© 2005 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
Famous last words:
"Terrorists hit the World Trade Center TWICE? Never happen!"
"Multiple hurricanes in ONE season on the SW Gulf coast of Florida, after 20 years of none? Never happen!"
"More senior governmental and private sector officials fudging their professional histories, after so many others were caught in the past? Never happen!"
"Our highly secure confidential data compromised by thieves, incompetence or both? Never happen!"
What have YOU said "never happen" about recently?
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Hurricanes and Hot Air
By Jeff Chatterton
Editor's Note: Hurricanes continue to provide many "lessons learned" for readers, with the headline of Jeff Chatterton's article neatly summarizing the phenomena.
There are three things which seem to feed on hot air - hurricanes, dumb politicians, and global warming activists.
The western hemisphere is dealing with the devastation from one of the worst hurricane seasons in memory. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the manuals on crisis communication and disaster prevention will be rewritten in the boardrooms of North America due to some of the lessons learned in the past five weeks.
Sadly, one of the main casualties in the wake of Katrina is 'truth.' Chances are good anything you took away from the New Orleans event wasn't true. Whether it was wild exaggerations from inside the Superdome or environmental storytelling, it was just that - storytelling.
Let's recall the alleged 'horrors' of the Superdome. No one doubts that conditions inside the building were ugly. According to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on September 6th, "they have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."
But now, two months after the chaos has subsided, police are re-examining the reports and finding that many of them have little or no basis in fact.
They have no official reports of rape and no eyewitnesses to sexual assault. The state Department of Health and Hospitals counted 10 dead at the Superdome and four at the convention center. Only two of those are thought to have been slain.
Dispensing accurate, meaningful information in the event of a crisis is the hallmark and responsibility of a corporate leader. Creating an environment which promotes panic and hysteria is not - which means Mayor Nagin really ought to hang his head in shame.
The most brazen example of nauseatingly bad political opportunism goes to Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who now spends his time as President of the activist group Waterkeeper Alliance. In a move which absolutely astounds the limits of common decency, Kennedy posted on his web-blog an essay entitled For They That Sow the Wind Shall Reap the Whirlwind. In it, he chose to point the finger of blame for the hurricane squarely upon Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for his role as Chair of the Republican National Committee in not implementing the Kyoto protocol.
First, his sense of timing was appalling. The USA was in the midst of the greatest natural disaster in history, and he chose this particular time to start playing partisan. I don't care what side of the aisle you come from - common decency dictates you pick your battles wisely in the midst of a crisis.
Secondly, to assume that Katrina's strength was due to Global Warming was a leap that astounds basic logic.
The media ran amok with stories about "the worst hurricane season in history." Stories linking climate change to hurricane intensity have been prevalent. But is any of it even remotely true?
The reality is - not likely. If man-made CO2 emissions caused Katrina, what caused the three hurricanes that hit Louisiana in the 1700's? Or Hurricane Betsy, which struck at near-category 5 intensity in 1965?
Hurricane "Beta" - the 26th storm of the season - is just dying down as this article goes to print. This is notable and perhaps a record for the number of storms in a season. But by that single statistic, how does one explain the years of 1933 or 1887, which were other 20+ storm seasons?
In the words of columnist John Lawrence "Storms are not caused by a man induced global warming. History plainly states the truth, and is always unbiased, unless men rewrite the history books as they have been known to do. Further, the facts plainly show that these storms have happened before, and will happen again. They are not a new phenomenon, but are part of a global cycle that has occurred before our time, and will continue to occur."
Thankfully, hurricane season is just about finished for 2005. Coming up soon - watch for a rash of stories about the flu shot, and unseasonably warm and/or cold temperatures causing climate havoc. Sound familiar?
Jeff Chatterton is president of Checkmate Public Affairs, www.checkmatepublicaffairs.com, which he describes as "Canada’s premier communications firm dedicated to 'Defending Good Science.'" He is also editor of a superb ezine called "Defending Good Science," where this article originally appeared.
PRSA Drops PR Ball
By Ned Barnett
Editor's Note: Ned Barnett is very well known to PR-related listserv members as one of our industry's leading curmudgeons (a category I use to describe myself periodically). After seeing all of the comments about PRSA's conference debacle on my favorite PR listserv, PR Mindshare (hosted on Yahoo), I invited any member to submit an article, and Ned graciously accepted.
When it comes to making bad PR moves, few organizations excel quite as blatantly as the Public Relations Society of America. This is exemplified by their remarkably inept handling of the last-minute cancellation of their national convention, thanks to the intrusion of Hurricane Wilma.
In handling this eleventh-hour cancellation of their annual PRSA Conference - scheduled for October 22-25 in Miami - PRSA's staffers demonstrated, not for the first time, their apparent inability to practice sound PR principles themselves. You might think that PRSA should know that conference pre-planning must include crises pre-planning - particularly when scheduling a conference for the heart of "hurricane alley." If so, you'd be wrong.
