Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tragedy at Lac-Megantic: Rail Chief's Fundamental Failure

There's been plenty of news coming out of a small town in Quebec after a train carrying nearly 80 tank cars full of crude oil derailed and immolated much of the town. Authorities believe 50 people died in the derailment, explosion and ensuing fires. As of this writing, only 38 bodies have been recovered and authorities fear some of those still missing may have been vaporized.

The railroad, Montreal Maine & Atlantic, is owned by a Chicago-based holding company called Rail World. The chairman of the company is veteran railroad man Ed Burkhardt. PR experts and regular folks have been severely critical of Burkhardt's decision to stay in Chicago for the first four days of the disaster.  His first visit to Lac-Megantic on day five went poorly.

The videos of Burkhardt's press conference and interactions with media are full of examples of what not to do. If you want to get a tactical view of some of the basics, you can see this very rudimentary article about the "9 Lessons Learned." Nothing is inherently wrong with the article except it doesn't diagnose the fundamental problem that led to the mistakes. If you have a disease, you want the doctor to treat the disease, not the nine symptoms it causes.

The fundamental problem with Burkhardt's communications is he is not focused on the audience. He's focused on himself. Here are some of the key quotes:
"I can imagine myself being in that kind of situation and I also would be grieving and I'd be very unhappy. I'd be very mad about the whole thing so I certainly understand the need to vent. But there comes a point where it's totally unproductive." Rail World, Inc. Chairman Ed Burkhardt, CNN, July 13, 2013
Unproductive for whom? In this case, clearly Burkhardt means unproductive for him. Except the audience felt his presence would be very productive so that they could channel their anger to the person they felt responsible for the accident. My sense is that Burkhardt scheduled 10 minutes for people to vent and wanted to move on. Except in a crisis, the audience decides when it's time to move on.
"I felt that my, that I was better trying to deal with insurance companies, contractors and the press from my office in Chicago rather than trying to do all of that on a cell phone in Megantic" Rail World, Inc. Chairman Ed Burkhardt, Edmonton Journal, July 10, 2013
It was more convenient for Burkhardt to work in his office than on the street in Lac-Megantic. Understandable, but irrelevant. The audience's town was on fire. At one point more than three dozen people were missing. The audience doesn't care how inconvenient it is for you to work on a cell phone, they want the head guy on the ground so he can move heaven and earth to help them in their time of need. Burkhardt spent four days sleeping in his own bed, when most of the residents of the town were out of their homes.

There is nothing more important for the audience than their problems. There is nothing less important to the audience that your problems. Burkhardt wanted to set the record straight at a time when the audience had no interest in the record, let alone the errors in it.
"I'm not a communications professional. I'm a manager." Rail World, Inc. Chairman Ed Burkhardt, CNN, July 13, 2013

The sad part is, Burkhardt said some very powerful things.
"This is awful. It's absolutely awful and very emotional to me when there are deaths and people out of their homes." Rail World, Inc. Chairman Ed Burkhardt, CBC News, July 10, 2013
Unfortunately, by the time he said them, no one was listening.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Asiana 214: Crash Unfolds Across Social Media

I've written before about the importance of images when a crisis breaks. When Asiana Airlines 214 crash landed at San Francisco International Airport yesterday, it didn't take long for social media, especially Twitter, to kick into high gear. One of the things that was very clear watching the information cascade was how quickly images of the event went viral. The images taken closest to the source (the wreckage) went viral fastest. All of the images like the one below were taken by passengers who had survived the crash and evacuated the plane. This is reality today. We document our lives even when they may be in peril.

A couple of thoughts here. First, astonishment at the people evacuating the plane carrying their bags. I know people do irrational things during a crisis, but, wow, just leave the luggage. Second, mainstream journalists covering breaking news have to come up with a better way to have situational awareness of what the rest of the world is seeing and adjust accordingly. For example, NBC and CNN both were reporting witnesses who said the plane "cartwheeled" and that the "wing broke off." I'm not an aviation expert, but from the picture below, that simply can't be true. I understand not speculating. I don't understand not using basic observational skills.

All crises are human events and nothing connects humans like social media.  

Social media is also how people let their loved ones know they're ok after a disaster. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg posted that she was supposed to be on flight 214, but switched to United. She apologized if people were worried. The man who posted the photo below did so from the emergency room where he was awaiting a CT scan. 

