A Podcast that Covers What They Don’t Teach You in PR Class

One of my favorite books is from Mark McCormack called “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.” In the book’s first paragraphs he explains, “The best lesson anyone can learn from business school is an awareness of what it can’t teach you – all the ins and outs of everyday business life.”

I had this line in the back of my mind from the moment the idea came to me for what has become the Shaping Opinion podcast.

The podcast, I thought, should be the answer to that question your mother-in-law asks you every Thanksgiving, “So what do you do in public relations?” Still, it should hold you even if you don’t really care much about the public relations field. Most importantly, if you do care about communications, and you want a successful career in it, I wanted the podcast to have a secret sauce that wouldn’t be overtly advertised but it would be the unifying thread for every episode – context.

To be sure, not every episode even mentions PR, and quite a few may not make your mother-in-law more PR savvy. But if you listen for a common thread in every episode, you’ll find elements of history and communication, and you’ll feel their combined impact on attitudes throughout our culture. This is context.

Without context you have sensational news stories today that seem to have forgotten or ignored the contradicting information that came out yesterday, and the cycle will be repeated tomorrow as the media and some communicators seem to have forgotten the lessons of what happened today, not to mention last year, or 10, 20 or 50 years ago. You have media and communicators reacting to everything they see with seemingly no understanding of the past and how the current or future circumstances could have been or could be shaped.

The “people, events or things that have shaped the way we think” that we talk about are sometimes so well known or so unknown that we don’t even think about it. Yet, there was always that person, that event or that thing that has had a major influence on how we see some aspect of society or our own lives.

Take the Emoticon…

The emoticon. You may use it without thinking about it. You may see it every day and not care, yet its very existence has in some way influenced the way you communicate or receive communication. How can something like that even come about? And can it be repeated on purpose? That’s what we talked about when we interviewed the AI scientist who first created the emoticon as a joke decades ago.

We talked to Nike’s former marketing chief when they launched “Just Do It.,” and learned how an advertising line can become part of a company’s culture, and then drive that culture, and then have a major influence on how society sees athletics and how millions see themselves as athletes.

Speaking of ad lines, did you know an ad woman in Philadelphia who herself never married was the genius behind the line, “A Diamond is Forever?” She helped create the common expectation that an engagement isn’t official without that diamond ring. This was the topic for Episode 16.

We revisited the day President Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin with Sheila Tate who was press secretary in the White House with the First Lady at that moment. And we talked to the former FBI agent who handled crisis communications in Somerset, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001.

We’ve had conversations with doctors and even a Nobel scientist on such things as the opioid crisis, the now global concussion protocol, and a human’s ability to manipulate proteins to “direct evolution.” These complex topics explained in our relatable conversations all have had some impact on how you and I see the world and its possibilities.

When you listen to Shaping Opinion, you will hear a conversation with someone who knows something special about the topic at hand. In the course of every episode, you’ll hear what it’s like to get that critical context needed before true understanding can happen and how this can create broader understanding and connections in society.

See it Through Their Eyes

Each interview is similar to that initial conversation I’ve had with those with whom I’ve worked on a communications matter over the years. It’s that opportunity to see things through their eyes, and in turn, it tends to bring out some of the stories and issues that must be considered before we can really connect with others.

It’s been my favorite part of a long career in public relations, and this podcast is my effort to share what I love most about communication with you. The learning. The context.

The Shaping Opinion podcast doesn’t fit into any neat genre that podcatchers like. It’s not true crime, it’s not a cooking podcast, it’s not politics, it’s not history, and it’s not pop culture or music. But at times, it’s all of the above.

It’s not a how-to podcast for public relations, yet every conversation is designed for professional communicators and others who find the dynamics that shape public opinion fascinating.

It’s a conversation where you’ll probably learn little something, perhaps become inspired in some way by one of our guests, and in the end feel a little better, a little stronger, and hopefully, a little more curious about the world around you.

One thing you can be sure of is that after every episode you will have context that you didn’t have before, which will help create better understanding.

♦  ♦  ♦

The Shaping Opinion podcast was the recipient of the Public Relations Society of America’s Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation in 2019.

The Poynter Institute’s Bad Week

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet is credited with saying, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

The Poynter Institute may have been reminded of these words of wisdom last week when it published its list of 515 news sites that it considered “unreliable,” effectively blacklisting sites long considered legitimate (albeit conservative) media.

