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