Archive for the ‘transparency’ Category

"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!

Random notes on online reputation management in 2008

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Everyday, innovative campaigns and tactics emerge from all sides of virtually every issue. At the same time, it’s encouraging to see corporations increasing their level of experimentation in the digital space around the areas of reputation management.

Here’s just a few recent examples of highly visible campaigns designed to both challenge and reinforce the reputations of leading corporations:

  • Few organizations understand how to trigger a response better than PETA… and their latest MTV-style video campaign is no exception. The campaign – including the site itself - is reminiscent of the recent spate of cinematic gorefests - think the Hostel or Saw series – and, as such, primed for the youth segment that it’s attempting to reach. It reinforces the importance of the “extraordinary” idea (and the power of video) to be heard above the ”noise”, while also effectively demonstrating – as any activist campaign should – how to bridge seamlessly between entertainment, education, and engagement.
  • On the other side, Southwest Airlines has recently taken their already impressive ”Nuts About Southwest” social media campaign up a notch and added a slew of new features – including a Flickr group, video blog, and links to their Twitter feed and Facebook group – to further connect with their massive community of fans and advocates (and to directly address emerging issues as they’ve done with their blog in recent months). 
  • Lastly, in the footsteps of Ideastorm and MyStarbucksidea, American Express has launched Cardmembers Voice as a way to solicit ideas on how to improve their products and services, and to strengthen their engagement with cardholders. [update: Amex is an H&K Canada client]

More to follow in the weeks ahead.

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.” 

 

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. 

When what you see is not always what you get…

posted by Brendan Hodgson

You don’t need to read German to understand the point being made here… and in all the other classic examples gathered for your viewing pleasure.

Although in addition to “buyer beware”, I would also suggest that this is one more example of the power of the consumer to impose a previously-unattainable degree of transparency on the “fantasy” being sold by advertisers.

(courtesty of Neatorama)

Because it’s not an either / or proposition…

posted by Brendan Hodgson

When it comes to the inter-relationships between professional and amateur creators of content, the smart folks at Wharton have it right.

“Pitting amateur and professional content against each other makes a good storyline, but it’s misleading to see them as fundamentally opposed,” says Werbach. “User-generated content will never match The New York Times for the overall quality of coverage of the Iraq war, for example, but reading Iraqi blogs, or political blogs about the war, provides some perspectives you won’t get from any newspaper.” And, he adds, “There’s no way a traditional encyclopedia will ever match the coverage of Wikipedia, because there are so many more contributors. On the other hand, while the quality of most Wikipedia entries is surprisingly good, there are times you want the certainty of a reference work that is professionally edited and vetted, or a smaller set of resources that have been pre-selected by experts.”

For PR professionals, understanding the interplay between amateur and professional journalism is critically important. And as we counsel clients, we need to be sure that this interplay is reflected in our strategies as neither should work in total isolation of the other. Each offers a unique value that can further elevated when appropriately integrated. 

Both bring value,” says Kendall Whitehouse, senior director of IT at Wharton, in the article. “The latter brings quickness and a personal viewpoint and the former provides analysis and consistent quality (hmmm?). The world I want to live in includes healthy doses of both categories.” (Amen)

But to think that this is simply about old and new media would be a mistake. As Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, states: “The digital environment is putting an enormous responsibility on the consumer.” No doubt. But I would also suggest that this notion of responsibility also touches organizations as well, although less from the consumer perspective of becoming better judges of content, and more from being the providers of authoritative and credible content. In the same way media have, for years, held governments and corporations to account, and as the media themselves are now being held to account by bloggers in terms of ensuring fair and accurate reporting, I wonder if it’s not time for organizations to re-think their own responsibility to their own stakeholders – customers, employees, partners alike – in terms of addressing issues of inconsistency, inaccuracy and lack of context that could flow from traditional and new media alike. 

For example, to assume that 300 words in a newspaper or a 30-second clip on television is enough to provide sufficient context and clarity around an issue of critical importance, no matter how accurate the reporting, is as flawed as putting one’s faith and trust in an “anonymous” blogger. At the same time, many organizations have access to subject experts whose commentary could help bridge the link between these various media in a highly credible way.

And this, in my view, spells opportunity for many organizations who get it. Appropriate and transparent outreach, built on a commitment to authoritative rigour and timely, proactive engagement, can provide organizations with the means to play a more visible role in helping stakeholders and consumers make more discerning judgements on specific issues being discussed in both the mainstream and citizen media.

