Monday, February 25, 2013

Astro-tweeting has Arrived

About 20 years ago, a not uncommon term in PR circles was “Astroturf,” which was used to describe campaigns that feature a master draft of a letter that is then distributed to various individuals who then put their own signatures to the letters to send to their congressional representatives, regulators or even the media.

While corporations weren’t innocent of this practice, the most common types of organizations that employed such tactics were special interest activist organizations. 

With the dawn of the Internet, or more specifically search engines the practice of “Astroturfing” became much more discoverable and subsequently less effective.

The one thing that more often than not was true, however, was that real people signed those letters, expressing sentiments that they personally supported.

Enter the age of social media and the “Astro-tweet.”  Some organizations have found a way to use Twitter to create the perception that a certain position on an issue has strong popular support.

Here’s how it works.  An activist organization wants to create the perception that its cause is receiving popular support as evidenced by an explosion of social media commentary.  Twitter is one of the most common vehicles for this.

Publicly, the organization calls on the public to “tweet” their congressional reps and senators on the issue.  But the congressional reps’ staffs notice that the vast majority of the tweets they are receiving are eerily similar.  In fact more than similar, but they are exactly the same. 

In Washington, staff members who have begun to investigate the tweets they get are finding that in fact, a large number are not from real people but are delivered to them from fake, computer-generated “spambots.”    Anyone who uses Twitter is familiar with some of these fake personas online. 

If you look at the Twitter “user’s” profile, tell-tale signs are that they have not had any interaction with other people, and their tweets are in fact robot-like in the way information is posted.  Another way to detect a fake is to examine who “follows” the tweeter, and who the tweeter follows.  If it’s fake, you’ll likely see an obvious pattern that reveals the type of organization, if not the organization itself, that is behind the social media spam campaign.

While “Astroturfing” was never something in which I engaged, in light of this latest trend, there is something nostalgic at the thought that at least Astroturfers were usually real people who believed in the letters they sent, even if they didn’t write them. 

Astro-tweeters, on the other hand, aren’t even real people, but their creators are. 

Keep this in mind the next time you see a story about an organization or person under siege from a deluge of tweets that seem designed to paint the target as going against popular opinion.  Thanks to “Astro-tweeting,” there is a chance that just a handful of people are behind those thousands of tweets. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day Just Around the Corner, and Spring to Follow

This has been a particularly dark and cold winter season for Pittsburgh.  Not the worst we’ve seen but just enough inclement weather to put a damper on any plans to do anything outdoors but ski or sled ride. 

These past few months, the Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee has been working to put together yet another edition of the annual rite of Spring in Western Pennsylvania.  The parade drew 350,000 spectators last year on a warm, sunny day.  Twenty-three thousand participants marched, waved, danced, played and strutted their way down Grant Street and the Boulevard of the Allies in Pittsburgh.

Even on a cold and wet day, the parade usually attracts over 200,000 undeterred people, “Irish for a day,” who come out to say goodbye to winter and hello to the warmer months ahead. 

My job on the Committee is to handle the PR, which includes social media and some marketing activities.  It’s an interesting process on a number of levels.  For me, it’s a fun PR activity, a way to stay connected to my Irish heritage, and throughout the process a way to reconnect with old friends and make new ones.

The PR aspect of the event continues to amaze me.  So many volunteers work collaboratively and independently to pull the parade off.  As they work, they project a positive image of their organizations, and all together on parade day, social media, traditional media and just the masses come together to create a very positive happening.

If you’re in the neighborhood on March 16th, feel free to stop Downtown and join in the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the country, following New York.  You’ll leave with a smile on your face.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Carnival Cruise Disaster: When to Apologize

Cassie Terry of Texas was the first passenger from the ill-fated voyage of Carnival Corp.’s Triumph cruise ship to file a lawsuit against the company.  This after the ship landed at Mobile, Alabama following a trip that was anything but leisurely.

Just a few days earlier, the Triumph cruise was disrupted by an engine fire that disabled many functions of the ship, including the flow of fresh water and the use of ship plumbing systems.

