Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teachable Tragedy: Dan Wheldon Didn't "Pass Away"

Leaders often have a difficult time talking about about the death of an employee or member of their team. There are few things more important to get right in crisis communications than discussing the human toll of an event.

The world saw a sad example of a death announcement recently when Indy Car CEO Randy Bernard announced the death of driver Dan Wheldon at the season finale of the Indy Car season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The statement he delivered was 32 seconds long. The first sentence was:

"Indy Car is sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injury (sic)."

Dan Wheldon didn't pass away. He died. He died from injuries suffered in a crash during the race. 

This is important. 

Strong and successful leaders must to be able to deliver bad news, even when its heartbreaking. Saying that Wheldon "passed away" is weak and makes it sound as though the horror of what hundreds of thousands of people watched live was something other than horrific.

I'm not advocating a heartless, cold or clinical description of this type of incident. I'm advocating reality. Here's how Tom Brokaw announced the death of his friend and colleague Tim Russert:

Brokaw was direct, to-the-point and factual. We understood the magnitude of the tragedy from the simple clarity of his language. 

Dan Wheldon's nickname on the racing circuit was "Lionheart." Wheldon earned that nickname from other drivers who said he raced with his heart, and not his head. The least the CEO of Indy Car could do when he stepped behind the mic is announce Dan's death with the same amount of heart as Dan used behind the wheel.

Bill Salvin

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reno Air Tragedy & The Discipline of Disaster Response

In one horrific, brutal instant this year's Reno Air Races turned from awe-inspiring, heart-pounding excitement to tragedy as a P-51 Mustang nose-dived into the crowd. The stories of shock, horror and heroism have filtered out over the last few days as investigators seek to find the cause of the crash.

The Today Show posted new video of the crash this morning. If you have the stomach to watch it you will understand what I mean when I say "horrific, brutal instant." Most disasters unfold this way.

The emergency response to this incident was heroic. Consider this: Within 62 minutes of the crash, EMS workers transported 56 injured patients, many critically injured, to two area hospitals.

That heroic response didn't just happen. It was practiced.
  • In July, the Reno Air Races held an emergency drill where they simulated a plane crash into the grandstand with mass casualties. Local EMS, Fire and Police took part in that exercise
  • The morning of the crash, EMS officials walked through procedures for a mass casualty event
  • The NTSB had a team at the race in case of a crash
  • News updates were issued by nearly every agency involved across multiple platforms; social media, news releases, blogs, impromptu press conferences and interviews
I've said before that great crisis communications starts with a great imagination. It's ok to be diabolical in a drill and it's ok if the staff fails during an exercise. That's how they will learn and be better in the real world. 

Success in emergency response and crisis communications starts with an honest assessment of what the worst-case scenario could be and training to be ready for the worst-case response. It takes discipline and courage to spend money, time and resources on something that most of the time will never happen. 

Pull out your crisis plan this week. Talk through a worst-case scenario with your staff. The worst-case is probably not going to happen.

If it does, realize that there will be people whose lives depend on how willing you were to be ready. 

Bill Salvin

Friday, September 16, 2011

Troubled Water: The Wrong Way to Better News Coverage

Every PR person wants positive news coverage of their organization. It's sort of what we do for a living. There are more ways than ever to get your stories out into the world. Some of those methods are good. Some are sleazy. The LA Times ran a story this week about the rather disreputable way the Central Basin Municipal Water District has gone about generating positive "news" stories about its organization. And it is a cautionary tale for communicators.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District serves about two million people in California near Los Angeles. It's having a tough go of things. The District exists in the second largest media market in the country and there is huge competition for limited space in traditional media outlets. The District is also involved in a nasty lawsuit against the Southern California Water Replenishment District. The Replenishment District has a blog site that tends to post negative stories about Central Basin. It makes sense that the Central Basin Municipal folks want to get into the game and counter the bad news.

So, the board of Central Basin Municipal hired a consulting firm to write fluffy stories disguised as legitimate news. The firm used a website called News Hawks Review to post the stories. Google listed the site as a legitimate news site, which the consulting firm mentioned prominently in its pitch. The site is operated by a person connected to the consulting firm. There is no transparency of any of these connections.

