Archive for the ‘strategic issues management’ Category

He who lives by Twitter, dies by Twitter

If a week is a long time in politics, the past seven days must be a record for the media.  With the dust barely settling on the Royal Wedding and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the media got its teeth into what it really cares about, freedom and privacy.

The creation of the Twitter account, on Sunday afternoon, allegedly listing at least six of the people who have taken out Super Injunctions, was quickly followed with ironic timing by the defeat of Max Mosley’s case calling for the media to notify people before they are due to appear. These two events re-opened the whole debate of who is entitled to privacy and to what level.

Then, just as all of us in media land where mustering all the energy we could to struggle through the first five day week in what seems like months (well some of us, my colleagues today are all out working with Age UK for our company wide charity day) the God of news dropped the Facebook/Google/Burson-Marsteller story nicely in our laps.

Now I am not naive enough to comment directly on the tribulations of a fellow PR agency (especially as we share the same owner) but having looked back over these seven days there is one common theme that links of all this: our growing demands for transparency. In all of these cases, it wasn’t really the actions (footballer slept with a Big Brother star, someone has an affair, really? How dull? A middle-aged man getting spanked by some prostitutes) that mattered. Frank Bough has been there and got the paddle marks 19 years ago and as for B&M, I think the issue here is execution not motive.

What is clear is that for everyone, from humble celebrity to global tech giant, the media now provides us with a level of access and insight never dreamed possible 15 years ago. This week has demonstrated that this new found power needs to be handled with a great deal of care because decisions and action on how we respect and protect privacy, while still providing freedom, access and transparency could now have some far reaching ramifications that we could all be paying the price for in the future.

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.

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.”

An online shaggy dog story

 John Lewis that doyen of the middle classes that has been a rock on the high street has managed to get itself caught in a whirlwind of public hatred and is a victim of an onslaught of online vitriol. What could it have possibly done? Scantily clad women, broken a religious taboo, questioned the validity of X-Factor? No, it is running a new Christmas advert.

It seems its new Christmas advert with the dulcet tones of Ellie Goulding and heart warming images of people buying presents for each other, had the audacity to show, for at least eight seconds, a dog living in its kennel in some snow.

This seemingly innocuous display of heart warming Christmas spirit (a little boy brings his pet dog a present) has generated over a 1,000 posts on their Facebook page and our understanding is they are under pressure to change the advert.

Is this the way the new world is going? Dogs live in kennels, always have done and always will. My chickens live outside, should I feel guilty? Should I bring them in? By posting this will I be targeted for not caring enough for my chickens and not bringing them in when it gets cold?

Social media is a great force for good and everyone should have a voice, but scenarios like this beg the question – at what point do you listen and at what point do you stand your ground?  

I for one think it is cute that the boy loves his dog enough to buy, wrap and deliver a present to a pet he obviously loves. He just doesn’t happen to want a great big shaggy dog wandering round his house.

When monitoring social media, context is everything and organisations need to have that in the forefront of their mind before they make any decisions. In this case, I think the course of action and response is clear. Brands need to know when to stand their ground and stay true to their original principles. Even if it means that some people will put them in the dog house (sorry couldn’t resist it.)

“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.

Recession recovery poses crisis management risks for industry

On the weekend I wrote a post for our new Energy & Industrials team blog, titled Habitual behaviours force shippers and miners into crisis management mode.

The basis for the post was the correlation between:

 “…two seemingly unconnected events…25 people were killed in a West Virgina mine exposion [and] a Chinese coal carrier ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef…I say ’seemingly unconnected’ because geographically the two events are about as far apart as you get. The respective industries are also unrelated…”

The connection is actually in the habitual behaviours performed by the respective companies, and to learn more about those you should click on the link above and read the original post.

What I’m more interested in here is a quick look at the sheer volume of corporate crises that we’re seeing in 2010. At least four major car makers (Toyota, GM, Honda, Nissan) have had multi-market product recalls. At least two major consumer brands (Nestlé, Unilever) have had issues with palm oil. I’m not even going to touch anything that’s been specifically labelled as a “social media crisis” in this list of examples.

