Monday, December 28, 2009

Five Social Media Crisis Communications Tips

I've spent a lot of the year helping companies incorporate Social Media into their existing crisis communications plans. As with other aspects of Social Media, there is a lot of trial and error. The impact of these new tools on crisis communications is evolving and will continue to evolve into 2010. The New Year no doubt will bring new lessons, but heeding the five tips below will help you be better prepared in 2010.

Build Your Presence Before a Crisis
When I speak to groups about Social Media and Crisis Communications, I tell people that you can't set up your Twitter account when the building's on fire. Passenger train operator Eurostar learned this lesson the hard way this week. Eurostar put off claiming its name on Twitter 2009, opting instead for other Social Media initiatives under the Twitter handle "Little_Break".

Great plan until five Eurostar trains got trapped in the tunnel that runs under the English Channel. More than 2,000 passengers were trapped for the better part of a day. Thousands more had their travel disrupted. The company had to rely on a Twitter account set up for a marketing promotion. That slowed the response and allowed anger to build.

You Won't be First, But You Can be Most Accurate
When USAirways 1549 ditched into the Hudson River, pictures taken by mobile phones were going around the Internet before US Airways knew it had a plane down. The Age of Social Media means you most likely won't be first with information. Your advantage is that you have access to more credible information than the average Tweep on the Street. It is only an advantage, however, if you get that information out.

Employees Need Guidance
During the awful shootings at Fort Hood this year, a soldier sent out dozens of Tweets that contained inaccurate information, and even took a picture of a wounded soldier with her cellphone and posted posted it on TwitPic. As worldwide newsmedia started to follow her on Twitter she became a prime source of misinformation coming from the locked-down base. She gained hundreds of followers that afternoon. And then sent a note out to them to "stop following" her. She said her "Tweets are for (her) friends." She had no idea the whole world could see what she was saying. Make sure your organization's Social Media policy lets employees know what's expected of them. Don't have a Social Media policy? Social Media Governance has an archive of more than 100 company's policies.

You Can't Respond if You Aren't Listening
Monitoring what is being said about your company during a crisis is critical to defend and maintain your reputation. There are plenty of monitoring tools that can help you find out in real-time what is being said about your company. Successful crisis communications in the Social Media age requires 24/7 real-time monitoring. A search for "social media monitoring" on Google will give you all the info you need for monitoring tools, many of which are free.

Don't Forget the Basics
All of the basic crisis communications fundamentals still apply. You have to understand who your audience is; you need to respond rapidly with clear, concise messages demonstrating compassion and competence. Social media is an additional tool for you to use to connect with the people important to you during a crisis, it doesn't change the fundamentals required for success.

What would you add to the list?
These five tips aren't all inclusive, nor will doing all of them guarantee success in a crisis. There are a lot of variables that make for a successful response. What would you add to the list? What's worked for you? What didn't?

The more we all learn from each other, the fewer painful lessons we will have to learn on our own.

Bill Salvin

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays from Signal Bridge Communications

May your messages be clear.
May your media be friendly.
May your Tweets be ReTweeted.
May your crisis be small.

Enjoy the Season!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas, We Threw Away All Your Stuff: A Crisis Comms Holiday Fail Tale

Companies sometimes do dumb things. The smart ones realize that they have made a mistake and then try to make amends.

And then there is builder, developer and property manager JC Hart.

In late October,  Brian Hafer died. That's him with his family in the photo. He lived in an apartment with his wife Krystal Ventro Hafer and the couple's 16-month old daughter. The apartment is in Miamisburg, Ohio (near Dayton) in a community called Austin Springs. Austin Springs is owned by JC Hart.

On December 15, JC Hart had its maintenance people throw away everything left in Ms. Hafer's apartment including pictures of her husband and other irreplaceable things. The apartment had been vacant for more than 45 days and apparently JC Hart had had enough, even though they told Ms. Hafer she could "take all the time she needed."

Krystal took her story where lots of people take their stories these days, to Facebook. It was a way to get support from her friends and friends of friends (I came across this story from my friend, journalist David Waters, who is a friend of Krystal). As Christmas approached, the story began to gather the attention of local television stations. In addition to responding to local media requests, JC Hart posted its statement on Krystal's Facebook page.

Ponder that for a moment. JC Hart posted its statement on the Facebook page of its victim.

The company has its own Facebook Page. The statement is not posted there. The company's homepage is hosted on a Blogspot domain. They didn't post it to their blog. Something like that doesn't happen by accident.

I understand that companies want to defend their actions; I encourage clients to get their message out. But, posting the statement on Ms. Hafer's Facebook page is simply vindictive. JC Hart seems pissed that it's getting negative attention so they lashed out at a widow. Lashed out after they threw out all her stuff because she didn't move out fast enough.

