution to every problem that plagues us. If that is the way, soon our only problems will be legal and legislative ones and sometimes I’m not too sure we aren’t there already. I just think it is quite ironic that the internet ethos of anonymity runs smack dab into that other high value of the internet culture–transparency. How can you demand transparency from anyone and everyone, while hiding behind anonymity? Yet, that seems to be the value system at work.

Speaking of transparency, and speaking as one who has proclaimed its virtues loudly and tried to help organization leaders understand its urgency and demands, we are now seeing some of the dangers and challenges of transparency. I am referring, of course, to wikileaks and the widespread publication of classified war documents and now diplomatic messages. I have little doubt that those subscribing to the internet ethos, as I am referring to it, are largely applauding the release of these documents and looking to nominate Julian Assange, wikileaks founder, for a Nobel prize. Part of me wants to join in the applause but there is also that part of me that says there are some times when secrets are necessary.

The dilemma inherent in this struggle against transparency versus other competing values and interests–including the lives of people and security of the nation–is evidenced in the New York Times explanation of its decision to publish most of the leaked documents. Wikileaks creates a huge dilemma for responsible news organizations like the New York Times. Refuse to publish and they not only lose out on all that web traffic and public interest, but they look like digital content Luddites. Publish it all, and they fall right into the reasonable accusation of not caring about anything other than their ratings or readers. Personally, I think they did a pretty good job of walking this tightrope with this explanation. Still, it makes you wonder a bit when they make a point of pointing out that they did not necessarily agree with the Obama administration’s opinion about publishing all documents and so are making themselves the arbiters of national security questions rather than leaving that to the government. I guess so it has always been, but this seems to be on a whole new level.

What seems clear in all of this is that transparency is not an unmitigated good–as even the most adamant of internet freedom protectors would agree. If they did agree that transparency was the ultimate good then they above all would demand an end to anonymity on the web. So, both individual members of society, like the publisher of the NYT and society as a whole will continue to struggle with finding the right balance between transparency and protection. It will be interesting to see how this will play out in the field of conflicting values. What is certain for crisis communication is that any effort to restrict information without clear and compelling justification will be met with hoots and howls from the media and the social media crowd alike. All the more for the trolls to slobber over.

New York Times–defensive and silly in responding to Jon Stewart’s criticism

I’m no Jon Stewart fan, I must admit, but closer to it now after his stinging criticism of the news media at his “Restore the Sanity” rally at the Capital Mall on Oct. 30. Stephen Colbert joined in the fun which was supposed to be a response to Glenn Beck’s political rally earlier.

I won’t comment on the back and forth of political opinion makers here, but rather on the outrageously silly response of New York Times reporter David Carr regarding Stewart and Colbert’s attacks on the media.

Carr reports on the accusations of the two speakers against the news media for “keeping fear alive.” He quotes Stewart:

“’The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous, flaming ant epidemic,’ he said, to roars of approval from the crowd.”

Well said, in my view. But what does Carr think? Well, it is obvious to Carr that the comedians target is really only cable TV and then he makes the ridiculous assertion that nobody pays attention: “Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans.”

Mr. Carr clearly needs to get his head out of his New York office a little more. With the segmentation of media there is no question that audiences at any one particular time are small. But Carr seems to think that only his paper has any sway over public opinion.

What strikes me most is the underlying defensiveness, not just of Mr. Carr, but of the news media in general. I recall an editorial a week or so ago from a Florida newspaper haranguing BP CEO Bob Dudley for criticizing the media for hyping the spill impacts, reporting the projections of oil flowing to England. The paper acknowledged that it was one of those who heightened the fears but was absolutely unrepentant. Criticizing the CEO instead for even suggesting the media might have done anything wrong.

Business is mistrusted, the president is mistrusted, Congress is mistrusted–but none as much as the media. It is time that reporters and publishers of our treasured and extremely valuable press institutions like the New York Times stop being defensive, stop their silly reactions to serious criticism from comics, and take a long hard look inside. Why are they mistrusted? Maybe because in their pursuit of readers, all they seem to know to do is heighten the fear, anxiety and hatred of others.

