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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rolling Stone and McChrystal: Sucker Punch or Not?

The recent Rolling Stone article that got General Stanley McChrystal sacked as commander of US forces in Afghanistan has also raised an important issue about what it means to go "off the record" with a reporter. (See our related June 23 CommCore blog below.)

For the past couple days the Huffington Post http://tinyurl.com/2ausb5m has featured a debate as to whether the Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings violated a couple of unspoken journalism rules about on and off the record comments, and whether are there different rules for interviews with officers in a theater of war. The first posting - very critical of Hastings - was from CBS's Lara Logan http://tinyurl.com/26ewchp. It was followed by a sharp retort in defense of Hastings by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibi http://huff.to/9DznP6.

If journalists can vehemently disagree in public over the "off-the-record" rules - in a theater of war or not- what are the people they cover supposed to think? At CommCore, we tell our clients that in the vast majority of situations there is no such thing as "off the record." Assume when you are being interviewed - and before and after the interview- that anything you say, can and will be used by a reporter, blogger or other interested party.

What are our exceptions to the rule? You only go off the record if:
  1. You are with a reporter you know well and have a relationship with. The relationship stays with the reporter, not with the news outlet.
  2. You know beforehand that you can't get fired or in trouble if your comments are attributed to you later.
  3. You and the journalist understand that he/she will lose something valuable, i.e. access, if he/she violates the trust.
That's a pretty big hurdle. What's your view? Was Michael Hastings taking advantage of soldiers being chatty in a bar? Have you ever been burned by not-for-attribution or off the record comments? Have these rules changed?

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Correcting the record

The Washington Post's front page article on how US Government officials in Pakistan are trying to counter what they believe are inaccurate and wrongly slanted articles in the Pakistani media http://bit.ly/ddCiNY, is a reminder to any organization that believes it has suffered from poor reporting, rumors and misrepresentations, to take action.

Pakistan, like China and India, is experiencing a growing number of print and broadcast media outlets. (In other parts of the world, the shrinking of traditional broadcast media reporting has been somewhat offset by the rise of new media and unfiltered comments in blogs, tweets and even text messages.) US officials have resorted to a number of measures called "Corrections for the Record" to counter what they perceive as the reporting of rumors, non-credible facts and just bad journalism.

A few years ago, during the earlier stages of the war in Iraq, US State Department officials tried to counter reports by Al Jazeera and other Middle Eastern media.

In the private sector, Toyota has been particularly aggressive this year in trying to counter reports on the sudden acceleration issues with its vehicles.

It is well within the rights of any organization to challenge inaccurate reporting, rumors and media bias. The Risk: the protest can result in more publicity. The benefit, however, can outweigh the risk. Setting the record straight is important. We counsel clients to use multiple means to correct the record. These range from the old fashioned, but still read, letter to the editor and a well-timed call to the editor. Other tactics include posting on your own web site or commenting on the reporter's blog. When appropriate: create videos, a flip camera interview, press releases, and recruit a third party who will verify the client's version of the information.

When and how have you countered what you view as an innacurate story? How did you decide what tactics to use in your defense?

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Was He Thinking?

The Loose Lips lesson seems to be at hazard these days, ignored or forgotten by people who should know better, and whose careers have been sunk as a consequence.

A couple of weeks back it was Hearst newspapers White House Correspondent Helen Thomas. She brought her stellar and ground-breaking career to an ignominious halt herself through some ill-conceived and inappropriate comments about Jews and Palestine captured by a part-time journalist and film-maker on the White House grounds. She was fired within 24 hours.

Now it's General Stanley A. McChrystal, relieved of duty as the commander for US forces in Afghanistan by an indignant President Obama, who accepted his resignation after publication of remarks critical of the administration’s policy and officials. In his statement announcing the resignation the President lauded the General for his exemplary career as a military officer, but reminded him and the American public that no one individual is bigger than an overall war effort.

At CommCore we cannot advise our clients enough that the place to disagree over controversial policies in government or in organizations is NOT in a public forum unless it's part of a deliberate communications strategy. Whether it's at a conference, in a media interview, in a public speech, or while blogging or commenting on someone else's blog or tweet, it's usually not career-advancing to stray off-message in public, and certainly not if the remarks are flippant, derogatory, or could appear otherwise disrespectful to any superior, not to mention the President of the United States.

Obviously the Rolling Stone reporter who published McChrystal’s comments knew had a big story; almost any reporter would have reported the statements. McChrystal should have known that; he clearly didn't remember it...or chose to ignore it.

The validity of the General's views is not the issue here. It's how his views were revealed to the public. There's a reason talking publicly about in-fighting is seen as dirty laundry. It's usually not a pretty dispute, and airing intrernal disputes in public with apparent off-the-cuff criticisms doesn't serve any constructive end other than to embarrass at best, cause actual harm at worst, and sully one's hard-earned reputation in either case.

What are your thoughts on Gen. McChrystal's remarks in the interview? How would you use this case study with your clients?

