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