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One City’s Drought Communications “Fail”

I just watched a city council adopt a communication campaign that will do a lousy job of informing residents of the new water restrictions and fines it had just adopted in response to state mandates. For Californians to respond effectively to the drought, we’re all going to have to do better than this city did.

“Thanks” to city council input, residents of the San Gabriel Valley city will receive a cover letter and three separate inserts – four pieces in all, competing for attention, over-communicating and creating confusion – all in a bland envelope that will be lost in the day’s mailbox-full of unsolicited mail.

That’s going to be as expensive as it is ineffective.

The city did one thing right. It didn’t use a water bill insert, recognizing it wouldn’t get enough readership in a timely manner. But if you’re going to use an envelope (I wouldn’t!), you’d better print a high-impact headline on it or it’s likely to go out with next week’s trash, unopened.

Here’s a better alternative: Mail two postcards on the same day, one over-sized and one minimum USPS size. Why postcards? Because they get the message out without having an envelope in the way. Why two?

  • The large one would spell out the details, and by limiting the space to a large postcard, there’s much less chance of your message becoming gobbledygook.
  • The small postcard would be the “keeper,” designed with the refrigerator door in mind. All the good stuff would be on one side: Which days they can irrigate on, prohibitions and fines, tips, an easy URL for more information.

Combined with good policy and customer-oriented enactment, this will work.

The Craziest Name in Communications?

Are you joshing us, Mr. Earnest?

Admittedly, my sense of humor skews a little toward irony and wordplay, but even if that were not the case, I’m sure  the name of President Obama’s new White  House Press Secretary would give me a belly laugh: Josh Earnest.

He has probably the most difficult job title in the world, and jokes about “joshing about being earnest” certainly won’t make it any easier. Almost every day is a big news day, with plenty of  stories to ballyhoo, for sure, but press secretaries earn their keep by diverting  the media’s attention away from stories the White House doesn’t want to see in the headlines. And that means the press secretary is purposefully kept in the dark on much that goes on where he works.

As a media relations and crisis communications expert, I have done my share of  redirecting stories, but I do it by understanding the full story, not by being purposefully ignorant. That’s not how it works with Josh Earnest, and that makes his name amazingly apropos for the man sandwiched between the podium and the White House seal.

“Ernest Earnest” might even be better. If I ever write a fictional follow-up to Crazifornia, I’ll have to keep that character name in mind.

How Much Does A Reputation Melt-Down Cost?

Let’s say the principal your company was named after said something some time ago some folks determined was racist.  The media happily jumped on the story, the blogosphere lit up and tweets twittered for days.

What’s that going to cost you?

How about $100 million?

“Oops!”

That’s what Najafi Companies, a private-equity company led by the owner of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Jahm Najafi, is investing in the tarnished brand of Paula Deen, the butter queen. Says the Wall Street Journal:

By its own description, Najafi Cos. often invests in business that are “out of popular favor.” Mr. Najafi said he doesn’t see investing in Ms. Deen to be an extraordinary risk. Despite the controversy, he said, her brand has strong, broad support from core fans across the U.S.

Still, if it takes $100 million to reinstate a brand, we’d say, first,  there’s a fair chunk of risk involved, and second, better to not tarnish the brand in the first place. Have good messages, learn them, and stick to them.

That’s why none of our clients has been deep-fried.

Apologies Accepted and Not Accepted

The art of apology is largely lost in this new age of “if” apologies, as in, “I apologize if I hurt your feelings.” That’s not an apology.

Neither was Melissa Harris-Perry’s. She’s the MSNBC reporter whose show recently featured a number of comedians mocking Mitt Romney and  his family for having an adopted black child in their midst. Here’s what she tweeted:

The intent of featuring the photo was to celebrate it [and] say positive and celebratory things about the image.

Harris-Perry did not apologize; she lied. No one will believe for a moment that the liberal-leaning MSNB, its liberal-leaning host and the liberal-leaning comedians she had on her show intended for one moment to be positive and celebratory about the image.