And therein lies the problem. The Central Basin folks have every right to pay a consulting firm to write these stories and even put up a site to host them. They can use whatever key words and search engine optimization techniques to move the stories higher in searches. Just be clear about who you are and the origin of the stories.

Google felt the same way. Less than 24 hours after the first story ran in the Times, the search engine giant removed the News Hawks Review from its list of legitimate news sites.

Why is this man smiling? 
Tony Marino, the executive editor of News Hawks Review posted an open email on the site lamenting how the LA Times is picking on his "fly speck" "dinky little online nickel and dime news channel." If true, Mr. Marino needs work on his pitching skills.

Marino sounds upset that he got his hand caught in the unethical cookie jar. He's a bit hyperbolic, too. He claims the juggernaut that is the LA Times went after his site "with a biblical vengeance not seen since "Shock n Awe."

Dude, it was two stories. The Times ran more stories on the new Kardashian clothing line.

The folks at Central Basin Municipal Water made a bad call. Whether their motivation was to counter negative press, get good coverage or influence a future jury pool it backfired. They appear thin-skinned, inept and unethical. If they want to pay someone to write about their lawsuit against the other water people, they can knock themselves out. Hire whomever you'd like to get that done. Better yet, they could make good use of their own Facebook page. It's currently pathetic.

Remember that transparency is the coin of the realm in PR today. There are no shortcuts to a happy ending. Just ask LeBron James. Whenever and wherever the story posts, you better respect your audience enough to tell them who's paying the bills.

Bill Salvin

Note: The Central Basin Municipal Water District sent a letter to the LA Times asking for a retraction of the articles. Even this is disingenuous. The letter claims they've only paid $70,000 to the consulting firm not $200,000 as claimed in the Times. The paper gets it right because documents show the Water District has approved expenditures up to $189,750. That is roundable up to $200,000 as long as my third grade math teacher taught me how to round up properly.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sorry, Kid. Space is Closed

The SpaceTrader Store, Sept 1, 2011
I was flying home through Houston on September 1. It was the middle of the day at the world's 16th busiest airport in the city home to NASA's Johnson Space Center. The space souvenir store was closed. It's a perfect metaphor for America's human spaceflight program: dark, disappointing and uninspiring.

At a time when Americans are desperate for actions not words, NASA boasts one of the best public affairs operations in government while the Space Shuttles are headed for museums.

The agency still launches rockets like last week's GRAIL mission. But robotic missions to space lack the inspirational potential of human beings going to space. NASA doesn't have a PR problem. It has a leadership problem. If the agency had a good mission, great destination and a capable spacecraft does anyone think the NASA PR team couldn't tell that story?

What can communicators take away from NASA's current plight? Two things come to mind.
  • Mission matters. Leaders need to provide a clear mission and the resources to make it happen before the communicators start their work. If the mission's viability or the ability to succeed is in doubt, communicators can't help. 
  • Boldness counts. The first woman on the moon will be as inspirational as the first man. Just because the destination is the same doesn't mean the mission is unworthy.
Space Age Lodge, Gila Bend, AZ.
September 11, 2011
The saddest part of all of this is that our leaders have willingly given up first place in human spaceflight. Who gives up being number one? What kid will aspire to be an astronaut when the chance that they will fly in space is nearly nonexistent? Will we train astronauts by flying them somewhere on Southwest but only let them board in the "B" group? 

Read any public opinion poll. People love the space program. They love what it's done for our country and the world. 

Too bad our leaders have reduced it's value to that of roadside attraction.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, September 1, 2011

PG&E San Bruno Disaster: A Simple Lesson in Poor Emergency Response

Non-natural disasters aren't random events. When investigators trace an incident back to root causes and fundamental flaws, they paint a picture of a disaster-in-waiting that is as clear as a high-definition video. On September 9, 2010, a natural gas line operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and running through San Bruno, California, exploded. Eight people were killed and 58 others were injured. More than 100 homes were destroyed or damaged. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its report on the explosion and it is hard to fathom the depth of inadequacy PG&E demonstrated in its response to this accident. 

The section of pipeline that ruptured was installed in 1956. The NTSB report states that the section of pipe that blew was fabricated at un undetermined facility to no known specification. 

