Thursday, August 30, 2012

Restore Trust at the Same Level it was Broken

I read some news in a PR trade this past week about a New York PR firm that was tapped to help a large organization faced with the need to rebuild confidence after a scandalous crisis.  I’m avoiding mentioning names here because the mere mention of the names would be a distraction from the PR issues on which I’d like to focus.

The Crisis

That said, here’s the situation in the most general of terms.  A major organization with a broad range of constituents found itself in the middle of a highly visible crisis.  The people involved included top leadership on down to some key members of the organization.  Grossly unethical and criminal behavior led to an investigation and then criminal charges and then media coverage.  The CEO was fired and so were others.  But those actions alone were not enough to stem the damage. 

Just about every organizational policy and practice had come under scrutiny, and all the while, the organization continued to fulfill its mission, largely unaffected by the messiness of the highly visible crisis.

The thinking is and was that once new leadership was installed that the organization could get back to doing what it does best, and that has been the case.  Still, the after-effects persist.

Now the organization has to rebuild trust.  New leadership has to restore confidences that have been lost.  All of this must take place to restore the organization’s reputation to its formerly well-respected status.

The Madison Avenue Solution

Enter the new Madison Avenue PR firm that was hired to spearhead the confidence-rebuilding program.  The CEO of the firm who is largely a figurehead in situations like this was interviewed by reporters.  He told them that his new client has been in a reactionary mode for too long and now it’s time to take the initiative as though that’s the primary reason this organization has had problems.  It wasn’t.

To paraphrase, the CEO said that a key PR strategy to rebuild confidence was to arm loyal stakeholders with the information they need to correct misperceptions and a general lack of awareness of all the good the organization does.

This all sounds good and makes perfect sense for quite a few organizations faced with the need to rebuild confidence shaken by a crisis.  But here’s the problem.  This is cookie-cutter crisis communications.  It’s based on common assumptions that simply weren’t true in this particular case.

As scandalous as the crisis was, misperception was not the problem.  An enabling corporate culture seemed to allow the perpetrators to do what they wanted without penalty, until now.    Lack of awareness was not the problem.  Media coverage was so broad, far-reaching and constant, that this, combined with a legal investigation, brought the true facts to light.  New leadership did not deny this.  Stakeholder engagement was not a problem.  Instinctively, the organization’s most loyal stakeholders immediately sprung to the defense of the organization without prompting from anyone but their own desires to see the good of the organization prevail. 

The Real Situation

The truth is, this is a crisis that could have been prevented and even after it came to light could have been managed differently for the betterment of the organization and its many stakeholders.  But it wasn’t.  The actions of one led to the inaction of a few, and as time passed, the situation was allowed to explode.

My concern with the Madison Avenue approach in this case was that it takes an almost completely desensitized approach to a crisis situation that if it requires anything, it’s a deep-seated empathy for all of the people and organizations involved.  Out of such empathy, responsible communications counsel may not resemble the all too common acknowledge-apologize-awareness-move-on approach to communications.  That’s too cliché.

What this situation requires is lots of closed-door meetings, ironically, to maintain a certain level of transparency.  In order for the organization to be accountable and transparent, it must first respect the dignity and privacy of those affected by the crisis.  It must also create systems for going forward that also respect individual privacies.  At the same time, while these systems should be very discreet, they must also be very proactive, consistent and involve aggressive early warning protocols to prevent a repeat of what happened before.

Communication of how these systems will function have to be handled with great care and caution so as to be effective and so as not to create the perception that the organization is being shamelessly promotional and self-serving.  At the same time, there must be communication so that everyone knows the organization is committed to maintaining a certain level of responsible transparency.

There’s a rule of thumb in all of this.  It’s based on the belief that the best way to manage a crisis is to at first determine the true cause of the crisis and at what level in the organization it originated.  This can be visualized as layers of an onion.  The outer layers represent the levels of a situation that tend to be more externally driven and under less control of organization leadership.  The closer into the core you get, the more control leadership may have possessed and the more serious the crisis.

The rule of thumb is that to most effectively manage a confidence-rebuilding program, you have to restore trust at the same level where trust was broken.  Usually, this is at a behavioral level rather than a publicity level.  Once the new and proper systems for behavior are in place, if the crisis was a highly visible one, there’s a good chance you won’t need a megaphone to get the word out that the organization is back on track.