Anyone wondering the appropriate length of time to grieve the loss of a spouse need only consult with the JC Hart version of Schneider from One Day at a Time. 

The statement is an amateur's delight. There's the poor attempt at compassion ("We apologize for the distress this has caused anyone"). Anyone? They don't need to apologize to anyone, they need to apologize to Ms. Hafer.

How about the lame statement of focus (JC Hart is focused on treating all residents with respect). Of course they are, right up until they toss all their stuff in the dumpster.

Finally, the useless boilerplate ("...and takes pride in providing a premier rental community in the Dayton area"). That's great, because I wouldn't want just any landlord to throw away my priceless things. I want the folks at Dayton's premier rental community to do that.

This is the most breathtakingly stupid thing I have ever seen a company do.

JC Hart says  they "stand behind our actions." Whatever.

Maybe that will be of some comfort when Ms. Hafer has to explain to her daughter why there are so few pictures of her father.

Bill Salvin

Monday, December 21, 2009

Eurostar Crisis: Why You Need to Claim Your Name

A great lesson unfolded over the weekend deep under the English Channel where five Eurostar trains were trapped because of some form of malfunction. More than 2,000 people were trapped for as much as 16 hours. Many of those trapped had no food, water or light.

While Eurostar has a Twitter account, its handle is little_break, which is linked to a marketing promotion for the company. According to the Brand Republic Blog, the Twitter handles eurostar and eurostar_uk are not related to the company.  The eurostar handle is based out of Shanghai and the eurostar_uk handle doesn't exist according to Twitter.

People looking for updates on the crisis who weren't familiar with the promotion would have been mystified searching for Eurostar and discovering that it doesn't "exist."

Eurostar's Social Media agency is London-based We Are Social, which has a detailed explanation of the hows and whys of this crisis. I like the openness of their post. It is exactly what an organization should do when they find themselves in a crisis. This post will matter for perspective clients and current clients in case they would doubt the agency's competence since their involvement with Eurostar is widely known.

We Are Social claims they urged Eurostar to claim its name, but that was pushed onto the 2010 to-do list. I can hear a client saying that. Clients always tend to move cautiously; with Social Media even more so.

So what's the takeaway here?

Claim your name!

Do it right now.

Bill Salvin

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Dawn of the Microcast: Journalism's Future Takes Shape

Editor's Note: You can watch This Week in Space at The first show is set to debut Sunday, Dec. 20.

Despite all the doom and gloom that surrounds journalism today there is a bright future and a big part of it could be something I'm calling the "Microcast."

For background, the big three networks brought us broadcasting (think general interest shows like "60 Minutes", The Cosby Show and Lost). Cable brought us narrowcasting (think Bravo's "Inside the Actor's Studio", "Animal Planet" and CNN.)

Now the Web is bringing us microcasting. A show that delivers specific content to an extremely precise audience.

The show I'm talking about is called This Week in Space hosted by veteran journalist Miles O'Brien. O'Brien. The show is supported by the same crew that turned Space Shuttle launch coverage from obligatory cable news live shots that lasted a few minutes to interesting, in-depth, interactive conversations with space experts and spaceflight fans worldwide that lasts for hours.

The audiences for all of the launch casts are small, totaling about 750,000 people over six launches. But during the last launch cast, more than 200,000 people tuned in from 181 countries. By comparison, the lowest-rated evening newscasts from the big three networks (CBS Evening News with Katie Couric) gets about five million viewers a night. But none of those viewers gets to send Katie a message and ask her a question about a story during the show.

This is an exciting and unsettled time in spaceflight... there are only five missions left for the Space Shuttle, a budget-driven decision that effectively grounds the world's most versatile and successful spacecraft. Commercial entrepreneurs seem on the cusp of both space tourism and cargo delivery service to low earth orbit (LEO).

This Week in Space is different than a company putting up a video on its Website or posting a Podcast. These are top-flight independent journalists doing a show on a topic about which they are passionate. O'Brien has decades of coverage under his belt, including a long stint as CNN's space correspondent, Former CNN Senior Science Producer Kate Tobin is the executive producer here. Veteran journalist David Waters serves as producer, correspondent and post-production manager and's managing editor Steven Young rounds out the team.

The same team that brought us innovative launch coverage is further serving the needs of the audience they've cultivated over the last year or so.

Here's why I think this is going to be both successful and important to the future of journalism. Advertisers crave a reliable, predictable audience. The more precise your target audience is, the better able you are to rely on advertising to keep the program streaming across cyberspace.  Our human spaceflight program has always brought amazing benefits. Wouldn't it be awesome if coverage of the final frontier creates a new frontier for journalism?

