Archive for August, 2009

The Evolution of Crisis Communication

August 26, 2009

deer islandAfter finishing Neil Swidey’s 2-part story in The Boston Globe Magazine last week – “Trapped Under The Sea”, the untold story of two divers who died in the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) Deer Island Treatment Plant Outfall Tunnel – I was immediately transported back 10 years to one of the seminal events of my public relations career, making me reflect on how much crisis communication has evolved over the past decade.

On July 21, 1999 I was sitting at my desk at the MWRA in the Charlestown Navy Yard writing a mundane press release about summertime water conservation, when the phone rang. It was my boss, Executive Director Doug MacDonald, and he sounded uncharacteristically shaken. There had been a terrible accident on Deer Island, he said, and that I needed to get there fast to handle the press…

As the 25 year-old spokesman of the MWRA in 1999, I personified the classic “Flak” of the time. I wrote press releases, nurtured media relationships, proactively issued good news, spun the bad news and reacted to the unexpected accordingly. I carried a pager and a basic cell phone (used sparingly for outgoing calls), and sent press releases over the fax machine. I had email, but since most media members didn’t, it was fairly useless. The internet was several years old, but it was really still just a novelty. In 1999, the dissemination of news was still solely done by traditional news outlets. As a spokesman, controlling the media meant “controlling the message”.

From a public relations standpoint, The Deer Island Outfall Tunnel crisis was handled perfectly. Pre-set protocols that had long been established were set into motion – notifications to key personnel were made quickly, a communications center was set up on the site of the incident, accurate and up-to-date information was disseminated to key communications personnel, and a single spokesperson for all public information was set (me). Within an hour of the incident, we had established control of the information and were in a position to release that information as we saw fit in a well thought-out, clear, concise manner. If the press wanted the story, they had to go through me…and they did.

Fast forward to 2009…If this same incident occurred today and the protocol we had established in 1999 was still all that was in place, I cringe to think of all the loose ends that would be flying around! What had been an airtight crisis communication protocol at the time would be seriously flawed today.

Advances in communications technology, and people’s incredible access to it today in comparison to a decade ago, has created a playing field so drastically different for a Public Relations professional that it’s not even comparable. The internet, which was just emerging in 1999, has become a critical conduit for news, communications, commerce, and social interaction. The internet has taken our vast world and shrunken it down to the size of an iPhone. Cell phones are no longer clunky mobile telephones with a single use and purpose.  Today, “Smart Phones” are multi-faceted portable communications tools that not only allow users the ability to connect with each other anywhere, at any time, through voice or SMS; they enable users instant access to the internet and all of its mass communications tools.

Armed with a Smart Phone, every citizen has become a source of news and information. Look no further than Janis Krums, the blogger who happened to be on the first ferry to arrive on the scene a few minutes after US Airways Flight 1549 had plunged into the Hudson River in New York City earlier this year. Within ten minutes of the crash, Krums had used Twitter (and Twitpic) to post a photo of the downed plane with news of the crash and distributed that information to tens of thousands of people. It was roughly 30 minutes before the first news crew was even on the scene.

Controlling “the message” today as a PR professional no longer means controlling the press. Since everyone who has access to a computer is now a viable news source, it is now virtually impossible to completely control the message. It is still possible, however, to mitigate the crisis and influence public opinion.

With that said, I will share with you my Five Principles of Handling a Crisis in 2009 that will help you to minimize the damage of an unforeseen crisis and protect your company’s short-term and long-term interests:

  1. Prepare – Abraham Lincoln once said; “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  Being prepared for a potential crisis situation is absolutely critical.
    1. Develop a set protocol that will be placed into motion as soon as an unforeseen crisis strikes. This protocol includes everything from a strategic contact list (eg – key decision makers, communications personnel & legal council) to the creation of a physical command center.
    2. Media train key personnel. Establish a spokesperson(s) for the company and have them work with a professional public relations professional (or firm) to receive the proper media training.
    3. Set up online monitoring tools. Every company should employ free online monitoring tools like Google Alerts and Tweet Grid, or paid services like Radian6 and Cision. It is critical to monitor your brand online 24/7. Whether it’s a disgruntled employee smearing your company name on a blog or an online news article about a client or competitor, monitoring the web is a necessary step towards protecting your brand’s reputation and to identify, or in some cases, avoid a crisis before it happens.
  2. Get the facts – Stay calm and keep your wits about you! While it is important to respond swiftly to a crisis, it is even more important not to make any rash or reflexive moves. It is imperative to get all of the facts as quickly as possible from the most credible sources. Before you can successfully handle a crisis, you need to understand what happened, how it happened and where your exposure lies.
  3. Be Proactive – Once you have all the facts, it is imperative that you take a proactive approach to responding publicly. Avoid taking a defensive posture. Make sure that your stance and message is carefully crafted and delivered in a clear and concise manor. Avoid live interviews if possible and never, ever say “No Comment!”  In the court of public opinion, “no comment” means “I’m guilty!” The most effective way to ensure that your response is clear is to issue a written statement attributed to your designated spokesperson. A statement should consist of a two to three sentences that can each stand alone. The statement should be conciliatory in tone and firm and decisive. Make it clear that you are aware of the incident, state your stance on the matter and ensure people that you will get to the bottom of it and take action.
  4. Monitor – Good intelligence is your greatest weapon for diffusing a crisis situation. Utilize your online monitoring tools, adjusting search terms as necessary, to monitor what people are saying about your company, what they are saying about the crisis itself, and how effective your response has been. This allows you to keep a virtual finger on the pulse of public opinion and enables you to uncover additional exposure that may warrant a response.
  5. Take Action – Whether the crisis has been averted or you’ve simply mitigated the fallout, it is important to publicly take steps to remedy the cause of the crisis and ensure that it will never happen again. Announce new policy, hire a consultant, or fire your CFO. Whatever it is, make sure you announce it, so the public knows you intend to fix what broke.