Monday, August 27, 2012

One of the Greatest Speeches Never Given

The first man to walk on the Moon died over the weekend.  Neil Armstrong, commander of the historic Apollo 11 mission, reached the age of 82 before passing into history.  He was one of my heroes when he made that, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As a nine-year-old kid, I remember watching the landing like it was yesterday.  Mr. Armstrong wasn’t my only hero tied to the space program.  I looked up to everyone of those original astronauts and next to the Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1960s, I couldn’t get enough of NASA and anything associated with it.

Little did I know that as I took in everything NASA put out, I was also witness to one of the finest PR operations ever assembled.  Keep in mind, I’m not inferring “propaganda,” but rather, public relations in its truest, most professional form.

One of the topics we cover here is crisis communications and crisis preparedness.  Can you imagine the kind of crisis preparedness that went into planning for all of the uncertainties associated with pioneering, manned space flight?

We’re talking about using the best technology we had prior to the invention of the Internet, the personal computer, smart phones and even fax machines.  Crude at best by today’s standards.  And yet the goal was to take a human being and propel him all the way to the Moon AND back, safe and unharmed. 

Such a lofty goal takes ambition and just turns it on its head.  The movie Apollo 13 kind of captures the essence of the kind of challenge this was.  It took a lot of brilliant people, honorable people, and dare I say it brave people to pull it all off.

Neil Armstrong was one of those brave people.  He knew there was a very good chance he would make it into space and at some point along the way, not be able to come back.  A little thing like hole in a hose, a failed switch, a faulty fuel tube could cause his mission to abort and his life to end.  And still he signed up for it.  Even as a kid, reading all the positive PR NASA could put out, the risks were not lost on me and the millions of people caught up in the space race at the time.

When Apollo 11 took off from Cape Canaveral, the possibility that it might not come back as planned was all too real.  As I understand it, every detail of a process for aborting the mission was pre-planned.  The astronauts knew in advance that when it became clear they would not return to Earth, there would be a designated time to terminate all communication that was well in advance of their final moments.

It can be presumed that the perception-minded space agency didn’t want the public to see or hear their heroes in any context other than brave, courageous and healthy.  The decision was made that if possible, the astronauts of any failed mission would be allowed time to come to terms with their fate individually, in private and with dignity.

It was against this backdrop that President Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, wrote one of the greatest speeches I ever read.  Today we would have called this a contingency speech as part of a crisis communications plan.  In such situations, it’s customary to prepare remarks and statements for all possible eventualities, including a worst-case scenario.
The following speech was written by William Safire and submitted to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman on July 18, 1969.  The “subject” heading of the memo was, “In the Event of Moon Disaster.”

In light of the passing of Neil Armstrong this past weekend, Mr. Safire’s words written so long ago and fortunately, never spoken to the American people, remain a fitting tribute to our first space explorers.  Here is one of the greatest speeches never given (Thank God):

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ex-NPR Reporter Talks About Lack of Context in the News Media

One of the topics that often comes up in media training sessions and in client meetings is what compels the media to cover certain stories while ignoring others.  While there are many factors depending on the client, the timing and the substance of the news, one of the explanations has been that today’s media is very event-driven.  This is not to say that the media only covers special events, but rather, that the media more often than not will decide to cover a story that it can say has “happened” today, rather than spend more time on a timely issue or trend that can’t be tied to something that actually happened within let’s say the last 12 hours.  Sometimes an “event” is nothing more than the fact that someone of note said (or Tweeted) something new about a hot issue. 

For example, if I tell a reporter today that my favorite color is blue, that’s not news.  Or if I tell a reporter that I notice Lady Gaga likes to wear blue outfits a lot of the time, that’s not news.  But if Lady Gaga Tweets that her favorite color is blue that may be an “event” worth mentioning, surely to be followed by an investigation on why the color blue is so important to the pop star. 

All too often context gets lost for the stories that are covered, and since stories are often covered as described above, when important new developments generate news, it often feels to news consumers that the event just happened out of the blue.

I remember once working for a legal client and trying to get reporters to pay attention to a piece of legislation that would have a serious effect on the way businesses operate.  Because “nothing happened” on the days I called leading up to a congressional vote, many reporters weren’t interested.  But on the day the legislation was passed, all of a sudden it became news.  It was only then that some of these same reporters showed an interest in the topic and then they needed to quickly educate their readers on the happening and what it meant. 