As a result, the Institute felt the backlash and was forced to apologize and remove the index from its own site last Thursday.

The Poynter Institute has built a strong reputation over the years as it says, championing “freedom of expression, civil dialogue and compelling journalism that helps citizens participate in healthy democracies.”

The Poynter report that has since been taken down off of the Web, included a number of distinctly conservative media outlets, such as Daily Signal, Daily Wire, Drudge Report, Free Beacon, Judicial Watch, PJ Media, the Blaze and the Washington Examiner.

This sparked outrage from the right.

Under the Poynter umbrella, the people behind the index were the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Southern California, Merrimack University, PolitiFact, Snopes and Chris Herbert, described as a “data designer.” Poynter said that the index drew from “fake news” databases managed by these organizations.

The reason for removing the index from its site, Poynter said, was “weaknesses in methodology.”

Poynter managing editor Barbara Allen said in a statement on Poynter’s site:

“Soon after we published, we received complaints from those on the list and readers who objected to the inclusion of certain sites, and the exclusion of others. We began an audit to test the accuracy and veracity of the list, and while we feel that many of the sites did have a track record of publishing unreliable information, our review found weaknesses in the methodology. We detected inconsistencies between the findings of the original databases that were the sources for the list and our own rendering of the final report.”

She later said, “We regret that we failed to ensure that the data was rigorous before publication, and apologize for the confusion and agitation caused by its publication. We pledge to continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards.”

Why Boeing Should Hold Off on Apologizing

It’s been a few weeks now, and I’ve seen the usual pattern among some PR consultants in various media taking Boeing to task.

I’ll get to the predictable PR narrative in a second, but if you need an update on the situation, there have been two plane crashes in the past five months that have been blamed for missing certain safety technologies on the Boeing 737 Max, a successor to the highly common Boeing 737 aircraft.

At the center of the problem is what appears to be a software glitch that resulted in two safety features that are designed to alert pilots to possible incorrect readings not being installed on some aircraft. It seems that Boeing had charged more for those features, so it’s possible the airlines involved in the crashes elected not to buy those “extras” for the aircraft involved in the crashes. At the very least, there may have been some confusion. That’s the simple version.

There have been numerous reports that the pilots of those aircraft may not have been aware of this technical problem and may not have been as well trained as others to compensate for the problems in flight.  I’m sure we’ll learn more as we move forward.

Whatever the case, once this problem became clear, several countries decided to ground the aircraft, including the United States. This had a negative ripple effect on air travel for many airlines and passengers.

As Boeing proceeded to address and correct the problem, several PR pundits, often with little to no actual crisis experience, have weighed in with the same sort of crisis counsel that they would have provided if a major airline had miscalculated a weather delay.

They said that Boeing needs to apologize, it needs to own the problem. The issue they say is one of trust, and in that spirit they must make sure their apologies are genuine, they must take responsibility. If the company does this, the PR ‘influencers’ say it will get its brand back in time.

Let’s start with the fundamental flaw in this sort of PR thinking. These suggestions inadvertently presume the core driver of the crisis was a communications matter or a trust issue. That broken trust is the cause. In other words, since trust has been broken, if you communicate just this way, you’ll have your trust and your reputation restored.

Quite frankly, that’s Pollyanna.

When an aircraft crashes, that’s more than a communications problem. It’s a technical problem. It’s an operational problem. It could be a training problem. It is a customer relations issue. It could be a sales and marketing matter. And we don’t yet know if it could be a cultural or ethical issue.  Because of this you can’t just apologize and be transparent and expect to get your brand back.

When more than one aircraft crash, it’s not only a crisis, but it’s also quite possibly a cultural issue and could have bled into operational systems and processes. In short, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were underlying issues that must now be addressed well before communications strategies and tactics can be effective.

For this reason, expecting an apology to accomplish anything at this point is like trying to put a bandage on a water main break and hoping that it seals the gusher.

Some might say, “Yes, it may not accomplish anything, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Is it?  More often than not apologies are rejected as disingenuous because they are perceived as “just words” and no action.  As for the notion that only sincere-sounding apologies work, see above and know that once you’ve apologized, your critics will seize on it as proof of your firm’s guilt, and more importantly as a foundation of their case that your organization is unfit to do whatever it may want to do in the future. In other words, apologizing at the wrong time in the wrong way usually stands little chance of helping, but it increases the likelihood of hurting.