Doing much better on the apology front was TV star Natasha Leggero, who may have offended one or two people when she made a joke about a Spaghetti-O’s tweet on NBC’s New Year’s Eve show.

There’s the tweet and the accompanying picture.  Leggero’s on-air comment was,  “It sucks that the only survivors of Pearl Harbor are being mocked by the only food they can still chew.”

We don’t believe any mocking was going on in the tweet, just as we believe Leggero’s response to the kerfuffle this kicked up was a sterling counterpart to Harris-Perry’s pathetic false apology. This was a case where NOT apologizing made sense, and that’s just what she did:

I wish I could apologize, but do you really want another insincere apology that you know is just an attempt at damage control and not a real admission of guilt? Let me just try instead to be honest.

I’m not sorry. I don’t think the amazing courage of American veterans and specifically those who survived Pearl Harbor is in any way diminished by a comedian making a joke about dentures on television. Do we really believe that the people who fought and defended our freedom against Nazis and the Axis powers will find a joke about Spaghetti O’s too much to bear? Sorry, I have more respect for Veterans than to think their honor can be impugned by a glamorous, charming comedian in a fur hat.

That’s not to say I don’t think comedians are a problem in this country, they are a financial drain on the people who date them and talk far too much about themselves. I’m thrilled to see how passionate (death threats against a five foot tall woman are always the height of passion!) people are about our country and our Veterans. I am too. My own father lost his hearing in the Vietnam War so the issue is pretty close to me too. So rather than apologize, let me offer another perspective.

On the one hand you have me, making a joke about how old people can’t chew tough foods very well.

On the other hand you have Veterans who receive inadequate care upon their return from active duty, rampant sexual assault against female soldiers, staggering rates of suicide, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse and depression among soldiers and political gridlock that prevents these problems from getting solved quickly.

Where do you think your outrage and action would be better served, calling me a c— or doing something about the above problems?

For those of you that are currently doing both: Kudos!

To our vets: I love you. I truly hope you know that.

To Spaghetti O’s: Let’s do lunch.

To the Elderly: Chew!

To @nealrscott: It’s spelled Human Excrement not Increatment.

To those looking for an active way to address the above problems, do what I’ve decided to do instead of apologize: Make a donation to the Disabled American Veterans foundation.

Ever Yours, Natasha Leggero

Nicely done, even if it does ramble on some.

 

OMG! Texts R Public!

A judge in San Jose has ruled in favor of a community activist seeking to close what many see as a flagrant loophole in California’s public record act – the continuing privacy of text messages sent and received by elected and appointed public officials and public employees. Private email accounts were also included in the judge’s ruling.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg ruled that “emails, texts and other messages sent to and from personal devices by Mayor Chuck Reed, council members and redevelopment officials about city business including subsidizing a development in San Pedro Square downtown on property owned by former Mayor Tom McEnery and his family” should be turned over to the activist who filed a Public Records Act request for them. Read the Contra Costa Times article here.

The decision doesn’t have statewide application yet, but it’s only a matter of time.  Public officials should not be caught short by this decision – it was bound to happen. California has a strong public disclosure tradition that has morphed over the years in include other emerging technologies – faxes, emails – so any public official or public agency employee who thought their text messages would remain out of the public view was short-sighted.

Our rule of thumb when working with public agencies is that any and every communication may become public, so every communication needs to pass scrutiny of the “What if this was on the front page?” sort. We advise others to take the same approach.

After all, the best way to avoid a crisis is to not do things that could cause one.

 

Blacked-Out Blues

Last Thursday, some poor sap in Yuma flipped a switch and the power went out for millions of Southern Californians. Water systems, which of course are heavily reliant on power, got through the crisis in pretty good shape thanks to lots of emergency drills  – although several water districts had to issue notices to their customers warning them to boil their water before drinking it. That, too, passed.

