Saturday, September 22, 2012

One Critical Factor Missing in Most Crisis Comms Plans

I've been thinking a lot about a company's responsibility to communicate in a crisis especially as it relates to images. Images are everything today. In fact, Bob Lisbonne wrote a guest post for TechCrunch about the Imagesphere and two stats jumped out at me.
"People post more than 300 million photos a day to Facebook alone, and 70% of all actions on social media involve images." -Bob Lisbonne
Just look at the rise of the social site Pinterest where the only thing on the site are visuals. Pinterest hit 10 million monthly unique visitors faster than any independent website in history. We love taking pictures and we love sharing pictures.

Most crisis plans don't provide for a process for gathering, clearing and disseminating "official" company images during adverse events. Your next crisis, like it or not, will be visual. This is the new reality.

I'm the naked King of the World!
Earlier this summer an incident in Scottsdale, AZ involved a naked carjacker. Plenty of photos surfaced from people who were in the area at the time. It's the classic "citizen-journalist" story. This story is made for people who carry smartphones. Right now in the US, there are more than 110 million smartphones. Seriously, if you've got a camera in your pocket how do you not snap and post a pic of the naked car jacker?

That's how images come out during a crisis. Regular people who witness the event, employees who work where the event happens and even emergency response personnel are the sources of the first images of a crisis. There is a bedrock tenet of crisis communications that other people will weigh in on your story so you have to get information out to the public quickly. If that logic applies to words, it has to apply to images, too.

Social media means everyone is a publisher today, including your company. You have a timeline for issuing your first statement about an incident, but do you have a timeline for releasing an official image?

Do you have a process for getting that image through approval and onto your website or company Facebook page? Do you have a photographer?

I think about the challenges working with lawyers to get a statement out and I shudder to think what that process will look like when it comes to putting out pictures of something that has gone wrong. This has to be worked out in advance.

What needs to be in your photo policy?

1) Clear standards to maintain the credibility of the imagery.
People are already skeptical of companies during a crisis and an altered image will be called out quickly. Just ask Nokia. The company used images and video to show how awesome it's new smartphone is for taking pictures and videos. Except the images and videos weren't taken by the new smartphone. The Associated Press has a pretty clear photo policy: "The content of a photograph will NEVER be changed or manipulated in any way."

2) If a photo or video is altered in anyway, post how it was altered.
Most of the policies I looked at allowed for alterations that were common when photos were developed in darkrooms. Cropping seems to be acceptable as does burning (darkening) and dodging (lightening). The goal is to preserve the authenticity of the image.

A client asked me about using Instagram given the popularity of the photo sharing app. I said no. A crisis requires trust and credibility and an app designed to change the look and feel of a photo isn't going to help in a crisis. I just don't see an upside for a company in making the big disaster look like vacation photos from the 1970s.

There's a lot to sort out here and communicators need to think this through. Unlike the guy on top of the car above, we don't want to be caught with our pants down.

Bill Salvin

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Thank you, Mr. Armstrong"

Most people over a certain age know precisely where they were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969. I don't because I was three at the time. I do remember the night in 2004 when I got to shake his hand. It was an awards gala where Armstrong was being given the National Space Trophy by the Rotary National Awards for Space Achievement. Oddly, the first man to walk on the moon was the 18th recipient of RNASA's annual award.

It's a fairly rare occasion for me to be speechless, but when I shook his hand all I could muster was a near-breathless, "Thank you, Mr. Armstrong." 

I was one of probably 500 people who shook his hand that night and one of millions that shook his hand in the 43 years since he walked on the moon. He was a reluctant and gracious celebrity. With so many frivolous people famous for nothing other than attracting attention to themselves, it's easy to forget that one of the most famous men in history wished for nothing more than to be left alone to teach and live in the small Ohio town where he grew up. 

We've gotten dulled to the incredible technology that we surround ourselves with every day. Most of us take more computing power to the gym than Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins took to the moon.

NASA photo
Armstrong was passionate about engineering and unhappy that NASA's human spaceflight program seemed adrift, with no American rockets left to carry Americans to space and none on the horizon anytime soon. No one could take Armstrong's title of "First Man" from him, but he understood that America could very well lose its place as the world's foremost country for space exploration.

Times are turbulent now, but not any more so than the late 1960s. We went to the moon during all of that generational upheaval and there's no good excuse for why we don't have the world's most audacious human space program. Space programs employ thousands of really smart people who get that way with a great education. Those are just two benefits of space exploration.

Rovers are really cool and NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars is a great achievement. All things being equal though, footprints beat tire tracks.