Then there are the issues of transparency and accountability. Yes, all organizations at the center of all crisis situations have to be accountable. But one thing you can be sure of in this case is Boeing doesn’t need to be told this. Why? Because accountability is built into the process.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators will make sure Boeing is held to account whether it wants to be or not.

So, what Can Boeing Do?

Boeing is already doing it. They are taking accountability. They are being transparent. Otherwise we wouldn’t have known so quickly the cause of the problem and what was being done about it.

They are focusing on corrective actions, which is proper and much more effective than apologetic words. As part of taking corrective action, they are updating the software, making sure it is in all existing and new 737s, and they will be conducting intensive trainings for pilots and airlines on the use of the software. I’m not sure if this was Boeing’s idea or not, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s getting done.

And unfortunately for Boeing and its shareholders, they will likely face some very costly litigation from the families of the passengers who tragically died in those crashes, and perhaps lawsuits from their customer airlines seeking to recover damages.  And given our society’s litigious nature, there will probably be a class action or two from passengers inconvenienced by the grounding of the 737s.

Where Does Communications Fit?

With all of these non-communications remedies in progress, what role does crisis communications play in this scenario?

The main thing is to make sure that communications is supporting all of these efforts and making sure the public knows about it all in the right context. The communications function has to make sure that the tone of all advertising and communications does not attempt too quickly to distance itself from this situation. Oftentimes, when something this serious happens, it’s tempting for communications chiefs and marketing decision-makers to want to move on too quickly. Frequently, they think that by changing the subject in their marketing, they can make people forget more quickly. That’s a mistake.

For Boeing, this was a seminal event and it should be treated that way. Make sure that you err on the side of communicating more rather than less on the corrective actions being taken. And stay with the program through its entirety.

Isn’t this transparency?

Yes, but it’s more than that. It’s making sure the focus is on corrective actions at the technical, operational, and internal levels. It’s also about making sure that the tone of your non-problem-specific external communications is more muted and respectful of the larger context in which the company is presently operating. Make sure those invitations to the company holiday party this year are more understated. Make sure that if there is any hyperbole in your trade show literature it is cut down or removed. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to maintain a more serious posture.

This would be a good time to revisit internal ethics policies and processes for reporting problems, including whistle blower policies and practices. Make sure that going forward the communications channels up and down the chain of command are wide open so that problems can be identified, the right people are notified, and that passenger safety is paramount in all decision-making. I’m not saying that Boeing didn’t do this, but I am saying times like this provide an opportunity to revisit all of it.

Are You Saying Boeing Should Never Apologize?

Not at all. I am saying that if you let the operations, legal and other non-communications functions focus on corrective actions and creating preventative mechanisms for the future, and if the communications function provides support with a focus on awareness, culture and credibility, the genuineness and the remorsefulness over what has recently happened will be extremely obvious and understood broadly and widely.

Actions and a fundamental cultural shift are much more powerful in expressing contrition than a well-crafted 200-word apology.

Admissions Scandal: Should It Matter Where You Went to College?

When people see this question they want to say, “No.”

Why do they feel this way? Why shouldn’t it matter where we went to school?

Maybe it’s because we all knew someone who went to a very good school and doesn’t appear to be smarter than anyone else.

“Good schools aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” we tell ourselves and anyone who will listen.

In light of the recent college admissions scandal involving some high-profile celebrities and some national educational institutions, I’ve seen this line of thinking quite a bit in the media and online.

If you’re not familiar with the story, 33 parents are facing federal charges in an investigation that was code-named, “Operation Varsity Blues.” Sounds like a made-for-TV movie, doesn’t it?

This real-life drama stars actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among other accomplished parents, who allegedly were willing to pay certain individuals to ensure that their kids were moved to the front of the line in the college admissions process.

Winning the award for best college in a supporting role is a tie between eight leading universities: Stanford, UCLA, the University of Southern California (USC), Georgetown University, Yale, Wake Forest, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of San Diego.

Can’t Kids Get a Good Education at Any College?

