Archive for the ‘transparency’ 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.

Digital Miscellany: Media vs Government / Speed vs Accuracy

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Following a week-long (yet far too short) respite in Baskerville country, and endless hours playing catch-up on email and my various feeds, several items caught my eye that further reinforced the good, bad and ugly of this wild west world of social media.

It would seem that not without a few scratches, scrapes and bruises are those who seek to both ignore and embrace the changing communications and media landscape emerging from the social media scullery. 

Case in point #1:

(h/t to the crisisblogger) So it’s not enough that we exist in a culture of misinformation defined by media democratization and fragmentation, immediate electronic delivery and increasing “sensationalism”, but now it appears the Wall Street Journal has decided to throw caution and, quite possibly, common sense to the wind:

According to the story, WSJ managing editor Robert Thomson recently outlined in a memo to staff his new vision around breaking news: “A breaking corporate, economic or political news story is of crucial value to our Newswires subscribers, who are being relentlessly wooed by less worthy competitors. Even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or a bond dealer – that same story can be repurposed for a range of different audiences, but its value diminishes with the passing of time. 

“Given that revenue reality, henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires.”

 Without question, traditional journalism is in the fight of its life. And for most traditional media outlets any hope of emerging unscathed (or, in some extreme cases, even staying afloat) as the digital tsunami rolls ashore is clearly folly. Brutally translated, however, what this edict says to me (despite assurances that might be made to the contrary) is simply this: the need to be first will henceforth trump the need for accuracy and context.

Case in point #2

As with the good writers at the Torch (who also offered up some useful tips for engaging with bloggers), I too applaud Conservative MP and parliamentary defence secretary Laurie Hawn’s foray into social media engagement, specifically his recent response to a posting by Ottawa Citizen Journalist and Defencewatch blogger David Pugliese (You can read Pugliese’s take on it here, and Hawn’s comments here - and below).

Just noticed this silly piece and, although I know I shouldn’t do this, I can’t help it this once.  Like a lot of jouranlists, Mr. Pugliese is not averse to being selective with facts and context, so let me add what he forgot to tell you.  My question to VAdm McFadden was in response to an earlier question from one of the opposition members who implied that the CF was ill-prepared to react effectively to an airspace incursion at the Olympics, similar to what we had seen in the North.  VAdm McFadden knew exactly why I was asking the question and it was intended to show the ridiculous nature of the opposition member’s suggestion.  Since Mr. Pugliese is selective with his facts, one should be equally selective in using him as a source of truth and accuracy in journalism.  As for the other inaccuracies in some of the contributions, I’ll let you labour on in self-delusion.  Rage on, my friends.”

It’s juicy stuff, and perhaps – per the comments via the Torch writers – a tad heated. That said, I’m all for journalists and bloggers being held to account for what they write. Moreover, to see our elected officials engaging in the conversation is something I’d like to see more of. My hope is that the outcome of this doesn’t scare such folk away.

The critical learnings: 1) If you’re going to play in the sandbox, get your facts right and be prepared to back them up. As a trained journalist, Pugliese appears to have done his homework. And I trust that he has (although I’ve not read the transcript in question). Can the same be said for Hawn?  2) When you jump in, be prepared to swim. Should Hawn feel obliged to answer every question thrown back at him by Hawn. I’m not so sure, for a variety of reasons. However, some form of response, if even to acknowledge the questions and to point him to the right folk (although it seems that David’s appreciation for DND’s public affairs team isn’t overly high) would be appropriate.

New H&K survey highlights growing impact of digital on purchasing decisions

posted by Brendan Hodgson

A short while ago my tech practice compatriots – in Canada and globally – released the results of a survey on the information sources technology decision makers (TDMs) relied upon most to drive their purchasing decisions. The results are compelling, and certainly speak to the growing influence of social media on business outcomes.

In an interview with Robert Scoble that took place earlier this month, my colleague and H&K’s global technology practice leader, Josh Reynolds, offered some insightful context around the numbers: that TDM’s continue to place strong emphasis on the credibility and reputation of vendors; that consumer-generated media is becoming as influential as traditional media in shaping reputation; and that purchasing decisions are increasingly being driven by a mix of traditional and non-traditional sources – media, analysts, and (today) bloggers.