All this made us think: How do you alert people to a crisis when their TVs, radios and computers are down? On our water Twitter feed, @LPAWater, we tweeted the following answer:

Tweet #1:  How do you notify people of a boil water notice when power’s out so no TV, radio or internet? Answer: Reverse 911, tweets, blast emails,

Tweet #2:  … posted notices, sound trucks, Facebook, police/fire liaison + the usual. Crisis calls for creative solutions.

For more on Laer Pearce & Associates creative solutions to crisis situations, check this out.

For Clarity, Look to the Source

Airwaves over the weekend were choked with name-calling, blame and recrimination regarding Standard & Poor’s downgrading of US debt, and the clatter is only going to get louder as stock markets around the word suffer big losses today.

There is no clarity when fingers are stabbing, tongues are wagging and ears are closed.  At times like this, our experience as one of Orange County’s leading public affairs firms tells us to go to the source, and get a sense from there about where the truth may lie. Is the Tea Party’s intransigence to blame? The President’s inexperience? The Congress’ polarization?  Let’s look and see what we find. Here is the statement Standard and Poor’s issued Friday evening:

We have lowered our long-term sovereign credit rating on the United States of America to ‘AA+’ from ‘AAA’ and affirmed the ‘A-1+’ short-term rating.

We have also removed both the short- and long-term ratings from CreditWatch negative.

The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.

More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics any time soon.

The outlook on the long-term rating is negative. We could lower the long-term rating to ‘AA’ within the next two years if we see that less reduction in spending than agreed to, higher interest rates, or new fiscal pressures during the period result in a higher general government debt trajectory than we currently assume in our base case.

The statement obviously has been carefully worded to make general points, not specific ones, so all the pundits have been free to use it for their own ends – which has done little to nothing to put us on a path towards winning back our coveted triple-A.

But let’s take a closer look at what S&P wrote.  Not surprisingly, the words “Tea Party,” “President,” “Democrat” and “Republican” do not appear. Nor do the words “tax increase.”   However, the words “less reduction in spending” do appear, and they appear in the form of a threat: S&P may lower the US credit rating to “AA” if the agreed-to level of spending cuts agreed to fails to materialize (and/or if interest rates go up or fiscal pressures result in U.S. debt increasing). Anyone talking about spending like the U.S. used to hasn’t heard S&P clearly.

The key word in this statement isn’t “spending,” though.  It’s “debt,” so that’s where we should look for clarity. The credit rating agency is concerned that the U.S. is borrowing somewhere around 50 cents of every dollar it spends and wants the U.S. to begin to change that unsustainable debt trajectory.  Revenues from increased taxes could be used to pay off debt, so someone is not out of their mind if they’re talking about raising taxes.  However, recent history tells us whenever DC politicians have raised taxes, they’ve used the revenue to spend more (bad in S&P’s eyes), not to pay down debt (good in S&P’s eyes).

We all know know from our personal finances that cutting spending is the best way to slow the accumulation of debt.  If we haven’t always known it, the last few years of recession has taught it to us, and most of us have tightened our belts. Will the “S&P Shock” help Congress and the President to learn it?

Murdoch and the Nuclear Option

Tylenol’s epic crisis response has finally been trumped.

The decision by Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson to pull the product from every store in the U.S. after a rash of fatal poisonings in 1982 has stood for decades as the most dramatic response to a PR crisis in history.  On Thursday, Rupert Murdoch leapfrogged past that milestone with a hyper-epic response to the crisis plaguing one of his media properties, London’s News of the World – he closed the paper down.  Forever. One commentator aptly called it “the nuclear option.”

It was hardly like shutting down the Shrewsbury ChronicleNews of the World is England’s largest-circulation Sunday newspaper. It’s been publishing since John Tyler was president (1843, in case you’re a bit hazy on the term of the president mocked as “His Accidency“).  And for 200 employees, it’s pink slips all around.

