Archive for the ‘crisis’ Category

Are we facing a new type of ‘crisis’?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Has it already been a month since my last post?

Granted, the last few weeks have been a pretty heady mix of client education, new business development, conference speaking opps and strategy development. At the same time, the month of April was interesting for a variety of additional reasons, not least the events which transpired (Dominos, Amazon) that showcased - in my view – a transformation taking place in two areas:

  1. the changing nature and scope of certain types of crises (generated and propagated largely through social media) that organizations will increasingly face in the future, and
  2. how these new types of crises are changing the way organizations communicate – and are prepared to communicate – as a result.

So what are the common elements defining these types of crises? These aren’t the ’big’ events such as Swine Flu/H1N1, wildfires, major transportation disasters (USAirways) or instances of large-scale corporate malfeasance. They rarely involve death or injury, damage to property or large-scale economic or financial loss. Rather, these are the events taking place with increasing frequency, that start small (you remember Motrin, or any other number of questionable acts captured on video - willingly or not?), create a burst of noise (typically indignation and outrage), proliferate very quickly (largely through a defined pattern of social and traditional media amplification) but which, if managed correctly, often result in only short-term reputation damage.

Why? For two reasons:

  1. While the event itself captures the imagination of specific segments of the public – that public’s reaction is very often like witnessing the end-result of an accident on a highway: we watch in fascination as we roll past and we might talk about it immediately following, but unless certain elements of the event give it additional legs and exposure, we simply get on with our day. Likewise, and so long as we know that action is being taken (meaning the police and ambulances are either on-site or on their way), we feel comfortable that the right steps are being taken – which speaks to the second reason.
  2. Quite simply, ‘bad things do happen to good companies’ and so long as an organization acknowledges the event or incident, demonstrates empathy with those affected by it, communicates the actions being taken to mitigate it, does not try to bury it, and positions it within the appropriate context (which rarely exists online), the potential for lasting reputation damage can be mitigated. At the same time, organizations must be more prepared than ever to identify potential issues, and move quickly and visibly to respond to such crises.

Is this any different than what we counsel clients in any type of crisis? Not really. What has changed, however, is the importance of vigilance – across all media – and ensuring that you respond with sufficient confidence and speed – with the right messages, via the right channels, to the right stakeholders and influencers.

Undoubtedly, these types of crises will occur with increasing frequency – be it the result of questionable behaviour caught on camera, business decisions that outrage certain constituencies (Twitter?), or poor judgement of employees.

It’s when an organization gets its response wrong, when it sits on an issue thereby creating the perception that it either does not take the issue seriously or feels that it can brush the issue under the table, that the potential for longer term damage arises.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer – A case study in ‘radical transparency’

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Yeah, I know, it’s a blatant rip-off of my esteemed colleague’s blog title. But it pretty much says it all.

(source image from SeattleP-I / Hat tip to Lost Remote)

When the SeattleP-I announced earlier this month that it was going to shut its presses if it couldn’t find a buyer within 60 days – and potentially move to an all-online P-I, it did as it should and made it a breaking news story (you can see staff here writing the story even as the news is being broken). Moreover, they posted a video of the announcement by Hearst’s Steven Swartz to the newsroom staff (where the reaction of managing editor David McCumber pretty much said it all) and published the letter to employees. 

And they’ve done more: McCumber started a blog called Sixty Days to chronicle this critical moment in the life of the publication, while staff and others created a blog and a wiki to discuss the future of news reporting in the Seattle region and to seek out options to ensure its survival. If nothing else, it is a classic example of the degree to which social media has become permanently entwined into our landscape whether breaking news, commenting on it, or being a participant in it.

I am intrigued by this event for many other reasons, not only those outlined by Swartz as he clearly struggles to deliver his message (Note – it is a must listen re. the reasons behind the downfall). I am intrigued also by how this was communicated to staff and to the public at large. Granted, as a news organization, the SeattleP-I reporters clearly had a responsibility to report this news – and to do so to the best of their ability re. clarity, depth, lack of bias, accuracy etc. I am also intrigued by the words and actions of employees as they respond to this news via Twitter and other online channels – much as many other employees of other organizations have done and are doing during these difficult times.

