Archive for the ‘crisis’ Category

Crisis Communications and ‘Official Languages’

posted by Brendan Hodgson

NIU pageI spoke at an IABC event last night on crisis communications and social media, and it prompted an interesting question (particularly given that many of the audience hailed from government organizations): How do you reconcile the importance of timely communications with the need to communicate in both official languages?

The question was posed by a communications advisor at a prominent federal agency. But it’s also a topic that has arisen several times in discussions with clients around the development of their crisis dark sites.

It’s an important question, as strict adherence to “official language” regulations could impact an organization’s ability to respond quickly to an issue.

Ultimately, my position – based on discussions to-date – is that  stakeholders will forgive uni-lingual communication if the effort is focused on pushing out vital information in as timely and transparent a fashion as possible. What they will not forgive is knowing that you intentionally withheld critical information for the sake of political expedience.

Granted, this deviation from “regulation” would tend to apply more to situations such as accidents or disasters whether man-made or natural, and where risk to health and safety requires rapid communication. Whereas, with a crises of confidence where a few hours spent ensuring communication in both official languages is coordinated, timing might be less of an issue. Likewise, this holds true in situations where you’re communicating more than a few lines or paragraphs that could easily be translated within minutes.

But when you look to how Northern Illinois University was, for example, rapidly updating their site as events of the shooting unfolded (see attached image), would anyone have complained if (and were this a Canadian institution obliged to abide by Official Language laws), they had only communicated in one language? 

Naive, perhaps? You tell me.

Transparency and the Media – a behind-the-scenes glimpse into why a story changes

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Transparency is a term oft-used in the web 2.0 context. Typically, however, it applies to the application of social media by consumers/citizens to impose a previously-unattainable level of transparency on corporate behaviour. Examples are legion – Sleeping Comcast Technicians, battlin’ AOL client service reps, breakable bike locks, leaking toilets on aircraft, astro-turfing – and many more (just check out the Consumerist for the latest juice).

But from the perspective of crisis and issues management, mainstream media are also facing increasing scrutiny (as they should) from the ranks of citizen journalists. Ever since the Dan Rather hullabaloo over reporting of George W. Bush’s war record, otherwise known as Memogate or Rathergate, the impact of bloggers as media watchdogs has only intensified. 

The implications are significant and should continue to be discussed. A recent email exchange purported to be between an activist and a BBC reporter over perceived ”inaccuracies” in a story on climate change offers a fascinating insight into today’s news environment, and raises some interesting questions:

Regardless if the changes made the story more accurate or, in the words of one blogger, ”(morphed) the article’s tenor from dialogue to lecture with a minimum of extorted word processing” (and that’s not the point of this post), should the reporter – for the sake of transparency - have made the changes as a discrete ”update” to the original with an adjusted timestamp, or was he within his rights to make the changes into the existing story without reflecting the fact that the original story had in fact been altered?

Secondly, does this not speak to the importance of including a comments section (as many media outlets now do) on all stories or features in order to allow interested parties to address perceived inaccuracies without injecting their potential bias into the actual story. A less optimal solution, perhaps, but could the journalist not simply have continued the story based on the email exchange that ensued?

In a crisis environment, where media are already under incredible pressure and where the need to be first often overrides the need to be accurate, incidents such as this (assuming that this is an accurate reflection of a real exchange – and I tend to believe it is) are worth considering. From this writer’s perspective, it compromises the trust that many place in the mainstream media to be as accurate and unbiased as possible, potentially leading those audiences to seek information elsewhere. At the same time, it acknowledges the need to work closely with media to ensure that what you provide in times of crisis go beyond soundbites and are substantiated by credible information and defensible proof points (since, clearly there will be pressure on the journalist from all fronts to “get it right”). And it further reinforces the importance of relying on your own channels to communicate versus relying solely on a “filtered” media. 