Looking at all of these, the common link is still habitual behaviours. Whether it’s cutting corners on safety or engineering standards, taking short-cuts on voyages to speed up transit times, weakening the supply chain by creating untenable bottle-necks or driving suppliers down to almost margin-less prices, or other unsustainable corporate behaviours…none of these things are “one-offs”. They are all tried and tested behaviours that have become ingrained in an organisation’s culture.

When the global financial crisis hit, many of my clients assumed I was run off my feet with crises. The opposite was true. One or two disasters in a recessionary environment will have a much greater impact on business managers than they would do in the good times. (RM, if you’re reading this, I was still busy!)

In the past 18 months we first saw a deluge of stories about banks’ risk managers being ignored, followed by story after story about careers in risk management being the new black. When the economy is in meltdown and your business is more exposed than ever before, you pull all the stops out to ensure crises just don’t happen. When the revenue tap gets turned back to a trickle, you cut “non-essential” operations – those pesky things like marketing budgets (where’s my ROI???), crisis training (why are we doing this if we haven’t had a crisis in three years???), media monitoring (we’ve cut our marketing, we don’t need to pay for media clips???).

Which is why we now have problems.

After 18 months of hyper-sensitive operational behaviour I think companies have forgotten what it’s like to have to deal with a crisis. Regardless of the growth in social media over the same time, the fundamental principles of good crisis management haven’t changed, but it seems the effective execution of those principles has gathered enough dust to make a real difference. This has been compounded by those bad habits being repeated faster, on a bigger scale, as companies try to trade their way back to the heady days of 2007.

There’s not actually any reason why so many of the high-profile crises of the past six months should have made the headlines to the extent they did.

I expect we’ll see still more high-profile crises rolling out before the end of the year. It should be a good year for crisis management consultants, because for every company in crisis today there are usually three or four who were lucky it wasn’t them. But that’s not good news for shareholders.

Nestle, Greenpeace, social media, crisis management, facebook, YouTube, Twitter. PR measurement. Interested?

Prediction: we should see signs of Nestlé’s share price recovering from its latest issue within about 15 days.

Prediction 2: at some point this year, 2010 will be named the Year of the Social Media Crisis. So I’m doing it now just to be the first. (If I’m not the first then please let me know so I can link to that person’s blog and boost my traffic But it didn’t come up on Google today).

Last week Greenpeace kicked off the latest element of its ongoing campaign against the use of non-sustainable palm oil, lining up the cross hairs on Nestlé, and in particular the iconic Kit Kat.

What started out as a fairly run-of-the-mill campaign (Greenpeace has run similar palm oil campaigns in the past), took a bit of a turn when social media gurus jumped on Nestlé’s response to criticisms on the company’s facebook fan page. This was the point at which I started to pay a bit more attention as it was no longer just the Greenpeace campaign that was fuelling the issue (and thanks to fellow H&K blogger Matt Muir for flagging it to me on a Friday afternoon!). Interestingly, the official video in question still only has around 80,000 views on YouTube (sorry folks, one of those is mine).

The problem the company now faces is that the story of its engagement with stakeholders via social media has, as was probably expected by anyone with a facebook account, overtaken the original issue of its sourcing practices, as highlighted by this PR Week story.

Since there are 90,000-odd people out there all with an opinion on that, I’m going to leave that particular debate alone. I’m more interested in what’s happening with the company’s share price, which, as you’d probably expect, has taken a bit of a dip. (Hopefully on Monday our IT wizards – or Matt – can explain to me how I insert that as an actual image – to be updated…).Now updated with actual artwork.

While that’s not wonderful for the company’s shareholders, it’s useful as an in situ case study. As mentioned previously on this blog, good crisis management can have a remarkably positive impact on shareholder value.