However, it also raises questions: Is the level of transparency shown by the SeattleP-I staff (both management – willingly or no – and editorial) a model that could/should be emulated more aggressively by other non-media organizations as they handle difficult news that could impact staff as well as other external audiences? Is there value in not only communicating difficult decisions and actions in such a visible format, but also providing staff with the resources and tools to discuss such actions and add their voice to the discussion that would take place regardless if it was in-house or elsewhere on the web? Do the benefits outweigh the risks – real or perceived?

Should HR and internal communicators be looking at this and questioning traditional approaches to downsizing, re-structuring or the complete shuttering of businesses - approaches that often lean toward denial and obfuscation until the last minute, emails and letters bereft of emotion, and external strategies that often pit management against staff in increasingly visible he said – she said’s. In a world where such displays of disappointment and outrage - online and off – are increasing, being seen to acknowledge it, to encourage dialog around it, and to build from it are likely better for any organization’s reputation in the long run than trying to pretend that the world is anything but sunshine and milkshakes.  

As an aside – a sidebar in one of McCumber’s posts caught my eye:

– Just a few minutes ago, this email appeared in my inbox:

Dear Media Industry Professional,
I am writing to ask for your help with the second annual PRWeek/ PR Newswire Media Survey. This survey asks journalists and bloggers about the changing media environment and how it is impacting their specific outlets, job duties, interaction with PR professionals, and more. The survey results will be published in an article in the April 6 issue of PRWeek.

You know, I think I’m going to pass on that one.

I don’t blame him one bit.

Dialing the noise up to Eleven… US Airways Flight 1549 and citizen media

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Yesterday, my colleague David Jones pointed to an animation created by Niall Cook, H&Ker and fellow blogger, showing the rapid transformation of Wikipedia’s entry on the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan 15. By itself, it highlighted the extraordinary speed by which citizens are increasingly able to match and, very often, surpass the speed of media in accessing and distributing new information around the incident.

As a companion to that animation, H&K Canada’s digital team also captured (as the event unfolded) screen caps of key sites – search engines, blogs, social networks, corporate sites, aggregators etc. – that I believe further demonstrates and reinforces the sheer dynamism of the communications environment in which we now exist; as it relates to the speed by which information on an incident is communicated and shared (e.g. via Twitter), the competitiveness as well as the synergy shaping the relationship between traditional and citizen media, and the actions taken by corporations to respond within this new environment.

Not all the timestamps on this slide deck are accurate or absolute, although they are certainly captured within minutes (if not seconds) of the event occuring – particularly during the first hours. Nor is the deck intended to be an exhaustive summary of all activity simply those that we felt captured this landscape, and these new issues, most effectively. Most importantly, these slides are not intended to comment either positively or negatively on the actions of authors, witnesses, posters or organizations involved.

Are "Tweets" News? In times of crisis, the debate is meaningless

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Much is being written about Twitter’s coming of age, particularly as it relates to information sharing during times of crisis; the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai being the most recent example (see trend chart here). It is, without question, a powerful and highly immediate vehicle for broadcasting and sharing news as it breaks. Although, as CNN so succinctly states: “as is the case with such widespread dissemination of information, a vast number of the posts on Twitter amounted to unsubstantiated rumors and wild inaccuracies.”

From my perspective, and as one who works closely with clients in adapting their crisis plans to this new world order of twitter, blogs and citizen journalism, the ensuing argument around what is ’news’ or not, is moot. It is simply the new reality in which organizations must be prepared to communicate.

It is indeed fascinating to watch as these thousands of new voices sweep across the media landscape, amplifying, contradicting, and enhancing traditional media reports with their own eyewitness accounts and points of view. At the same time, it is also frustrating to witness the ease by which rumours and speculation spread during the acute stage of any emergency or crisis.

