Thursday, February 19, 2009

Case Study: Quick, Social & Successful Crisis Communications

If you want a great example of crisis communications (social media, regular media or otherwise) take a look at Peter Shankman's response to the technical glitch that caused a teleconference with 2,000 clients to go over the cliff this week.

Shankman is a Public Relations/Social Media expert who has one of the most popular services for PR folks anywhere. It's called HARO or Help a Reporter Out. HARO comes out three times a day during the work week with queries from journalists. The email goes to more than 50,000 PR folks worldwide. The queries come from all media from the New York Times down to small specialty trade publications. The service is free.

Shankman knows that those 50,000 PR people want reporters to write stories that aren't necessarily on the journalist's agenda. So he put together a conference call on how to pitch reporters. He had capacity for 2,000 dial-ins, but marketed it for $50 for “as many people as you can cram around a phone." It's a good deal.

Until it went horribly awry.

Apparently the call quality was poor. Think about the image of thousands of PR folks crammed into conference rooms across the country saying "what the hell?" It's difficult to find out how to pitch journalists when you can't hear the journalists.

Shankman communicates relentlessly via Twitter, sending short notes out to the more than 27,000 people who follow him on the micro-blogging service (me included). His response to the call failure started at 1:08 pm Eastern time. The call had started at 1:00 p.m.

The audio stream is being reset, according to @fawnkey.Please stand by. 11:08 AM Feb 18th

He kept communicating.

I'm truly sorry for the quality of the c call, and I know CCU is working to fix it. I truly apologize. @fawnkey is working on it. #HARO 11:17 AM Feb 18th

The tweet above is important because it expanded the audience. The first tweet would have been received by anyone who follows Shankman, but not necessarily everyone on the call. When he inserted the hashtag #HARO into the post, anyone who was searching for that hashtag (as they had been instructed to do at the beginning of the call) could see his comment. Click here for a good explanation of hashtags.

The technical problems proved fatal to the call. So now Shankman has at least 2,000 folks who have paid to hear how best to get their stories into the press who are just waiting. His next three tweets came in quick succession:

I'm not sure what to say. This has never happened b4. I'm truly, truly sorry. We will obviously redo this ASAP. I'm just so very sorry. ... 11:27 AM Feb 18th

#HARO. Again - My apologies - This will not happen again. I'm so very sorry. I'm so very sorry. 11:28 AM Feb 18th

I'm working on a reschedule of the call as we speak. I will make this right. #HARO 11:32 AM Feb 18th

Shankman’s promise to “make this right” is outstanding. An old friend of mine used to say that people will forgive you for not being perfect. What they won’t forgive you for is not wanting to be perfect. You could tell that it bothered him that this didn’t go well. It mattered to Shankman that he deliver on his promise.

Here’s what people were told about what went wrong:

RT @FawnKey::#HARO call. A "perfect storm" of events caused probs. We are VERY, sorry this happened. Don't blame @skydiver. It was us.

It was no 1's fault. S#it happens. We're working the problem and finding the solution. We'll have a new call ASAP. #HARO 12:09 PM Feb 18th

I loathe the phrase “perfect storm” to describe something that goes wrong. People use it to avoid blaming anyone. Too often people use "perfect storm" when there is clearly someone to blame…the CEO for making a bad decision…or the bankers who loaned money to people who couldn’t afford it.

In this case, it seems appropriate though, because technology often fails in unpredictable, unexpected ways. But really, isn't there an intern that can be blamed?

By 3:24 pm, the call had been rescheduled and Shankman had posted a note to his blog with an explanation and apology.

Shankman's Blog Response

This response to crisis succeeded because of four critical elements.

Focus on the audience most impacted
He reached out to the people on the conference call. In most organizational crises, there are a lot of audiences in play, but usually only one or two that are directly impacted. Shankman focused his communications on the right audience. The rest of us (I wasn't on the call) make judgments based on how the company (Shankman, in this case) responds to the key audience.

Communicate quickly and continuously
The first response came within minutes of trouble and the communications continued until the rescheduled call was successfully completed. Everyone knew what was going on every step of the way. The key audience always got information directly from the most credible source.


Apologizing for an adverse event is a critical element of a successful response, yet this is often the hardest thing for an executive or an organization to offer. Without it, the audience you are trying to reach probably won’t listen to your explanation of what went wrong.

Make amends

Shankman delivered on his promise to "make this right. People got exactly what they paid for, which was a conference call with journalists on how to pitch stories."

It makes me wonder how we’d feel if we had heard from anyone in the banking industry the way we heard from Shankman.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Social Media vs Traditional Media: It's NOT a Contest

All the hand-wringing about Social Media vs. Traditional Media is starting to irritate me. It started when a friend from the UK sent me a link to a blog talking about the "first tweet" on Twitter related to the crash of Continental Airlines 3407.