The report also states that the pipeline as installed in 1956 would not have met the standards in effect at the time. So not only was it a crappy pipeline in 2010, but crappy when it was installed. The gas pipeline equivalent of the Ford Pinto

From an emergency response perspective, the company fails again. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, "The company had no written emergency response plan,' said NTSB investigator Matthew Nicholson." It took PG&E more than 90 minutes to shut off the gas, a fact the NTSB determined "contributed to the extent and severity of property damage and increased the life-threatening risks to the residents and emergency responders."

NTSB investigators found that PG&E's gas emergency plan was ineffective (probably because it wasn't written down) and that "many people self-dispatched" to the accident. So, whomever decided to show up, got to play disaster man. 

History may be made by those who show up, but it's a lousy way to run your emergency response.

The simple lesson here is that emergency response plans have to be tested. To do that, they must first be written down

PG&E issued a fairly comprehensive list of actions it has taken and lessons learned in the aftermath of the San Bruno disaster. 

It's too bad the company had to level a neighborhood to learn them. 

Bill Salvin

Thursday, July 28, 2011

3 Keys to Crisis Comms in the Digital Age - Honesty, Speed and Images

I've been thinking about these three words a lot when it comes to crisis communications. I can't take credit for them as that belongs to U.S. Navy Captain Jeff Breslau, Pubic Affairs Officer for U.S. Pacific Fleet and my boss when I deployed to Japan earlier this year after the earthquake and tsunami. (In addition to my work as a PR guy, I'm a Navy Reserve PAO). 

Crisis comms in the digital age poses some special challenges for communicators, and these three words can serve as nice waypoints as you navigate your organization through major or minor crises.

This seems basic and easy. Which means it is deceptively so. The stress of a crisis makes people do dumb things. Like lie. People also have a natural tendency to want to focus on good news or to try and create happy endings.

("49 of 50 plants didn't blow up today!")

To achieve the "good news," people are likely to minimize facts or omit critical pieces of information that an audience (your key stakeholders) needs to fairly assess the severity of the crisis and accurately judge your organization's performance. Let everyone on your team know that your integrity is the most valuable commodity you have in a crisis and it must not be compromised. Good or bad, facts are what they are. Teach your people to communicate facts clearly and play it straight.  You positively influence your audience with your response to the facts.

Crisis communications in the digital age means that your crisis can be beamed around the world before your company's notification procedures get word to you that there's a problem. Since being first with the news is largely impossible because of technology, you should consider speed in a different way than just getting your first release out in an hour.

There are two keys to speed: identification and reaction. Have your team tuned into the pulse of what's happening outside the company. Your team needs real-time monitoring and the savvy to understand that a company crisis doesn't happen in a vacuum. The dynamics of a crisis can change based on external events. Once identified, empower your team to make the tactical decisions required to communicate events as they unfold. This is important. Empowered to deal with events as they unfold, not as the CEO or VP of Comms wish them to be.

People believe what they see over what they hear. You can have great talking points and a great spokesperson destroyed because the words are out of sync with the images coming from the scene. Another great reason for an external focus during a crisis is that the first images of a crisis will likely not come from inside the organization.

I encourage people I counsel to approach images two ways. First, allow traditional media access as broadly as possible. Second, use internal resources to get images that you can publish to your own social media feeds and websites. These images can do a world of good when the crisis occurs in remote locations or they can supplement external media coverage.

Three words: honesty, speed and images can focus your entire crisis communications effort, but it's just one way to organize your response. James Donnelly of Ketchum PR tells his clients to keep "credibility, focus and imagination" top of mind during a crisis.

"Remove credibility, you have a spin doctor. Remove imagination, you're fighting fires you could have prevented. Remove focus, you have great ideas but nothing gets done," he said.

Most importantly, do what works for you, your team and your company.

What are your crisis communications mantras?

Bill Salvin

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thrive Live: 5 Tips to Crush a Live Interview

Few things inspire panic like the prospect of a live interview. I love them. There is no interaction with a journalist that offers the opportunity that comes with going live.

What a journalist offers with a live interview is unedited time between you and your audience. This is something that is very hard to pass up. If the opportunity to do a live interview comes your way, say “yes” and follow the five tips below to help you thrive live.

Use focus phrases to lead the audience
Focus phrases help direct the audience’s attention to a key point. For example, a focus phrase like “The most important thing I can say is...” or “Our primary concern is...” or “We are committed to...” can do wonders for making you a memorable guest. Those phrases can also help you focus on delivering the right message at the right time. Planning your focus phrases means you also have to plan your messages. Preparation is key to success. 

