Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Three Holiday Wishes from Signal Bridge Communications

May your responses be nimble.
May your crises be small.
May your messages be crisp.

All the best for a warm holiday season and great communications in 2011.

Bill Salvin

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Communicating Like a Mediocre Middle Manager and Missing the Real Audience

I'm loathe to offer critique on the President. After all he rarely critiques my speaking engagements. But there's a good lesson for middle managers in the remarks and Q&A the President gave Tuesday at the White House on the tax cut deal he made with Republicans. (Editor's Note: This is not a political post, but rather a communications post.)

Middle managers have the toughest communication job in any company. They have to represent unpopular and often controversial positions to the rank and file. They also have to represent the rank and file to senior leaders. That requires a delicate balance especially after a deal has been made.

Like it or not, a middle manager has to own the decision that has been made. Certain audiences may find parts of the deal distasteful, but a deal is a deal and when it is time to sell it, there needs to be strength. The President communicated like a mediocre middle manager, unhappy that the new boss is making him do something he doesn't like. For example:
"Because of this agreement, 2 million Americans who lost their jobs and are looking for work will be able to pay their rent and put food on their table.  And in exchange for a temporary extension of the high-income tax breaks -- not a permanent but a temporary extension -- a policy that I opposed but that Republicans are unwilling to budge on, this agreement preserves additional tax cuts for the middle class that I fought for and that Republicans opposed two years ago." (bold emphasis mine)
The man had a good deal to announce. People think government doesn't work any more and this is an example of representative government working. Nobody got everything they wanted, but everyone got something. It is how it is supposed to work. I learned that in 8th grade in Mr. Gloudemans's civics class.

Listening to the President I had the image of former line employee who, after being promoted to management,  had to explain management's plans to his old co-workers. In this case, the old co-workers are Democrats who are quite unhappy with the President.

I understand the President has to communicate the hows and whys of his compromise to Democrats, but the White House Briefing Room seems ill-suited for that. It doesn't get much more powerful as a speaking platform. It's a great place to celebrate the victory (and this is a victory). Connect with the Democrats in a different forum; maybe go talk to them directly.

Here are four takeaways for middle managers:

  • Once a decision has been made, you own the deal; even the parts you don't like
  • Make sure the messages match the forum for maximum impact
  • Negativity rarely persuades people; focus on positive outcomes
  • Acknowledge opposition but offer context for the decision and ask for support

The bottom line goes to my friend (and mentor) Jerry Krone with whom I used to work. He said "You're going to be held responsible for what you say, you may as well say it like you mean it."

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA's Original Sin: Deciding Not to Communicate

Bad leaders tend to be bad communicators. A decision made with the best of intentions can fail if it's not communicated well to key stakeholders. Lost in the rage about new TSA security pat-downs and body scans is that TSA is not an agency that is being led well. John Pistole is head of the TSA and he's both a bad leader and bad communicator.

Pistole admitted that it was his decision not to inform the public about the new security procedures. He called it a "risk-based" decision that kept terrorists from knowing what the TSA was doing, where they were doing it and to whom they were doing it. Pistole even admits he ignored advice to communicate.

The terrorists who wish us ill are adaptable and clever. They seek to exploit weaknesses. It seems an easy solution to limit public information so that weaknesses can go unexploited. Keeping terrorists off-balance by not telling the public basic information probably sounded like a great plan in the meeting room in DC. It stood little chance of success.

Since there's this thing called the internet and people use it to communicate in real time, Pistole was able to keep the new pat-down procedures quiet right up to the time that TSA began to implement them on real human beings. Unless his goal was to prevent a terrorist attack the first two weeks in November, his plan had no chance of succeeding except in pissing off a substantial part of the flying public.

Pistole also told reporters that he planned on educating the public after most of the rollout of the new procedures was complete. Except you can't educate people when they are furious with you. One of the best blogs about flying is Flying with Fish. Author Steven Frischling has a complete breakdown of where the full body scanners are and how likely people are to be subject to the new scans. Great context to be sure, but this is the kind of thing TSA should have posted on its website before it rolled out this program.

TSA could have been communicating these important changes to the public and kept the appropriate amount of operational vagueness to keep bad guys off balance. In fact, I bet TSA has dozens of communicators that advised doing just that. Why not let them do their jobs? The decision not to communicate has created a huge distraction for the frontline screeners. Now, they gird themselves every day for verbal assaults from the people they are trying to protect. One can argue that probably makes them less effective at their job.

