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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Crisis Communications Perception Is Reality

Point One: The only thing that matters as much as a leader BEING in command of a dangerous situation is whether he or she APPEARS to others to be in command.

Point Two: The only thing that matters as much as what you MEAN to say is what other people THINK you meant when you said it.

These are tried-and-true lesson of crisis communications learned once again the hard way by the Obama Administration in the wake of the failed attempt by an alleged Nigerian terrorist to blow up an American jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.

Regarding Point One: The administration waited three days to have President Obama address the nation from his vacation in Hawaii. Before he spoke out on TV about his order to security agencies to re-examine the entire terror suspect watch-list process, weekend news reports had him "monitoring" the situation while he was played golf. By Sunday and into Monday morning reporters and commentators on several networks and in some major newspapers were openly questioning the president's judgment on that score. Of course the President was on top of the situation. But sticking to your tee time for a round of golf is not the media image you want of your Communicator-In-Chief in the 24 hours following the potential loss of close to 300 lives in a domestic terror incident.

Regarding Point Two: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's appearance on a Sunday TV talk show was marked by one sound bite that could come back to haunt her: "The system worked." Huh? The alleged terrorist got on the plane despite missed warnings to American security agencies that he was considered a potential threat, including a warning phone call to US authorities several weeks ago from the young man's father. He carried explosives and an incendiary device through security in Amsterdam. He managed to light the device, but failed to cause an explosion apparently because of a detonator malfunction. And he was taken into custody when a fellow passenger tackled him, preventing him from trying again to cause the blast. The "system" worked? Shades of Alexander Haig.

Of course what the Secretary MEANT to say was that the post-incident response worked, and the nation's security operations remained intact and on alert. She was trying to reassure the American public. But that's not what the sound bite conveyed. If anything, it made government leadership appear to be disconnected from the reality of a near-miss caused, in part, by the failure of security agencies to spot the threat in advance.

In times of crisis perception IS reality. At CommCore Consulting Group we counsel our clients that how leaders appear and what they say is as important as what they know and what they are doing. What do you think of the President's and Secretary Napolitano's handling of their responses to this crisis?

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Monday, December 28, 2009

If the Washington Post didn't hear or see the tree fall, it still may have happened.

Remember the riddle: If a tree falls in the woods and no one was there to see or hear it, how do we know it really fell? The new answer is because of cell phone camera and Facebook and Twitter. Take the recent snow storm in Washington, DC was not only big news in the U.S., it made headlines in Europe. So did the Tweet-up Snow Ball fight with the gun toting off-duty officer. http://bit.ly/7Xz6kW

I saw it as a story and photo in a London newspaper. I was first struck by the fact that the Washington snowball fight was a web and Tweet-up public event. And I thought that 20 somethings didn't use Twitter. Not sure how many text messages played a part, but probably not very traditional land line calls were involved.

Fast forward to the snow ball fight and the off-duty officer didn’t like his Hummer being hit by snowballs. It wasn't a reporter from the Washington Post that saw him draw a weapon, it was a snowball revelers with cell phone cameras. http://bit.ly/7yiCSR

The cops issue the usual denials that he drew a gun. Not so, because photos and videos are on YouTube, blogs and pasted on a Facebook page and pretty soon the "traditional media" is picking it up. http://bit.ly/8ccFSh So, a London newspaper writes a story about a tweet-up and Facebook postings and calls it reporting.

Remember the more serious Virginia Tech shootings and the first videos on CNN were from a shakey cell phone. The early videos from demonstrations in Iran were from cell phones. The first information on the point is that in today's world every cell phone is a camera and every tweet could be global news.

Crisis communicators can't relax if an incident doesn't make it to traditional local news. Don't be paranoid, but monitor the news, Facebook, twitter and blogs.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Value vs. Values: Is There Anything We Should Know Before We Pay You A Gazillion Dollars?

A recent harvardbusiness.org article published by Bloomberg used the Tiger Woods fiasco to question the value of celebrity endorsements (http://bit.ly/6kzMMy).

Using celebrities to promote a brand, product or service has been a tried-and-true marketing strategy for decades. Celebrities have reveled in the publicity from image-building campaigns; in turn brands, products and services have harnessed the push-and-pull between celebrities and the public to drive awareness and increase sales. Everybody wins, right?