Give complete answers
Many interviewers ask yes or no questions. While you can respond that way if you choose, a better way to go is to answer on your terms. For example, you’re doing a quarterly earnings interview and you are asked, “Are you pleased with these results?” You could simply answer yes or no, but there’s not much in that for your audience, you or the interviewer. Some options to consider are: “What we’re pleased with is…” or “Yes, particularly in our tablet sales for the quarter…” or “We need to improve our performance to deliver better results and how we’re going to do that is…”

Answer or respond to every question
People assume that media training means teaching someone to dodge questions. Good trainers teach the exact opposite. Answer or respond to every question because that’s what you agreed to when you said “yes” to doing the interview. You do get to answer or respond to the questions on your terms. Even interviews on controversial topics go better if you are respectful enough to the interviewer to be responsive to their questions.

Don’t repeat the negative words
People instinctively "mirror" back words during conversation to signal their understanding of what has been asked. In a live interview, this natural instinct works against you. For example, an interviewer asks, “How dangerous is your chemical plant?” It’s instinctive to respond, “Our plant is not dangerous…” as you begin your answer. A negative word uttered by a reporter and mirrored back by you becomes your word. A better way to respond to the same question would be: “Our plant is safe…”
Use your time wisely
A typical live interview will last roughly two to five minutes. Keep your responses concise; about 30 to 45 seconds long. Responses that drone on will lose the audience and force the host to interrupt. This takes practice. Remember to prepare. 

Follow these tips and when the red light blinks to life, you have a much higher chance of connecting with the audiences that are important to you and your organization.

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Networking for Crisis Communicators

“When a crisis or misunderstanding occurs, it is too late to build a relationship. It must be cultivated beforehand over time, one conversation and one friendship at a time.”
-Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

When the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami slammed Japan on March 11, the US and more than 100 other countries jumped in to help. The US military was in a particularly good position to offer assistance. About 87,000 US Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are based in Japan. Within hours, the military was in action responding to the crisis. 

That response was more effective because of more than 60 years of relationship building between the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the US military. We knew them and they knew us. (Disclosure: I'm a Navy Reserve PAO and I spent the last 30 days on the Crisis Action Team for the Joint Support Force that led US military efforts during the disaster.) Everyday networking paid off big in Japan.

Another example from last year was a gunman at the headquarters of the Discovery Channel. One of the lessons learned according to Discovery's Senior VP of Corporate Affairs and Communications Michelle Russo was to consult with other businesses in your community on your crisis plan. Discovery employees evacuated the building rapidly and left things like car keys, briefcases and purses in their offices. One nearby organization assigned two people to help get Discovery employees home. Seems simple, but knowing your neighbors helped Discovery ensure its people were taken care of. (Big hat tip to PR pro Aimee Stern. Check out her post on the Discovery Gunman, it's worth the read.) 

Why not invite your police department to participate in a drill on a Discovery Channel style scenario at one of your sites? Or, invite one of your competitors to sit in on a crisis exercise where you may need some of their resources to get through the day. Or, sit down with the spokesperson for the Mayor and find out how they will respond if there is a crisis at your facility. All it will cost you is some time and maybe the price of a cup of coffee, and you'll be better prepared.

If you're not great at networking, read Peter Shankman's blog. It's got plenty of tips for how to get connected with people and stay connected with them. 

All crises involve people. Take Admiral Mullen's advice and start building the relationships with people you'll need one conversation at a time. 

Bill Salvin

Thursday, April 7, 2011

10 Things You Should Never Say to a Reporter

I spent about a decade as a journalist. As much as social media allows for companies to tell their story their way, news media are still a powerful and credible pathway to get your story out to a broad audience. There are a lot of lists that tell people what to say to a reporter. I thought I would add my list of ten things you should never say to a reporter.

10) “This really isn’t newsworthy.” Not your call. Do you want a reporter telling you how to run your business? I'm guessing no. Offer  context so the reporter understands the story. Do it well and the reporter might decide that there is no story. But the decision regarding newsworthiness is the reporter’s, not yours.

9) “That last part was off the record.” People usually say this when they make a mistake or reveal too much during an interview. Off the record works only if both source and reporter agree ahead of time that a topic is off the record.