For thousands of readers who relied only on their newspaper dailies, this news caught them totally off-guard.  On the other hand, the issue had been well covered in several industry trades in the months preceding the law’s passage, so for those who got their information from these sources they were not surprised.

All of this came to light for me once again this week when I read a Politico article about an ex-NPR reporter, Andrea Seabrook, who decided to quit her job covering Capitol Hill to start a new blog and podcast that she says will help clarify the inner workings of Washington.

Andrea’s comments to Politico reinforced how the media today tends to cover things in event modules, though I think her explanation is much more illustrative:

From Politico: “’I realized that there is a part of covering Congress, if you’re doing daily coverage, that is actually sort of colluding with the politicians themselves because so much of what I was doing was actually recording and playing what they say or repeating what they say … And I feel like the real story of Congress right now is very much removed from any of that, from the sort of theater of the policy debate in Congress, and it has become such a complete theater that none of it is real…I feel like I am, as a reporter in the Capitol, lied to every day, all day.  There is so little genuine discussion going on with the reporters.’”

While I think she made her views pretty clear, to reinforce, what she was saying is that too much of her work involved covering the “theater” of government and politics rather than the substance of governing.  This can be said of many corners of news media today.

Reporters will cover what people say but rarely have the time or take the time to verify whether in fact the statements made to the media are in fact … fact.

Going back to that color example, the point Andrea is making that if one side of a story says the sky is blue, the other side will automatically say it’s green.  So the media will spend all of its time covering what each side is saying about the color of the sky, rather than independently doing its own investigation to determine the actual color of the sky based on scientific fact, as opposed to conjecture.

If this was done more often, the news would change.  Perhaps ratings and readership would drop, because we all know that theater is far more interesting than real life. 

But one thing is certain, if more newsrooms focused their energies on making sure more fact-based, historical context was provided with each story, you’d probably have fewer stories that make it into the public domain.  But the ones that are produced will be of higher quality and of better value to news consumers and society at large.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Class of 2016

Beloit College, a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, every year assembles a “Mindset List” to give its school community a “snapshot of how the incoming freshmen class views the world.”  It’s been reported that this list helps administrators and instructors at the college to better understand the students and ultimately better connect with them to more effectively educate.

Today, the news media has picked the list up.  Here are a few of items from the list that caught my attention:

·         “Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 1994.”
·         “They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of ‘electronic narcotics.”
·         “If they miss The Daily Show, they can always get their news on YouTube.”
·         “Bill Clinton is a senior statesman of whose presidency they have little knowledge.”
·         “On TV and in films, the ditzy dumb blonde female generally has been replaced by a couple of dumb and umber males.”
·         “For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.”
·         “A significant percentage of them will enter college already displaying some hearing loss.”
·         “They have lived in an era of instant stardom and self-proclaimed celebrities, famous for being famous.”
·         “Probably the most tribal generation in history, they despise being separated from contact with their similar-aged friends.”

There were others, but I thought these were interesting in the context of communication and provided just enough insight for communicators with regard to the next generation.  So what other items might we add from a communications standpoint?

I’d offer these for your consideration:

·         Fax technology was fading fast on the day they were born.
·         Email technology was fast becoming the business norm on the day they were born.
·         By the time this group entered middle school, most had cell phones.
·         The vast majority never got into the habit of physically reading a daily newspaper and probably never will.
·         They were approximately seven years old on 9/11/01.
·         More people from this generation come from divorced, single-parent households.
·         America has been at war most of their lives.
·         Companies they likely know and respect include Apple, Google and Nike.
·         Companies they likely do not have any ready, detailed knowledge of include General Electric and J.P. Morgan Chase.
·         Social media is their media of choice.
·         If the question is, “Call or text?,” the answer is text.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Companies Need More than 140 Characters to State Their Case to the Media

One social media trend that has had a huge impact on the practice of media relations is the increasing use of social media as a way to make official statements to the media.  In a few short years, many companies have gone from social media ignorance to having a very active presence on social media, using Twitter and Facebook, among other Internet channels to deliver important information to the media and the public.

For some companies, usually well-known consumer brands or those large enough to have a strong identity among investors, their social media presence is a destination for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers.  For others, social media is a place to get noticed. 

Both types of companies have begun to take to social media to spread the news to the media.  While in many cases, this has proven an effective means to simply and easily keep the channels open with the media, there is a downside.