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lessons from the Helen Thomas Blunder

When Helen Thomas resigned as White House correspondent for Hearst newspapers earlier this month after more than 50 years as a front-row fixture at Presidential news conferences, it signaled more than the end of an era. It was a stark reminder to everyone in communications of the cost of ignoring cardinal rules.

The supreme irony here is that Helen Thomas seemingly forgot for a moment that she was a public figure herself. She was undone by the very thing she spent an entire career eliciting from newsmakers in the public eye – the big, controversial quote: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6564E220100607

It was a costly mistake for her to assume that she could spout off her personal opinions in a public space -- the White House lawn -- to a part-time journalist and film-maker.

Shortly after the video of the damning quote was uploaded to the web and YouTube, Thomas resigned and issued an apology for her remarks. On June 6th, Nine Speakers Inc., Thomas’ agency, dropped her as a client. The White House Correspondents' Association called her remarks "indefensible." President Obama appeared on NBC’s Today Show and said that she made the right decision to step down, but that it was a shame that her remarkable career had to end in controversy and scrutiny.

From a public relations and professional communications perspective, Thomas made several key mistakes that we at CommCore remind our clients to avoid:
• She unnecessarily offered a controversial personal opinion that was not appropriate for her role (in this case, a supposedly objective journalist.)

• She either forgot or chose to ignore the reality that there is no such thing as an innocent comment in today's real-time media environment where pocket-sized video cameras are almost ubiquitous.

• She either forgot – or never knew – how to "bridge" from a question one doesn't want to answer to a related comment one is willing and able to make in public.

• She forgot or ignored the tried-and-true adage that no public figure can keep public mistakes private regardless of rank and stature.

Only Helen Thomas knows if it was hubris that ended her ground-breaking career as a frontline female journalist, or whether she had been on the job too long and simply lost her ability to judge situations properly at age 89.

What lessons did you draw from Thomas's blunder? Will you use her faux pas as a case history with your clients?

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Monday, June 14, 2010

McDonald's Drinking Glass Recall: Crisis Response and Opportunity

McDonald's recent voluntary recall of 12 million tainted "Shrek"-themed drinking glasses for children illustrates a fundamental rule of crisis communications: crises can bring opportunities, particularly when you have a crisis plan in place and act on it decisively.

That's what McDonald's did when it found out that the glasses contained a potentially dangerous level of cadmium, a known carcinogen. A caller had contacted Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) to inform her of the problem. Within hours of the swift recall, McDonald’s – a regular target for critics of childhood obesity – was being cited positively for its rapid response: http://bit.ly/apLgn4

McDonald's not only scored points with the media, analysts, regulators and consumer watchdogs by quickly recalling the glasses, it also scored points with customers by immediately providing a coupon worth more than the value of the Shrek glasses to anyone who had purchased them. In one fell swoop they not only acted responsibly, they found a way to strengthen brand loyalty.

What's important to note is that the coupon offer came across as a magnanimous make-good only because the recall was voluntary, swift and successful, before anyone had been reported adversely affected. Had the offer been made AFTER a call from regulators, or after ill-effects had been reported among children, it could have smacked of a clumsy patch up.

The lesson for crisis managers is what we at CommCore counsel our clients: 1. Have a crisis plan for your operations. 2. Gather the team quickly when a crisis occurs. 3. Assess and respond as appropriate. Then look at whether a brand-strengthening "opportunity" exists that is appropriate. In this case the McDonald's opportunity was a direct result of their speedy action; had they been responding to a federal recall order or to reports of stricken children long after the glasses had been in circulation, that would have been another situation entirely.

What do you think of the McDonald's response? What are your views on using a crisis response to solidify a brand?

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

War Rooms and Crisis Communications

Establishing a communications "war room" in a crisis is one of the first tactical steps to get on top of a fast breaking situation.

It’s essential to have a central place for a crisis team. Nowadays from a technology standpoint it doesn't matter whether it's a physical location or a virtual room, or a hybrid. The important aspect is that the location is for full and candid discussion of all aspects of the crisis as well as information sharing either on white boards, flip charts or computer screens. All parties involved should have access to the information in real time. The sharing aspect often helps people see patterns and connect threads of data to make informed decisions, and create messages and communications plans.

Toyota, BP and others with big crises this year have both operations and communications war rooms. On the government side, the US Materials Management Service has a war room in Robert, LA http://www.mms.gov/ . MMS is calling its overall facility the Deepwater Horizon Response Area Command, which is in line with other federal agencies and the White House that activate what they call a "Command and Control Center" in a crisis.

A good war room runs 24/7. It has all the necessary monitoring and communicating devices. And communicators must be in close proximity to executive leadership and operations and security personnel.

Even if experts are scattered in different locations, I'm a big fan of at least one physical room, where key crisis team members and senior executives can come in, get a quick snapshot of the information that is known, and talk face-to-face while gauging the temperature of the situation and the effectiveness of the response. On the other hand, don't allow access to too many people; much of the information during a crisis is sensitive and can easily spread or be misinterpreted, and unnecessary voices can lead to a lack of decisiveness

We're seeking information on any successful war room efforts you know about - as well as any that haven't worked too well. Add comments as to what you have seen in other crises.

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Crisis Management: The Importance of Planning