Archive for the ‘Hints & Tips’ Category

The importance of assessing corporate risks before the crisis

posted by Peter Roberts

Home economics has undoubtedly taken on a new meaning in recent years with the launch of a legion of online ventures that are making money from what I’ll grandly label people’s ‘residential asset base’ – basically, rooms, driveways, garages, gardens – you name it.

Airbnb is such a site – it’s a private room rental service, which has, over the past week, generated a fair amount of coverage for the wrong reason. Last month, a blogger detailed the damage to her home, including holes through walls and burnt possessions, after she rented out her property via Airbnb. You can read more here. The site has since announced a $50,000 guarantee to its hosts for theft and vandalism.

What I find of interest from a crisis management perspective is the CEO’s admission that they got it so wrong. “We felt paralysed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up” said Brian Chesky. The corporate candour is laudable, but effective preparedness plans would have prevented  the reputational fallout.  “We weren’t prepared for the crisis and we dropped the ball. Now we’re dealing with the consequences” added Chesky.

Discerning businesses will regularly gauge the risks they face from both an internal and external perspective and draw up appropriate contingency plans. Airbnb has, rightly, now introduced a more robust customer relations service, including a dedicated hotline. Airbnb’s creditable admission should, I hope, serve as a wakeup call to those other organisations who have yet to grasp the significance of a full and frequent assessment of their  business.

Hit or Miss? BBC rewrites EastEnders ‘cot death’ story after outcry – PR Week 14/01/11

Our very own Peter Roberts, Senior Associate Director, issues and crisis management team (and a former BBC head of comms) provided his view on the recent story line change on this popular UK soap for our weekly PR trade title PR Week:

“Television’s so-called delicate issues, which includes mental health and sexual abuse is a real challenge for primetime programme makers; do them well and you’re demonstrating your public service credentials; do them badly, you’re a crass ratings chaser. I’m quite certain much consideration was given to the current storyline, but  the producers appear to have miscalculated the collective strength of feeling, which on a consolatory point is a testament to the programme’s high regard among its audience.

Clearly, it demonstrates maturity to listen to the views of your audience – and the BBC has demonstrated great progress in this regard, but it’s one thing to listen, but another to alter your story lines. In the short-term, the programme has enjoyed the extensive coverage and debate that comes with controversy, but I fear that the Eastenders  response may have set a precedent for other groups to have a disproportionate influence on their future content.”

Searching for customer satisfaction

For many businesses the mantra that the customer is king can be found at the heart of their business. Such companies like John Lewis and Emirates (to name just two) believe that customer satisfaction leads to business success. We all have personal experience of those brands that don’t seem to value our experience as highly and as a result we are left feeling slightly unloved.

When we experience bad customer service we tend to act in a number of ways, but these ultimately boil down to suffering in silence, ranting to those people who unfortunately are nearest to us at the time, or venting our anger online. The latter reaction is where it gets interesting; Google have announced that they are going to penalise those brands with poor online customer relations. Up until now it had, believe it or not, been known for some brands to deliberately abuse their customers, prompting those customers to post (poor) reviews, resulting in a higher placing on the Google search engine!

With these changes, suddenly those unfavourable online reviews are going to carry a lot more weight. For brands spending a fortune on SEO, all that investment could be directly undone by poor customer service. In addition if Google starts displaying customer reviews and ratings next to search results, imagine the impact on customer decision making.

For those responsible for managing brand reputation, being part of the customer service process has just become even more important. After all, Google does rule the world, or to look at it another way, potentially just one bad customer comment or review could drop you from the first page of the search results to the Siberian wastes of the second page.

Look East

One of the benefits of this role is that other members of the team are continually jumping on and off planes to far flung places and in the place of some local chocolates bought at the airport it is always good to hear what they learnt. Recently, Catherine Cross our Director of Media Training returned from Kazakhstan from a week’s senior exec training.  Now, I hear you cry, what could I possibly glean from a country who only achieved independence from Russian 20 years ago?

