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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

CommCore's Pick of the Top 5 Crises of 2010

The CommCore list of top Crises for 2010 has a few of the obvious candidates, plus one or two that represent a certain type of crisis vs. the biggest news or blog splash. BP would be number 1 in almost every year; The GAP was not on most others. Here's our analysis and links to some of our earlier postings from 2010:

  1. BP. We were often asked: What could BP have done differently? What did you think of Tony Heyward? What about the ads? In our view, until the Deepwater Horizons well was capped, there was no way that BP was going to be anything but the victim in the crisis. Did they make countless mistakes yes. Is it over; no. Now begin the law suits, including the one by the US Government. Prior CommCore blog postings throughout 2010 on BP

  2. Toyota. Toyota would easily have been the number 1 crisis in any other year. When you are high on the pedestal of perception, and slip can be damaging. Once Toyota slipped it seemed as if the ladder had grease on the rungs and the company kept slipping until hearings had passed and the news cycles could be contained. Will they come back? Probably. Have competitors (who are also producing better cars) made market inroads? Yes. Toyota benefited from the years of deposits in the PR Goodwill Bank Account. We'll see whether the next generation of car buyers is impacted by this crisis. In the end this was not a Tylenol crisis. Prior CommCore blog postings throughout 2010 on Toyota

  3. Tiger Woods. This was a personal, brand and hubris crisis. It spanned 2009 into 2010 costing him reputation, a family unit and sponsors. Tiger demonstrated how fast one can fall from the pinnacle of the brightest star to becoming radioactive. I can't say what other celebrities and politicians may have learned from this crisis. Most say, "Well that was Tiger. I wouldn’t do anything quite like that." Stay tuned for the next celebrity or public figure doing something done. Can advisors anticipate and get out in front? We can only hope. Prior CommCore blog postings throughout 2010 on Tiger Woods

  4. The Gap. The facts: The Gap decided to change its logo and within days, it went back to the one favored by those who protested on line and through the media. We won't know whether the logo would have stuck over time, or a poll of all Gap customers would have shown approval but "the quick and the vocal" brought about change. We'll assume that serious folks at The Gap thought about the consequences of the change, conducted research and focus groups and might have had some "spine" to stand by their convictions. This crisis shows how quickly a social media crowd can bring about change. Prior CommCore blog postings throughout 2010 on The Gap
  5. Chickens and Mines. Massey Energy Upper Big River coal mine and Wright County Egg were two disasters and news crushes that represent "regulator" type crises. When disaster strikes and it's the result of failing to follow rules and procedures, politicians and regulators will jump in with the media to help solve the problem. Whether Wright County Egg was the final tipping point in passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, it clearly got attention from law makers. Prior CommCore blog postings throughout 2010 on Wright County Egg Recall

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Monday, December 27, 2010

PR Questions on Net Neutrality

The FCC has passed a set of controversial rules on Internet access called "Net Neutrality" which is designed to ensure unblocked access and eliminate discrimination on the World Wide Web. It is a complicated issue, but central to it is restricting a cable or telecom company's ability to block or slow content and with apparently different rules for wired broadband vs mobile broadband.

There are parts of these rules for everyone to hate. Many argue that the FCC is overstepping its bounds and trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist. In doing so, some question whether this will stifle innovation and job creation in the digital sphere. Others complain that the rules do just the opposite of what they are intended to do and are riddled with loopholes. Rather than protecting users, it may prioritize big corporations over individuals. Some say these rules open the door to the much-frowned-upon practice by cable and telecom companies of 'billing by the byte' where the more a user downloads, the more he/she pays. Eventually, opponents argue, only the wealthy would be able to afford to download content that everyone can today.

It may well be too early after the passage of these complicated rules and in the debate to take a side, but what does Net Neutrality mean to PR professionals? Today, PR strategists are encouraging clients to expand their presence on the Internet and, increasingly, to do so using video. In addition to ads, companies are encouraged to get engaged in social media, blogs, social sites like Facebook, get into web conversations, interact and pop up prominently in search fields. But, what if Net Neutrality means that some of your content will be blocked or too expensive to view? What if it changes the current user or audience dynamic? How does it affect SEO strategies?

There is no shortage of articles and posts on this subject. Here are two: New York Times http://tinyurl.com/22wc27y and CNET http://bit.ly/gre4jj found on a Google search.

What are your thoughts? Will this change how we advise clients? Is the idea of passing such rules harmful or helpful in our pursuits to engage with stakeholders?

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

CNN posted an interesting article about filling up resumes with empty words that hold people back from being a stand-out candidate.

This reminds us that over-used words should not only be avoided on print, but also in communications delivery. These same tired words need to be ejected from our vocabulary during interviews and presentations.