There’s more to digital PR than social media

posted by Brendan Hodgson

In recent months, I’ve become somewhat concerned by the overwhelming attention being paid to social media at the expense of other digital PR functions.

While social media is inherently an extension of that function, for the benefit of younger PR professionals and those who are still exploring the role that digital plays within a PR context, I thought it important to outline some other activities – in addition to what we are doing in the social media space – that are taking place within H&K Digital here in Canada.

The point being, that we need to avoid the same issue currently faced by our industry around the mistaken association that PR is synonymous with media relations and nothing more. We can’t ignore that social media, like media relations, is becoming a key (and highly visible) subset of our respective offerings, overshadowing many other PR disciplines and areas of expertise.

But we have to avoid falling into that same trap, and yet do so intelligently. Clearly opportunities exist for forward-thinking PR firms and practitioners. But we must also be aware of the challenges related to finding those practitioners with the right skillsets required to undertake these types of assignments – namely the capacity to bridge the chasm that often separates the traditional PR practitioner with the digital specialist (not only the social media specialist) trained in areas such as functional design, information architecture and content management.

The opportunities exist. Here’s a quick sampling of digital projects currently underway in our shop that extend beyond social media:

  • Auditing the electronic communications (EC) function of a federal government department, and providing recommendations on how to position the EC team to more effectively address emerging trends in digital communications, and the changing expectations of their internal clients.
  • Undertaking various training sessions, including conducting a half-day ”Writing for the Web” course for another government department
  • Auditing the communications function of a large energy company as it relates to that organization’s overall emergency response protocol, and making recommendations for digital integration within that function.
  • Providing strategic guidance on the development of a crisis dark site for another large corporation
  • Developing an over-arching online strategy (that will likely include social media) for a large technology firm’s sponsorship of a major cultural event.
  • Supporting an organization’s online efforts to reach out to, and effectively communicate with, both institutional and retail shareholders on a key issue.

To repeat: social media is undeniably a critical component of many campaigns that we now execute on behalf of clients. And while we regularly bake social media into our strategies and programs, and as we are increasingly engaged to create, feed into, or support various corporate blogging strategies, blogger outreach campaigns, and other social media initiatives, connecting ourselves too aggressively to that one segment of the digital universe could result in our being excluded from other more “traditional digital” opportunities… which would be a bad thing for PR as its seeks to re-define its role in the changing communications landscape.

Real Threats. Real Plans – Crisis Communications in a 2.0 World

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Real Threats. Real Plans. This was the theme of DRIE Toronto’s first quarterly meeting for 2008 held yesterday at the Royal Bank Auditorium on Front Street in Toronto.

For those of you unfamiliar with who or what DRIE is, here’s the spiel direct from their site: The Disaster Recovery Information Exchange is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Business Continuity Management, Disaster Recovery Planning, Crisis Management, Emergency Planning, and other related disciplines as integral components of an effective business strategy.

I’ve presented to this group twice now – late in 2007 and yesterday – both times on the impact of social media and digital technology on crisis communications. Without question, there’s a hunger for this kind of knowledge particularly given the dynamically changing communications landscape within which we, as practitioners, must now exist.

Why is this important? Because a number of fundamental changes are afoot – driven by digital technology, including:

  • The speed by which issues and threats can escalate into full-blown reputation crises
  • The surge in the level of “noise” around an event or issue - increasing the risk of misinformation and speculation to re-shape the dialogue and side-track an organization’s response
  • The extent to which social media is transforming how traditional media report on a crisis
  • The changing role of employees as brand guardians, and the need to help guide their behaviour in the online space
  • The impact of the online world’s “permanent record”, and the challenge facing organizations to rebuild their reputation in an environment where Google, according to Wired, has become less of a search engine and more a reputation management engine.
  • Most importantly, the importance of an organization’s own web footprint as a vehicle for timely, transparent, and responsible communications.