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” Jon Stewart said. I’m starting to think I like this guy.

How the media game is played–without accountability

I know I’m starting to sound like a stuck record relating to my analysis of how the media operates. I also realize that most of the rest of the world has moved on from the Gulf Spill and has a serious and very understandable case of spill fatigue. But, the lessons continue and for me one of the most important is looking at how the media covered this event and what it means for building trust in future events.

The story in the New York Times yesterday illustrates an important point. Here are some relevant quotes from this article which is titled: “Gulf May Avoid Direst Predictions After Oil Spill:” Yet as the weeks pass, evidence is increasing that through a combination of luck (a fortunate shift in ocean currents that kept much of the oil away from shore) and ecological circumstance (the relatively warm waters that increased the breakdown rate of the oil), the gulf region appears to have escaped the direst predictions of the spring…And preliminary reports from scientists studying the effects on marshes, wildlife and the gulf itself suggest that the damage already done by the spill may also be significantly less than was feared — less, in fact, than the destruction from the much smaller Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.

First, hats off to New York Times for writing a good news story about the spill. Next–a question: why is zero credit given to the over 60,000 people who worked on this event, often at great personal sacrifice? Certainly, the conditions mentioned contributed to what looks to be a much more positive outcome than was dared hope for, but the prodigious efforts of the responders and response leaders also contributed significantly to minimizing environmental damage. And economic damage–remarkably for example, traffic up and down the Mississippi was not curtailed even with very strong efforts to ensure impacts the spill were not carried upriver.

But my real point is this. NYT like most other media was not shy a bit about highlighting the experts who made these dire predictions. The most serious predictions ended up in the headlines–and why not? Their job is to gets eyes on the pages or the screens of their websites or tv news reports. So for weeks if not months we heard these dire predictions over and over. I can’t recall many examples of reporting at the height of the “fear creation” stage of the response saying, “but we have other experts here who are saying it probably won’t be so bad.”

So, they use these experts–the more dramatic the better–to compete to win in the infotainment game. Nothing really new about that. After all, what did Billy Nungesser and the other loud critics have to contribute to the public’s understanding of the spill and the response efforts? Nothing of substance, but a heck of a lot of entertainment value. What gets me is that when all the fear-mongering turns out to be overblown, I have yet to see a reporter or publisher say “oops, mea culpa, we did a bad thing.” No, it is those same experts who got it wrong. One of them, as I blogged about earlier, admitted he got it wrong. Good for him. But it is not just the experts who got it wrong–it was the media who made much of their fallible predictions. Certainly they can say, “it is not our job to evaluate their viability, we just report what they say.” Yeah, right. But is it the expert’s responsibility when the whole world gets a faulty understanding of what is happening? The experts would say “we just give our educated opinion, which may be right or wrong. We can’t be held accountable for how the news media uses or abuses these opinions.”

Exactly, no accountability. We know who is accountable for the spill, no question there. Who will be held accountable for creating false impressions?

New York Times weighs in on crisis PR–will the hypocrisy never end?

First it was the Washington Post who declared that the high-priced crisis PR folks were out of their league when it came to crises like BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs. I gave my opinion about that bit of silly reporting earlier. But the article this weekend in New York Times really takes the cake.The overall message seems to be that the reputation problems that BP, Toyota and Goldman all now presumably share were if not fully preventable by more competent PR, they certainly wouldn’t be in as bad a shape as they are. (Again, full disclosure, I count both BP and the US Coast Guard among my valued clients.)

As “evidence” of BP’s bad reputation the NYT’s reporter Peter S. Goodman provides an egregious but typical example of the kind of reporting done by Rolling Stone referring here to Goldman: “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Let’s see, what kind of invectives might this kind of reporter use against BP: “A giant radioactive death cloud dripping oil and toxins on innocent families below, skillfully and malevolently directed by a foreign cabal intent on sucking the very life blood out of the American way of life.”

