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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mea Culpas and Apologies Can Be Too Little, Too Late

Thomas H. Graham, regional president of Washington, DC region utility Pepco, has had a rough few days trying to restore power since a mammoth summer storm caused hundreds of thousands of electric outages on July 25. Some outages have continued for most of the ensuing week.

This blackout comes six months after another series of extended outages last Winter during three unusually huge winter storms in the space of a couple of weeks. Graham has been all over the news, apologizing for everything from the inability to restore power to an error-prone electronic public alert and response system that failed miserably at crunch time. News outlets have been broadcasting unflattering power outage updates every few minutes for days, and reiterating the litany of mistakes by Pepco as it disseminated information that was wrong. http://bit.ly/aGdGco

A utility is not a corporation, and isn't accountable to customers and shareholders the same way a publicly-traded business is. And a natual event such as a violent storm is not the utility's responsibilitty. But proper and accurate response and risk management are because a utility delivers critical municipal services that people rely on all the time. If recent blogs and online news comments are any indication, an even bigger hurdle for Pepco than turning the power back on will be regaining the trust of customers who feel no sympathy at all, apology or not. Here's one of hundreds such comments:

"My neighborhood still does not have power. My frustration is not only with Pepco's failure to address long-standing issues such as burying power lines, but their incredibly poor, inaccurate and possibly dishonest response to customer service. I believe that significantly more households are without power than their on-line system shows as it does not reflect the reality in our neighborhood."

The only mitigating factoid that Graham and Pepco spokesmen have been able to get out that has resonated with the media is that the Washington, DC region has the third largest area in the country covered by trees after Atlanta, GA and Portland, OR. They also say they have brought in assistance from surrounding counties and states, and are working around-the-clock. Yet many callers to radio stations keep saying they have yet to see a utility truck.

Pepco isn’t ducking the torrent of criticism. Besides Graham’s me culpa, a Pepco spokesman posted the following item in a comment section in the Washington Post filled with blistering attacks against the utility: “I understand your frustrations. Our number one priority is to restore customers' power as quickly and safely as possible. Our crews have and will continue to work 24/7 until all customers' power is restored. Having said that, we also recognize that there was a malfunction in our ETR reporting system since Sunday. This glitch has been fixed and never affected the speed or efficiency of the power restoration efforts of our crews. I will continue posting updates as I receive them @PepcoConnect on Twitter. Best, Andre (Pepco Social Media Representative)”

At CommCore we tell our clients that accurate information and transparency are essential to effective crisis communications. We also tell them that apologizing for what happened in the past – if appropriate in the first place – will still only go so far. Yes, people want empathy. But what affected customers and stakeholders want to hear most in a crisis is first what you are DOING about the problem and when, and secondly what you WILL DO to try and prevent it from happening again. Moving the discussion to promises about future courses of action presents an opportunity to change public engagement from criticism looking backward, to collaborating on finding solutions going forward.

The new challenge, then, will be to deliver on those promises. For the moment, Pepco appears to be paying for the public’s perception that it failed to deliver on such promises in the past.

What communications lessons can you draw from Pepco’s predicament and response?

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Responding to "Fake" Tweeters

Public companies increasingly have to deal with "fake" Twitter accounts created by people who have a bone to pick with the corporation or its brands. BPGlobalPR, for example, is a mock Twitter account using the BP name that has already acquired over 187,000 followers with its satirical spoof tweets on the company's oil spill clean-up efforts. See http://www.twitter.com/BPglobalpPR) and http://huff.to/aInX2y.

A typical posting reads "Attention young people! Sign up for a BP internship! (Must bring own industrial strength gloves. No pay. No snitchin'.") And: "Yes, we disabled the alarms on the Deepwater Horizon. Oh, like you've never hit the snooze button?"

By way of comparison, BP_America -- BP's official Twitter address -- has only 13,500 followers.

Due to the sheer size of the fake account, BP responded by requesting a disclaimer stating that it is an illegitimate account and does not reflect the views of BP. All they got was one tweet by the spoof site: "Not sure what we've done wrong, but we've been asked to change our name/profile to indicate that we're 'fake'." See: http://bit.ly/bQo9DT.