When you look up at the moon tonight remember that 12 men from Earth left footprints up there. Most importantly, remember to say, "Thank you, Mr. Armstrong."

Bill Salvin

Thursday, August 23, 2012

All Gaffes are Not Created Equal

I've been thinking a lot about gaffes lately and the fear people have about making them. Luckily, Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin's comment about "legitimate rape" gave me what I needed to make the point I've wanted to make. All gaffes aren't equal and most aren't even memorable.

"Was it something I said?"
Gaffes are memorable for the humanity (or lack of it) revealed.
Akin's claim that a woman has a built-in kill switch to stop pregnancy during rape resulted in nearly universal condemnation. Besides being wrong about the physiological facts, his comments trivialized rape and blamed women for either lying about their assault or secretly wanting to get pregnant.

For the majority of people Akin's comments revealed all they needed to know to make a judgement. His double-digit lead in the polls evaporated overnight. Technically, Akin's comments aren't even a gaffe because he meant to say what he said. When you heard it you had the sense that he really believed it. In doing that, he rendered a useful service rare among politicians: he let the good people of Missouri know what he really thought.

Let's move away from politics. Not everything is a Freudian slip. Sometimes people just misspeak. I media train people every week and the fear making a mistake looms large in nearly every training room where I work. People beat themselves up for making the smallest mistakes and they believe they've failed if they weren't perfect.

No interview is ever perfect
I've done around 3,000 live newscasts, both television and radio, in my life. None of them were perfect. Some were awesome. I mispronounced my own name in one of them. Most were not memorable.

Thousands of people are interviewed every day and, in reality, there are very few truly epic gaffes. News is disposable by its nature. So is your interview. Fear of making a mistake shouldn't keep you from doing an interview, it should motivate you to get trained and to practice before agreeing to it.

Since you're likely to make a mistake, focus on techniques to correct them when you make them.

Three tips to fix your "gaffe"
The first thing you can do when you realize you've misspoken is to stop talking. If you stop talking, the reporter has no news. Stop. Tell the reporter you've lost your train of thought and then re-start.

The second thing you can do is ask the reporter to ask you the question again so you can give a better answer. In most cases, a reporter will give you the chance to clarify your answer if you are honest about the fact that you weren't happy with your first go at it. They get a good story with good information from you.

The third tip to keep you from being gaffe-tastic is to use a pause. So many people think they have to begin speaking the microsecond a reporter's question ends that they stop thinking. Let the reporter ask the question. Listen to the whole thing. Take a breath and begin your answer.

Those tips can help keep your routine interview from becoming a viral video.

The other thing that can help is not citing as "fact" information that can be refuted by reading a middle school health textbook.

Bill Salvin

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Penn State's Crisis is NOT a Crisis Communications Failure

As much as anything else, crisis communications requires courage. Leaders must be able to, with limited or incomplete information, make the right decisions, even if they are difficult. Penn State’s leaders, specifically Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, failed abjectly in their responsibilities as the Jerry Sandusky scandal came to light in 1998 and 2001.
The report by former federal judge and FBI Director Louis Freeh is gentle when it says the four leaders at Penn State demonstrated “callous indifference” to the victims of Jerry Sandusky. The actions of Joe Paterno and others at the highest level Penn State is inexplicable. 

They knew about Sandusky’s activities (the extent to which is in dispute) and did nothing about it except to give him a nearly $200,000 retirement payout, an emeritus title and unfettered access to Penn State facilities. It's what they thought was the "humane" thing to do. 
The report highlights an obsessive desire to avoid bad publicity. Legacy, reputation and public adoration for an icon were more important than protecting children from a serial predator.
Gerald Braud wrote a great post about what should have been done from a crisis comms perspective, and he’s absolutely right when he lists the actions Penn State should have taken. But this isn't a crisis communications failure. It's a leadership failure. 

It's not as if the communicators ever got close enough to make a recommendation about how to proceed. Senior people covered it up. You can't blame the field-goal kicker for the loss if he never gets on the field to try and win the game.
I also believe that if the communicators did know about what was going on, they likely would have been unable to convince their leaders to do the right thing or have been complicit in the chosen course of action. I know that’s cynical, but they all drink the same water in Happy Valley.
Several people have asked me how Penn State can rebuild its reputation. I'll write more about that in the days ahead. The way ahead is straight through. Get all the facts out and make changes so this doesn’t happen again. The facts are going to be ugly and painful, but it is the only way through.
Hindsight is always perfect. The Paterno family insists that the coach didn’t know the extent of what was going on. It’s the same defense the university president, the senior VP for finance and the athletic director are using. Except leaders aren’t paid to have perfect hindsight. Leaders are paid to make difficult decisions with imperfect facts. 