8) “Can you call me tomorrow?” Calling back tomorrow is usually not an option. Reporters are expected to report a story today. Add the speed at which business moves these days, and what’s to say tomorrow will be any more convenient than today? Plus, reporters may feel like you are blowing them off when you say that. What happens when a reporter agrees to call you tomorrow? They call someone else today and do the story. You're just not a part of it.

7) “You’re not going to interview me on camera, are you?” Most people ask this question because they uncomfortable on camera and fear they will look bad. A bit of advanced media training ahead can do wonders for people’s confidence. Get some.

6) “Why are you covering this story?” A derivative of number 10, this always piqued my curiosity when I was reporting. Why was the source trying to dissuade me from covering the story? You have a simple decision: to be part of the story or not. If the answer is yes, then plan what you want to say.

5) “That’s a dumb question.” To a reporter, there is no such a thing. There are dumb answers. Take every question as a chance to deliver your message and you will do better with the reporter and more importantly, your audience.

4) “I just told you that.” Reporters will often ask the same question several times in a number of ways. They are doing this to see if the answer changes. Make sure your answer the last time you answer a repetitive question is the same as it was the first time.

3) “Are you going to use my name?”  Probably. Unnamed sources, while common in political stories, are less so in business stories. Reporters talk to you because they need your expertise and information. Why would you talk to a reporter if you don't want your name used? Reporters need a very compelling reason to use your information, but not your name.

2) “I don’t really watch your station (or read your paper).” That may be the case, but do your customers read the paper or watch the station? I never understood why anyone would say that to me. I never much cared if someone watched my station. I had a job to do and by telling me this you just told me that you're going to make my job harder. Whether you watch, read or listen should be irrelevant to your decision to engage with media.

1) “No comment.” Sadly, decades after "no comment" became interchageable with "guilty as charged" people still say it. If you can't answer the question, tell the reporter why.

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Transparency and Technology: Are you ready to live-stream your crisis?

Courtesy Vanityfair.com
Transparency is a key tenet of crisis communications. Crisis PR experts advise companies to tell as much as possible as soon as possible in order to maintain credibility during bad times. Technology drives expectations. The public expects to be able to log in and see what’s happening in real time. In the last year we’ve had an epic example of the public’s demand to see a crisis as it unfolds: The BP Oil Spill.
At the height of the spill, BP had 16 remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) working 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico to stop the leak. Thanks to some neat work by the oil field service company Oceaneering, all 16 cameras were able to stream live on BP’s public website. The function of the cameras was to give the ROV operators and engineers eyes on the well so they could stop the flow of oil. The communications/PR value was that the world could watch those efforts live. And watch they did.
This technology created challenges for the BP PR team (of which I was a member). The team was called upon to explain what people were seeing. BP’s press office in Houston and London took many phone calls from people wanting to know what a specific ROV was showing at a specific time. It is safe to say that the public watched those ROV feeds closer than the BP PR team. (This isn’t a slight; there were a thousand things to do every day during that crisis and BP’s communicators worked their tails off.)
NASA Mission commentator
Rob Navias at the console
There were even suggestions to have live commentary similar to what NASA provides during Space Shuttle launches. This isn’t something many corporate PR teams are capable of pulling off (we all can’t be Rob Navias).  
You could even make a case for (get ready to use the defibrillator on the lawyer …) having a communicator live blog during a crisis from the company crisis center (… CLEAR!).
Twitter and Facebook have already brought a lot of crisis communications into the realm of real-time. Most of this real-time coverage is being done by others instead of the companies involved. One of my mentors in this business says, “The story is always better with you than without you.”
I’m interested in your thoughts about how to pull this off. Let me know if you think this is a capability companies need to develop and how you think it can be done. 
Unless companies figure a way to adapt to and anticipate these changes, real-time crisis communications will leave businesses without a voice when they need it most.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review your Crisis Plan. Do it Now

The crisis at a nuclear plant in Japan is a sober reminder that crisis plans need to be reviewed, tested and updated regularly. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Tokyo Electric Power’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Nuclear Plant had a disaster plan that was last updated in 2002. The plan downplayed the potential for damage from external events like earthquakes and tsunamis. The plan directed most emergency communications to be done via fax.