You can review a summary of the findings here. I’ve also included my thoughts on what these findings represent:

  1. As Josh explains so eloquently, the evolving communications climate is pushing companies to “shut up and listen”. Without question, listening is vital. But at some point, the decision to jump in and participate has to take place - and yet be done in a way that (as the survey shows) is credible, transparent, and adds value to the debate, discussion, etc.
  2. It’s also interesting to note that while the influence of third-parties (traditional and non-traditional) is growing, a sphere of influencer that might need to be more closely analyzed are those who represent the technology vendors themselves – the subject matter experts such as the engineers, developers etc. who are able to take the conversation beyond “spin” and sound bites. 
  3. This is important, more so given that as many as a quarter of survey respondents indicated that they would not verify facts with a vendor if they read unfavourable information on a blog or elsewhere about that vendor and its products or services (see slide 8-9). Companies must be proactive in addressing misinformation – intentional or not – or else risk decision makers looking elsewhere if negative assertions are left unchallenged / unanswered.
  4. And while it is certainly encouraging to see that a number of Canadian tech blogs are identified as trusted sources for Canadian TDMs, the fact that a sizeable number of these influential blogs are also situated in the US and UK (the usual suspects: TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Slashdot, the Register etc.) raises some interesting issues – particularly for organizations that are headquartered in the US or elsewhere, but have branch offices spread across the world, each with their own marketing mandates. Communications and marketing teams at both the global and local levels will need to be much more closely aligned in light of this increasingly ‘borderless’ information landscape where influence is not bound by geography.

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.

"A case of one-dimensional data being represented by two-dimensional objects"

posted by Brendan Hodgson

As one who is fascinated by the collision of mainstream and social media, imagery and interpretation, transparency and ‘truth’, there’s so much here in this tidbit of a blog post to enjoy and dissect, where even to start?

  1. It (once again) highlights the power of the visual image over the written and spoken word to communicate a message or point of view (no matter how skewed, while further acknowledging that, for the digital native, the web is all about graphics before text).
  2. It nicely encapsulates today’s journalist / blogger / reader relationship (or what today’s relationship should be, meaning mutually respectful)
  3. It reinforces the entertainment value of ’smart’ dialog (and not simply that of the journalist)
  4. It is politely scolding to them’s that tried to ’spin’ it (vs degenerating into the usual orgy of condemnation and holier-than-thou-ishness)
  5. It shows that by admitting your mistake, you will be forgiven (or, at best, ignored)
  6. And nothing here seems to take itself too seriously

It’s like a breath of fresh air… that is, if the bigger issue being represented in the visual wasn’t so depressing.

Hat tip to Inner Diablog

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.

Canada’s first ‘embedded’ blogger?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Update: Mr. Brooks is on the ground and (sort of) reporting.

Impressive, indeed… and a further sign that pockets within the Government of Canada really do get social media, and can see the PR value in making this sort of thing happen. Likewise, it acknowledges the increasingly important role of well-written, widely-read and respected blogs such as the Torch in guiding and influencing complex issues – military, political or otherwise.

Things that I’d be interested in learning more from the authors include specifics on the rules of engagement (if any), approval processes of posts (if any), and the Department’s own positioning of such an initiative, specifically, why now?

Most importantly of all, however, I wish the author a safe yet rewarding on-the-ground experience. I believe firmly that Canadians are not exposed to the full reality of the Afghan mission. I hope this helps shed a broader light on the good works our men and women in the forces are doing.

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.

Effective digital PR reaches beyond the Comms Department

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Before jumping on a plane to London last night, I was invited to speak to the senior legal officer of a major Canadian corporation. The point of the meeting was to discuss the impact that digital communications, and social media in particular, was having on organizations as a result of the heightened transparency being imposed upon them - both from within and without.

With thousands of employees potentially speaking on behalf of the corporation through blogs, social networks or other online channels - willingly or not, and appropriately or not - the level of exposure faced by many organizations is daunting.

Which makes our job that much more exciting – if not extraordinarily difficult – as the reputational implications of the social web bleed into other functional areas of the corporation — be it HR, Legal, IT, and the c-suite. It reinforces the need for communicators to become increasingly knowledgeable about all aspects of an organization, not simply communications or marketing.  And it is an area of opportunity that – if approached correctly – will allow PR to extend its reach beyond the traditional grey areas currently being fought over by ad firms, digital shops, and PR consultancies.

As the Arthur Page Society’sAuthentic Enterprise” whitepaper sets out, communicators must now become stewards of reputation rather than owners of it. Which means that tomorrow’s communicators must be trained not only to learn about the craft of communications, both traditional and digital, they must also learn about how organizations function beyond the narrow silo in which we currently operate, and be able to strategically apply their knowledge to supporting the challenges these functions now face. They must be able to guide and shape the behaviours of the organization, recognizing that virtually every employee is now a potential avenue – frightening as it may be to some – to communicate the organization’s messages, and perhaps do so better than the c-suite or PR department ever could.

I often ask organizations if they’re ready to embrace the changes being forced upon them as a result of the social web – but perhaps we need to be asking ourselves that same question.

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.