In Ms. Terry’s legal claim, she said she had to wade through human feces from overflowing toilets.  Her account wasn’t the only one of its kind.  She claimed in her lawsuit that Carnival did not provide a seaworthy vessel and sanitary conditions.  As a result, the lawsuit contained the predictably boilerplate language that the plaintiff suffered physical and emotional harm, which included anxiety, nervousness and loss of enjoyment of life. 

Legal analysts say that because Carnival forces its guests to sign contracts prohibiting them from class action law suits and other types of litigation, it will be difficult for any of the passengers to effectively sue the company and get the awards they may seek.  But that doesn’t mean the PR damage hasn’t been done.

The media followed this story closely and mobbed disembarking passengers to get their stories at the end of the journey. 

The company offered passengers a compensation package and issued an apology on Thursday.  Carnival offered to reimburse passengers in full plus transportation expenses, a future cruise credit equal to the amount they paid, plus a payment of $500 a person to help compensate them.

When interviewed in the media, the passengers felt the compensation was too little and the apology too late.

Here’s how the media covered it.

Carnival Corp. Chairman Micky Arison did not publicly comment on the Triumph problems and was not on scene as the ship docked in Mobile, Alabama on Thursday.  Rather, his last public appearance was at an NBA game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Miami Heat, the franchise he owns.

The company’s president Gerry Cahill was on site in Mobile and did meet with the passengers and the media.  He apologized to the media and directly to the distraught passengers before they were permitted to leave the ship.

This didn’t dissuade the passengers from criticizing the cruise ship company and from speculating on possible legal action against the company.  One passenger, Robin Chandler of Dallas, told reporters how she lost wages, had to pay a baby sitter and lost time from her job, all due to a failed vacation.  She blames Carnival.
I’m not sure what Carnival could have done at the time to minimize the damage to its reputation, but I’m also not so sure the actions they took were the right ones.

·         Should the president have met the disgruntled passengers to apologize before they left the ship?
·         Was the compensation package they offered enough?
·         Should the chairman have said something, or at the very least, should he have been seen in public seeming carefree and courtside at his NBA team’s game, or should he have been under the radar?

I think the president was in a losing position the moment he physically boarded the ship while the passengers were still suffering from the voyage.  He was armed only with an apology and a promise to make things right.  The passengers were tired, frustrated and angry at that time, clearly not in the mood to hear the apology in lieu of leaving the ship as soon as possible. 

The president should have met only with the media on that night, reinforcing all the corrective and reparation actions that Carnival had planned.  Passengers should have left with complete packages of information on what they would receive and who they should contact if they had any questions.

On the issue of compensation, this is a subjective issue.  As lawsuits will reveal, it would seem no reasonable compensation offer would be enough for some.  Still, it would appear that the compensation that was offered was at least half of what the cruise line should have offered.

As for chairman Micky Arison, he screwed up.  Just as I think it was a mistake for Gerry Cahill to overdo it by apologizing prematurely, Micky Arison’s aloofness was a mistake.  When passengers on one of your ships are suffering, it’s not a good idea to risk creating the appearance that you’re living a life of luxury, sitting courtside at a basketball game, apathetic to the plight of your customers.

He should have met with the media and conveyed his concern for his passengers, and his commitment to making the situation right, and preventing such a disaster in the future.  Then he should have backed off until such a time when he had more substantive news to convey, all centered on a solution.

As for that apology, many PR people these days seem to think a public apology is the sponge that washes a reputation clean.  There’s a moral relevance given to apologies that seems to believe that if the CEO is sufficiently and voluntarily humiliated in public, then all will be right for the company.

Typically, however, once the CEO apologizes the negativity doesn’t go away.  The story then morphs into whether or not the apology was sincere enough, or whether it was deep enough.  And even then, as one would expect, the story becomes about the problem. Was it fixed?  Did the company do enough to prevent the problem from happening, and did it do enough to prevent it from happening again?  And did it make the situation right for those affected?