With all the talk about a government bail out of journalism, this is as refreshing as it was predictable. If you stay out of people's way, they generally create something of value.

And, in the case of This Week in Space, something pretty cool to watch.

Bill Salvin

If you want to contact the This Week in Space team, you can email them at You can also follow them on Twitter at

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tiger's PR Crisis: What He Got Right

My last post, "The Problem With Tiger's Statement" picked on golf's biggest star for his non-statement which, if you read closely enough is actually a lie.
Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible. Tiger Woods, November 29, 2009
The stories circulating weren't so much irresponsible as they were TRUE.

Tiger was trying to use his reputation or "Tigerness" to shame people so that they would feel bad and prevent embarrassing news from coming out. It worked about as well for Tiger as it would for anyone else. As I said in my first post about his problems, the truth will come out.

I understand the strategy of not saying anything. I'm a Navy guy, I understand what it means to batten down the hatches. But there is a huge difference between securing for heavy seas and hiding below deck to let the sea take you whichever way the winds blow. Navigating in a storm takes active engagement. My friends who have stood a bridge watch in heavy seas will enjoy the understatement.

So what did Tiger do right? He (or his people) maintained the comment function on Tiger's Website. As I write this, there are 19,602 comments on the site; many positive, some fiercely negative. This is important because in our participatory age, we all want to be part of a big story; especially one about a celebrity. Tiger gave that opportunity to people. After eight days of horrible PR mistakes, this is one thing Tiger got right.

Besides the fact that the truth will come out, I said that there were two factors that would keep this story alive. People will talk. And, lord have they ever. The Web is alive with the tales Tiger's mistresses. Whether they actually were one of Tiger's mistresses we don't really know. The last thing is that the media will not stop covering this until everything comes out. The problem with Tiger’s strategy is that the people talking now have more credibility than he does. After all, he’s already been caught in a lie.

Tiger's PR crisis is as ordinary as his sin. Those that don't get out in front of the story find themselves at the mercy of the people who do.

Bill Salvin

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jeff McDowell/Released

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Problem with Tiger's Statement

Tiger Woods has weighed in on his accident. He issued a statement to his website late Sunday afternoon. It's really a non-statement in that it answers no questions that people have about the accident. One sentence in particular stands out:
"This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way."
We all want many things.

Not to be a pessimist, but that's not going to happen. In my first post about Tiger's Troubles I wrote that all that Tiger had to do was to tell the truth. Nothing in his statement appears to be untruthful, it is simply 180 words that contain nothing of any substance.

The same reasons Tiger wants privacy are the same reasons that he needs to answer people's questions. The people Tiger wants to continue to buy the $90 polo shirts and $25 ball caps feel like Tiger is hiding something. Fame can be so inconvenient! This isn't about protecting Tiger's personal privacy, but to protect the corporate image of Tiger Woods.

In that way, Tiger is no different than any large organization under siege. He is in denial, hoping against all available indications that this will go away quietly. There were three things that I said were certainties in my first post:

  • The truth will come out
  • People will talk
  • The media (including new media) will be relentless until the story is finished

Tiger's statement has done nothing to stop any of the three. In fact, his statement will most likely aggravate the situation. The police report and 911 tapes will get more attention now than if Tiger had simply told us what happened.

Most irritating to me is that many of the people who are big Tiger Woods fans are people who run big companies that will find themselves in crisis. And when people like me come to consult with them, they're going to want to be just like Tiger... just like they do when they are on the golf course.

Then I will have to waste time explaining to them that there are two things Tiger does that they can't do.

Tiger said in his statement that he is human and not perfect. He's asking us to have a little faith in him. Tiger should have more faith in his fans. The people that love him when he hits a bunker off the fairway won't love him less because he hit a fire hydrant and tree at the end of his driveway.

Bill Salvin

The Most Important Thing Tiger Woods Can Do Right Now

Tell the truth.

No matter how embarrassing, that is his only salvation.

To recap, Mr. Woods was involved in a one-car accident about 2:30 am Friday. According the the authorities in Florida, Tiger's wife smashed the back window of Tiger's Cadillac Escalade with a golf club and Tiger was found laying on the street, bloodied and unconscious. The authorities report the truck hit a fire hydrant and a tree less than 100 feet from the couple's driveway. Tiger's wife Elin Nordegren (above), doesn't seem like she has the physique to drag the 6'1" Woods from the front seat of his SUV...into the middle seat and over that and then out the back window. So, did she crawl through the broken window to unlock the doors? Now the Daily Mail in the UK reports that two passenger side windows were also smashed. Smashing one window seems plausible. Smashing three seems angry or desperate.