In an ideal world, the practice of using social media to reach out to traditional media would be an effective supplement to the long-standing practice of producing official press releases or statements and then posting them on official corporate Web sites.  The possible downside, however, is when companies decide to forego these longstanding practices and start to use social media as a primary or only means of delivering some information to the media.

This forces reporters and editors to use only the information from the company that was provided via social media, which can be scant at best.  As a result, journalists may then try to reach the company directly, or independently speculate on the company’s meaning or intent, or possibly round out their stories through the use of other sources that could include a company’s critics or competitors.

If the company chooses Twitter, it limits itself to 140 characters to try to adequately make its case.

When a company gives itself so little space to deliver an important message to the media, when it does not supplement social media with its own more detailed communications on a company Web site, it is asking the social media world and the traditional media to define the story for it.

Sometimes, companies simply underestimate a development, presuming it’s not important enough to merit a  full-blown press release.  Sometimes certain decisions are made at the front-line level – social media managers – who may not fully appreciate the possible PR consequences of certain social media activity.

The one common thread in social media crisis situations is that in the early stages, a company tries to restrict its exposure on a particular issue only to social media by only using social media as a forum for communication.  As the crisis gains momentum and attracts the attention of traditional media, the story takes on a life of its own and the company loses control of the message.

The best approach when using social media as part of the media relations mix is to recognize it’s only a part of the mix.  To date, nothing has taken the place of a thorough, accurate and journalistically written news release, distributed through the proper channels and accessible on the company’s primary Web site.  Social media postings then become an extension of this more comprehensive approach.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Little about Local TV News Formatting

Television news consultants have a big say in what TV viewers see on their local and network news 24/7.  Yet for as much as makes it into the public domain these days thanks to the Internet, social media and endless TV shows about, well, TV shows, the television news consulting business remains a mystery to most.

Judging from your local TV newscast, you can quickly see the role that consultants play in the presentation of the news.  Research has found that viewers like to see news as it’s happening, and the more dramatic the visuals the better.  That’s why most local newscasts will start with video of raging fires, car accidents, shootings or the aftermath of all of the above. 

This dynamic long ago coined the common newsroom term, “If it bleeds it leads.”

Next to this “breaking news,” consultants have found that viewers really care a lot about what the  weather will be like, and then there is the sports segment.  In a 30-minute newscast, once you remove time for commercial breaks, the available time to deliver news is roughly 16-18 minutes.  Of this, about 10 minutes may be dedicated to those lead stories I mentioned. The bulk of the rest is allocated to weather and sports. 

The material that usually serves as filler are national news stories that could be business, political, or the latest celebrity meltdown.  Rounding it all out are human interest stories, and increasingly, the latest viral YouTube video.

If a local newscast is slated to go longer than 30 minutes, this format tends to repeat itself, but there are opportunities for longer, localized human interest features.  If it’s a ratings period, your local television news operation’s investigative reporter may take center stage.

Whether the reporter is an investigative reporter, a “health reporter,” or a consumer advocacy reporter, the thinking is that to generate interest, the deepest wells to tap are a general distrust of government, politicians and local government spending.  That’s often the focus of those investigative reports. 

Fear is another mainstay television news ratings grabs.  How often do you see promotional announcements for stories that focus on the latest, and most common food items we eat that could give us cancer?  When television news programs showcase the latest threats to your safety or health, they’re trying to scare an audience into watching.

Of course, none of this would happen if it didn’t work. 

Some other items that influence certain television news decisions:

·         In Pittsburgh, you can’t go wrong with doing something about the Pittsburgh Steelers regardless of whether it’s during the season or the off-season.
·         Business stories are considered audience killers and usually only make the cut when layoffs or a high-profile scandal are involved.
·         It’s increasingly more common for local TV newscasts to feature complete stories that are in some way tied to the station’s prime-time programming line-up.  So if, for example, the local station is about to air the season finale of a reality show on losing weight, don’t be surprised if the station does a story or two about the health effects of obesity, not coincidentally timed to draw attention to the reality show.

These are just a few of the factors that shape television news, particularly the local newscasts.  While they are hardly a mystery, it’s important to know them, particularly if you are thinking about hosting a news conference announcing a new jobs training program.  I wouldn’t say it won’t get covered, but it might help if you could talk Justin Bieber into showing up for your event.