The answer is that under the right circumstances, yes, but let’s take a step back for a moment. The truth is, people send their kids to college for reasons other than simply to learn in a classroom.

Years ago, I remember working on a communications research project for some colleges, and we surveyed high school students on what they looked for in a university. The most prominent factors among high school seniors were nice dormitories, nice gym facilities, a vibrant social atmosphere (i.e. the party scene), an impressive school name for your resume when you graduate, and for some, just enough distance between the college campus and home to keep parents at a distance.

Of course, most parents would likely have a different set of priorities for their kids. As someone who has put two kids through college and who has many friends who have done the same, my anecdotal research, if you will, told me that parents want their kids to get a good education, to major in something that will help them get a good job when they graduate, to minimize the impact of loan debt on themselves and their kids, and to have a good college experience. For some, they may also want their kids to build a network that helps them in life as well.

None of this may be alarming, but when you look at the notorious examples set by the recent Hollywood moms and dads, and it’s apparent that while they, too, had the best interests of their kids in mind, maybe their hopes and dreams were on steroids.

Since these parents obviously had more than enough money to cover tuition at an expensive private school, that wasn’t the issue. Rather, it’s more likely a combination of things, starting with the obvious notion that the kids themselves did not have what it took academically or athletically to get themselves admitted to the chosen schools.

So, we can presume that the parents either really wanted the kids to go there, or the kids really wanted to go there, and the parents were willing to move mountains of cash to make it happen. According to news reports, some parents were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to gain a favorable admissions decision.

So if it’s not all about classroom learning, what’s the driving force?

One reason may be that attending certain schools bring with them a social strata you just can’t get from other schools. Related, their new college friends will probably be their lifelong networks, they hope. Parents know that career and business opportunities five, ten or even 20 years from now will be traced back to this time when they went to an elite school with elite classmates from elite families.

In short, the parents probably think they are buying their kids a future that the kids could not attain for themselves.

Does this justify their actions? No, 1,000 times, no. But it does explain why some were willing to risk the penalty of law to do what they did. It was not about the education.

From a crisis communications point of view, in the coming days and weeks, you can expect all sorts of public relations professionals to explain how colleges need to be more transparent and accountable, that they should apologize (What’s crisis communications counsel in 2019 without the obligatory apology?), and they should bring back merit-based admissions policies.

In a twisted way, you might hear a college or two use this situation to reinforce perceptions of the high value of education they provide. In this context, while technically it may be true, it would not be honest.

My take?

As a corrective action, the parents involved here should openly admit their mistakes and take responsibility in a court of law.

But if the schools, the celebrities and even the media covering them want to be truly transparent, the one thing they all may need to acknowledge is that college is about much more than a classroom education, and that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing is breaking the law to get it or provide it. Keep in mind, parents and students come and go, but if the colleges aren’t held accountable for the fix, the system doesn’t change.

Where did you go to school? Let us know on Twitter @OBrienPR

My Favorite Crisis: Helping a CEO in Time of Grief

No one likes a crisis, but for those who have had to deal with them the stories aren’t always as dire as it may appear at first glance. Some will point to the opportunity to make something right in a situation that could have been far worse. Others will tell stories about how going through a trying time with colleagues and stakeholders in the end helped them and their organizations forge stronger bonds.

My Favorite Crisis

A cross-section of crisis situations that I’ve handled have ranged from bankruptcy filings and missed earnings expectations to litigation and workplace situations. None of these problems were inherently positive, but there were a few that when I think about it I’m glad I was there to help.

The one that comes most prominently to mind was the time I received a call from the wife of the CEO of a tech firm who told me that during the night his father, the chairman of the company, had died. Since his father, who was liked, respected and admired by many, had suffered from a serious life-threatening health condition, I had a plan in place for this possibility.

Prior to that morning, I had informed the CEO that should the worst happen, I was prepared on the communications front. So, when it actually happened, he didn’t have to do anything more than to tell his wife to call me and say, “We know you have a plan for this. Implement it.”

Immediately, I felt thankful that I was in a position to alleviate some of the burden from the CEO in his time of grief.

The Problem

The company was publicly traded, so the biggest concern was the possible reaction from analysts on Wall Street and investors. Since the death happened over a weekend, we knew that we had until the stock market opened on Monday morning to prepare.