Many publications have pointed out that there have been rumors of Tiger having an affair with a model and that perhaps Mrs. Woods was miffed and the pair got into a scuffle.

The key to successfully communicating in a crisis is to be honest, transparent and clear. Whether the news is embarrassing shouldn't enter into the equation. Although, it always does.

There are three things that are certain to play out over the next few days and weeks:

1) The truth will come out
Whatever the real story is, it will come out regardless of the wishes of Tiger, his wife or any of their handlers. A car accident is one thing. Domestic disputes, if that's what happened, are quite another.

2) People will talk
People connected to the story will talk. People who have nothing to do with the story will talk. Ultimately, the only person we want to hear from is Tiger. Until we hear from him, anyone will do. Truth has little to do with the story these people will tell. People want fame. (See: Reality Television; Balloon Boy)

3) The news media (including new media) will be relentless until the story is finished
Journalists are tired of doing the holiday shopping story and this is a lot more interesting that blogging about the ten hot new trends for Social Media in 2010. (Although, I am still working on a piece on personal branding)

The sad part about all of this is that none of us knows what happened. The window of goodwill that is currently open to Tiger will close very soon.

And it will take a lot more than a golf club to open it again.

Bill Salvin

Update: Tiger Woods issued a statement. Take a look at it here, but it will do nothing to stop this story. Good luck at your Tuesday press conference, Tiger. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No One Hurt in No Plane Crash-A Social Media-Crisis Comms Case Study

One of the huge perceived risks of Social Media is that anyone can say anything about your organization, and rumors or false allegations can spread like wildfire. It is a risk, but not an unmanageable one.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak about Social Media and Crisis Communications with a group of public affairs officers from the U.S. Air Force in Washington, DC. They shared a great case study with me of how they used Social Media last March to crush false stories about a crash of a C-17 cargo plane. There was no plane crash. It's an understatement to say that the crash of an aircraft is a huge deal for the Air Force.

Here's the timeline from last March 23:

  • 1:35 pm (EST) CNN reports a C-17 plane has crashed near Olney, Texas. The story cited "callers to police" as the source of information about the crash. 
  • 1:36 pm (one minute later) The story of the crash moves to Twitter. You can see that this Tweep has already checked the Air Force's official Website to confirm the information and didn't like that there was nothing posted about the "crash." That tells you a lot about people's expectations of organizations in the Age of Social Media.

  • 1:45 pm (nine minutes later) Message boards pick up the story. Note that the CNN story now attributes word of the crash to a spokesman at Shepherd Air Force Base. 
  • 1:53 pm (17 minutes after the first report on CNN) The Air Force posts to its main Twitter feed that there is no crash. The PAOs at the Air Force's National Press Desk also reach out to CNN and other key media by phone and email. What this tells us is that traditional media relations skills and tactics will still be important even as we add Social Media tools to our response kit.

  • 2:31 pm (55 minutes after the initial report) CNN posts a story that the search has been called off because the report of the crash was false. 
Every crisis is different (even crises sparked by things that don't happen) and every company needs to incorporate Social Media into its crisis plan in a way that enhances and quickens the response cycle. I believe there are three key things we can learn from the Air Force in this case:
  1. People expect your organization to be present in the Social Media space. Your presence in social media will be a key channel for getting information out in a crisis. Establish your presence now so people know where to find you when a crisis strikes. 
  2. Traditional means of getting out information during a crisis are still important. The Air Force didn't abandon its traditional means of getting to reporters. PAOs picked up the phone and called their contacts to get the word out that there was no crash. Traditional media are still important and relevant for crisis communications. 
  3. The risk of misinformation is manageable. As the Air Force's experience here shows, organizations that are engaged with their stakeholders and present in the Social Media space stand a much better chance of getting their message out successfully in a crisis.
Note: A huge tip of the hat to USAF Capt. Christina Sukach, (@csukach), Chief of Emerging Technology at the Air Force Public Affairs Agency for sharing this case study and Chris Isleib, (@cisleib), the Deputy Director for Media Operations for Air Force Public Affairs for inviting me to speak.  

Bill Salvin

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Last Person on Earth who Should Own a Social Media Policy

I read a blog post by "CIO in Training" Anjuan Simmons that tries to make the case for the CIO to own the corporate social media policy. It's been a while since I have so vehemently disagreed with something I read online. All I can hear in my head is John McEnroe screaming "You can't possibly be serious!"

