Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

People in glass houses

This may come as some surprise to people who know me but for once I have been loath to enter a debate and share my opinion, but this afternoon my will broke and I could no longer hold back. Yes I am going to share my view on the issue of Blackberry and their ongoing outage.

Firstly I have to declare an interest; I am a Blackberry user and have been for over nine years and despite it taking over life, I am a fan, they do what they say and despite the hard life I give them they don’t tend to let me down. Equally I am not an Apple or Android knocker – to be honest I have more important things to argue about.

What I am passionate about though, is how issues are managed and the study of how people react to them. With Blackberry you have a perfect storm, a technology company that has courted some negative publicity recently is constantly doing battle with another fruit based technology company and prides itself on its security systems.

The last couple of days have seen a clamor for Blackberry to talk more, respond more, be more open etc.  – but who is asking? The cry would seem to lead by social media and technology commentators. Why is this? Well I believe it is down to certain groups believing they have an inalienable right to know everything, not for any reason other than they just deserve to know. The reality is RIM suffered a switch failure which resulted in a backlog of emails clogging up their system. To be honest it’s not very exciting, a bit techy and sounds like a reasonable explanation, which the majority of fair minded people will understand.

Building on this we are seeing ongoing comparisons with Apple in terms of how open they are and how they would have managed things better. Now I don’t have the best of memories at times, but I seem to remember it took an awful lot of persuasion to get Apple to admit there may be a problem with the reception on the iPhone 4. I don’t think anyone would agree that that was handled in a very efficient way.

Finally I think it is fair to say that whatever RIM said over the last couple of days would have been criticised and picked apart by the same aforementioned people  - what would that have achieved?

I say the following as someone who uses their Blackberry a lot and does rely it on for my job, in reality my Blackberry hasn’t worked reliably since Monday lunchtime. But all that has meant is that when I went to get my sandwich at lunchtime I couldn’t check my emails and likewise when I get home tonight that little red light won’t be flashing at me all evening. Do you know what? My world has kept turning; after all I can still make calls and text which are pretty useful ways of communicating, especially the first one.

Oh, one last thing… What this has proved categorically is that technology people should not make jokes, they really should leave that to the experts.

posted by Peter Roberts

BP held their annual general meeting yesterday. It was their first since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. The one image that dominated the coverage was that of a syrup smeared Diane Wilson. She’s a protestor and the syrup looks convincingly like crude oil. Wilson was one of many protestors locked out of the meeting at London’s Excel Centre, and subsequently proved to be the focus of much of the media’s interest.

BP did what any responsible business would be expected to do when it comes to protestors – keep them out. As a BP spokesman put it, “We have a responsibility to run an orderly meeting that allows our shareholders to vote on resolutions and engage with the board.” Quite so; BP is a big commercial enterprise and its priorities, it would appear, are with its key stakeholders. Well, that’s the way it reads. However, what price to the company of letting the same protestors into the meeting – a bridge too far? Probably for attending shareholders, but how about its own brand values – possibly? Yes, there will be heckling; maybe some commotion, but in its efforts to address its current corporate reputation such a move could be extremely productive; presenting a business that’s inclusive, accountable and understanding of broader concerns. It’s with such boldness that public perception will, albeit slowly, begin to change and it’s with such boldness that leads the ‘man in the street’ to start thinking that enough’s enough with these protests, let’s move on, instead of what many are probably now thinking which is these people have been hard done by.

Media time delay

While we all pick through the aftermath of our failed World Cup bid, the one glaring insight that arose yesterday afternoon was the huge time delay between the different media in play. Anyone following on Twitter yesterday would have known the exact result even before Mr Blatter launched into his long winded riff on the origins of football.

Here in the UK, Ashling O’Connor from the Times had already accurately posted the outcome on Twitter 21 minutes before the envelope was opened, which resulted in the TV broadcasters having to tentatively report the result while being stymied by FIFA’s own pomp and ceremony.