And once he posted the photo, the media angled for an interview. 

By the way, Mr. Levy was released from the hospital Saturday and he did the interview with CNN. 

This is how a major crisis unfolds today: Overwhelmingly fast and intensely personal. We watch from our living rooms, computer screens or smart phones and feel as though we're sitting with the passengers, sitting on the field watching the plane burn. 

I wonder how many companies and organizations are truly ready for what they will face when the tsunami of information crashes ashore. 

Bill Salvin

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Communicator's Worst Day: Communicating Fatalities

Nothing in the discipline of crisis communications is more important or more difficult than communicating to the public that people have died. This is also the place where I've seen many organizations freeze as the gravity of the situation weighs down the company. It's critical to get this right and there are two basic principles that you can apply if this sad duty falls on your shoulders.

Don't delay a formal announcement
The news that a fatality has occurred should come from the company as soon as you know someone has lost their life. The only detail you need to release at this moment is the fact that an employee (or a contractor) has died. This is not the time to release names, details of the accident or any other specific information that can come later.

You need to make this acknowledgement because it changes the nature of the story. For example, if you have a large plant that has an explosion, it will make news. Explosions are newsworthy as reporters love fire. But an explosion that kills someone is a completely different story with a vastly different impact on people. Given that all journalism is about how events impact people, you can see how a fatality changes the story.

If the job of the communications team is to help key stakeholders and the news media understand the context of an adverse event, this is the most vital piece of context to communicate. It is also an unfortunate reality that social media will be swirling with news of a fatality before you issue your announcement. If you delay, people will assume you're hiding something. The fact that social media or first responders may have communicated news of the death or posted photos does not release you from the obligation to make the announcement, too.

Don't ignore the obvious
Is a medical examiner's or coroner's vehicle at your facility? If so, the media doesn't need to have you tell them someone's dead. Those trucks don't just drive around hoping to come across a corpse. If the coroner is there, someone's dead. Not confirming the obvious makes you look incompetent.

I've seen crisis plans that require that a doctor declare death before an announcement can be made. In some US states, death isn't "official" until the coroner or M.E. declares it so. I've also seen companies treat this as some form of technicality so that they can delay communicating for as long as possible. I'm not sure why, maybe they're waiting for them to be "not just merely dead, but really most sincerely dead" before issuing the release. In these cases, time is not your ally.

One more thing that's important for communicators to keep in mind when a tragedy strikes. In a lot of cases, the leadership of the facility has a personal relationship with the deceased. They're friends, they may play on the softball team together. Maybe they went to school together. If that's the case, then your leadership may be in shock and unable to rationally or quickly make the right call. Talk through this with your management ahead of time. Have clear protocols. Understand that people will be hurting. Get as much room to do what you need to do independent of approvals and stick to your plan.

The goal of this post isn't to rush you into communicating. It's to prevent you or someone on your team from making an awful day worse.

Bill Salvin

Monday, June 3, 2013

Crisis Response on Twitter: 3 Keys to the First Hour

Like it or not, Twitter is now the de facto place people go for breaking news. It is where the majority of journalists will find out about an incident at your organization. It is where people who saw, heard or felt the incident will let the world know of their experience. It's also the first place you need to post information on what's happened. Your response on Twitter during the first hour will set the tone for the rest of the response.

I think there are three keys to success on Twitter during the first 60 minutes of incident response.

Within 15 Minutes: Acknowledge.

Just one sentence will suffice. Here is the Tweet Southwest Airlines posted shortly after one of its planes went off the end of the runway at Chicago's Midway Airport on April 26, 2011.
“Gathering details regarding the event (at Midway) please standby for more info.”
Simple, clear, responsive. If you can get this first Tweet out faster, do it. 15 minutes is good. Ten minutes is better. And don't be afraid to send this Tweet out more than once during the first 30 minutes.

15 - 45 Minutes: Respond.

Is there a meeting place for employees? Have authorities been notified? Are you accounting for your people? Do you want anyone to do anything? Is there a phone number to call? As soon as you know what those actions are, let people know what's happening. This is how you establish yourself as a credible source for the entire response.