Simmons makes his case with three arguments:
  • The CIO Holds the Keys to the Kingdom
  • The CIO is the Best Monitor
  • The CIO can play Angel's Advocate
Let's take a look at each of those and why I think the CIO is the wrong owner of the social media policy.

The CIO Holds the Keys to the Kingdom
This is the same argument we used as kids. Why do I get to make the rules during the neighborhood game of football? Because it's my ball, that's why. Simmons argues thusly:
If an employee accidently unleashes a virus onto the corporate network by using Facebook at work, who do you think will be contacted to resolve the problem? It won't be PR or marketing.
If the virus impacts systems that touch customers or the public does Simmons really think that the CIO will be doing the press conference? Or writing talking points for managers? Or responding to calls from reporters? The CEO won't be asking the CIO what the key message should be. With this logic, imagine all the company's janitor will be in charge of since he unclogs the toilet.

Let's remember, it was the IT geniuses at Amazon who created a system for the company's Kindle product that allowed anyone to photocopy a book, upload it and sell it to people. When the owners of George Orwell's copyrights for 1984 objected to a blatant infringement on their rights, Amazon deleted the offending books from people's Kindle devices without notifying them. Funny, but I didn't see the CIO anywhere near that crisis.

The CIO is the Best Monitor
This is really a derivative of Simmons "my toys, my rules" argument. He writes:
Since most of that content is done on corporate networks, CIOs have access to tools (many of which are probably already in place) to track social media behavior.
Personal use of social media while at work is one part of a social media policy. How the company will use social media to listen to, talk with, connect to, collaborate with and energize employees, customers, stakeholders, investors are critical parts of the policy about which Simmons is silent.

Again, just because you have the tools, doesn't mean you get to make the rules.

The CIO can Play Angel's Advocate
What Simmons argues here is that the CIO can be the grand arbiter of the binary choice of outright ban on social media use or social media free-for-all.
Instead of knee jerk reactions, CIOs can come up with structured yet flexible policy guidelines that allow employees to enjoy the fun of social meda while protecting the company's strategic assets.
So, the computer geeks (or head computer geek, in this case) get to determine how much "fun" I can have at work with social media? This is nowhere NEAR the point of a social media policy. The point of a corporate social media policy is to set the strategy that aligns social media use so that the company can reach its goals. Goals like sell more stuff or deliver better service.

So, who should own the corporate social media policy? My vote is for the head of the PR or Communications function. Great social media use comes from great content and communicators are content creators. The CIO may the Lord of the Hardware, but great content comes not from hardware, but from people.

If the CIO doesn't like that, they can pack up their TCP/IP and go home.

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pot, Breasts, Sex and Disaster

Watching the news Tuesday seemed very strange, surreal and jarring. A veritable cornucopia of chaos assaulting my news junkie senses.

Medical marijuana seems like a big story. There are votes scheduled in Los Angeles and several other states to legalize pot for medicinal purposes.
This story ran next to the controversial recommendation from the US Preventive Services Task Force that women under 50 do not need routine mammograms and that breast self-exams are mostly ineffective.

At least if a woman gets breast cancer and lives in the right place, she'll be able to blaze up a doobie to ease the pain.

The Fort Hood shooter is still in the news. Today's stories focused on internal probes being undertaken by the Army and the Department of Defense to figure out how the shooter, a Islamic extremist and Army Psychiatrist "slipped through the cracks." This came on the same day the Army reported that suicides for the year will break last year's terribly sad record.

Note to TV people: Just because both stories have the word "Army" in them doesn't make them linked. Even if they do make your show "flow."

Note to Army and Air Force people: Pull your help wanted ads for psychiatrists for for a while. I'm nowhere near Fort Hood. How tasteless must they appear to those close to that tragedy?

Plenty of Sarah Palin today. She willingly walks into television studios to bathe in the media spotlight while bashing said media for coverage that she claims is unfair, sexist and mean.

She is like the relative who comes over for Thanksgiving and does nothing but bitch about the food you serve. It didn't look like Oprah held a gun to her head.

She chose to do this. She could stop.

My favorite story of the day was that the NFL fined the 84-year old owner of the Tennessee Titans $250K for flipping off the crowd at the Titans game versus the Buffalo Bills. Of course, it was captured on mobile video.

If he owns the team, clearly the family has enough money to keep gramps on his meds. What does he do when he gets bad pudding at the home? What I don't get is that both teams are 3-6 this year. Why was Bud flipping off the Buffalo fans? That the team they root for is as mediocre as the team he owns?

So what does all this mean? All these disparate stories bombarding all of us, all day every day?

I'm not sure, but I would love to hear what people think. How do you set your personal filter for all these crazy stories?

