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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Twitter Posts Tick-off British Airways

One of the cardinal rules that both labor and management profess when negotiations begin on contracts or other issues is: We promise that we won't negotiate these issues in the press. I can't remember the number of times that we have counseled clients that the best way to make rapid progress in negotiations is to keep all the discussions in the confines of the negotiations rooms, not on the airways, not in the printed press.

New ground may have been broken in the current strike by British Airways cabin crews. Several stories claim that the impasse has been exacerbated by a number of twitter feeds from the union leadership: http://bit.ly/cM2bQZ. Management didn't like it when key aspects of the negotiations were tweeted.

The more you read, the more it seems that this strike is akin to the assignation of Archduke Ferdinand, the event that catalyzed World War I. This work stoppage, like WWI, was just bound to happen; it just needed an event to get it going. Union and management have been publicly feuding for a while, and the BA officials might have reacted overly harshly to any perceived last minute union shenanigans.

It's been our experience that unions more than management use the press to negotiate, but I haven't seen a scientific study of this. For the larger world of communications, the question is whether a tweet of only 140 characters was more inflammatory than a longer blog posting, op-ed column, or an interview with more traditional media. I don't think so, but we want to start a discussion of whether tweets are worse than other ways of negotiating in public.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill's Battle of the Sound Bites and Science

We previously blogged on the BP analogy about trying to place a cap on the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Several BP spokespersons stated that placing the cap was akin to performing open heart surgery in 5,000 feet of water.

This week, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), countered with his own analogy. He stated that BPs oil drilling exploration approach was like an auto company spending billions to make a car that could go 200 miles an hour but investing a fraction of that in upgrading the brakes and the airbags http://n.pr/90efpI.

As communicators we generally like analogies. They can help translate complicated subjects into laymen's language. The risk in a crisis situation is that they can unintentionally trivialize a situation, or deflect the search for causes and solutions.

One of the poorest crisis analogies in memory occurred during the Exxon Valdez spill and clean up. An Exxon-Mobil spokesperson tried to put the events in perspective and suggested that the amount spilled in Prudhoe Bay was equivalent to an eye dropper full in a bath tub. While this analogy might have been accurate, it was not "credible" in view of the pictures of seals and birds covered with oil. Rather than minimize the potential for damage in the public's eye, it exacerbated the impression that Exxon was insensitive and out-of-touch.

The analogy of the open heart surgery through 5,000 feet might have worked if the initial effort to cap the well had worked. It did communicate that this was a difficult and complex project, but it fell short when the effort wasn’t successful. If it had worked, the analogy would have made BP look technically adept - at least they would have been slightly better perceived as trying to fix their problem. When it failed, it made BP look like it couldn’t solve the problem. Markey's analogy showed that they didn’t have the safety part of the drilling equation. This was a balance for the media but would have been even better if it was in the press or delivered as BP, Transocean and Halliburton were perceived as dodging most of the questions at a Congressional hearing.

Messaging in the middle of a crisis situation is a delicate task that can be a double-edged sword- particularly when all the facts aren’t known. Coming up with the right analogy or explanation is hard work and requires its own risk-benefit assessment. What do you think of the dueling analogies?

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Friday, May 14, 2010

The CEO Scorecard: Measuring CEO Reputation

CEOs on the hot seat is a regular photo opp this month. The recent litany began with GM, Chrysler and Ford flying into DC on their private jets. Next came the Wall Street banks. Last month it was Massey Energy after the West Virginia mine disaster. Now it’s the turn of CEOs at BP, Halliburton and Transocean as the Gulf Coast oil spill dominates the headlines.

CEOs and how they embody their brands are being analyzed in many forums. One we liked was by Katie Paine in PR News: http://www.prnewsonline.com/news/13900.html (or scroll down to April 8 on this blog.)

Paine -- a veteran of media research and measurement -- has an excellent template for looking at "how did they do:"

• Extent of media coverage
• Effectiveness of spokespeople

• Communicating key messages to the media and public

• Managing negative messages

• Impact on stakeholders.

