The Evolution of Crisis Communication

August 26, 2009 by

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?

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Social Media and Generation X

August 17, 2009 by

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 by

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.

“We catch fish using fishing rods, nothing else”

July 29, 2009 by

Recently, while at an event, I had a discussion with a marketing director at a large law firm here in Boston. The subject of online lead generation was brought up and here was his knee-jerk response:

“We are not interested in online lead generation at the law firm, because we’re primarily a business to business law firm and we only get business from known referrers.”

I found this response odd, as most of our clients are in the B2B space, but not surprising. Many people are not privy to the current data and trends surrounding social media, online marketing, and purchasing behavior for the B2B buyer. I immediately informed him that we work with many law firms, accounting firms, and consulting firms in the B2B space. I supported my statement by sighting recent data and statistics from reports and studies by Forrester Research, MarketingSherpa, MarketingProfs, and B2B Magazine. I stated that nearly all of the data and qualitative analysis suggests that B2B buyers of technology and/or services are influenced by social media, and that most B2B marketers plan on increasing their online marketing spend in 2009.

Here was his second response:

“Well, we don’t want that type of business that you get online”

Huh? It was like someone claiming that they don’t want the business they get from public relations, advertising, direct marketing, or even networking. In my response, I explained how one of our professional service clients (that offers audit, tax, consulting, and wealth management services – with over 400 employees) is averaging over 20 new business leads per month, and has generated over $600,000 in new contracts that directly resulted from, and are tracked by, our efforts over the last 6 months. I also cited how when I have made purchasing decisions for our 20+ person agency in the past, I was greatly influenced by product reviews and advice/referrals from individuals in my LinkedIn groups, as well as from content that I downloaded online and from search results on Google. He still wasn’t buying it and so I moved on.

fish-stocking-1Later in the day I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t someone want this type of business (from online sources)?” I thought about what he said and equated his statements to something like “We catch fish using fishing rods, nothing else. We don’t want to try using nets, fishing boats, or any other means because we don’t want the type of fish that you catch using these tools.”

Thinking in these terms helped me to understand that there really was only one answer to my question… It wasn’t that this marketer didn’t want this type of business (as I am sure the firm’s leaders would agree); it was just that this person didn’t want to engage in an activity that he didn’t fully comprehend. This is a very common issue among c-level marketingfishing execs.

My conclusion led me to another question—with social media adoption (for general usage) among B2B buyers growing at a much higher percentage rate than that of B2B marketers (for marketing purposes), wouldn’t it make sense that the marketers who embrace this shift in purchasing behavior at an early stage also be the ones that realize the greatest benefit (i.e. the largest “catch”)?

My advice to any person in a senior marketing role is to educate themselves as quickly as possible on the current trends, data, and purchasing behavior of the B2B buyer and how the Web is influencing and impacting their purchasing decisions.

If you don’t like change, you‘re going to like irrelevance even less.”— General Eric. Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army

Forbes Insights Report: Where C-Level and Senior Executives are Looking (and Interacting) Online

July 21, 2009 by

Online lead generation can be a bit difficult to conceptualize when it is not considered under the right context. It is important to understand that leads can only be effectively generated online when the tactics employed, take into consideration the actual online behaviors of executives who hold power to make purchasing behaviors.

Along that vein, Forbes Insight recently released an excellent report, entitled The Rise of the Digital C-Suite: How Executives Locate and Filter Business Information that surveys and analyzes the digital activities of senior and C-level executives. Some of the findings were not necessarily surprisingly (executives under the age of 50 were more likely to use the Internet for business purposes on a daily basis), while others were (streaming business-related video and webcasts are becoming increasingly popular for members of the C-suite).

Diving into the report further, it becomes clear that while senior executives differ in their online behavior depending on their age, the majority of them all use the internet to, at the very least, supplement their information gathering, networking and business intelligence activities.