After absorbing all of this, I now understand the romance of thinking the world will end in 2012.

Fake disasters are much easier to deal with than the real ones.

Bill Salvin

Friday, November 13, 2009

No Time to Wait

In life and work, there is often a disconnect between what we should be doing and what we actually do. The signs we see along the way can be conflicting and confusing.

When it comes to communications, moving forward with Social Media policies, plans and strategies is the most important work PR pros need to be doing right now. I saw some statistics the other day that highlight what people are actually doing: moving too slowly into the Social Media world.

I'm not sure they realize the reputational risk they take by waiting.

Here are the numbers that caught my eye during a Communications Executive Council Webinar on Managing Reputation in Online Conversations.
  • 57% of companies have no Social Media policy
  • 71% of companies have no Social Media strategy
  • 79% of companies have no instructions for responding to Social Media posts made by outside parties
A lot of people trumpet the virtues of Social Media from the standpoint of the opportunity it offers and opportunity abounds, to be sure. Those numbers from the CEC show that companies are not only missing the opportunity presented by Social Media, they aren't even doing the minimum work needed to protect their company from the risks inherent in the new environment.

A lot of folks I know describe their companies as risk-averse. Yet, many of those companies have no Social Media policy, strategy or guidelines. How is that averting a risk?

In 2008, people spent 20.5 billion minutes on Facebook. Now, people spend 8 billion minutes on Facebook every day. What took a year in 2008 takes 2.5 days now. That number is staggering.

Both of the CEC panelists (Alex Dudley, VP Public Relations at Time Warner Cable and Nick Caplan, Corporate PR Manager for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe) urged people to just get started. Paraphrasing Dudley's take on things... Everyone is finding their way in this new environment, you can't wait until the path is well-worn before getting started.

Need a Social Media policy? There are plenty of examples online. Social Media Governance has an online database of policies. Need Social Media monitoring software? "In" Seattle News has a list of 12 free Social Media monitoring tools.

Need advice from people who are already engaged in Social Media? Ask. Most likely people will be happy to help.

Uncertainty loves company.

Bill Salvin

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fort Hood, Social Media and the Scary Speed of Today's Crisis Comms

Trying to sort out communications lessons from the tragic shootings at Fort Hood this past Thursday is a challenge. The enormity of the tragedy hasn't fully taken hold.

How does it come to pass that a medical doctor who had pledged to "first do no harm" kills the very men and women who would have willingly given their lives to protect him in combat?

All crises are human events and all journalism is about how events impact people. Despite the terabytes of information that we've been exposed to about the shootings, Journalists still have much to write about the Fort Hood Massacre. Making sense of what was happening through all the noise of early reporting was nearly impossible, but not necessarily all bad.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald blogged about the media orgy of rumors and just plain bad information that came out in the first hours of this story. I'm not sure that there was any more or less bad information during this breaking news than any other story. It's just that social media connected us to it faster and more broadly than in the past.

The clearest lesson came from watching traditional media embrace social media to "improve" breaking news coverage. Yes, Social Media did simply add to the noise at times, but this is how breaking news will work from now on. Communicators have to be ready.

From local media in Killeen, Tex. to International outlets like the New York Times, we had access to so much information that live television seemed slow and one dimensional. I would see something on Twitter and wonder how long it would take CNN to get to the "latest" info. Twitter lists allowed me to follow the story from dozens of sources in one place in real-time.

(If you want a nice primer on Twitter Lists, GHack sums it up for you.)

So what does this mean for communicators who finds themselves in a similar situation? I have a couple of thoughts.

1. Monitor Social Media sites and Twitter Lists
The time is now to put processes or procedures in place for monitoring Social Media sites during a crisis. You don't want to be learning how to search for Tweets or what a trending topic is when chaos is all around. Kevin Duggan at the Strategic Communications Blog has an excellent post on how news organizations and Twitter lists were used in connection to the Fort Hood Shootings. Finding people now that will Tweet about your company, industry or organization will save you time when time is one of your most precious commodities. No need to reinvent the wheel, you can add and expand already established Twitter Lists. Here's a good resource list of tools from Take Me To Your Leader.

2. Know and engage your advocates on Social Media
The key differentiator between the professional communicator and the average Tweep on the street is accuracy. Use your Social networks to your advantage. One bit of accurate info re-Tweeted can go a long way in countering the types of misinformation common to large crises. The Social Media Net will work, but you've got to be ready to use it. The time to establish these networks and begin to engage is now, not when the crisis strikes. (Hat tip to Kari Fluegel of United Space Alliance for helping my thinking on this one.)