Via fax.
I’ve seen crisis plans that still have pager numbers listed for key executives. Perfect if they have to be notified of a crisis in 1982. (Hat tip to the writers of “30 Rock”)
Here’s what the Fukushima plant’s disaster plan said about the possibility of a worst-case-scenario disaster:
"The possibility of a severe accident occurring is so small that from an engineering standpoint, it is practically unthinkable."
There are so many things wrong with that statement I barely know where to start. First, when I hear something is unthinkable, I hear someone choosing inaction because it's is either too hard or too overwhelming to consider. What’s unthinkable to me is the abdication of responsibility that TEPCO captured so perfectly with that sentence.
Here are three things you can do today that can make your crisis plan better:
Check your notification procedures: Look at the list of people to be notified in an adverse event. Is there anyone on the list that no longer works there? (I’ve never reviewed a notification procedure list that didn't include a former employee) Does the list include cell phone numbers and non-work email addresses? Call a few numbers on the list and see if they are accurate.
Check scenario assumptions: Does the plan focus only on operational events unique to the facility or plant? Let your imagination run wild and test the plan’s assumptions against the most horrific scenario you can imagine. What can happen externally; something over which you have no control that can impact your operation? Start planning for that event. Better yet, plan a drill.
Confirm integration with external agencies: You will rarely respond solo to a major crisis. Are the right external agencies included in your plan? Do you know how they will respond to a crisis involving your organization? Have they seen your plan? Have you seen their plan?  
We all have great faith in technology and engineering. Both make our lives better and in normal times keep us safe. But technology can fail and engineering has limitations.
Remember, your crisis plan is fundamentally flawed if it fails to account for the two things that never, ever operate from an engineering standpoint: Human beings and Mother Nature. 
Bill Salvin

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Crisis Communications Lessons from the Japanese Disaster

It's been nearly two weeks since Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami. Large crises are good labs for lessons and this one is no exception. Despite a far different culture than the US, there are some factors common to all large organizational crises that are worth taking note of.

People want transparency even when the news is bad. The company that owns the nuclear power plants, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has been accused of withholding information and downplaying the severity of crisis. It got so bad, a senior government official asked a TEPCO leader, "What in the world is going on?" The government then effectively put TEPCO under its control late last week. Now the government is faced with the same challenges (but doing much better at communicating than TEPCO).

Best advice: Play it straight. Don't judge facts bad or good. Deliver facts in context quickly and completely. Then tell people your plan of action to address the challenges you (and in some cases they) face. When people don't believe you are telling them everything, they don't trust
anything you say.

Demand for information in a crisis always exceeds supply. Solid information is always hard to come by in a crisis, even for those working it. People always think those at the center of a crisis know more than they usually do. This feeds a public perception that those involved are withholding critical news and people default to thinking the worst.

Best advice: Be ready to explain why you don't have certain information and keep working to fill the information gaps. Also, have a thick skin. Realize that people's desire for information is human nature. Don't turn the need for more information into anger by ignoring people's legitimate desires to know as much as possible.

In a crisis response, the public believes more people and material is better (even when it’s not going to solve the problem). The US Pacific Fleet Facebook page received a question about why the Navy hasn't yet sent its West Coast-based hospital ship USNS Mercy to Japan to provide medical care. The simple answer was that the Government of Japan has not requested the Mercy and the US Navy has nearly 20 ships off Japan's coast with ample medical facilities. Plus, Japan is very well developed and well equipped to provide medical care to its citizens. That wasn't good enough for the questioner. He got testier and testier with the Pacific Fleet folks demanding to know why the Navy hasn't moved the ship to Hawaii so it can be closer “just in case.”

Best advice: Acknowledge the concern reflected in the question, in this case a concern for people's health and safety, and talk about how your actions address those concerns. Talk about what capabilities you are using instead of the capabilities you are not using. Be prepared to tell that story again and again. The Pacific Fleet staffer answered all the questions respectfully and explained as best he or she could. 

Media will cover your crisis live if they can. NHK-TV had a helicopter in the air and they broadcast live pictures of the wiping out cities and villages. Other news outlets picked up the
NHK feed and the world witnessed the disaster as it happened.

Best advice: Streamline bureaucracy and empower your people to communicate fast. If you have a crisis plan that provides for a one- or two-hour deadline for a first news release, revise your plan because one-hour is too long. Give your people the training they need to communicate in real time.