What has changed? As the article notes, increasingly the personal lives of many celebrities raise ethical dilemmas that - when made public - harm not only them, but the reputation of any associated brand. Skeletons in the celebrity closet are as old as the hills. But here's the not-so-new twist: there's no privacy any more. The explosion of the Internet in the past decade, and of social media in the last five years has taken care of that.

You might say that's "duh" obvious. Yet sometimes it takes a monumental crisis to get a message through. (PS: As we at CommCore Consulting Group like to ask, "Is your brand crisis plan up-to-date?") Just ask former Tiger sponsor Gillette (http://bit.ly/5aWD7Q). It was only a matter of time before a run-of-the-mill Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears-type embarrassment struck a truly global figure and marketing phenomenon of the stature of Tiger Woods. And now that it has, the question posed by harvardbusiness.org is a legitimate one - is the risk of human frailty being exposed worth the return? If this Paragon of Everything can crumble so quickly before our eyes dragging himself, his family and associated good brand names with him, then what chance does your standard everyday celebrity endorser have?

Perhaps, as the article suggests, it IS time to revert to marketing and messages that link customers directly with brands, products and services without the filter of a famous figure. In a time of increasing skepticism about institutions and leadership in general, maybe the best way to communicate a brand story and value proposition these days is simply to say what it'll do for you.

What do you think? Is the marketing and messaging slogan for the next decade going to be, "Ask Not What a Celebrity Can Do for Your Brand; Ask What Your Brand Can Do for Everybody Else?"

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tiger and Headline Writers

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tiger and the White House Party Crashers

Tiger Woods was the best thing that happened this week to the still nearly-famous (will they soon become infamous?) Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the Virginia reality-TV aspiring couple who "crashed" the White House state dinner last week and didn't show up when invited for Congressional testimony.

First Tiger. He didn't know, forgot or wasn't told: Get it over early. The sin is rarely the deed, it's almost always the cover-up. His belated apology and statement took the heat off...temporarily. Next time he tees off at a tournament watch out for a few errant golf shots aimed at the press. Long term damage to Tiger the Golfer and Brand Tiger and is unclear. In a game known to be as much about mental discipline as physical prowess, will Tiger be able to focus as much on the dimpled white ball? For the Tiger Brand, as a private public figure, Tiger's prior great reputation is helping him now.

Second, the Salahi's, who can't seem to retreat from the news. Let's look at the other involved parties (sic). Start with the Secret Service, which has been candid and forthright with owning the problem: "Bottom-line: We're responsible. It could have been very easy to make a phone call or get on a radio and verify if someone was on a list. This is still our responsibility as we've said from the beginning," said Secret Service spokesperson Edwin Donavan.

Note to Tiger: If you make a mistake, direct and rapid acceptance of blame, works. According to media reports, the security breach occurred when Secret Service personnel at a first check point thought that the Salahi names would be checked at a second check point. Playing the game of "Alphonse and Gaston" with security - even with a crush of well dressed party goers - is not acceptable.

Crisis response is also about what did you learn? Assume that there has been analysis among the President's protective detail there will much tighter controls for anyone getting into the White House for any occasion.

The White House Social Office is also in a higher state of Crisis Response. Reportedly, in the Bush administration there would have been a staffer at every entrance with the social list (and perhaps photos of guests) comparing notes with the Secret Service. At the entrance used by the Salahi's, no one from the social office double checked the names on the invite list. Columnists have been having a field day about the social office being more concerned with being scene at the State Dinner than doing the quasi-security job.

As to the Salahi's, aka "Facebraggers" for using Facebook to post their photos, we still don't know where their saga will end. The Washington press has been replete with stories about their personal lives, efforts at social climbing, family feuds and debts. They are vehemently claiming that they were invited to the ball but decided once again not to prove the claim when asked by Congress to tell their saga. And the MO is all about playing the American celebrity game and trying to get paid for their appearances in the news to tell their story. Stay tuned, PT Barnum will probably raise his head and there will be a media sucker who can't resist the habit for the "exclusive". Then we’ll have the crisis of the press that pounds on the media that gets the exclusive (and bemoans the ratings hit).

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