This Tweet, sent about two minutes after the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, was sent by well-known runner Josh Cox. Although he isn't an official from the Boston Athletic Association, he's a credible source who offered timely information during a crisis. (Note: the timestamp on this tweet auto-converted to Pacific Time, 11:51 am. It was sent at 2:51 pm Eastern, two minutes after the explosions.)

The official Twitter account for the marathon sent out the first post-bombing Tweet came just under two hours after the event, at 4:47 pm Eastern time.  It was a very helpful Tweet for runners and their families with the new location where people could meet up. This is exactly the kind of helpful information you can Tweet in crisis that is helpful to your stakeholders.

45 - 60 Minutes: Empathize. 

In most cases, you will have a pretty good idea that people have been injured or killed in an incident. You may not know any other details than there has been an injury or a death. But you can Tweet a general statement of empathy for those impacted by the event. Go beyond the boiler plate "Our thoughts and prayers, blah blah blah..." that has become devoid of any actual empathy. Express genuine emotion for those impacted by the event. What might just be a really long day at the office for you will be an event that will change some people's lives forever. Be worthy of that moment.

This is just the first hour and just Twitter. You still have all the other tasks and responsibilities, too. Issue an initial statement within an hour. Update your website (with a dark site or a crisis response site like PIER). Monitor what's being said on social media, get your team together, get connected with police, fire or other external agencies that are part of the response. There's a lot to do and it's likely you won't do it perfectly. That's ok.

People won't remember the small imperfections, but they will remember a strong response during the first hour of a crisis. Twitter is key to getting out of the gate strongly and giving your company the best possible change to succeed throughout the crisis.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why Would Anyone Talk to a Reporter Today?

I get that question a lot. Usually it comes when I'm conducting a media training session, teaching people how to talk with reporters. The question is getting harder to answer.

Multiple major media outlets (CNN, Boston Globe, AP) reported that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombings when no such arrest had been made. The New York Post wrongfully identified two people from a surveillance photo as suspects when they weren't. The paper also reported 12 fatalities early on, even though the number was three.

These types of mistakes are partly the nature of breaking news. Sam Donaldson wrote in a book many years ago that 50% of the information during a breaking story is usually wrong. Sam never tells us which 50% that is. Even knowing that the information in a breaking story changes, the media's initial coverage of Boston was an embarrassment to the profession.

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley weighed in recently with a speech in which he says journalism's "house is on fire" and "we're getting the big stories wrong, over and over again."

According to Gallup, 60% of the American public has little or no trust in news media. Audiences and readership have been declining, as trust in media has been eroding. In the same survey, 30% of people surveyed told pollsters they had abandoned a media outlet because it no longer provided information they found useful.

I realize there is a big dose of self-interest in this post. I make my living teaching people to communicate with journalists. That doesn't mean the three reasons below are less valid. There is still value in talking to reporters.

Mainstream media is the feedstock for social media. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has, for the last decade, issued a State of the News Media report. The 2013 report shows that 15% of adults get most of their news through their social networks. The big number is that more than three-quarters (77%) of those people follow links to full news stories. What this tells us is that even those people who rely on social media to be informed, will still go to mainstream media to get a more complete picture of stories that are important to them.

Social media is perceived as less credible than traditional media. 
A study in Communication Quarterly showed that tweets from The New York Times, were viewed less credibly than either short or long online stories from The Times even though all three contained the same information. While this is true now, it is likely to shift as social media becomes even more ingrained in our daily lives.

Mainstream media is more accountable than social media. It's hard not to feel as though mainstream media are making more mistakes and caring less about making them. However, most mainstream outlets will correct faulty stories. Also, information on social networks is not often indexed for public search engines and, therefore, is of little value beyond the moment. That doesn't mean you stay out of social media in a crisis; just as mainstream media content drives social media use, the reverse is also true. The website Breaking News has a whitelist of more than 300 mainstream media Twitter feeds that pop up immediately in front of its editors. The site describes it as the largest news-tipping network on Twitter.

There you have it. Three reasons why talking to a reporter is still valuable. But what of the media? Any advice for them? Sure, two words.

Suck less.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Tyranny of Numbers

Reporting numbers is generally a straightforward task. Facts are facts, after all. Time after time, though journalists get them wrong. Whether it's because they are racing to get the story first or they are sloppy with their math there is an essential truth of preparing people to talk with a reporter:

Journalists get numbers wrong. A lot.