With one decision Pistole failed twice. He alienated a substantial portion of the public and made it less likely his frontline people will succeed in their primary mission.

Communicating this change effectively may not have prevented the backlash. Not communicating until it was a crisis made everything worse.

Why exactly does he still have his job?

Bill Salvin

Thursday, November 18, 2010

TSA's Image(ing) Problem

The controversy over TSA's Advanced Imaging Technology (aka Naked Body Scanners) and Enhanced Pat-Downs (aka Government-sponsored sexual assault) is seemingly getting worse by the hour. Every day we are treated to new horror stories from people who believe the new security measures are too invasive and offer little enhancement to security. Newspaper columnist and humorist Dave Barry endured a fondling from one TSA agent while another agent stood by and told Barry what a huge fan he was of his work. Surreal security Kabuki at its finest.
From a communicators point of view, the TSA has done a poor job of selling the cost/benefit case to the American public. The public has judged this to be a bad deal. Here's the public's perception of TSA's offer: TSA's chance of catching a terrorist is so low and the price in shame, humiliation and privacy invasion so high that it's not worth it. TSA should figure out a way to tell us more. Give us better context. Or, come up with an option that allows them to assess the risk I pose to air safety without touching me or taking a naked image of me.

People understand that terrorists target airplanes. But people also understand that the chance of terrorists being on their plane is extremely low. In effect, the public is telling the TSA that they would rather a terrorist attempt to take down an airliner than suffer the indignity of the new procedures. The public tells us this is okay with them because they'll beat the snot out of anyone who tries to hijack a plane that they're on. I fly a lot. I know I'd step up.

TSA is in a tough spot. The explosive PETN, which was used in the Christmas Day Underwear Bombing attempt and in the recent UPS/FED EX cagro bomb plot is not detected by metal detectors or conventional pat downs. Terrorists have also implanted bombs in suicide bombers body cavities which is undetectable even with the new imaging that's so controversial. Plus, a successful terrorist attack would bring a world of hurt down on the agency in the form of Congressional investigations, cable news vivisection and various other public shamings.

What I don't hear from anyone at TSA is any sensitivity regarding how unnerving it can be to have a stranger place their hands on their private parts. No understanding that, as a father, it is criminal to allow someone to touch my daughter or son in that way while I stand by watching. No sense of common decency that seems to give any of the screeners pause before they diddle a nun.

The public doesn't think this is fair because TSA has given them only two choices: have a naked scan done of your body or get felt up. TSA head John Pistole told CNN this week that, "Security is a shared responsibility." That's clearly not the case since TSA decides what the rules are and they apply until they don't. They don't give a passenger the choice to opt out of screening. There is no appeal. Submit or don't fly. That's not the definition of "shared" I learned in kindergarten.

There is something fundamentally anti-American about it. TSA has claimed in the past that many of their successes can't be told. That's fine, but the lack of factual, objective information about threats leaves the public with one choice: trust the government. We don't right now. The reason no one believes the TSA when it says the images won't be stored is that another federal agency stored 35,000 images. Plus, we know that one of these images could be good evidence in court, so there has to be a way to save them. When TSA says otherwise, we think they are lying.

The public wants TSA to stop terrorists from attacking airplanes but we're skeptical of TSA's ability to do that. Skeptical because all of the measures put in place were taken defensively. One guy tried to blow up his shoes so now everyone has to take off their shoes. Some people in England were going to make liquid bombs so no one can carry liquids any more.

We may be a skeptical public when it comes to TSA, but we do want the agency to succeed. We just think they should protect us from the next threat instead of the last.

Bill Salvin

Monday, April 19, 2010

Talking Safety in the Shadow of Death

One of the most difficult challenges in crisis communications is talking about your company's safety record in the aftermath of an accident.

Here is how it plays out:  Your company has an accident and employees lose their lives. Reporters will show up and start asking questions about the accident. These questions are uncomfortable; no one likes talking about these things. At some point, usually later in the interview, a reporter asks you about your safety record.

I've seen this question cause great relief for spokespeople for two reasons. First, it's a question that has nothing to do with the accident, and second it gives them a chance to talk about something positive.

Except it never really works out that way. Public relations is not a zero sum game. Your safety record cannot be separated from the accident and no matter how good your safety record is, it doesn't matter to the families of the people who died.