Other key findings include:

  • 74% of executives find the Internet to be “very valuable” in terms of helping them to find information vs. 25% of executives who find print newspapers to be “very valuable” for the same purposes—Further evidence that the newspaper industry may be doomed.
  • 63% of executives surveyed indicated that search engines were “very valuable” to helping them to locate business information—Supporting importance of search engine optimization (SEO) initiatives.
  • 70% of searches are prompted by something that an executive read online vs. 38% that were prompted by an online advertisement—Editorial content (from online sources) remains more credible and engaging than ads, but these statistics also support the increased visibility and influence of blogs, wikis, and other forums for content dissemination.
  • 41% of executives under the age of 50 click on the paid listings on search engine results vs. 6% of the executives over the age of 50—As younger executives move into the C-suite, pay per click advertising could become an even more integral component of marketing campaigns.
  • 25% of executives view work-related content on business-related websites (including 33% of executives under the age of 50)—Webinars and other informative videos have grown in significance (perhaps in part due to their ability to convey complex information in a more memorable fashion).

But most significantly, Forbes’ report found that executives under the age of 40  “Generation Netscape”), the same executives that are more likely to fill the most important C-level, decision making roles within their organizations in the coming years, are frequently engaged in Web 2.0 related activities. The findings include:

  • 35% of executives under 40 maintain a work-related blog
  • 32% contribute to, or read, micro-feeds through sites like Twitter (more than half of those executives state that they use Twitter daily or several days a week)
  • 40% subscribe to and read content through an RSS feed

So while the report makes it clear that executives of all ages have found that the Internet is an important vehicle to help them identify and filter important business-related information, it is abundantly clear that the next crop of C-level executives (“Generation Netscape”) already have a firm grasp of the relevance and work-related benefits of new media tools.

These executives, likely to exert scores of influence on the C-level decision making process in the years to come, are using the web to engage, collaborate, network, and consume valuable information. Sales and marketing teams need to act quickly to master these same tools so that can generate leads through the same venues that their future buyers are frequenting every business day.

Marketing to a World with a Short Attention Span

July 10, 2009 by

Steve Rubel of Edelman Digital recently wrote an article for Fast Company reporting that people are spending a record amount of time on social networking sites: Twitter and Facebook, etc.

These sites are so attractive of course because they offer streams of brief information updates. Because these “pipelines” of brief status updates enable us to consume information quickly, many people are neglecting other news outlets. Traditional news websites present well-researched, quality information in well-thought-out formats, but, this sort of information takes longer to process than the quick snippets available on social networking sites.

People’s desire for ever-speedier information and communication is further evidenced by the demise of voice mail. Boston Globe correspondent Beth Teitell wrote an article about how people overwhelmingly prefer text messages to voice mail because they “can’t stand the endless prompts just to hear a longwinded – and often pointless – message.” With impatience for voice mail increasing, a market for services that transcribe your voice mails to text has erupted.

With the reach of online ads on mainstream news sites declining due to the decrease in website traffic, marketers are having to adjust their promotional strategies.

But, these streams of constantly updating information are posing quite a challenge to marketers. How can they break through these streams and reach their target audiences in real-time?

To make their messages stand out, some marketers are posting messages frequently, thereby increasing their visibility. However, these frequent status updates often come across as spamming (a big social media “no-no”). Other marketers are fairing better, by building a presence on all key social networks and integrating information across the different platforms. They’re using social media to build relationships with their current and prospective customers. They’re listening to them, engaging them in conversation, and making them feel as though they belong to their “brand tribe.” And, of course, they’re empowering them to be ambassadors of their brand.

It’s a point that we continue to hammer home, but it’s an important one. New communications outlets require new communication strategies.

Using LinkedIn to Generate Leads

July 2, 2009 by

We have addressed it previously on HEAT, but it remains a topic that we consider to be instrumental in helping to conduct effective online lead generation campaigns. LinkedIn, when used properly, is an excellent tool for a variety of sales and marketing tactics, including prospecting, content/collateral distribution, and expert positioning.

To learn more about how to become an advanced LinkedIn user, check out our free webinar on “How to Effectively Utilize LinkedIn for Lead Generation.”

After your viewing, let us know if you have any additional questions about how to make the most of your LinkedIn account.

Recent Study Finds That 90% of Tweets are Done by 10% of Twitter Users…So What…?

June 25, 2009 by

zzaudienceYou may have heard about a recent study conducted by the Harvard Business School that found more than 90% of the content posted on Twitter is generated by only 10% of all users. To some, the study results may come across as negative, perhaps enticing social media skeptics to believe that Twitter is overrated, or worse, useless.