As of today the Twitter account name remains unchanged, with no disclaimer visible.

Clearly, no company is too big to ignore Twitter or other social media platforms these days. But it is important for companies in crisis to choose their social media battles wisely. In the event of a fake Twitter account, for example, we would suggest the following:

* Check out the number of followers of a particular muckraker who has it out for you.

* If it is not a substantial amount in relation to your company’s consumer base, then don’t lose
sleep over it, but do keep monitoring it in case the criticism and responses intensify.

* Try also to look at it through the eyes of the average consumer. Would they recognize this tweeter as a joke? Or is it a true threat to your company’s reputation?

* In the case of a mock account with a huge base of followers and a lot of activity such as re-tweets or @ references, it may be time to address them appropriately using the company's official account name. Another option would of course be to strike a deal and join forces with the mock account. They could use their satire to get their frustrations out, and the real company can throw their key message into the mix.

CommCore advises its clients that monitoring online and social media commentary about their company, brand and executives is an essential part of good PR and Crisis Management practices.

But companies need to use a resource like Twitter wisely, and to assess the real impact of online voices who may just be stirring up trouble to get a rise out of big business. Be careful not to react unnecessarily or angrily because that may just make you the bully picking on the little guy.

How would you react to a similar spoof site about your company, or your client’s company?

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Smartphone Issues: Communicating About Wireless Woes

In recent days we have seen two of the giants of the Wireless world – Apple and Verizon – respond differently to problems with their smartphone products, resulting in different reactions from consumers and the mainstream and trade media.

Apple has been credited with the speed of its response to problems with the iPhone4's antenna. But the press conference by Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs has been a source of controversy and unending blogosphere argument. For its part, Verizon has been almost universally lauded for its apologetic and make-good corporate response to display problems with its competing Droid X.

Why the different responses and reactions?

First, Apple has unique cult status as a brand, and Jobs himself is an icon of consumer technology. When he speaks, it's regarded as a sermon from the Mount and every word and gesture is parsed endlessly. For example, the Washington Post credited Apple with a quick response that research firms say reduced "negative" consumer comments on blogs by 30% within a week of the problem being revealed. But Jobs himself scored lower marks from the Post, trade publications, and from bloggers for his press conference. They appreciated his offer of a free case to fix the problem. However, they also castigated his lengthy attempt to justify the problem by visually illustrating problems with competing brands’ smartphones, his “blame the media” comments, and his characterization of the problem as a “non-issue” despite extensive consumer complaints. (Post article and reader comments: http://bit.ly/9TZe5p)

For its part, Verizon is by-and-large perceived as a corporate entity; by responding quickly and directly to the problem with an announcement offering to replace any defective phone for free, the public reaction was immediate and favorable. Trade magazine PC World’s reaction (http://bit.ly/dk1B0e) to both responses was telling: after describing Verizon’s solution, the writer wrote: "At least not all smartphone manufacturers blame the customer for hardware defects," followed by a link to an article criticizing the tone of Jobs’ response: http://bit.ly/cLqMus

CommCore regularly advises its clients to consider the messenger as well as the message and the audience when responding to a problem or crisis. While it's likely that Apple customers might have expected a personal response from Jobs because of his high profile relationship to his Apple brand, it's clear that every nuance what he said – and how he said it – was subject to far more scrutiny than Verizon's rapid corporate announcement of an acceptable solution.

What was you reaction to the content and tone of the Apple response, and Steve Jobs' press conference? How might you apply the Apple and Verizon responses to your communications strategy, or that of your clients?

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jumping to Conclusions:The Importance of Context in a Sound Bite World

In every field there are teaching moments, and boy, do we have one right now in the communications and media arena.

Shirley Sherrod is an African American civil servant who heads up the Department of Agriculture's rural development office in Georgia. A conservative blogger posted a video clip on YouTube this past weekend showing Ms. Sherrod at a pulpit 25 years ago recounting a story about rural farm poverty. In the clip she is seen to clearly recount an incident in which she appears to say she endorsed discriminating against a white farmer because black farmers needed help more.