The massive blast that killed 29 people at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine was the worst coal mine disaster in the US in 40 years. As the rescue and recovery operations unfolded on live television, Massey leadership talked a lot about the safety record at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine.

Here are some of the company's quotes:
  • Since January 2009, UBB has had less than one violation per day of inspection by MSHA, a rate consistent with national averages. Most of the citations issued by MSHA to UBB in the last year were resolved on the same day they were issued.  (Massey Energy Statement, Apr 9, 2010)
  • Massey continues to invest in the development of safety innovations that exceed industry and regulatory standards. Our lost-time incident rate has been better than the industry average for 17 of the past 19 years and has been improving significantly.  These improvements have been achieved through concerted effort and significant investment. (Massey Energy Statement, Apr 9, 2010)
  • The company boasts on its Web site that it has a good safety record compared with the rest of the industry. "In 2009, Massey recorded an all-time best NFDL incident rate (a measure of lost-time accidents) of 1.67," the site says. "This is an improvement over last year's rate of 1.93, our previous best result. By comparison, the bituminous coal mining industry average NFDL rate was 2.95 in 2008. 2009 marked the 6th consecutive year and the 17th year out of the past 20 years in which Massey's safety performance was stronger than the industry average." (The Washington Post, April 6, 2010)
I have two problems with these kinds of statistics. First there are always others that have their own statistics. They are happy to share them with reporters and most likely they don't own a business where more than two dozen people got killed. Second, talking about your safety record diverts you from your prime obligation during a crisis of this kind: to take care of the families of those that lost their lives.

Let's say your safety record is pristine (unlike the record at the Upper Big Branch Mine). Even then, the bad news isn't cancelled out by that good news. The people are still dead.

So what can you do?

1) Defer talking about your safety record to another time. "Our safety record is a matter of public record and we'll talk about it at a more appropriate time. Our primary concern now is for the families of those injured and killed and for all of our workers involved in this terrible accident."

2) Tell reporters you aren't comfortable talking about your safety record when people are grieving.  "I know you are all interested in our safety record and we'll provide that data to you. Our safety record is of little consolation to those that have been impacted by this accident. What we are focusing on now is caring for those injured and providing support to those who are grieving after this terrible tragedy."

3) Focus reporters on your actions. We recognize our safety record will be an important part of the investigation into this accident. The most important thing we can do right now is take care of the people who are grieving, and ensure the best possible care for those injured. To that end, we are...

Is this a fool-proof method? Not even close. But, since all journalism is about how events impact people it aligns the company with the stories that will be written and broadcast and it does so in a less impersonal way than simply rattling off a bunch of numbers.

I know companies have to defend themselves, but there are better ways to do that than most do now.

I worked at one company where accidents killed five workers over 18 months. An investigative reporter interviewed the head of the company's safety program and kept asking him about the facility's safety stats. The safety guy refused to answer and tried to steer the journalist to other safety- related topics. .

The reporter asked why the safety guy wouldn't talk about the company's safety record.  A three-word response ended the interview.

"Statistics don't bleed."

Bill Salvin

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Secret Skill of Great Crisis Communicators

I've spent the last few weeks on the road conducting crisis communications workshops (and battling a nasty bout of food poisoning that laid me low in Chicago for a week). It got me thinking about crisis communications and the difference between unpredictable crises and unthinkable crises. The big difference is planning. You can plan for an unpredictable crisis. Workplace violence, for example, is a crisis that you can plan for but not predict. An unthinkable crisis, on the other hand, can't be planned for. If you can't conceive of something happening then you can't plan for it.

So What is the Secret Skill?

I'm talking about the kind of imagination that makes your co-workers wonder about you, but not the kind of imagination that it prompts a visit from the good folks at Homeland Security.

I'm talking thinking of your worst-case scenario. The US Environmental Protection Agency requires facilities that have large amounts of certain chemicals on their sites (think chemical plants, refineries, etc.) to model worst-case scenarios and to tell people outside the fence line what that scenario is. The great part about that program is once people know what you can do to them, they want to know what you're doing to prevent it from happening. It is a useful exercise that gets companies thinking about prevention and risk reduction.

Communicators should put themselves through the exact same exercise.