Even simple numbers are misreported. Like someone's age. Legendary music produce Phil Ramone died this past weekend. He was 79. Or 72. Or 82.

If you are reading this, you've listened to music that Phil Ramone had a hand in getting from a recording studio to your ears. Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Stan Getz, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, Billy Joel and dozens of others including my personal favorite Shelby Lynne

According to most of the stories, the man won 14 Grammys. Or 15 if you actually count the number listed in an Associated Press story. 
New York Times, 3.31.2013

What the clips above tell us is that the The New York Times is at least as accurate as East Idaho News. 

When you have numbers that you want a journalist to get right, here are a few tips. 

Repeat numbers early and often. One of the best news directors I've ever had assigned me the same story three days in a row. When I asked him why we were doing the same story again, he told me, "Because it's important. So we'll tell them, tell them again and then tell them some more so they get it." That's good advice. Don't just tell the reporter a critical number once and hope they get it. Tell them several times so they know it's important. 
Give reporters a fact sheet. A lot of journalists like to conduct their interviews casually and therefore don't take as accurate of notes as you might think. Giving the reporter a fact sheet gives them something to refer back to later on in the newsroom. 

Correct the record. When a reporter gets a number wrong in a story about you or your company, it's ok to call or email them to correct the record. Since stories will live on forever online, it is helpful if they live on correctly. 

Remember journalists are human. Humans make mistakes. This means you should do everything in your power to help journalists get the numbers right when the story is is about you or your company. 

None of those tips absolve journalists from their responsibility to get things right and double check their facts. 

Reality, though, dictates that your reputation is better off in your hands than in the hands of someone who has to do math on deadline.

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

After All Else Fails, Lance Armstrong Tries Doing the Right Thing

The big PR news this week is Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah, in which, he confesses to using performance enhancing drugs to win all those Tour de France titles. Armstrong's goal is to have his lifetime ban from the US Anti-Doping Agency reduced or eliminated. According to the Wall Street Journal, Armstrong believes competing in events like triathlons will provide him a steady stream of income now that all those lucrative corporate sponsors have dumped him.

There are three keys to successful image rehab after scandal. First is that the confession has to be authentic. In this case, it feels like the expedient thing for Armstrong to do. There is a disingenuity to all of this that feels smarmy.

Second, the confession has to come with an apology to those hurt or impacted. I've not seen the Oprah interview, but Armstrong did apologize to employees of the foundation that he created. The apology, however, came without any admission of guilt. This feels a bit like the apology of a five-year old, more upset at getting caught than for what he was caught doing.

The third requirement is to back up the confession and apology with meaningful actions. How is Armstrong going to make this right? He has spent the last 15 years demonizing anyone who actually told the truth. He ruined people's lives and reputations by deploying the Armstrong Attack Machine. How much of his sponsor money will he pay back? Will he pay back the $500,000 he won from accusing the Sunday Times of libel for reprinting doping claims? The Times, by the way, is suing to get its money back. It will win.

I've heard the argument made that if you look at the history of the Tour de France, you find that, since 1968, more than 80% of that race's champions have had their titles taken away because they cheated. It would appear that everyone cheated in cycling's biggest race. If that's true, Armstrong could make the case that the playing field was truly level and that not only was he the best cyclist, he was the best doper. However, we all learned very young that just because everyone is doing it, that doesn't make it right. That's also the same time we learned that there was a possibility that all our friends might jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, which was weird because we lived in Wisconsin. I digress.

People invested a lot in Armstrong's facade over the last 15 years. He had millions of supporters through it all, even when the USADA stripped him of his titles and banned him for life. Now that everything that he's accused of appears to be true, a lot of us feel stupid for having believed and defended him. He was such a convincing liar that the default view for many people will now be: Lance Armstrong's lips are moving = Lance Armstrong is lying.

I'm glad he confessed, I just don't think he did it because it was good for the soul. I think he did it as a means to an end. One of his books was titled "It's Not About the Bike." His image will be rehabilitated when he realizes that this isn't about him either.

Sadly, I don't feel like he's there yet.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cinemark's Box Office PR Fail

Well, that didn't take long. I wrote about the Year Ahead in Crisis Comms less than a week ago and already one of the four things I predicted has, sadly, come to pass.