The Freeh report makes clear they had enough information to stop the abuse 13 years before Sandusky's arrest. Instead, they let idol worship and fear lead them to a catastrophically wrong choice.
When they got a report that Sandusky raped a ten-year old boy in the Penn State locker room, they chose football.
Bill Salvin

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Two Quick Tips to Better Presentations

Reading columns by former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan is a special joy. Her way with words is understated, focused and powerful. I'd give my left arm to write like that, and not just because I'm right handed. Her most recent column offered two great nuggets that people who give speeches and presentations should take to heart. The first one seems so simple.
"People like to listen if you're saying something interesting."
Being interesting means losing buzzwords, telling stories and conveying passion for the topic. If you're not excited about the topic, why should your audience be? A PowerPoint slide is not nearly as interesting as a well told, relevant story.

Gary Vaynerchuk tells the story of how he came to believe in the power of social media, and he's worth listening to because it's interesting to hear. He uses no slides. It's captivating and worth your time even if some of the language is NSFW.

The speech takes a while but, as Ms. Noonan says, it takes some time to build a story that supports a great idea. I listened because Vaynerchuk's talk conveyed a great idea.

The second great tip in Peggy Noonan's column is about focus.
"A speech about everything is a speech about nothing."
What that means for most corporate types who use PowerPoint is no back-up slides. If you have to use back-up slides, you don't know your audience and you don't have a clear point for your presentation. If you can do your presentation with no slides, please do.

Focus is everything. It's what grabs people's attention, it's what captures their imagination and it's what moves them to action. Tell your audience exactly what you want them to know, believe and do. Don't just hope they get it.  If you can't pinpoint that for your audience, you leave it to them to decide what's important and what they can ignore. It's likely a good percentage of them will ignore what you think is most important.

Two simple, but powerful tips: Be interesting. Be focused.

It's the only way you'll ever be memorable.

Bill Salvin

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Three Questions Communicators Want to Ask Attorneys

Attorneys have been part of my career ever since I became a journalist. I’ve interviewed lots of them in nearly every kind of situation. I’ve also dealt with them on the PR side of things in every crisis to which I’ve responded.

I’ve worked with spectacular attorneys, who had just the right advice at the perfect time and probably saved the response. I’ve also worked with attorneys I wouldn’t enjoy being handcuffed to if we made a cross-country buddy movie.

Crisis communications is a team sport, and communicators are going to have to work with attorneys. Both have important roles to play. With that as a background, I thought I’d highlight the three common questions communicators ask about attorneys. 

1. Why are attorneys so slow when it comes to approving statements in a crisis?

Most communicators I have worked with in a crisis can get an initial statement written in less than five minutes. Then they cool their heels waiting for legal approval while the media beg for information and others post about the crisis on social media. Communicators know attorneys have to get comfortable with the statement. We wish it didn't take them longer to approve a statement than it takes us to write it. 

Solution? Make sure the attorney understands what is going to be in your initial statement before the crisis strikes. Get the attorney comfortable with the template you'll use, then stick to it when you deploy it. You will shave precious minutes off your response time. 

2. Why do attorneys wordsmith instead of providing legal review?

We take a statement for legal review and it seems everyone wants to be a writer.

Attorneys don’t like adjectives and they do not like words that convey emotion. At least, that’s what Cecilia Showalter wrote in a 2010 post on communications and credibility. It’s a worth a read for the common ground we share.

Since all crises are human events, all crises have an emotional component. Communicators are taught to be empathetic with those impacted by a crisis. If you remove all words that contain emotion, you come across cold and unfeeling. How will that help anyone when the lawsuits get filed?

Solution? Work with your attorney to spell out how your company will express regret for an incident. Attorneys don't like when you say "I'm sorry" because it is considered an admission against interest. Really good lawyers will help you craft a statement that is both empathetic and legally sound.  

3. Why do attorneys seem to lack a sense of urgency in a crisis?

Communicators have told me they feel attorneys focus attention on small, unimportant things in a crisis. This perception may come from the different focus attorneys and communicators have in those early hours. There is a balance between short and long-term priorities that can be the heart of the attorney-communicator challenge. 
I've seen attorneys worry about approving a Tweet taken from an approved news release. To a communicator, this wastes time and energy for no tangible gain. We worry the attorney is more concerned about the deposition in two years than the crisis right now. Worrying about a Tweet helps no one, and can cripple a response with a culture of perfection. You don’t have to be perfect in a crisis. You just have to be good.

Solution? The best advice is always the simplest. Don't meet your new in-laws at the wedding and don't meet your attorney after the fire starts.