Effective crisis response in a 2.0 world requires understanding of each of these factors – and appropriate strategies to address them. Most importantly, it requires buy-in from senior leadership across all key business functions – not only communications. It requires a focus on speed and visibility, a commitment to responsible and ethical disclosure, and a recognition of the importance of being viewed as a voice of credibility and authority.

It does not diminish the importance of traditional principles that have governed crisis communications in the past – in fact, it reinforces many of them, allowing organizations to put a more human face to their communications, creating a direct channel to stakeholders, and enabling more timely and transparent dialogue.

Already, H&K is working with a number of clients to help advance their thinking and preparedness in this space. Most importantly, these are collaborations that are not simply one-way information exchanges, but two-way conversations that continue to inform our own thinking around crisis preparedness and response in a 2.0 world (in addition to what we read about Virginia Tech, the California Wildfires, JetBlue, Dell or other more commonly-discussed case studies).

Because the challenge is rarely identifying the threats. It’s ensuring that your plan of action is appropriate to the crisis, and takes into account this rapidly evolving landscape.

Evolution of Security an Evolution in Public Sector Reputation Management

posted by Brendan Hodgson

At its simplest, effective reputation management is the sum of performance + communication — in other words, doing the right thing and being seen by your most important audiences to be doing the right thing. But that begs a whole slew of questions: Do your audiences understand and agree with what the right thing to do is? Is your communication helping me to better understand what you are doing and why? Are there other things you could be doing and if so, why aren’t you doing them?  And so forth…

Which is why I applaud the efforts of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to use their new blog to address the concerns of travellers with respect to the myriad security protocols and procedures they’re faced with everytime they want to board a plane. It is, in my view, a clear example of how public sector organizations can use social media to manage reputation through enhanced transparency and proactive communication.

While I would suggest that they might create less “scripted” videos and utilize the capacity of sites such as Youtube to amplify the footprint of their communication, their efforts to “humanize” their organization, to demonstrate sincere concern for the issues faced by the travelling public, and do so in a way that goes beyond simple text, is laudable and – I would suggest – a best practice (contingent, of course, upon how effectively they use the site to truly reflect passenger concerns and questions versus simply patting themselves on the back – which they appear to have avoided doing so far.) 

The tone of the site is extremely personable and, given the profiles of the authors and the experts used, credible. They appear highly responsive despite the deluge of comments and questions they’ve received since launching the blog in late January. Their use of blog to seek comments on inconsistencies, for example, has the potential to become a powerful catalyst for change and improvement across the organization – and is, essentially, free polling of a highly vocal community. Lastly, I see this vehicle as a potential rapid-response communication tool to be activated should an incident take place in the future.

Is this a model for all government departments and agencies to follow?  Perhaps not all, but certainly for those who deal with specific communities of interest and concern on a daily basis. Now we need to figure out who isn’t included in that response.

Update (Feb 8):  (Via Boing Boing) An example of how social media can act as an effective tool for timely crisis and issues response, the TSA today utilized its blog to clarify its search policies following questions raised in this Washington Post article.  

Activist hoax shines spotlight on media behaviour and crisis in 2.0 world

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Audacious? Absolutely. Did it fool the media? You bet. Was it legal? To be determined. One more reason why corporations should take the web and social media seriously?  Unquestionably.

What’s this all about? How a grassroots environmental coalition calling itself “Rising Tide” yesterday fooled some of the world’s most respected media when they issued a fake press release announcing that the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) - which includes BP, Dow, Alcan, GE and others among its membership – had agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by 2050. In support of the fake announcement, the campaign organizers also linked the release to a fake website (now shut down) - which mirrored the real website of USCAP identically. 

As a result, and in a clear demonstration that in today’s media environment the need to be first increasingly trumps the need to be accurate, traditional media, along with a number of bloggers, immediately jumped on the story without verifying the accuracy of the report, resulting in USCAP having to release its own statement to refute the fake announcement.