I look on yesterday as a clear demonstration of the media power of Twitter and as a warning for all of us involved in issues and crisis comms planning, underestimate its influence and impact at your peril. The race to be first with the news is well and truly hotting up and if you don’t have systems and plans in place to manage this, it could be you squirming in your seat wondering where it all went wrong.

“We all just want our lives back”

As media commentators continue to pick through the carnage following the Deepwater Horizon blowout, some interesting insights are bubbling to the service. For those of you that saw the BBC’s Money Programme, one of the defining moments that shone through was a quote from Tony Hayward that.. “Maybe if I had achieved a degree from RADA rather than in Geology, things would have been different.”

Now for me that is a defining quote, what type of people do we want running these global organisations? Experts in their field who have a deep understanding of their operations? Or trained orators who can deliver impressive sound bites?

In the ideal world we would have both, but the reality is that the combination is pretty rare. For example, would you like Richard Branson to fly you and family across the Atlantic? Or (far more worryingly) step on a plane piloted by Michael O’Leary? No! All of these people, including Tony Hayward, have realised the benefit of surrounding themselves with experts in their field. In Tony Hayward’s case, you would have to argue he was let down not by his statements, but by the people who put him in that position in the first place.

The first objective for any business is to minimise the likelihood of a crisis, but incidents can and will arise and from that point on, the imperative has to be to deploy the best people to do the best jobs at the right time and place.

I for one have a certain amount of sympathy for Tony Hayward, he paid a high personal price as you would expect, but I think he came away with some new found respect for the how the media machine operates. I can pretty much guarantee the media won’t find it so easy to ambush him in his next role. Just need to remember that not everyone gets a second chance in situations like this.

Five lessons for crisis managers – as taught by faux pas on the Election trail

In case anyone has been hiding behind the sofa in recent days, or indeed is currently residing outside the UK, then you may not be aware that it’s General Election season here. This means the next four weeks will see wall-to-wall media coverage of a small group (mostly men) talking to several other groups (mostly disillusioned voters) about the economy, healthcare, education and the ever unpopular expenses scandal.

This level of media exposure is something that most companies can only dream of. However, this exposure also presents a constant challenge for the political parties and their staff to maintain the 3 As for their key spokespeople: Appearance, Appeal and Ability to communicate.

The 3 As are particularly difficult for politicians on the campaign trail because, unlike the comfort of a broadcast studio, they’re at the mercy of the general public with whom they are interacting. Already in the past week we’ve seen two incidents which highlight the reputational problems this can present.

Firstly, on the day after the Election was announced, Gordon Brown encountered his first ‘heckler’ on the campaign trail. Brown chose to ignore his repeated questioning, instead heading for the sanctity of his ministerial car. Unfortunately the cameras caught the whole episode, and within hours the video was on the net and in the evening news bulletins. Cue the notion that the Prime Minister only listens when he wants to.

Then, it was the turn of the Conservatives to encounter public anger. When their home affairs spokesman, Chris Grayling, made some unfortunate comments about homosexual rights, the party was bound to encounter the wrath of gay and lesbian rights campaigners. What they perhaps didn’t foresee though was a demonstration outside party headquarters, swiftly organised via Facebook. Again, cue the cameras and subsequent reports on the evening news bulletins and next day’s papers.

In this second case though, the Conservatives at least made several of the right moves before and during the protest – they engaged with the protestors during the demonstration and also held meetings away from it with the protest leaders to discuss the issue.

Companies are often left with having to face and contain similar kinds of protests following job losses, poorly received pay negotiations or other unpopular decisions. There are no hard rules on controlling these situations to ensure a successful outcome. Nor are there any quick fixes or guarantees to avoid less than favourable media coverage of the event for your organisation.

What there are though are some good basics that can be done:

1. Dialogue – have meetings been arranged to try to prevent the demonstration or at least resolve the issues behind it? Will any senior company figures be available to listen to the concerns of the protestors on the day?

2. Briefing the staff - does everyone know about the demonstration? Do they know how to respond if/when they’re quizzed by media or protestors? Have you prepared Q&A documents, media statements etc for quick deployment?