Crisis communications is a team sport. A communicator has to worry about a hundred things to succeed in a crisis. Worrying about your relationship with your attorney shouldn't be one of them. 

Bill Salvin

Friday, May 25, 2012

Three Crisis Comms Tactics Better than Speed

PR folks and crisis communicators spend a lot of time talking about how fast companies have to be in order to survive a crisis. Getting out of the gate fast is critical to success. But fast isn't the only thing a company has to be to weather a PR storm. In fact, fast isn't even the most important thing a company needs to be in a crisis.

The Indianapolis 500 is this weekend and speed thrills, but it doesn't often win.

In the last 101 years (96 races), only 20 drivers won the pole position went on to win the race. Another quirky stat, 19 times the driver that had the pole position wasn't the fastest driver to qualify (Indy 500 rules give the pole position to the fastest driver on the first day of qualifying.) You have to be more than quick to succeed.

Getting back to crisis comms, there are three important tactics that can be more determinative of success than speed.

In the early days of a crisis, the pace of work required of communicators is overwhelming. As the workload shrinks (and it can shrink rapidly if someone else has a crisis that's more dramatic than yours) make sure your team's production stays high. You don't have to Tweet every three minutes, but you do need to keep the people impacted by the crisis in the know. Crises have a way of circling back around for a second or third wave. Staying consistent helps you maintain a credible place in the comms environment.

Most crises are complex events, yet people crave simple explanations for what's happening. Keep your messages as simple as possible so that your key audiences never have to struggle to figure out where your company stands on what's happening. The clarity bonus is especially important as others weigh-in on your adverse event. Conspiracy theories abound in a crisis. Conspiracies require complexity to survive. Clarity is the conspiracy killer, so keep it simple.

This is the single most important tactic you have in a crisis. It's human nature to want bad news to turn to good in times of great stress. If it wasn't, Hugh Grant wouldn't make movies. Facts are unfavorable to your company's reputation in a crisis, but don't try and convince people that those facts are anything other than what they are. If you spend less time trying to convince them of something that's not true and more time communicating your response, you will have a greater, more lasting impact over the arc of the crisis.

I'm advocating a complete response, not just a fast response. Crisis communicators need to know what the drivers at the Brickyard know. You can be fast and still fail.

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Wrong Expectation of Crisis Communications

A lot of people (me included) spend time judging the performance of corporate folks mired in a crisis. It's a very tactical type of analysis that help us better prepare our clients in case something terrible happens to them. The better and harder we train, the better we will respond is the thinking.

What's bugging me is that the word "better" seems to be synonymous with "perfect". You will never be prefect when communicating in a crisis.

Reuters Photo via Politico
Let's take the current fiasco engulfing J.P. Morgan Chase and its CEO Jamie Dimon. The short story is that the bank made some trades to protect itself from other trades. It didn't work out and the bank lost about $2.3 billion so far. More losses are coming, but the bank expects to be profitable for the quarter and for the year. J.P. Morgan Chase has plenty of money left. No bailout required.

Here's what J.P. Morgan did, best as I can piece together.
  • Denounced the trades by the trader known as the "London Whale" as a "tempest in a teapot" when disclosed by the Wall Street Journal in April.
  • Disclosed to the government and in a conference call to investors that the trades were a mistake and that the bank had lost more than $2 billion.
  • Apologized to investors at the company's annual meeting and called the trade "flawed, complex, poorly conceived, poorly vetted and poorly executed. This should never have happened. I can't justify it. Unfortunately, these mistakes were self-inflicted."
  • Announced management changes that cost three high-ranking J.P. Morgan executives their jobs.
I think J.P. Morgan has responded as well as it could to this crisis. I'm sure Mr. Dimon would like back his comment about the trades being a "tempest in a teapot". Once the magnitude of the problem became evident, J.P. Morgan's choices became both limited and poor. A crisis always means you are choosing between lousy options.

For example, on May 10, JP Morgan's choices were simple: disclose the trading losses or not. There is a right choice there, but it's not a great choice, as you have to tell the world and your investors that your bank has lost more than $2 billion dollars in a matter of days.

Even when you respond as well as you can, the bottom line is that you are still communicating in a hostile environment about an adverse event. I say hostile environment because people pile on in a crisis. Just look at the calls for banking reform by politicians of every stripe. JP Morgan's misfortune isn't a real event for them, it's a poster child for their own agenda.

As counselors during a crisis, we have to make sure that we set the expectations properly. All crisis communications are done in a negative environment. You can't be perfect. I've anchored about 3,000 live newscasts in my life and I've never been perfect. I had one newscast where I mispronounced my own name.