Everyday we coach mid to C-level executives at CommCore. We find that it is imperative that they weed out mind-numbing jargon. By keeping general, empty catch phrases out of their vocabulary, they will keep the audience’s attention, and avoid turning them off.

We encourage staying away from platitudes at all costs. Phrases like, “I am a people person” and “I’m goal-oriented” are not specific enough. The audience wants to hear specifically about you, not terms and phrases that can describe anyone. The speaker/interviewee needs to steer clear of ‘inside baseball.’ It’s when they get into some industry-specific jargon, acronyms and insider language when the interviewer’s eyes glaze over in order to keep the audience interested the speaker must get to the point and keep the conversation on the topic at hand. If the audience does not have knowledge in the topic of conversation, it’s a lost cause.

Also, the speaker must get out of minutiae. The audience requires conceptually complete, but top-line answers. The greatest evidence of an unprepared speaker is one who drones on.
Communication delivery is as important as what is printed on a resume – in fact, even more important. Avoid over-used words and trite phrases.

Is this an opinion that you agree on? Any comments or other suggestions to keep speakers from using tiresome phrases/words? Any examples of good or bad interviews?

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Presentations Riddled With Legal Caveats: Can A Speaker Still Make a Point?

I recently attended a day-long conference where the most compelling - even entertaining - talk was from a company's legal officer explaining the parameters within which all spokespeople must stay when delivering a talk about their product. There were amusing references, snide remarks about compliance, and illustrative analogies to clarify the rationale behind the restrictions. I began to think, what has the world come to where the most interesting talk is about the ever-more-strict rules on talking?!

With all of the caveats that lawyers want to put on presentations these days, can a speaker still make a compelling point? I believe he or she can, but it requires more preparation and greater attention to organization, delivery and emphasis.

Recently, Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management delivered a talk on where to invest in 2011. Like so many in the financial industry, he knew he had to frame much of what he says with cautionary language. He took that head-on and decided to use humor to make his main point early and memorable. In fact, he put it in his title and subtitle: "How To Make a Fortune* -- *My compliance team cautions that this is a tongue in cheek title." Brilliant - while he made it clear that the audience should not take his main point as a guarantee and without being aware of inherent investment risks, he was still able to deliver his main point and make it memorable.

Too often, when audience members are asked what a presentation was all about just five minutes after it ends, they say that all they remember is all the warnings and disclosures. Why should I employ this financial strategy, buy this product, prescribe this drug or invest given all these caveats? Audience members begin to question the speaker's expertise, passions or motivations to presenting this data or perspective and need to be reminded. Why even make the presentation if you can't offer solid, clear advice?

The burden is not on the audience, but on the presenter. And, there are some good and effective ways to manage the legal disclaimers while still making a strong, memorable and clear point - and there is some bad advice out there as well.

  • Good advice: Take the disclosures and legal warnings head-on and early. Bad advice: bury the warnings at the end of the presentation and hope the audience loses interest by the time you get to them.
  • Good advice: Keep the same slow, deliberate pace when delivering a warning slide, but take the opportunity to remind the audience of the rationale and of your main point - perhaps coupled with a personal connection - "It is important that we are clear about the risks, and I consider them in my practice just as you do, and find that the benefits I mentioned outweigh them in certain circumstances." Bad advice: speed up and skim through the legal slides in hopes that the audiences misses more than they retain.
  • Good advice: Give appropriate - in some cases equal - weight to the cautions in your summary, but no more than that and emphasize your main points. Audiences tend to remember most the first thing and the last thing that you say. Bad advice: Leave all cautionary language out of your conclusion and gamble that the audience won't notice.

Transparency has become a central driver of credibility and believability as we are mired in what surveys confirm is the least trusting time since the Great Depression. In my opinion, this cannot be ignored and there are no "tricks" that can fool an audience. The burden is on the presenters. But if they adjust, prepare more and rehearse, they can still land their point amidst all of the caveats.

Do you share that opinion? Any other tips you'd like to offer about how presenters can cut though the legal morass? Any examples of how a presenter handled the legal portion well or poorly?

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Another View on the TSA Full Body Scanner: A Silent Minority Speaks Up

Since Thanksgiving, the debate about TSA scanners has simmered a bit. It's guaranteed to pick up in the next couple of weeks during the Christmas/New Year's rush. Missing from the vehement discussions about scanners, privacy and intrusive TSA pat downs, is a multi-million member silent minority - The Metal Body Part Packing Nation who prefer full-body scanners. Some of us proudly walk-up, others roll-up, others limp to the airport security posts. The media wrongly portrays us as senior citizens on leave from Leisure Village; in fact, a growing number of us are well below the minimum age to collect social security.