3. Be clear with your leadership about their expectations of you and yours of them in a crisis
Your bosses need to know now what you will be doing when the crisis moves everyone to warp speed. You need to know how your bosses will react. Schedule a table-top exercise to walk through process and procedures. Review your crisis communications plans and make adjustments for Social Media's impact on your plans.

4. Set expectations/policies for your employees
Expect your employees to be part of the Social Media mix during a crisis... for good or ill. Heard of Tearah Moore? She is a Fort Hoot Soldier who was Tweeting from the scene. Ms. Moore even snapped a picture of a wounded solider at the hospital, sent it to Twitpic and let the world know the soldier had been "shot in the balls." I captured the screen shot below of her Twitter page during the chaos of Thursday afternoon, right after they announced that an Army Major was the shooter.

Mainstream media found her quickly during the tragedy and started quoting her Tweets. I started to follow her as did hundreds of others. (Her Twitter account is now protected.) She sent a Tweet out late Thursday telling people to stop following her because her Tweets were for her friends. Except she told one of her friends to pass on her phone number to the media. My sense is that she had no idea the tornado she jumped into, or how far or fast it would carry her 140 character missives. Sad. (Paul Carr of Tech Crunch has some sobering perspective on this in his great post.)

There are other lessons to be learned, and I'll write more about them in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.

This is an important one for all communicators to get right. While we still have time.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Do Actions Really Speak Louder than Words?

I keep hearing communicators pass this on as sage advice when companies or people deal with a crisis. This irks me because it's only half the story. As a communicator, think about this: if actions DO speak louder than words, then why do you have a job?

This has been rolling around in my head for a while now. I started thinking about it after reading an article on strategic communication that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen wrote for Joint Force Quarterly. It's a good read, and America's senior military leader gets a lot right about how communications can be better. For example, he advocates knowing the context in which your actions will be seen and your messages heard. Bingo! He urges people to listen more so that you understand the population. Exactly. "A message isn't something that you launch downrange." Finally!

A sentence at the end, though makes me think that he misses a key point when it comes to using communications to achieve a mission objective (or a business goal). This is what he writes...
"...what we are after in the end—or should be after—are actions that speak for themselves, that speak for us."
Here's the problem: In the case of Afghanistan, there is a relentless enemy that takes U.S. actions and twists, fabricates and lies to the population about what happened, what it means to them and what the U.S. "really" intends. The Taliban and al Qaeda have a communications arm that puts their messages out to the audiences they want to reach.

It's hard to win a war if you're not on the battlefield, communications or otherwise.

To carry out a business strategy (or mission objective), your operations AND communications have to be aligned to reach the goal. Actions almost never speak for themselves, especially now when media (traditional and social) bombard us with thousands of messages and images daily. (Full disclosure: Besides being a PR/Crisis Guy, I am a Navy Reserve PAO. I have not worked with Admiral Mullen nor had a part in the Joint Force Quarterly article. The views here are my own, not the military's)

So how do actions and communications work together? Think of it as a virtuous circle with each part reinforcing the other.

In a crisis, this circle of actions and communications working together is critical for a successful response.

Meaningful Actions + Lousy Communications = FAIL

Lousy Actions + Meaningful Communications = FAIL

Meaningful Actions + Meaningful Communications = Success

I know Admiral Mullen believes communications matter and that effective communications can take many forms. He has a Facebook page and a Twitter account and posts to both regularly.

So the question for communicators isn't, "Do actions really speak louder than words?" Rather, "Are your organization's actions worthy enough for your communications to make any difference?" You need to answer that question.

There is no better feeling for a PR pro than working with an organization that gets actions and communications right.

We communicators love the smell of key messages in the morning.

Bill Salvin

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Thin Defense of the Wrong Thing

You can learn a lot about a company when you look at what they defend when a crisis strikes. Ralph Lauren ran into some trouble with the one of the most horrific photoshop disasters in recent memory. The photo at left is of model Filippa Hamilton after being photoshopped into non-human proportions. (Shout out to the good-humored folks at photoshop disasters)

A lot of people complained that pictures like this create unrealistic expectations for young women. A blogger for BoingBoing pointed out, "Dude, her head is wider than her pelvis."

That pretty much qualifies as unrealistic in my book.

Here is the statement released by Polo Ralph Lauren:
"For over 42 years we have built a brand based on quality and integrity. After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman's body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately."
So, Ralph & Co. are defending the "brand." It's as though the word must be spoken in hushed tones as we genuflect before his holiness.

No one was upset about the photo because it reflected poorly on Ralph's brand. As a consumer, I don't give a rip about Ralph Lauren's brand. I care about my teenage daughter who sees ads like this and wonders how she will ever measure up. Photoshop always trumps genetics.