If you want perfection, perhaps you could board the Pequod and help Captain Ahab search for his version of the London Whale.

For the rest of us? Let's just strive to be better.

Bill Salvin

Saturday, May 5, 2012

3 Reasons Traditional Media Still Matters

Social media use is growing fast and it's changing how people consume news. But there's still life in traditional media. The real choice for corporate communicators isn't putting resources in either traditional media or social media, but rather how do you get the right balance so that your company gets covered broadly and the stories have the most impact.

 Mashable had a really cool info graphic from about people's use of social media for news consumption. The title "How Social Media is Taking Over the News Industry" was a bit hyperbolic, but as with all good headlines, it got me to read (in this case, click). As I processed the information, it got me thinking that there are three reasons traditional media still matters.

#1: Traditional media is where the audience is.
Most people still get their news from TV and newspapers. As a news source, TV comes in at about 60%, newspapers about 30% and about 29% for social media and roughly 19% for radio. (The numbers don't equal 100% because typically people are able to pick more than one source for their news.) You're still going to need trained individuals to do traditional media interviews, and you are still going to have to build and maintain relationships with reporters who cover your industry. Social media comes in ahead of radio, but even in 2005, the Pew Center for People and the Press reported that internet news came in ahead of radio (24% vs. 22%).

#2: Traditional media has credibility.
This survey shows that nearly half of the people polled say they have heard breaking news on social media that turned out to be wrong. The race to be first makes for sloppy reporting. What good is immediacy if the information is incorrect? Not that traditional media doesn't blow the story sometimes, just less often than social media.

#3: News isn't driving social media growth.
Since 2009, traffic to news sites from social media has grown 57%. Sounds impressive. But Facebook has grown about 400% since 2009 and Twitter about 800%. If social media were really taking over, shouldn't the growth in links be a lot higher? Sure, more people are linking to news from social media, but news certainly isn't driving social media growth.

Social media lets you hold onto your current audiences by connecting with them in new ways. You can also build new audiences with tools that allow you to connect with people you've ever reached before. That's the true power of social media in corporate communications.

Any communication tool that allows you to better connect with your key audiences is worth your attention. No matter the technology, though, communication remains, at its core, a human interaction.

Bill Salvin

Note: This post has been updated to correct a statistic in the graph on user growth. The original post listed Facebook user growth from 2009-2012 as 800%. It is 400%.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Simple is Good. Not Always Better

A crisis comms plan has to work. That's the standard for success or failure. My mentor and friend, Bob Roemer, says a crisis comms plan has to be simple enough so that the most junior member of your staff can execute the plan solo, if needed. Great advice from a great crisis guy.

That's why a recent post on Ragan's PR Daily Europe page really rubbed me the wrong way. It shows insurance giant Chubb's crisis plan and praises its simplicity. Here's the plan as shown on the page under "Here's an outline of Chubb's Protocol":

• Identify and prepare for potential issues.
• Communicate with the customer service and legal teams.
• Get the facts and prepare statements. 
• This covers traditional and social media.
• Respond and correct the record. 
• Get in front of the story.
• “No comment” is a last-ditch response.
• Accurately convey your side of the story. 
The problem here is that it leaves too much room to think. Thinking is one of the last things you want people to do in a crisis. People respond how they are trained, and in the absence of a solid training program, this set of guidelines will drive the company towards disaster.

Let's take the "Monitor" section. Yes, you need to monitor traditional and social media. You may want to tell your people how as there are myriad ways to do that. Some are more effective and faster than others.

Next up, "Respond and correct the record." Great advice. Except that it's not really possible today. I was one of several hundred communicators BP used during the Deepwater Horizon/Gulf Oil Spill Response. One day, June 17, 2010, there were 27,000 stories published in traditional and social media worldwide. There weren't enough people to correct the record and there won't be for your crisis.

Let's move along to the "Respond" section. Big fan of responding. This saves your bacon in a crisis. So, "Get in front of the story." is worth some discussion. How exactly? 50% of people in the US have smartphones and can post photos to the web instantly. I talked about this in "6 words to better Crisis Communications." Getting in front of the story is great if you're responding to a crisis in 1985. In 2012, it is a waste of time. Your employees or those impacted by the crisis will post, text, tweet or upload to Facebook or other social media before you're notified you've had a problem. You've got better odds of winning Powerball than getting in front of the story.

Gil Rudawsky, the author of the Ragan post, wrote that he's slogged through 100-page crisis plans and that simple is better. He's half right. Simple is better. Your crisis plan doesn't need to be 100-pages, but it does need to be more in-depth than Chubb's 54 words.