Lack of imagination is what gets companies into trouble. It's the kind of thinking that leads people to say "The big disaster will never happen today." Until it does. (See Titanic, unsinkable)

I encourage my clients to put together a list of things they think they might face. Most good communicators I know do the same thing. Where they can improve their efforts is in planning for the second- and third-order effects once the crisis hits. I did an exercise for the Wisconsin Healthcare Public Relations & Marketing Society a while back and I'll share it as an example. 

This is an exercise, Development One
Time: This morning

You are the Director of Marketing for a healthcare system based in Madison, Wisconsin. Your system includes hospitals in four cities including Madison, Milwaukee, LaCrosse and Green Bay. In addition to the hospitals, the system employs 360 physicians, 2,500 employees and operates a network of 32 primary care and specialty clinics throughout the state.

You were awakened at 6:30 this morning by a call from your Chief Operating Officer. She told you that one of your clinics was burglarized overnight. Windows were smashed and the burglars made off with some medical equipment and drug samples. Authorities also believe that at least three computers and an undetermined number of patient records were stolen. The computers contain data on hundreds of patients and have security software protocols installed that allows access to the data network for your entire health care system. The system CIO is in Montana on a hunting trip and unreachable for the next week. She suggests strongly that you get your team together right away because, “It’s going to be a long day.”

We did a round of interviews and talked through this first development. It's a pretty basic scenario. Someone broke into the clinic. Patient privacy is at risk. Everyone did pretty well. Then we gave them the second development.

This is an Exercise, Development Two
Noon Today

You receive a call from your chief operating officer. She tells you that she got a call from the wife of the system’s Chief Information Officer who relayed the following story:

The hunting lodge where the CIO was supposed to be on his hunting trip called to report that he had yet to arrive. He is two days overdue. Further, the wife says that her husband had been acting strangely in the weeks leading up to the hunting trip. Most disturbing of all, the CIO didn’t take his hunting rifle when he left, but he did take his work computer and a handgun. She told the COO that she has no idea where her husband is. She has filed a missing persons report with the police department. The officer that took the report told her that this would probably be a low priority case in that the CIO appears to have left voluntarily and that it doesn’t appear that any crime has been committed. 

This is the kind of development that can derail a crisis response if it's not planned for. Now, will you be able to predict every detail of every potential crisis? No. What you can do is realize that crises will take unexpected twists and turns and you can practice and plan for those. 

Use your imagination so that your team and the executives you support are better equipped to deal with the craziness the real world will send your way in a crisis. 

When someone says "There's no way this could ever happen" it means you're doing it right. 

Bill Salvin

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Obama to NASA: Mediocrity is an Option

The Obama administrations decision this week to scrap NASA’s plans and programs to return to the moon by 2020 is visionless, wastes money and squanders US leadership in space. In place of a program that has both a destination and a timeline, the government will redirect funds to private companies to develop cutting-edge space technologies. Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, calls this a "bold new initiative." 

Apparently, giving billions of dollars to private companies who've never put a single human in space is what passes for boldness today. 

Orszag is, for some reason, all the rage in Washington, DC. He's 41 years old, and entered the world eight days before Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit in 1968. He knows numbers and has two doctoral degrees, but his knowledge of space is limited. Yet, reporters are agog at Orszag's ability to respond to a question with an actual fact. 

"If you look actually at the bottom of Table S-4, at the very bottom, on page 152, it says 'memorandum of funding for appropriated programs, non-security,' and you see the $447 billion in 2010, and we actually are below that in 2011 at $441 billion."
Peter Orszag, quoted by Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, February 2, 2010

Wow. He did all that under the crushing pressure of a press conference? Let me sit down next to an aroma therapy candle. 

If these reporters want to get all misty at nerds in command of data, go to a Space Shuttle launch and watch the flight controllers work. They're just as nerdy and have way cooler jobs. 

If you want bold, look at the challenge given to NASA in the early 60s: Get a man to the moon and get him home safely. Do it by the end of the decade. It was inspiring. It's what leaders do. 

Apollo 8 is particularly instructive when it comes to judging boldness. The mission had a desitination (lunar orbit) and a timeline (December 1968).  The 400,000 people of the Apollo program had about five months to invent the software, simulations, training protocols, mission rules and contingency plans for that mission. That's how you stimulate the private sector.

I understand the argument the administration is trying to make with its space budget. They're banking on sparking innovation by funding an entreprenurial space industry. But, they are funding these entreprenuers to perform to current requirements like flying astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. We're already doing that. That's not bold, that's outsourcing.