While advances in communications technology and the advent of the “citizen journalist” have significantly added to the challenges faced by a crisis communicator, the key principles remain the same. Whether you own, manage or operate a company or public agency, you can be sure of one thing – you will inevitably be faced with a crisis situation. When you do, will you be prepared to handle it?

Social Media and Generation X

August 17, 2009

social-media2Although social media may seem to belong to teenagers and early 20 something’s, it has become widely adopted across all generations.  Online social network acceptance by American adults has grown by more than 400% since 2005 (courtesy of PEW).  Among the most intriguing adult demographics are the Gen Xers (those born between 1960-1979).

Gen Xers use social networking sites for both personal and professional use and therefore are more likely to carry several profiles and utilize multiple social networking outlets.  Overall, 17% or American Gen Xers visit social networking sites on a daily basis. LinkedIn, the Internet’s largest professional network, boasts a median user age of 40 and  according to PEW, 30% of 35-44 year olds have at least one profile on social networks (along with19% of 45-54 year olds).

Interestingly, female Gen Xers seem to be slightly more involved in social media on a regular basis than males.  In fact, females over the age of 40 are statistically more engaged in social media than younger women according to the website SheSpeaks.com.  In fact, females 45 years old and older used Facebook between January and March 2009 at a rate higher than any other category of users (eMarketer.com).

Clearly Gen Xers are becoming increasingly Internet savvy utilizing social media to make more informed purchasing decisions, find employment, engage with particular social groups (i.e. mommy bloggers) and stay in touch with family and friends through these most efficient and immediate methods. A recent eMarketer.com survey also found that social networks (67%) were more popular than email (65%) for mass communication.  Given the above trends in Internet social network use, Gen X’s use of social media is only expected to continue to rise. Keep an eye out for the new social media tools and technologies that spawn over the next few years—it would not be unlikely for them to be targeted to this demographic.

Social Media Can Be a Game, but Never Forget Why You Are Playing

August 6, 2009

kidAs soon as news leaked through a corporate memo that ESPN was going to regulate their employee’s free use of social networking sites like Twitter, the social media community sounded off their collective disapproval. “Dear ESPN—You’re Doing it Wrong” was the title of social media expert Chris Brogan’s blog post on the subject, which alluded to his dissatisfaction with the network’s decision to force employees to refrain from using sites like Twitter “for anything but ESPN-specific stuff.” Brogan continued to write that ESPN’s policies do not reflect “how relationship-building goes in the social web.” And many others agreed. We can only assume that this action by ESPN was an attempt by them to safeguard their brand.

So where did ESPN go wrong, and how could they have handled the situation differently?

First, the issue. The lines between personal and corporate social media use have been blurring since the first person realized that social media could impact business. As companies are encouraging employees to Tweet, post, and comment on their behalf, many are finding that those same employees are having a difficult time separating their personal lives from their company’s corporate marketing objectives. This often leads to damaging content (mainly by association) being posted in public forums by uninformed staff. This is where the issue lies for many corporations.

So here’s where I think ESPN “didn’t get the memo.”

Implementing a corporate social media protocol is not just providing a set of rules for your employees about social media usage. Rather than discouraging personal social media use, you should actually determine the types of online interactions from employees that could actually serve to benefit your brand, even if they have little to nothing to do with your company. And you must also clearly explain your objectives for encouraging your staff to use social media on your organization’s behalf and repeatedly remind them of this motive (i.e. it is ok to employees to add an appropriate level of individualism to online communications as long as it reflects your brands personality). When your employees fully comprehend why you are encouraging them to utilize social media on your organizations behalf there is less of a risk of them damaging your brand.

As you, as marketers, realize your individual measures of success (leads, web traffic, mentions, etc.), you must clearly map out a social media strategy to ensure that you (and everyone involved in your corporate social media initiatives) reach those goals. It is this strategy that must be stamped on the collective corporate conscience like a brand mission or statement.

The bottom line: If you want employees to continuously engage with social media on your organization’s behalf, make sure you consistently remind them of your corporate social media marketing objectives. This will help ensure you reach your marketing goals while helping to avoid any social media pitfalls.