Bill Salvin

Monday, March 12, 2012

6 Words to Better Crisis Communications

One of the most common things PR people say when counseling clients on a crisis is to "get in front of the story." Here's the problem: there is no more getting in front of a story. Smart phones with cameras + social media = a story that is off and running before, in many cases, you're notified of the problem. This graph shows more people have mobile phones than have drinking water or electricity. Speed is still important and has to be a component of your crisis plan, but it can't be the goal of your crisis comms plan.

I've written many posts about crisis communications in today's saturated information environment, but it's taken time to get my thoughts down to their essence. It came to me last week when I was working with a client to refresh a crisis comms plan that had not been updated in about four years. The potential for this client's specific crisis still exists, but the environment in which it will unfold is completely new.

The new plan we devised has two directives that guide all communications activities both before and after the event cooks off.

First, when possible.
Most credible, always.

Everything communicators will do flows from these six words.

First, when possible.
Success here means you must have structures and procedures in place to facilitate a fast response. At a minimum, this means monitoring social media, on-going media training of spokespeople, and creating, updating or revising your crisis communications plan. It means making sure people inside your organization know who to call in the PR department when an adverse event strikes. Does your communications staff have the authority to issue brief initial statements? Can they send Tweets or issue website updates to confirm an event has happened without three layers of legal being involved? Are your procedures clear enough so that the most junior person on your staff can succeed during the initial response?

Most credible, always.
To achieve this, you have to have a robust presence in traditional and social media. Your website has to be a hub for information you publish about yourself. You have to be connected with the operational parts of your business so that you can explain complex subjects clearly, concisely and quickly, if need be. You have to have a program to train subject matter experts that can provide critical context during a crisis. You have to be ready to be relentless in your communications during a crisis, especially when it comes to correcting misinformation or refuting rumors.

The best thing to me about this approach is that it forces planning, preparation and practice to enable success. It requires communicators do more than maintain a stash of 5-Hour Energy in their desks.

If your senior leadership says your crisis plan has to get you "in front of the story," make sure you tell them that a crisis plan built to get "in front of the story" is built to fail.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, February 19, 2012

So Much for "Don't Be Evil"

Google is in a bit of a PR pickle right now. As with most PR pickles, it is a self-inflicted problem brought on by unethical behavior. Google's poor communications aren't helping.

Google's trouble started when The Wall Street Journal ran a page one story on the company's clever coding that allowed them to work around default security settings on the iPhone's main browser, Safari. Safari's default settings block third-party tracking software from being installed. Safari would only allow cookies if the user "interacted" with a site, like filling out a form. Google created code that sent an invisible form to trick Safari into thinking the user was interacting with an ad.

Google issued a statement to the WSJ denying anything nefarious in their practices.
"The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."- Google, Inc. Statement in The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2012
The catch here is that Google claimed it wasn't doing what it was doing. Therein lies the heart of the company's problem. Their actions do not match their words.

The quid pro quo of the internet is access to information for privacy. The more information we get, the more of our privacy we relinquish. In theory, users are supposed to have control over how much of their privacy they give up and to whom.

Let me run down the PR challenges Google faces here. The quote above really boils down to:
"We figured out a way around Safari's security settings and didn't tell you. Since we didn't collect personal information you shouldn't worry about it." 
Later on, Google told the Hill's Technology Blog Hillicon Valley that the tracking was "inadvertent and had been removed." The Los Angeles Times has an extensive piece on the privacy breach.

One of the key tenants of crisis communications (and in case you're wondering, Google, you have a crisis here) is that your operations and your communications have to work in order to successfully navigate a crisis. On the communications front, Google is going to have to choose between this being inadvertent or being ok. So far they've said both of those things.

Operationally, Google created a code that exploited a weakness in the Safari browser and placed that code into ads. This was not done by accident. Even though I'm not a programmer, I'm pretty sure that code didn't write itself.

Google failed operationally by installing the code, and they are failing PR-wise by not having a coherent, believable story about how and why this happened. The most telling detail for me is that Google disabled the offending after The Wall Street Journal raised the issue. Removing the code is the right thing, but the way this looks is that the only reason we aren't being secretly tracked by Google is because it got caught.

I'm a PR guy. Google needs a better story. If your goal is don't be evil, perhaps the truth is a good place to start

Update: Apparently Google tricks Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, too. See here for details. It appears Google's actions weren't so much inadvertent as totally deliberate. 
Bill Salvin

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Futility of Holding Statements

Holding statements are a staple of most crisis comms plans. But it's time for an update. Like crisis plans at Japanese nuclear plants that called for emergency statements issued via fax, technology has moved on. It seems silly to use a tool of the Television Age in our Social Media times.