The weird part about all of this is that NASA's budget is actually increasing. It's a bizarre "do less with more" plan that gives NASA no timeline nor destination. Although, if you have no place to go, who really cares how long it takes you to get there? 

Bill Salvin

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why Your Website is Still Important & Three Ways to Keep it That Way

The Social Media world buzzed last week with results of a survey of print and Web journalists done by the media relations software firm Cision and Don Bates of George Washington University. What got people's attention was the finding that 89% of journalists use blogs for their online research. Nearly 75% of those surveyed say they use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter in researching stories.

Social Media is important. Got it. Everyone is joining the party. Don't be afraid to get your Tweet on.

But blogs were the second most popular resource for journalists researching stories. What was first? Corporate Websites.

Ninety-six percent (96%) of journalists will go to your Website when doing online research for a story about your company. This is very good news.

It's good news because it means you still can have a big impact on the impression journalists get about your company. How do you take maximum advantage of this?

1. Make sure your site is current
Journalists assume that the information on your site is accurate and will quote from it without asking you if it's current. A crisis is the wrong time to realize that you should have updated your Website. Many companies do a lot of buying and selling of assets. The plant your company sold in Asia last year might still be yours on the Web.

2. Include clear connections to your company's Social Media accounts
We know that journalists monitor Social Media like it's a police scanner, and they can pick up even a small hint of a story. If they see you use Social Media, they are likely to follow or monitor activity there. They'll get information from your Website to be sure; and the links to Social Media accounts can help them get greater perspective and context on a story from sources inside and outside of the company. Yes, this means they might find opposing views on your Social Media sites. But, they'll find that information anyway, and you get points for openness and transparency.

3. Have as much high-quality imagery about your company as possible

Technology has made people hungry for all kinds of images about the stories they see. Media trainers will tell their students to paint a picture with their words. If those words can be supported with great pictures and video, that's a powerful combination. These days of shrinking budgets for journalists and news organizations mean that if you don't provide imagery, the journalists won't come and get it.

A company that does a good job of providing imagery is BP (disclosure: BP is a client, although I don't advise them on their company Website). They have a whole section of their Website for images and graphics. This is important since many of BP's projects are located in inaccessible places. Without these images, journalists would have a harder time telling the story.

Social Media sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others can bring real value to your company. But while you explore what value they can bring, don't ignore the proven value and power of your company's online home.

Bill Salvin

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Three Ways to Get Social Media into Your Crisis Comms Plan

Social Media is here to stay and that means it needs to be part of your crisis communications plans. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time working with clients to help them do just that. I thought I would share three Social Media techniques/ideas that I think will become standard issue during a crisis.

Pre-approved Tweets
Many companies use pre-approved initial releases in crisis communications plan. This works because it allows for quick action that requires very little thinking. Applying the concept to Social Media is a good idea. Not only can it cut response time, but it lets your bosses know the space in which you will operate during a crisis. Here's a version of a pre-approved Tweet:

We know that Twitter has become the first stop for people to get information on breaking news. So that's where your company needs to be in a crisis. A Tweet like this will get you into the information flow early. To stay in the information flow, you should send this Tweet out multiple times. How fast should you do this? Your goal for a first Tweet should be within five minutes of the incident (or notification of the incident). You should send it out every five minutes until you get more information.

Put Your Twitter Feed on Your Home Page
I've seen this on a lot of blogger's sites (mine included), but I've not seen a lot of mainline companies put it to use. In many cases you have to look pretty hard to find a company's Twitter feed. If people have to look hard for information on your site, they'll go somewhere else. We know that journalists monitor social media. A study by George Washington University and the media relations software company Cision shows that 96% of journalists will go to your company's Website when they write a story about you. By having your Twitter feed front and center not only gets you on the reporter's Social Media radar, but gives them a reason to come back to your Website for reliable information.

Another option would be to put a crawl on the top of your Website (much like the cable news sites and many local news stations do). This, again, gets you into the information flow early; it can be automated and is easier to implement than a full dark site. I know there are some companies that will resist the idea of making the crisis front and center on their Website, but in a crisis people are coming because it is front and center. People perceive lack of information as a lack of caring.

Get the Boss on Video, Post it on YouTube
It used to be that you wanted the initial release of the event on the streets in an hour and that included a quote from the CEO or appropriate executive. Now people want to see the CEO or appropriate executive engaged in the crisis. One guideline I saw, but lost the link but it said you need to get the boss on video posted to the Web within three hours of the incident. As with most things in a crisis, the timing will vary. Sooner is better. Toyota is so pathetically late to its sudden acceleration crisis the video is more about damage control than taking charge.

