The Evolution of Crisis Communication

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?

Top five things every entrepreneur should do to start or keep business profitable

451 Marketing Founding Partner AJ Gerritson was recently featured in Sharmen Lane’s NY Entrepreneurism Examiner column discussing the “The top five things every entrepreneur should do to start or keep their business profitable”. I thought I’d share the list here:

1. Determine how your potential customers receive news and information relevant to their industry. In today’s digital age, prospects and customers are getting answers to their questions from a variety of sources, and when and how they want. To succeed, you need to know not only what your target market is reading and viewing, but how they are viewing it. Is it through text messages, or websites, blogs or social networks sites? Then you need to determine how cost-effective it is to advertise and publicize through these different mediums.

2. Focus not on how great your product or service may be, but on how effectively it solves a problem or business need for your customers. Awards and accolades are terrific third-party validations, but prospects want to know the specific benefits that will help them. Real-life case studies, even if they are not exclusively related to your products or services but signify a growing trend (i.e. emergence of social media as a communications tool), are much better indicators of a company’s value. If a prospect reads about how one of your clients grew their business by hiring you, and you can back it up with the references, they will have a real clear picture about what to expect from an engagement with your company.

3. Become an industry expert. Ideally, you should know all there is to know about your products or services, your customers, your competitors, and the trends that will shape the marketplace for years to come. Basically, be an expert. Sit on panels, engage reporters covering the relevant beats to interview you, or initiate and lead your own roundtable panels and discussions. In essence, don’t be afraid to grow your own personal brand and align with your company’s brand. Prospects find exciting and engaging industry leaders and experts to be more credible, and in turn, will be more likely to hire them or buy from them.

4. Make sure to continue to network everyday. You may be able to position yourself as an expert, and may even already have a steady stream of new business opportunities, but you should never limit the time you spend networking. New business and leads can come from anywhere; conferences, tradeshows, parties, trips to the hardware store, or even from one of those great online social networking sites like LinkedIn. If you are in New York, you have more opportunities than most. I have found that there are several networking events going on every day in Manhattan. You don’t have to let your entrepreneurial drive immerse every second of every day of your life, but you should never forget that anyone, and everyone, is a potential customer.

5. Align yourself with causes, stakeholders and individuals that make sense for your business. Starting and growing your business from scratch can seem like a daunting task, especially if you try going it completely alone. Whenever possible, seek opportunities to align your company with causes (environmental, humanitarian, community etc) that relate to your business and showcase your commitment to being a socially responsible company. Similarly, take advantage of opportunities to join industry organizations that increase your credibility, expand your networking options, and afford you the chance to learn from others in your field. Finally, engage experts and important stakeholders (government agencies for example), and discuss your products and services, explaining how you can build a mutually beneficial relationship with them. The opportunities to identify and interact with these stakeholders online are plentiful, demonstrating once again how a successful entrepreneur in this day-in-age knows how to entrepreneurially navigate the complex online waters.

What Reporters Should Know About “The Dark Side”

I read an interesting blog post yesterday entitled “What all PR people should know about journalists”, written by Rohit Bhargava on his Influential Marketing Blog. The post had been “re-tweeted” by someone I follow on Twitter. As a former journalist who came over to the PR “Dark Side” 12 years ago, I was naturally intrigued. Mr. Bhargava listed six lessons that he has learned that “most journalists know and many PR professionals are blissfully unaware of.”

The six lessons are as follows: 1) Your BS is obvious 2) Timing trumps all 3) Reputation matters 4) Features are not as important as an angle 5) Speed and contactability make the difference 6) Peer pitching works. The writer expounds on this list here: http://tinyurl.com/7s3vxj, but if you’re a successful publicist, Mr. Bhargava’s insights will fall into the “duh” category. If you are a PR professional and this list is eye-opening, then you are either right out of school (you get a pass) or you really suck at your job and it’s people like you that give us flaks a bad name… But I digress.