The cause of all this, in case you missed it, is the tabloid-titled “phone hacking scandal,” which has lead to the arrest of three News of the World senior staffers on charges of tapping voicemails to get stories – not just the voicemails of wayward politicos and celebrities, but of murder victims and their families as well. Charges also have been made that the paper paid the police for inside information.  Torrid and horrid stuff.

Murdoch defended his action, saying “it was the right thing to do,” and calling the alleged behavior of his employees “inhuman.”  We like that choice of word a lot – there’s no mousing around going on here, as tough words follow grand actions.  But are Murdoch’s actions the right actions?

We think so, for a lot of reasons.

  • The News of the World brand has suffered long-term, possibly permanent damage. You can’t repackage a newspaper in ethics-meltdown-proof packaging, so it’s likely most of the publication’s readers and advertisers will go elsewhere.
  • The closure allowed Murdoch to claim some high ground as bad stuff was swirling all around him, an artful feat in a crisis. Whether he’ll hold on to the high ground or not will become more clear as details on the extent of the scandal emerge.
  • It also took some of the wind out of the hacking story. Yes the story is still there and will continue for some time, but with less ferocity than would have been the case were News of the World still publishing.
  • It gives Murdoch an opportunity to build his other London tab, the Sun, into a much larger vehicle.
  • And it shows Murdoch to be a man who is truly horrified by what took place under his watch, and one who is willing to take dramatic action to ensure that such behavior will not happen again.

That last point is the one that made the closure decision a go, in our estimation.  After all, Murdoch is in the final stretches of a $12.5 billion take-over of the parts of Britain’s BSkyB satellite network he doesn’t already own, and the character of the acquirer is one aspect regulators consider before giving such transactions the government’s approval.

Sky is a more valuable asset than just another London tabloid, so Murdoch’s move, while dramatic and controversial, was well-reasoned and sound.

We’re just waiting for some news regarding how the 200 dismissed workers will be treated. Little loose ends like that have the potential to do great damage if not handled well.

Bin Laden Gives Us a Crisis Communications Lesson

Osama bin Laden took an immeasurable amount from America, so it’s paradoxical that in his death he actually gave us something valuable – besides the value of the joy we have in him being dead, that is.

The valuable lesson he gave us is this: In the ongoing story of the significant  inaccuracies in the White House account of how the raid was carried out, we see clear justification for the most basic strategy we employ when counseling clients who are in crisis – don’t say anything that hasn’t been verified as true.

In a New York Times article dissecting the communication embarrassments that have dogged the administration since the raid, a military spokesperson is quoted saying, “Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with crisis communications: What you think is real may turn out not to be real at all.  You think your plant operators followed safety procedures before the explosion, but it turns out that’s just what they said they did and the real picture is something else entirely.  You think the company’s HR policies align with the law, but it turns out the laws have changed. You think your CEO is an upstanding citizen, but it turns out he’s been hiding a securities fraud conviction.

And of course, there are no vacuums in crisis situations that allow for the leisurely gathering of information; instead there’s always a loud chorus of demands for this answer and that statement before this deadline or that broadcast.  Spokespersons are being hounded to provide answers, as the Times article makes clear:

In the view of officials from past and present presidencies, it was a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph — and feed a ravenous media — while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world. (emphasis added)

We in public relations are often frustrated in our desire to respond to the ravenous media because attorneys want to go over every single detail from seven different perspectives before allowing information to be released.  We are right in our desire to get the information out, because the court of public opinion convenes long before any court of law does.  But, as the White House is learning, we’re also wrong when we push out the news too quickly.

In the case of the Abbottabad raid, it’s evident the White House would have been better served by doggedly sticking to a narrow statement, no matter who much the media howled.  The world would have gone on spinning (an action entirely unrelated to White House and Pentagon press secretaries spinning) had the only message to the press corps been, “Osama bin Laden and two or three others were killed in a raid by Navy Seals in Pakistan yesterday. There were no injuries to American forces.  We will provide more details after the brave members of the assault team have been debriefed.”

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