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Companies that plan to rely on outdated crisis communications plans that focus on press releases and traditional media relations are placing their reputations in the hands of what many believe to be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.