Let me ask you, how would your reputation hold up to that kind of treatment? What if every newspaper and TV station in the land were clambering over each other, competing to see how bad they could make it to attract the biggest possible audiences to get the ratings that would let them charge their exorbitant advertising rates? And how would your reputation withstand the withering attacks of politicians like the representative from Massachusetts who see an opportunity to lead the parade of public outrage by heaping on scorn and new legislation? And what if the holder of the highest office of the land, intent on protecting his electoral future, makes certain that the news media blame game is focused on the “Responsible Party” rather than the government?

My point is this: It is the news media today, operating in a hyper competitive environment, that is one of the most important factors in the damage to reputations we see. For them to observe as both DeBord in the Washington Post and Goodman in the New York Times have done that the “spin” of public relations professionals has failed these organizations is hypocritical and ludicrous. It is a little like a guy standing next to a train track in the aftermath of a horrific head-on collision saying, someone could have prevented this, when he has just pulled the lever that put the trains on collision course.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming the news media for the mess of BP, Toyota or Goldman. In fact it is my firm belief as I have previously stated, that some events are beyond PR. As my colleague Tim O’Leary says, there is only so much lipstick you can put on a pig. When you spill a few thousand or hundred million gallons of oil in the Gulf or practically anywhere, and you can’t stop it for months while the public looks over your shoulder, that is a mighty ugly pig. The best PR in the world is not going to fix it.

And don’t get me wrong about there being no mistakes. Of course BP made mistakes. Nothing like the mistake that led to the explosion and spill and then the “mistake” of not preparing better to contain an event that exceeded their worst case scenario planning. But the focus on the statements like “I want my life back” is just ludicrous, as if Tony Hayward singularly caused the reputation crash of BP by casually making himself the victim. Give the guy a break. If you had cameras stuck on you 24/7 in the worst days of your life, would you say something stupid too Mr. Goodman? BP’s public relations team and advisors made a mistake in allowing Mr. Hayward to be accessible 24/7 which enabled him to say things that minimized the spill or conveyed that he too wanted the spill done with. But, here’s the dilemma–if they hadn’t they (the media) would complain about the absent CEO, if they allowed it, which they did or he insisted, they run the risk of making a comment that the media will use to hang him and the company with.

I find the comments of Mr. Rubenstein referring to BP particularly troublesome: “It was one of the worst P.R. approaches that I’ve seen in my 56 years of business,” says Mr. Rubenstein. “They tried to be opaque. They had every excuse in the book. Right away they should have accepted responsibility and recognized what a disaster they faced. They basically thought they could spin their way out of catastrophe. It doesn’t work that way.” Mr. Rubenstein’s problem is that he’s been reading the New York Times to get his news. He should have been looking at what BP and the coordinated response was doing and saying rather than letting the media “spin” the story for him. From the very beginning BP accepted responsibility, said it was their spill, said they would compensate all legitimate claims, said they would do all they could to stop it, said they would communicate. They did.

As evidence of opaque communication two examples are continually provided: the inaccurate initial spill volume estimate and the fact that in front of Congress BP indicated they were not the only ones to blame. Giving the initial estimate was a mistake–it was a mistake not just made by BP but by Unified Command. Remember, that number was provided by the Federal On-Scene Coordinator speaking for the government and all agencies. The number no doubt came from BP. It was the best estimate they had at the time and it was wrong. What Doug Suttles said later as reported in the Times-Picayune was that what he said when he provided that number was that the number didn’t matter because they were treating the spill as if the volume was unlimited. In other words, there was no scaling of response to the estimated volume. It was all hands on deck to get it stopped with nothing held back and every bit of oil clean up equipment possible was called on. What he should have said when pressed for a number–and here is the lesson for crisis communications in the future–is similar to what Mayor Giuliani said when pressed for an estimate of those killed on 9/11 when the buildings were still falling. Suttles should have said, “We don’t know, we can’t know for certain, but whatever it is is, it is more than we can bear.”

Now, if he said that, what would the media (and Mr. Rubenstein) have said? “You’re being opaque, you’re hiding information, your trying to minimize.” The fact is the response leaders including all gov agencies required an estimate, BP provided their best based on the info they had, Unified Command communicated that to the world, and in the media spin that followed it simply proved how inept and evil BP really was and is.