In the end, this event was a litmus test in the confidence the market had in the CEO and the company’s leadership team.

Other important concerns were the impact the news might have on customers and employees, though these concerns were somewhat less because most customers and employees had substantive experience with the organization and readily understood that day-to-day operations would not be affected.

The Risks and Complications

The major risk in this situation was that a negative impact on the company’s stock valuation could have an effect on current and potential investors, employees who were invested in the company, and on the company’s reputation.

The Approach

The most important thing we did was have a plan in place for the scenario that eventually happened. We knew in advance what the challenges would be. We knew who our most important stakeholders would be and what they would need to know and want to know.

The plan called for a quick all-hands-on-deck management meeting over the weekend. I was able to use the plan as a meeting agenda and fill in as much information as possible so that I had the substance needed for all communications. These included disclosures to the media, employees, customers and others. We were able to quickly establish internal and external communications protocols.

The key message was that while this event was extremely sad and troubling, since the CEO had been in place for some time, and had been the driver behind the company’s currently strong performance, the sad news would have no impact on the day-to-day operations.

We were well prepared to announce the news to all important stakeholders before the market opened that Monday.

The Outcome

When the market opened on Monday, we had already communicated the news broadly to the media and to the analyst community on Wall Street. Employees and customers were informed personally and directly by their managers and representatives.

At the opening bell, the company’s stock price was not impacted by the news. There were no sudden point drops. From the standpoint of the market, it was generally understood that even with the loss of its chairman, the company remained in good hands.

For me, the thing that makes this my favorite crisis was that I was able to achieve the results that come with good planning so that the CEO of the company was enabled to focus on the personal challenges of losing a father and a friend.

Crisis Management: When the Shine Comes Off the Apple

In my experience, clients who’ve already come under attack by activists and the media before tend to be more understanding of the situation than you might expect. They are usually much more open to counsel, and they also tend to be more accountable and transparent than they are portrayed.

On the other hand, I’ve also had the chance to work with some organizations that until a particular crisis situation, they had been considered media darlings. Some have been popular brands, or as emerging growth companies, they had never experienced a downturn in their business to that point. Others have been organizations that have operated in a fashionable industry or sector.

That was until the shine came off the apple, so to speak, with a first major crisis of negative publicity that stunned them.

One of the more common misunderstandings when it comes to crisis communications is the issue of whether or not the organization at the center of the story actually did anything wrong.

In those instances where the company is at fault, like a product recall or a problematic decision, the course of action is relatively simple. While it still may be complicated and difficult, the way through to the other side is fairly obvious. You own up to it and communicate corrective or preventative actions. And you commit to full transparency.

What If You are Not to Blame?

What most people don’t realize, however, is the vast majority of true crisis situations are scenarios where the organization is not at fault, where it’s being falsely or errantly portrayed as being the problem. Usually, a destructive narrative has taken hold, and there’s just enough truth in it to make it very difficult for the organization to prove its innocence in the court of public opinion.

Companies and organizations who have been through this sort of thing before tend to know what to expect, and how to respond, and perhaps even more importantly how not to respond.

But if the organization at the center of a negative publicity flap has never been through this before, they can be surprised to find out their relationship with the media is not quite what they thought. This leads to soul-searching revelations for some managers that they may have been over-confident in their own charismatic qualities, or over-trusting of the media, or had a dangerous sense of invincibility.

I remember one company that was faced with a situation where a Hollywood celebrity and a group of activists were protesting one of the company’s facilities. The group attracted a swarm of media, which led to national coverage. While the company was used to receiving national media attention, what it wasn’t used to was negative national media attention.

The thing that sparked the protests was not very complicated. Management had to make some difficult cost-cutting decisions to keep its operations going. If it didn’t do so, the company’s future was at stake.

I would end up meeting with the CEO of the company to determine what we could do to help.

We had a frank conversation, and in the end, it became clear there were no easy choices. I knew that I couldn’t tell the CEO what he wanted to hear. I had to tell him to essentially take ownership of the decisions that were made, and to explain why and how those decisions were in the best interest of the employees, customers and the very future of the company.

What he wanted to hear was that there were some simple words he could say that would make everything go back to where they were before the crisis, and that the media would return to treating him and the company like rock stars.