These are all important questions.  My issue is the order.  To effectively manage a crisis like this, you need to address all of these questions before your apology will be taken seriously.  But I sense that if you do effectively identify the root of the problem, fix it, prevent it from happening again, and make things right for those affected, you may not need to apologize.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Most Effective Crisis Communications Management

One of the people I have always admired the most in the PR business and in life often says that the best crisis management is the work you never hear about.  It’s the quiet counsel to senior managers and others helping to avert a crisis rather than having to respond to one.

She has handled quite a few crises over the years and I can say she’s always practiced what she preached.

My friend’s point is that rather than have to go into damage control mode, it’s always best to try to see how organizational decisions could affect certain audiences and to try to anticipate possible reactions to some decisions, affect how other decisions are implemented, and always to make sure that those decisions are well communicated before, during and after.

Sometimes, we in the communications business can have an influence over how or whether a few of those decisions are acted upon.  Hopefully, in such a way that the best possible outcome is achieved, and equally important, how the decisions are understood by our most important stakeholders.

When organizations can prevent a crisis from happening during the planning phase, you typically don’t read about it in the news media.  You don’t see results of the sometimes intense work behind the scenes honored in any PR awards competitions.  What you most often see is business as usual.

And that, to my friend, is always the best option when considering the true objective of a good crisis management program.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Sometimes Invention is the Mother of Necessity

To people who don’t work in the PR business, perceptions of the industry are usually based only on that part of the industry they use.  If they hire PR people to get publicity, they tend to think PR is all about publicity and media relations.  If they use a PR consultancy any time they face a crisis, they may see the PR profession as “damage control” consultants.

This is not uncommon.  How often do we hire anyone, from a plumber, to a tax accountant, only to find out later that the people we’ve hired in the past can do so much more?

It’s with this kind of thinking in mind that I read a blog entry that was posted to LinkedIn earlier today.  The actual blog entry was written over 18 months ago and ran under the headline: “PR is Dead.”  The original blog entry ran somewhere on

Articles and blog entries like this drive seasoned PR pros to the brink. 

Every so many years, the communications technologies tend to evolve to the point that we find ourselves doing things differently.   

At the risk of dating myself, early in my career we hand-delivered important news releases to local newsrooms.  If the news was material information from a public company, we might have actually called Dow Jones and read the release verbatim to a reporter on the other end of the line, transcribing each word, before factoring it into the news organization’s coverage.  We advanced to the use of fax machines.  And then email replaced the fax.  Today, we still use email, but the way we use it is so much more sophisticated, and complemented by the use of Internet-based platforms, social media and more direct mobile communications.

So much has changed, and yet nothing has changed.  We still have to craft messages that form the basis for information consumption by targeted stakeholders.  Our messages have to be credible. They have to stand up to the highest scrutiny.  They have to be strategic and in support of our program objectives.  And they have to be palatable, delivered in ways that targeted audiences will be more receptive to them.

All of this was ignored by the author of the blog.  The LinkedIn board then lit up with input from PR pros from all over, most sounding like me.  We have to be able to distinguish between the media channel, and what it takes to use that channel, and the very essence of PR.

PR is no longer just publicity, nor just the creation of printed materials or video projects.  It’s all of the above, and it will continue to be so, incorporating new technologies as those technologies make it easier to connect with key publics.  The PR profession has shown tremendous resiliency and flexibility over the years in adapting to new technologies and putting them to use in a variety of ways.

From internal communications and investor relations, to issues management, crisis communications and marketing communications, PR always seems to be ready and waiting for the next big thing.

That’s why when we read such articles that are quick to dismiss the profession, it tends to be more a reflection of the author’s misunderstanding of his/her own role than it is a comment on the direction of the industry.

One of my favorite parts of the article actually came from a commenter at the end of the article.  The commenter described those try to redefine the profession to help it come into line with their own narrow view of PR, or to aid their own business agenda.  He said that in such instances, these articles illustrate that sometimes “invention can be the mother of necessity.”