Within hours of the video clip appearing online, the office of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reportedly contacted Ms. Sherrod by e-mail on her Blackberry while she was in her car, and demanded that she pull over and resign from her position on the spot by reply e-mail. Furthermore, the NAACP -- which had last week accused the Conservative Tea Party movement of being racist -- responded to the video by supporting calls for Ms. Sherrod's resignation.

But there emerged a problem with the problem: The brief video clip of Ms. Sherrod's comment was apparently completely out of context of the rest of her speech. So much so that the NAACP has retracted its condemnation and claimed it was "snookered" by the edited video. And the Obama Admnistration has asked Vilsack to reconsider the firing; Vilsack agreed to review the case in a statement released at 2 am Wednesday morning. See: http://nyti.ms/9IfHXH and http://bit.ly/bSOpHW

In full, Ms. Sherrod has asserted she was recounting an analogy about the struggle to balance the needs of different minorities in rural Georgia. What was not seen in the clip posted by the blogger was that she went on to say she came to realize that the struggle wasn't between black and white, but was common to all poor farmers regardless of race. You can compare the two:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7idSlkvQv0c&feature=related – Shortened version

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9NcCa_KjXk – Full video

In fact, Sherrod went on to help save the farm of the white farmer in question, a point that very farmer was happy to make on network ABC News Tuesday night. She now says she is not sure she wants her job back.

At CommCore, we regularly work with our clients on creating and delivering memorable sound bites and stories that are relevant to a core message and targeted at a specific audience. We will also use what happened this week to Sherrod and Vilsack as a reminder to our clients that no matter how good a sound bite or a story is, its context as is as important -- if not more important -- than the bite or the story itself.

How would you apply this lesson to your communications challenges, or those of your clients? Are the lessons from this flap only relevant to the blogosphere, or do they apply to mainstream media and public appearances as well?

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Does the picture tell the story?

Front page of USA Today this morning, and just about everywhere else in the media: a "before" and "after" photo or video clip of the oil well deep in the Gulf. Unlike the "before" shot, the "after" shot - for now- shows no cloud of oil pouring out deep under the Gulf surface for the first time since the oil rig explosion three months ago.

The news is dramatic: Fully 86 days after the drilling platform explosion and the subsequent leak into the Gulf of Mexico, BP announced that its latest attempt to plug the leak appears to be working.

Welcome to chapter 2 of this crisis. Chapter 1 was going to go on as long as the oil was flowing in the Gulf. If Exxon Valdez was a tanker, BP has been an Ocean (ok a Gulf). And while we can debate the various decisions, gaffes, choice of spokespersons and other insensitivities, none of it made much difference as long as oil as still flowing. In the world of Crisis Communications, BP has been the Villain as long as the oil was gushing.

Have they improved in their communications over the past few weeks. Yes. The ads featuring the auditors and the beach clean up crews are better than self serving comments from the CEO. But the credibility of the ads couldn't register with the public - and especially with residents of the ravaged Gulf Coast - as long as the facts have been bad.

And Chapter 2 is by no means the last chapter of the crisis. For those outside of the Gulf region the capping event (if it holds, and if the resulting pressure doesn't cause a new leak) could be the beginning of the recovery. Articles quoting those in the region show that no matter what BP has said, restoring jobs and the ecosystem is the real first step. http://nyti.ms/9Cpycd

But If this cap holds, BP has a chance to be perceived more credibly. Not every statement will be as scrutinized, and some media may leave them alone for a while...perhaps until we get into the "a year later" story cycle.

One of the BP executives was correct in saying that the cap is no cause for celebration. That's certainly not an appropriate word for those who live in the Gulf region.

Do you agree that this is the beginning of chapter 2 of the oil leak story?