Surprisingly more than you’d think.

Did you know that Kazakhstan has circa 1,500 media outlets, the majority of which have grown in the last decade? This is new media in its purest sense, but why should you care? Well these new emerging markets provide a fascinating insight into how media develops in the hot house of new technology. With no democratic print history to call upon, the country’s media has in effect skipped a generation while at the same time seeing media control shift from the state to powerful publishers with their own political agenda. Different masters, different ideologies, same pressures in striving for a free media.

So what can we learn from a media that only has a potential audience of 16 million? As one of the new emerging markets, with a surplus of oil and other natural resources it will not be long before the joys of Astana airport will be a regular topic on business travel forums.

Even more relevant for those of us involved in preparing clients for the media, my colleague’s experience really brought home how important focus and clear messaging is. With our highly developed media we are always looking for new ways to get our message(s) across in these new emerging markets where the pressure has shifted. If your message isn’t clear and focused, the journalist won’t be and the resulting coverage will be vague to say the least. Equally we are all prepared for the Paxman style of questioning, but an open-ended question with an inexperienced journalist can be just as dangerous. Drop your guard at your peril.

More importantly, research is key. Who owns the media, what is their agenda, where does your messaging fit with their overall objectives, who is their audience? These are all things that sometimes get taken for granted.

I am sure we all go through this process afresh every time we put our clients in front of the media, but sometimes it takes the cold, harsh winds of the Central Asian Steppes to bring it into sharp relief.

Next stop for Catherine is Russia in a couple of weeks – hope she has packed her big fluffy hat.

Is a Twitter parody account the new face of crisis management?

The rise in popularity of parody Twitter accounts is forcing many companies to take a walk down the hall of mirrors and have a good, hard look at themselves.

 

Oh I do hope so.

You see, for several years (and numerous blog posts) I’ve been banging on about how reputation management for companies largely depends on their ability to not p*** people off.

That’s not so much a function of your Communication or Marketing department as it is a commitment by management and their staff to behave in a way that consumers (and by extension, society in general) find acceptable.

In many instances, things that are popularly called “crises” are cases where a brand’s behaviour violates the promise the company made to its market.

In other words, if you represent yourself as a big corporate evil, and behave as such, then people will generally accept you for who you are. You may not be popular, but at least you’re honest.

Similarly, if you represent yourself as a benevolence personified, so long as you behave accordingly, you’re going to be fine.

It’s when you tell people one thing, and then behave in a contrary way, that companies run into trouble.

And so to Twitter, and while there’s an element of truth to the fact a blog post about Twitter and crisis management is purely link bait to the Twitterati marketing community, this post is hopefully something pragmatic for readers to work with.

Courtesy of Tim Whitlock, a technical consultant to the communications industry in London, I’ve come across Twitter’s point of view with respect to parody accounts.

You know the ones, the kind with handles like @BPGlobalPR, or @GapLogo, or formerly @sean376 (yes, we miss you). The ones whose follower counts eclipse those of the brands they seek to mock, usually many times over.

Here’s the important bit: “Twitter provides a platform for its users to share and receive a wide range of ideas and content, and we greatly value and respect our users’ expression. Because of these principles, we do not actively monitor users’ content and will not edit or remove user content, except in cases of violations of our Terms of Service.”

Ah. That’s a problem. The fastest-growing publishing platform in the world is actively encouraging amateur humourists to take the proverbial, right under the noses of the world’s biggest brands.

And here’s the thing. While journalism has a professional code of ethics, and Jo Q Public citizen journalist does have to operate within some (albeit largely misunderstood) defamation and libel laws…parody is arguably an artform, and in many places occupies a more privileged space.