Cinemark USA, the theater chain that owned the movie theater in Aurora, CO, where 12 people were killed and dozens wounded by a gunman last summer, sent invitations to victim's families inviting "them and a guest" to a remembrance and a movie. The invitations arrived two days after Christmas according to PR Newser and other reports.

I wasn't able to find the full text of the Cinemark letter to families, but family members responded with a letter, which The Denver Post reprinted.
"This disgusting offer that you’d “like to invite you and a guest to a special evening of remembrance on Thursday, January 17 at 5 PM” followed by the showing of a movie and then telling us to be sure “to reserve our tickets” is wholly offensive to the memory of our loved ones." -Letter to Cinemark from families of victims
This falls into the "Lack of Compassion" category from my Year Ahead post. The community has been supportive of reopening the theater and it is appropriate to let the families know that the reopening is near. , but the language in quotes below reads like it came from the promotions department.  This isn't the first insensitive letter Cinemark has written about the disaster. The CEO wrote a letter to Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan in September about plans to reopen the theater.
“We pledge to reconfigure the space and make the theater better than ever." -Tim Werner, Cinemark USA CEO (Aurora Sentinel)
The problem with the theater wasn't that it was a substandard place to watch movies, but that 12 people were murdered while watching a movie there. "Better than ever," seems like one of those throwaway phrases from a CEO who doesn't really have his finger on the pulse of the story engulfing his own company.

Cinemark is in a very tough spot. The crisis happened on their property, but it wasn't caused by the company or its employees. Aurora's mayor asked the company to reopen the theater. Reopening is the right thing to do. But, how they are communicating is not only amateurish, it's adding to people's suffering. Stop it.

The learning point for communicators is this: People impacted the most get to decide when the crisis is over, not the company.  Twelve people were killed and 58 wounded in Theater 9 of Cinemark's Century 16 multiplex in Aurora.

No amount of remodeling or renaming will ever change that. 

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Year Ahead in Crisis Comms

In the coming year, we will see companies in crisis. The companies that do well will have prepared for a crisis. Not necessarily the one with which they have to deal, but prepared nonetheless. The companies that do poorly, the ones many of my fellow crisis bloggers and I will write about, will have understood that a crisis can strike, but chose to not prepare. Here are a few mistakes we're likely to see in 2013.

Siege Mentality
You can tell a company that has succumbed to a siege mentality when they respond with "no comment" when asked about the disaster du jour. Even though "no comment" = "guilty" in the public's mind and has been that way since the 1970s, you will still see "professional" communicators using that phrase. When they do, their story moves on without them. Crisis response is not for the faint of heart. Ensure your bosses know what and how you will communicate in a crisis. The less they are surprised, the less likely they are to head to the bunker to ride the storm out.

Lack of Compassion
When you're in a bunker waiting for the storm to pass it is easy to miss the people suffering. All crises are human events, and companies that ignore the human element are doomed to failure. The companies that fail ignore those they've hurt. Their reputations will suffer in direct proportion to the degree to which they ignore human suffering.

Rely on Old Media
We are living in a time when a serious corporate crisis can have a beginning, middle and end on social media. Traditional media are stretched to the limit and a good part of the world gets news from friends through social networks. The companies that focus on traditional TV, radio and print will miss the chance to talk directly to the stakeholders that matter most in an adverse event. Best to have a plan to monitor and engage across multiple networks and platforms. Test it before a crisis so you know it works.

Saying Something Stupid and Being Stunned at its Disclosure

It is not surprising that human beings stick a foot in their mouths when things are going badly. Those that make the worst gaffes are those that likely have had the least training. The stress of a crisis leads them to make silly mistakes that will overwhelm anything positive the company has done to respond to the disaster. Way back in the 1990s, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that "once I commit something to paper, I consider it compromised." That's about 20 years ago, before the Internet, before social media and before YouTube. Don't let down your guard. If you don't want something disclosed, don't say it.

In my best case scenario, As we begin the New Year, I wish you a crisis-free 2013. Since best case scenarios are as common a Chicago Cubs World Series victory, I wish you a successful response so that you don't endure the crisis only to be an object lesson for others.

Bill Salvin