3. Security – what measures and procedures do you have in place if things turn ugly?

4. Preparation – above all, have you anticipated and planned for this kind of event happening? If you have, great, but then ask yourself if you’ve tested or simulated such an event to see if you can really pull it off under pressure? If not, it might be time to think about doing this.

5. Future proofing – and finally, what have you done and what still needs doing to prevent the issues that lead to these kind of demonstrations in the first place?

Brendan Hodgson on crisis management for a social media age

For those of our regular readers unable to make it to Hill & Knowlton’s Demystifying Digital (#HKD2 for all you Twitter pundits), we’re progressively uploading the Pecha Kucha presentations over on the Hill & Knowlton London blog site (sometimes called “the blog formerly known as Hank”).

This particular presentation was by Brendan Hodgson, a Senior Vice President from our Toronto office and a veteran of our global Issues & Crisis and Digital teams after more than a decade in the trenches:

It’s a little over five minutes long, but well worth a look. And if you think the idea of strictly limiting all PowerPoint presentations to a mere five minutes, from now until the end of time, then stay tuned!

What I should have said about crisis management at our change communication event (Part 2)

Yesterday I started to follow up a question from last week’s panel discussion about the relationship between organisational change and communication, in particular the idea that internal and external audiences should be given the same information.

In this post I’m going to expand on the idea of information security.

This particular issue came up in the case of an organisation undergoing some changes to its workforce (it’s fair that most of the world’s companies probably are at the minute, so timely…). The challenge presented was around the implementation of the change program – if, as per my contention, we’re supposed to tell everyone the same thing at the same time, how can we expect the changes to be implemented with minimal external disruption?

Good question, and having had a week to think about it, the exact answer I keep coming up with is…you can’t. To clarify, I think you should share the same central theme with your stakeholders throughout, contextualised to suit their needs. And broadly speaking you should try to communicate in as timely a fashion with each audience as possible.

That’s not to say tell everyone everything, all at once. Rather, if you have information that’s sensitive to the change program internally, and relevant to external audiences (e.g. customers or suppliers), then try to coordinate the information flow so that the right people get the right message at the right time. I like to think of it as giving people the information they need to do the job they need to do with it. Knowing what that information is…that’s the job of the change manager. Sorry.

This isn’t an issue of trust. It’s one of effective project management, and it’s one of balance. If you’re asking a team to implement something, and there’s a clearly defined process for them to follow, then they need as much information as it will take to achieve the outcome. If, however, you have an outcome but want the team to devise the implementation, then they need different information (and probably more freedom as well).

As Scott McKenzie often says: “Your employees are adults. Treat them like it.” I agree, but adults also get speeding fines, take documents out of buildings when they shouldn’t, email things home that they shouldn’t, have affairs, go to the pub, leave stuff on trains, have the occasional brain explosion…whatever it is, chances are it won’t be all that life-threatening. But if incorrect or incomplete information lands in the wrong hands, or the right hands at the wrong time, then a day-spoiling phone call won’t be far away. Shortly after that is when many organisations go from a well-intentioned change program to a call to our Issues & Crisis Management team (usually about half an hour after news crews have already lobbed on the doorstep).

I think it comes down to being sensible with what you share, when, and with whom. You’ll always have a knowledge gap between the change manager and their team, and the rest of the organisation and its stakeholders. By securing information until such time as the organisation’s ready for it to be released, you’re just helping to streamline the process. It’s a question of balance.

Tomorrow we’ll have a look at the social media ramifications of change programs in Part 3.

What I should have said about crisis management at our change communication event (Part 1)

It’s not unsual for Hill & Knowlton’s Head of Change & Internal Communcation, Scott McKenzie, to catch me on the hop, but he had a couple of good cracks last week at our panel discussion about the role of communication in managing organisational change.

One of the questions he hit me with last Wednesday night was around the issue of what do you tell internal audiences about a change program, compared to what you tell external audiences.