To these individuals, I ask: “Why is this necessarily a bad thing?” Just because 90% of Twitter members aren’t highly active in posting tweets does not necessarily mean that they aren’t active in some other way. And, it certainly does not mean that individuals and companies still can’t derive quantifiable value from marketing on Twitter.

The survey results are misleading. Who can speculate that the 90% of idle Twitter users aren’t enthusiastically reading Tweets posted by the active 10% of users? Who is to say that these “idle” users aren’t deriving value or enrichment from the active ones? Obviously there is some proof to this, or companies would not continue to utilize Twitter as a marketing tool, blogger’s would not continue to link to their posts and other trends, opinions and ideas if only 10% of users were reading.

Dell actually revealed in early June that in their 2 years of tweeting, the company has earned over $3 million as a direct result of activities and exclusive promotions via Twitter. Not bad. And, an Indianapolis-based marketing firm followed 17 Twitter corporate accounts over a 3 week period in late May, and found a 24.29% increase in their average follower count. None of these accounts were found to have decreased their amount of followers over the 3 week period. Moreover, the survey doesn’t even shed light on the monitoring tools available (Tweet Grid, Twellow, Radian6, etc.) that allow users to search for tweets from people they may not even be following at that time.

Active social media blogger and tweeter Doug Haslem agrees, mentioning on his blog that “the lurkers, the ‘Idle Class’ of social media, are important…who’s to say they don’t pass along the conversations offline?” Good point. New York Contributing Editor,Will Leitch, not a social media expert but someone who knows an emerging online platform when he sees one (he’s the former Editor of popular sports blog Deadspin), offers a different but equally supportive take in a recent post titled, “Why Twitter Is More Fun The Less You Use It.” Leitch finds enjoyment from reading tweets, not writing them, and he certainly has no problem writing about (read: promoting) the tweets that he reads in his blog posts and conversations.

Twitter is also still relatively new. There is a strong likelihood that the “10% of active Twitter users posting 90% of content” will shift to a more proportioned ratio in the near future. Many individuals and companies are still just starting to explore Twitter, and are hiring agencies to help them develop a more strategic approach.

Bottom line: if your company generates just one possible business lead, has a 1% increase in website traffic, notices important customer behavior taking place or finds out just enough background on a potential prospect, Twitter has benefited your company. If you are just an individual on Twitter for the heck of it, then it’s up to you to determine how to make it valuable.

The Green Revolution

June 22, 2009 by

As anyone with more than a few followers on Twitter will tell you, green is the color of the moment. More and more people are coloring their Twitter photos with a green tint in solidarity with the supporters of Iran’s defeated presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi.iran

The movement is being branded on-the-fly with the use of green in all kinds of protests, from soccer players wearing green arm bands to the striking images of hundreds of yards of green cloth snaking through the protesting crowds in Tehran. All of these protests reflect the color of Mr. Mousavi’s political party and these “green” images are being delivered to the world in real-time through tweets, blogs and texts (as well as through traditional media), enabling sympathizers across the globe to stage protests of their own in their home countries. Similarly, these protests incorporate the green brand, along with laser-printed “where is my vote?” signs, so that short of the racial differences, these protests look like they could have been born back in Iran.iran2

But why green, and where did it come from and why has it become such a powerful tool in branding this protest movement? A little research shows that the color green has been associated with Islam for centuries. In fact the decoration of mosques, the bindings of Qur’ans, the covers for the graves of Sufi saints and the flags of various Muslim countries all feature the color green. The Qur’an says that the inhabitants of paradise will wear green garments of fine silk and even during the Crusades, Christians would never use green on their armor so as not to be mistaken for Muslims in battle.

Color theorists suggest that green represents life, renewal, abundance in nature and the environment. Green is also considered a restful color with a calming affect that comes from feelings of balance, harmony, and stability. Of course green has recently come to the forefront of the world’s pallet because of it’s association with the environmental movement and it has in fact become a noun as we all “go green”. 

So, there’s some background as to what has likely spawned the adoption of green as the color of protest from Mousavi’s supporters. But what does green mean to you?