The Knight & Pretty study on which that assertion is based shows that companies that recover well from a catastrophe tend to show the start of an upward trend returning to their share price around 10-15 trading days post-disaster (recoverers are the top line):

Figure 4 from Knight & Pretty's "The Impact of Catastrophes on Shareholder Value"

This recovery is largely attributed to the performance of company management in the early stages of the recovery. I think Nestle is the kind of company that will be able to manage its way out of this fairly promptly. However, there are some additional challenges the company will face in getting there (I think):

  1. Getting the facebook thing right will probably involve a bit of sword-falling. But that’s no good unless you mean it (which means there has to be some kind of behaviour change first, before the public perception piece will work).
  2. The marketing sub-set of social media guru-dom will continue to feast on its young, until more tech-savvy marketers take the point of view expressed by @mediaczar (thanks @Matt_Muir yet again). Great example of Twitter as a debate platform. In the meantime, watch the carnage continue.
  3. Institutional investors will remain all over the shop courtesy of having to work out how the economy works again after a global financial crisis. The upturn in value I think will be affected by just how much brokers and analysts value the impact of social media vs. the old fashioned kind.
  4. They’re still going to have to do something about the palm oil. Incidentally, so are thousands of other companies because it’s remarkably pervasive stuff – you wouldn’t believe how much of it’s out there, and ever since we all got scared of trans fats in our diet, palm oil’s been making a comeback in ingredient lists.
  5. Supply-chain scrutiny is going to return to the fore. We’ve not long ago finished Fairtrade Fortnight, when Kit Kats across the world were celebrated for the appearance of the new logo. The ease with which this issue has captured public opinion will, I think, galvanise a lot of other interest groups who have previously struggled with highlighting labour/sourcing/deforestation practices in the past, having another crack.

Time will tell if I manage to fluke at least one of these (or my two predictions). I have a feeling there’ll be a hat eaten at some point this year…

As an adjunct to all of the above, I think communicators/marketers/crisis managers and PR students should spend some time with a PR text book and the Greenpeace website.

Professionally I have a lot of time for the sophistication Greenpeace brings to its campaign activities, because they show all the hallmarks of strategic, issues-led communication campaigning. PR measurement isn’t rocket science (well, only rocket science is really)…point being, if you set your PR or communication objectives properly, measurement becomes a binary thing. Either you achieve your objective, or you don’t. Pretty simple stuff, and yet remarkably difficult to do well – usually because we get side-tracked by things like events, press clippings and “we want to do a viral video”.

(Sorry) We’re just not that into you today

As if the concurrent enquiries into the Iraq war and financial crisis weren’t enough to keep the world’s media busy last week, we also watched as the Caribbean nation of Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake.

This has been a massive humanitarian tragedy and our thoughts are with all those affected by the disaster.

Events and news cycles such as this one usually come as a shock purely because they’re unexpected. However, that shouldn’t be taken to mean “uncommon”. The nature of news media is to find the newest, most exciting stories to tell, so there will always be a bias towards covering the unexpected. Particularly in the case of major disasters where every story is a very real human interest story.

From a purely academic perspective the past week also serves as an important reminder for spokespeople (and marketers) that regardless of how important you are, or how interesting you think your story is on a normal day, sometimes…stuff happens.

Across the world last week, dozens of spokespeople who got out of bed early to front up for interviews will have arrived at studios, or sat waiting sleepily by the phone waiting for it to ring, only to have been stood down by broadcasters.

Stories that were “scheduled to run” were been pulled to make room for more pressing news.

This is one of the quirks of the game of media relations. If you want to participate in making or contributing to the news then you have to be prepared for things to not go your way – every time you saddle up. That includes not actually getting the opportunity to get on the horse. You don’t have to like it, you just have to accept it, and that goes for the rest of your campaign as well. It’s literally nothing personal.

That said, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the effects of a hijacked news cycle, some of which you may have heard from Catherine Cross in our media training. But be warned – most of them involve a bit of extra work:

  • Be available generally. The media doesn’t care about your day job, and from a journalist’s perspective if you’re not available then someone else probably will be. If you want that headline, you’ve got to make the time for it. If your job doesn’t allow you the time, maybe you need a different job. Or maybe someone else needs yours.
  • Take your medicine. If you’re an official spokesperson then sometimes you’re just going to have to be the face of a company that has to take some constructive criticism. Like being bumped from your interview, it’s nothing personal. It’s all part of managing your own relationships with the media.
  • Do more media. There’s no value in scarcity for the vast majority of spokespeople and playing hard to get is just annoying. Only the very top people in a company get to play the “I’m important” card, and it’s rarely appreciated by journalists who are covering your business. Far better to be the go-to person not just for your product, but your brand, and if you can swing it, your industry. That’s one of the things that leads to thought leadership, and it’s a powerful tool in strategic issues management (which we’ll deal with another time).
  • Don’t blame your communications team. It’s not their fault that earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes or terrorist attacks happen. Of course there’s also something to be said for campaign scheduling, i.e. know what’s going on before you try to pitch an interview in the first place.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in the one basket. A big scrapbook full of splashy media coverage makes everyone feel good, but realistically why do you want everything to appear at once anyway? You don’t have your life savings in one bank account (I hope), so take a balanced approach to your campaign planning as well. Think about how political campaigns, or grassroots movements work – they all start small and build to a crescendo. Ok, we’re not all launching iPhones, but for the right audience, tapping into the right media, the principle still applies.

