Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Twitter Lawsuit: PRs Job Just Got Harder

The best crisis communications case studies have several layers. And by several layers I mean they are gifts that keep on giving. Let's go to Chicago, where Horizon Realty Group is suing former tenant Amanda Bonnen for a tweet she posted in May. Here's the tweet:

Seems like a big company with a thin skin picking on a defenseless tenant. A classic David & Goliath story. Read the Twitter Lawsuit. (pdf)

It gets better. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Jeffrey Michael, whose family runs Horizon, said the company never asked Bonnen to take down the tweet:
"We're a 'sue first, ask questions later' kind of an organization."
Clearly, Mr. Michael didn't get the "Humor rarely works in media interviews" memo.

In response to the shitstorm unleashed by their lawsuit and off-handed remark, Horizon issued a statement (clearly not drafted by but attributed to Mr. Michael) that clarified the remarks:
"I would first like to take this opportunity to apologize for tongue in cheek comments that were made previously regarding our approach to litigation. This statement is not in line with our philosophy towards property management and was taken out of context."
Out of context how? Everyone who misspeaks says they were taken out of context. Please.

If you keep reading the statement, you learn that Ms. Bonnen had sued Horizon (before the tweet) for violating Chicago's Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance.

So it's not just a big company with a thin skin suing a defenseless tenant for saying something bad about them. It's a big company using fancy lawyer tricks to intimidate a litigant. Perfect.

Did Horizon get communications advice from the Governor of South Carolina? Someone needs to tell Mr. Michael and his lawyers to STOP SPEAKING. Why do they seem stunned that people are judging them based on how they communicate (both in statements to the press and in their court filings)?

I've never heard of Horizon before and I used to live in Chicago. Based on everything I've read (and I've read everything except Ms. Bonnen's lawsuit), my sense is that this probably how they manage their properties. Are they going to sue me now?

It's true that Horizon has every right to pursue its claims in court. It's also true that just because Horizon can sue the lady doesn't mean they should.

Now I have to find a way to explain to my to my Social Media clients that this won't happen to them. So I would like to send a big shout out Horizon and their lawyers:

Thanks for your useless lawsuit; you've just made my job harder.

Bill Salvin

Hat Tip to Marian Wang who covered this story for the Chicago Bar-Tender Blog

Monday, July 27, 2009

Let's Do Social Media!

The image below (Done by Matt Hamm for the Kyan Blog) captures perfectly the mood of the PR community right now. (To the extent that the "community" can be grouped by mood). Everyone wants to get involved with Social Media. "Let's do Social Media!" is the modern equivalent of "Let's do Lunch!" Hopefully, communicators plan their Social Media participation better than all those lunches we never scheduled. Do communicators understand that Social Media isn't a shortcut?

Communications plans still have to be strategic and tied to business goals. The Social Media tools you choose will end up as part of a mix of mediums you use to connect with the audiences you need to reach.

There's a lot of money to be made right now in social media. PR consultancies are racing to get their experts into the fray so that they can benefit from the Social Media clear cutting. Peter Shankman and Sarah Evans have a great take on social media "experts" and "gurus". The Econsultancy blog has another good take on social media snake oil salesmen.

The more some people push Social Media, though, the less likely I am to buy. The more I hear people urging others to get on the Social Media bandwagon, the more it feels like I'm listening to a used car salesman. "What do I have to do to get you onto Twitter today?"

Here are the five essential questions you should ask:

1) What is the business goal we're trying to accomplish?

2) Who is the audience we need to reach?

3) What do we want the audience to do?

4) What platforms or forums allow us to get that done?

5) How will we know if we're successful?

If Social Media fits into the communications mix, great! Go do it. But if it doesn't, you shouldn't try and force it.

Bottom line? If you don't have a strategic communications strategy first, a Social Media strategy probably won't help much.