My reason for writing this post is not to knock Mr. Bhargava’s blog post – he writes a very successful and generally insightful blog – rather, I’m tired of always hearing about what reporters think about us “annoying” publicists and how WE can do a better job. It’s about time we PR professionals enlighten you journalists about what we think about you and how YOU can do a better job. As someone who has worked on both sides of the phone, I have some lessons that I have learned along the way that, to turn Mr. Bhargava’s statement around, “most PR professionals know and many journalists are blissfully unaware of.”

Here’s my Top Ten List of What Reporters Should Know About “The Dark Side” (in no particular order):

1. The “Dark Side” is not that dark. I know it’s hard for many reporters to believe, but for the most part, PR folks are not evil like Darth Vader. OK, so Lizzie Grubman didn’t do us publicists any favors when she ran down a crowd of people in the Hamptons with her Mercedes several years ago shouting “F**k you, white trash”. That was really more of a “class warfare” issue anyway. Regardless, I can name plenty of reporters that have given the Fourth Estate a bad name. Does Jayson Blair ring a bell? So, please cut us some slack. We don’t look down on you, so please don’t look down on us. We’re just doing our job.

2. We don’t think you’re stupid. Contrary to what you may think, we’re not out to dupe you. There are some reporters out there that I’ve encountered over the years that truly believe that every pitch they receive is a ruse. We understand that if we don’t have an existing relationship that you’ll need to be more thorough in vetting the pitch, but trying to pull one over on you is not in our best interest or the best interest of our clients. Our reputation in this business is all we have. If a publicist loses their credibility, then they’re all done. Most good publicists understand what’s newsworthy and won’t waste your time overselling a great story about our client’s “new coffee flavor” for instance! We’ll save that story for when you owe us one.

3. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Whether you want to admit it or not, you need us as much as we need you. If this wasn’t the case, there would be no need for query services like PR Newswire’s ProfNet or Peter Shankman’s HARO. You need sources and story ideas and we have them. What’s more, a good PR agency contact can be a direct conduit for multiple sources – one stop shopping!

4. Some day we may represent Bono or Bill Gates. OK, so we don’t always have the sexiest clients, but just as you may start out covering selectmen’s meetings for the Carlisle Mosquito and end up a columnist at The New York Times, we could some day represent a client you would desperately want to write about. Keep that in mind when you’re pooh-poohing our pitch about the new coffee shop that opened on Main Street.

5. We are just as busy as you are. You’re busy, we get it. So are we. Please don’t always act like you’re in the middle of breaking Watergate when we call. Just as you have editors riding you, we have clients that expect the cover of Time magazine. When we call, it’s usually just a quick follow up on something that we sent you. You can spare 60 seconds. Now, if we call you with a stupid question at 5:00 p.m. when we know that you are on deadline, please, feel free to blast us.

6. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. If our client is on the hot seat, we will unequivocally do everything we can, short of lying, to protect our client’s name and reputation. This is what they pay us for. At this point, all friendships between reporter and publicist must be suspended. We understand this and so should you. Getting the dirt and deciphering our “spin” is your problem. There is nothing unethical about putting a spin on the truth. Understand that we all carry the labels “Flak” & “Spinmeister” proudly. When the dust settles, we can be friends again.

7. You can’t always expect an exclusive. Just because we also gave the story to your cross-town rival, doesn’t mean we screwed you. While there are some stories that may deserve an exclusive for various reasons, most of the time it’s not a big deal if the other paper runs the same story on the same day. If you write for The Boston Globe, your readership isn’t reading the Boston Herald anyway. It’s safe to assume that if we don’t say ahead of time that we’re giving you an exclusive, then we’re not.

8. Please don’t call our clients directly. There’s a very good reason why our clients hire us, please don’t cut us out. We make our livelihood by publicizing CEOs and their companies. If they had the time and expertise to do this effectively, then they wouldn’t need us. When you go directly to our clients, it either really annoys them and we hear about it or they begin to wonder what they need us for – even though we’re the ones who initiated the relationship. Please call us if you want to talk to them.