The problem for brands that find themselves the subject of one of these accounts is, therefore, exacerbated beyond the now infamous Streisand Effect. Not only is taking action going to draw attention to something you want hidden, it’s going to show you up as being a bad sport. After all, we all remember the primary-school mantra taught by our parents: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Oh, but they will. How then, does a multinational corporation, responsible for the salaries of a hundred thousand employees and the wellbeing of their families, guard against such public humiliation and reputational damage? Sure, you could try “engaging in the dialogue” or “joining the conversation”. Right. And heckling Billy Connolly’s also a good idea.

The answer is disappointingly simple, and despairingly unattainable. You have to take the oxygen away from the fire. Without fuel, fire doth not burn.

The only way to avoid criticism is…not to upset people. Bugger, that’s going to be tough. Just ask the folk over at Gap Towers. Heeding the boundaries of the consumer comfort zone pretty much kills all chance of innovation, development, edgy marketing campaigns, or even fun. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to write this drivel for starters.

So here’s a compromise. Live your brand. Articulate the values you stand for. Proclaim them from every wall of your HQ, post them on every tea-room notice board, bulk out your email signature with the ten things your brand lives by. And then go out and live it. People may not like it. But if you do what you say, they’ll accept, and usually, respect you for it.

But understand this: Living your brand is not your best defence. It’s your only defence.

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?

Supply chain is your business’s Achilles Heel

Last week I attended the latest Dow Jones Expert Series seminar, and at this point I’m about to lose 90 percent of the visitors who just clicked through from Twitter, because I’m not going to bang on about social media.

When it comes to being in business, your success or failure depends more than anything else on your ability to actually do business. That means having something that a customer wants, and being able to sell that thing at a profit.

If for any reason you’re unable to do that, you have a problem. Assuming for the minute that you have a market that’s happy to pay your price, it’s your “thing” that becomes all important.

Enter the supply chain. Whether you’re making chocolate bars, cosmetics, cars or fighter planes, chances are you have multiple suppliers all providing you with different ingredients or components. If you’re an international business, odds-on that you have international suppliers. And if you’re cost-conscious, I’ll put another each-way bet on the fact at least part of your supply chain is based in Eastern Europe, Africa, Central or South America, or Asia.

Right about now you should be starting to get a little bit squirmy as you realise the exposure your business has to events outside of your control. If not, here’s a tip: civil unrest, terrorism, despotic regimes, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis. Here’s another you may be increasingly familiar with. Ethical sourcing.

Interestingly though, these aren’t your most likely sources of supply chain disruption.

According to Dr Brian Squire from Manchester Business School, around 88 percent of publicly reported supply chain disruptions between 2000 – 2009 were due to human influences. Think user error, industrial dispute, cyber crime, corporate sabotage, ordering the wrong widget…

Even more interesting (I think) is that 40 percent of those were classifiable as “deliberate”. When I say “interesting”, what I really mean is “pretty bloody disturbing”.

I was really impressed with Nick Wildgoose, Global Supply Chain Product Manager, Zurich Financial Services, who also spoke at the event and provided some best-practice insights into identifying, managing and mitigating risks in the supply chain. Here are a few pointers that should be considered when you next review your organisation’s crisis management planning:

  • Is our supply chain likely to be impacted by natural diaster, such as pandemic or earthquake? (Tip: if you’re making stuff in China…yes)
  • Is our supply chain exposed to any single-source issues? (Tip: if you’re sourcing anything from only one supplier at any point, then yes. This is part of the issue with the glut of automotive recalls in 2010)
  • Do we, or any of our suppliers, have issues with trade unions? (Tip: if you have a unionised workforce and you’re in a manufacturing business then…probably)
  • Are we happy with our own, and our suppliers’, business continuity planning? (Tip: you probably shouldn’t be if Zurich’s statistics were anything to go by)
  • Do we have multiple points of contact with our key suppliers, or is our relationship purely transactional? (Tip: if your business is dependent on the survival and performance of another business, it’s probably a good idea to have multiple relationships with that business)

We’ll endeavour to add some further detail to this topic in the coming weeks, but as a starting point I’d strongly suggest asking the hard questions sooner rather than later.