To do the "boss video" well in a crisis, you have to write it into your crisis plan and practice it during a crisis exercise. That means really putting the boss on video and showing him how it looks. That will allow you to work out the logistics. Do you need a crew on-call? Or do you need a Flip Camera? It's your choice, but choose before the crisis hits.

Bottom Line
Social Media is not a fad and it's not just for marketing. Social Media is a collection of new communications tools and platforms that are already in wide use. More than a billion people worldwide use Social Media regularly.

You can have the best crisis comms plan in the world, but if it lacks a Social Media component the world will get its information about your crisis from someone else.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Social Media: Fight the Hype; Find the Focus

Listening to the hype about Social Media is a bit like listening to a politician right before election day. There isn't anything Social Media can't do for you and, just like a politician, no promise is too outlandish to make. Social Media will help you lose weight, make $87 an hour, get your dream job and meet hot local singles who've been looking for you.

So, I understand the skeptics who are reluctant to jump into the pool just because all the cool kids are hanging out there. And many postings about Social Media do more to foster skepticism than counter it.

Consider this posting:

56 Social Media Sites Every Business Needs To Be On is exactly my point. No one needs to be on 56 Social Media sites. If you think you do, your business lacks focus.

I run a small PR firm in the US. Do I really need to be on SEEK, Australia's #1 Recruitment, Career and Employment site?  The list has sites I've never heard of and sites that would do nothing except rob me of time to serve my clients. The guy who wrote this post gets points for a title that grabs attention. Not sure he considered the type of attention inspired by the title.

Let's get some perspective here. My clients really don't care what social networks I'm on. What they care about is that I deliver what I say I'm going to deliver in the manner in which they expect. If I miss a deadline, I can hear them say, "You've got time to blog, but you couldn't get my Strategic Communications Plan done?"

So, when you read that you'll be missing out if you don't sign up RIGHT NOW, I recommend taking a big, deep breath. Figure out what you want to accomplish with your communications. Then, talk to  colleagues in your industry and see what is working for them. Talk to your clients, customers and vendors.

Pay attention to subtle changes in the way people communicate. For example, is it just me or is no one leaving voice mails anymore? I have a lot of missed calls and very few messages. I'm secretly thrilled because I don't like voice mail.

Pay attention to the hype, but don't get swept up in it. Make Social Media work for you, not the other way around. Use Social Media to serve your company's business strategy.

And, If those crazy Social Media pitches become irresistible? Give me a call and I'll talk you down. Just don't leave a voice mail.

Bill Salvin

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PR Memo to Royal Caribbean: It's Not About You

To help Haiti, text HAITI to 90999 and a donation of $10 will go to the Red Cross.  Nearly $20 million has been raised so far. 

The world is focused on the devastation in Haiti, and major corporations are rightly highlighting their efforts on the Web, through social networks and through advertising. It's great to see Corporate Social Responsibility as more than a tag line.

And then there's Royal Caribbean. Here's the image and copy from Royal Caribbean's Website on its Haiti relief efforts.

It's nice, but the impression it creates is fake. Thanks to maritime lawyer Jim Walker's Cruise Law News Blog, we learn a few things about this combination of words and images. The picture is former President Bill Clinton in Haiti with Royal Caribbean's two top executives, Chairman Richard Fain and President Adam Goldstein, in October 2009. Two months before the quake.

Not only is the photo misleading, it is highly unethical. With the picture and the headline, Royal Caribbean would have us believe that all Haiti lacks right now is the attention of two cruise ship executives. Wow, thank goodness these guys are on the job. This is the kind of thing that gives PR a bad name. And what is infuriating is that it is unnecessary.

According to Royal Caribbean's President and CEO's blog, he (along with others) met with President Clinton in New York on Thursday, January 14 to discuss Haitian relief. Good for them, the company is doing something positive. But one lousy photo choice makes all their words and actions seem like a PR stunt or designed to make the boss feel good. There are any number of pictures Royal Caribbean could have chosen for its Website. It chose poorly.

This is a time for understatement and subtlety.

Let me give Messrs. Fain and Goldstein the advice their PR counsel should have given them:

No one cares who you walked with down the pier.