Crises may be unpredictable, but people's reactions to them remain fairly constant. Don't let the crisis get the better of you because you focus on the event instead of the people hurting because of it.

Bill Salvin

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Crisis Communications and Trust

Edelman Public Relations released its annual Trust Barometer this week. It reinforces some crisis communications fundamentals and highlights some opportunities to do better in protecting your company in a crisis. (Disclosure: I have done media training for Edelman, but not in the last few years.) It's worth your time to take a look what this survey says.

My biggest take away is that companies looking to be better prepared for a crisis should strengthen their social media presence in order to build and reinforce trust in their organizations. According to the study, trust in media is very low. In the US, only 27% of those surveyed trust the media. It's even lower in the UK at 22%. 

Companies that plan to rely on outdated crisis communications plans that focus on press releases and traditional media relations are placing their reputations in the hands of what many believe to be an untrustworthy source. The opportunity here is in developing your company's social media presence so that you can connect directly with the audiences you need to reach. The cool part is the news media also uses and monitors social media, so you can check that box, too.

If you've got a boss that is a tough sell and needs convincing on social media, read Peter Shankman's great post "Social Media for Paranoid Bosses." Take a look at Facebook and see what companies are doing on the site. BP America has a superb Facebook page that it uses to tell the story of how it's restoring the Gulf of Mexico after last year's tragic oil spill. (Disclosure: BP is a client.)

The biggest reinforcement I saw in the Edelman survey is that people believe the people they trust. 
Source: Edelman Public Relations 2011 Trust Barometer
This graphic tells me that you've got a better shot at protecting and maintaining your reputation if people trust you. Seems simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy to achieve. Another thing the survey revealed is that the two groups rated most credible as spokespeople are outside academics/experts followed by experts within the company. 

When was the last time you met with the stakeholders you will work with in a crisis? Met with agency staff or regulators recently? What about the police or fire chief? Have you trained your company's subject matter experts on how to talk with reporters? In normal times, these types of things pay slow, steady dividends to your company. In a crisis, they could be your lifeline. 

It's ok to depend on the kindness of others in a crisis. Just don't bank your reputation on the kindness of strangers. 

Bill Salvin

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Breaking News: There's No Penalty for Being Wrong

(Editor's note: This post was updated Sunday morning 1.9.11. Hat tip to Andy Carvin for pointing out two errors in the post. I have posted his tweet in the comment section. Thanks, Andy!)

The news coverage during the chaotic aftermath of the horrific shooting in Tucson that killed five people and wounded more than a dozen others including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) tells us a lot about the absence of responsibility in the media today.

Journalists used to live by a creed: "Get it first, but first get it right." That would mean not reporting as fact something that hadn't been confirmed by at least two sources. Now, it's "Get it first." As long as you say where you heard something, you can send it to the world.

Nationally, NPR seems to be the original sinner in this case, although the attribution seems to have come from a reporter at KJZZ, the NPR member station in Phoenix. That reporter cited sources in the Pima County Sheriff's office and a Congressmen's office. Fox News and CNN also cited officials in the Sheriff's office.

No one seems to have bothered to check with the emergency room where the Congresswoman was taken. This is lazy reporting of the first order. Yes, the Sheriff's office and Giffords's congressional office are credible sources, but the deputy, dispatcher or staffer who "confirmed" it was clearly not with the Congresswoman on the way to the hospital, thus a second hand source.

Other media pounced on those reports and issued their own breaking news reports, citing the other media outlets as sources. Twitter bristled with thousands of re-tweets of those breaking news alerts. A great look at how the story unfolded is on Andy Carvin's Storify blog.

This isn't the first time (nor will it be the last) that media has reported a death only to be proven wrong by the victim's survival. Craig Silverman wrote an entire book about media errors and has a nice website called Regret the Error.

NPR did apologize for getting the story wrong, although by that time damage had been done and the incorrect information circled the globe multiple times. In the most ironic post of the day, one of NPR's bloggers, Ken Rudin wrote a post about how, in the absence of information, speculation does no one any good. Really? How would you know? Where were you when your colleagues were getting it wrong?

