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%.