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Communications Conundrum Exposed: The Need To Know vs. The Need To Say No

The recent memo from U. S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to his colleagues at the Pentagon on how to interact with the media comes as no surprise in the wake of the forced resignation of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of American and Coalition forces in Afghanistan. (Full text of the memo at: http://politi.co/8XIPZ9.)

Gates recognized that "appropriate" news media access to "many aspects" of Department of Defense information is important. He noted that "consistent with applicable laws and procedures, we are obliged to ensure that the information provided to [the media] is timely, accurate, credible and consistent." This is the same Department of Defense that so expertly "embedded" reporters during Gulf and Iraq conflicts. Both of these controlled and coordinated efforts produced very positive coverage of the US led operations, and have spurred internal debate within the journalism community as well.

Gates also chastised DOD for growing "lax in how we engage with the media, often in contravention of established rules and procedures." He added, "We have far too many people talking to the media outside of channels, sometimes providing information which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized, or uninformed from the perspective of those most knowledgeable about and accountable for inter- and intra- agency policy, processes and activities." Among his directives: a stern reminder that all media engagements and statements must be cleared first through DOD Public Affairs.

The Gates memo cuts to the heart of the communications challenge faced every day by professional communicators in large organizations (and occasionally in 4 person offices) about striking the right balance about what and when to provide information and answer questions – and who is authorized to be a spokesperson. Gates is trying to suggest that there will be consequences for continued public discussion about military decisions and policies. This is a difficult tight-rope to walk in a democracy and it's almost impossible to keep dissent inside conference rooms and on a secure phone.

Gates' memo adds to the ongoing saga communications debates that started with controversial comments attributed to Gen. McChrystal and his staff by the Rolling Stone reporter who wrote "The Runaway General." This is the "other side of the coin" discussion, with journalists asking about their role when they learn of sensitive information in time of war.

At CommCore, we advise our clients to make sure their organization's philosophy on transparency and the communications policies, designated spokespersons, and guidelines and practices are clearly communicated and understood at all levels of the enterprise. We also tell clients that any policy requires planning for when – when, not if – that foundation springs a leak.

We're interested in other takes on this subject. Is the military so different from other public agencies and the private sector? Do any readers have experience in the military and then different views with a different organization?

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Unauthorized Leaks: If It Might Happen, It Most Likely Will

The U.S. Army has announced it is filing new criminal charges against a private who earlier admitted to leaking classified video of an Apache helicopter air strike in Baghdad in 2007 that killed 12 civilians including two journalists: http://nyti.ms/bihbyg. The criminal charges allege pfc Bradley E. Manning also downloaded thousands of classified documents that illustrate the inner working of US embassies, disclosing about 50 of them to "unauthorized persons."

The big splash was the dramatic chopper video that appeared on the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks: http://www.wikileaks.com/. The site's very existence and name should tell professional communicators all they need to know about the preponderance of outlets available for data not intended for public eyes. The tried-and-true warning to be aware that every cell phone and smartphone is a camera seems quaint when one adds to the threat the number of viral portals online that are eager to disseminate an organization’s proprietary information. This is especially true with anything that is sensational and newsworthy as this video was.

At CommCore, we believe it is good Crisis planning and prevention to establish rules on internal communications and what employees are allowed to document and blog, tweet, post and disseminate through any medium.

• If your organization has guidelines, rules and prohibitions about the unauthorized sharing any kind of data including photos and video, make sure everyone in the from top to bottom understands what they are.

• Communicate why it is critical to everyone in the organization that the rules be obeyed and why such rules are important to them, their jobs and potentially the survival of the organization.

• Recognize that unauthorized leaks likely will still occur. Plan for how you will enforce rules and how the crisis communications team will respond to internal and external stakeholders.

• Cultivate and maintain strong and honest relationships with all types of media contacts and relevant social media community moderators. These will serve you and your organization's brand reputation well if you are forced to compete with a sensational leak for editorial space or in the blogosphere.

Some companies have an outright ban on bringing onto the premises any outside equipment capable of recording data. What types of contingencies do teams in your organization – or your clients – have in place for responding to unauthorized leaks? Does your crisis communications plan address the possibility of leaks?

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