It has simply made our job, and that of any communicator in a time of crisis, that much harder. It means we must start now to adapt our processes to reflect this new reality, and focus even more aggressively on the principles that guide effective crisis and emergency communications. Quite simply, it speaks to what I and others in the crisis space are already espousing:

  • the need to accelerate the processes by which an organization creates, approves and distributes content, yet avoiding adding to the speculation and rumour-mongering, to ensure that it remains a credible source of information
  • the importance of an organization’s own web property to communicate information and messages beyond traditional (1.0) mechanisms – but to consider integrating their own Twitter feeds, RSS, video and audio, real-time information updates, and efficient cross-platform sharing of content.
  • the importance of direct stakeholder communication (via all channels – not just web) to ensure your message is received and understood, not simply delivered.
  • the importance of robust internal communications supported by meaningful guidelines around what employees can or should communicate via their own networks – digital or otherwise.
  • the importance of clear rules of engagement when it comes to engaging with external voices and influencers – understanding when it is right and appropriate, and under what circumstances, and when it may result in only further damaging an organization’s reputation and ability to communicate through an emergency.

More so now than ever, no organization can attempt to “control’ the information environment around any significant crisis. They can and must, however, ensure that their communication acknowledges this new environment, without compromising privacy, confidentiality, ethical principles or simply attempting to fill an information void with soundbites and messages that lack substance, credibility, context and concern for those affected.

Are “tweets” news? Who cares? It’s a meaningless debate. What it means and what impact it may have(if any) are the questions we should all be asking as we watch it, and all forms of social media, transform crisis communications forever.

Where Canadians turn to for information in an emergency… Web moves ahead of Newspapers, still behind TV and radio

posted by Brendan Hodgson

I speak often to companies about the role of digital technology and social media on contemporary crisis communications. It is a fascinating topic — not only for the issues that it introduces, but also because it requires the integration of a number of operational functions within organizations themselves, not simply communications.

That said, one of the key challenges in convincing companies to re-think their crisis response programs to reflect this new digital dynamic, is providing solid evidence that the web has become an increasingly vital conduit to communicating directly with stakeholders in times of crisis. In my view, the usual national penetration numbers don’t cut it.

So I was glad to find out that the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness (CCEP) has just released the first in a series of annual national survey-based studies, entitled: Preparing for Crises: Findings and Implications from the National Survey on Emergency Preparedness in Canada.

Of the issues explored in the survey, the most interesting, in my mind,related to the information sources that respondents said they would turn to during an emergency. As Randy Hull, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the City of Winnipeg, notes in his foreward:

With regards to where public seek their information, I am reassured by the survey findings that TV, radio and Internet, are the most effective channels for reaching the public.The interesting number is that of Internet use, as it continues to increase. It will be of interest to see if this number surpasses the conventional media of radio and TV. Here in Winnipeg we created an extensive web site called EmergWeb, to assist people in their information search. This direction was taken based on 1997 flood data showing that 45% of people called, while the other 55% visited Winnipeg’s web page

Among its recommendations, the study authors noted specifically the following:

CCEP and governments might wish to focus more attention on the Internet, which displaced newspapers as the third most important source of emergency information. The emergence of the Internet calls for careful attention to public awareness of sites and public search practices. Data reported in table 6.2.1 in the Annex reveal that search engines and news sites are the main Internet avenues. The federal website, getprepared.ca, would receive essentially no direct traffic. From these findings, it follows that a priority should be for the federal government to ensure that search engines direct traffic to its site and that communications and advertising alert the public to the site’s presence

You can access the study here.

The Virtual Conference Mash-up: An Idea whose Time has Come

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Kate seemed pretty excited when she landed on this. I share her excitement.

The virtual / conference mash-up idea is indeed brilliant (and kudos to the team who thought up the idea). Through applications such as slideshare and Youtube, an increasing plethora of content is being made available from a slew of experts across a variety of fields – including presentations such as this (which I hadn’t seen in years).