Plug alert: Manchester Business School is conducting further research into supply chain risk and resilience. Please contact Dr Brian Squire if your organisation would be willing to take part.

Forget your social media strategy, how’s your business continuity plan looking? Five tips to help with next week’s rail strike.

Our UK readers are in for a particularly nasty headache next week, with members of the RMT and TSSA unions set to take strike action. Happily, the BBC saw fit to do away with the vitriole and publish this quick overview of the story.

If you want to read a different version that engages in a bit of union-bashing then Google News very kindly returns another 500 or so stories with varying degrees of that.

Now, I have a confession to make. I quite enjoy a good strike action, because it’s a manufactured scenario that mimics some of the conditions of a significantly nastier disaster. Except without the consequences that usually arise as a result of burning things to the ground, flooding them, or opening up a big hole in the Earth.

The conditions I’m talking about are things like:

  • Cutting your workers off from their place of business (pandemic, natural disaster, terrorist attack)
  • Cutting your business off from its workforce (pandemic, natural disaster, terrorist attack…sensing a theme?)
  • Cutting your business off from its supply chain (and we’re going to look at supply chains in a lot more detail over the coming weeks)
  • Cutting your business off from its customers

These kinds of things are all business-criticial. Social media, as I alluded in the headline, is not. In fact, the greatest irony in this scenario is that your social media gurus can probably do their job just as effectively at home, or on their mobile phone. Unfortunately…they’re not the ones making stuff, packing stuff, loading stuff onto various forms of transport, etc etc. Annoying.

Fortunately, a number of workers will be on holidays next week, taking advantage of the Easter long weekend to get a few extra days out of their leave, so that will help the congestion somewhat. But for the rest of us….ugh.

So, here are a few tips (five, since my headline commits me to it) to help triage your business continuity issues (in the event that you’re not already enacting your business continuity plan:

  • Reschedule meetings (or substitute face-to-face meetings with conference calls). Most companies have conference call facilities tucked away somewhere in the organisational brains trust. Dig your dial-in details out and circulate as necessary.
  • Establish an emergency working-from-home roster. If you need X number of people onsite, in your building, then that’s fine, but if some of your team can work remotely then now’s a really good time to encourage that.
  • Get your files in order. This might involve a special request to IT, as many companies don’t allow commercially sensitive information to leave the building (or to be sent to hotmail accounts!). Make sure you have all the things you need to work remotely (case in point, I’m travelling this week and forgot to take the document I was travelling specifically to work on. Yes, I’m daft, but fortunately a colleague was available to email me a copy, along with some thoughtful words)
  • Now’s the time to work out how to divert your landline to your mobile. Or to access your voicemail remotely. If you’re a team of 10 and only two people make it in to the office next week, then having them answer phones and retrieve messages (or forgotten files) is about the biggest waste of their time imaginable.
  • (Recycled) paper is the new black. The thing with business continuity is…it’s not normally one thing that brings you down. So if you’ve done everything above then that’s great, but what if the strike prevents your IT support people being able to get to work? And then, what if you have a server crash? And then, what if you need something urgently, something that you thought you had immediate access to, but now don’t, and the customer’s on the phone, media are calling and the police just knocked on your door…? Ah. Annoying. So here’s tip number five: print out the really important stuff.

At the end of the day, if you do find yourself stuck at home, connected to the internet and wondering when you’ll be able to get back on a train…there’s always facebook.

Media training: view from the hot seat

As part of our ongoing internal training, senior Hill & Knowlton consultants participate in (are subjected to) our own media training refresher courses. It’s good for keeping us up to date on what’s being taught, and up to scratch on our own performance.

But even more importantly, it’s a very strong reminder of the experience we happily put our clients’ spokespeople through on a daily basis when we ask them to front up for interviews.