We are the millions of Americans with metallic replacement body parts - hips, knees, ankles, pacemakers. We always set off the alarms at those primitive initial airport metal scanners. Once we trip these alarms we're automatically shunted aside and designated for the wonders of the TSA massage.

How big is our "nation"? Approximately 500,000 knee replacements are done each year in the US, 300,000 hip procedures. The ankle folks are the minority of our group, let's say a few thousand. It's hard to get an accurate count of our movement. Problem is that some folks have had multiple replacements - both knees, a hip and a knee. I don't know the number of metal body part folks who actually travel on planes. Let's conservatively say there are between 10 and 20 million people in this country who are capable of setting off the initial metal detector. That's a lot more than voted in several state primaries this fall.
I love the full body scanners. I seek them out in every airport terminal. I'll skip the 20 person line for the 50 person line when I spot a scanner, then hope that the device is up and running. Scanners promise freedom and time. They let me walk through airports, instead of imitating OJ Simpson (perish the thought) running through airports to the plane because the time used for the TSA body rub can make the difference between making and missing a flight.
In any given year, I might take 250+ flights. That's 250 navigations through the TSA security gauntlet. Like all other travelers, I pull out all of my essentials, wallet, cell phone, belt, laptop and liquids, change - and throw them into the bins. But I can't take out my hip, so it's either full pat down EVERY TRIP or look for the scanner.

Let's do the math. In my experience, the average wait for a "male assist" aka "Alarm Blue" is 10-12 minutes. If you're at an airport with many senior citizens (read Florida or Arizona), the wait time for a TSA body check could be 15 minutes. This is the time it takes to alarm, call for a TSA massage therapist, have him don the blue gloves, collect the bins, walk over to the screening area, instruct me on the procedures, do his magic, tell me I'm ok to go and then dress again.
Add up 10-12 minutes per frisk and we’re somewhere between 1.5 and 2 days a year consumed in airport security pat downs. I'm figuring about 35 more years of life expectancy and you get the picture. I can look forward to two months of life in pat down mode. Remember the scene in "Up In The Air" when George Clooney advises his young colleague not to ever check bags because the time waiting for bags can rob him of years off his life. Well, Mr. Clooney, meet your traveling TSA cousin.

Each time you get caught in the glass enclosed limbo zone waiting for the TSA friskers, there's another potential risk. If I can't stand next to my possession, there's a chance that a fellow traveler will pick up my wallet, cell phone or lap top. With the full body scanner, I'm usually in and out as fast as normal people and can pick up my items as they come through the screener.
Make no mistake, the most recent TSA frisking procedures are rude and offensive. The wands are gone; touching of sensitive body parts is de rigueur. And not all TSA friskers are equally as subtle with their movements. It's just the latest escalation in the metal group's pre-existing battle with airport security. For information about the scanners try these links or just Google TSA Scanners.

I'm a life-long supporter of several privacy and civil rights organizations. But as long as we have the current two security options, pat down or someone in a back room viewing my metallic (titanium to be specific) hip, the choice is easy. Bring on the full body scan. Biometric readers sound cool, why not a permanent implant for the silent minority that identifies our replacement parts and allows us to go through security like any other traveler?

What are your thoughts? Are you or a friend part of the silent metal-part-packing minority? Do you agree that a scanner beats the pat-down every time?

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

2010: CEOs More Confident, But Still Blundering

Recently, Forbes published a list of the top ten CEO screw-ups for 2010. It confirms what most of us expected to see, but there were a few that stood out.

My favorite was a late entry - something that blew up recently. Gary Holden, the chief executive of Canadian energy company Enmax, fired off a long e-mail note to his entire staff in an attempt to justify his $2.7M salary and the lavish parties he threw on company dollars. By all accounts (that I’ve read so far), the note was overly defensive, even paranoid. It seemed to go as far as to threaten the staff if they leaked information to the media.

So what did the staff do? Leaked, leaked, leaked! As you can imagine, the media had their fun. The public responded by demanding an apology and more transparency. The company cancelled their holiday party. After all this, how much cheer could you rally now?!

The Enmax board of directors now has two agenda items on their "to do" list that they never asked for or wanted: fix the tarnished image and communicate more with constituents. The latter should become a permanent performance task.

The list serves as a reminder of how important PR, communication and reputation are to the welfare of a company. It is also further evidence that even as the economy improves and CEOs regain the confidence of the public, what remains is the public's call for transparency and genuine efforts to earn trust. Just because a company is turning profits again, paying dividends and restoring its stock value, this does not mean that the public will turn a blind eye to C-level antics.