Update: What do I mean by this? Primarily, strategic use of digital tools to provide deeper insight on specific issues being discussed in both traditional and online media, to reinforce messages through substantiated examples supported by video or imagery, to showcase interviews with subject matter experts posted online, to provide FAQ’s and visualizations that either expand upon, refute or clarify discussions taking place in the traditional or online media, or to support engagement in forums and sites external to the organization itself.

It’s a role that organizations need to be prepared to step up to. 

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.

Alberta election campaign heats up online… but is it all for naught?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

According to political scientist David Taras, quoted in a recent Canadian Press story, apparently so: “The basic rule so far is that things that go on in cyberspace don’t have an impact unless they’re picked up and legitimized by the mainstream media.”

And while I make no claim of academic rigour in my argument against Mr. Taras’ assertion, I tend to disagree.

Amid all the hype around the 2.0-ification of politics, and in particular the impressive application of these tools south of the border, I would suggest the web is still having an increasingly powerful impact on how politics is conducted and in the way voters inform their decisions – particularly those still sitting on the fence.

Without question, the mainstream media is still a highly relevant channel by which to engage voters of all stripes on the issues (as well as the non-issues). And it’s certainly easy to be dissuaded by the various attempts of various political parties and activists to exploit social media – we’ve all seen the “blogs” that offer no RSS nor any ability to engage with the authors. We’ve seen the Youtube channels that are simply a re-hash of TV ads with view numbers that only reinforce the perception of irrelevance. And we’re seeing the myriad yet seemingly necessary Facebook groups – be they official party pages, activists both “officialandun-official“ - emerging with little by which to measure their effectiveness or visibility within the broader campaign universe.

Likewise, the considerable noise among political bloggers of all stripes might speak more to the echochamber effect than real debate or dialog on the issues.

But, to me, that misses the point. First, a considerable part of any campaign is to mobilize existing supporters and provide them with the tools to support their activism on your behalf. Set aside the need to convert fence-sitters (which is still important), the real goal of a campaign is for my party to bring out more supporters than yours. And if I have the tools at my disposal to actively engage supporters, mobilize them, arm them with content to convert the fence-sitters on the party’s behalf, and make them feel like they’re part of a team – then I’m a long way toward achieving my goal (and doing so in a way that is extremely cost-effective, time efficient and visible to all supporters – and non-supporters – alike).

Sure, the social media stuff is sexy as hell… but from this observer’s perspective, only if it’s used well to mobilize supporters – getting them out to events, driving them to the polls, donating and putting forth arguments on your behalf in whatever forum is required – traditional media or otherwise. I would suggest, however, that we might see more of sites like this and this, examples of how political parties and candidates might use a blog to quickly and visibly counter misinformation, rumour, inaccuracies and other points of contention.

With respect to fence-sitters – and I’ve tended to be a fence-sitter for many different elections – my guess is that it would take a lot more than a Facebook group or a video to sway me. That said, and if used appropriately (and perhaps Dalton McGuinty nearly did it best in the last provincial election in Ontario), I would agree with Laura Shutiak, an Alberta Liberal candidate, who said in the CP article: “I think it gives people a sense of who I am. If it translates into a vote, great,” she said. “There are so many undecided voters right now that they’re looking for a sense of who a person is, and they’re looking to go a step further to find out more.”

As a means to create a more human connection between a candidate and a potential voter, the potential certainly exists, and I’m surprised it’s not more fully exploited across all forms of media.

Is it a first point of information as blogger Dave Cournoyer points out in the article? “The Internet is playing more of a central role in these campaigns because it’s where a lot more Albertans are looking for a first source of information,” said Cournoyer, who will also make his TV debut this campaign as a political analyst. “I don’t think it’s a distrust of the mainstream media. People are just accessing information in different ways.”

I would agree wholeheartedly, given the number of campaign guides and tools (including our very own Alberta 2008 election predictor) that exist to help point voters to informed education and debate. As the Internet expands what’s available to us – and as we seek out those who share similar ideas and viewpoints – it will certainly reinforce our existing political affiliations. But will it change them? I’m not so sure. And as Dave notes, we still for the most part put a degree of trust in the mainstream media to provide accurate, if not unbiased, analysis of the platforms and issues.

So what’s my point in all this?… like everything about social media, I think we need to ensure that we don’t get caught on the dark side of the hype, and understand the “real” value of what the web offers. And I think that’s something we’re still all looking for.

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.