People are dying in the streets.

Bill Salvin

Hat Tip to Jim Walker from Cruise Law News Blog for his brilliant post on this issue and for helping bring the larger issue of Royal Caribbean's record in Haiti to light. Nice job, Jim!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Haiti Quake, Titanic's Sinking and the "Fad" of Social Media

It's been an interesting week on the Social Media front. Those who doubt the power of Social Media (and there are still many who do) can't refute the power Twitter and Facebook to connect victims of the quake with their loved ones around the world or how new media allowed us to help. As of this writing, the Red Cross has raised more than $11 million in donations via text message. I also finished reading a book on the Titanic sinking that provided some insight into the basic human needs satisfied by Social Media.

Let's start with Haiti. I've never been there and the first headlines of the quake didn't strike me much more than just another tragedy in a distant place. Then I saw that one of my Navy shipmates (and former Chief of Information) Frank Thorpe, IV updated his with this:

I sent a note of support joining dozens and dozens of his family, friends and colleagues who offered prayers and concerns for Frank's son and daughter-in-law. Not only did Facebook show how deep his personal well of support was, but it also allowed us to stay in the loop without bugging the family. Think if everyone who weighed in on Facebook called instead of posted. How would Frank's son have gotten through to let his Dad know they were all right? (Frank Thrope, Jr. and his wife Jillian made it back to the U.S. Thursday)

Now, let's take the Way Back Machine to April 1912 when thousands of people waited for word about survivors from the ill-fated RMS Titanic. The book Titanic's Last Secrets vividly tells the story of the Marconi Wireless operators who were communicating with ships at sea desperately trying to get any word about who lived, who died and what had happened to the ship. It was real-time communication and it took people's breath away.

The telegraph operators listened to the noise and chatter of Morse Code hoping they could snatch something of value from the scratchy dots and dashes that filled the airwaves. In Social Media parlance, they were monitoring just as we do now, but with much clumsier tools.

Newspapers got information from the telegraph operators and posted updates on the street outside their offices. The newspapers were listening and then "Retweeting" the information they found relevant to their audience.

Social Media sites such as Twitter and Facebook succeed not because they are new and shiny, but because they fulfill simple human needs and desires. The need to connect with those we love and the desire to help those in distress.

If you think Social Media is a fad, that's fine. That thinking though, ignores human nature and human nature doesn't change. Just the technology.

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Structuring Your PR Team for Crisis Engagement

In my last post, I wrote about the evolution of crisis communications into crisis engagement. The evolution of Social Media provides new avenues for companies to connect with key stakeholders during an adverse event. Social Media also changes the communications dynamics of a crisis. "Rapid" doesn't begin to describe how quickly word of your crisis will start to spread.

For example, US Airways had a well-rehearsed crisis communications plan ready to go when Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River. They executed that plan exactly as designed. But, Social Media served as a quicker source of initial information than the company. You know things have to change if the plan is good and people respond according to plan and yet the company is still behind.

So how should a PR team be structured for optimal crisis engagement? While it will depend on the company, ideally a PR team should be organized so that there is very little difference between how it operates day-to-day and how it operates in a crisis. A company that has one structure for day-to-day PR functions and a separate one for crisis engagement is more likely to fail.

Here's one structure I proposed for a client:

What I like about this structure is that the way the team works day-to-day is how they will work in a crisis. Let me tell you a little about the thinking that went into this structure.

Chief Communicator
This role is pretty self-explanatory. In my thinking, the Chief Communicator will work across all the teams and serve as the link between the PR team and senior management. A good Chief Communicator will provide leadership. A great Chief Communicator will run interference and keep the good idea ferries from interfering with team once it hits its stride.

Response Team
This team will be the front lines of the response. They will communicate with external and internal audiences so that messages are consistent to multiple groups. A good response team gets into a rhythm during a crisis, and develops relationships with reporters and others. That puts the response team in a good position to also monitor traditional and social media. While outside resources could perform the monitoring function, the response team is immersed in the crisis and can perform this more deftly than an outside firm. If you have a small staff, an outside firm can provide extra arms and legs for the response team and is worth considering.

Strategic Messaging Team
One of the hardest things in a crisis is getting time to think. Separating the responders from the folks who develop the messages helps provide the time for the Strategic Messaging Team to stand up and begin creating the messages the response team will need. This is the big picture team that sorts out whether ads need to be pulled or special ads developed. This team will also focus, to the extent possible, on longer term issues, campaigns and messages.