The other complaint is that BP tried to duck blame. Evidence for this is their testimony to Congress. I challenge you to show me one public statement that BP ever made disowning their responsibility for this event. The truth is that in an event like this there are undoubtedly many complex causes–it is not one single failure. They will be able to point to a whole number of things that if someone had chosen to do something different, the outcome would have changed. If the valve controlling the ram that would pincer off the riser had been manufactured better, or designed better. If a third or fourth or fifth backup emergency shutoff system had been put in place. If alarms had been handled differently, if, if, if. There are more companies involved than BP and more people involved than work for BP. That is the truth. It will take the next 10 years to determine all the liability and where it falls. It would be stupid for BP to hand over to the lawyers of those who also may be liable all the fodder they need to make an open and shut case. So while BP has clearly accepted responsibility and is focusing on cleaning it up, they also have to keep in mind that the courts will make a final determination on cause. An intelligent, responsible media would point this dilemma and problem out. But such nuanced reporting doesn’t create compelling headlines needed to get eyes on the page and advertising rates up.

Once again, I am in agreement with Eric Dezenhall, even though I think the reporter seemed to miss his point. Dezenall said in the NYT article: “The two things that are very hard to survive are hypocrisy and ridicule,” Mr. Dezenhall says. “It’s the height of arrogance to assume that in the middle of a crisis the public yearns for chestnuts of wisdom from people they want to kill. The goal is not to get people not to hate them. It’s to get people to hate them less.”

The public–in a very broad generalization–hates BP. But they hate Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Citgo and all the rest. These companies and the people who run them are the poster children for planet despoilers. They are fouling our atmosphere, causing global warming, forcing us to buy SUVs to take them to the next protest rally. The public’s hypocrisy in their animosity to these companies is of course too obvious to comment on. I have complained for years at the terrible job the oil industry has done in addressing this public sentiment. But when you do something like spill an almost endless amount of oil into a body of water terribly important to fish and people, it is not going to make people like you or the industry any better. When you add the kind of coverage we have seen on this spill–coverage based on competition for eyes–it heaps on the outrage.

So what does this mean for crisis communication of the future?

I’ll repeat my old mantra: Trust is based on two things–do the right things and communicate about them well.

BP did the wrong thing by whatever they did to contribute to this event happening. That is done. What they can do now that they have finally stopped the leak, is continue to do all they can to clean it up and make it right with the people they have harmed. They are doing that and I’m confident they will continue to do that. And they need to communicate well. They need to make certain the world and the American people know what they are doing. In communicating that, they have some very significant obstacles–the media and the politicians who use the media for their own agendas. In my mind (and since I do some work for them I have so advised them) they need to be much, much more agresssive in challenging the kind of coverage that we have seen. They need to correct the facts and mis-information, and challenge the spin that media reports put on the bare facts of this response.

Will it end their reputation problems? Heck no. At best what they can look for is earning the respect of the millions of people in the Gulf that they are working with closely day to day. From that almost one-on-one trust and relationship building, the world will begin to see that there are good people here, doing their best to make things right.

Communicating well in this era of hyper-competitive major news outlets is increasingly going direct with your message. When BP began to advertise nationally that the public could get information directly from the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com website, it was a smart thing to do. It doubled the website traffic overnight. It was smart because people going direct for information had a different view than those who only got their info from the media. However, the value of this was minimized for BP when the Unified Command communication’s became a platform for White House talking points and the primary talking point was that BP was only doing what they were doing because of a boot on their neck.

Crisis communication of the future is going to be increasingly technology-driven and increasingly direct. The event website, social media channels, live video feeds, 24/7 “broadcasting” from the response will be the primary means by which the public gets its information. Sure, bloggers will spin the information according to their agendas and all news outlets will be recognized as the same as bloggers. The communicators for the response will not allow rumors, misinformation, Rolling Stone-type hyperbole to go unchallenged. The communication channels provided by the responders will be a place of lively public debate about the truth. And those providing the information will be committed above all to credibility, to being believed, to provided the unvarnished truth regardless of its damage to them. The news outlets, desperately fighting for audiences, will have a hard time creating salacious headlines in that kind of truth-filled environment.