Andrea Vascellari wrote "What’s impressive from the communication point of view it’s to see that the information about the crash spread much faster through social media channels rather on traditional ones."

Another tweet found it strange that it took the 24-hour news networks two hours to get the news onto their airwaves.

We all need a little reality check here. It's not particularly impressive (or even surprising) that a guy who lives a few miles from the crash reported on it before CNN did. And strange that it took two hours? As John McEnroe used to say, "You cannot possibly be serious!"

Let's say I work at CNN and for some reason I happen to follow Buffalo Best Buy manager Keith Burtis. Here's what I would have seen:

Am I going to break into programming to announce that Keith Burtis is reporting a plane crash a few miles from his house? No, I'm not.

I'm going to do things like find out who the hell Keith Burtis is and where he lives. Then I'm going to call credible sources like the county sheriff's department, the Buffalo Airport, the FAA. I'll start monitoring the social networks to see if there is other chatter.

In going back and forth with Neil Chapman, a veteran PR guy and superb crisis communicator who posts from time to time at CrisisBlogger, he pointed out that traditional media's competitive advantage in the information space is accuracy. It is the same advantage a company has when using social media.

When Flight 1549 splashed into the Hudson, Chapman says (and I agree with him) that US Air could have used social media to let people know that they were:

*Contacting relatives
*Offering counseling to anyone caught up in the terrible events
*Making sure people had somewhere to stay
*Ensuring relatives could be reunited with loved ones as soon as possible

A company involved in an incident will ultimately be a better, more credible source of information in a crisis than bystanders or witnesses. But if they aren't part of the conversation. Companies information is valuable not for what people heard or saw or felt, but for what is being done about the incident.

All journalism is about how events impact people. Companies must use Social Media to get the word out about how they responding and helping the people impacted by it.

I'm not knocking or criticizing anyone who used Social Media for this event or that uses it for any other information dissemination that matter. But the "first tweet" isn't the finish line. It's the starting gun.

Bill Salvin

Friday, February 13, 2009

Social Media & Crisis Communications Part II - The Crash of Continental 3407

The Internet was buzzing with the impact Social Media played during the splash landing of US Air 1549 in the Hudson River in January. The first image of the plane floating in the Hudson was posted on Twitter by a guy riding a ferry that was diverted to rescue passengers. Flight 1549 was Twitter at its best. The “tweets” (short 140 character updates on Twitter) gave lots of information about what people were seeing, hearing and doing. Twitter was how I found out all the passengers were safe.

The crash of Continental Express 3407 February 12 was a different story… and an illuminating one. There were still tweets a-plenty, but much more incorrect information than with the US Air incident. The incorrect flight numbers were most bothersome to me. In the span of a few minutes, Twitter jockeys posted that it was Continental 1304, Colgan 3268 and finally, Continental 3407.

People search for the “first tweet” as though they are the CDC trying to find the first patient of an Ebola epidemic. In this case, what is being credited as the first tweet about the crash came from Keith Burtis of Buffalo. Here’s what he wrote:

Holy S***! A small plane crashed into homes a couple miles from my house! Jet fuel is spilling into the streets!!!!

Sort of accurate and appropriate given that he lives a few miles from the crash site.

But this is participatory journalism and everyone wanted to get in on the action. To me, this was Twitter is its worst. Well-meaning people picking up slivers of wrong information and passing it on. Like this tweet:

Joseph_KHC: HOLY S***!!! PLANE CRASH in NYC #planecrash

Joseph lives in Toronto.

Or this one from AGORACOM:

#planecrash plane nosedived from 16,000 ft right into a home, killed 1 inside - but 2 others survived. Great but how do u survive that?

Agoracom is listed as a Canadian-based “community for small-cap investors & companies. 1.2M Investors, 101M pages/ year. Stock market, investing, China, gold, investor relations.”

The plane did not nosedive from 16,000 feet. And you wonder why your investments are in the tank?

How do I know that the plane didn’t nose dive from 16,000 feet? Easy. The first reports were that an airplane crashed about five miles from the Buffalo airport on approach for landing. At that distance it was probably at about 3,000 feet.

There were some helpful tweets. ladu is from Europe, nowhere close to the crash, but he did a good job of providing helpful tweets. He posted links to various bits of information about the crash from different Web outlets. If you went to the links, you could start to piece together what had happened.

So what does all this mean if you are a company trying to figure out how to use Social Media during a crisis?