So having just suffered through my first refresher in a while, and my first training session on British soil, I thought it may be useful to share some of the things I just did wrong:

  1. I assumed I knew my material well enough to not rehearse. Despite the fact I’ve done this a dozen times, despite the fact I actually wrote the material three months ago and have been using it every day…I still botched the delivery. Don’t assume. (For our US readers I’m sure you’re familiar with the “if you assume then you make an ass out of U and ME” quote, which unfortunately doesn’t get quite the same the response here).
  2. I got frustrated. This is mostly because I could see the set-up coming, but heard the little voice inside me reminding me I hadn’t rehearsed. Displaying frustration just makes the footage of your burning failure all that more compelling.
  3. I lapsed into corporatese. But more importantly, it finally dawned on me why I did this. The problem with speaking plainly is that it’s clear what you mean, but it’s not very precise. Having studied science for a number of years I have a working understanding of the difference between “accurate” and “precise” – accurate meaning that if you do something a hundred times you’ll probably get a consistent result that could be completely wrong, and precise meaning that you’ll probably get the exact outcome you want, but with a lot of outliers. The problem with plain English is that small words are good for accuracy, big words are good for precision. There has to be a solution to this problem, but until someone posts it on here, let’s continue to aim for simplicity. Because honestly, if you need to make your response so precise that only polysyllabic words will do the job, then you probably should have already stopped speaking.

As a result…here’s one thing you need to do to fix all three of those problems. Know your message. Think it, write it down, say it out loud. Then say it again. Then get someone else to ask you questions (like your account manager, for example) and practice delivering it.

And you should also talk to Catherine Cross.

Media training tips for radio interviews

In her first post for Media Insights and Crisis Expertise, Hill & Knowlton UK Media Training Lead Counsel, Catherine Cross, provides her top 10 tips for participating in radio interviews – Grant.

There is a sense of immediacy to radio news that often makes an interviewer press for an instant response.  But it may be in your best interest to delay the interview a short time, if necessary, to prepare your key points.  If so, offer to call back in a few minutes to be interviewed, and then do so.

In addition, you should ask whether the interview is to be aired live, recorded for use in its entirety or edited to a shorter version, or a news clip.  If it is edited for a news clip, your answers should be kept to less than 15 – 20 seconds.  Get right to the point.  A longer interview to be run in its entirety permits more detailed responses.

Prior to agreeing to the interview, you should establish ground rules with the interviewer.  These include checking whether it is OK to stop and completely re-take an answer if you fumble a word or lose your train of thought, agreement to stop the tape if need be for more time to develop a more concise answer; and agreement to call back with updated information if something changes in your facts before the scheduled air time.

If doing a radio interview over the telephone, ensure a quiet environment by turning off noisy equipment and air conditioners, diverting other phone calls, turning off your mobile phone and closing your office door.

Get your energy level up.  Sit up in the chair or stand for more alertness and vocal animation.  Use gestures to increase vocal emphasis.

Avoid shouting or whispering.  Talk in normal tones across the telephone mouthpiece, not directly into it to eliminate the “popping” or “hissing” sounds on the tape.

Avoid the use of numbers unless they’re absolutely essential to make your point.  If you must use them, round them off and use sparingly.

So remember:

1. Give yourself time to prepare.
2. Find out if the interview is to be used live or pre-recorded.
3. Find out if the interview is for a clip (soundbite) or will be used in its entirety.
4. Get pre-interview agreement on ground rules.
5. Maintain a noise-free environment during the interview if on the telephone.
6. Get your energy level up for the interview.
7. Speak at your normal pace, clearly and with good vocal animation.
8. Make sure you have plenty of “colour”: proof points, word pictures and memorable facts and figures which are visual.
9. Make numbers memorable: round them up or down if essential to your point.
10. Warm up your voice, mouth and throat before an early morning interview.

- Catherine