9. Just because you didn’t think about it doesn’t make it a bad idea. PR professionals are a pretty creative bunch. One of the best methods of garnering press for our clients is to lump them into a larger trend piece. When we bring you an idea for a trend piece, please don’t turn your nose up at it. You can take credit for the idea. If you do decide to use it, just please include our client prominently in the story.

10. Don’t make us do your job. Please don’t send us interview questions for our clients to fill out the answers to. Some PR folks may disagree with me on this, but from my experience, this interview method creates more work for everyone involved and the answers to the questions are never as good as if the reporter spent 5 minutes on the phone asking the questions themselves.

Well, that’s my list. I’m sure that there will be plenty of people who read this who will disagree with some of my points. Conversely, I’m sure there will be others who feel I left out some critical insights. Either way, I welcome your feedback!

We’re Back!

Happy New Year! I hope everyone enjoyed the holiday season. We here at 451 Marketing sure did!

I apologize that Heat has…er…cooled down a bit. It has been really busy around here, but that’s no excuse. We’re back now and we’re here to stay! My New Year’s resolution for 2009 is to make sure that Heat is updated regularly with interesting and helpful insights into all things (new) media! So please stop by often and let us know what you think. Maybe we can learn something from each other.

Cheers,

Tom Lee

It’s Not (Just) Your Kid’s Facebook Anymore!

I recently reconnected on Facebook with the majority of my 6th Grade classmates from P.S. 114 in Belle Harbor, NYC. I graduated from Mr. Domingo’s class in 1986 and, for the most part, have not spoken to these people since then. Facebook has illuminated old faces and rekindled a whole mess of great memories that had been filed away in the far recesses of my mind. We’ve now posted funny stories on each other’s walls, shared old photos, and simply caught up on where life has taken us since we last spoke. There is no way this would ever have happened if it wasn’t for Facebook.

What started out as a place for college kids to share drunken party photos has become a real-time reunion for 30, 40 & even 50-somethings. The fastest growing demographic on Facebook over the past year is the 35 to 54 age group. This segment has created profiles six times as fast as the 13 to 34 group and now represents roughly one-fifth of the site’s 120 million users and rising.

Technically I still fall into that…ahem…younger demographic, but while I was an early adopter because of the business I’m in, it wasn’t until this past year that I fully realized the power that Facebook has for enabling the reconnection of old friends.

As more and more of my old acquaintances join, the more people I receive “friend requests” from and vice versa. Over this past year I have reconnected with people from every period of my life – grade-school & high school classmates from New York, guys I played football with in college in New Hampshire, and old rugby buddies living around the world in England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. It’s been a phenomenal experience. In some cases I’ve discovered that old friends are in the same business that I’m in – including publicists & reporters. I even recently placed a story in the Nashua Telegraph for a client, which was written by an old college buddy I reconnected with through Facebook

pscfootball931
1993 Plymouth State College Football Team

The best part of reconnecting via Facebook is the non-committal aspect of it all. You can decide the level of reconnection that you want and you can do it when it’s convenient. The worst part of high school & college reunions is the fact that you wind up telling your “life after school” story over and over again and feel compelled to talk to everyone in the room, when maybe you really just want to hang out with your close friends or an old flame. On Facebook, you can catch up with people on different levels – it can be simply accepting a “Friend Request” or posting a note on a friend’s “Wall”. If it’s someone you were close with, you can send them a personal message and maybe plan a time to grab a beer when you’re both in the same town (Facebook will never replace a hug an a handshake).

While Facebook will always be a place for teenagers to share party pics and plan road trips, the real power of the application is people staying connected with everyone they have met along the way. Never again will Jack opine, “I wonder what Jill is up to these days?” He will already have pictures of Jill’s kids climbing up the same hill they climbed when they were kids.