My answer at the time was: tell them both the same thing, because whatever you share internally will find its way out, and if you tell external audiences something you haven’t told your people then you’re in for all kinds of trouble.

In the post-event melee it was suggested to me that I hadn’t given enough credit to employees who know what constitutes commercially sensitive information. So, I feel I should expand on my response (not changing it mind!). There are three areas I want to address, which we’ll do in three parts:

  • Consistency of message
  • Information security
  • The inevitablility of social media

From an issues or crisis management perspective, change is usually something that one or more of your audiences will already perceive as a Very Bad Thing. This perception comes from the fact that different audiences have different needs, incentives, cares, problems etc. They’re all valid, but that doesn’t mean they’re all helpful.

This being the case, what I would see as the single most important consideration for communicating any major change would be to find the common ground that all (or as many as possible) of your audiences share. Usually, that’s the future health and success of the organisation as a whole.

By using this common ground as an anchor point for the rest of your messages, it’s easier for your various (and disparate) stakeholders to 1) understand how the change impacts them, and 2) understand (and possibly even appreciate) how the change impacts other stakeholders.

By extension, if those audiences can understand each other better, they’re likely to find more points of commonality. If those points of commonality are aligned with what’s good for the organisation, then this is obviously a Very Good Thing. That being the case, you want to create as many potential points for your audiences to connect on as possible – ergo, tell them all the same stuff.

In the yet-to-be-written Part 2 we’ll look at information security in more detail.

Communicating change in a crisis context

In a couple of weeks, our Change & Internal Communication team will host one of their world-famous discussion forums, this time looking at the relationship between change and communication. While a crisis isn’t usually the same thing as a change management programme, often times a change programme can be the trigger for a crisis.

Often we’re asked to define what we mean by “crisis”, and I tend to work on the broad principle that a crisis is anything that prevents you being able to get on with business as usual. By contrast, an issue is something that you’d proably have to deal with as part of your typical day-to-day workload (so in this example a customer complaint is an issue, 200 customers protesting outside your flagship store is a crisis).

By definition then, any kind of organisational change carries with it the potential to spark a crisis of monolithic proportions. Here are a few examples of the kinds of things that can go pear-shaped in a big hurry:

  • Redundancy / restructuring programmes
  • Appointing a high-profile new supplier (or ditching an old one)
  • Pretty much anything involving the implementation of new technology
  • Re-vamping an established and much-loved brand
  • Collective and enterprise bargaining negotiations

If you’re in London on 10 March I’d strongly recommend trying to get along to our event. You can register your interest by clicking through to Scott McKenzie’s blog post announcing the event. Members of Hill & Knowlton’s Issues & Crisis team will also be there (including yours truly if you fancy providing some in-person feedback on the quality of our blog posts!).

For those who can’t make it we’ll revisit this topic after the event to share some of the key points from the discussion.

PS about half an hour after posting this the BBC was sporting enough to post this story on anticipated public sector strike action in reaction to proposed cuts to civil service redundancy terms. You know you really want to come to our event now!

National Grid wins CorpComms magazine award for crisis management

Congratulations to the in-house PR team at National Grid (UK) for their recent win in the CorpComms magazine awards (grab a copy of the magazine for the full round-up).

I’d like to point out that we don’t work with National Grid, but felt it important to acknowledge the team’s success. The nature of crisis management is such that often some of the best crisis work is done behind the scenes – a day at the office where no-one heard about what you did is actually a pretty good day in our book.

Like trade negotiations, or the recent climate change summit, the details that get hammered out behind closed doors frequently make all the difference in a crisis. Sometimes the fact it didn’t make the front page is all the testament you need to know your crisis team did a great job.

However, sometimes you just don’t get that break and your crisis captures the public’s (read: media’s) attention. These are the crises against which organisations are most frequently judged by their stakeholders, and it’s only because of these very public events that the practice of crisis management, and by extension the public relations industry, has the opportunity to evolve.

So congratulations to the National Grid team, who will doubtless continue to be kept busy as this ridiculous cold snap continues.