Obviously, none of the above have done too well. The facts have been bad and none of the CEOs have performed too well on the stand. We previously wrote about Massey CEO Don Blankenship: http://blog.commcoreconsulting.com/ (or scroll down to April 8 on this blog.)

Here are CommCore's points for Crisis Planning and Response that go beyond "how did we do?":

• Advance planning for a crisis. BP Group CEO Tony Hayward has been effective as spokesperson for BP, stating a heartfelt mea culpa and appearing onsite on the Gulf Coast to promise economic relief. But corporate BP has been less effective in convincing Congress, the media and the public that it was prepared to properly respond to a rig explosion and oil spill crisis. Coverage of late has been as much about missed warnings and lack of contingency planning as it has been on the oil slick itself. As to Massey, Blankenship clearly failed to counter the company's history of failing to address documented safety violations, lack of planning for disaster, and reported indifference to the danger to miners. At CommCore we tell our clients that crisis communications – even if substantial and convincingly delivered – are only as good as your actual advance crisis planning and response preparation. Honest ongoing crisis audits, risk assessment, and crisis simulation exercises are critical.

• Internal communications with employees, stock holders, partners and other corporate stakeholders. The CEO is the ship's captain and Chief Morale Officer. Keeping your executive team and below-deck crews informed, engaged and on-message during a crisis is a crucial measure of CEO effectiveness and brand reputation.

• Follow-Through. A CEO's word and words are only as effective as the extent to which he or she delivers on their promise. In these highly visible media exposed events we'll be watching to see who delivers, who doesn't, and what the reputation impact is on them as chief executives and the brands they represent.

What other items do you think should be included in a CEO scorecard? How do you rate the Massey and BP CEO and corporate performances from a reputation management standpoint?

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Is The NFL Brand Bullet-Proof?

"Athletes Behaving Badly" isn’t a TV Reality Show yet, but it could be. The National Football League's brand is like Teflon -- unblemished -- but could it be?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has had a lot of practice protecting his brand from crises of late. We at CommCore think he's managed it very well. Consider what he's had to deal with:

• The arrest Thursday in upstate New York of former NFL superstar Lawrence Taylor on charges of raping a minor girl is as big a hit to the football league's image as any that Taylor delivered to opponents during his stellar 13-year career. By consensus the Hall-of-Famer is the greatest linebacker of all time. His career with the New York Giants was equal parts kudos for transforming the defensive linebacker into an aggressive smash-mouth athlete of prodigious speed and strength, and shame for his publicly-documented self-destructive behavior including drug and alcohol problems while he was a player. He is claiming innocence, but the story is out. Taylor was honored as recently as last month during the annual NFL players' draft emceed by...Goodell.

• Goodell recently banned 2-time and defending Super Bowl Champ and Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games of the upcoming seasons after he admitted to lewd behavior with a minor girl. Charges of rape were dropped by authorities, but that didn't prevent Goodell from dropping the hammer on Roethlisberger anyway for the harm he had caused the image of the Steelers and the NFL.

• Coaches for the New Orleans Saints have been accused of illegally procuring pain killers for players.

• Recently the NFL has had to review its helmets and its rules for vicious on-field hits in the wake of a series of dangerous player concussions.

• The NFL and its players' union are at loggerheads over a new contract after the 2010 season. The specter of a strike by millionaire players just as the country is struggling to recover from a recession is not exactly what Goodell has in mind for the NFL brand.

• Truly horrifying stories of retired NFL players facing crippling physical and mental injuries for which they are receiving little if any medical or financial assistance from the league have increased in the media in the past two or three years, including on broadcast network programs.

Yet, NFL football remains the most popular professional sport in the United States if you judge by TV ratings and overall revenues. The Denver Broncos' NFL-branded jerseys sporting the name of popular first round draft pick Tim Tebow are selling like hotcakes. But it doesn't take much for a sport to suddenly nosedive in public opinion. Just ask Major League Baseball after the player walkout in the 1990s and the steroid scandals of the past decade, or professional cycling under the weight of doping scandal after doping scandal.