I can see a number of different applications for smart enterprises, including those looking to:

  • Educate internal audiences without the associated travel and lost productivity costs. I can see how this idea might allow organizations to package and deliver content in ways that provide a significantly more complete context to the subject matter – be it marketing, social media, crisis communications, sales, engineering, whatever… from a stage-setter, to break-outs on more focused areas, and eye-candy in between.
  • Inform external stakeholders on critical issues by aggregating and presenting multiple points of view from experts around the web combined with content created by your own organization and/or your supporters. Again, if appropriately packaged, the presentation will also provide a much broader picture and context that might ever have been possible previously. In doing so, I would also see a much more engaged discussion as experts and others see their content being mashed-up with ideas they may not support or which might contradict their own.

Friday Digital Miscellany: Crisis, activism & a behind-the-scenes look at what IT is really up to?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Summer in London may not be springtime in Paris, but at least it didn’t rain last week for an internal digital and crisis conference I attended with fellow H&K crisis practitioners from across Europe, North America and Asia.

The key learning of the two-day event – other than to not let Cy Twombly’s art truly aggravate you: digital can no longer be considered an afterthought when preparing for, or executing during a crisis. It must be burned into the system from the outset - the technology, the people and the processes. It must become an integral part of the training regimen, be designed to support various crisis thresholds and provide sufficient flexibility to evolve as the crisis evolves. And not only is it simply about launching a “dark site” or adding a line item to a manual. It is also about guiding employee behaviours online, assessing how and when to respond (and not respond) to misinformation and speculation that may be bubbling throughout the social web, considering new ways and formats to deliver content and messaging, and working with other functional areas (per my last post) to ensure the ‘machine’ operates seamlessly.

Developments on the activism and social media front and the impact of the citizen journalist on the newsmaking process also caught my eye this week. In Canada, much like what happened recently in the U.S. over downed cattle resulting in one of the largest beef recalls in history, activists using a hidden camera were able to reveal what many consider to be questionable practices related to the slaughter of horses. And while the footage generated considerable media coverage, it also raised a number of questions related to how the industry is regulated. Not only is this further demonstration of the increasing levels of transparency now being imposed upon organizations through the use of technology and the rising importance of video and images to communicate in a way that text never could, it also demonstrates how easily such footage can be taken out of context, according to one industry expert: 

“…Shanyn Silinski, executive director of the Farm Animal Council in Manitoba, an animal welfare group, noted regulations govern the slaughter industry… Silinski cautioned against drawing conclusions about a particular facility based on clips of camera footage.” 

Finally, and on a more humorous side, props to Churbuck for Thewebsiteisdown.com, one sick video that, in the words of Homer Simpson, is funny cuz it’s true.

Employees, Social media and Reputation… A Month of Discussions

posted by Brendan Hodgson

June was never going to be an easy month, yet we’re nearly half-way through and I’m starting to breathe a little easier. Two conference presentations down, and two more to go – although the latter two will be more internally and client-focused which tends to make life a bit easier (he says, knocking wood).

Over this past week, Amanda Brewer, H&K Canada’s director of internal and change communications, and I have spoken at two events: the first being the 2008 CPRS National Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the second being to the Council of Human Resource Executives in beautiful Quebec City (currently celebrating its 400th anniversary – I suggest you go. I hadn’t been to QC in years, and it’s as stunning as ever).

Although slightly different in their focus, the general theme of the presentations were the same: that social media and Web 2.0 is transforming the role of the employee as “brand guardian”. And while this transformation is creating opportunities to drive greater transparency and bring employees closer to those upon whom the company relies – customers, communities, partners, potential employees etc., it is also highlighting a number of potential risks and challenges with respect to employee behaviour online and the consequences that could follow, intentional or no. In the presentations we highlighted examples of companies who have done it right, and we explored examples of what happens when employees take it upon themselves to communicate on behalf of the organization through social media, to both positive and negative effect.