I tried to explain that being honest, candid and frank was his best hope for doing that, but he was too preoccupied with his dilemma. There were other consultants in the room as well, each advocating a complementary strategy for HR and legal. The whole time, the CEO just looked distracted and gobsmacked.

At times like this, it’s very important to give someone in this CEO’s position a chance to process. What we couldn’t give him was more time to decide. As we spoke, a protest in another city was launched in front of one of his facilities, and the media were on hand.

After we talked about his options, with a puzzled look he just blurted out, “I thought they liked us.”

At that point, it became clear to everyone in the room that leadership was so stunned by the manner in which the media seemed to have turned on them so quickly that they couldn’t make any firm decisions on this day.

We wished the company’s managers the best and went on our way. To my knowledge, the company never did engage outside crisis communications support.

Having the Right Perspective is Readiness

Here are some things this CEO should have known before this crisis happened:

  • The more visible you become, it is more likely that at some point, your organization will face a negative publicity crisis.
  • The positive coverage you receive today, and the negative coverage you may receive someday have nothing to do with whether the media likes you or doesn’t like you.
  • No matter how positive the coverage, it is a mistake to assume that the driving force is the power of your personality or the uniqueness of your culture. If the coverage is positive, it’s because there is something about your story that supports a narrative the media wants to tell today but for whatever reasons may not want to tell tomorrow.

In short, when your organization is considered a media darling, that is the time to understand you are vulnerable to an effort by someone at some point to take it upon themselves to try to take the shine off of your reputational apple. Just understanding this will go a long way towards helping to ready you for a crisis of negative publicity.

What do you think?  Let us know on Twitter at @OBrienPR

When You’re Tapped to be the Company Spokesperson

Let’s say your background and training is that of an engineer, or a sale exec, or a lawyer, or maybe an accountant, but here you are, your company has selected you to be spokesperson on a particular issue. Perhaps that issue is a pressing one and this situation has already reached high levels of intensity going in.

What do you do?

Hopefully, it’s safe to assume that you have the support of the organization from the top and into the communications function. You should expect to receive some level of guidance and coaching from your communications people.

But what, specifically, should you expect from your team and from yourself?

Messaging

The first thing you need to know is what is the company’s messaging on this particular issue. Do you have a set of key message points that were developed by your public relations people on the issue? Were you part of the process to develop and fine tune those messages? And, do you have the proper support information to back up those messages?

Questions and Answers

Along with a key messaging document, you should also have a list of possible questions you may receive on the issue, along with recommended responses that are consistent with the key messages that have been developed.

Coaching and Simulation

If there is time, you should expect to receive coaching and an opportunity to simulate media interviews and other scenarios where you may be required to deliver the company’s story on the issue.

Resources

As with any big matter, no one can reasonably assume that you or any one person would have all of the answers to every question. But going in, you should know who within the organization may have some of those answers.  And you should know what external resources can be accessed to help further tell the full story on the issue at hand.

These are the basics, and they apply in both crisis and non-crisis scenarios. What are your stories about the time you were tapped to be spokesperson. Let us know at @OBrienPR on Twitter.

Even If Your Organization is Not On Social Media, It Could Face a Social Media Crisis

Let’s say your organization doesn’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter presence. You may assume you probably can’t get into trouble on social media.  Such an assumption would be a mistake.  Here is a quick rundown on five ways in which social media could erupt to bite you if you are not prepared:

An employee goes rogue on their own social media account. 

There is a good chance many if not most of your employees are active to some extent on social media. While your organization may have taken great care to take a conservative stance on social media, every staffer may have their own ideas on what is and what is not acceptable online.  A post that attacks the organization, or one that includes names of fellow employees, managers, customers or others that you do business with could escalate in minutes, depending on the situation.

What to do: Make sure you have a solid social media policy in place and communicate it broadly and frequently to staff. While this may prevent some potential crises, there is no guarantee it will prevent all. But in all cases, having a policy in place provides a platform and a starting point for what you can and need to say during those times when the organization has to jump into action to address social media flare-ups among staff members. The policy will likely contain language that can be tapped for internal and external communications, reinforcing the organization’s rationale for corrective actions taken.

A customer slams you on social media and it spreads.