Post information on Social Web sites: I couldn’t find a listing for Continental, Colgan Air or Pinnacle Airlines on Twitter, so those companies are dependent on others to forward company news to that site. As you can see from the tweets above, there is a high likelihood of bad information being pumped into the system.

Information will come out rapidly. If the story is about you, it is better with you in it.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Shame of Not Knowing Your Audience

We’ve seen a lot of shame-based stories lately. Not only are people outraged at the behavior of Wall Street execs and bankers, they are angry that none of them seem to take any responsibility for the nation’s financial problems. Since Wall Street folks are absent shame, the media is more than happy to heap piles of it onto them. This is a poor time to display a lack of accountability.

John Thain, formally the leader of Merrill Lynch, thought he deserved a $10M bonus for the stellar year he delivered for his company in 2008. During the 418 days Thain was CEO of Merrill (Dec 1, 2007 – Jan 22, 2009) the firm reported losses of $37.11 billion. For those of you keeping score at home, Thain presided over a firm that lost about $89 million every day he was CEO.

Thain’s only accomplishment was putting lipstick on the pig that Merrill had become and selling it to Bank of America. What stunned me was not that Thain had the ego to ask for a $10 million bonus, but that he had any sliver of self-esteem left after his dismal performance.

There are some who believe he deserves a bonus, like Evan Newmark who writes the Deal Journal Blog for The Wall Street Journal. The majority of the public, however, believes that there is a right answer to the bonus question and it’s “no way in hell!”

But there is collateral damage in the financial disaster. Business aviation is suffering because they make the products used by the executives being vilified. How do you communicate in that environment? The business aviation industry is fighting back with an aggressive PR campaign, as reported by Ragan Communications. No one really hates business jets. People object to executives, who are reliant on taxpayers for solvency, using them.

Cessna has a particularly good ad.

The fundamental rule of all good PR is know your audience. If you understand your audience, you know what they need to hear from you - something that will address their feelings and concerns. The people who are mad at the auto execs and Wall Street bankers are probably not the people Cessna relies on for its business. So it makes sense to fight back aggressively, but in a targeted way. It’s very well done.

In the case of the bankers, they do rely on all of us for their livelihoods and we have reminders every day of just how far off their “audience focus” was. Their audience used to be the deal-makers and bankers who drove the economy. In essence, they focused inward… spending lots of time talking to themselves.

Bob Roemer, a good friend, former boss and one of the best crisis communicators I know, wrote a great book called “When the Balloon Goes Up-The Communicator's Guide to Crisis Response”. In it, he talks about organizations that defend the wrong thing during a crisis. Banks have definitely fallen into that category.

Especially Wells Fargo.

The company blamed the media in full page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post for the damage to its reputation when the AP reported the bank (which got $25 billion in bailout money) was holding an Employee Recognition event at two casinos in Vegas.

The ad seeks to convince us that this is merely a PR problem (misleading media coverage) and not an ACTUAL problem (poor executive judgment).

They seemed stunned that people are angry.

Campbell Brown of CNN put it best in her commentary, “Give me a break.”

Wells Fargo has a whole pretty section on Corporate Social Responsibility on its Website. But it doesn’t make up for the one corporate responsibility they seem to lack these days.

The responsibility to know their audience.

Bill Salvin

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Crisis Communications: How you Practice is how you will Respond

There’s been a lot of talk about the quality and tone of US Airways CEO Doug Parker’s statement at his first press conference last month after Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River. The Arizona Republic talked with Parker a few weeks after the accident and revealed that Parker had “no accident experience.”

Media Trainer/Consultant Tripp Frohlichstein in an op-ed column for Ragan Communications rightly pointed out that US Airways CEO Parker looked “wooden."

Of course he was wooden. He was reading a script. He was under stress. One of his airlines’ planes was floating in the Hudson River, and reports that all 155 people aboard survived probably seemed more than could be hoped for at that moment.

Performance in a crisis is not about being perfect. It is about training.

It’s easy to look back and decide what Parker should have done differently. My sense is that if he had been trained differently he would have performed differently.

The Arizona Republic article talks about crisis exercises that the company conducts. I wonder, though if any of those drills ever included practice news conferences followed up by moment-by-moment critique of the video? Analysis of the likely questions and suggestions on how to respond and deliver a message of care and concern is what is needed. It’s something that you can’t do just once. Just as his pilots practice emergency situations in simulators, Parker and his exec team have to get into the tank and practice and practice until much of their performance is second nature.

When Doug Parker read his statement then walked away without taking questions, it was as though he had checked the box on the Crisis Communications checklist and it was time to move on. None of the questions would have been hostile or even difficult. I’m a former reporter and what I really wanted to know was how he felt about the fact everyone had apparently gotten out alive. Instead we were left to hear from the Mayor Bloomberg and the Governor Patterson, who called it a “Miracle on the Hudson.”