The company gets points for taking responsibility, but fails because its statement is as devoid of humanity as the idiotic ad.

Polo Ralph Lauren also fails because it threatened to sue BoingBoing for an "infringing use" of a Ralph Lauren ad. Hint for Ralph and the team: the bloggers weren't using the ad... they were MOCKING it.

As fails go, this one wasn't epic until the company started responding. They could have issued a nice statement about their Photoshop error and mentioned something about healthy lifestyles or some such thing. Instead, the company threatened the bloggers with legal action and issued a lame statement focused inward instead of focused on real people.

And for those who think models are simply vapid and vain, the model, Fillipa Hamilton, hit things dead on when she told the New York Post:

"I think they owe American women an apology, a big apology. I'm very proud of what I look like, and I think a role model should look healthy."
Hamilton said Polo Ralph Lauren fired her because she was overweight and couldn't fit in their clothes anymore. By the way, Hamilton is 5'10" and tips the scales at 120 lbs.

How hideous.

Bill Salvin

Monday, October 26, 2009

Death & the Guru

Our parents told us (at least mine told me) that actions speak louder than words. Except that in today's world I'm not sure it's true anymore. If you talk enough and flood the zone with enough crap, people never get to judge you based on your actions because you can obscure them with words.

What got me thinking about this is how spiritual guru James Arthur Ray and his publicist are conducting themselves in the wake of three deaths at an expensive New Age Retreat sponsored by the author in Sedona, Arizona. With so much media and so many places to get information it seems people in crisis think they can say anything with impunity.

Here's what happened. Around 60 people paid about ten grand for a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" retreat sponsored by Ray, the supposed "spiritual guru" and co-author of the popular book The Secret.

The final part of the seminar (after a 36-hour fast) was sweat-lodge ceremony in which all 60 or so folks were crammed into a 450 square foot, pitch-black, tent-like structure. For those who don't know, a sweat lodge is Native American spiritual cleansing ritual that takes place in a sauna-like space. The sweat-lodge experience ended badly.

Three people died and 19 people were hospitalized after the ceremony due to multiple organ failure and other causes.

The Arizona Republic and the Associated Press have been doing outstanding reporting on the incident. The photo at the left is what remained of the sweat-lodge after people tore it apart in order to get people out. Here is one AP story of a survivor's account of what it was like during the ceremony.

As for our guru? The deaths are being investigated as a homicide. A fact that Ray's publicist, Howard Bragman doesn't like.
"There were no additional facts presented today; there were implications. I find words like 'homicide' -- when they don't have all the facts -- inflammatory and inappropriate at this time, and I think they're purposely inflammatory. ... Let's show as much zeal with the investigation and getting to the facts as they have in trying to tar my client."
Ray's Words:
  • My team and I are working with the appropriate authorities and have even hired our own investigators to find out the truth.
Ray's Actions:
  • Left Arizona without making a statement to investigators
  • Continues to make appearances around the country
  • Hired a Los Angeles publicist who issues statements attacking the investigators with whom Ray is supposedly cooperating
  • Deleted all of his Tweets posted during the retreat, many of which referenced death
By the way, thanks to the Beyond Growth Blog, you can read all the deleted Tweets. People never learn.

Ray has not been charged with any crime and he has every right to not speak to investigators, but if that's his choice, why is he trying to sell this bill of goods to the public? If he hasn't done anything wrong, why delete the Tweets?

If Ray isn't speaking to the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department, he isn't working with the appropriate authorities.

It appears to me that Ray wants to convince the public that the only way for him to cope with this tragedy is to do the same things he was doing before the tragedy. His actions, words and the words of his spokesman tell me a different story. It shows me that what Ray really cares about is saving his potentially incarcerated ass.

Ray can protect his backside if he wants, I just wish he'd be honest about it.

Race car driver Helio Castroneves proclaimed his innocence when he was accused of tax fraud. He then left racing and the public eye and focused on fighting the charges. Three days after his acquittal, he won the Indianapolis 500. His reputation was made whole by the acquittal and enhanced by the dramatic victory in the greatest auto race on the planet.

If I were putting things in priority order, defending myself against potential charges of negligent homicide would rank higher than making my next gig.

Does Ray really think he'll have trouble rebuilding his business if he's done nothing wrong? Is there suddenly a shortage of people anxious to have a "guru" hook them up with the twin aphrodisiacs of wealth and personal spirituality? I don't think so.

I do have a small bit of advice for Ray (and his publicist), not that either has asked. The whole "hired our own investigators to find out the truth" is a losing message.

Just ask OJ.

Bill Salvin