Goodell has always reacted to a crisis aggressively by protecting the NFL brand first. He's got his hands full now. At CommCore, we'll be watching to see how he navigates these latest tempests.

What do you think of the NFL's image, and of Goodell's approach to protecting its brand? Is the NFL brand bullet-proof, or is Goodell just THAT good? Why do you think the NFL has succeeded better than other sports in remaining above bad publicity?

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Thursday, May 6, 2010


If you thought Toyota and Tiger were the crises for this year, they were only the appetizers for the menu that is May 2010. There are so many going on right now that most can't even get to the front page of the traditional newspapers. So at CommCore, we're trying to keep track of the major ones and what they represent. Some are new and breaking; some older and festering. Some of the newer ones are overshadowing older ones, presumably to the relief of the affected organizations. All require careful monitoring of brand and reputation and the steps the organizations are taking to manage them.

TIMES SQUARE TERROR ATTEMPT: Top news at the moment. The Department of Homeland Security and New York City Police dodged a bullet when the device was detected by a street vendor and the truck bomb failed to detonate. DHS and the Justice Department dodged another bullet when the suspect now in custody was arrested trying after the Emirates plane doors had closed but had not yet taken off for Dubai.

The long term crises to watch:
  • For Homeland Security, there are two: explaining how the suspect - a recently naturalized American citizen of Arab origin recently returned from Pakistan - was undetected and able to buy explosives, and how to reassure the public that good luck won’t run out the next time. And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's consideration for a seat on the Supreme Court may have been derailed because she must focus on this case (See AOL News: http://bit.ly/bUqUCy).
  • For Justice, making the case.
  • For Emirates. Did the "Do Not Fly" Notice that had been issued by US officials get to the carrier in time to have prevented the suspect from boarding the plane. If they didn't have "timely notice" the airline name in the stories should fade quickly. If they had received notice and still let the suspect board the plane, then they will be subject to further limelight questioning.
BP OIL SPILL: This one has legs. Overall, from the communications perspective, BP's "war room" has responded quickly, effectively and visibly. They have been consistent in messaging. More than one spokesperson likened the effort to cap the massive leak to a surgeon trying to do open heart surgery 5,000 feet underwater. The message was clear, but it doesn't change the facts. Once the spill began to coat birds and other wildlife, the spill and its PR impact moved beyond containment. Sure they are doing a better job than Exxon did during Valdez, but that's a low bar. Will this impact other companies, all of off-shore drilling and long term customer loyalty?

GOLDMAN SACHS: A long-term reputation management issue that has moved from front page of the entire paper to the front page of the business section. Clearly the company is standing firm and defending its action. Many firms have done that before and ended up settling charges to avoid costly litigation. Goldman is not alone in the financial crisis, but has become the poster child. Given the riches to be earned from a Wall St. career for those that make it, no amount of bad PR will stop ambitious financiers from job seeking. But the brand damage could cause pension funds and other investors from doing business with Goldman while it's "radioactive."

UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA LACROSSE PLAYER DEATH: At the very best, it has not so far been as damaging as the "Stripper-Gate" alleged rape case at Duke University in 2006. The questions to watch is whether this was an isolated, unfortunate incident or did the University of Virginia miss signals about a student/athlete with run-ins with the law who might have received counseling.

AVON PRODUCTS: This one has slipped off the news pages because of other headline-grabbing crises. In some ways, this crisis could be the most damaging to a company and its reputation.
The company has revealed that for past two years it had been investigating tips about payoffs to foreign government officials, and announcing a revamp of its China operations. If proven to be true, or if the perception of truth creeps into its business dealings, this crisis will have long term consequences. CEO Andrea Jung has been a visible and credible leader and spokesperson; the company has suspended the president, top financial officer and government affairs executive of the company's China unit. Important note: the SEC and the Department of Justice have given Avon time to complete its internal probe. This is one that many companies will monitor to see how Avon fares and how companies expanded into China and other markets will need to watch their business practices.

What are your thoughts on lessons learned from all these crises breaking at the same time?

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