The governor defined and labeled the moment. I don’t know if he did it on purpose or if he simply gave words to the feelings we all had. It really doesn’t matter. What matters for US Airways is that it lost an opportunity to show its humanity in a crisis that had probably the best outcome of any corporate crisis I can remember.

What will happen the next time when the outcome is likely to be far more grim?

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Trust & Bad Timing

I can't think of another movie that will be a victim of such horribly bad timing as Sony Pictures upcoming release, "The International" I'm sure when it was conceived the idea was brilliant: An all powerful global bank that will stop at nothing (even murder) to continue financing war and terror. Clearly a plot concocted long before the U.S. Government bailed out bank after bank after bank. How will moviegoers be able to suspend disbelief to believe that The International Bank of Business and Credit can muster hitmen around the globe at a moment's notice when real banks can't even tell us what assets they have on their balance sheets?

See the Trailer

The trailer for the movie is great and the real site for the fake bank is neat. It would be nice if real banks were as competent at banking as IBBC is at killing good guys and controlling global geopolitics. Seeing the trailer got me thinking about trust.

Edelman Public Relations recently released its 2009 Trust Barometer and it shows that people's trust in banks dropped from 69% to 36% last year. (Full disclosure: I have been a contract media trainer for Edelman since 2002. I usually do a couple of jobs for them a year.) You can read the report here. The dramatic drop in people's trust of banks is certainly justified. The news pouring out from the financial industry is one horror after another.

It is difficult to communicate effectively in a low-trust environment. So what can banks (or any organization that is under siege) do? Here are three quick tips:

1) Transparency rules
Be as ruthlessly open as possible. People can deal with bad news if it is delivered accurately, succinctly and timely. We also can sense when there is more to the story and we will try to find it. Which leads to the next item on the list:

2) Realize you do not control the information environment
There are too many ways for information to get out today. Policies that limit employees from talking to the media are as out-of-date as the three-martini lunch. Those that try to control information are viewed with suspicion. Get your story out in as many venues as possible. That includes social media venues like Facebook, Twitter and others.

3) Keep communicating

The worst thing an organization can do is to stop communicating. In a crisis like this, the urge to shelter until the storm clears is powerful. Edelman's Trust Barometer shows that communication is as central to reputation as product quality. Keep getting the word out. Get it out to your employees, your investors, get it out to everyone.

There's no quick fix when it comes to repairing a damaged reputation. You have to fix the problems one at a time and let people know what you're doing every step of the way.
Bill Salvin

Social Media & Crisis Communications

Everyone is feeling around this topic in the wake of US Airways 1549 ditching in the Hudson River. The first images of the plane in the water came from a Twitter post. Word spread like wildfire across social media platforms. People asked for details over Twitter and people with the information responded.

How a company responds to a crisis is changing because of social media. But just as important as what's changing is what's not changing. The need to deliver information about an incident fast is still there. The need to focus on the right audience in a crisis is still there. You still need to have a crisis plan and you need to practice that plan as realistically as possible.

I'll have more to say about this in the weeks to come, but companies still have to be good at the fundamentals of crisis communications even as they adapt to new means of information transmission.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Up in Smoke?

The image of Olympic superstar Michael Phelps smoking marijuana raced across the Internet the last few days. The 23-year old swimmer quickly issued a statement that, if you read his blog was clearly not written by him. All you have to do is compare it to the other posts and you can see the difference in writing style.

I'm o.k. with that as the statement is more about protecting Michael Phelps the brand than the Michael Phelps the young man. The statement hits all the right notes. However, a fundamental tenant of a crisis is that how a person or organization behaves after an event can be more important or more damaging than the event itself. So if he gets busted for something again he could be in real trouble.

Media scrutiny of Phelps will only increase as reporters and photographers position themselves to capture his next wrong move. A minor faux pas that would have gone unnoticed will now be magnified and autopsied for evidence of bad behavior. Most importantly for Phelps and his handlers is to remember that this isn't simply a PR problem. This is an ACTUAL problem with PR implications. Spin won't help.

Bill Salvin

UPDATE Feb 6: Kellogg has announced it will not renew its sponsorship contract with Michael Phelps saying that "the photo of the swimmer is inconsistent with its public image." USA Swimming has also banned Phelps from competition for three months.

Super Finish for an Amazing Game

Pittsburgh 27 Cardinals 23. An amazing finish, even though it wasn't what we in Arizona were hoping for. Thank you to the Cardinals for reminding us that the world can surprise us in wonderful and thrilling ways.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Go Cardinals!

The Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl. It has been 61 years since the team won a championship. Today may be the day.

Good luck, fellas.