At CPRS, we dived deeper into how organized labour has adopted social media in their efforts to communicate their stories and messages beyond traditional media filters and mobilize their membership and supporters, and considered how corporations are (or should be) responding. In Quebec City, we explored how organizations could (and should) help to guide employees in their use of social media – realizing that the workforce of tomorrow will have grown-up using these tools as part of their daily lives. Both are areas of increasing innovation in public and private sector workspaces, and judging by the level of discussion that ensued, it’s an area of increasing concern to those who practice in these areas.

Interestingly, I also see these discussions as an opportunity for organizations to further bridge the silos separating HR and internal and external communications departments given the increasing visibility of employees as brand advocates. And, as always, when we talk about “tomorrow’s employees”, I started off by showing this video – in my view, a creative and powerful perspective of the changes taking place in our society and mindset. (kudos to Dr. Michael Wesch at Kansas State University)

Next week, I will be in the U.K participating in an internal conference on crisis and digital, and working with our network of senior crisis practitioners to ensure our counsel and strategies reflect the digital dynamic and the potential for digital tools to support organizational communications when the stakes are highest – much as we’ve seen during the California Wildfires, and recent campus shooting. Interestingly, the area of crisis is another where the potential for employees to both support or, unfortunately, harm an organization’s communications efforts is becoming increasingly important.

The week following, my colleague Boyd Neil and I will be in Vancouver (I get to spend a whole 16 hours in Ottawa in between, yay!!) where I hope we’ll be able to take some of the learnings from the UK and apply them to a joint presentation to a global corporation (and client) on reputation, issues management and the impact of digital and social media.

Then Canada Day… and then a long rest.

If you’re in London and are able to get together on the night of the 20th or 21st, do get in touch.

"Supercuts" and their impact on reputation

posted by Brendan Hodgson

I was reading a recent post by Andy Baio on the proliferation of what he calls “supercuts” or video montages made by obsessive fans of their favourite TV shows, films or video games – and he lists quite a few classics.

What’s interesting is how easily I see this format transferring into both the political and corporate arena by organizations and individuals seeking to capture a litany of “promises” or statements made by elected officials or corporate spokespersons either to demonstrate support for or, more likely as in the case of this famous “flip-flop” video of John McCain (courtesy of Jeff Jarvis), highlight more negative behaviours.

As more and more “gotcha” moments are captured on film or audio and shared throughout the social web (here’s a recent, and extremely powerful, example) , the implication on corporate, political and personal reputation is significant. The aggregation of incidents such as these over time coupled with the permanence and searchability of the web, could become a significantly damaging force in times of crisis, and when organizations (and their reputations) are under the spotlight.

Nor is this “syndrome” restricted solely to the social web. Increasingly, mainstream media are collecting and presenting lists of “related” stories around organizations and issues that often - through selective aggregation – portray that organization in a negative light - typically highlighting recent stories of past tragedies, crashes, blow-outs etc., or other failings that have hit the media (case in point).

And the risk of reputation damage becomes even more acute when these clips and stories are aggregated without context, or with the intent to portray a specific bias, further propagating this culture of misinformation within which we increasingly exist.

For those charged to defend an organization’s reputation, it won’t be enough to simply cry out: Noooooooooo!

In times of crisis, digital education in the c-suite is critical

posted by Brendan Hodgson

I spoke recently at a dinner attended by a number of boards of directors of large Canadian corporations. The topic of conversation was digital crisis management. What was interesting, and what carried through the dinner discussion that ensued, was the awareness gap that existed at the executive level; specifically, that the issues we talk about and evangelize on an almost daily basis at the departmental level and in our conversations and blog posts are rarely finding their way into the c-suite despite their increasing signficance to the long-term reputation of the companies these individuals represent.

In recent months, I along with my colleagues have spoken on a number of occasions to senior leadership teams on these issues. Each time, we reiterate the importance of executive-level understanding of the new environment and the necessity to obtain their buy-in on key principles of effective online crisis management. Reputation management in times of crisis is a c-suite issue, and as Clarke Caywood of Northwestern University famously said, ”Any assault on the reputation of a company is a crisis… and reputations are built on how management responds to crises.”