While B2B organizations don’t face this scenario often, it can happen. On the other hand, consumer goods and services companies have found that it’s very common for customers to turn to Twitter with a customer complaint even before contacting the company. How many times have you seen or heard about someone tweeting a complaint to an airline, for example, while standing in line at an airport, prompting the company to have to respond in minutes, if possible?

What to do: If you have a customer service department, make sure systems are in place to coordinate real-time communications with your social media management function. Regardless, your social media managers need to have protocols in place for contacting and coordinating with all of the key people in the organization to respond to small events that may not constitute crises at the moment, but if left unaddressed could escalate into crises.

A negative Glassdoor.com or a Yelp review could gain traction. 

Years ago, to learn how you are perceived among employees, potential employees and customers, you may have had to conduct focus groups and surveys. To be sure, those tools remain as solid as ever in gaining the most accurate assessment of attitudes. But certain sites have emerged allowing your employees, customers and others to submit reviews about your organization. Glassdoor.com lets employees and former employees rate your work environment. Yelp is widely revered among restaurants, retailers and other companies for its influence in painting an either positive or negative picture of your organization in the marketplace.

What to do: One or two negative reviews are nothing to worry about. In fact, I recently read a scientific study that indicated that the majority of people who submit reviews are predisposed to emphasize the negative in their reviews. The same research indicated that people who are satisfied with a product or service are less likely to submit reviews in the first place. This means that the reviews your organization receives may not be an accurate representation of the marketplace at large. At the same time, should one review start to gain traction by spurring additional reviews or social media activity, it’s best not to take it lightly. Depending on the situation, you may need to respond publicly, online, on the forum where the review was posted, and then work one-on-one to address any issues. Should a concerning pattern emerge, it may be time to convene your crisis or issues management team for a more thorough response.

Ubiquitous cameras.

Everyone who has a smart phone has a camera on them, which means if you have 200 employees there’s a good chance you have roughly 200 cameras beyond your control throughout the organization. Add to this the number of customers and others from outside your organization that potentially could post photos having to do with your organization, and the potential for problems is omnipresent.

What to do: Have a policy in place for the use of cameras by employees and in those facilities and locations under your organization’s control.  Like the social media policy, having this policy in place is important to the kind of messaging you would create should a mobile camera be at the center of some future crisis or issues management situation. Chances are, each crisis situation where smart phone video or photographs are at the center of the matter will be unique, so it’s best to prepare to mobilize your crisis communications team when these things do occur.

Your Facebook ad could generate negative comments. 

I helped a client with this situation not too long ago. The company had no Facebook presence, but it did sponsor a Facebook advertising program for recruiting purposes. When each ad was posted according to the criteria that was pre-set, the comments function was enabled so that anyone who saw the ad could post a comment. This caused one person self-described as a “former customer” to complain, and a few others who saw the comments to ask the disgruntled poster to elaborate.  At first, the company could not verify that the person complaining was a customer, let alone whether the claims made by this individual were true or not.

What to do: In this case, the organization was not a consumer-facing company, so they were able to do some internal investigating to identify and reach out to the person who complained on Facebook. They addressed that person’s concerns proactively and achieved a positive outcome. Worth noting, it is possible to disable comments on certain social media ad programs, so if the success of your ad program does not require comments, and you want to avoid this type of problem for your organization, disabling comments for your ad may be an option.

Do you have a story about social media flare-ups? Let us know on Twitter (@OBrienPR) or better yet, send me an email.  I’d love to hear it. 

The Most Potent Word in Journalism

It’s one of the most potent words a headline writer or a reporter can use, and if it’s used to describe you or your organization, it’s clear what the writer thinks, but more importantly what that writer wants the reader to think. You’re guilty.

The word is, “Denies.”  As in, “The company denies wrongdoing.”

Let’s put this proposition to the test. Let’s say a headline writer wants to make you look bad for not walking on Mars. Yeah, the planet that no one from earth has ever visited. All he has to do it feature the headline, “Sarah Doe Denies Walking on Mars.”

The word itself suggests that the accusation is truth and that you are denying the truth. If you are described as denying anything, this frames you as defensive, guarded, trying to hide something, and therefore, guilty in the court of public opinion.

When you are described as a denier of something, it’s designed to put you in a bad light.

On the other hand, if a headline writer or reporter does not want you to look so bad, they may substitute the word “denies” with the words, “accused of.” As in, “Sarah Doe Accused of Walking on Mars.”