Pie in the face for media. Profile for the hoax organizers. And what for USCAP? In my view, an opportunity to talk about their plans and objectives in light of this controversy, and to communicate their story more broadly… which according to Wired, “USCAP actually calls for 60 to 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and has pushed for coal plant carbon capture and sequestration technologies.“  

Moreover, this type of action only reinforces the need for organizations to be aware of what is happening in the digital space, and be prepared to move quickly to counter misinformation, misreporting and speculation.


Bad pitches are the tip of the iceberg… we have bigger issues

posted by Brendan Hodgson

You may have noticed that I’ve been talking a lot about crisis recently. The reason being that a crisis – whether an accident or a crisis of confidence – is often an area where corporate reputations are either greatly strengthened or irreparably damaged (depending on how they respond), where journalists’ careers can be jumpstarted, and where the skills of PR practitioners are tested and scrutinized under the most extreme conditions. It’s also an area where H&K invests considerably, given what’s often at stake… be it human lives, the future of a business and the jobs it creates, or the safety of an entire community. It is PR when the stakes are highest.

And if crisis management wasn’t hard enough already, in today’s 2.0 world, reputation is no longer determined solely by what we read in the media. Consider that trust in traditional organizations and institutions continues to erode (and I’m not entirely convinced by studies that claim the contrary) and is being supplanted by a new breed of influencers, that transparency is not only being demanded but imposed, that technological barriers to entry no longer exist, and that we as a society appear to increasingly and willingly expose ourselves in order to participate, speak up and be heard.  

Consider also that news is no longer “local” and can easily reach a global audience, and that the traditional media are increasingly looking to social media for new angles, tips and story ideas in order to ride the momentum. Consider the potential for misinformation and speculation to spread through the blogosphere and social networks like wildfire if left unchecked, fanned by emotion and bias rather than a desire for accuracy and credibility. And consider the risk now posed by employees who might attempt to join the conversation without understanding the bigger picture or  the consequences of their actions if they are anything less than fully transparent.

I spent a couple of days last week back in Calgary participating in a series of crisis training sessions with Jo-Anne Polak, our national crisis practice leader. It was the first time that we had fully integrated our traditional and digital crisis philosophies and principles into a more holistic approach for this client (In recent months, I have conducted a series of training and education sessions with clients that were focused specifically on digital and crisis.). It spurred a lot of discussion and thinking around what steps need to be taken to ensure their existing policies and processes reflect this new dynamic. Discussions that need to happen.

The integration was not difficult, given H&K’s unique approach to crisis management. It reflects new realities that have shaped the media environment since 9-11, and which have been further transformed with the London Bombings, Hurrican Katrina, the Virginia Tech tragedy and the California wildfires earlier this year. It acknowledges the increasing importance of your digital footprint, the power of the search engines, and the opportunities created through social media to reach and engage audiences directly. And it questions current thinking, including the need to tie communications solely to the requirements of traditional media.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, Crisis communications is PR when the stakes are highest. And yet even as the industry looks inward following silliness such as this, I fear that we may be ignoring an even greater challenge and test to the credibility of our industry in future years. The responsibility for us all is clear.  

Metaphor for Crisis Management in a 2.0 World… or simply a great video?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Wrapping a PR context around a truly awesome video is never easy. But here goes… and, yeah, it’s a stretch. But you’ll thank me for it.

Think Crisis in a Web 2.0 world. Consider the virtual tidal wave of “noise” – the new voices - that would likely erupt, and which could potentially overwhelm an organization unprepared to deal with the implications of the social web. Consider how an organization must now react in order to keep pace with this surge of new information (and misinformation) that could literally overwhelm their capacity to effectively manage the crisis. Think speed, agility, and focus – critical factors required in equal measure to endure through such a maelstrom.

Or… simply enjoy this video as I did (particularly when the camera first pulls back from the surfer). It’s Friday. Whatever.


Social Media and the City – Spending a day with City of Calgary Communicators

posted by Brendan Hodgson

A month or so ago, the good people at the City of Calgary invited me to participate in a day-long session on the impact of social media and local government.