If the company leadership had affixed a trust "lens" on all actions and decisions and ensured that all executives used it, Holden might have recognized the reputational risk in sending such an email. If the board had a mechanism in place to oversee the executive management committee's communications, this misstep may have been avoided. And if they were already communicating transparently with stakeholders, they wouldn’t find themselves in such a deep reputational hole.
Instead of asking themselves "what if?" they could be getting ready for a fun holiday party.

What do you think? Will some CEOs never learn?

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Trust on the Rise in 2010: Real Restoration or a Blip?

By many accounts, trust in US companies has surged off its lows in 2008 and 2009 by 18% or more. One source is the Edelman Trust Barometer. What does this mean? Are we entering a long-term phase where transparency becomes widespread and trust keeps rising year-over-year? Is it just a dead-cat bounce off lows that descended even below trust levels of the 1930s?

Whether this rebound is temporary or not, what are its drivers? Are trust levels simply tracking with the economic recovery and are just as fragile? Are CEOs, communicators and other key players changing their behavior to earn a restoration of trust? Or, is it a combination of both?

Let’s take the glass-is-half-empty scenario and assume that the rebound is temporary and driven largely by macro economic factors and not actions taken by companies. Impossible to measure specifically, but if we communicators were to assume that to be true, what do we do about it? Throw up our hands and say that trust is like the wind blowing - can't predict it, can't change its course? Or do we still strive to restore and further build reputation and trust through action and prepared response?

At CommCore we tell our clients that trust is indeed a performance issue requiring consistent communications. It can and should be addressed as such just as management assesses and addresses other performance areas like product quality and cost management. Increasingly, companies are grappling with how to train executives - particularly non-marketing/communication managers - to avoid reputational missteps in their decision making, actions and internal and external communications. Performance and communications are inextricably linked.

And, regardless of the peaks and troughs of trust, the public has fundamentally -- and in our opinion, permanently -- changed the way they measure a company's reputation and overall value. As recently as just a few years ago, the number one measure of a company's reputation and overall value was profits and number nine was trust. Today, those two measures are exactly reversed. It will take a generation to reverse it back again, if ever.

We're not just talking about investors/shareholders, in fact, a recent study by the CMO Council found that 99% of customers surveyed said they would either scale back or terminate relationships with companies who fail at building customer trust. Find the actual survey, download at : http://www.cmocouncil.org/resources/.

What do you think? Is the rebound real and lasting? What is driving it and can we do anything to sustain it? Or, are we just reliant on the winds of change?

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Friday, December 3, 2010


Former New York Times economics reporter Peter Goodman's explanation for leaving the eminent newspaper to join the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/) raises interesting questions about (a) the past and future relationship between journalists and Subject Matter Experts, and (b) the lengths to which journalists have always gone to color their stories with some form of opinion.

As reported by Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review (http://ajr.org/Article.asp?id=4975) Goodman cites the following:

• He is looking forward to being free to write online with a clear subjective point of view that he was denied the ability to do as a supposedly objective newspaperman.

• He will no longer have to rely on Subject Matter Experts with defined points of view to say in quotes what he wanted them to say so he could get a subjective point of view across in his article. He told former Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz who has joined online publication, The Daily Beast http://www.thedailybeast.com/, that it was "almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader."

Goodman's rationale for moving to online journalism along with other notable reporters reinforces the reality that professional communicators have to adjust their understanding of media relations and media training to today's reality. Advocacy journalism – especially online – is increasing in direct proportion to partisanship on key issues in the political realm. As Rieder says in his column about mainstream and new journalism in the age of interactivity on the Internet, "Witness the nastiness and ad hominem attacks that ricochet around the blogosphere and the comments sections. At the same time, there has been something downright liberating about the emergence of so much lively, engaging, freewheeling writing, so much voice. It makes the traditional straightforward news story seem awfully vanilla."

With that in mind, we at CommCore remind our clients:

• Always ask questions of a reporter – mainstream, online, or blogger – before the interview. These include queries such as the nature and scope of the story or posting, who else he or she is talking to, and what information he or she has in-hand to base the story on. The answers will help the spokesperson find out what the reporter, columnist or blogger is driving at; what other points of view will be represented; frame quotes accordingly; and select appropriate supporting data to fill gaps.

• Remember that the journalist or blogger will likely ask questions of your Subject Matter Expert with a desired specific answer already in mind. Prepare your SME accordingly.

• Never assume objectivity on the part of the interviewer by making a statement that characterizes the opposing point of view. It can suddenly appear in abstract form in a quote in the story or a headline, even if prefaced by words of denial.

• In a cyber world of shared links, even an objective story appearing initially on a mainstream publication's website can be attached to an ideologically-biased column or blog that attacks your position.

What are your views on the inexorable movement of journalism online? How do you handle the increasing subjectivity of reporters?

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