I suppose it's too much to ask to have editors and producers insist on first-hand information. There's too much money at stake in page views, re-tweets and advertising. It seems the only way to keep things in perspective is to realize that today, journalists are telling us what they heard, not what's true.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What the BP Spill tells us about the Future of Crisis Communications

Editor's Note: This is guest post from my good friend and crisis comms pro Neil Chapman. Neil and I spent a good bit of time together (along with scores of other communicators) working the BP oil spill. These are his thoughts about what we can all learn from this unprecedented crisis.)

Goodbye 2010.  Last year saw different crises – the horrific Haiti earthquake, the ash cloud air chaos and snow muddle, both in the UK and US. Along with scores of communications professionals, I was caught up in the BP oil spill for too much of 2010.

Both a human and environmental disaster, the event was complex and extremely expensive in its emotional and economic toll. Any organization facing an emergency or crisis would be wise to learn lessons from the incident, without the costs that befell BP.

Reports and inquiry testimony are readily available to study. BP has produced its own investigation report and a technical lessons learned document with accompanying DVD. 

Many pundits have shared opinions about where BP went wrong and what it should have done. Here are some observations, that can point to where organizations might start to look for lessons relevant to them:

Readiness - an every-day investment
In a crisis, time is precious, priorities key. Whatever the world thinks, BP was more prepared than many companies. Meetings need a purpose, priorities must be established, decisions need to come quickly, communications must be clear and concise. These are all good skills and habits worth cultivating for every day business, but it takes training and practice. 

Know the system
If outside agencies, especially emergency services, respond to a corporation’s incident, it will likely be managed using an established response system with tried and tested procedures and protocols. Corporate responders – including senior management – need to be familiar with the system.

It’s an online world
BP America's Facebook Page
Most conversations and coverage about a crisis now occur online. Corporate communicators who believe they should focus solely on traditional, mainstream media during a crisis will miss most of what is being said about them by default.

Social media smart
A crisis is not the time to learn the challenges and opportunities of social media such as You Tube, Twitter and Facebook. These channels can hurt and help at the same time. Corporate communicators need to be social media savvy, knowing when and how they can use these channels in a crisis. And tomorrow there will be a new one to learn about.

A mobile world
As well as being online, the world carries the internet on its hip or in a purse. To reach key audiences on the go, corporate communicators cannot be hidebound by the technology they are permitted or know how to use.  

Information discipline
To provide timely, accurate, on-message information to the outside world and across an organisation requires discipline to ensure it is shared effectively inside too. Information discipline gets harder over time, as people shift in and out or they are spread over geography and time zones. Has your organization got a system other than email?

Plan for help
Chances are a corporate communications department will need extra people to cope with the tremendous information demand during a crisis. To bring them on-board takes time and effort, just when you need both for other priorities. Learn how to integrate extra resources quickly and coordinate with other agencies.

Communications processes
A corporate communications manual provides clear "how to" instructions that save time and help integrate the "new hands" an organization needs. Have you got one?

Leaders – be hard, be soft
A crisis tests any leader’s people skills. Responders need honest feedback, positive and negative. If something or someone isn’t working, the problem has to be fixed quickly to keep the response on track. But at the same time, people need to be "nurtured" when the going gets tough for them.

Beware of the toll
 Crises wear people down. The strain can show up at work or at home. Relationships may break. Any corporation that sees its people as an important asset needs to provide effective employee support in a crisis. The first step is to make sure they are trained.

Think strategic
It’s hard to see the writing on the wall with your back to it! It’s too easy to get trapped into focusing on an immediate challenge – and not look far enough ahead. A team needs to be thinking long term from the outset.

Don’t make it worse
Until the world thinks the crisis is fixed, there’s a lot an organization can say to make things worse for itself. Stay on message and talk "actions, actions, actions".

BP’s crisis was the first energy industry disaster of the social media age. The result was that information – good and bad - travelled at an exceptionally fast rate, was dominated by digital and saw demand for it go through the roof. But some of the most effective communication took place face-to-face.

The communications landscape is now much, broader than it was. Organizations – and particularly corporate communicators – should take note and learn because 2011 will bring its own crop of crises.

Neil Chapman worked as a communicator for BP until last year. He has 25+ years of experience dealing with crises and difficult public affairs issues around the globe. He founded Alpha Voice Communications consultancy to focus on crisis communications readiness, presentation training and issues management. Go to: www.alphavoicecommunications.com to find out more.