Bill Salvin

Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy 40th Anniversary Apollo 11

I was three years old when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. I'm one of the lucky ones who can say they were alive when man first walked on the moon. Fewer than half of Americans can say that. According the Census Bureau, the median age of Americans is about 37 years old. Humans are relational creatures and it is hard to relate to something you weren't part of.

That is the hidden treasure of exploration... We were all part of it. Exploration is such a part of the human soul that we all took that one small step with Neil Armstrong when he put his footprint onto the lunar surface. Even if our "memories" of the event were imprinted later.

Everyone knows Neil Armstrong. He is a former Naval Aviator. He flew fighter jets during the Korean War. For NASA, he flew the X-15, Gemini 8 and, of course, Apollo 11. Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon at age 39.

Anyone know who Chris Cassidy is? He's also 39, a former Naval Aviator and an astronaut. He is the 500th human to make it to space. He got that honor when Space Shuttle Endeavour launched last week for a mission to the International Space Station.

I'm a huge fan of space exploration. It's what great nations do. The cool thing about the Apollo program is that it was dangerous, difficult and expensive. And we did it anyway. Now, we're struggling to find our way in space and all the difficulties of exploring are still there and we have earthly troubles to which people can relate to more immediately. The folks at the Coalition for Space Exploration released this great video commemorating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. It's definitely worth a look.

Some of my best friends work for the space program. I do a lot of really fun work with companies that are part of it and I've even done a few projects for NASA.

The fact that Astronaut Cassidy isn't a household name doesn't make his work less important. The fact that Shuttle Endeavour's mission isn't as breathtaking as the first lunar landing doesn't mean it's not a worthy mission.

Not every baseball game is a World Series Game 7.

You still have to play them all.

Let's keep America in Space.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Social Media: It's All About the Tools

I got really irritated in the early hours of the bridge collapse on I-75 near Detroit on Wednesday evening. Twitter has proved useful during breaking news in trying to zero in on the sources with the best info. I have a few friends in the area and I was concerned. Going to Twitter, for me, is like wading into a stream and seeing if anything useful floats by. This was the first breaking news story where I got more crap than real information.

I found links to all sorts of sites for watching current movies online and people just trying to get people to follow them by using a trending hashtag. Here are some examples of the stupidity out there:

Later, the Tweets I saw did provide helpful info, including the fact that no one died. And the pics sent to Twitpic were awesome. This was submitted by Frank Carline and picked up by the Detroit Free Press.

What concerns me as someone who encourages businesses to engage their audiences by using social media is that this will be a big turn off for some of them. The way business works, they may not have the patience to wade through the flotsam in order to see the true value of social media engagement. Especially in a crisis. I know there are probably work-arounds for this. I haven't found them yet, but I have faith in the social media community. If a fix isn't already available, someone will develop one.

That's the nature of social media. It is self-correcting just as it is self-corrupting.

Many of the people I follow who know way more about social media than I say that social media is just one tool people and companies can employ to reach their goals. I agree with them. And not just because it's easy just to agree with everything Peter Shankman says.

What bugs me the most is that some of the biggest tools using social media sit behind the keyboard.

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Ultimate Crisis Communications Principle: Do the Right Thing

The recent music video posted on YouTube by musician Dave Carroll chronicling (hilariously) the destruction of his guitar by United Airlines got me thinking about how companies act in crisis.

Why does it continue to be so difficult for companies to do the right thing? In this case, United had to be shamed into taking care of one its customers. Although as of this writing, United hasn't officially said it will replace Carroll's $3,500 guitar a spokeswoman has been widely quoted saying "We are in conversation with one another to make what happened right."

"This struck a chord with us. We are in conversation with one another to make what happened right."
-Robin Urbanski, United Airlines spokeswoman

What does that mean? "They are in make what happened right?" This isn't an arms control negotiation. Why can't they say "we're going to fix the guitar?" How many people at United are now focused on making right what happened? How much does their time cost? How much is the negative publicity worth from the 725,000 views of the video (as of this writing) on YouTube?