When holding statements came about, they worked well. Something bad would happen somewhere. Media would show up. Companies that offered nothing watched reporters get their information elsewhere. The holding statement provided minimal information quickly and came with a promise to provide more. The world moved slower then.

To the extent that holding statements put a company in the frame of mind to communicate, that’s great.

The reality I’ve seen is they provide a false sense of comfort during a crisis because the templates trap spokespeople with statements that are both generic and inflexible. Even the name “holding statement” infers a measure of control over the media that doesn’t exist.

Social media means journalists no longer come to you first. When I was a reporter and a call came over the scanner, we’d head to the van and race to the scene. Now reporters head to Twitter and see who’s talking about it and better yet, who might have pictures. No van required.

In many cases, reporters know more than you do when/if they arrive at your site or reach you on the phone. Focusing on getting the holding statement keeps you from getting the incident-specific facts that are available and can truly establish your credibility early on.

A asked a journalist I know (who prefers to remain anonymous) about holding statements and he said he thinks they are dangerous and can easily backfire.
“I think it is much better to respond to events as they occur, with the truth and using people who know the information and are free to provide the information to the public in a complete and honest way.”
Complete information is impossible in a crisis, but honesty is a requirement. If holding statements are no longer useful, what is the way ahead?

There are five essential pieces of information people and the media need in a crisis. Here they are:
  • What happened? (Keep it simple) 
  • Is there a danger to the community? (Yes or no, play it straight)
  • What is your primary concern? (Think people!) 
  • What actions are you taking to solve the problem? (Think response)
  • When/where can I get more information? (Set expectations for media and the audience)
I’ve used this set of questions to prepare for real interviews as have many of my clients. This works. The best part of this set of questions is that it is scalable so as the event unfolds you can give more complete answers.

I first realized this was going to be a problem back in 2009 when US Airways ditched into the Hudson River. People started tweeting about it immediately. We watched the plane floating down the river on one side of the screen as US Airways President Doug Parker used a template to "confirm there has been an incident." The statement was delivered 96 minutes after the plane hit the river. It seemed it took forever to get that statement and that was three years ago.

In the Social Media Age, crisis response is measured in Tweets Per Second. By that standard all a holding statement does is hold you back.

Bill Salvin

Monday, January 23, 2012

Is Carnival's CEO MIA?

It’s been more than a week since the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian coast. Costa Crociere SpA’s CEO Pier Luigi Foschi has issued statements and held press conferences. Notably missing from the response is Mickey Arison, CEO of Costa’s parent company, Carnival Corp. 

A Wall Street Journal article on the subject notes Arison is known for a hands-off management style and he gives his leaders wide latitude in running each of the ten cruise lines that Carnival owns.

Based on the where the crisis is right now this is the right call.

Costa's CEO is Italian, the cruise line is based in Italy and the accident happened a few hundred meters off the Italian coast. He speaks the language. His press conferences and statements have been in Italian. This is a global story certainly, but one based in Italy.

Reflect back to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. BP CEO Tony Hayward was barbequed in the US press because of his “foreign” accent (Disclosure: BP is a Signal Bridge client). Hayward and the company were criticized for being tone deaf to the needs of the residents along the Gulf Coast who were suffering. A rich Englishman couldn’t possibly understand the concerns and needs of the shrimper from Plaquemines Parish. It was an unfair criticism, but it stuck. Arison would be considered a foreigner if he went to Italy. 

Former Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl
Bitter Much?
If you go back to the Exxon Valdez (1989), the CEO was roundly criticized for doing only three interviews in the first six weeks of the disaster. Apply the same logic to the Deepwater Horizon spill and you can understand why the company put Hayward nearly every where after the spill. Hayward and the company paid dearly for that decision as he made a number of memorable gaffs during interviews about the response and was photographed aboard his yacht as the company struggled to plug the runaway well.

Can Arison add anything to the response in Italy? He has Tweeted his sympathy to victims of the accident and in a company news release. There appears to be no lack of resources in the response run out of Italy, although there have been some PR mis-steps.

There are two key questions that PR types should be asking right now: What can Arison add to the response? And is it worth the risk that he might make a mistake that comes to overshadow the response? 

Unless there is a compelling case that the victims of the disaster benefit from his presence, Micky Arison should stay in Miami.

Bill Salvin

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Predictable Demise of the Costa Concordia

You know you have a big crisis when it can be seen from outer space.

While the images of the Costa Concordia lying on its side are unbelievable, the crisis was quite predictable, just like most crises. When crises strike, there are common elements that play out in a fairly predictable way. If you know them, you can be better prepared for a crisis at your company.