When it comes to practicing what PR professionals preach, PRSA's staff are the original "gang who couldn't shoot straight."
There is at least one reason for this organization's continual failure to "do" PR, one related to the nature of member associations. From personal experience at one of those associations, I know most "outsiders" assume that staffers are experts in their association's field. When I was at the Tennessee Hospital Association, for instance, members just assumed that our professional staff understood hospitals - in fact, only two of 64 staff members had ever worked in a hospital. I was one of those two, and key execs often hunted me down for a reality-check. They weren't about to say something about hospitals that would make no sense - at least to hospital people.
The same situation appears to be true at PRSA - except that, apparently, PRSA didn't seem to have ANY staffers who've ever had a real PR job - or if they do, those individuals are clearly not being consulted.
This hurricane snafu is only the latest blunder in a series of ill-considered staff decisions that have cost PRSA dearly. For example, until earlier this year, PRSA hosted an Internet listserv - a highly professional virtual PR discussion group. Then, someone on staff decided that non-members were somehow "stealing" a benefit from PRSA, and with no notice, they abolished this highly-effective list, replacing it with a highly-moderated web-based bulletin board that was purely members-only. Not only did this exclusionary policy destroy something of real value to participants (for the most part, members), but they also closed the door on what should have also been a useful member-recruiting tool.
Worst of all was the way they handled it - abruptly, with no advance notice, and with no opportunity for participating members to approve - or disapprove. This so angered the listserv's members that - overnight - several new, independent discussion groups formed, continuing that useful once-PRSA-sponsored forum. There, a regular topic for discussion is PRSA's inept public- and member-relations.
Instead of serving members - which, after all, is an association's prime duty - PRSA further alienated both dues-paying members and potential members. In return, they got zero positive value from their decisive action. Zero.
Which brings us to their current PR debacle. In handling the hurricane-forced convention cancellation, PRSA did several things wrong:
- First, PRSA scheduled a convention in Miami in the middle of hurricane season. This is not rocket science - they might as well have scheduled an outdoor tanning convention for Fargo in mid-January.
- Second, when it became apparent that Wilma might target Miami, PRSA was painfully s-l-o-w to inform members of the cancellation. Based on performance, PRSA apparently had no on-call crisis PR plan waiting in the wings. They had no pre-existing mechanism for notifying members of the cancellation. And they made few - if any - efforts to reach out to the media to help spread the word. They even ignored in-house communications channels. Active accredited member Rich Barger commented that "PRSA didn't even bother to post anything about the cancellation in their own now-scantly-followed, draconianly moderated discussion forum."
- Finally, they intentionally made it very difficult for members to reclaim their pre-paid registration fees. At first, there was no mention at all of refunds. When pressure built, they finally decided to refund any member's fee - but only if that member asked - in writing. Probably notarized in blood.
It would have been so easy to avoid this - first, by scheduling their convention outside hurricane alley, or for Miami before or after the hurricane season. Either option was available to PRSA.
Next, they should have had a crisis PR plan in place. It's not like member associations haven't had to execute last-minute cancellations before. It was only six years ago that the National Rifle Association had to cancel a long-planned national convention, tragically scheduled for Denver just days after the Columbine shooting.
If that wasn't close-to-home enough, the International Association of Business Communicators - PRSA's prime "competitor" - planned their 2003 International Conference for Toronto, about the time SARS all but closed down that city. However, IABC had a crisis plan, and easily salvaged their convention. Those experiences were crisis-planning wake-up calls for every member association, but apparently, PRSA wasn't paying attention.
Even without a plan, PRSA could still have sent e-mails to registered conventioneers (I presume that even PRSA now asks members for their e-mail addresses). This could have been buttressed by a PRNewswire press release that would have put the cancellation news on the Internet.
Finally, PRSA could have offered a member-friendly refund policy, instead of making members pull hen's teeth to get their money back. One useful approach: offer members the opportunity to apply their payment to any future PRSA event - many members would likely have accepted, knowing they'd be helping PRSA's cash flow without losing anything.
For those who preferred refunds, a simple web-page refund request form, promoted by e-mail, would have been a far more member-friendly approach. Instead, PRSA blundered once again, putting the needs of the organization (hold onto that cash!) ahead of their members' best interests.
In short, PRSA had options. Which they ignored - in part because the staff is not made up of PR pros, but of career association bureaucrats - and in doing so, blundered every step of the way.
No professional PRSA member would have made such monumentally PR-inappropriate decisions. This highlights the dangers of turning a PR association over to career "association executives" - instead of to PR professionals who also know how to run an association.
In 1978, Ned Barnett became (to that time) the youngest person ever to have earned PRSA Accreditation. He then served in a variety of PRSA chapter offices for a decade. Ned has written nine published books on PR, and he's won a PRSA Silver Anvil. He owns Barnett Marketing Communications, Inc., based in Las Vegas, Nevada; and although he's got years of experience in association management, he wants nothing to do with trying to salvage PRSA.
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Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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