There's a lot more going on here than a PR problem. The song is new, but this issue has dragged on for more than a year. This company has designed a system that prevents resolutions to customers' problems and alienates the people who pay its bills.

Is this how the maintenance department is run? The safety department? What about crew training? Based on Carroll's story, United violated point #4, #11 and #12 of it's 12-point Customer Commitment. What other labyrinthine stupidity is lurking around the hallways, terminals and tarmacs at United?

When I was first hired at Amoco Corporation in the late 90s, my boss, Bob Roemer told me that at some point I would be dispatched to a crisis on behalf of the company (people who work at oil companies are acutely aware that everything they do is designed to burn or explode). He told me my duty was to do the right thing and that it didn't matter if I had to spend the company's money to take care of people and solve problems. (Check out Bob's great book on Crisis Communications here.)

Over the years working with Amoco (which became BP in 1999) I have responded to a number of accidents and incidents for the company and that principle underpins every response I've been a part of. (Full Disclosure: BP is one of my clients).

Recently, I had a meeting with a potential partner on some crisis work and he said that the hospitality chain he was working with boiled its crisis management down to "do the right thing." It was instantly as though we were speaking the same language. I hope we work a lot together.

As long as I don't have to fly United.

Bill Salvin

Monday, July 6, 2009

Tell Me Again, What is so Dangerous About Social Media?

Ah, the good old days of "old journalism". I've been thinking a lot about the nostalgic view of traditional media and how good it was recently. And, no, this has nothing to do with Michael Jackson, Farrah or the Governor of South Carolina.

One of my clients, United Space Alliance (the Space Shuttle's Prime Contractor) found itself responding after a local television reporter from Orlando claimed NASA was investigating sabotage by Shuttle workers as the cause for recent Shuttle launch delays caused by hydrogen leaks.

The story claimed that since the Shuttle is being retired in 2010 and Shuttle workers will lose their jobs at the end of the program, that workers might be doing things to delay launches so that they can keep their jobs longer.

It was the kind of story for which my broadcast journalism professor would have given me an "F." And, it was done by a mainline television reporter for a network affiliate station with about two decades of experience covering the Space Program. No bloggers, Facebookers, Tweeps or citizen-journalists were involved.

Seriously, it takes a “real” journalist to do a story this dumb.

There were facts in the story. Yes, there is this thing called the Space Shuttle and yes, several recent launch attempts were scrubbed because of a hydrogen leak. That's about it.

NASA immediately knocked the story down with a statement, as did United Space Alliance. Not only did no one suspect sabotage, there was no investigation of anything close to it. What NASA and USA were doing was trying to find the cause of the hydrogen leak and take standard precautions to prevent harm to the vehicle on the pad.

The reporter did a follow-up piece about their story "hitting a nerve with people on the Space Coast."

"Hitting a nerve" is reporter-speak for "covering my ass."

Miles O'Brien (Former CNN Space reporter/anchor and the best in the business) wrote a killer piece examining the story and just how absurd was the suggestion of sabotage. The comments section of the TV station's Website got so many negative comments from the first story that they turned off the comments for the follow-up story. A cowardly response in my view. Journalism is all about speaking truth to power. Unfortunately, many journalists and their organizations don't like it when people want to speak truth to them.

By the way, NASA figured out that a misaligned part caused the leak (I'm as shocked as you are that it wasn't sabotage!) and rescheduled the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavor for July 11th at 7:39 EDT. You can watch, listen and participate in the experience of the STS-127 the launch with Miles O'Brien and the team at

Or you can get half the story (or less) from traditional media.

I know where I'll be.

For the record, the Shuttle workers I know would give THEIR LIVES to protect the SHUTTLE and its crews. So who came to the rescue? Who defended the Shuttle workers (besides NASA and USA)? It was citizen-journalists. The Bloggers, Facebookers and Tweeps.

You know, all those people that make Social Media so dangerous.

Bill Salvin

Photo Credits: NASA Photos/Jack Pfaller (first two pics)