The first element common to most crises is surprise. I tell my clients that they better plan for that which they think impossible. I have heard "that will never happen" or "there's no way that could happen" from many people who've then had to deal with exactly the kind of crisis they said would never happen. History is filled with this type of arrogance (see Titanic, circa 1912). The passage below was written by Theresa Norton Masek who writes the Travel Pulse blog.

I first saw the photo of the Costa Concordia on its side half-submerged on my iPhone as I was preparing to disembark the Wind Surf in St. Maarten. Up until that sickening moment, I would have confidently assured anyone that such a disaster was impossible in this day and age.
Because people don't think things are possible, they often don't prepare to respond to the crisis. That leads to panic. Stories of the panicked, disorganized evacuation abound. There are even video clips taken from people's mobile phones that show first hand what it was like aboard the stricken ship. A certain amount of panic is expected when more than 4,000 people are involved, but the better prepared you are, the less panic there is.
Denial is the third common element in a crisis. Just off the coast of a picturesque Italian island there were no radio calls to the Italian Coast Guard from Concordia's bridge. In fact, the Coast Guard found out about a problem aboard the ship when passengers called relatives who then called police. The police notified the Coast Guard. Here is a timeline from The Telegraph in the UK.

10.06pm Coastguard calls Capt Schettino and asks him what is going on. He tells them “It’s all OK, it’s just a blackout, we’re taking care of the situation.” 
10.16pm Coastguard calls him again and he admits water is coming into the hull but says there is no emergency.
10.30pm Under pressure from the coastguard, the captain agrees to send a Mayday signal – 50 minutes after the collision. The ship is by now listing at 20 degrees. 
10.50pm Again under pressure from the coastguard, the captain orders the ship to be abandoned – 70 minutes after the vessel smashed into the rock. 
In every crisis, there is intense media scrutiny. I grabbed a quick screen shot from Google Thursday morning using "Costa Concordia" as the search term.

Nearly eighteen thousand stories since last Friday evening. That's about 3,000 stories a day (it's more than 21,000 stories now). One of the rules of crisis communications used to be that you want to be part of every story done about your company. That is simply not possible in today's information environment.

There other elements common to a crisis and I'll write about those in a future post. The sad part of all of this is that it didn't have to happen.

Most crises don't.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Transparency Faux Pas: Disclosure Matters

I spend a good bit of time in this space critiquing the performance of others. It seems only fair that when I make a boneheaded move that I share it.

The other day, New York Times Columnist Joe Nocera wrote a column titled “BP Makes Amends” about the company’s actions since the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.

I posted the link to my Facebook page and you can see below what I wrote. What I didn’t do was disclose that BP is one of my clients. In fact, I spent most of the spring and summer of 2010 in the Gulf working for the company as it responded to the spill. I did interviews on behalf of BP and worked very closely advising several senior company execs. (Disclosure: not that one)

I post a lot of links to stories I find interesting. Very few of those do I have any connection with other than I liked the story. I thought in this case that most of my Facebook friends know me and know I worked the spill. Peter King is a top flight reporter for CBS News. I've worked with him over the years through my work in the Space Shuttle program and work for BP during the spill.

I know better and Peter was right to point that out. 

Personal and professional lives are intertwined these days. There's rarely any harm that comes from transparency. Good reporters (like Peter) use their social networks like most of us do: to do their jobs. 

I'm proud that I was a very small part of the most comprehensive oil spill response in history. That's why I wanted to share the story. 

Disclosure doesn't have to be arduous or overwrought, it just needs to be clear like: (Disclosure: BP is a client)

When it comes to transparency always remember that what you leave out can obscure what you want people to see. 

Thanks for the reminder, Peter. 

Bill Salvin

Monday, January 16, 2012

Shipwrecked Captain Thrown Under Bus

That didn't take long.

Carnival Corporation's Costa Crociere CEO today blamed the captain of the Concordia's captain for grounding the vessel late last week off the coast of Italy. As of this writing, six people have died in the tragedy and 16 people remain missing. This accident has turned to a crisis for the largest company in the cruise industry and the industry itself.

The ship's captain was detained by Italian authorities shortly after the accident. He was charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship before everyone was off the vessel. Multiple newspaper accounts include statements from passengers and Italian Coast Guard authorities about the captain leaving the ship. According to one AP report, members of the Coast Guard even tried to persuade the captain to return to the ship to oversee the evacuation. The captain refused.

Was it the right thing to do to blame the captain? Is this crisis such an existential threat to the company that decisive action was required? Is there no benefit to waiting for an investigation, which at this point has yet to begin?

From a crisis response perspective, I'm interested in your thoughts about the company's actions. What do you think?