Why Message Development is important

From time to time on this blog we talk about the importance of driving communication through organisational behaviour, and how this can be of great help to crisis managers because it gives you a solid base from which to start managing the fallout of a crisis. This is possibly even more integral to strategic issues management, i.e. where we work with a client to turn a potential issue into an area where they can establish a competitive advantage.

However, a recent conversation with a design agency highlighted that the infamous “key message” is something that, while still a fundamental part of any communication strategy, is also increasingly likely to be overlooked.

What brought this home was hearing said design agency recycle a quote we often use ourselves: “If you want someone to think you’re funny, don’t tell them you’re funny. Tell them a joke.”

The issue we need to clear up is as follows. I agree one hundred percent that your behaviour needs to demonstrate the message you’re trying to convey (i.e. display congruence). But that’s kind of the point – you need to work out what your message is first.

The “what” of “what you say” really is more important than how you say it, because it actually is what you’re saying. What you say should be what you want your audience to understand. If you don’t (can’t?) define what that is, how will your audience ever know what it is that you want them to do? Here’s a great presentation by Dr Vincent Covello from the Centre For Risk Communication in the US that explains in great depth a number of tools we regularly use for developing crisis messages. The fact they’re needed at all should say something about their importance.

This is particularly important for issues and crisis managers because invariably we want our audiences to do something, usually within a very short time frame. If it’s a product recall crisis then we want people to return affected products (in the first instance we often want them to stop eating those products). If it’s a gas leak and we want people to evacuate then we need to tell them that – driving up and down their street in a fire truck will not, on its own, convince residents that they need to get out of the area.

Similarly for a consumer PR campaign – if we want an audience to do something (e.g. share this blog with a friend), we actually need to tell our audience that’s what we want them to do (seriously, please share our blog with friends and colleagues).

The point is, until you know what you want your audience to do (your objective), then you can’t know what you need to tell them to get them to do it (your key message). And until you can define your message, you can’t work out how you’re going to deliver it (your strategy) with any real effectiveness. After all, if you don’t want people to think you’re funny, why on Earth would you tell them a joke?

Hence – message development. It’s not sexy, it’s rarely fun and frankly it’s one of the hardest parts of communication planning because every single person in your organisation will have a different view of what it should be. But communication is a process-oriented discipline, and so this is absolutely in the must-have basket.

Think of it from your customer’s perspective. If you as an organisation can’t clearly and simply define what you do, and articulate what you want your customer to do, how will the customer ever know what they’re meant to do (i.e. buy some stuff)? The principle is the same for any audience you care to think of.

This is why we spend proper, quality time developing our clients’ messages at Hill & Knowlton. That’s not to say every campaign, project or issue requires a dedicated messaging workshop – in fact, most don’t. But if you can’t write your key message on the back of your business card inside of 30 seconds, you probably need to spend some time working on it.

In the first place, it ensures everyone involved in your project is talking about the same thing in the same way – which is essential for building any kind of consistency or momentum. And in doing this, it focuses communication efforts on the thing that’s really important – meeting your objectives. Not until your message is right should you be worrying about big events and column inches.

Getting this right can be a real challenge, but the investment pays for itself in spades because good message development saves you time and money for months (sometimes years) to come.

If it’s done well.

Strong messages will stick around for the long term and can be incorporated into any relevant campaign activity – regardless of medium or channel. They should form the basis for every single piece of communication you deliver for that campaign or crisis or organisation, and they should be reinforced by corporate behaviour that is congruent with what the message actually says.

Only then will people think you’re really funny.