Over the course of the event, which happened last week and was co-organized by the City’s Corprate Marketing and Communications (CMC) division and its Customer Service and Communications Communication Partners Services (CPS) Division, I presented twice: first, to a group of 70+ city managers on the implications of social media as it related to such areas as trust, transparency, and the role of emerging technologies in transforming the relationships between the City, its citizens, and its employees. In the afternoon, I presented a second time to a similarly-sized group of communicators and marketers on social media and reputation management… with a focus on crisis.

From the perspective of this participant, it was an impressive exercise in mass education and immersion into the new communications dynamic, and one that I have rarely seen undertaken within a public sector organization at any level previously (although that’s not to say these events are not happening elsewhere. I just haven’t heard about them).

And it makes sense, particularly as it relates to municipal government. In the same way we tend to ignore local politics despite the fact that it often impacts our daily lives more so than any other level of government, the current emphasis on social media and PR tends to skew toward the more sexy interactions between consumers and brands at the expense of government-citizen engagement, which is perhaps where the potential for social media is even greater. When you look at tragic events such as this (recognizing that this was captured within the confines of Vancouver Airport, although it involved federal law enforcement, but hopefully you get my point), or this, or this, the implications of citizen journalism and social media to impose transparency on the behaviours of government – at any level – are only further reinforced. 

The next day, I joined a smaller group of 20 or so communicators, web team members and others to brainstorm ideas on where the City might focus some of its efforts in the areas of social media – from both internal and external perspectives, including a discussion on the role of social media in times of crisis (which is a discussion that I seem to be having increasingly often). And while obstacles clearly existed, the will to find ways to overcome these obstacles – political or otherwise – was also evident, and refreshing to see.

I figure that my role in this exercise was perhaps the easiest – to put it bluntly, instill fear and motivate people to action. And I think that was accomplished. The hard part, in my view – and the role of City communicators – will be to drive this forward, and to help Managers better understand these tools, develop meaningful strategies that integrate old and new while remaining relevant to and focused on their respective business lines, and (most importantly, in my view) to manage expectations as it relates to how these tools will impact what the City does now. Likewise, they will also need to educate elected officials on the benefits of these tools and the need to embrace a more open and transparent approach to communications and engagement, and work with legal teams to determine how best to accelerate approvals and turnaround times and provide clear direction on what should and should not be done as it relates to social media, particularly in times of crisis.

No small undertaking. But based on the collective enthusiasm I witnessed last week, I wouldn’t bet against this team being able to pull it off.

WestJet acknowledges changing face of crisis communications

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Today, H&K Canada announced that it had been retained by WestJet, Canada’s leading low-fare airline, to provide crisis communications preparedness services and media training. As my colleague and senior crisis counsellor, Boyd Neil, said in the release: “Our approach to crisis centres on helping clients focus on what’s important – engaging key stakeholders and establishing processes so clear-headed thinking is in command during a crisis situation. Today this means integrating digital and social media strategies into crisis communication planning and execution – a philosophy which WestJet shares.”

Working for any company that understands the changes unfolding in our business is always refreshing. And in an industry where body-blows to reputation can have potentially tragic and fatal results, the ability to communicate openly, transparently and as compassionate human beings is essential.

From one who participated in the actual pitch, I was both surprised and exhilirated by WestJet’s clear grasp of the importance of social media as an integrated component of their crisis preparedness plan, and their willingness to embrace it. And while they challenged our thinking, and continue to do so, they freely acknowledge that the communications dynamic in times of crisis – which now includes Blogs and Facebook, Youtube and Flickr, among others - has changed dramatically from what it was even 18 months ago, and continues to change… and that they need to be prepared for it.

Tomorrow, I’ll be presenting to another client on crisis and digital, and speaking to issues where lives may also be put at risk. I hope this audience is equally receptive.