That would give you just enough wiggle room not to come across so negatively. In this case, the seeds of doubt are planted in the credibility of the accuser and not in the culpability of the accused.

These words suggest that the accuser could be making it up, using false allegations on which to frame you or your organization, and possibly that you should be given the benefit of the doubt.

So, what do you do when a headline writer frames you as denying something?

The first rule of thumb would be, don’t make it any worse, and this can happen very easily. Once you or your organization has been described as denying an accusation, you can’t do anything preventative. The accusation and characterization are already in the public domain, and they are already working to shape perceptions.

What you can do, however, is avoid playing into the hands of your accusers by engaging according to the ground rules they have already set by creating a narrative designed to work against you.

If you “double down” or try to explain away or dismiss something that you cannot prove, you can reinforce the negative narrative that is already unfolding, whether that narrative is fair or not.

This happens in the court of law all of the time. How can a defendant prove that he did not do something if he did not do it? For this reason, the justice system itself places the burden of proof on the accuser, not the accused.

In the court of public opinion, the rules are completely the opposite. This “court” usually places the burden of proof on the accused.

What you have to know going in is that you are not obligated to accept the premise of the accusations. The decision not to accept that premise and not to engage as your critics expect may be your first and most effective course of action. You don’t have to accept their premise or their “facts” associated with the accusations.

Once you know your messaging, craft them and deliver them according to your perceptions of the situation and not those of your critics.

Take the high road.

The worst thing you can do is try to split hairs on which accusations have merit or have some element of truth, and which ones do not. Once you do that, you have committed to the narrative your critics have already created, and you very well could be endorsing it. And by then, you are likely so far down the rabbit hole of that narrative that it will be very difficult to change course, and even more difficult to change perceptions.

It’s better to create your own narrative. If that narrative finds certain common ground with other points of view, so be it. But it’s very important to make it clear that your narrative is the right one and it’s yours, not the baseless one created by your critics.

One other thing, if you find that you or your organization are accused in this way, don’t be in such hurry to respond that you risk creating more problems. There is a big difference between a timely response and a hasty one. A thoughtful, careful response is much more effective than a kneejerk one.

Case Study: Updating an Assisted Living Facility’s Crisis Plan

What do you do if a resident of an assisted living facility “elopes” and no one can find him? Or when caregivers are accused of possibly mistreating patients and residents?

These are just two of the hypothetical scenarios we had to address recently when we helped an assisted living facility update its crisis communications plan and conduct media coaching for senior leadership.

We’ve found that the crisis planning process rarely changes, but the potential types of crises, challenges and unique characteristics of the operating climate change every time. We’ve found that even with organizations that have crisis plans in place, and senior managers who’ve been media-trained, it’s important to maintain constant vigilance against new communications challenges.

That’s what was on the mind of the senior leadership at an assisted living facility when they worked with us to develop an updated crisis communications plan.

The Approach

The approach we took was to conduct extensive interviews with key managers, staff members and other constituents to gain the best perspective on the types of possible crises that could happen, and to begin the process of analysis and prioritization on what challenges could be faced, what resources were available, and what resources may need to be added to effectively respond to the full range of crisis situations.

With that intelligence, and a treasure-trove of data from internal reporting, protocols and processes, and other background material, we were able to create an informational mosaic that enabled us to develop a crisis communications plan that was concise enough to be an actionable, useful resource in an actual crisis, while at the same time being extremely specific in the range of roles and responsibilities manager would assume during a crisis.

This particular crisis communications plan was developed to work in conjunction with other organizational and operational emergency response plans and policies.

The plan included the major levels of crisis categories, recommendations on monitoring and identification systems, an internal and external notification process, and the most efficient means for convening a crisis communications team in the minutes after, or even before a crisis situation unfolds.

Processes were created for mobilization and messaging, and then for implementation, scaled to meet the challenges of crises from mild to major.

After the crisis communications plan was complete, senior management, who were tapped with spokesperson duties, felt more comfortable and ready to engage in media coaching, which encompassed classroom-style training, along with role-playing and other interactive exercises.

This is a general overview of our approach. If you’d like to know more, or have a question of your own, we’d be glad to talk.  Please feel free to get in touch.