Stakeholder Outreach Team
Relationships with customers, potential customers, vendors and the government require special attention and that's why I have a separate team for communicating with these critical stakeholders. These are stakeholders who believe they have a special relationship with a company and because of that, they deserve special attention.

Admin/Functional Support
This is one of the areas that often gets overlooked in crisis communications. You need an exceptional administrative assistant to keep non-communication challenges away from the people who need to spend every minute possible communicating. Ideally, the IT support is embedded with the PR team so that any issues with the company Website can be handled quickly. Given that a major crisis will probably overwhelm most companies Website, you need an IT superstar on your team. You don't want to be calling the Help Desk while the building is burning.

This structure works for my client, but I'm sure there are dozens of variations possible to make it work for other companies.

The goal here is to have people realize the crisis comms game has changed. You don't want to be ready for your last crisis. You want to be ready for the next crisis.

Bill Salvin

Hat tip to Jeff Carr and Kari Fluegel of United Space Alliance for the many discussions we had that helped shape my thinking. Thanks, guys!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Crisis Communications Evolves into Crisis Engagement

It’s clear that Social Media has and will continue to change the way organizations communicate in a crisis.  What’s also clear is that most companies are ill-structured to use Social Media to its best advantage during a crisis.

Social Media changes the standards of response to crises because crises are human events, and Social Media connects humans in powerful ways. Crisis communications is morphing into something much more comprehensive that I'm calling crisis engagement.
For example, most companies try to follow standard response protocols during a crisis. 

One of the most common is that a company's initial release on an adverse event should be on the streets within an hour. That standard came about because that’s about how long it used to take live television to get to the scene of a major crisis. If you were "TV-ready", you could also cover radio and newspapers. Plus, people's expectations were different then. 

In the past, we wanted as many basic facts as we could get, fed to us in a story form with an ending "to be continued". Now, we want (and get) crisis information fact by fact. We don't wait for someone else to put a story together, we begin immediately piecing together our own narrative of what's happened. By the time a company’s "initial" release comes out, the story is well underway.

There's no longer a grace period for companies. They might get a breather after the first wave of news recedes, but event that respite won't last long.  

In my next post I will provide an example of what a crisis-ready PR team looks like in Age of Social Media.  This is important stuff, and now is as good a time as any to get started. 

If you think putting it off is a good idea or you have too much on your schedule, see the Eurostar Crisis. Despite the recommendation of its Social Media agency, Eurostar pushed back into 2010 getting its own name for Twitter. The "Eurostar" handle is registered out of Singapore and the "Eurostar_UK" handle was taken, but unused for some reason. 

Shortly before Christmas, five Eurostar trains ended up trapped in the tunnel under the English Channel stranding thousands of passengers for more than 16 hours. 

Remember, crises rarely take into account your busy schedule.  

Bill Salvin

Monday, January 4, 2010

What the Underwear Bomber can Teach TSA Communicators

When the Underwear Bomber tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 Christmas Day, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) scrambled to put new security measures in place to protect the flying public. TSA issued a security directive to airlines within hours of the bombing, but there was intense confusion because TSA didn't communicate anything of substance publicly following the incident.

TSA has a great blog, but the agency didn't use the site to get meaningful information to passengers quickly. The only substantive action TSA took regarding its security directive was to threaten two bloggers with jail time for publishing it on their respective blogs.

A blog post on The TSA Blog December 26 is identical to a post on the main TSA Website December 27.

Why is this called "Guidance for Passengers"? It is so vague and devoid of helpful information, it is essentially useless.

TSA needs to understand how people think in times like these. We need to know what we can do, what we can expect and what actions people at TSA are doing to make us safer. Instead we got a lot of government officials telling us how fabulous other government officials were during the crisis. But, it's not about them, it's about us.

Here's Bob Schieffer's brilliant take on the whole communications fiasco:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

What TSA should have done is virtually deploy a team of communicators to answer questions from flyers in real-time across multiple social media sites. TSA could have offered rationale for some of the restrictions they had put in place. Post answers to the TSA Blog, post them to Twitter, post to wherever there's an audience. If the same question gets asked again, answer it. TSA needs to understand that how it communicates is as important as how many of us get patted down.

TSA's communicators are public servants. It would be nice if they provided some actual public service.

Bill Salvin